Resident of St. Petersburg on Her Crusade against a Homophobic Entrepreneur
Russian businessman German Sterligov is known for his ultra-Orthodox Christian views, among other things. But in 2016, he became even more well-known when he opened a chain of food stores called Khleb i Sol [Bread and Salt] in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kirov, and Perm. The stores sell exorbitantly priced food, produced by an Orthodox Christian peasant commune based in the Moscow region—Sterligov calls it Sloboda, referring to the old Russian craftsmen’s communities—as well as some other farmers under verbal agreement. Sterligov is fairly straightforward in expressing his views, which are discriminatory on a variety of grounds. He has stated, for example, that he would never hire a divorced woman, and he denies access to Sloboda to men or women with piercings and to women wearing make-up or dressed in anything other than floor-length skirts.
Most importantly, however, Sterligov is known for his extremely negative attitude towards homosexuals. Each of his Khleb i Sol stores has a wooden sign displayed in the window which reads “No faggots allowed,” printed in a faux Old Russian font 1. These offensive shop window signs aroused heated discussions in the press and social media but remained without consequence. Vera Vrubel, a resident of St. Petersburg, was the first to succeed in having one of the chain’s several stores in St. Petersburg closed (later, another store was shut down, although Sterligov claims that at least the first one was closed for mere business reasons). We asked Vera to give us more details.
Could you tell us a few words about yourself and your background?
I was first trained as a bibliographer specialising in rare books and manuscripts, and my other degree is in law—I practiced as a lawyer for almost 15 years. However, I have never practiced criminal law—which is what this story is all about—and it is an absolute terra incognita for me. I needed help and turned to some of my friends who are experts in criminal law and procedure. What else can I say about myself? I stopped practicing as a lawyer seven years ago and went on to other things, such as writing. Since then, I have written and edited texts and conducted PR campaigns for various projects. During five of these seven years, I worked for a large energy company and was in charge of their internal communications, contributed to the corporate paper, and authored a book. Most of my responsibilities involved working with texts—either as an author or as an editor, if they were in English. Yet I never lost interest in legal matters and continued to read legal literature, including papers covering rather technical issues. In addition to this, I have remained in touch with fellow lawyers practicing in various fields. So when issues arose [in connection with this story], it was fairly easy to find the legal experts to help me with this rather exotic case.
How and why did you get the idea to intervene in this case?
It was not an idea—I would never start out just by having an idea. Instead, I was faced with a fact that I simply could not tolerate. The building in which I live has various stores, cafés and restaurants. It’s in the centre of St. Petersburg, where things keep changing and tenants come and go—because the rent is quite high, I assume. It’s a peculiar neighbourhood at Ligovsky Avenue near the Obvodny Canal: on one hand, it’s downtown St. Petersburg, but on the other hand, it’s next to the railway station—‘a world of pain’ with outdoor markets and homeless people. So it’s not in the least a glamorous neighbourhood, and no one in their right mind would think of opening posh boutiques or expensive stores here. So local residents watch closely when a new place opens—and very often, we just shrug our shoulders sceptically, because business owners do make mistakes sometimes. One day I saw a new sign over the door of a tiny store space—it used to be a veterinary pharmacy or something a while ago, but I am not sure. The new sign read: ‘Bread and Salt by German Sterligov’. Okay, we all thought, “Great! Bread, salt, super cool!” And then the store opened, and we noticed that thing in its window … Actually, I did not notice it at first, but my daughter did. She came home, her eyes big with surprise, “Look mum, there’s a weird sign out there!”
How old is your daughter?
Fifteen. On the one hand, I had to explain to her what this sign is about. But on the other hand, why on earth should I have to explain it at all?
Did you know anything about Sterligov by that time, what he was doing? Perhaps you remembered him from earlier years?
If someone asked me then what I knew about him, I would perhaps recall a small article on Lurkmore2 about Sterligov being a troll. I thought of him as someone associated with the 1990s’ Alisa Commodities Exchange3 and a pretty sophisticated troll good at provoking the public. And my opinion of him has not changed.
Trolling is basically what he is doing right now…
Absolutely! This is a very unethical PR technique, I do not even want try to remember who invented it. So my daughter urged me to look closer the next time I walked by that store, and I did. And you know what? I was shocked at my own reaction. I can get quite emotional at times, but usually keep my emotions to myself. But there I was, mad as hell… I could easily imagine, next to that sign, things like ‘Whites only’ or ‘Blacks only.’ I wrote an emotional post on Facebook saying that being a mother, native of St. Petersburg and a trained lawyer—not some good-for-nothing trash—I was strongly against signs of such kind being displayed in windows of the building where I live. I consider it fascism—well, not fascism, Nazism. Personally, I am strongly against it—that basically was all I said. When some people accuse me of doing it for money or having a political agenda, I do not even try to respond or justify myself, because it’s simply ridiculous.
Did you try to talk to them?
I must admit that after seeing the sign and posting about it on Facebook,4 I went on to search for more information online about the owner. Was I hallucinating? I could not believe at first that such things were at all possible in the real world. Yes, I understand, this is not America. But I just could not believe what I saw! But when I first went to Mr Sterligov’s website and read some of its content, I realised that I was not hallucinating and the man was totally aware of what he was doing. Because his website is full of absolutely extremist content. He explains in no uncertain terms whom he calls ‘faggots,’ whom he hates and whom he wants to kill. No misunderstanding there; he really calls for violence and incites hatred. His website does not bother me at all, I will never go there again, even if I need to do so for what I’m doing. But after looking at his site, I am now certain that the man did not write it by mistake. He is not joking, and this kind of trolling should have certain legal consequences, in my opinion. …No, I did not go in then to talk to his hired staff—what could I achieve by discussing it with them? Learn their perspective on the issue? I do not really care about their perspective, to tell you the truth. Instead, the first thing I did was to write a basic formal complaint and file it on the next day with the local police, the Ministry of Interior Department No. 28 in the Central District of St. Petersburg. When I registered my complaint, I was particularly curious to see the officers’ reaction. But they accepted it without batting an eyelid.
Did you report an offence?
I reported an administrative offence under the Russian Code of Administrative Offences, namely disorderly conduct, public use of foul language.5 I understand—I was a good student at law school—that only an individual, not an entity, can be charged with this offence. But this is a formality, and we can still get the individual who put up the sign fined for the offence.
Did the police accept your complaint?
Yes, they did so without any problems whatsoever, and they issued me a receipt. Then there was a pause in the proceedings, as the district policeman put in charge of the case was assigned to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum security and therefore unavailable for a week. Then I visited him in his office to make contact. Now thanks to this incident I’ve met our district policeman—a nice guy who at first struggled to understand what the whole thing was about.
He had other things to do?
Absolutely. Nonetheless, by that time he had already consulted with his superiors and received instructions as to how to handle the case. He told me that he would visit Khleb i Sol, question the employees and receive their testimonies, write a report and confiscate the sign. But by the time he told me this, the offending wooden sign, that questionable piece of design with those words burned on it—was no longer on display in the window! Around the same time, Dmitry Volchek, a correspondent from Radio Liberty, contacted me and said he would like to talk and visit the store together. So I went there with him for the first time. There were two things that struck me inside the store. First, there was nothing there that a typical Russian store should have: no cash register, no quality certificates, no ‘customer corner'6. Everything required by Russian law of every store, every restaurant, every catering place was missing altogether. There were just wooden counters, a matushka7 wearing a shawl, and an elderly lady who must have dropped in to have a look. And second, not a single customer buying anything. The only identification was a photo on the wall depicting Sterligov and his sons, captioned, ‘German Sterligov and sons are responsible for product quality.’ That was it, nothing else! A conversation with the matushka followed; according to her, someone had stolen the sign, and although they still had a lot of such signs available, they were temporarily using a handwritten one. There was a [sign] written in chalk, displayed in their window for quite a while afterwards. They felt they needed to convey the message anyway and copied it in handwriting, word for word.
Later on, a story [Russian only] was published by Radio Liberty, and then it all began. Or wait, maybe I am wrong and the first reaction came from Sobaka.ru, a local media outlet, which also asked me to write a column—and I wrote something for them. Or maybe Afisha was the first, but it does not really matter. In any case, local media reacted before Radio Liberty. I should explain that Sobaka.ru in St. Petersburg is not just an ordinary glossy magazine, but a slightly more intellectual one, so to speak. They write about prominent people living in our city, such as authors and scientists; they also appear to have an educational mission and offer their space to various authors highly respected in their fields. In summary, Sobaka.ru has a good reputation, but honestly, nothing could be further from me and my life than this glossy magazine. Yet they contacted me and offered a space for publication. Incidentally, Facebook banned me instantly for my post, after 1,800 likes and three hundred reposts in one day—quite a lot for someone with a private profile and no self-promotion whatsoever. Perhaps my text contained some words which automatically triggered a ban of my Facebook account. Or maybe someone reported me. I have no proof either way. I’d never had this experience before and I was shocked by the fact that the American Facebook cannot tell the difference between fascist and anti-fascist.
They do not even take the time to find out…
Quite frankly, I am not considering them as a platform for anything anymore. I used to perceive [my Facebook page] as a small but proud media outlet where you could ask a question… or mobilise like-minded people around a cause. To be honest, I’m completely disappointed. They froze my account at the exact moment when coordination was essential, and it was just utter stupidity on their part.
Back to Sobaka.ru. They invited me to their annual event—an award ceremony to honour fifty most famous people of the city. Well, I’m a humble person. It was a huge deal for me to hear Ksenia Sobchak8 read my Facebook post aloud from a theatre stage to such an audience. It was like an absurd story written by Daniil Kharms—the entire situation was impossible! Moreover, they called me up onto the stage, asked to give a speech, and to announce the winner in the category of literature—incredible!
When was this?
A couple of weeks ago, right after I posted on Facebook and my account was blocked. After that, the story gained serious publicity in St. Petersburg, because Sobaka.ru is widely read in certain circles—it has half a million rather than 50 thousand subscribers. From that moment on, people started contacting me and asking questions. At about the same time, I brought together a team of lawyers willing to help. They came from different circles.
Were there volunteers providing expert opinions?
After Facebook suspended my account, Sergei Kalvarsky organised all that for me. I am deeply grateful to him for doing it. He is famous in show business, a well-known producer and a prominent figure. I could never imagine that I’d have a chance to meet him personally. We’ve been online acquaintances for about ten years via LiveJournal and Facebook.
So what is your role today?
I act as a facilitator for people wishing to file complaints with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Anti-Trust Service and St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office. Earlier today, two unconnected women from Moscow requested all this information from me and filed similar complaints in Moscow. But I have a feeling that things are somewhat different in Moscow. While I understand that federal laws are the same everywhere in Russia, I doubt for some reason that everything will work the same way in Moscow as it has in St. Petersburg.
So far, people in Moscow have only been taking pictures next to this sign.
This seems puzzling to me, because I had assumed that a normal human reaction to this sign would be similar to mine—not like ‘wow, it’s fun, let’s take a cool picture posing next to it and go on to other things and forget about it.’ It is not cool, not in the least!
Have you received any objections? Statements in support of the other party?
You know, I have too much work on my hands and cannot afford the time to follow who says what. But of course, there are well-wishers and people with more spare time than I have who will never allow me to remain ignorant. Every now and then, they would send me links to Sterligov’s supporters making rather harsh statements about me. Not that it bothers me at all, and there have been no direct threats to my life or health. I know that a lot of insults have been posted on the web, but it’s normal, the internet being a garbage dump. But my mother gets worried every time she sees something like that. She’s not on Facebook, but she sometimes sees and reads this stuff on VKontakte9, where this poorly educated, 100% homophobic crowd from the regions is even more numerous. This, of course, makes my mum worried. But I’ve explained to her that there’s nothing to worry about.
Has Vitaly Milonov made any statements about this?
How the heck would I know? He never called me. If he calls, I’ll express my surprise. I’ve been following his actions for many years, and I have questions for him. And you know what? Since Sobchak read my Facebook post from stage, I won’t be surprised if my question actually reaches Milonov. My question is, what has happened to transform Galina Starovoytova‘s former assistant into the type Milonov is now? How did this happen?!10
I do not think it’s a relevant question.
Yes, it’s a rhetorical one.
In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are Sterligov’s stores in Perm, Kirov and other places.
Yes. Soon they will close. Soon all his stores will close, I hope.
So as for now, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has received…
Yes, what I believe to be a few dozen complaints filed with the police in St. Petersburg and also a few in in Moscow. At least, I have sent out about a hundred [samples] to likeminded people. At some point, people seemed really motivated to do something. Although I do not know whether they actually did.
What about the Investigative Committee11? Have you decided to wait before engaging it?
The only thing I can say, my colleagues and I do not have a coordinated position on that. I hesitate to press for charges under Article 282 [of the Criminal Code]12—because I hate having to urge its enforcement, I really hate the idea. But again, one cannot just let the monster get away with it. This is something he must be held accountable for. You can troll, you can self-promote, you can make jokes and have fun, but certain actions come with consequences. The homophobia he is spreading and the impunity he enjoys—he must be held accountable for all this. But you see, I do not want to pay for it with my own reputation. My goal was just to free my own home from this disgrace. And this goal has been achieved.
So the store is about to be closed?
It’s already closed. They left. Packed their bags and left three days ago. Right before a prosecutorial inquiry was scheduled.
As far as I understand, legal proceedings are ongoing. Are you planning to stick with it?
When I was asked about it just two days ago, I answered with absolute certainty that yes, I was planning to stay with it. Today, I would not want to mislead anyone… let’s just say that the paperwork has all been prepared… By and large, both Thorn Law Office and Alexei Dobrynin can finish this crusade without me and add a high-profile case to their portfolios. What we need now is to work out a coordinated position.
My idea has been to show how and why an ordinary citizen, not a professional human rights advocate, nor even a practicing lawyer, has applied legal tools to fight a problem which concerns her as a human being.
‘Stupidity and Courage’13 is the title I would suggest for your story. Of course, I want to bring this case to an end. Perhaps another way of saying it would be, I want to bring this case to an end but I will make every effort to do it without resorting to Article 282. But the most important outcome for me, apart from the fact that the store has been removed from my home, is that I can see public attitudes towards certain issues change—or begin to change. I do not wish to overgeneralise. I understand that Facebook is a parallel reality with little relevance to everyday life for most people in St. Petersburg. Nonetheless, a certain part of our public tends to believe that the law enforcement agencies never help but only interfere, extort, oppress, etc. I totally disagree, because there are normal people everywhere, in any government agency. Indeed, some people’s legal nihilism and ignorance can only aggravate the lack of trust between the public and law enforcement authorities. I find it blatantly unfair that the average citizen makes no distinction between “ratting” on someone and using law to defend one’s rights. Recently, I’ve been receiving three to four calls every day from friends asking me, “Do you think it might really be possible to find a legal solution in such and such case?” Yes, guys, it is possible! One can see such examples every day. I am thinking of starting some kind of basic legal awareness program for my fellow citizens—I had not realised the depth of legal illiteracy shared by most. By the way, [legal nihilism] is common even among lawyers who are not sure sometimes how they can solve problems using legal tools. I could tell them.
Vera, we discussed earlier the actions of Stimulus LGBT group whose activists had one of Sterligov’s stores in Moscow deny them access and service and are now planning to press charges. You’ve said that you do not support this approach. Why not?
They wrote to me asking to repost their story and wanted me to somehow take part in their fight. First, this is not my fight or my story. I will not intervene on behalf of a [specific] member of a minority denied access to a store. My entire approach is different. I believe that they have chosen the wrong way, even if they are correct in saying that they are free to defend their rights. It seems to me that something is missing from their logic and reasoning. I cannot agree with them from the formal logic perspective. Let’s assume that a certain business owner says, without insulting anyone, that he does not wish to serve a certain group of people; the entrepreneur is not trying to insult the group, but does not want to serve them. Then one can and should sue this business owner for discrimination. But one shouldn’t try to force one’s way into the store and insist on being served. It is absurd, in my opinion. The more absurd things they do, the less people will trust and respect them … Well, guys, the sign on the door says: “No faggots allowed”—yet they persist, “Let us in and serve us!” You are being insulted! So do not go there, fight them in a different way.
They do so to create grounds for pressing discrimination charges. In and of itself, the sign is no proof that they have been denied service. But the actual denial of service is against the law, including the consumer protection law.
There is no need to provoke anyone for this purpose. [The sign] violates both the consumer protection law and the law on advertising; all you need is to get qualified advice and write complaints to the Federal Anti-Trust Service and where else… to Russian Consumer Oversight Service? But what do provocative actions have to do with it?
So you do not like provocative actions?
I do not like their form of protest, as it seems to me that this form undermines public trust in its content. I do not like the fact that they make ignorant statements, e.g. by referring to [violations of] their ‘cultural rights.’ What cultural rights? In short, all of this produces the wrong impression overall. In my opinion, what they need is a change of perspective; they would do better by rising a little above their offended feelings and sticking to legal language, rather than buffoonery and housewives’ methods … Were they trying to make a test purchase?
Something like that.
Something like that … All that we have been discussing today could be used as nice case studies for second-year law school students. I’m not in a position to make comments from a legal perspective, as I am not a practicing lawyer plus I have no experience with criminal law; therefore these are only my rambling thoughts. However, instead of trying to make a test purchase using these methods, the guys could really benefit from external assistance, even my own.
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|1.||Ironically, bread with salt comprise a traditional symbol of Russian hospitality.|
|2.||Lurkmore is a Russian-language resource based on Wikipedia structure and principles but dedicated mostly to Internet memes, social media “battles”, their heroes and anti-heroes, etc. Created in 2007, the site has developed its own “language” and a style of sarcastic humor.|
|3.||Sterligov was Russia’s pioneer of stock commodities exchange, named his exchange after his dog’s name, and became the first Russian millionaire.|
|4.||This post of May 30 collected more than 1.8 thousand likes and was subsequently blocked by Facebook.|
|5.||Vrubel is referring to Art. 20.1 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses, which describes a misdemeanor of “petty hooliganism” as “violating the public order expressing manifest disrespect towards the society, combined with foul language in public spaces, harassing citizens as well as destroying or damaging others’ property”, which is punishable with a fine of 500 to 1,000 rubles [ca. EUR 7 to 15], or “administrative detention” for up to 15 days.|
|6.||A wall panel with various certificates, background information on consumer protection, “complaint book”, etc.|
|7.||Religious-looking woman, often referring to an Orthodox Christian priest’s wife.|
|8.||Russian TV anchor, journalist, socialite, and actress, turned an opposition political activist after the alleged presidential election fraud in 2012.|
|9.||Most popular social media in Russia, especially among younger people and people outside Moscow.|
|10.||Vitaly Milonov started his career in mid-1990s as an assistant to Galina Starovoytova, a liberal politician known for protecting ethnic minorities and promoting democratic reforms in Russia. She was murdered in 1998, and although the killer was tried and convicted, the people who ordered this assassination and paid for it have never been found. In mid-2000s, Milonov became a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and in 2016 a deputy of the Russian State Duma, representing the ruling United Russia party. He is perhaps the most vocal homophobic politician in the country.|
|11.||Main federal investigating authority in Russia.|
|12.||“Incitement of Hatred or Enmity, as Well as Abasement of Human Dignity: 1. Actions aimed at the incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of dignity of a person or a group of persons on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, attitude to religion, as well as affiliation to any social group.” This article has been notoriously used by law enforcement to criminally prosecute any kind of public dissent, rather than just serious hate speech.|
|13.||A Russian Internet meme, initially a humorous “motto” of Chip from the Chip and Dale cartoon series. Used to ironically characterize a person taking on a challenging task without much experience and knowledge, and without thinking twice.|