Pride in Moscow Gay Activists Risk Violence to Hold Parade

Gays and lesbians in Russia live dangerously, constantly encountering discrimination and often violence. A group of activists are planning to hold a march in Moscow to coincide with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend despite a city ban on the parade.

They look innocent enough, as if they were merely collecting donations to protect an endangered species. Around a dozen people have gathered in the afternoon on Moscow's Pushkin Square: men and women aged between 30 and 50, well-groomed middle class Russians. But they are here to preach hate against those who are different. "Moscow is not Sodom," reads one banner. "Sign the petition against the freaks' parade," is the message on another.

The campaign is directed against "Moscow Gay Pride," a demonstration by gays and lesbian due to be held on May 16, to coincide with the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest , which is being held in the Russian capital city. The protesters' flyer shows garishly made-up transvestites juxtaposed with an image from the Beslan school hostage crisis. In 2004, Chechen terrorists stormed a school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia and held 1,200 children and adults captive for days. Hundreds died in the bloody drama.

"Homosexuality is the same as terrorism," asserts one of the Pushkin Square activists. He and his colleagues call themselves the Orthodox Front. They tell interested passersby that the gay parade is a provocation against the government and promotes homosexuality. Many people are happy to sign the petition.

Nikolai Alexeyev stands on the other side of the street and shakes his head. "Just look at it," says the young, blond man. "This is Russia in the 21st century." He does not dare to get any closer to the protesters out of fear he might be recognized. Alexeyev is the organizer of the Moscow gay parade and as such is the No. 1 hate figure for people like the Orthodox Front activists.

Since 2006, Alexeyev has tried every year to obtain a permit for the peaceful gay and lesbian march. Each time, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has prohibited the event, which he has described as "satanic." When the activists gathered nonetheless, far-right thugs and Orthodox believers with crucifixes and icons marched against them. Policeman looked calmly on as the skinheads insulted, spat on and beat up the gay activists. In 2006, Volker Beck, a member of the German parliament for the Greens, was attacked by far-right extremists at the parade. When he tried to take part in the march again in 2007, he was taken away by the militia.

Violence and discrimination are part of everyday life for homosexuals in Russia. Gay clubs are regularly attacked by hooligans, while openly gay people are excluded from events or ejected from polling stations. Participants in previous gay parades have been fired from their jobs, without notice and without any explanation, after their employers recognized them on television. At the beginning of October 2008, authorities in St. Petersburg sabotaged a film festival which had been organized by gays and lesbians. When the event was about to begin, militia and firefighters moved in and closed the venues, supposedly because of potential fire hazards.

Theoretically, the Russian constitution prohibits such discrimination. Theoretically, Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe, has to guarantee the freedom of expression and assembly. But the reality is very different. Dubious groups like the Orthodox Front are free to promote hate in public, but gays and lesbians have to hide.

To call attention to these abuses, Alexeyev and his colleagues chose to hold the gay parade this year on May 16, the date on which the whole of Europe will have its eyes on Moscow for the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, which is being held in the Russia capital this year. They had hoped that the authorities would allow the demonstration for the first time -- in vain. "There have never been gay parades in Moscow and there never will be," the city hall announced last week. "I had assumed that our government is a bit smarter," comments Alexeyev bitterly. "Pictures of people who were beaten up on the street are not exactly positive for Russia." The ban doesn't change the plan for the demonstration, however.

'Moscow Is My City'

With his suit, tie and laptop bag, the 31-year-old Alexeyev looks like an ordinary Moscow businessman. But since graduating from university he has been occupied with the struggle for gay rights. Alexeyev wanted to do a doctorate at Moscow State University on the legal situation of homosexuals in Eastern Europe. However his proposal was rejected. He tried to challenge the decision in court -- unsuccessfully. Since 2005 Alexeyev has been running the Web site Gay Russia. 

He is amazed by how freely homosexuals live in large Western cities. He married his longtime partner in Geneva in September and the couple now divide their time between Switzerland and Moscow. It never occurred to Alexeyev to completely leave the Russian capital. "Moscow is my city," he says. "I have my friends here and my family." Moreover, it is not the case, as Mayor Luzhkov claimed, that 99 percent of Moscow residents oppose the gay parade. At least half do not object to it, Alexeyev says.

But the polls look slightly different. According to a survey last year by the independent public opinion research institute Levada Center, 80 percent of Russians consider homosexuality to be immoral. A Moscow radio station reached a similar conclusion a few days ago: Four out of five callers felt that the city administration had the right to ban a gay demo, announced a presenter cheerfully before playing back calls. "We are an orthodox country," said one woman. "Why don't they go to Amsterdam?" another asked. A third caller said that actually he had nothing against gays, but was it strictly necessarily for them to show their sexuality in public?

Homosexuality was taboo during the Soviet era, and has remained so in almost all countries of the former USSR. Same-sex relations were against the law in Russia up until 1993. Since 2002 a group of parliamentarians has been fighting to get homosexuality criminalized once again.

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church has played its role in shaping the mood, even if representatives of the church distance themselves from violence. "The church is opposed to these people being persecuted or offended," Metropolitan Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church told SPIEGEL in a 2008 interview . He then went on to call the gay parade a "blatant display of sodomy" that "degenerates public morality."

However, the previous rallies in Moscow were anything but brash. The modest demonstrations of recent years had nothing in common with ostentatious gay pride parades in other countries. For Moscow's gays and lesbians, the issue is not about holding a colorful street festival or a big spectacle -- it is simply about asserting their civil rights.

"If the gay parade in Russia one day turns into a party," says Alexeyev, "then it will no longer interest me."

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