Gay marchers attacked and tear-gassed, as Mayor refuses right to protest.
Peter Tatchell reports from Moscow – 27 May 2006
Gays-1, Moscow Mayor-0. The bloody suppression of Moscow Gay Pride has been a PR disaster for Mayor Yuri Luzhkov – and done huge harm to Russia’s international image.
Although battered and bruised, lesbian and gay Russians have won an important moral and political victory. Luzhkov said a gay pride parade would never happen while he was Mayor. But Moscow Pride did happen, despite the Mayor’s ban, police arrests and violence from neo-fascists, right-wing nationalists and Orthodox Christians.
I was there. I witnessed firsthand the vicious homophobic abuse and violence, made possible by the de facto collusion of the Moscow city authorities.
The Mayor, the police, the neo-fascists, the xenophobic nationalists and the Russian Orthodox Church all had the same aim: stop Moscow Pride. The hatred and violence we saw on 27 May demonstrates precisely why Moscow Pride is necessary.
It was an ugly day for all Russians, gay and straight. Democracy and human rights were the losers. The suppression of Moscow Pride was another reminder of Russia’s appalling human rights record. If a few peaceful gay protesters are treated as enemies of the state, the likelihood that Russia will tolerate serious dissent from any quarter any time soon looks highly improbable.
Gay people were the victims of state repression today. They were not the first victims and won’t be the last. Who will be next? This ought to be an issue of concern for all Russians, whatever their sexuality.
The Mayor’s ban on Moscow Pride violates the Russian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights – both of which guarantee the right to peaceful protest.
Ironically, Yuri Luzhkov’s’niet’ to Moscow Pride came just a week after Russia assumed the Presidency of the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog that oversees the ECHR and promotes freedom of expression and assembly.
When Moscow’s Mayor can abuse fundamental freedoms with impunity, it is doubtful that Russia is fit to hold the Presidency of the Council of Europe – or even be a member.
President Putin’s silence is damning. He has said nothing in defence of the right to protest, nor in defence of the human rights of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Moscow Pride was a huge success, despite all the homophobia it revealed and the savage repression it unleashed.
It is a major milestone in Russian queer history. A handful of courageous gay Russians got up off their knees and stood tall, proud and defiant. They dared to take on the authoritarian regime of Mayor Luzhkov.
By insisting on the right to protest, they were defending more than gay rights. They were defending the democratic freedoms of all Russians, gay and straight.
Some gay people have criticised Moscow Pride, saying it has stirred up trouble and provoked a homophobic backlash. But backlash is a fact of life for every freedom struggle, from votes for women to black civil rights. Moreover, 20 years of quiet lobbying has achieved very little for Russia’s lesbian and gay community.
In contrast, the holding of Moscow Pride has been a catalyst for cultural change; generating more media coverage and debate about gay issues than the whole of the last decade combined. In terms of its impact on most ordinary Russians, it has been immensely successful in raising awareness, dispelling ignorance, challenging prejudice and promoting understanding and acceptance of lesbian and gay people.
The real culprit is Mayor Luzhkov, who has denounced homosexuality as “mad licentiousness.” His overt and unapologetic homophobia has given a green light to the homo hatred of the political and religious far right. The bigoted atmosphere he ignited has fuelled the prejudice that led to the violence on the streets of Moscow on 27 May.
The day before the march, Luzhkov told Russkoye Radio: “As long as I am mayor, we will not permit such parades. Our church, mosque and synagogue-that is to say, all the three major confessions in Moscow-have spoken strongly against such parades.
“The situation as such can be acceptable for some Western countries.but it is absolutely unacceptable for Moscow and for Russia. Morality works here. If anyone has any deviations from normal principles in organizing one’s sexual life, those deviations should not be exhibited for all to see,” said Luzhkov.
His words were echoed by Lyudmila Shevtsova, the Deputy Mayor of Moscow, who threatened new laws to ban gay festivals, parades and human rights advocacy: “In our country, homosexuality and lesbianism have always been considered sexual perversions, and were even prosecuted in the past. Currently, the stated actions are not prohibited by law, but their agitation, including gay festivals and a parade of sexual minorities, is in fact propaganda of immorality, which may be prohibited by law.”
The Mayor went to extraordinary lengths to suppress the gay pride parade; mobilising the notorious OMON riot squad and a quarter of the central Moscow police – over 1,000 officers.
Nevertheless, small groups of lesbian and gay Russians – and their international friends and supporters – did parade, as planned, in Manezhnaya Square by the Kremlin, on Moscow’s main shopping thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street, and at the Yuri Dolgoruky monument opposite the Mayor’s office, City Hall.
Moscow Pride was due to start by the Kremlin Wall in Alexander Gardens on the edge of Manezhnaya Square, at the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the Russians who died in the war against Nazi fascism from 1941-45. The Moscow Pride organisers wanted to lay flowers to highlight their opposition to the revival of fascism in Russia, including the violent homophobia of neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists.
When we arrived, the square was ringed by police and militia, and dotted with nearly 300 homophobic counter-protesters, including neo-fascist thugs, extreme nationalists and Russian Orthodox fanatics waving religious icons.
I was with the Moscow Pride co-organiser, Nikolai Alekseev, a few of his Russian colleagues, and Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson. We crossed the square to the Tomb. Each of us was carrying a bunch of flowers. Unexpectedly, our way was barred by locked gates and lines of police. The Moscow Mayor said it would be an insult to Russia’s war dead to allow gays to lay flowers:
“These gays wanted to lay flowers at the grave of the unknown warrior. This is a provocation. It is desecration of a sacred place,” he said.
Mayor Luzhkov ordered the gates leading to the Tomb to be closed.
As we reached the locked gates and attempted to speak to the police guards, our small group was set upon by 100 anti-gay protesters, mostly hard right nationalists and Christian fundamentalists. They began shoving, punching, kicking and pelting us with eggs.
Our flowers and rainbow flags were snatched from our hands. They abused us with chants of’No sodomy in Moscow,’ ‘Death to fags,”Russia is not Sodom’ and’Put the pederasts on the iron’ (a reference to an ancient Russian method of executing gay men by forcing an iron rod up the anus). Initially, the police did nothing to protect us.
Mayor Luzhkov later appeared to exonerate the queer-bashers:
“These gays go there (to the Tomb), and openly go up to the monument. It is a contamination. People burst through and of course they beat them up.”
After a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity at the time, a wedge of police and militia eventually broke up the melee; arresting Nikolai Alekseev. He was taken to a nearby police van. The rest of us were forcibly shoved further up Manezhnaya Square, towards the State Museum, by advancing lines of militia and police.
As the authorities attempted to disperse us, we were repeatedly abused and assaulted by gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads. Two Russians who were merely suspected of being gay were surrounded and given a severe beating.
About 20 of us re-assembled on the edge of Manezhnaya Square and attempted to follow the planned Moscow Pride route up Tverskaya Street to the Yuri Dolgoruky monument.
Some gay pride marchers did get through. We did not. Our path was blocked by groups of neo-fascists and ultra-nationalists; screaming homophobic threats and hurling smoke bombs and tear gas canisters.
We made a hasty retreat and left Manezhnaya Square via a different exit.
Meanwhile, some of the right-wing thugs, many of them masked, stormed up Tverskaya Street looking for gay and lesbian people to attack; lashing out indiscriminately at shoppers, including non-white passers-by. None of the assailants was detained by the police.
Our group made its way through the backstreets to the Yuri Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Street, opposite City Hall, to join the planned picket against the Mayor’s ban on Moscow Pride.
At the monument we met up with another 20 gay pride marchers who had dodged the marauding right-wing gangs and got through the police cordon.
Shortly before we arrived, they had been attacked by neo-fascists chanting ‘Gays and lesbians to Kolmya’, a reference to the gruesome gulag camp where dissidents were incarcerated and abused during the Soviet area.
The gay German Green MP, Volker Beck, was one of those who was bloodied, having been hit in the eye and on the nose with a rock and fists. He was arrested but his attacker was not.
The veteran Russian lesbian activist, and co-organiser of Moscow Pride, Yevgenia Debryanskaya, tried to speak from the steps of the monument. She was snatched by the police and bundled into a van.
By the time we arrived, the camouflage-uniformed OMON riot police – wearing helmets and flak jackets and armed with heavy truncheons – had forced the neo-Nazis and nationalist extremists away from the monument and back into Tverskaya Street.
For a few brief minutes, we, the Moscow Pride marchers, held our ‘right to protest’ picket at the Yuri Dolgoruky monument.
But this moment of triumph was not to last. Having contained the right-wing bullies, the riot police turned on us. They advanced in two phalanxes, waving their truncheons. We were forcibly driven off the steps of the monument, straight into an oncoming posse of about 20 fascists and skinheads.
Fortunately, we were strung out in ones and twos – and they didn’t seem to recognise us. We managed to escape down a side street, only narrowly avoiding another of the many gangs of homophobic thugs who seemed to be rampaging around the city all afternoon with apparent impunity.
The Moscow Pride events of 27 May remind me of my teenage memories of the black civil rights marchers in the 1960s. They, too, defied an authoritarian state and faced bloody repression. But they triumphed in the end, as will Russian lesbians and gays.
Moscow Pride 2006 is over. But the battle for the right to protest that it sparked has only just begun. Nikolai Alekseev and the others who were arrested will appeal against the ban on Moscow Pride, and against their arrest by the police. They plan to take their appeal all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. This is a battle that looks set to run and run. Undeterred, they are already planning Moscow Pride 2007. Be there!