Russian grocery chain VkusVill ran an advertisement with an LGBTQ family, who then had to flee the country.

Cecilia Nysing

In July, Alina and her girlfriend, Ksyusha ,wanted to show that, like any other family, they have favorite dishes and cooking habits. Joined by Alina’s mom and sister, they appeared in an advertisement for Russian grocery store chain VkusVill (translates like TasteVille). They expected people to see them as family members who love one another, practice veganism, and support fair trade, but instead, their sexuality became the main focus. The public reaction was so intense that this week the heroes of the advertisement shared that they were forced to flee to Spain.

Vkusvill is a well-known brand with more than 1,200 stores in about 50 cities. It’s been building a reputation as a progressive and socially responsible brand, selling healthy organic food from small Russian producers for affordable prices. It’s a bit like Trader Joe’s. Recently, the store ran a campaign on its website and social media under the slogan “Recipes for family happiness,” the goal of which was to tell about regular supermarket customers. As Vkusvill content manager Roman Polyakov told MBKh Media, the company wanted to contribute to diversity. So, the promotion involved stories and pictures of several families, including a queer family.

Their story was published under the headline “Total matriarchy.” Alina’s mom, Yuma, whom the article called a matriarch, is a lesbian and works as a psychologist. Yuma`s older daughter Alina, who is engaged to Ksyusha, works with children with autism spectrum disorders. Alina has an 8-year-old daughter (who, like Yuma’s girlfriend, Zhenya, did not appear in the photoshoot). Mila, Yuma’s younger daughter, works in online education. In their advertisement, the family shared that they visit the store every day. They also said they especially enjoy Vkusvill’s hummus and condensed coconut milk, love to cook vegan borscht, and recycle everything, even receipts. The ad went live on July 1,  and Russian media called it the first major LGBTQ commercial in the country. It is important to mention that along with the article, Vkusvill placed 18+ warning because Russian law forbids exposing minors to “gay propaganda.”

“When the ad was released, we received hundreds of positive comments,” Yuma told me. “We celebrated. Followers wrote to us that they couldn’t believe that this is happening in Russia.”

That happiness didn’t last long, though. Somebody reposted the ad in a Telegram community called Male State, which has more than 35,000 followers and is known for promoting nationalist, patriarchal ideas and bullying feminist and LGBTQ activists. After that, the family and Vkusvill were attacked with hateful comments from internet trolls and conservative customers, as well as public figures. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, the international TV network controlled by the Russian government,  wrote that she would not buy Vkusvill groceries anymore. “I remember very well how it started in the West. ‘These couples exist, this is our values, we are for diversity.’ It ended up with parent #1 and parent #2 and human milk,” claimed Simonyan on her Twitter.

Whether because Vkusvill was afraid to lose customers, was pressured by authorities, or both, the chain pulled the advertisement on July 4. Moreover, the retailer apologized for “hurting the feelings of a large number of customers.” The statement, which was signed by 12 top managers, including the founder, said, “We regret that this happened and consider this publication to be a mistake, which is the result of the unprofessionalism of certain employees.”

This step disappointed Vkusvill’s liberal customers, who were initially so proud of the store’s decision to represent LGBTQ clients. There are 40,000 comments under Vkusvill’s apology on Instagram, and the most popular say: “Shame on you,” “You only made the situation worse,” and “Are you serious?”

Many people wrote they would boycott Vkusvill after the store embarrassed itself, but it is hard to believe that the scandal will affect sales. My liberal friends joke that they still buy groceries there, hiding behind the shelves, so nobody sees them shopping (and I can’t blame them, as the store’s items are really exceptional—I  especially enjoy the borscht, almond croissants, and salted caramel ice cream).

Meanwhile, the family is reeling from the experience—especially Vkusvill’s suggestion that they were a “mistake.” Yuma told me that she and her daughter Mila have been LGBTQ activists for many years, and it was not the first time her family dealt with haters. As a psychologist, Yuma worked with gay people who were allegedly tortured by police in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya in 2017-2018. (The region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied it and claimed that there are no gay people in Chechnya.) Her family also volunteers at the only LGBTQ film festival in Russia, “Side by Side.” Yuma told me that her family has been splashed with liquids, hit with thrown objects, insulted, and chased. But she says the aggression after the Vkusvill advertisement was on a completely different level. “People figured out our address and posted it online, calling for violence against us. They printed out our pictures and placed them at the stores` entrances. They threatened to kill us.” But, most of all, Yuma was concerned about the safety of her 8-year-old granddaughter. The harassers ”threatened to file a report to the police about us spreading gay propaganda to minors,” Yuma said.

The “gay propaganda” law, which passed in 2013, makes it illegal to tell or show children that a homosexual relationship is as normal as a heterosexual one. Apart from being discriminatory (as the European Court of Human Rights called it), it has pretty vague wording that leaves room for a different interpretation. Punishment includes a fine for individuals and a temporary shut down for businesses. But in practice, there are other penalties not explicitly mentioned in the law. In 2019, authorities realized that a couple of gay men managed to adopt two children in Russia, and they opened a criminal case against the social workers who allowed them to raise boys. The parents were accused of breaking the “gay propaganda” law by simply letting their kids know that they are in a relationship. So the family chose to run away to the U.S.

Yuma’s family also got afraid that Alina’s child would be taken away from them. “We quickly packed our bags and fled Russia. We left everything: our home and our jobs,” she said. “Politicians in Russia support homophobia. There are no chances that the situation with gay rights will get better.”

President Vladimir Putin has claimed multiple times that gay people are not discriminated against in Russia. In 2017, Oliver Stone asked him whether he would shower next to a gay man, and Putin answered that he prefers not to: “Why provoke him?” He continued, “But you know, I’m a judo master.” Another time, in June 2020, when was asked about the rainbow pride flag at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Putin suggested that it says something about the sexual orientation of the diplomats. “It reveals something about the people that work there,” told Putin.

No joke is starting a new life in a foreign country because you don`t feel safe at home. In Spain, Yuma and Alina both plan to get married to their girlfriends (under recent constitutional amendments, marriage in Russia is defined only as a union between man and woman) and have more babies, whom they can be open with about their sexual orientation without being persecuted or prosecuted.

Future Tense
is a partnership of
Slate,
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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