4 min

Fighting for gay rights in Russia

An interview with grand marshal Nikolai Alexeyev

"My group is a direct-action group. We are here to move something, not to meet and discuss around a glass of vodka how homophobia is terrible in Russia," says Nikolai Alexeyev. "We want to change things." Credit: Courtesy of Nikolai Alexeyev (Yuri Gavrikov photo)

XTRA: When did you begin fighting for gay rights in Moscow?

NIKOLAI ALEXEYEV: I launched my organization, Project, on the first International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, 2005. I wanted to bring something new in campaigning for LGBT rights in Russia. Since 1993 and the decriminalization of male homosexuality, nothing had evolved.

My group is a direct-action group. We are here to move something, not to meet and discuss around a glass of vodka how homophobia is terrible in Russia. We want to change things.

One of our first successes is the end of the MSM (men who have sex with men) blood ban, which we obtained in 2008 after a two–year campaign using both the legal way and the street actions. Gay blood can now help sick homophobes to live longer.

It is the only discrimination removed by the Russian government since decriminalization in 1993.

In Russia, you can only obtain things if you fight hard for it. I am not here to write reports that will end up on the shelves of international institutions only to be covered in dust. My time is better employed in effective campaigns.

XTRA: What strategies have been most effective?  

NA: Before we started our campaigns in 2005, homosexuality was never discussed in the Russian media, with the exception of a few tabloids discussing why gay men like to wear pink dresses and girls’ shoes.

Because there was no way for us to knock on the door of millions of Russian houses to start explaining who are gay people and why they want equal rights, we entered everyone’s door via the media.

I think all the Russian media published or broadcast at least once about our Moscow Pride campaign. We had prime-time debate about gay pride watched by millions on the main TV channel.

When we started GayRussia, no journalist attended our press conference. Now we are heard. We are visible.

XTRA: Mayor Yury Luzhkov has banned Moscow Pride five times in a row. Do you feel the gay rights struggle is gaining ground in your city and country?

NA: Seeing that this year we celebrated three gay Prides in Russia-Belarus, I would say that yes, there are more and more people within our community who are ready to stand up for their rights. There is a good solidarity between us. We all attend each other’s actions. This is important because since all three Prides were banned, it is difficult to mobilize people to take part knowing that they might be arrested.

Despite Russia being a country of 142 million, it is hard to move Russian LGBT people to fight for their rights. It’s a pity. There are probably not more than 100 “active” activists within the country — I mean people who really take action, who are ready to go in the street or to court to defend their rights. Not those who post messages on the internet thinking that this is activism.

The Moscow Pride ban is discussed at the highest level of the state. This is something I know for sure. But there is for now no intention from the state to interfere in the decision of the mayor to ban it. Because the mayor banned it, the court upholds the ban, and other administrations in St Petersburg or elsewhere get it as a message that they have to follow.

The negative attitude of the mayor, who regularly speaks very aggressively against us, calling gay Prides “satanic gatherings” and gays “weapons of mass destruction,” exacerbates negative sentiment towards us.

The Russian Orthodox church also is playing with this feeling. They identify us as evil. And the circle continues.

XTRA:  In London’s Guardian newspaper, you criticize the European Union for its lack of political support of gay activists in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. How important is it to have the EU on the side of gay rights activists in your part of the world?

NA: The EU should not try to impose or push issues in Russia simply because it would be counterproductive, as the people over here will say, “the West is trying to impose its decadence.”

What we expect is that the EU force Russia to respect the human rights it engaged to recognize when it ratified, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both treaties grant freedom of assembly for all citizens. The Russian Constitution also does.

We would expect that Russia’s partners would be more firm with Russia on that. But they are scared. Russia is no longer the weak partner it used to be 10 years ago.

XTRA: Have you seen evidence of a significant shift in gay rights in cities like Vilnius, Warsaw, Bucharest, Bratislava and Budapest when the EU has stepped in?

NA: Well, let’s look at Warsaw. Recently, the first-ever Eastern European EuroPride took place there. It was a big success. Five years ago, the mayor of Warsaw banned the gay Pride. It is only thanks to a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Pride started to be allowed. This decision is the legal basis since 2007 for allowing Prides in Eastern Europe. If you look at Vilnius, the Pride was allowed this year only because of a strong backing from the EU member states’ embassies there and also the European Commission.

XTRA: What’s your vision of an ideal Pride for Moscow, for Russia?

NA: We are not there yet. Now, we simply want to march for equal rights of LGBT people. We can go and march tomorrow with balloons and rainbow flags without asking for permission in the streets. We will not be arrested. But there would be no point in doing that. We can register our NGOs by hiding that their aim is to fight for LGBT rights. But again there is no point. We cannot accept that the society wants to keep us in the closet.

The authorities have to respect our rights, and they have to recognize that we have the right to march as LGBT people and that we have the right to register an openly gay NGO.

XTRA: What do you think of Western-style Prides?

NA: Bob Christie’s documentary Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride shows that Western Prides became happy carnivals. There is nothing bad in it. It’s an occasion where anyone, gays and straights, can celebrate and party. But before that, one should remember Stonewall and the history beyond these carnivals.

We are 30 years behind you.

Some people told me in 2005, when I started, that Russia is not ready for Pride. But if we did not start, we would be nowhere today. We are now waiting this year a decision of the European Court, which should finally give us justice against all the Moscow Pride bans. We hope with this decision to have our first legal Pride, perhaps next year in Moscow. It will be the first legal victory of LGBT people against the Russian government.

We will be on the side of the law. And Russia will be on the wrong side. It will change the roles.