Moscow's Man of Action
Nikolai Alexeyev explains the struggle in Russia and the importance of global solidarity
Nikolai Alexeyev, the young Moscow lawyer who has courageously organized Gay Pride demonstrations in that capital city for the past five years despite an official ban on them, has become the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.
Alexeyev founded GayRussia.Ru, the country's first non-commercial, human-rights-focused gay news website, which has been a catalyst for organizing activists and encouraging gay community identity. He's been arrested many times along with his comrades in struggle in peaceful protests -- including international actions in solidarity with oppressed gays in other countries -- simply for trying to exercise the rights to freedom of speech and assembly that are, in theory, guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and by international treaties to which Russia is a signatory. Those rights have been steadily degraded and ignored under the dictatorial Premier Vladimir Putin, who rules Russia with all the brutality of a corrupt Romanov autocrat.
Alexeyev has repeatedly challenged this erosion of rights, using his skills as a lawyer to bring some 168 court cases challenging Russia's squelching of gay demonstrations, taking them first through the nation's judicial system and from there all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
A firm believer in civil disobedience and the creative power of bold, media-savvy actions that have broken the silence about same-sex love which reigned in Russia, Alexeyev and his intrepid, militant activism have been honored by gay rights groups around the world, including Pride events from Sao Paolo to Vancouver.
This week, Gay City News asked the dauntless Alexeyev, who rarely talks about himself, about his emergence as an activist.
DOUG IRELAND: What were the origins and evolution of your gay activism?
NIKOLAI ALEXEYEV: I think it all started in the fall of 2001 when I was sacked from Moscow State University after I said that I will dedicate my postgraduate thesis to research on the legal status of sexual minorities. For the dean of the faculty, this was not acceptable. They sacked me despite the fact that I'd graduated from this university with excellence two years before. In turn, I sued them in court in Russia, but I lost. So I brought my case to the European Court of Human Rights, and I'm waiting for the court to start considering it for four years already.
After they sacked me, I decided to pursue my gay research on my own, and I published two books in Russia on legal issues of LGBT people. They were the first research ever published on this issue and no publishing house wanted to take the risk to publish them. So, I had to print them myself.
But I literally embraced gay activism in the spring of 2005. After my research, I was trying to understand why nothing had happened in Russia since male homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993. Why is no one campaigning to get equality? Why is nothing happening? Why do we allow the media to write only stereotypes on gays? Why does no one oppose the populist politicians who want to recriminalize homosexuality? So, I decided to start working on that.
It took me three months to figure out a strategy and to start discussing potential actions with the rest of the LGBT community here in Russia. I launched GayRussia.Ru on the first IDAHO day [the International Day Against Homophobia] on May 17, 2005. I remember that on this day we organized a press conference to release the result of a poll on LGBT issues that we had specially ordered. Guess what? No journalist came. That was the start.
Then, I got acquainted with other international activists. There was Louis-Georges Tin from Paris, the founder of the IDAHO day, and Peter Tatchell from OutRage! in London.
At the same time, there was the scandal of the two adolescents being executed in Iran who were presumably executed for being gay. We organized a press conference in July 2005 on the issue of the two Iranian kids to raise awareness in Russia. Five journalists came. At the end, the correspondent of Interfax, the leading Russian news agency, asked me, "What is the gay community planning to organize in Russia?" At the time, I understood that this question was a unique chance. And so I answered that on May 27, 2006 we would be holding our first Gay Pride march in Moscow to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in Russia.
Two hours later, Interfax called the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who was in the Eastern part of Russia. He said that he would not allow any gays to march in his city. In 2001, there had been a project to organize a love parade in Moscow, but after the mayor said no, the plans were dropped and the organizers disappeared. He probably expected the same outcome this time. Well, bad luck for him! He did not understand that this time the organizers were determined. By saying ten months in advance that he will not allow the Pride, the mayor created the buzz in the media and put a spotlight on our movement immediately.
In those ten months, we worked hard. We understood that international support would be key. I was really helped a lot by Louis-Georges Tin and IDAHO, who managed to help me bring activists from more than 25 countries to Moscow. We had foreign politicians, including a deputy from Germany's Bundestag, a member of the European Parliament, a vice-mayor of Paris. But also my friend Merlin Holland, the grandson of Oscar Wilde, came. We even had a French pop star.
Part of our strategy was also to impress the Russian media. We needed to show them that they had to get rid of all the stereotypes about gays. While for the media, for the last ten years, a gay man could only be a man dressed like a woman in a pink dress, with the Pride we managed to change this attitude. First, we showed ourselves openly, as we are. Second, we showed that so many VIPs can come from abroad for a gay festival. And lastly, we decided to hold our event in what was, at that time, Moscow's poshest hotel.
You have to understand that in Moscow, the gay life remains discreet and underground, and saunas and bars are often located in places where they're hard to find. We came out of the cave into the light of day, and we showed that gay issues can be discussed in the same hotel where Gazprom [the state-owned largest contractor of natural gas in the world] conducts its business seminars.
Then, you know what happened with the Pride. The march was illegally banned by the mayor, but as planned we defied the ban. Several of us, including me, were arrested, detained, and fined. The others were bashed by a nasty crowd of religious Orthodox and anti-gay protesters.
Pretty much the same scenario happened in 2007. [See this reporter's May 21-27, 2007 article, "The Agony of Moscow Pride.]
In 2008, we started a new tactic. We wanted to avoid the confrontation with the anti-gay protesters whose plans to attack us had been announced. So, we announced that we would come in front of the City Hall, but we took 20 journalists in a bus with us, and at the last minute we organized a picket in front of the statue of Tchaikovsky. And in front of the City Hall, where the protesters and the police where waiting for us, four of our guys unveiled a large banner from the top of a building against the mayor of Moscow. Right in front of his windows! A great success. No one ever did it before.
In 2009, we decided to host the Pride the same day as the Eurovision Finale took place in Moscow -- that's a European song contest televised all over Europe. Again, we managed to avoid confrontation with the protesters but not with the police, and 32 of us were arrested and detained overnight. What disappointed me the most is that while we were in jail, the show went on, watched all across Europe, and not a single gay singer -- the Eurovision is a very gay-friendly contest -- managed to say even a word of support. It was really disappointing. These people were representing European countries who like to say how democratic they are, but nothing. Not even a word. A lot of hypocrisy...
IRELAND: This year, for the first time in five years, you actually managed to hold a Moscow Pride march, by using a flash-mob technique. Would you describe what happened?
ALEXEYEV: This year we faced a dilemma. Our group wanted to avoid arrests and beatings. Since I am working almost with the same people for five years, we had to find a solution. So, we organized a similar action to the one in 2007. We invited journalists to gather in one place. We put them in a bus and we took them to the secret location where we organized the Pride. For the first time, we managed to march ten minutes, holding a huge rainbow flag 32 feet long! No arrests, no beatings. A success. Everyone was happy, and the photos were wonderful.
We again fooled the Moscow police -- the mayor must have been mad at them! The Pride march took place from the railway station which links Russia to Belarus, on the Leningradsky Boulevard which goes to St Petersburg. It was a symbol because Moscow Pride took place between the Minsk Pride demonstration on May 15 and the first-ever St Petersburg Pride planned for June 26. We all take part in each other's Prides because, in 2008, we founded the Slavic Gay Pride movement, which is the union of Russian and Belarusian Pride organizers.
IRELAND: Would you tell us about how Minsk Pride and the planned St. Petersburg Pride came about?
ALEXEYEV: When we launched the Moscow Pride campaign in 2005, there were only a few of us. Then, many people joined us. In 2008, I was called on the phone by a group in Belarus who wanted some help and guidance from us to organize a gay pride in Minsk, the Belarusian capital and its largest city. It was with them that we founded the Slavic Gay Pride movement.
The first Slavic Pride was in Moscow in 2009 during the fourth Moscow Pride, when a group of 15 Belarusians came to Moscow. And in May 2010, we organized the second Slavic Pride in Minsk. With our media experience, we managed to get some media coverage. The march was banned in Belarus as well, and after walking ten minutes, 12 participants were brutally arrested by a very violent police. They were brutal like wild dogs.
In January 2010, I was contacted by a group in St Petersburg called Equality, which wanted to organize their first Pride in St Petersburg. I went there, met them, discussed. Then, we organized in Moscow a meeting of all of us, with organizers from Moscow, Minsk, and St Petersburg, and put out plans for our Pride marches.. I spent three weeks in Minsk before their Pride to help organize it, and I am coordinating with the organizers in St Petersburg.
We also bring our legal experience. I can say that we're the most experienced LGBT group in the whole of Europe with all the cases we have pending on various issues before the European Court of Human Rights and at the Human Rights Committee of the UN!
IRELAND: How about other cities in Russia -- what's happening there?
ALEXEYEV: Moscow and St Petersburg are two very large cities. It is relatively easy to be gay or lesbian there. Look at us. We've existed for five years, and we are confronting everyone openly for five years. In the regions outside our two biggest cities, it is more difficult. Power in the regions is more centralized and, for example, they are still putting in psychiatric clinics the journalists who are writing articles against the local power. So, you can guess that it is very difficult for gays to confront the local authorities there.
You need to understand that Russia emerged as a free country only in 1991. Then, we had a big crisis in 1998. The first priority of people is to enjoy life, travelling, and eventually to have fun abroad and visit Prides in Paris, New York, Toronto. They don't care much about their rights here. As long as they have a job and money, they are happy. Russian people -- not only gays -- are usually very fatalist. They take things as they come. Around us, there are 40 people in Moscow, 15 in St Petersburg, and approximately 30 in Minsk. That's not much for such a large country, but it does not prevent us from making more noise in the media than any other Pride.
IRELAND: Some of us remember how, in his first campaign, Vladimir Putin played the homophobia card by organizing a press conference with a phony group of very flamboyant and queeny gays to endorse his leading opponent. Is the gay community in Russia riddled with police agents, agents provocateurs, or stooges of the Putin apparatus who try to discredit and discourage real gay organizing?
ALEXEYEV: The regime is mostly interested in discrediting the opposition, including using the services of prostitutes to put opponents in a sex scandal and sometimes mainstream human rights activists as well. For them, whatever is gay is not serious. They don't feel that they should be interested in it. This is why I always kept our movement and our activities completely apolitical, separate from electoral politics, and to my mind, it has to stay like that, especially in Russia. You know, if tomorrow the Kremlin starts to put us in jail, do you think someone will care? Does someone care when human rights activists are arrested? Not anymore. They used to care.
But you know, 9/11 changed many things at the international level. Russia used to be very much criticized on Chechnya pre-9/11 and surprisingly much less post-9/11.
Look at what happened with the Russian invasion of Georgia last year. Russia got what it wanted and no one moved. Europeans have experienced the collateral damages of the fight between Russia and Ukraine on the issue of imported natural gas. When Russia switched off the gas to Ukraine, Western Europe started to be cold as well. The Europeans understand that they have limited margin of maneuver with Russia.
The European Parliament gave the Sakharov Prize last year to several key Russian human rights activists. Well, in reality, that's a terrible admission of impotence, because instead of giving prizes, the European Parliament could vote a motion to ban Russian officials who do not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights from entering the European Union! But it's the gas issue once again. Human rights activists in Russia are the hostages of this geopolitics. And I am including us in that pot.
Look at what happened in Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Slovenia, Serbia: When a Gay Pride is banned or risks facing violence, all the EU countries and the US and Canada are immediately issuing statements of support. But in Russia, they can't. Last week, the organizers of St Petersburg Pride asked the US Consulate in St. Petersburg to help in advance of St. Petersburg Pride by screening a documentary, "Beyond Gay, the Politics of Pride," which features the differences between several Gay Prides around the world, like New York, Vancouver, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Warsaw. The Americans refused, and the excuse was: "We cannot show a Canadian documentary in the US consulate."
And what about Hillary Clinton, who come to Moscow in 2009 to unveil the statue of Walt Whitman, an American gay poet, hand in hand with the homophobic mayor of Moscow at the same place where we were arrested three weeks before for trying to stage Moscow Pride! She even had a press conference and did not mention anything about gay rights or the banning of our Pride! If this is the new pro-LGBT policy that Hillary Clinton said she wants to introduce in the foreign policy of the USA, well...
But again, geopolitics plays a role here. It's not about gas, but the US needs the support of Russia on issues like Iran and North Korea.
IRELAND: Unlike their European counterparts, the US gay institutions and national organizations haven't been very supportive of what you're doing in Russia. Would you explain why gay international solidarity must be collective?
ALEXEYEV: At least we've managed to have a strong partnership with Gay Liberation Network in Chicago. They once invited me for their Matthew Sheppard march and we decided to continue to work together. Andy Thayer, the co-founder, was with us in Moscow for Pride in 2009 and 2010. Last year he was beaten, arrested, and detained, but still he came back this year. He is fabulous. Full of energy and passion. When he was detained last year, he refused to be released before the Russians who'd been arrested were freed.
And there's the background of his trip as well: Because their organization is not well-financed, it is thanks to every member of Gay Liberation Network that Andy could fly to Moscow. That's a lot of solidarity. How can you compare such support with organizations whose activists are "staff" and "paid for their activism?" I find it a pity that in the US the most courageous activists are not those who are in the spotlight, which instead gets focused on those who are paid by their organization and are frequently not really helping anyone or anything because their first priority is often to make sure to keep receiving grants.
Where is the new Harvey Milk? Where is the spirit of the '70s? Ironically, now we have the Internet, which helps us to connect on all kinds of social networks. Take the campaign on Iran in 2005. It was publicized after activists from many countries campaigned via Internet. We must all engage in a collective work.
That's why the International Day Against Homophobia, IDAHO, is a great initiative, because it belongs to everyone. It gives a platform every May 17 for any person to organize an action. The work of the Paris-based IDAHO Committee is to give some structure by launching a campaign and ensuring its promotion on the international scene. Then, the floor is yours.
You know, for example, I was in contact with a deputy from Luxemburg's Parliament who raised some support for us. We organized a joint press conference in Luxemburg in February 2009. On this occasion, I talked to him about IDAHO and said that he could help by putting a motion in his Parliament to have the Day Against Homophobia officially recognized. Well, three months later, it was done! In some ways, you can say that if May 17 is officially recognized in the Luxemburg calendar as the IDAHO day, it is thanks to Moscow Pride.
IRELAND: Would you describe how you've used your skills as a lawyer on behalf of gay rights in Russia?
ALEXEYEV: I have brought many lawsuits against all kind of officials. I sued the mayor of Moscow after he said that Gay Prides are "satanic" gatherings; I sued the governor of the Region of Tambov after he said that gays should be torn apart and their pieces thrown into the wind; I sued President Medvedev for not responding to our request to organize the Pride in the gardens of the Kremlin; and of course I appealed all the bans of all the public actions that we attempted to organize.
As you can guess, I lost all the court cases in Russia, but we are lucky that Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and as a result any Russian can seize the European Court of Human Rights if he feels that the European Convention on Human Rights was breached against him.
But the problem is that many Russians are applying to this court and there is a huge backlog. We are hoping this year to get the final decision of the Court on the bans of Moscow Pride 2006, 2007, and 2008 -- the cases have been combined. You can't understand how much we all expect to win this decision. There is no doubt that the case will be resolved in our favour after the European Court made a precedent by condemning the ban of the Warsaw Pride. It will be the first time ever in history that Russia will lose against gays.
But I'd like to go a bit deeper here. The cases that we sent to the European Court are not only going to change things for LGBT people in Russia. They will help all the civil rights defenders, because the decision will not concern only a gay public action but simply the freedom of assembly. And in Russia, it will be much more difficult to ban a march by the opposition or by any other human rights group.
And this is going beyond Russia as well. For example, my case against the governor of Tambov is about hate speech. If we win, we will set a precedent at the European level which activists in all Europe will be able to use. Our work is not only about Moscow or Gay Pride. Those who think that did not understand what we are doing. We are tackling homophobia everywhere.
For instance, we were successful in having Russia repeal the gay male blood donation ban. Something you still have in the US. We also started a campaign for same-sex marriage in Russia, and we are now lodging this case with the European Court.
Moscow Pride is our platform; it's our flagship campaign which allows us to be in the media every year. You know, a press conference of Moscow Pride usually attracts over 50 accredited journalists. And this voice that it gives, we use it to promote our other campaigns.
IRELAND: If readers want to send you a contribution for your work, how can they do that and where should money be sent?
ALEXEYEV: Well, I have been asked this question many times. It is more helpful that people come to Russia to support us when we stage the Pride in Moscow or St Petersburg. And if you can't, then, better send a donation to Gay Liberation Network in Chicago, at gayliberation.net/home.html. That will help them to come again to Moscow next year to attend the Pride. If 50 readers out of the tens of thousands copies printed give $20, we can manage to have Andy Thayer back in Moscow. and this is very helpful for us.
As Gay City News was going to press, organizers of the June 26 St. Petersburg Pride march said they've asked for police protection in the wake of calls for violent attacks on participants by a number of xenophobic and nationalist websites. To follow this and other gay news from Russia, go to the extensive English-language version of the news website Alexeyev founded at http://gayrussia.ru/en/. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.
Other recent reporting on Russia by Doug Ireland:
"Moscow Pride Organizers Claim PR Win," May 29, 2009;
"Putin Vote Rig Snares Gays," December 7, 2007;
"Moscow Pride Banned Again," May 17, 2007;
"Top Activist: Russia's Putin Signals Support for Gay Rights," February 8, 2007;
"Police, Fascists Crush Moscow Pride," June 1, 2006;
"Gay Standoff Brewing in Moscow," Thursday, May 25, 2006;
"Harsh Anti-Gay Edicts Sweep Moscow," March 2, 2006.