Russian officials bugged a private strategy meeting convened by Russian LGBT activists and four major international human rights organizations in October, an intensification of the campaign to clamp down on LGBT rights ahead of the Olympic games in Sochi.
This surveillance was revealed on Nov. 12, when a state television channel broadcast audio from the meeting as part of a program presented as an exposé of the "threat to Russia" posed by the "homosexualists who attempt to infiltrate our country."
The inclusion of a few minutes of this audio sent a chill through human rights activists in Russia and abroad. The Russian government has actively suppressed public speech in support of LGBT rights under its ban on the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." But this was the first time activists were aware that authorities had actively spied on strategy meetings organized in private, and it was taken as a sign that the government may be seriously escalating its crackdown on LGBT rights as it looks ahead to the Olympic Games in February.
By highlighting Western human rights groups' interest in Russia, the program also appeared to be laying the groundwork for potentially accusing LGBT rights activists of being "foreign agents," which could be grounds for huge fines if activists are found to be taking money from foreign sources without reporting it to the authorities. The "foreign agent" law, passed last year, has been widely criticized for stifling Russia's already embattled civil society.
Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency last year, Russian state television has aired periodic "documentaries" targeting perceived enemies. The state used the premise of one program that aired last year, called Anatomy of a Protest, to arrest several anti-Putin protesters.
Tuesday's broadcast described the meeting of Russian LGBT activists and foreign partners as "a for-reasons-unclear, closed-to-the-public conference funded by the Soros Foundation [organized because] foreigners were afraid the LGBT-ization of Russia is going too slowly."
In fact, the LGBT activists were discussing strategies for advancing LGBT rights during the Olympic Games. One unidentified voice talked about campaigns that could be organized by Pride House International, which has been banned from sponsoring its own space in the Olympic Village in Sochi under Russia's "homosexual propaganda" ban. A second voice, identified as Igor Kochetkov of the Russian LGBT Network, thanks "all Western organizations and everybody who has supported us and plugged into our campaign over the past year."
He also voices frustration with Olympic sponsors who have not spoken out in opposition to Russia's LGBT rights crackdown.
There's one very large sponsor, an automobile company, that absolutely refuses to talk about homosexuality. And they say that even if there will be some support from on top — not even financial help, just moral support — they won't have anything to do with it because they're very worried if could negatively impact sales. The same goes for the other sponsors.
Their words are presented as an example of "excessively radical, aggressive propaganda" that is dragging Russia into "a war" with the West, a plausible scenario according to one of the broadcast's guests with close ties to the Kremlin, political analyst Alexei Mukhin.
Though Mukhin said it would be good if "the traditional part of society and the LGBT community learn to live together," another possible scenario is that there is "a gay revolution, in which Western society will openly interfere in Russia's internal affairs."
By the end of the taped part of the broadcast, the program's "correspondent" Alexander Buzaladze warned that "the attack on Russia is already in full-swing," and it could be forced to adopt same-sex marriage and other gay rights in the face of "massive LGBT propaganda."
The LGBT activists were recorded without their knowledge during a meeting at the Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg on Oct. 12 and 13 intended to strategize about how to respond to the deterioration of LGBT rights in the country in advance of the Olympics. It was convened by the Open Society Foundation, which was founded by financier George Soros, and brought together representatives of six Russian LGBT organizations with key international partners, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Campaign, and All Out.
Russian participants in the meeting declined to comment citing concerns for their security. But Maxim Anmeghichean, program officer with the Open Society Foundation's LGBTI Rights Initiative, said that meeting was primarily intended to help the small Russian organizations more effectively participate in the intensifying world-wide campaign to promote LGBT rights around the Olympics.
"The goal of that meeting was to try to connect the Russians to what was happening globally," Anmeghichean said in an interview on Tuesday. "There was so much to respond to, and there were [just] a couple organizations that are tiny."
One result of this meeting was the request from six Russian LGBT organizations for a meeting with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach when he visited Sochi late last month, which he declined.
Human Rights Watch's Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden, who participated in the St. Petersburg meeting, told BuzzFeed that following this broadcast, "Russia should get a gold metal in Olympic spying."
"At a time when Russia ought to be unfurling the red carpet to the international community, it is instead increasingly operating with a Soviet approach," she said. "This is blatant targeting of gay activists for Soviet-like surveillance, and then using material selectively to stoke an anti-gay campaign broadcast to millions across Russia…. It really ought to make the IOC and the Olympic sponsors — plus Olympic athletes and other governments — profoundly nervous because it gives the lie to the so-called 'assurances' by the Russian Government and the IOC that the anti-gay law will not be enforced during the Olympic games."
Watch the Russian State Television Broadcast (in Russian)
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.