Pittsburgh has a historical and modern Russian population. During the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, many Russians – especially those who were Jewish – escaped the pogroms and ended up in Pittsburgh. Then again in the latter half of the 20th century, it is estimated that 4,000 Russians resettled in Pittsburgh – primarily through refugee services offered by the Jewish Children and Family Services agency.
So I’ve been wondering about the impact of the ongoing debate over Russia’s violent repression of it’s own LGBT citizen on the Pittsburgh community. The City Paper has some answers:
When he was 16, Alex Vasilyev told a close friend a very personal secret — he is gay.
It was 1999 and his classmate in the small Russian town of Grahovo outed him.
“It was the end of my life there,” he explains. “I was pushed around. My coat was cut open with a knife.
“Guys would punch me and try to beat me in school and in town.”
Vasilyev says he did not find relief from the torture even when he left his hometown to attend college in a larger community.
“I never felt freedom again in Russia,” he says. “I met a boyfriend in college and every time we went out together, our lives were in danger.
“I was beaten several times by groups who thought I looked gay. My boyfriend was beaten. Police, instead of helping me, beat me and detained me.”
Vasilyev is currently in the asylum application process. You can read more about the impact of US laws recognizing this as a form of persecution in the City Paper.
This is particularly relevant as Pittsburgh prepares to send a large contingent of hockey players to the Sochi Olympics – including Russian Evengi Malkin. While Team Canada player Sydney Crosby issued a somewhat halfhearted rejection of the law – there seems to be a very real desire to play trumping politics. The problem is that its not politics – it is human rights. The US players know the Russian league players and this law is impacting their lives – their families, their friends, their fans.
Still, US players who have contributed to the allied-project “You Can Play” are already in violation of the propaganda law and could face arrest. Unlikely, but it does create a real tension. I’d like Sid to spend some time with Alex and then rethink his statement – he’s the most popular player in the world and a brave stance on his part might have a dramatic impact on youth around the world. He probably can’t change Russian policy, but he can inspire other people to try.
(Photo Credit: Heather Mull, City Paper)