224 Moskovskiy Prospekt, St. Petersburg. Image: Google Street View

This week, Latvian-based website Meduza reported on a string of violent robberies and blackmail schemes in St. Petersburg targeting gay men who use dating sites and hookup apps. Gay victims of crimes rarely go to the Russian police for fear of being outed or humiliated, and according to the report, this allows the culprits continue to act with impunity.

“Alexey” [not his real name] told Meduza about how he was lured into a high-rise apartment in a central part of the city by a man whose profile he saw on the gay social app Hornet. He was jumped by two other men hiding behind a sliding door of a closet. They beat him, videotaped him, shouted “We will break all your ribs and bury you!” and threatened to upload the video online. They then suggested they should “resolve the situation financially” and one of the robbers escorted Alexey home to get his bank card and transfer all the money out of his account. “Really, I’m not a homophobe,” the robber told Alexey as they waited for a cab. “I just heard this was a good way to get money.”

Meduza traced several almost identical incidents to an organized group of about 20 who would sometimes introduce themselves to the victims as an “NGO” called “Kindness,” telling them “We fight against people like you.” Though the verbal abuse and threats were always homophobic, their motivations appear to be financial. By the end of the fake “dates,” they would extort hundreds or thousands of dollars, whatever the victim could pay and borrow. The owner of the high-rise apartment at 224 Moskovskiy Prospekt where some of these robberies took place rents it at a day rate on Bookings.com. He refused to cooperate with Meduza at first, then suggested that if “a gay got beat up” then “he should be grateful he’s alive.” Recently, several victims have very hesitantly decided to go to the police.

Because it hasn’t been investigated until now, it’s difficult to tell how long the ring has been operating in St. Petersburg. Two years ago, three men were arrested for running a similar scheme in Moscow for several years. By the time of their arrest, they had committed at least 30 robberies and three murders.

Between 2012 and 2014, the neo-Nazi Maxim “The Hatchet” Martsinkevich and his vigilante movement of violent creeps used social media to lure, kidnap, torture, and humiliate gay men and minors. After he was imprisoned (for making racist comments in a video), international media attention to gay victims targeted over the internet has died down.

Even if it wasn’t homophobic hatred that directly motivated the St. Petersburg robberies, it certainly provided the opportunity and the cover—fear of being outed in Russia’s anti-gay socioeconomic climate means cooperative, scared, silent victims and investigations muddled with crucial omissions.

Last month, journalist and prominent Russian cultural critic Dmitry Tsilikin was fatally stabbed in his apartment. Sergei Kosyrev, a 21-year-old student at St. Petersburg’s Hydrometeorological University confessed to the murder. Fontanka.ru reported that he asked the cops to call him “the Cleanser,” and told them that he considered his life “a holy crusade against a particular social group.” He reportedly idolized Bård Guldvik “Faust” Eithun, the drummer of Norwegian death metal band Emperor, who fatally stabbed a gay man in 1992. According to The Moscow Times, Kosyrev had reportedly been attempting to extort Tsilikin, a well-known member of St. Petersburg’s cultural elite who had never publically commented on his identity. The victim’s friends hesitated to discuss his sexual orientation, even after his death. Tsilikin and Kosyrev reportedly met on a dating website two years ago.

It is unlikely that Dmitry Tsilikin’s alleged murderer will be tried with a hate crime because, as the Moscow Times points out, the law doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as aggravating factors in violent assaults. It would have added a six years to his murderer’s sentencing.