29 November 2023
Transcribed by Galya Sova
Yan Dvorkin, the director and founder of Centre-T, stayed in his beloved Moscow until the very last. But when he found out that on 30 November Russia might designate the “LGBT movement” extremist, he and his husband gave away their cats, packed a small suitcase, and left. Centre-T helps trangender and nonbinary people, and Yan is afraid that with the passage of the new queer-phobic initiative that kind of work will turn into a prison sentence of up to 10 years for him. We recorded the story of his emergency departure.
On 17 November I was in a coffeehouse buying myself some coffee. Right then I saw news with a red exclamation point appear on one of the Telegram channels. I began opening it slowly, at which moment journalists started calling and I rejected their calls. An international human rights organization wrote asking me whether I needed help evacuating. I was like: “Oh, my god, what’s going on?” I quickly scrolled down to this news and realized that yes, I had to get out of the country and fast.
For the last two years I’ve been living with the feeling that I have to prepare for several realities simultaneously. First, the one in which I continue to live and work in Russia. Second, I go to prison. Third, I’m in emigration. In the fourth, they kill me (I’ve written a will in that event). Even now I realize that it’s emigration I was least prepared for.
But I can’t wait calmly for 30 November because everywhere I look people have started talking about Centre-T. It’s shown up in [propagandistic] television shows, and [State Duma Deputy] Nikolaev sent an appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office [demanding they inspect clinics that in 2023 gave trans people F64.0 forms for changing their gender designation in documents]. Centre-T is mentioned about 10 times in that appeal.
I’m a public person, I’ve given lots of interviews, and I’ve faced administrative charges more than once. I am in the [Justice Ministry] registry as someone responsible for the work of a “foreign agent”—Centre-T (the organization was added to the register in July 2023–OVD-Info). I realize that repressions against LGBT people are shifting from the administrative to the criminal plane, and these are completely different risks. You can get 10 years (under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code—OVD-Info) for organizing an “extremist” association.
That same day, two hours later, I was talking with our team, trying to assess each person’s risks. [At the time of the interview] 20 people have already left the country. These are primarily public individuals who have given interviews as Centre associates and people whose information was leaked to ultra-rightist public pages on social media. In my view, all these are the first who will be worked up on extremism.
I was very frightened the last few days [before departure]. Not only that, I was living at my officially authorized address, where the organization was registered. It felt like they could come for me at any moment.
[My husband and I] had Schengen visas in case of an emergency departure. We gave both our cats to friends and people we barely knew. Threw our things in a small suitcase. I took the LGBT flag I was given on my birthday that had lots of signatures on it. I dream one day I’ll be able to go out with it on a pride parade in Russia, too. I’m going to keep it with me.
We flew out of Russia. I left my apartment in Moscow. I can’t rent it because I suspect there will be searches. And I’m afraid that during the searches they’ll smash all my things. So I took a box of precious things—children’s photographs and drawings (Yan was raising an adopted child, but he was informed on by an employee of child services, after which Dvornik was fined 100,000 roubles for LGBT “propaganda” and his parental rights were transferred to another adoptive family—OVD-Info)—and gave it to a friend for safekeeping.
Now I don’t know what country I’m going to live in. I sleep and howl all the time. I feel a powerful sense of disorientation. For me, as someone who never wanted to leave Russia, what is happening is, of course, an outrage.
Centre-T has a shelter for transgender people in Moscow. Over the last month, neighbours have called the police over there several times (one of our neighbours admitted to a lawyer that he had done it because “people of nontraditional sexual orientation were constantly going in and out there”—OVD-Info). The first time, the police detained all the residents, took them to the station, and said that in the morning they would all be going to the SVO [special military operation]. We were mad with fear. In the middle of the night, our lawyer came and, fortunately, extricated them all from there.
A few days later, the same story was repeated. But this time the residents didn’t let the police in. They just sat and waited for the lawyer.
And a day after that some people came and started taking down the door to the apartment: sawing at the lock, smashing the peephole, nearly taking it off its hinges. The residents barricaded themselves in the bathroom. They couldn’t tell whether it was criminals or police. These people weren’t wearing any identifying badges.
At that time the lawyer left for the shelter. Deciding she might run into criminals, we ourselves called the police. Then the residents observed a stunning scene out the window. The police arrived, two men came out of the front entrance, they talked to the police, and everyone scattered in different directions. The police didn’t even come up to us and write a police record.
Naturally, we got everyone out of the shelter and changed the location. And now we’re very sad because this kind of story with neighbours could be repeated in any neighbourhood, any building. Until the first time the police are called—and then we have to find a new apartment and move.
Actually, after 30 November the shelter’s work will be in question because this is an entirely remote-driven project. Anything else is impossible. The shelter’s future depends above all on the associates who stay in Russia. Will they be prepared to work if we’re labeled an extremist organization? In any case, we are restructuring the operation so that the associates cannot be linked to us.
Naturally, Centre-T will continue to operate. It will just have to adapt once again. We are already working out a plan so that people can safely obtain assistance from us and participate in our projects.
You know, I have never lived in a state where belonging to LGBT led to criminal charges (Yan is 33, so he just barely didn’t miss the article for “sodomy” in the Criminal Code, which was repealed in 1993—OVD-Info). I’m horrified to think what that life might look like. Apparently, there’s a likelihood now I’ll find out.
Translated by Marian Schwartz