June 21, 2018 at 10:16 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Journalist who covered anti-gay Chechnya crackdown visits DC

Elena Kostyuchenko is a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper. She is also an LGBTI rights advocate. (Photo by Yulia Balashova)

A Russian LGBTI activist who writes for the newspaper that broke the story on the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya is currently on sabbatical in the U.S.

Elena Kostyuchenko, who has been a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, arrived in New York City in January and plans to remain in the U.S. through the end of the year. Kostyuchenko noted to the Washington Blade on June 11 during an interview in Dupont Circle that she has received fellowships from Columbia University and the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“I like it,” she said.

Kostyuchenko, 30, acknowledged she and her colleagues received threats after they began to report on the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya last year.

The threats prompted Elena Milashina, one of Kostyuchenko’s colleagues who broke the story, to flee her Moscow home.

An advisor to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov — a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — described Novaya Gazeta reporters as “enemies of our faith and our homeland” in a speech he delivered at the main mosque in the Chechen capital of Grozny shortly after news of the crackdown broke. Novaya Gazeta in a statement said 15,000 people had gathered at the mosque for the speech.

“I jumped on the story just to share the danger with my colleagues,” Kostyuchenko told the Blade. “It’s how we’re doing things at Novaya. If some topic’s extremely dangerous, we try to involve as many journalists as we can to spread the danger.”

Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov and Natalia Estemirova are the Novaya Gazeta reporters and contributors who have been killed since Kostyuchenko began writing for the newspaper. The State Department in its 2017 human rights report notes violence against journalists and bloggers “are among the most significant human rights issues” in Russia.

“It’s like every three or four or five years we lose somebody,” said Kostyuchenko. “When we lose somebody it’s crazy. It makes us angry and actually it drives us to work more.”

Kostyuchenko told the Blade the threats that Kadyrov’s advisor made against Novaya Gazeta reporters “meant nothing.” Kostyuchenko then compared the threats to the risks that firefighters and police officers face.

“Yeah, it’s not nice, but life in Russia is actually dangerous for everybody, not just for journalists,” added Kostyuchenko as she began to laugh. “It’s not just like you stop being a journalist and your life becomes nice and safe.”

Kostyuchenko among activists arrested during Olympics protest

Kostyuchenko is among the 10 LGBTI activists who were arrested in Moscow’s Red Square as they sang the Russian national anthem just before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics that took place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Kostyuchenko told the Blade during a telephone interview after her arrest that police officers spit in her face and threatened to sexually assault her when she and the other activists with whom she was protesting were being held at a local police station. Kostyuchenko also said police officers beat Gleb Latnik, a Russian LGBTI activist who now lives in D.C. with his husband.

Latnik was with Kostyuchenko when she spoke with the Blade.

“They tortured people,” said Latnik as Kostyuchenko listened.

The police released Kostyuchenko, Latnik and the other activists a few hours after their arrest. Kostyuchenko told the Blade they “weren’t charged with anything.”

“They turned really ugly,” she said, joking she cannot remember how many times she has been arrested at an LGBTI rights protest or event. “I don’t know why. Maybe they liked the Olympics and they felt offended. They were crazy.”

The protest took place less than a year after Putin signed a law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors.

Russia’s overall LGBTI rights record overshadowed the 2014 Winter Olympics. This issue, along with the Kremlin’s overall human rights record, also threatens to overshadow the 2018 World Cup that began at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14.

The Moscow Times earlier this month reported Cossacks — paramilitary groups that have previously targeted LGBTI and feminist groups — in Rostov-on-Don will report to the police same-sex couples who kiss in public during the World Cup.

The owners of a St. Petersburg building in which a “safe space” for LGBTI World Cup fans was to have been located evicted its organizers just before the tournament began. Media reports also indicate two men last week attacked a gay couple from France who had traveled to St. Petersburg for the World Cup.

Putin, Trump are ‘mental brothers’

Kostyuchenko throughout the interview was highly critical of Putin over LGBTI rights and a host of other issues that include corruption and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“We definitely need a new president as soon as possible,” she told the Blade.

Kostyuchenko was also equally as critical of President Trump.

“Thank God he’s not my president,” she said. “At least we only have one crazy guy.”

Kostyuchenko said she believes Russia did interfere with the 2016 presidential election. She added, however, her country did not help elect Trump.

“You elected him,” said Kostyuchenko, noting she has met a lot of people in New York who voted for Trump.

Kostyuchenko described Trump and Putin as “mental brothers” who “have a similar way of thinking.” Kostyuchenko also challenged the way the Trump supporters she has met view the U.S. and the world.

Kostyuchenko in a follow-up email also questioned what she described as American “liberal opposition and liberal media who are ready to blame Russia” for their own failures. She told the Blade it is “totally the same way of thinking that Russian propaganda offers to us.”

“You can change the situation because you still have institutions like elections that we don’t,” she said during the interview.

Kostyuchenko told the Blade that she will return to Russia at the end of the year. She also said she considers herself patriotic, even though she strongly opposes Putin and his government.

“Patriotism is really caring about your country and your people,” said Kostyuchenko.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael //

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