KYIV—A Ukrainian film director of Armenian origin, 29-year-old Khachatur Vasilian, is facing a wave of vicious attacks from pro-Russia politicians and neo-Nazi thugs alike for his new film, My Young Prince, an artful movie about a gay teenager who falls in love with another man.
When the film, which is set to debut in 2023, was announced earlier this year, Vasilian and his team were well aware that they might face backlash—especially from Ukraine’s far-right circles. What he didn’t expect was that his life would be threatened, not only for being the first Ukrainian director to film men making love, but also for being ethnically Armenian and non-Slav.
On Monday, Vasilian was at a central Kyiv theater where crowds of fans had gathered to watch the teaser for his movie. While he was there, a flood of hateful messages, including threats of rape and murder, bombarded Vasilian’s Instagram. “While people around me were enjoying the presentation of our new movie about a 17-year-old Ukrainian man, who is lost in inner immigration, I was reading awful threats on my phone,” the director said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
While Vasilian can’t disclose too much about the film just yet, it is centered on the character of Paul, a 17-year-old Ukrainian from a wealthy family who has grown disillusioned with his life. That is, until he falls in love—and the object of his affection is subsequently involved in murder.
Most of the hate messages Vasilian received are too awful to be quoted. A less extreme example on Instagram read: “The smoked one is fucked,” hinting at the color of Vasilian’s skin. Another comment said: “The hour of the moral court is coming for you.” One Instagram user sent an even more chilling threat: He said the film had offended “the children of Catharsis.”
The far-right Telegram channel “Catharsis” is known for attacking immigrants, non-Slavic Ukrainians, drug addicts, and LGBTQ individuals. “This Telegram channel reflects the radical views of all ultra-right Ukrainian groups, including Tradition and Order, the Right Sector, the Bases for the Future, C14 and a number of other groups. Many of them emerged after the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution,” an expert on Ukraine’s far right at Zaborona Media, Polina Vernigor, told The Daily Beast.
Terrifyingly, Catharsis’ raging sprees sometimes transcend the realms of the internet—and into the real world.
On Saturday, a friend of mine from Chicago was planning to celebrate his 60th birthday in his home city of Kyiv at a hip nightclub called Closer. His plans came to a halt after the Catharsis Telegram channel made a call to its members, asking them to engage in a “crusade” against “drug users” that targeted nightclubs, including Closer.
The Telegram post brought dozens of far-right radicals together. Crowds of them dressed in black walked the streets of Kyiv holding a long banner that read: “Death.” They shot firecrackers and chanted, “Death to the rich!” and put a sign in front of the Closer nightclub that read “Nayem Shop,” a racist reference to Mustafa Nayem, a corruption-fighter, journalist, and politician of Afghan origin who serves as Ukraine’s deputy minister of infrastructure.
The founder of Zaborona news media, Ekaternia Sergatkova, told The Daily Beast that one of the key leaders behind Ukraine’s ultra-right movement is Evgen Karas, the founder of the violent neo-Nazi group C14, which has been accused of killing the editor-in-chief of a pro-Russian newspaper as well as a series of violent attacks on Roma people. She also mentioned Sergei Korotkykh, known as Botsman, an ex-member of the Russian NSS (National-Socialist Society) who has been accused of killing two men in front of a Nazi flag.
“They are neo-Nazi activists, painting Swastikas on the walls, attacking ethnic minorities and LGBT [people],” Sergatkova told The Daily Beast. ”
On Thursday, Catharsis published the address Vasilian’s Instagram account on Telegram, leading to a barrage of new hate messages so severe that the director had to make his public account private.
The screen writers and producers behind My Young Prince believe that it is important for gay men to be represented in Ukraine, where, according to a recent social poll, 47 percent of population are intolerant toward the LGBTQ community.
“A few weeks ago a pro-Russian parliament member, Vadim Rabinovich, was the first to criticize our film for its LGBT theme and immediately, Russian propagandist television journalist, Olga Skobeyeva, mentioned that in her show, mocking Ukraine for its love for gay men,” one of the producers, Regina Maryanovska-Davidson, told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this year, My Young Prince won a competition among hundreds of Ukrainian movie proposals and received about $770,000 in state funding. But shortly after that, more than 3,000 people signed a petition calling for the funds to be revoked and criticizing the film for scenes featuring Orthodox Christian symbols.
“We were inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà, by Rene Magritte’s kissing figures, which seemed provocative for our haters,” Vasilian told The Daily Beast. “I am a former boxer, I could really punch these thugs for such dirty comments,” the director added after taking a glance at the hateful messages he received on Instagram.
“But that isn’t going to stop us from producing this film in Ukraine, as this is the only way to change the short-sighted public views and stop attacks on LGBT,” Olekso Gladushevsky, another producer, told The Daily Beast.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a communications adviser with the Presidential Administration, admitted there was an issue with intolerance in Ukraine and said that Rabinovich and the critics are trying to “discredit all elements of life in the contemporary Western world—liberal democracy and open society,” as well as tolerance.
“Of course, Ukraine should not be involved in any sort of censorship and manually manage film production,” Podolyak told The Daily Beast. “And the current government is not doing that.”
The star actor playing young Paul’s part, Peter Ninovsky, insisted that he had no intention of offending the feelings of Orthodox believers.
“I say this as a believer. On the contrary, our film features the complicated road to God of a man who genuinely wants to find his way,” Ninovsky told The Daily Beast. “The petition signed by 3,000 people against our film demonstrates that there is a painful spot, but for a country with a 40 million-person population, this is not a huge number.”