BBC has released a heartbreaking mini-documentary about the struggle for LGBTQ rights in Russia.
The short film tells the tragic love story of Jon and Alex, boyfriends and activists who became faces of the Russian LGBT movement after an intimate photo of them (above) captured the prestigious World Press Photo Award in 2015.
Alex died of heart failure at age 30 in 2019, and Jon explains that thanks to Russia’s gay propaganda law, things have changed.
“What happened then would be impossible now, to organize a march against hatred, to march with rainbow flags,” Jon says. “I realize that without him, everything that went on between 2013 and 2016 simply would not have been possible. Initially, for me, the photo was about deep love and passion. Now, it’s about mourning.”
Danish photographer Mads Nissen says he spent two years traveling to Russia to document anti-LGBT violence and oppression. But he knew that he needed more love in his work, and when he met Jon and Alex at a bar in St. Petersburg, he asked if he could accompany them to their apartment and photograph them.
Although they had some difficulty getting the photo out in Russia due to canceled exhibitions and other problems, it became a symbol for the movement.
“Like it or not, that image is an icon, and it’s an icon of the fight for LGBT rights, and that you can never take away from it,” Nissen says. “Finally being recognized as a strong, beautiful couple, and not as something bad as they often are perceived in Russia.”
Jon says he cried for hours when he first saw the photo, and Alex viewed it as an everlasting confirmation of their relationship.
But in the wake of the gay propaganda law, things got much worse. Jon was repeatedly attacked in the streets, and during a demonstration in 2016, he was arrested and fined.
Jon says when he met Alex, he had a quote on his social media profile from the film Rasberry Reich: “My boyfriend is the revolution.”
“He [Alex] really became that revolution,” Jon says. “He talked a lot about running out of time, and trying to do things quickly. I know that when he was very young, someone predicted that he would not live past 30.
“We combined our energy in such a way that it gave results, not just to each of us individually, but to the world as a whole.”
Watch their story below.