Homosexuality may have been legal in post-Soviet Russia since 1993, but for those living in the long shadow of the Kremlin, the ban on public gay rights protests has kept Moscow’s LGBT community captive. Now, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) fines the city for breaching equality law, and Moscow police themselves protect activists at the first fully sanctioned gay rights demonstration, there’s a rainbow ranging over Red Square. But be warned: it’s still raining on the other side.
Led by Musocvite lawyer and campaigner Nikolai Alexeyev, the 1 October protest was directed at Swissair, who had deboarded Alexeyev from a flight at Domodedovo airport, before handing him over to Russian police back in September. This was the Kremlin’s response to Alexeyev’s complaint about the continued ban on Gay Pride marches in Moscow, made to the European Human Rights Commission. Assembling outside Swissair’s headquarters, protestors carried placards mock-advertising new Swissair flight routes to Kolyma, and the Solovetsky islands, the site of two Stalin-era Gulags, a satirical nod to the unknown locations where Alexeyev was taken by Russian authorities and interrogated, following Swissair’s intervention. When a group of anti-gay counter-protesters, armed only with water pistols and pictures ofpetukasappeared (roosters – derogatory slang for homosexuals), organiser Nikolai Bayev was hit in the face, and police arrested two counter-protesters before rounding up the other agitators.
This strike for Muscovite gay rights is a direct result of the appointment of new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who has rejected the prejudice of his vocally homophobic predecessor, Yury Luzhkov, by lifting the ban on gay demonstrations (effectively merely extending Article 31 of the Russian constitution – the right to peaceful assembly – to its own citizens). Luzhkov’s sacking by post-it note seems like poetic justice to the many activists who had their own aphoristic placards censored during his 19 years in office, and as the ECHR condemns the city’s breach, primarily of Article 11 (freedom of association and assembly), by awarding damages of nearly 30,000 euros to Alexeyev, there is exhiliarated chatter in the gay clubs at the formerly fabulous prospect of Moscow’s first Pride parade.
But the fact remains that life has been getting harder, not easier for Moscow’s gay community. Over the last five years, neo-Nazis and police have regularly beaten up attendees (British campaigner Peter Tatchell amongst them) at the banned gay rights rallies. In 2008, 84 % of respondents to a survey conducted by Russian polling organisation, the Levada-centre, said they found homosexuality ‘morally unacceptable.’ And then there’s the homophobic diktat of the Russian Orthodox church itself (aka “the Kremlin’s Ministry for the Salvation of Souls”, according to Pro-Kremlin analyst Stanislav Belkosky). While the Patriarch has had the right to preview all Duma legislation since 2009, Christian youth groups are preparing to mount their own counter-demonstrations against the gay activists (aka those “who love defecating in public”) in response to Strasbourg’s ruling.
Meanwhile, on the streets, the turgidity of gender roles indicates that radical sexual politics will not revolutionise Moscow any time soon. Granite-faced beauties bearing fashionable long-stemmed roses totter on the arms of strident soldier boys; in the state university, a harem of female journalism students drape their semi-nude, lissome forms about the pages of a calendar to celebrate their He-Man president’s birthday. In the face of such traditionalism, Muscovite homophobia will hardly evaporate simply because the new mayor no longer refers to the city’s homosexuals as ‘satanic’, as in the case of Luzhkov. And yet, the dissent is there. Following the stripping students’ efforts to please Mr President, there came a counter-calendar. In it, a more serious cohort of female students posed fully clothed, and demanded to know the date of Moscow’s next terrorist attack and who killed Anna Politkovskaya. But just as the European Court of Human Rights could not keep Anna Politkovskaya alive, the gay community must hope and pray that someone other thanBogwill oversee their own quest for human rights.