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How a local politician took up the fight for LGBT rights in Russia’s northern capital

Sergey Troshin was elected to a district council in St Petersburg last year - and has made it his mission to discuss LGBT issues at every opportunity.

Sergey Eremeyev
13 February 2020
Заседание муниципальных депутатов Литейного округа, Санкт-Петербург, 2019.
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Sergey Troshin (centre)

“You’re coming with the LGBT issue again? What’s that got to do with local residents?” This is what Sergey Troshin, a Petersburg district council member, usually hears during council meetings.

At practically every meeting of the Liteiny district council, where Troshin is a member, normal business is accompanied by declarations in support of gender equality and anti-discrimination festivals. Controversial remarks can be heard on other issues as well, such as support for Russian political prisoners or opposition to the planned move of St Petersburg State University to the outskirts of the city. The Liteiny councillors have also decided to dispense with the traditional portraits of President Vladimir Putin and regional governor Alexander Beglov. In response, a group of local residents intend on holding a referendum to dismiss them from their council posts.

For his active support of LGBT issues, Troshin has faced harassment from the city’s popular press. Residents who come to listen to the councillors are often outspoken in their criticism: the councillors, they say, are discussing topics which have nothing to do with their lives. They are used to every issue being decided by the “tough administrators” of the ruling United Russia Party, supported in turn by other council members - local headteachers and healthcare directors. But at last September’s elections, Petersburg’s Liteiny district voted soundly for the liberal Yabloko party.

The city’s municipal councillors enjoy very few powers. The main areas under their control are ratification of local budgets, maintaining built areas and organising local festivals.

Yabloko won 11 out of 20 councillor spots in Liteiny and the former council head, long-time United Russia member Pavel Daynyak, found himself on the losing side. Critics of the new, liberal council put Yabloko’s success down to the “smart voting” scheme run by Alexey Navalny, in which voters were encouraged to vote for any candidates capable of defeating United Russia. “Without the ‘Smart Voting’ scheme and pensioners visiting their allotments on election day, the results would have been different. Yabloko wouldn’t have won,” says Ilona Khanina, a theatre director who also ran as a candidate last autumn.

In St Petersburg, the “smart voting” scheme worked wonders, allowing formerly unknown candidates the chance of a council seat. Of the new Liteiny district councillors from Yabloko, the only one with experience in city politics is Sergey Troshin, who was in 2009-2014 a member of his local council in a neighbourhood in the east of the city.

But back then, Troshin says, he was a completely different person.

Yabloko councillors remove a portrait of Putin in December 2019.

Although Troshin was active politically at that point – a member of the Just Russia political party – he wasn’t involved in promoting the rights of persecuted minorities, trying instead to concentrate on practical economic issues. Thinking about that period of his life, Troshin lists his local successes in terms of building new children’s playgrounds and sports grounds.

“We also fought to stop courtyards on Bolshevik Prospect being turned into a science park,” he tells me. “The situation looked hopeless, but we fought it and won. The development plan for the area was dropped.”

For Troshin, the year 2011 - which saw the start of a lengthy winter protest cycle in Russia - was life-changing. On the one hand, he was still involved in Just Russia, which positioned itself as a social democratic party but supported Putin. Troshin began chatting to other social democrats from other countries to learn about their political agendas. At the same time, he took part in a Gay Pride action in Reykjavik, and saw that the dialogue between sexual minorities and the general public in Iceland was generally peaceful. He decided to work towards a similar situation in Russia.

“My understanding of the world and certain other things changed,” he tells me. “There was a situation where two of my friends admitted their sexual orientation and told me about the awful pressure they experienced living in Russia. It was simply unbelievable. When you hear about this level of emotional turmoil, you get into what they’re feeling, and I began to get actively interested in the issue.”

In the autumn of 2014, Troshin stood for election to the same council again, but lost, and six months later he left Just Russia for Yabloko. He tells me that he had more than one reason for disappointment in the party, including the homophobia of some of its members - in particular, the role of Senator Yelena Mizulina in pushing Russia’s “gay propaganda” law.

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Sergey Troshin | Source: Personal archive

Troshin later began to take part in events in support of LGBT issues. He was at his most vociferous when he took part in primaries to select a Yabloko candidate for Governor of St Petersburg in May 2019. This event may have matched the democratic ideals of its participants, but it was reminiscent of a farce. The Party’s federal leadership had already announced that it supported Boris Vishnevsky, although he had practically no hope of getting through the “municipal filter” - an election procedure which forces candidates to collect signatures in their support.

Troshin admits that he was sober in his assessment of his chances of winning, but it was important to him to voice his views. During the event, he promised that one day, he would hoist the LGBT Rainbow flag over Smolny, the seat of St Petersburg’s government.

The emotional speeches of the Yabloko candidate were picked up by news sites known to be linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. “Yabloko’s gays are demanding that St Petersburg become the capital of the LGBT movement”, “Troshin and his team want to turn St Petersburg into the capital of gay parades” – these are just two fairly measured online headlines from those days.

A solid response

Troshin comes to city council meetings as if he’s making a last stand, placing a small rainbow flag on the table in front of him as he arrives. Even if there’s nothing controversial on the agenda, he presents his own proposals and makes speeches - all of them passionately.

Perhaps understandably, this has riled more traditional political currents in the city. The Yabloko majority is under constant criticism, although more on social networks than the district website. Every mention of Yabloko activity on local VKontakte pages is subjected to comments of the “It’s time to get rid of this LGBT gang” and “You’ve probably confused the aims and activities of a city council and an interest group”. Sergey Troshin, the member who brought up the LGBT issue, gets most of the flack.

But it goes beyond online homophobia. After the Liteiny council removed portraits of Putin and Belogv in September, troshin was personally criticised by that leader of United Russia’s St Petersburg branch, Vyacheslav Makarov. Makarov, a retired colonel and political commissar, frequently takes the stage to discuss the destiny of the Motherland, international terrorism, colour revolutions and the collapse of the Russian Empire or Mikhail Gorbachev’s treason. In a speech on 2 October, he managed to air his opinions on all these questions, but paid special attention to the rainbow flag question: “So you’ve hung up rainbow flags. What’s next? Receiving armed service veterans while holding LGBT banners?”

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The Side by Side Festival in St Petersburg | Facebook

There is some support from other residents, though. In November, at a Yabloko meeting, the usual traditionally critical members of the public were joined by a few newcomers, supporters of the council’s new policies. And it wasn’t just the young volunteers from the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival, but also pensioner Larisa Semenova. She later told me that she also lives in the Liteiny district and came into town specially to voice her opinion.

“When I was 17, I was friends with a boy who was gay,” Semenova tells me. “Later he ran one of our theatres, but he’s dead now. We were friends right up to his death, although my orientation was different from his. I hate this attitude towards ‘other’ people... People with a traditional orientation feel as though they are ‘chosen ones’, but there are complete scumbags among them.”

Despite these expressions of local support, the resistance Troshin is facing may turn out to be decisive. Pavel Daynyak and his team have retained control of the municipal administration and the Liteiny district website, which frequently publishes news about the former municipal head. The official municipal site refers to him as “Acting City Council Chair”.

Ilona Khanina, a former candidate for the council who attends the meetings, told me that several local people are gathering signatures to organise a referendum to remove the mandates of individual members. The main issue, according to Khanina, is the rush to politicise a council that needs to resolve other issues. “They want to talk about love, but they would be better developing a love for their country and their home,” she says.

Now a local United Russia deputy has called on the city authorities to dissolve the Liteiny district committee, claiming they neither hold meetings, nor make decisions. Due to an ongoing legal battle, the council currently cannot elect a new head, nor approve a budget.

Troshin and his colleagues, it seems, are in for a fight.

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