Russia’s New Police State

Behind the violent scenes. The physical injuries I sustained in Moscow are nothing in comparison to the beatings inflicted on others in Russia. They sometimes end up dead.

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 1 June 2007


The recent suppression of Moscow Gay Pride is further evidence that Russia is fast reverting to autocracy and authoritarianism. The post-communist democratic opening of the early 1990s is no more.

Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and the right to protest, these liberties are now largely dependent on the whim and fancy of the Kremlin leaders. Under strongman President Vladimir Putin, the Russian regime has more than a whiff of old-style Stalinism. This is evident in the repeated suppression of democracy activists like Garry Kasparov and the banning of the anti-war, pro-human rights Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

Two weekend’s ago, at Moscow Gay Pride, I witnessed firsthand Russia’s retreat from democracy. I suffered the violent effects of government and police collusion with right-wing extremists.

The Moscow police and Russia’s elite anti-riot squad, the OMON, not only failed to protect the Gay Pride marchers against violent attack, they also failed to arrest the attackers. Although we were battered left, right and centre, the police arrested only a handful of the assailants – and most them were quickly released, often without charge.

Indeed, there is now plentiful evidence of complicity between the police and the far right. The fascists were, in effect, given a free hand to do what the police wanted to do, but dared not do in front of the world’s media: give the queers a good thrashing.

The whole sorry saga began when the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, issued an order in mid-May prohibiting the Gay Pride march. He warned that the full power of the state would be deployed to ensure it did not happen. What was he afraid of? How could a few dozen Gay Pride marchers be a threat to anyone, let alone the mighty Russian state?

Luzhkov pressed ahead with his ban, even though the right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by Russian law and even though the European Court of Human Rights had only two weeks earlier declared illegal a similar ban on a Gay Pride march in Warsaw .

I went to Moscow, at the request of the Moscow Gay Pride organizers, to show solidarity with the campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights in Russia. It was hoped that the presence of international supporters like myself would encourage the Moscow authorities to be less repressive. We were wrong.

Given the march ban and the Mayor’s threats, unsurprisingly only 40 people dared join the Gay Pride rally outside City Hall, on Moscow’s main street, Tverskaya.

Our attempt to hand in a letter of protest to Mayor Luzhkov was too much for the authorities. Delivering a protest letter is apparently illegal in Putin’s Russia. The organiser of Moscow Gay Pride, Nikolai Alekseev, was immediately arrested and roughly shoved into a police van. The police tried to grab the rest of us. I managed to escape the snatch squads.

What happened next was illuminating. As if on some pre-arranged signal, the police seemed to pull back. From behind the police lines, hordes of neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics stormed through and laid into us, punching and kicking. They gave Nazi salutes and snarled their chilling chants: ” Moscow is not Sodom ” and “Death to homosexuals.” The police and OMOH stood by and watched.

When I held up a placard reading “Gay Rights,” written in both Russian and English,

I was punched in the right eye and almost knocked unconscious. The fascists then dragged me to ground. I was kicked head to toe. Dozens of police saw this happen. They did not intervene. Well, not initially. When they eventually decided to act, it was to arrest me – not my assailants. The right-wing thugs were allowed to walk away.

There were hundreds of police on duty. They could have easily stopped the neo-Nazis from coming within 100 yards of us. But they didn’t. I can only presume this denial of police protection was a deliberate, official decision.

Several times I saw OMON and police officers openly fraternising with far right militants. They were chatting, as if they knew each other. In one instance, I observed a police officer pointing out to homophobic extremists the direction in which some of our Gay Pride participants had fled. The extremists then stormed off up the street and attacked our people. It looked like the police were encouraging and helping the right-wingers to bash us.

A similar collusion was also witnessed by Scott Long, an international monitor from Human Rights Watch in New York. He told a press conference at the offices of the Helsinki Monitoring Group in Moscow that he witnessed police and right-wingers cooperating in identifying and pointing out Gay Pride campaigners, who were then either bashed or arrested.

Russian activists have since suggested to me that some of the attackers may have been plain clothes police officers, acting as agent provocateurs. They say it is a favourite Kremlin tactic against democracy and human rights activists. I am not sure. But I did see men in civilian gear, who had been part of the rightist mob, go behind the police buses and converse with police and OMON. Perhaps my Russians friends are right. Some of the right-wing thugs may have been undercover police who were doing in civilian clothes what they could not be seen to do in police uniforms – batter the queers.

When I was arrested, riot squad officers frog-marched me to a police bus. In what felt like a deliberate act of intimidation, I was forced to sit next to three neo-Nazis who had been arrested during earlier incidents.

The riot police abused me as a “faggot”. They also demanded to know whether I was gay. I hesitated for a moment, fearing the consequences if I admitted my homosexuality. When I answered that I am gay, one of the OMON officers whacked his truncheon into his hand and boasted: “Wait until we get you to the police station. Then we will have some fun with you.” He was obviously not planning to offer me tea and biscuits.

Soon after my beating and arrest, the Moscow police began a damage limitation exercise. They put out a statement claiming that I had been detained for my own protection and that my assailant had been arrested. According to the International Herald Tribune: “The police arrested the assailant and took Tatchell to a police van for his protection, said Evgeni Gildeyev, a spokesman with the Moscow police.”

This claim is not true, according to the officer investigating my assault, Evgeni Guskov, who is based at Moscow’s Tverskaya police station. He told me that my assailant is unknown and has not been arrested.

While the Moscow police have now opened a criminal investigation into the assault on me, I suspect it is largely a PR exercise to give the impression that they are doing something. I don’t expect the perpetrator will be arrested. Too many Moscow police are homophobes and fascist sympathisers. They failed to protect us against neo-Nazi violence and they failed to arrest the thugs who attacked us.

At last year’s attempted Moscow Gay Pride march, the German Green Party MP, Volker Beck, was struck in the face by a rock thrown by a right-wing extremist. The assailant was filmed attacking Mr. Beck. In the Russian edition of Newsweek, he was named and was quoted as boasting that he threw the rock. He has never been arrested, let alone bought to court. The Moscow authorities protect the far right, even when they commit violent hate crimes and make a public confession.

I got off lightly. A bit of concussion, which is slightly affecting my balance, coordination, memory and concentration. The vision in my right eye is still blurred, and I’ve got bruises and abrasions all over my body. But no serious injuries. I am alive. Doctors say I should make a full recovery in a few weeks time.

My physical inconveniences are nothing by comparison to the far worse beatings inflicted on Russian human rights defenders, investigative journalists, environmental activists and campaigners against the war in Chechnya. They sometimes end up dead.

Do I have any regrets? Well, getting a thrashing was not what I had expected or wanted. But I was aware of the risks. Taking risks is sometimes necessary, in order to challenge injustice. Perversely, my beating had the positive effect of helping expose the violent, repressive nature of Putin’s and Luzhkov’s rule.

Moreover, what began as a protest about lesbian and gay human rights turned into something much bigger. We ended up defending the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest. These are freedoms worth defending – for all Russians, gay and straight.