It’s Thursday, two days until the gay pride parade. We’re sitting at a café near Tverskaya Street. There are five of us: the photographer and I, Lyosha, Abu and Tim.
Tim has a pretty, feminine face, but masculine manners, gestures and clothes. Tim usually keeps her hair short, but now she’s growing it out. “I’m going to visit my parents,” he says. Tim’s parents live in Dagestan.
“My stepfather cursed me,” Tim says calmly. “He doesn’t know that I date girls, he would totally kill me then. He cursed me just for running away from home. He wanted me to be like everyone else: get married, sit at home, have kids. Even if I was normal, I wouldn’t want to live that kind of life”.
When Tim needed to be registered, her cousin, a police officer from the town of Lebedyan, registered her at his residence. Following the most recent gay pride parade, a notification letter of Tim’s arrest for an administrative offence was sent to his address. “My cousin’s boss called him in and said: either you de-register her or you’ll no longer work in law enforcement,” Tim says.
Tim’s own boss saw her on the gay pride parade on television. Now she’s looking for another job. Her friend had to move because her landlady saw her on the news.
Following the last parades, the police made a list of people to keep an eye on: activist Nikolai, the transgender* Anya and Yura Gavrikov, the head of the St. Petersburg LGBT** organisation Equality.
Yura wasn’t too upset though. The head of the local nationalist organisation People’s Council lives in the building next door. So Yura’s entire entryway is already covered with inscriptions that read, “A f..got lives here”.
Abu and Lyosha run a small shop at the market. Nobody there knows they are a couple. “The customers would disappear. We would seem unclean for them”.
War with left-handedness
Lyosha uses military terms to explain why the guys feel a gay pride parade is necessary: “the fight on all levels”, “the preparation of a strategic cultural revolution”, “parades are one form of confirming homosexuality as the norm”.
It is generally believed that homosexuals make up 6%-7% of every society. But only 30 people attend the parade each year.
The Moscow gays are like the political opposition: they are split, they can’t decide on a leader or methods, and they don’t get along with one another. Activists from several LGBT organisations told me that they don’t want to take part in provocations and that they wouldn’t follow parade organiser Nikolai Alexeyev anywhere.
“We aren’t provoking the public,” Lyosha says. “We want them to hear that we exist, that there are a lot of us, and that we’re not dangerous. Openness is the only way for gays to integrate”.
“I don’t need anything, I’m in Moscow,” Tim says. “I have gay clubs, stores, the lesbian circuit at Pushka… I can kiss on the streets – in the centre, of course. They would beat me in Vykhino [a rough area of Moscow]. But God forbid a gay person has to live in Arkhangelsk or Tambov. I would go out into the square for that person’s rights”.
I repeat the most common accusation against the gay pride parade organisers – the promotion of homosexuality. “It doesn’t need to be propagandised!” Tim interrupts. “I was twelve years old when I first fell in love with a girl. I didn’t have Internet, I didn’t know the word ‘lesbian’. And it would’ve been stupid to forbid somebody from being gay. That’s the same as despising the Jews. Before I came to Moscow, I didn’t know that they weren’t liked. There’s nothing like that in Dagestan”.
“It’s like prohibiting blue-eyed-ness or left-handedness,” Lyosha adds. “You write with your left hand. You’re not one of us!”
All three of them are staring at me in silence. I feel I am in the minority. It’s extremely uncomfortable.
Moscow Pride is the most notorious gay event of the year. There are also different marches (they’ve even been permitted in St. Petersburg), gay film festivals and concerts, while brochures on the family rights of gays in Russia are published. As Lyosha explains, these are all events “for insiders”.
“A maximum of 10,000 people will hear about it. But we need ordinary flathead families to learn about gays because a gay person can also be born into a flathead family. We know this. We grew up in such families”.
Lyosha is from the town of Gryazi in the Lipetsk region. The only option for homosexuals living in Gryazi is to forget they are gay, hide it their whole lives, or leave for Moscow.
“My mother is very upset about it. She cries and thinks that I’ll change all of a sudden,” Lyosha says. “But if I hadn’t told her, I would have had to lie my entire life”.
Everyone agrees that the conversation with the parents is the first serious decision that must be taken by a person who recognises their homosexuality.
“I can’t even stop by my home in Makhachkala,” Tim says. “I stay with friends and meet my mom on the street. Only my brother knows about me. I took him to a gay club in Moscow. He came, looked around and said, ‘Hmm, normal guys. Are they really f..gots?’”
“All of my friends’ hands are covered in scars,” Tim says as she clenches her fists in front of her. “That’s how they show it: I cut this vein when I realised I was gay myself. This is after my parents kicked me out. This is when people at school found out”.
We sit there in silence.
“My mother called me and said, come home this summer and get married,” Abu says all of a sudden. “But I’m going to tell my parents. They’re modern. Of course, my mom is sick: old age and stress… But I’ll tell her. Eventually”.
It’s Friday morning and we’re at the press conference for the Moscow Pride parade at the Ritz-Carlton.
There are foreign LGBT activists sitting on the stage and foreign journalists in attendance. Last October, gay pride parade organiser Nikolai Alexeyev managed to get the Strasbourg Court to recognise that the bans on the parades contradict the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. The verdict took effect in April, but the upcoming gay pride parade has nevertheless been banned, for the sixth time now.
“If the law enforcement authorities disperse a peaceful demonstration tomorrow, all responsibility will lie with the Moscow authorities and Mayor Sobyanin personally," Alexeyev says grandly from the podium. “We only call on those who are aware that they might be detained or beaten to attend. But if our parade is broken up tomorrow, the next day we will raise the issue of Russia being excluded from the Council of Europe".
The Russian journalists chuckle, while the foreign correspondents scribble notes.
“The victory in the European court is a victory for all people of the world who wish to be free,” says Louis-Georges Tin, the president of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia committee. “Russia has stated that it is willing to pay a fine each year for banning the gay parade, paying for discrimination. Our goal is not money, but human freedom and rights".
The parade participants will lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrov Garden, Alexeyev announces. Then they will walk to the Mayor’s Office on Tverskaya.
“In this way, gays and lesbians will pay their respects to those who fought fascism and express their protest against homophobia fascism, which is flourishing in Russia,” Alexeyev said. The place selected reeks of a provocation. I think I understand why Alexeyev is not loved in the LGBT community.
“So you got hung up again?!” We’re in an underground passageway on Tverskaya. Abu is freezing as he stands in front of a jewellery shop, while Lyosha laughingly pushes him from behind and they fight playfully.
It’s Friday, 4:00 pm. We’re being taken to a secret apartment, which was rented for foreigners attending the parade as well as operational meetings. Yesterday, they argued for half the day about where to hold the demonstration. Now they’re cooking pelmeni in the kitchen and discussing their battle tactics.
“We walk out in small groups, quickly hold up our posters and immediately start chanting,” the transgender Anya explains. He (Anya refers to herself in the masculine) has taken part in four parades. In 2007, he was beaten and laid up for a week with a concussion and leg injuries. “The more noticeable we are, the greater the effect and the faster the cops will come”.
The police are our main hope. If they don’t arrest us, the homophobes will beat us up. Up to 300 tough guys from nationalist movements and fanatic groups came to previous parades. The police didn’t arrest them or really even interfere with them. Lyosha remembers how in 2007 the police stood there waiting for 20 minutes while a dozen Nazis stomped on him as he lied on the ground.
“We don’t go around on our own or in a crowd either: they’ll catch on to us. Try not to get separated on the road. Andrei, can you dress differently? Maybe put on some baggy jeans?” Anya asks.
“I don’t have any baggy ones,” the tall, slender Andrei, with a mop of dyed golden hair, says as he looks confusedly at his jeans, under which he’s wearing pink, pointy shoes. “They’re all like this…”
You feel like you’re attending a meeting of some underground revolutionary cell: everyone is discussing battle tactics, the procedure for acting at the site, the mechanism of social consciousness. I remember how similar conversations were once held in the basement of the banned National Bolshevik Party.
“We are doing the same thing as all of the opposition, from Strategy 31 to the Limonov supporters,” Lyosha says. “We are fighting for the freedom of assembly and speech, which are fundamental and constitutional rights. When they don’t exist, society becomes totalitarian. The only difference is that the oppositionists are fighting for their beliefs, while we are fighting for the way we were born”.
At the hotel, an American photographer is taking people’s pictures by the window. He has been coming to the Moscow Pride parades for several years and making portraits of the participants.
The young Dina is adjusting her orange bangs.
“Din, are you the only lesbian among us?”
“What about Tim?”
“What do you mean, lesbian?!” Tim asks, insulted as she goes off to pose. “I love to be photographed,” she explains sheepishly.
The unknown foreigner is scribbling something in his Apple. In a suit and pink shirt, Nikolai Alexeyev is giving an interview to a foreign journalist. “If a referendum were to be held, 80% would vote for a ban on gays, a ban on all religions except the official ones and probably a ban on the opposition altogether”.
“Perhaps, Russian society will gradually become more tolerant on its own?” a correspondent objects.
“What?!” Alexeyev says, jumping up. “Don’t make my socks laugh!”
Peter is sitting on the balcony. He’s from London and came with his boyfriend just for the gay pride parade. “At home, I have all my rights and it seems natural to me. And here I can’t even walk down the street holding my lover’s hand,” he says. He asks me to write down the Russian phrase for “I demand to see the British consul!” in Latin letters in case he gets arrested.
I told him what he could go out and see downtown Moscow at night, but Peter says he prefers to stay in.
“Come on, Moscow’s a safe city,” I tell him.
“Are you joking?!” Peter says, shaking the piece of paper with the phrase about the consul in front of him.
Later that evening, everyone begins to depart. Abu and Lyosha are having their first English lessons. Director Vladimir Ivanovich, who records the parade each year, has to get home because his wife is waiting for him.
Lyosha leaves first. Abu puts on his coat and spins in front of the mirror for a long time.
“I’m going to learn English and leave this place. Do you think a year will be enough? I haven’t been anywhere yet. I can’t live in Russia any longer. I really want children”.
Lyosha says all Russian homosexuals with education and a profession have already gone abroad.
It’s Saturday, 9:00 am. We’re at an apartment on Varshavskoye Highway.
Andrei and his boyfriend Sasha are designing posters. Andrei is carefully applying wove paper to the posters, which read: “Love has different colours, and I am proud to be gay” and “Russia isn’t Iran. The Constitution is the law here. The Bible is not the rule of law. We demand you observe gay rights at a peaceful protest”.
Sasha is attending the parade for the first time. “My boyfriend wants to go, and I’m with him,” he says.
Andrei’s sleepy mother comes in, says hello and begins cleaning up. She will also attend the demonstration with her son.
Andrei came out of the closet when he was 15 years old. “My mother had already guessed. She supported me right away and started reading books on psychology”. Now all his friends, acquaintances and clients (Andrei runs his own law firm) know he is gay. Such is a rarity in his profession.
“I was lucky, but I still feel like I’m in the minority. Nobody is insured against that. Imagine if protests by the handicapped caused the next negative reaction among the majority. What, they can’t express themselves either?” he says.
Andrei says there have been fewer homophobes coming to the parade each year. “At the first allowed meeting, there will be more than 200 gays and at the second, there will be a thousand. And we’ll have a different country”.
As Lyosha said, a few years ago gay clubs had iron doors and special security. Now heterosexuals can attend, there are no doors and no security is required. “It will be the same with parades. They were also broken up in Europe and the United States at some point. But then there was a social coming out”.
Everyone lives well in countries where gays are treated well, Lyosha says.
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”
It’s 12:00 pm on Saturday, an hour before the parade. The gate to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is closed, the territory around the Zhukov monument is fenced off. Red Square is closed. It seems like the city is preparing for war.
Members of the Union of Orthodox Gonfaloniers are chanting by Hotel Moscow. Old ladies are clustered behind them carrying icons.
“They are being paid, no doubt,” one of the old ladies says. “Look, the European court said they’re being paid 30,000 euros”.
“Those poor things were knocked to the asphalt so hard last time, almost everyone was covered in blood. I wouldn’t even go for 30,000," another says.
“We are Orthodox Russians and we know how to use the power of prayer to disperse the demons,” a bearded Gonfalonier says solemnly, raising his cross. I start jotting down notes.
“Oy, she’s writing with her left hand," an old lady in a head scarf says as she grabs my arm. “You are of a wicked breed, young lady, a wicked one, and you have no cross..."
“Don’t pay her any attention,” a man in a fur hat and a shirt with the emblem of the Gonfalonier Union leans in and says to me. “There are generally some strange people who come here".
Suddenly, there appears a dense crowd of young people in athletic clothing, some wearing shirts with the imperial flag and their faces covered by scarves.
Lyosha and Tim emerge out of nowhere. They hurl their rainbow flag into the air and start shouting. A minute later and Tim is already being dragged to the ground by her throat. “Easy! I’m a girl and that hurts!” she screams. The homophobes knock Lyosha to the ground and start kicking him before the police break it up.
The posters drawn by Andrei and Sasha are torn to pieces in seconds. Anya barely manages to pick up his banner before people grab his arms, throw him to the ground and start beating him in the head.
Dan Choi, an American who was instrumental in the lifting of the ban on gays serving in the U.S. Army, is taken to the paddy wagon. His white shirt has a spot of dirt on it from where he was kicked and thrown to the ground. The dark-skinned Louis-Georges Tin's shirt is torn.
A long-haired girl who nobody knows is dragged to the paddy wagon. We learned later that her name is Liza. She was just walking by, but upon seeing how the demonstrators were being beaten, she grabbed Lyosha’s sign and stood in his place.
The last to be dragged away is a guy in sunglasses whose scarf has fallen off his face. “Kill the faggots!” he chants.
“What are you doing? That’s not one of them,” one cop says, stopping another. They push the guy away and say, “Go on, get out of here”.
The crowd on the square gets bigger with people shouting, “Down with Sodom!”
Alexeyev isn’t answering his phone. I didn’t see how Peter and the others were taken away. I missed the rainbow flag being unfurled by our colleague Lena Kostyuchenko and only later saw the clip where a young man runs up to her and hits her in the head with his fist from behind. I also missed the moment when the police dragged Lena’s girlfriend Anya away by her hair and almost tore off her shirt.
“Force out the reporters,” the command comes in. From the right, from the direction of Alexander Garden, a cordon of police moves in. The police forcefully shove all the bystanders away from behind. They crowd in on journalists, Nazis, foreign tourists who weren’t allowed on Red Square, souvenir shop patrons, families with children. A child bursts into tears nearby, a group of Korean tourists bustles around confused, a photographer with cameras hanging around his neck falls to the ground. The cordon moves on towards Revolution Square. But there aren’t enough cops, the human chain doesn’t cover the whole street, and people think to go around it from the side. The police continue to march grimly and solemnly into the void.
“Well, that’s it. What a f..king disaster! All of our people were detained. There’s nobody left to go to Tverskaya,” Dina tells me as I run into her near the paddy wagons. The police had grabbed her, Lyosha and Tim at the same time, put their hands behind their book and pushed them in the direction of the skinheads. But one of the old ladies in a scarf suddenly intervened, screaming, “Oy, a girl is being beaten. Let the girl go, you tyrants!” The police were taken aback, and Dina managed to get away.
“I ran and the skinheads chased me,” Dina said, trying to catch her breath. “Damn. If my parents see me on television, they’ll definitely kill me”.
Dina is also from Dagestan. She began to like girls in her childhood and fell deeply in love three years ago.
“But she dumped me. I was so bad off,” she said as we quickly proceeded towards Tverskaya. “I called her all the time, sent her text messages, saying ‘I love you, come back'. Then I fainted. While the ambulance was on its way, my parents took my phone and read the texts. They beat me terribly later”.
So Dina ran away from home.
She hasn’t been back to Dagestan, but she knows that her brothers came to Moscow looking for her. “If they had found me, they would have killed me. That’s what they said: ‘It would be better if you died than disgraced the family’. They aren’t religious or anything like that. They would have just killed me”. Sometimes Dina calls her mother and sister. They also say that she would be better off dead, but that they nevertheless love her. “And now if they see me on television, I don’t even know anymore,” she says.
When Tim was put in the paddy wagon, she turned away, shielding her face from the camera. The police noticed, grabbed Tim by the hair and jerked her face in front of the camera, saying, "Put your hands down. Look here”.
“Hang on, let’s wait here a second,” Dina walks off to the side and lights a cigarette as her hands shake. “You see those two skinheads behind us? They were chasing me. But I took my hat off and ran into the crowd".
The two guys with shaved heads move away from the throng of people and approach us. Dina cowers.
“Girls, how do we get to the Mayor’s office?” one of them asks.
“Straight and to the right,” I say, pointing them towards Lubyanka [i.e. away from the Mayor's office].
The two guys leave.
A dense crowd moves towards Tverskaya. A group of five puny teenagers passes us. "We'll give them another Manezh [referring to demonstrations late last year at which nationalists attacked people of foreign appearance],” one of them shouts, almost choking with delight.
The parade on Tverskaya is reduced to the arrest of three women: two activists from the War art group who began chanting, “Homophobes are a disgrace!" and a girl who left the crowd and began speaking to the cameras about tolerance. Two individuals in athletic shirts and shorts grabbed her without saying a word, taking her to an unmarked bus. Journalists who followed her were pushed back by the same people in civilian clothing.
Andrei, Lyosha, Tim and the foreigners were taken to the Presnya police department, where they were held in the paddy wagon for three hours in the courtyard. Louis-Georges Tin began to sing the toreador song from the opera Carmen and was put into the solitary confinement unit, a small cage inside the paddy wagon. In the intervals between his arias, Dan Choi shouted the only Russian word he knew: “Dis-crim-ination!” He was put into the paddy wagon’s toilet as punishment.
Leaning out the window, Lyosha explained to the police that, according to a psychoanalysis, homophobes are actually latent homosexuals who are afraid to acknowledge it.
“Imagine if my son became a f..got. Oh, I would get him…" the police said, talking amongst themselves, while one shouted into his radio, “Hey, come out here. This guy is going off”. And Lyosha's audience became even larger.
Two hours later, they were all let go.
I only reached Alexeyev later in the evening. “My associates dissuaded me from going to the square. If I had been arrested, I would have been put in jail for 15 days, and I can't take that risk," he said, and it became clear once and for all that there truly is nobody in Russia capable of fighting for the rights of gays.
P.S. The special operation to break up the Moscow Pride parade took about half an hour. It took them several hundred police officers to overpower 18 demonstrators and a dozen homophobes. They were able to handle Tim, Lena, Anya and Liza, girls who weigh about 40 kilograms each. They frightened foreign tourists and children.
When Tverskaya was blocked off by people in civilian clothing, we asked them to show us some identification. After long negotiations, only two of them showed us their badges. One of them was a sniper instructor for the Moscow Central Internal Affairs Department, while the other was a bomb technician engineer for the OMON riot police.
As the guys said, they only wanted to show that they exist. It appears they achieved their goal: it took all of the capital's interior security troops to disperse twenty young people.
*Transgender people are those with distinctive features of both sexes.
**LGBT – abbreviation for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals.