I was the only American gay journalist to witness the first-ever Russian Gay Pride Festival, held May 25 through May 27, in Moscow. The mayor of Moscow had pronounced the festival a “degenerate” event.
It was not easy to obtain a Russian visa. My traveling companion, Jean Tretter, and I waited to enter customs at the airport in Moscow. Jean suggested that the Cold War rhetoric of years ago added to his stress. I wondered if the Russians would search my bag and question me about my eight prescriptions. We soon cleared customs and were met by our driver.
We passed by Ikea, and other Western retail outfits. We were driven to a mundane concrete apartment tower. Hotels are very few, and very expensive. We had rented a private apartment through an agency. The only joy in the otherwise joyless surroundings was the aroma from a neighbor’s kitchen.
Moscow is a city of 10 million, and there are ten times as many cars since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The subway, built in the 1930s, is accessible by fast-moving escalators, and operates frequently and with great efficiency. Each station is color-coded and is decorated differently, some with chandeliers, others with statues of warring Bolsheviks. The Hammer and Sickle are everywhere, as are busts of Lenin. The subway had served as a bomb shelter during World War II.
The gay conference ran for two days at the modern and expensive Swissotel, near the Moscow River. It was the only hotel willing to host the conference. Hotel officials asked for twice the usual security deposit, following an attack by skinheads at a Moscow gay bar on May 1.
Approximately 40 gay and lesbian activists from across Europe joined with Russian activists to discuss human rights. I spoke on a publisher’s panel. It often seemed that the Western Europeans talked among themselves, while the Russians stayed quiet and withdrawn. Delegates came from remote places like Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania and the Russian Far East. Activists from Poland, Latvia and Bosnia spoke on difficult gay pride festivals held in Eastern Europe.
Merlin Holland, grandson of playwright Oscar Wilde (who had two sons), delivered one of the most interesting speeches. Holland said that his whole family had been victimized by homophobia. Holland’s father lived under a pseudonym for 43 years after Wilde’s 1895 trial and imprisonment for gross indecency. Holland—who is straight, and who has never participated in a gay demonstration—said that for most of his life his father could not acknowledge that he was Wilde’s son. Holland has recently authored a book on his famous grandfather.
Various political parties, including Greens from Russia, Switzerland and France, and Communists and Socialists from France, discussed gay rights. All of the discussions were translated into Russian and English.
The local organizer of the conference and festival was Nikolai Alexeyev, a 28-year-old activist. It was the first gay conference in Russia since a 1991 event, which had been organized by a 22-year-old named Roman Kalinin. There had been no gay political activity in Russia since those early days, and no public demonstration.
Alexeyev chose May 27—the 13th anniversary of the repeal of laws banning homosexual activity in Russia—as the date of the first public conference. After the mayor of Moscow issued his ban, Alexeyev and others went to court. Citing public safety, the court backed the mayor. Ultranationalists, as well as leaders from the Russian Orthodox church declared that they would not allow “degenerate” social and alternative-sex voices to be heard.
On May 27, a press conference was held at the Swissotel. In the presence of at least a dozen television cameras and radio and print media, Alexeyev, Merlin Holland, Green party member and German MP Volker Beck, Russian feminist Eugenia Debranshuya, representatives from the International Gay and Lesbian Association, and the International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network announced that gays and lesbians would lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, next to the Kremlin. There would also be a peaceful picket of Moscow’s City Hall.
Jean, two young Swedes, and I made our way to the Kremlin. When we emerged from the subway, we saw scores of large paddy wagons lined up, and riot police everywhere. When Nikolai Alexeyev showed up with flowers, the police immediately hustled him off. Shortly thereafter, guards shut the gate to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Ironically, the monument is dedicated to fighters of fascism.
Older Russian Orthodox leaders and their babushka women clutched icons, crosses and rosaries, and chanted “Moscow is not Sodom!” The babushkas threw tomatoes and eggs at gays (or at those they perceived to be gay). Ultranationalists and skinheads threw firebombs into the street in front of the Moscow City Hall. The cops seemed perturbed by the behavior of the Russian Orthodoxy and the skinheads. One gay activist commented, “The Communists got one thing right when they repressed the Russian Orthodoxy.”
It was difficult to tell the gay activists from the hundreds of tourists milling about. Some innocent bystanders got caught in the crossfire. Volker Beck was attacked by skinheads while giving an interview to the international press. Blood flowed over his face and clothing. The police took him to the German embassy where he was treated for a broken nose. Up to 50 gay activists were detained by the police but were all released later in the day.
Jean Tretter and I gave an interview to Italian television. Tretter was asked if he had seen many rainbow flags. He promptly pulled one out of his bag, while ultranationalists stood just a few feet away. The Swedes took us to a nearby coffee house where we toasted with vodka—Moscow’s first gay pride demonstration.
The after-party at the Three Monkeys Bar was cancelled.
Near our apartment that night a car stopped abruptly and two Russians—a man and a woman—jumped out and hugged us and thanked us for coming.
The next night we went to the 12 Volt Bar, the scene of an earlier party, and found many of our friends. The lesbian owner was the only gay or lesbian bar owner to support the demonstration. Out of his suit, Nikolai Alexeyev looked a youthful 28. The Russians, reserved at the press conference, hugged us and thanked us for coming to Russia. There were many vodka toasts. And there was the feeling that maybe we just cracked the door that will lead to personal freedom in Russia.