A gay Russian man is in hiding after Russian authorities opened a criminal case over a YouTube video in which he was interviewed by children, a case that has drawn attention from human-rights activists.
Maxim Pankratov told CNN he was facing threats and a potentially lengthy prison sentence for appearing in the video discussing his life as an openly gay man in Russia.
“It was a normal conversation about my life and they want to put me in jail,” he said.
The video, originally posted on the Russian-language “Real Talk” YouTube channel, featured four children interviewing Pankratov, 22, about his life and his identity as a gay man.
The format of the video is simple: Pankratov and his interviewers face each other in chairs against a blue background, and the children ask simple questions: “How did you know you were gay?” and “Are there guys who like other guys?”
“I thought it was a normal conversation with children, there was no discussion of sex,” Pankratov said. “It was about what it’s like to be a gay man in Russia and how I live. We wanted to show society that you can be tolerant.”
But earlier this month, the Investigative Committee, Russia’s top law-enforcement body, opened a criminal case alleging that the video amounted to “violent acts of a sexual nature,” Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
That criminal case followed an investigation into the “dissemination of destructive information” opened by the Investigative Committee and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In a statement issued on November 2, the Investigative Committee said: “Currently, investigators have interrogated the organizer of the video shoot, and also are establishing the circle of victims and conducting other investigative actions aimed at establishing all the circumstances of the incident.”
“The criminal investigation is ongoing,” it added.
Russia has a record of official hostility toward gay rights. In 2013, the Russian government passed a law outlawing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” The law – which prohibits public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children may be present – has drawn widespread international condemnation.
In 2017, a European court ruled that the law was discriminatory, promoted homophobia and violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Russian authorities have barred and broken up gay-pride marches.
LGBT activists say the law reflects a broader policy that tacitly encourages violence. In the Russian republic of Chechnya, for instance, witnesses and victims came forward to make public allegations of mass arrests and torture of gay men.
“This case is a particularly disturbing example of authorities using Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law as a tool for discrimination and intimidation,” said Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
“The perniciousness of the ‘gay propaganda’ law apparently knows no boundaries. A criminal charge of sexual assault of children for a YouTube video that contained no sexual content is as outrageous as it is terrifying.”
The Kremlin declined to comment on the criminal case, saying it was not the presidential administration’s responsibility to manage criminal investigations.
“You know, this is not our business, not the Kremlin’s business, to recognize the case as absurd or to recognize the case as noteworthy,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “This is a matter of the investigating authorities and the court, after all, but not of the presidential administration.
“If there is a crime, then it is worth it [opening a criminal case], if there is no crime, then it’s not worth it,” he added.
Pankratov, meanwhile, said he started receiving threats through social media when the case was opened, saying the comments “have been terrible.”
He remains in an undisclosed location.