Victoria Pich misses Moscow. She misses the city’s vast parks and trips to St. Petersburg on the weekends. Given the choice today, she wouldn’t think twice before trading the California sunshine for the Russian capital’s gray skies. “The snow, the slush, the cold,” she said. “I loved it all.”

The number of young adults who want to leave Russia is at a 10-year high — more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds would emigrate if they had the opportunity — but Pich never dreamed of a better life abroad. She fled Russia out of fear.

Pich, 25, had been building up a viral video production business since 2013, when she moved to Moscow from a small town in the Urals. She now has nearly two million subscribers on YouTube. Most of her projects are entertainment videos, but she also produced a series of children’s programming titled “Real Talk.” 

On one episode of the show, posted to YouTube last spring, she invited a gay man to talk to children about his life. This led to the police investigating the channel for the crime of “sexual violence against minors,” punishable by between 12 and 20 years in prison. Pich is now on the run.

“Real Talk” was modeled on the U.S.-based YouTube series “HiHo Kids,” in which children chat with a diverse range of guests. Past “HiHo” episodes have included conversations with a teen mom and a person living with dwarfism. The goal is to raise delicate topics in a parentally controlled environment, in order to promote tolerance and respect.

“The American show inspired us,” Pich said. “We decided to make a similar program, just one set in Russian realities.”

The LGBTQ episode featured a 21-year-old graphic designer named Maksim Pankratov. He fielded questions from a precocious group of kids. Most of the children’s parents agreed to be involved because their families included an LGBTQ person.

The episode’s YouTube page attracted more than 1.5 million views, with hardly any negative comments. Pich was especially proud of it and says that she believes that it does not violate Russian law. Sex was never mentioned or even alluded to. 

“What did we do? We just asked a person about his life,” she said.

Two of the children even voiced negative feelings about gay people. “I really don’t like it. I just really don’t understand,” said 10-year-old Daniel Massov. “Why would you have a relationship with a man, if women exist?”

Pankratov took it all in his stride, laughing along with the children’s questions. At one point, he broke down how a person realizes that they are gay to the youngest participant, age six, by telling her it is like being sure you like chocolate.

Elisei, 10, said that he wasn’t keen on the idea of homosexuality, either.

He then asked Pankratov, “Tell me, what do you not like about Russia?”

“I don’t like Russia because it doesn’t fit the parameters of my life,” Pankratov replied. “I can’t be fully open here and feel protected.”

“I hope Putin doesn’t hear that,” the boy said.

Russian Realities

In Los Angeles, where she now lives, Pich wakes up every morning and scans Russian headlines for at least an hour, checking for any updates on her criminal case which is still open.

“I start to feel sick every time,” she said.

The media has moved on, but in September Real Talk made primetime TV news. The complaints began when an organization dedicated to the promotion of “family values” reported the episode to Russia’s internet watchdog Roskomnadzor

Pyotr Tolstoy — a vocally conservative deputy in the State Duma, also known for his antisemitic remarks — denounced the show as “ethically unacceptable and immoral.” When Roskomnadzor ruled that Real Talk did not break Russian law, Tolstoy appealed the decision and sent the complaint higher up, to the state prosecutor’s office.

What happened next came as a surprise, even taking into account Russia’s dismal track record on LGBTQ rights.

The state prosecutor’s Investigative Committee not only opened a case under Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” law, which prohibits the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” It also began a probe under Article 132 of Russia’s criminal code, which relates to sexual violence against children. The law is most frequently invoked in felony cases involving pedophilia and child pornography.

“I was in shock. I didn’t think that something like this was possible,” said Svetlana Zakharova from the rights organization Russian LGBT-Network.

Roskomnadzor then overturned its earlier judgment, adding the episode with Pankratov to its official blacklist, which is available online, and sending a complaint to YouTube that the video violated Russian law.

YouTube notified Pich that if she did not remove the video, the platform could be required under Russian law to block it. Representatives of Google, YouTube’s parent company, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the company’s online transparency report shows that the Russian government tops all other countries in total takedown requests. 

Since 2009, when Google began tracking statistics, the Kremlin has sent the company 80,033 requests for content removal. Historically, Google has honored 75% of these demands from Russia. By comparison, the U.S. has filed 7,962 and China just under 1,000. The requests documented by Google span its product range, including Web Search and Blogger, but more than half are for YouTube.

Google’s transparency report also lists the total number of items flagged for removal by countries since 2009. Each “item” is a piece of content on one of Google’s various products — for example, a blog post on Blogger, a video on YouTube or a URL in its search results. The graph below compares the total number of items flagged by country. Russia’s total is a staggering 477,146 items.

In response to all the negative attention, Pich immediately deleted the entire “Real Talk” channel from YouTube.

She hoped that the story would end there.

A Circus

It turned out that her actions only fueled the controversy. Now, the media could selectively choose sound bites from the show and no one could watch the full episode in context.

“An American video platform is educating Russian teenagers with revelations from porn stars and faggots,” read one online headline. Television broadcasters ran a marathon of news coverage.

Vitaly Milonov, another deputy in the State Duma, joined Tolstoy’s crusade against Real Talk. He dominated TV discussions, mixing innuendo and homophobic jokes with stern warnings about decadent western values corrupting traditional Russian society.

“A small child is being told about the nuances and details of sexual relationships,” Milonov said during one broadcast. A live studio audience clapped and cheered on his outrage. When Milonov shouted that he would “sock that imbecile in the jaw,” referring to Pankratov, many burst into laughter.

Many themes in the various broadcasts about the Real Talk show were familiar to regular viewers of Russian state TV, where homosexuality is frequently equated with bestiality and pedophilia, and the internet cast as a dangerous space that must be controlled and monitored.

“It’s just a circus,” Pich said. “If this was really about a crime and they believed that, they wouldn’t be laughing like that.”

‘Gay propaganda

Pich was 19 years old in 2013, when Russia’s “gay propaganda” law was ratified. It was the year she moved to Moscow. Back then, her news feeds were filled with music videos and posts by beauty bloggers, not politics. She has never voted in an election and never been to a protest. “To be honest I didn’t even know that such a law had passed,” she said.

In 2017 the European Court of Human Rights condemned the law as discriminatory. However, as Alexander Belik, who provides legal aid to the Russian LGBT-Network, explained to Coda Story, it is hardly ever enforced in Russia. The law was used to prosecute two people last year and since its passing, just 20 people have been charged under it.

While judges are loath to apply this notoriously vague legislation, Roskomnadzor frequently turns to it, in order to erase online content without having to go through the courts. The body is able to block websites and pages via a rubber-stamp process that allows it to circumvent formal court proceedings, in which content creators would be given the chance to defend themselves. Blocking is a subtler way to silence the LGBTQ community than prosecutions — especially when companies like Google are helping to enforce it.

Roskomnadzor does not track the number of websites or pages that are blocked, making the number of LGBTQ groups being silenced online both unreported and unreportable.

“They are trying to snuff out the LGBT community as much as possible through blocking,” said Belik. 

One in a hundred

Back in fall 2019, lawyers assured Pich that the accusations being made against her were “absurd” and that there was a “one in a hundred chance” that a criminal case would be opened against her.

But, for weeks, the state prosecutor’s office kept calling in the parents of children who had participated in the Real Talk show and Maxim Pankratov for questioning. The parents told activists that the authorities pressured them to give statements denouncing Pich and threatened them that their children could be taken away by child services. Pich was questioned twice. She began to believe the case had become too political for the authorities to back down. She booked a one-way ticket to the U.S.

She flew the next day, but was scared that the plane would be stopped before she took off. Pankratov was recognized on the street, beaten up and began to receive death threats. He is now seeking political asylum in an undisclosed European country.

Now, Pich alternates between sleepless nights and days when she can hardly get out of bed. She is terrified she could somehow be deported to Russia.

“If I knew about the consequences, I never would have done this,” she said. 

Even if her case is closed, Pich is still scared of going back to Russia, where she now faces the prospect of imprisonment for what amounts to a child rape charge. “The case can be closed and it could be reopened just as easily,” she added. “That’s what can happen in Russia.”

Alone and having only just started to learn English, Pich says that the state-wide coronavirus lockdown has deepened her sense of isolation. She spends most of her time producing videos about celebrities and entertainment for her remaining YouTube channel. She hasn’t shared her story with her two million followers.