MOSCOW—Thousands of people stood in silence at an anti-government rally in downtown St.Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday night.
The demonstrators demanded an end to violence against Russia’s LGBT community and political opposition. The minute of silence was devoted to the victim of a terrible murder, Yelena Grigoryeva, a 41-year-old gay activist who was stabbed to death last week.
A pedestrian found her body in some bushes near Pulkovskaya Street on Sunday. There were eight stab wounds and her neck had signs of strangulation, according to her friends, Alexander Mironov and Alexander Khmelev, who identified the body.
Earlier this year Grigoryeva complained to her friends and to Russian bureaucrats about nasty threats from homophobes, but nobody helped her, and while police question a Kyrgyz national suspected of killing Grigoryeva without any political motive, her friends and fellow activists have little doubt she was targeted for her militancy. She was a prominent member of the St. Petersburg-based Alliance of Heterosexuals and LGBT People for Equal Rights.
For years, threats and lists targeting LGBT people, supporters of the community, and journalists reporting the attacks on it have circulated on social media and the dark web. Those who posted them adopted the rubric “Saw,” taken from a gruesome series of American horror films.
Then last year, a homophobic Saw “game” appeared on the internet with the title Chechnya’s Comeback, alluding to the government-sanctioned persecution, including torture and murders, of alleged gays in that North Caucasus republic.
“The Saw site has been publishing photographs of lesbians, gay men, and transgender, threatening to kill them, but neither police nor investigators react to these threats,” gay rights activist Igor Kochetkov said in a video addressed to the authorities. “And if you think that citizens like us do not deserve to be defended, find yourself a different job.”
According to the U.K. based news site Gay Star News, people were encouraged to post photographs and details about the lives of alleged gays, particularly around the city of Ufa in central Russia, and extortion was part of the game.
Players could get the personal information they needed to hunt down their victims by paying about $3, and they could get their own names taken off for about $23. Eventually that site was taken down. But a new one surfaced on social media earlier this year that named Grigoryeva and many others. It reportedly was taken down only days before her murder.
This week—after Grigoryeva’s murder—someone claiming to be Saw opened a channel on the encrypted Telegram messaging app, claiming it could could recruit assassins for 300,000 rubles ($4,753.14) per hit. As before, Saw’s targets are LGBT activists and independent journalists all across Russia. “The game begins,” Saw announced on Wednesday, inviting “aggressive hunters for LGBT” who knew martial arts and were ready to obey the group’s orders.
“My name is on their list, so I have a choice, whether to flee the country—that is exactly what they want us to do—or stay and stand for my rights. I won’t run,” one of the gay men on Saw’s list told The Daily Beast.
The homophobes’ latest posts sound like a call for massacre. And Grigoryeva has not even been buried yet.
The first hit list appeared in 2016. “It included up to 800 names of people from the Russian LGBT community, opposition activists, their children, and just random people like me, who posted funny memes of Putin as Gollum on social media pages—at that time I was not an activist,” Yulia Rusa, a 42-year-old interpreter told The Daily Beast.
First Rusa was sent photographs of her husband outside their house, then threatening notes with her home address in Vkontakte, the most popular Russian social media platform, then two men set her Renault on fire, burning it completely. “When I realized that fascists attack us, I became an opposition activist,” Rusa says.
She discovered other victims. “We united and with the help of journalists found out that the web site whoiswhos.me had links to structures that might be affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troll factory,” Rusa said.
Prigozhin, who made his fortune with food catering contracts for the Russian government, is sometimes known as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.” But in recent years he has been linked to a number of shady “unofficial” activities supporting Putin’s policies.
He was indicted by the Mueller probe for setting up the trolling operation that attacked the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, and has been linked to the Wagner mercenaries fighting alongside Putin allies in Syria and in Africa.
Analyzing Saw’s statements, Rusa found many similarities with the previous black lists. “It must be Prigozhin’s factory working again or his Wagner private militia,” she told The Daily Beast.
This week Prigozhin’s employees have also launched an operation in Moscow to attack opposition candidates before September municipal elections. According to the independent news site Proekt.media, Igor Osadchy, several Prigozhin people who formerly worked in his Africa operations recently went to work attacking the opposition.
There is no substantive proof that the latest attacks on Russian LGBT people are staged by Prigozhin’s minions. But Saw radicals do claim in their posts that Russian authorities support them, and activists simply take that as a given.
“Of course they do, this is the result of the Kremlin’s 2013 approval of the anti-gay law, ostensibly targeting homosexual ‘propaganda,’ which legitimized homophobia and gave birth to a group like Saw,” well-known Moscow producer and writer Karen Shainyan told The Daily Beast.
He said she hopes the threats will have an effect that is the opposite of Saw’s intent. “There are a large number of gay people among Russian celebrities, politicians, even in the close circle to President Vladimir Putin,” Shainyan said, “Now is the time to push, and end violence.”
Shainyan and ex-presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak are planning to open a discussion on social media and YouTube addressing Russian gay women and men living in the closet.
“Grigoryeva’s case showed all of us that this is a matter of life and death,” Shainyan said.
In February of last year, two men with covered faces attacked an opposition politician Oleg Maksakov and several other activists. “They beat me up violently in my apartment building, clearly for my opposition activity,” Maksakov, who is running in the Saint Petersburg municipal elections this year, told The Daily Beast. “Police did not investigate any of these cases and now we have more hit lists and LGBT are the target, but they will not manage to shut us up, we’ll demand an investigation.”
The independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper was also on The Saw’s ugly list. “We are treating this threat very seriously, since we have lost reporters to assassinations in the past,” Nadezhda Prusenkova, the paper’s spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast. “So we are taking extra security measures.” Several journalists of Novaya Gazeta have been attacked by Prigozhin’s structures in the past.
This year Grigoryeva took part in dozens of opposition protests and rallies: she supported LGBT rights and demanded an end to political repression of Crimean Tatars and Chechen human rights activists.
Terrifying threats rained down on her in social media, so at some point Grigoryeva asked her friend to take care of her cat, if she gets killed.
“I was filming Grigoryeva and other protesters at a recent rally, when a crazy homophobe hit me with a stick, yelling that we are all on sale to the U.S. State Department,” human rights defender Yevgeniya Litvinova told The Daily Beast. “Grigoryeva was brave but she is not alone, there will be many more protests now.”
The organizer of the mass rally on Wednesday, deputy of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly Boris Vishnevsky, was furious.
“Lawlessness once again takes power in Putin’s former home town of Saint Petersburg: some violent homophobes go unpunished, make hit lists, police fail to investigate the attacks on peaceful opposition and LGBT activists,” deputy Vishnevsky told The Daily Beast. “The strategy is wrong: by making peaceful activists their enemies, authorities multiply the opposition.”