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Rainbow Flashmob marks IDAHOT in St Petersburg, Russia

Police protect event, but bus full of participants is attacked after

Texan Allen Nyitray (centre) was hit by eggs on the way to Rainbow Flashmob. "I came out in 1984 in Oklahoma and it was a very difficult time then too,” he says. “This is bringing back a lot of memories for me. A lot of good memories, but also memories of struggle.” Credit: Julia Lisnyak

Five hundred colourful balloons filled the sky above the Field of Mars May 17, marking the sixth annual Rainbow Flashmob in St Petersburg, Russia.

Approximately 200 people participated in the event, organized by the St Petersburg Coming Out organization, in honour of the  International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT).

Alexander Shishlov, St Petersburg’s ombudsman, spoke words of support and thanked attendees before the balloons were launched. “I respect your fight,” he said. “You are all great for being brave and for fighting for your rights. I sincerely hope that the LGBT people in our city will soon be able to live without fear.”

Shishlov also expressed his dismay concerning violence that occurred at previous events. “In 2012, I was shocked by how — I don’t even want to call them citizens — thugs reacted to the fact that you are all here standing up for your rights and celebrating a great event,” he said.

Two years ago, the Rainbow Flashmob was cut short by an attack by nationalist radicals. Many participants were injured, and others were loaded onto a bus and driven to safety. The attackers pursued the bus but confused it with a vehicle full of migrant workers. The bus carrying the migrant workers was destroyed, and its occupants, who are also an oppressed minority in Russia, were badly injured. No one was arrested.

Mikhail Beladedev says he was afraid as he approached the event this year but says his fears were assuaged when he arrived at the site.

“It is my fourth year attending, and this year was the most impressive,” he said. “It was the most peaceful and the most sunny event we have had.”

Participants arrived to find a space cordoned off and protected by approximately 200 armoured police officers, who were checking bags and ensuring only supporters could enter the area.

“It is very pleasant when the government provides an opportunity to enjoy your rights,” Beladedev said. “In past years, it was not this way. There was a feeling that we were going against society, and there was a lot of violence. This time everything was well organized and we were able to come out, express ourselves and celebrate this holiday.”

Beladedev credits the event’s success to the hard work of Coming Out and other human rights organizations in the city, as well as to the support Shishlov provides the community.

“It has been a long time since an event like this has passed without any injuries,” says Sasha Semenova, one of the Rainbow Flashmob’s organizers. She attributes this achievement to the collaborative efforts of Coming Out and of the city.

According to Semenova, Coming Out began preparations for the event by asking Shishlov to arrange a meeting with local police. “We had the opportunity to explain what risks we see and to work together to create a strategy that would help defend participants,” she says. “Once they understood that we were not looking to provoke or offend anyone, they really changed their attitude and were ready to do their work.”

In order to ensure safety, Coming Out also nominated 15 individuals from the community to act as monitors and to document any suspicious incidents. In case of violence, leaflets with tips on conflict resolution and contact information for an attorney were distributed to all participants.

Although the Rainbow Flashmob can technically be considered a violation of Russia’s gay propaganda law, which bans dissemination of information on “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, Coming Out received municipal permits to hold the event.

“I believe that the event was allowed for a number of reasons,” Semenova says. According to her, the Rainbow Flashmob has been organized by Coming Out for the past six years, and local officials know that the organization is open to collaboration but will fight for the right to hold the event. As a result, it is simpler for government to permit the event than to enter into a legal battle, thereby creating room for discussion.

“The law is vague, and if it is used to deny rights to a demonstration, government is afraid that civil society’s attention will be drawn to how poorly it is written and applied,” she says. “This law was not created to be used. It was adopted for populist reasons — to brand the LGBT as a public enemy responsible for all of society’s ills.”

Although the event was government sanctioned, there were a few outbreaks of violence. “While we are getting better at working with authorities to ensure safety, the public is becoming increasingly homophobic and aggressive,” Semenova explains.

A group of participants were egged on the way to the event. One of the attackers lunged at a participant but was repelled by pepper spray. Unfortunately, the pepper spray also hit an American cyclist vacationing in the city. The cyclist accepted the participant’s apology and left the scene, appearing unharmed. The attacker, an extremely vocal activist known as Kuzmin, plans to press charges.

After the event, police loaded participants onto private tour buses, which had been rented to safely evacuate the premises. Participants on both buses experienced problems.

One of the buses was forced to stop, as nationalist radicals threw a smoke bomb in its path. The radicals proceeded to pelt the bus with rocks and pound on the windows, attempting to break in. Occupants ducked down in fear, but the bus driver was able to speed up and escape with all windows intact.

According to Semenova, the driver of the other bus was not as friendly. Allegedly, he made several homophobic statements and forced those who did not have seats to evacuate the bus a few blocks from the Field of Mars. Fortunately, the group was not attacked.

“He explained it by saying that it is illegal to transport people who are standing in that type of bus, but of course he would not have been fined because police were aware,” Semenova says.

According to Semenova, finding a safe method of transporting participants away from the event is an ongoing challenge for Coming Out.

“We can never tell the buses we hire that it is an LGBT event, because they would not risk it,” she says. “Since we do not have enough personal vehicles to safely transport everyone, we have to do it this way.”

A few hours after the event, LGBT activist Kirill Shorohov was attacked at a downtown subway station. He was not injured, as police were quick to intervene. Both individuals involved in the altercation were taken into custody and face charges of hooliganism.

According to organizers, Coming Out will continue to hold the Rainbow Flashmob in St Petersburg.