Rainbow banners. Colorful costumes. Thumping music. Waving politicians. These are some modern-day trappings of a typical gay pride parade in any major U.S. city. But it’s a far cry from the scene of this year’s pride march in Moscow, where participants were ridiculed, beaten and arrested for daring to demonstrate publicly in a country where homosexuality was a crime until 1993.
Among those arrested this year was Nikolai Alexeyev, a founder of the gay rights organization Gay Russia. In the past two years, Alexeyev helped organize the first pride marches in Moscow, knowing he would face opposition from the hundreds of people who turned out to protest the events. The city government refused to issue official permits for the demonstrations, citing concerns for public safety, and the 29-year-old lawyer was beaten and swiftly detained by police both years.
It wasn’t the first time Alexeyev was punished for trying to bring gay issues to the table. In college in Moscow, administrators silenced Alexeyev when he tried to present academic work on homophobia. But despite political, legal and religious pressures, he has worked to combat prejudice and secure legal and political protections for Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He says his public fight for equality has made significant progress for the LGBT community and other minority groups in his country since Gay Russia’s founding two years ago.
In These Times caught up with Alexeyev in October when he was in the United States taking part in several events – including a march commemorating the death of Matthew Shepard – with the Chicago-based activist group Gay Liberation Network.
What made you decide to become a public figure in the fight for gay rights in your country?
In the beginning I was studying law at Lomonosov Moscow State University. At that time I was trying to write a doctorate on the issues of gay rights and I was denied the right to present it as a document of scientific work at the university because of discrimination. It led to a lawsuit against the university, which is still pending at the European Court of Human Rights. I still published this work as two books. After that, I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to change things in Russia just by writing and I decided I should be involved in more activist work and try to bring changes for LGBT rights.
What are some of the legal, political and religious obstacles you face in advancing the rights of the LGBT community in Russia?
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. From 1993 to 2005, the topic was mostly out of the political sphere. Gays were not really fighting for their rights for the last decade. Not until 2005, when our organization Gay Russia appeared, did it start to come back on the political agenda.
Legally, apart from the fact that homosexuality is not a crime anymore, there are absolutely no rights for same-sex couples. There is no ban on discrimination. There is no anti-hate crime legislation.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which is very powerful in Russia and is where the majority of the Russian population goes, is fighting against homosexuals and they are always talking against, for example, gay parades or any other public appearance of homosexuals. Politicians are also following this stance and they are talking against any public appearance of, as they call it, the “propaganda of homosexuality.”
There were several attempts to bring a bill to the parliament to forbid the “propaganda of homosexuality,” which failed, but, from time to time, it is discussed at the political level.
I understand that some people who were representing the church participated in the protests against the pride parades that you helped organize.
Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church went out in the streets – both last year and this year – to protest against the participants in the gay parade. We had priests who came in BMWs of the latest possible model to the city hall where we organized the rally. They came to bless the protesters, the neofascists and the nationalists. They were there on the streets in their robes and crosses. It really was a terrible face of the Russian Orthodox Church. And at the same time, the Church never admits officially that it went on the streets like that to protest against the gay pride parade.
Have any advances been made in establishing legal structures for dealing with hate crimes against homosexuals?
This is a really big problem in Russia right now. We see this happening in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where people are beaten up by protesters or by the neofascists. Usually these people get very short sentences – three or four years for hooliganism and not for beating people or for murder. Usually the state and police are trying to represent it as just a murder or an attempt to rob someone. The state is not really doing much to fight against crimes directed against homosexual people and also against foreigners and other ethnic minorities.
How have things changed for the LGBT community in Russia since you helped organize the first gay pride march?
We have managed to bring the issue of rights for homosexual people on the political agenda, which was not the case in 2005. For example, in 2002, there were attempts in parliament to criminalize homosexual relations. It was seriously discussed and voted on. It failed, but this is where we were just five years ago.
And the media attention has increased significantly. When we launched our organization in May 2005, there was not a single journalist interested in the rights of homosexual people. No one came to the press conference that we organized. But the last press conference for Moscow Pride in May 2007 gathered about 100 journalists and about 20 TV cameras from Russia and from abroad. The issue is being discussed on TV regularly.
So in two years we really managed to bring this issue into the political agenda. The Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time said something on gay issues. This is the biggest achievement.
Also, we brought the case of the ban on Moscow Pride to the European Court of Human Rights against the Russian authorities. This is going to be considered and they know very well that they will lose it. So there will be a legal decision for the first time ever against the Russian authorities on gay issues.
How many more people participated in the march this year than the first year?
The first year, there were about 50 people on our side. This year, there were about 150 people who were taking part on the streets. But the event was banned, and the people who went out on the street were risking quite a lot – not only by being attacked, but also by being seen on TV.
Can you describe what it was like being on the ground during this year’s march?
It was a very tense and very aggressive atmosphere. The first year it was scarier because there were crowds of protesters, maybe 600 or 700 people who went on the streets just to protest gays, and 50 representatives of the LGBT community. There were crowds of policemen who were trying to avoid clashes and to arrest people from both sides.
This year, there were fewer protesters, but at the same time, several people were seriously attacked.
You’ve talked about some of the advances that have been made in raising the profile of gay rights. But how about the day-to-day life for a gay person in Moscow and in other parts of Russia?
It’s very different if we compare, for example, Moscow and St. Petersburg with all the rest of the country. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, there is the infrastructure for gay entertainment. People have some places to go, like gay bars and clubs and other places where people can meet. The level of tolerance in the major cities is much higher than in the smaller cities or villages. They have problems with work and it’s much more difficult to live there.
But in Moscow there are problems, too, because there is a concentration of political powers and these nationalist groups that are fighting against gays. And there were lots of cases of gays being beaten up when they left the gay clubs. There were cases of people being fired from work.
In the majority of cases, people do not go to the police because they’re scared that their homosexuality will be known to their friends and family members and at work. Or because they think the police will not investigate it or that they will just say that it’s their own fault that something had happened to them.
Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about the situation in Russia?
I would like to stress that the fight for LGBT rights in Russia is the frontline of the fight for all human rights. What we see now in Russia is a diminishing of human dignity and human rights. It’s not only for gay people, but people in general.
There is no free press now. There are no free elections. Journalists are being attacked and even killed sometimes. We witnessed the building up of an authoritarian régime. All the activities that we do in the future will be helpful not only for gays but for other social groups.
For example, the case that we have in the European Court on the freedom of expression for gay people will have a big impact on public events and on the freedom of expression of all the other social groups because it will concern the freedom of assembly. That’s the most important thing to underline: We’re not only fighting for our own rights, but for human rights.