Published on Sunday, May 28, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Moscow Gay Rights March Meets with Violence, Police
Protesters show up to attack activists at banned event
by Michael Mainville
Defying an official ban and threats of violence, gay and lesbian activists attempted to hold Russia's first gay pride march in Moscow on Saturday, but were thwarted by police and neo-fascist protesters shouting "Moscow is not Sodom!"
Police arrested about 120 people, and several gay activists were injured in attacks by religious and xenophobic extremists.
The key organizer of the event, 28-year-old Nikolai Alexeyev, was pulled away by police only moments after the short-lived march began. "This is a great victory, an absolute victory -- look at what's happening," Alexeyev shouted as two police officers dragged him onto a waiting bus.
City authorities had banned the march, which they called an "outrage to society," while religious leaders from all of Russia's major faiths condemned it. It provoked a debate within the gay community over whether the demonstration risked inflaming already widespread homophobia in Russia.
But supporters had insisted it was necessary.
"We can't keep living in the shadows," Alexeyev said in an interview before the rally began. "We deserve the same rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as anyone else."
Organizers had urged gay-rights supporters to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just outside the Kremlin wall, before marching to a square opposite Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's office. But when they arrived, they found that authorities had closed the entrance to the park where the tomb is located, and hundreds of riot police blocked their path.
More than 100 anti-gay protesters -- including skinheads, Russian nationalists and Orthodox Christian fundamentalists -- had gathered. Women wearing head scarves chanted hymns and held up religious icons, while men in traditional cossack tunics and sheepskin hats shouted at participants.
As police pushed the crowd away from the Kremlin, gangs of skinheads attacked a number of gay activists, kicking and beating them. "We're here to defend the dignity of Russia, to protect our country from perverts and pederasts," said 26-year-old Nikolai Grigoriev.
Shortly before the main rally was to begin, dozens of anti-march youths raced toward the site, throwing flares and setting off smoke bombs. Police made little attempt to clear the square, and the crowd grew. The few gay-rights supporters who attempted to enter the square were arrested by police or beaten by protesters.
While giving an interview to television cameras, a Green Party member of Germany's Bundestag, Volker Beck, was attacked by about 20 youths who beat him in the head. A gang of youths also beat and kicked a Chronicle correspondent attempting to interview one of the participants.
Supporters of the march said the government's refusal to sanction the event had sent a clear signal to police and extremists.
"It was shocking and disturbing. What I saw was a complete failure of police protection that was directly linked to the mayor's banning of the march," said gay-rights activist John Fisher, co-director of the ARC International gay lobby group in Geneva.
By banning the march, authorities gave "free rein to those who would perpetrate acts of violence," Fisher said. "We can only hope that what we saw was representative of only a small segment of society."
Organizers had timed the event to coincide with the 13th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia. Despite growing tolerance for homosexuals since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia remains a deeply homophobic society. In one poll last year, 73 percent of Russians opposed same-sex marriages, and 43 percent said gay men should be incarcerated.
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle