Moscow — Russian investigators have opened a sexual assault investigation over a YouTube video that simply shows a gay man answering questions from curious children about his life and homosexuality. Both the man and the producers of the video have gone into hiding since the criminal investigation was announced last week.
In the video, several children between the ages of 7 and 13 ask Maksim Pankratov about his life as a gay man in Russia. None of the questions or answers included any discussion of sex. But several months after it was posted, the video caught the attention of conservative lawmakers in Russia's ruling party, and an investigation was launched.
The video was published by the "Real Talk" channel as part of a series modeled on the American YouTube show "Kids Meet," in which children talk to adults about their life experiences. The Russian show was launched last December and has featured children interviewing a woman with an eating disorder, an African man, a former porn actress and others.
In his segment, Pankratov, 21, is asked questions including: "When did you realize you were gay?", "Will you have children?", "Do your parents know that you like boys?" and "When will you have a wedding?"
Pankratov explains in the video that he realized he was gay at the age of 14, he can't legally get married in Russia, and he doesn't like pride parades because he is against "propaganda." He also says he hopes to move to Europe one day.
One of the boys asks Pankratov why he doesn't like Russia. Pankratov, dressed in a black turtleneck, responds calmly: "I can't fully open up here and feel protected here."
"Let's hope Putin doesn't hear this," the child jokes with a smile.
Both Pankratov and the production team behind the YouTube series that featured the chat went into hiding as soon as the criminal investigation was opened. They call the allegations baseless and maintain their innocence.
"While doing the interview, I had no idea it could lead to something like this," Pankratov told CBS News in a phone interview Monday. "I just wanted to show people that I was a normal human being like everybody else."
He said he has been harassed and threatened on social media since the video was posted.
The "gay propaganda ban"
The video alarmed Pyotr Tolstoy, a lawmaker and descendant of iconic 19th century author Leo Tolstoy, along with several other officials who started filing complaints, calling the web series immoral.
"What I saw there can't leave any parent unfazed," Tolstoy told the Izvestia newspaper in September.
Under pressure from the lawmakers, police opened an administrative case in October to determine whether the video constituted "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations." It was a non-criminal probe to determine whether the video violated awhich prohibits the distribution of information about homosexuality to minors.
Violation of that law is punishable by a fine, but soon the case escalated into a criminal investigation into possible sexual assault against minors. That much more serious charge is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
Nobody has been formally charged in connection with the case yet. State investigators haven't spoken publicly about the case and couldn't be reached for comment on Monday.
"I am very scared"
The show's producer, Victoria Pich, said the moment she heard about the criminal case she knew she had to leave Russia if she wanted to avoid jail.
"I am still shocked. It all feels like a different reality. Even though I am far away from Russia right now, I am very scared," she told CBS News in a telephone interview.
She said she didn't expect such a reaction from the authorities while producing the show as there are a lot of similar videos online and the channel wasn't a political project. There was only positive feedback from the parents and the children involved in the video, she said.
One of the parents of the children in the video told news website MBK over the weekend that investigators had insisted on questioning her son.
"When I refused, they started intimidating me by saying that my child will be moved into foster care," the woman, who insisted on anonymity, told the website. She said she knew what the show was going to be about and was there while it was recorded.
"Not the Kremlin's business"
President Vladimir Putin has repeatedlyas necessary to protect Russia's "traditional values."
His press secretary Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the case when asked by reporters last week.
"It is not the Kremlin's business to recognize the case absurd or to recognize a case noteworthy. After all, it is the job of the investigative bodies and the court, not of the presidential administration," he said, according to state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.
But Pich believes the criminal case was likely ordered by senior Russian government officials as part of the Kremlin's continuing crackdown on free speech.
"People are jailed now for reposts, likes, tweets and all kinds of trifle," she said. "It is not safe now to be a public figure, a blogger or a producer. It is dangerous."