Voices

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Alexander Kargaltsev’s photographic project ‘Asylum’ explores the stories of individuals who fled Russia for the United States because they were bisexual or gay.

Alexander Kargaltsev’s photographic project ‘Asylum’ explores the stories of individuals who fled Russia for the United States because they were bisexual or gay. For many residents of the City of New York the idea that people can be forced to migrate half-way around the globe only because of their sexual orientation may seem shocking and incomprehensible, but this is the reality that is so often left unnoticed. The author himself is a gay man from Russia who was granted asylum by the U.S. immigration authorities in 2011 because of the mistreatment he had suffered at home. The show presents monumental photographic portraits of homosexual Russian men who were either granted asylum in the U.S. or whose petitions for asylum are presently pending before the U.S. immigration authorities.

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The naked figures of Kargaltsev’s subjects are juxtaposed against the silhouettes of New York City – their new home which sheltered them from violence and hate. The models’ nakedness is a powerful visual statement imbued with symbolism. They are not nude but naked, for they had courage to shed the many layers of fear and come out to the world uncovered, vulnerable, yet proud. These images are striking, provocative, and haunting, particularly in the context of these young men’s lives before the immigration. All of these men are young professionals who could have worked for the betterment of Russia. Their motherland, however, rejected them, mistreated them, and made their return impossible based on a singular issue – the issue of them being men who love men. Their naked bodies thus also reveal their experience as refugees, for every person seeking refuge rebuilds his or her life completely “naked”, starting from scratch, with no family or friends and often without the language they can speak or understand.

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The brutality and the mistreatment that the artist had suffered at the hands of the Russian authorities on account of his sexual orientation had turned him into a vocal activist of LGBT rights, particularly LGBT immigrants’ rights. Since he was granted asylum in the U.S., Kargaltsev gave interviews to numerous U.S. and Russian publications, including The New York Daily News, The Moscow Times, and The Voice of America. In these interviews, Kargaltsev shared his experience of living as an out gay man in Russia and the consequences he had to endure because of it. The artist’s activism and art projects, such as the one presented here at 287 Spring, continue to draw international attention to the dire situation of sexual minorities in Russia, as well as informing those who are afraid of returning home about the immigration options available to them in the United States. Hence, the “Asylum” series is not only an artistic statement, but a powerful social and political lesson as well.

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Certainly, the Russian Federation is not the only nation with an atrocious record of the LGBT rights violations. According to the latest statistics, at least 86 member states of the United Nations still criminalize consensual same sex acts among adults. Of those, 7 impose the death penalty as potential punishment. The models in this artist’s work, stripped naked of any identifiable nationality, can thus be viewed as spokespersons for all sexual minorities who suffer from oppression in many parts of this world.

Yet, Kargaltsev’s portraits are inextricably tied to the desperate situation of Russia’s LGBT community. These works are arresting in their austerity and masterfully intertwined with a poignant message of hope for a life free of fear in the new world. The artist succeeds in showing the human face of the tragedy as massive, painful, and complex as state-sponsored homophobia, while providing us with hope and an ingenious insight into the lives of refugees who found their new home in New York.

The years since the collapse of the Soviet Union – where homosexuality was criminally prosecuted – have been a time of hope and bitter disillusionment for the Russian gays and lesbians. In 1993, the infamous Article 121 of the Soviet Penal Code, which criminalized consensual intimacy between adult males, was finally repealed. The nascent gay scenes have sprung in large cities, and a number of NGOs addressing the problems of the LGBT community were established. It seemed that finally the LGBT citizens of the Russian Federation were visible and free of state-sponsored persecution.

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These hopes, however, have been essentially crushed over the past decade. The Russian government has closely allied itself with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been particularly vocal in denouncing LGBT persons as sinners and abominations, going as far as to suggest that gays and lesbians were extremists whose actions undermined the very basic foundations of the Russian society and culture. Several high-profile Russian politicians, including the former mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, have publicly vilified the LGBT community as “agents of Satan” and sexual deviants deserving compulsory medical treatment.

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia has rapidly deteriorated into essentially an authoritarian state, the authorities and state-controlled media have labeled supporters of the LGBT community as “agents of the liberal West” who are an obstacle on Russia’s path to regain the international super-power status. Gays and lesbians of Russia have been singled out by the government as scapegoats and are repeatedly blamed for just about every problem in the Russian society, from declining birth rates to financial crisis to the spread of drug abuse and AIDS.

The years of 2011 and 2012 have seen an unprecedented rise in state-sponsored homophobia in Russia, which manifests itself in violent crackdowns on LGBT activists and a spree of homophobic legislation passed throughout the country, ultimately culminating in the adoption of anti-gay measures in the city of Saint Petersburg. On March 7, 2012, the governor of Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and (once) its most civilized, Westernized, and tolerant metropolis, signed into law the bill against “propaganda of homosexualism, lesbianism, and transgenderism to minors.”  Several international petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures were delivered to Petersburg’s lawmakers, asking them to abandon the draconian measure which would restrict the freedom of expression for the city’s already embattled LGBT community and further deprive gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents of Saint Petersburg of their human dignity by equating their life styles to those of criminal sexual offenders such as pedophiles (Article 7.2 of the same law prescribes fines for the “propaganda of pedophilia to minors”). The majority of the lawmakers, most of them members of Putin’s United Russia party, ignored these pleas, and adopted the law to the cheers of the Russian Orthodox Church and, even more frighteningly, some federal officials, who suggested that such a measure could also be implemented on the national level.

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Saint Petersburg was not the first city in Russia to enact such homophobic legislation. Several major cities, such as Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, and Kostroma, had preceded Saint Petersburg in restricting their LGBT residents’ rights to freedom of speech, expression and assembly. On several occasions, gay activists in these cities were violently dispersed and arrested for their attempts to campaign against these harrying measures. While these regions of the Russian Federation have always been rather conservative and intolerant of minorities, the world was truly shocked when an analogous bill was introduced, approved, and signed into law in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s “cultural” capital and a favorite destination for tourists – including gay tourists – from all over the world.

This wave of reactionary homophobia did not stop in Saint Petersburg. Since the noxious amendments were signed into law, several other Russian regions followed suit. In the spring and summer of 2012, the cities of Samara, Novosibirsk, Krasnodar, and Magadan passed similar amendments, while Siberian lawmakers went even further and submitted a proposal to the Russian State Parliament (the Duma) to ban “propaganda of homosexualism” on the federal level.

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All of these laws are almost identical in their wording. In Saint Petersburg, “gay propaganda” is outlawed to prevent “an intentional and uncontrolled public dissemination of information which may potentially affect the spiritual development of minors by promulgating the idea that traditional and non-traditional marriages have equal social value. The meaning of this sentence is clear and simple: even the mere public discussion of equality for LGBT citizens – particularly marriage equality – shall be outlawed if such discourse is accessible to persons under 18 years of age. This would include practically all printed and online media, television and radio, and any other public references to the LGBT community. The gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women are thus ostracized as a group of second-class citizens, with the mere acknowledgment of their existence and plight for recognition constituting a punishable offense.

It is hardly surprising that such outrageous actions of the Russian government officials have further fueled the deeply rooted and virulent homophobia of the Russian population, and, in fact, issued a license to violate the rights and freedoms of the LGBT individuals with utter impunity. As indicated in numerous reports compiled by various human rights organizations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Russian LGBT Network, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, LGBT persons living in Russia today face daily threats of violence and intimidation, while discrimination in the workplace and in access to housing and even health care is practically ubiquitous. Instead of protecting its citizens, the current Russian government has adopted a policy of either silently ignoring their plight or blatantly encouraging in society hatred and intolerance of sexual minorities.

Since Russia opened its borders in 1991, numerous LGBT individuals had no other choice but to flee from the daily abuse and mistreatment they had suffered there at the hands of the authorities – especially the police – and common citizens alike. Many of those have asked for asylum in the countries of Western Europe and in the United States. In the context of the current developments described above, it is safe to assume that even more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons will be looking to escape the homophobic persecution and intolerance presently reigning in the Russian Federation, to seek shelter in societies that can provide them with physical safety and basic human rights and freedoms.

Ivan Savvine, is the curator of 287 Spring. 287spring.com

Alexander Kargaltsev is an artist, writer, photographer, actor and film director. In this last capacity he won many prizes including his short movies, The Cell (2010) and The Well (2009), both made when the Moscow-born author held a scholarship at the All-Russian State University of Cinematography, the home of most of the greats of Russian film since Eisenstein and before. Despite the many academic distinctions Kargaltsev has won, his films do not breathe the air of scholarly fustiness. Rather, they speak an individual language of refined imagination, fantasy and beauty of form. Kargaltsev is already a mature artist with a mature voice and a consummate and assured technique, which can both astonish and move. Kargaltsev.com

 

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