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7 min

Moscow Pride organizers outwit opposition

A first-hand account of the May 31 Pride actions

First let me say we are all safe and sound here in Moscow and are all filled with a sense of extreme honour to have been a part of the first actual Pride March here in Moscow. The experience we had was one that none of us will ever forget, including our dear straight cameraman Josh Rainhard. In order to help you all understand what this experience was like I will take you all back to Friday, May 30.

We were anxiously trying to get in touch with Nikolai Alekseev, organizer of Moscow Pride, to find out what the plan was for the weekend. He had already shared with us the fact that no decision had been made officially as to when they would assemble. This was to help ensure that the anti-gay groups would not have too much opportunity to counter-assemble against us. We were told that there would be a meeting on Saturday to explain the plans for the Sunday march and we could attend that meeting. In order to maintain a level of secrecy, we would be given a call on Saturday and told the location on the meeting.

So the adventure begins.

Before this however, we were invited to the Canadian Embassy here in Moscow. It was an amazing affair and the four of us, myself, Morris Chapdelaine (a friend of the ambassador), Josh, and Bob Christie — our director and leader — were able to dine with some other guests such as Nikolai and some of his associates from the Pride Moscow team, and some other Russian guests from human rights groups and media. It was definitely the calm before the storm, so to speak.

On Saturday, we were contacted about 3pm and told that the meeting was happening and given a landmark to go to and told to call again once we reached that location. When we called, we were given an address and it was an apartment of someone who cannot be mentioned for safety reasons. When we arrived, it was a large building complex and we were told to say to the guard at the gate that we were going to a birthday party.

At the apartment we joined a group of people of men and women of various ages who were all speaking in Russian. Our host, of whom I will say nothing more than the fact that she was a wonderful person and it was a pleasure to meet her, also spoke English. So she brought us in and started to translate information for us as the official part of the meeting started. The short of the meeting was that the decision had been made this year to try and create a positive event instead of the traditional violent gathering of the previous two years.

So, though the website officially listed the City hall as the gathering place for the event, it was not where we were going to meet. I should mention at this point that the city government here denied all of the approximately 150 applications that were made to have a gathering. As Nikolai spoke to his team, I watched as they were all listening with a sense of excitement and commitment to this cause. Nikolai explained that though he trusted everyone one on the team completely, to ensure a successful execution he would not share the actual meeting spot with anyone other than a couple of members that were needed to put the plan into motion. All we were told is what Metro station to meet at, and the time. We were told that when we arrived there to wait until someone contacted us to take us to the meeting place. We were to go in no more than twos or threes and not to acknowledge each other when we arrived.

After meeting a few people, we left, excited and anxious for the next day.

Sunday morning we met Vladimir, the Russian translator that we had hired, and Graham and Lola. Graham is a previous employee of Transmission, the production company backing this project.

Lola is his girlfriend, who is studying in Europe, came to meet us in Moscow to help with the documentation of this event. The decision had been made to split into two groups, Bob, Josh, Vladimir and myself will go to the secret meeting spot to attend the actual event. Morris, Graham and Lola would go to City Hall to the “public” event that would most likely attract many anti-gay and hate groups determined to stop it.

We headed off. My group got off of the subway onto a platform and immediately recognized one of the other organizers. We walked past him without acknowledging him. We then also saw a couple of others, all alone and not acknowledging each other. We were not sure what to do and have to say our hearts were all racing. There were four police walking the platform, though this was not necessarily unusual — police are everywhere here. But when one of them stopped and spoke to one of the organizers, our hearts started racing. We kept trying to look like dumb tourists and looking at our Subway map hoping we just looked lost. As we stood there, another dozen or more police appeared on the metro platform.

Just as our panic seemed too much to handle, one of the group approached us and said to follow him, and we happily did. Once outside, he explained we were going to a café and that we would wait there until the appropriate time. We arrived at the café, which was next to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. This place was chosen because it was a beautiful serene spot and also because Tchaikovsky is one of the most famous Russian composers and well known as a gay man. As we sat in the café sipping our cappuccinos, we were in constant contact with our other group by text message and listened to them talk as media and protestors started to gather.

As the time got closer, we recognized other couples in the café from the previous day’s meeting and also saw others, hanging out on the street and the sidewalk. All seemed anxiously waiting for the signal to go and gather in front of the building. The woman who was given the task as the key person was actually sitting right behind us. Finally, we saw her answer her phone. She got up and started to move and then the rest of us followed. In what seemed like a split second, there was assembled a group of 15- 20 people. The Moscow Pride banner appeared, as well as a bunch of Pride flags. Nikolai also appeared as though from nowhere with a contingent of handpicked media in tow.

Nikolai spoke and led the team in chants of protest and celebration. And then came the moment that Nikolai and his team had dreamed of for so long: we marched. It might have only been for a short distance (not even a whole city block), but nonetheless, we marched. There was no one to stop us, no protestors, no police, and no hate. You could feel the emotion emanating from the group: a sense of freedom, a sense of success, and a sense of true pride! Then as quickly as it began, it ended. People gathered the flags and banners and put them into plastic bags and dispersed as quickly as we had arrived.

Our team decided to go to the other event to see what was happening and how our other crew had made out. Our concern was growing, as we had not heard from them for a while. We arrived to city hall to see groups of people. Orthodox priests and nuns carrying religious symbols stood with nationalists and skinheads and others who looked like the guy or girl next door. We cautiously approached the group and I have to say I had never felt so fearful in my life. The level of tension and hate was tangible and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. We spotted our friends and Bob ran to them in the midst of a group to try and gather them. Expecting that they would follow quickly, Josh and I moved to the prearranged post-meeting spot. As time passed and we had not seen the rest of the group, our anxiety grew.

After a short time, Morris and Bob appeared. It was obvious that something had happened as they were visibly shaken. They had been seen talking to someone from the gay activist group when a group of homophobes attacked a gay man. Bob was jumped from behind. Morris quickly grabbed the attacker, who then swung and punched him in the nose – and it was Morris’s birthday. Morris and Bob realized that they had to get out and left as quickly as possible, unable to communicate with Graham and Lola. Shortly after, Graham and Lola arrived and we all sighed a huge relief.

They had witnessed a Moscow Pride banner being hung from an apartment beside city hall by some of the gay activists. Nikolai and his group had strategically planned and rented a flat in the building a few months earlier with the intention of hanging this banner. It flew for only a short while before it was targeted with eggs and then torn down.

The four activists in the apartment were now stranded there. Police cut the building’s electricity and demanded the activists surrender. We learned this later in the evening as we gathered again with the Pride group to celebrate the success of the day. A feeling of joy that was in the room, even with the man covered in bruises and bandages from being beaten. But the job was mixed with anxiety as group members tried to find a lawyer to help get the men out of the apartment. The men were arrested but then released and there seems to be no overt violations of their human rights.

I will close this with a personal comment. I am still welled up with tears as I relive these events in my head. I have never felt such a sense of humility as I did this day. As I personally work on the events of our own Vancouver Pride, I think I may never have the feeling I had with my Muscovite friends, when for the first time ever, they marched with Pride in the streets of Moscow!

Ken Coolen is the treasurer of the Vancouver Pride Society. For more on Moscow Pride, go to biggayken.blogspot.com, biggaymovie.com. He is now in Warsaw in preparation for their Jun 7 Pride — another city where the celebration is opposed by religious and nationalist extremists.