Activists are intensifying their calls for Portland officials to condemn harassment of gay and lesbian residents in sister-city Archangel, Russia, after an outspoken Russian professor who visited Maine last year was dismissed from his university job.
On Tuesday, officials at Northern (Arctic) Federal University in Archangel dismissed Oleg Klyuenkov because of unexcused absences from work, according to U.S. activists and an email from Klyuenkov that was relayed to the Portland Press Herald by the Russian LGBT Network.
Klyuenkov is a member of a group called Rakurs (Perspective), which advocates on behalf of Russian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals.
Some of the alleged unexcused absences occurred last November when Klyuenkov and another Rakurs member visited Portland and Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the challenges facing LGBT individuals in Russia.
Klyuenkov’s trip was timed to roughly coincide with an official visit to Maine by a delegation from Archangel, a city of 350,000 in northwestern Russia with which Portland has had a sister-city relationship for about a quarter century.
“These reasons were not valid. I did not miss any classes; I was not in the country during the time when I had no classes,” he said in the email. He said he believes the trip to Washington and Portland to advocate for gay rights was the impetus for the action.
“In the private conversation, I was told that everything would be fine if my trip did not happen,” he said. He said he has gone to court to challenge a reprimand that led up to the dismissal.
Representatives from Northern (Arctic) Federal University did not respond to requests for comment from the Press Herald this week.
Klyuenkov, an assistant professor of philosophy, and two other university employees active in Rakurs have reportedly been pressured for months to resign. LGBT activists in Russia and in the U.S. say the calls for their resignations – as well as Klyuenkov’s eventual dismissal – reflect the anti-gay policies put in place in Russia in recent years.
One day before Klyuenkov’s dismissal, Portland activists held a press conference in City Hall urging city officials to stop dealing directly with officials in Archangel.
Those activists say Tuesday’s developments underscore the need for city officials to take a vocal stance.
“What we would really like to see is for the mayor and the (city) council to send a message and tell government officials there that we don’t discriminate here . . . and say that this is not called for,” said Rob Lieber, a Portland-area resident who helped organize Klyuenkov’s visit last year.
Charlotte Rosenthal, a founding member of Portland’s Archangel Sister City Committee, wrote in an op-ed published Thursday in the Press Herald that she and others are not calling for Portland to sever the sister-city relationship “only that we hold government officials responsible for their repellent behavior.”
Portland officials have strongly defended the sister-city relationship with Archangel as an important tool to help improve communication and relationships, especially during times when U.S.-Russian relations are as strained as they are now. However, city representatives have not shied away from showing their support for Russia’s LGBT community.
In addition to hosting Klyuenkov in Maine last year, members of Portland’s delegation visited with Rakurs members during an official trip to Archangel earlier this spring.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who is a key figure in the sister-city relationship with Archangel, said he does not deny that LGBT discrimination is a major problem in Russia. He also understands the frustration of activists here who want to see a strong response from the city.
But Suslovic said it is unclear who, exactly, is behind the recent actions and it is important to make any decisions based on facts, not assumptions. He also wants to involve representatives from the other Portland-area towns who are part of the sister-city relationship in any discussions about ways to respond.