A YouTuber has been forced to flee the country of Russia after she invited a gay man to be in one of her videos, and subsequently being convicted of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law.
25-year-old Victoria Pich has been producing entertainment videos since 2013, according to Codastory, and over that time has gained almost two million YouTube subscribers.
Wanting to cover more serious topics, in 2019 she started a series titled “Real Talk”.
It was inspired by the American YouTube channel HiHo Kids and its “Kids Meet” series which shows children meeting different kinds of people – for example someone living with HIV, a divorce lawyer or an ex-gang member – to encourage them to ask questions and develop tolerance.
Pich told Codastory: “The American show inspired us. We decided to make a similar program, just one set in Russian realities.”
One episode she produced featured a gay man, 21-year-old graphic designer Maksim Pankratov, fielding questions from children.
Pich said she was proud of the video, which quickly attracted more than a million views, and was careful that sex was never mentioned.
She added: “What did we do? We just asked a person about his life.”
However, the “Real Talk” episode featuring Pankratov was where Pich’s problems began.
An organisation claiming to promote “family values” reported the video to Roskomnadzor, a federal service responsible for media censorship. Although the service ruled that the episode did not break any laws, homophobic Russian lawmaker Pyotr Tolstoy appealed the decision.
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Tolstoy described Pich’s YouTube show as “ethically unacceptable and immoral”, and his appeal led to severe consequences.
A case was opened against Pich for violating the “gay propaganda” law in Russia. President Vladimir Putin and his government banned “gay propaganda” in 2013, prohibiting the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” and meaning that sharing information about LGBT+ people’s lives can earn a prison sentence.
But this wasn’t all. The state prosecutor’s investigative committee also accused Pich of sexual violence against children and began investigating whether she had violated Article 132 of Russia’s criminal code. The law is most often used in cases of paedophilia and child pornography.
Although Pich removed the entire series, the media jumped on the story. The Russian YouTuber was questioned by the police, as were the parents and children involved in the “Real Talk” series.
She began to realise that authorities were not going to back down, and realised she had only one option. She booked a one-way ticket to America.
Now living in California, and only just beginning to learn English, Pich said: “If I knew about the consequences, I never would have done this.”
She said that she now has sleepless nights, and as much as she misses home, she is terrified of returning to Russia. She added: “The case can be closed and it could be reopened just as easily. That’s what can happen in Russia.”
Pankratov, the gay man featured in the video, was recognised in the street and attacked, before receiving death threats. He is now seeking asylum in Europe.