Kris van der Veen is a busy man. Everything he is involved with pertains to human rights and equality. Since 2011, he has been a member of Groenlinks in Groningen. He is the head of LGBT Groningen Foundation, and the organization won the Glass Candle at this year’s Noordervrijheid, an annual award given by Amnesty, for their work on International Day Against Homophobia and counseling youth in Groningen. He works for Het Kopland, formerly Home and Retreat Foundation, a domestic violence organization, on whose behalf he spoke publicly on International Women’s Day 2013. At the moment he is focused on editing a documentary about the reality of daily life for LGBT people in Russia and the current law which forbids so-called ‘gay propaganda.’
“At the end of 2012, I formalized a plan to make a film. I was alarmed by the plans to pass the anti-gay law in Russia and I wanted to look into what this would mean for the daily lives of Russians, in particular transgender people, lesbians and gays,” said van der Veen.
As a result of the sister city bond between Groningen and the Russian city of Murmansk, the LGBT Groningen Foundation received a request to get in touch with the LGBT organization there. After initial contact, the idea to make a film emerged. “I reported my intention to do the documentary to a commission for the Netherlands-Russia Friendship Year. The committee consists of individuals from the Russian and Dutch governments. The Russian government was aware of what we were planning to do. Because of the city bond, I was invited to Murmansk and I acquired a visa.”
In spite of the careful preparations, the trip was not without challenges. Kris and his crew were arrested by the police after giving a presentation at a camp which was hosting a weekend focused on human rights activities. The presentation was given to an audience of merely 15 people. The police deemed the presentation a political activity as opposed to cultural, which was problematic as the visa which van der Veen had received was for “cultural relations.” For years, exchange trips between Groningen and Murmansk have been conducted with the cultural relations visa. The police, in spite of this, insisted that the crew needed to have a political activity visa instead.
After their arrest, van der Veen and the crew were interrogated by three different branches of the police: regular uniformed police, immigration police and the secret police. “Eventually the immigration service fined us because they claimed that we had an invalid visa,” said van der Veen.
“During the interrogation, they were especially curious about which interviews and questions I had asked [to LGBT people in Murmansk]. They were relentless about it and eventually they formulated something to charge us with, that we were in violation of the anti-gay propaganda law. They really pressed us and told us that we would have to appear in court the next day.”
“In the meantime, the Russian LGBT community had taken to Facebook to post updates drawing attention to our arrest. There were several Russian human rights activists who supported us by spreading the word. All eyes were on Murmansk.”
Officially, van der Veen and his crew were let go on a technicality. It is highly likely that the attention of the media also played a part in their release. “After we were let go, I was thinking a lot about what the real reasons could have been that we were arrested. I was anxious, but I was also really angry. I wondered, ‘Did you arrest me because I’m gay? Because other people are gay? Is that why we were interrogated for hours? Where were the police when a man was beaten and attacked because he was gay?’ That feeling… it really shook me up,” van der Veen said.
The situation for activists and LGBT organizations in Russia remains precarious. Under the anti-gay propaganda law, it is officially illegal for them to work or even exist. “It has become very difficult, not only because of the anti-gay propaganda law that states that non-traditional families cannot be promoted, but also because, according the law, organizations in Russia cannot receive international money. If they do receive donations from abroad, they have to report it through a non-government organization. If they neglect to do that, the organization will be fined €12,500. The Russian government itself is also working on a law that makes it possible to remove children from gay and lesbian couples without cause. I think it’s absolutely terrible.”
According to van der Veen and many others, Vladimir Putin is largely responsible for the introduction of these laws. “Putin wants to present himself as a reasonable man who wants peace.” This self-presentation strikes van der Veen as a ruse to distract from the very real problems in Russia, namely joblessness and domestic violence. For the next three years, van der Veen is banned from entering Russia. “This doesn’t change my opinion. I met so many great Russian people who I would love to meet again in the future.”
“The people that we interviewed implored us: ‘Make this film! Make sure that this film gets made!’ And it will.”