Background Briefing

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The Festival Opens—May 25

In this atmosphere, the Moscow Pride Festival—two days of discussions and lectures preceding the planned march—opened on May 25. In addition to Russian participants, foreign activists and political figures from the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, France, the United States, Poland, Latvia, Moldova, Belarus, and other countries were in attendance. That evening, homophobic demonstrators disrupted one of its first events, a lecture by Merlin Holland, the grandson of Irish writer Oscar Wilde. More than a dozen people rose midway through the talk, shouting “Russia free of faggots!” and sprayed mace around the room. Private security guards were able to expel them from the room. The attack disturbed festival organizers particularly because the lecture’s time and place had not been publicized and were announced only to registered attendees and security guards, many of whom were off-duty or retired police. Organizers feared their own participants or protectors might be leaking information to their opponents.

On the morning of Friday, May 26, the Tverskoi District Court in Moscow, which had agreed to hear an appeal against the ban, upheld the May 18 mayor’s decision.

Festival organizer Nikolai Alexeyev and other activists decided that May 27 would center around two events. First, as an “expression of opposition to nationalism and extremism,” at 2:30 p.m. participants would lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Gardens at the north corner of the Kremlin.4 

Second, participants would assemble for a vigil at 3:00 p.m. in front of the statue of Yuri Dolgoruky (medieval prince of Vladimir and founder of the Moscow Kremlin), facing City Hall. Two human rights activists, Dmitri Makarov and Alexei Kozlov, had applied to the city government to hold a small rally in support of the rights to freedoms of expression and assembly, as well as non-discrimination, at the statue at that time.5  Makarov and Kozlov had not received a response to their application by close of business Friday.

Clash at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

At 2:30 on May 27, in heavy rain, the first cluster of participants—including festival leaders Nikolai Alexeyev and Nikolai Baev, Eduard Murzin (a member of the regional Duma of Bashkortostan in central Russia and a supporter of LGBT rights), and several other Russians, along with Merlin Holland and the British activist Peter Tatchell, all holding flowers—approached the gate to the tomb in Alexander Gardens. They were met by a crowd of 200-300 protesters—including both younger and older Orthodox and nationalist counter-protestors, and contingents of elderly women carrying crosses and icons. Police made no attempt to intervene until the two groups met.

Alexeyev told Human Rights Watch:

I saw a huge group of people gathered there, shouting “death to sodomites,” “out of Russia,”  “we will not allow you to put things here, our grandfathers died fighting against people like you.”  I said, “My grandfather died fighting against your kind.”  I said to myself, I will not stop—I will go on. But the gate was closed. Then the police suddenly appeared out of nowhere. They began pushing all of us back from the gate. Then someone, several officers, seized me from behind and started to shove me from the square and through the crowd. They pushed me very violently through the square and put me in the [police] bus.6

While Alexeyev was detained, Holland was kicked by the protesters, and others were punched. Many protesters threw rocks, bottles, and eggs.

The few lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender participants and their supporters withdrew from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in confusion. The anti-gay demonstrators moved back to the northern end of nearby Manezh Square, beside the gardens. From there, however, some of the men from the anti-gay protest kept charging back in groups toward the tomb, pelting bystanders with bottles and eggs. Regular police and riot police, or OMON (Otriad Militsii Osobogo Naznacheniy), countered, driving the anti-gay protesters across the broad boulevard, Mokhovaia Street, to its intersection with Tverskaia Street. From there, the violent anti-gay demonstrators began throwing flares at the police. Police responded by arresting between 25-50 of them, lining them against a wall, and then hauling them aggressively to police buses parked nearby.

However, the vast majority of the anti-gay demonstrators who had been engaged in violence remained at large. They continued to throw eggs and stones at passers-by whom they suspected of being gay or supporters of the cancelled parade. With little or no interference from police, they moved in groups up Tverskaya Street toward City Hall, the site of the second part of the planned activities.

Violent Attacks at and around the City Hall Protest

A few LGBT people and their supporters were also making their way to City Hall in small groups. Dimitri Makarov and Alexei Kozlov, who had signed the application for the rally, arrived at the statue of Yuri Dolgoruky. They found the anti-gay demonstrators already present in the square. Nikolai Kurianovich, a Duma representative of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, had mounted the statue’s steps to make a speech. He warned that Russia would become like “putrid America and dying Europe” if it permitted the “gay mafia” to triumph, and led the crowd in chanting “Gays and lesbians to Kolyma”—the Stalin-era prison camp.

Makarov told Human Rights Watch,

The police were standing around the edges of this, doing nothing. I went to the first officer I saw, and asked to be taken to the officer in charge. He led us over to the commander—and it was a colonel who had been at the [Pride] conference in the morning, negotiating with Nikolai [Alexeyev] and myself about police protection. His name was Colonel Viacheslav—he had refused to give us his last name. But he had told us in the morning that everything was fine, that there would be counter-demonstrators but that the police would protect us.

Now we went to him and said that we, Alexei and myself, were the organizers of the planned picket. I showed him our application, said this was a manifestation within the law. I asked him to defend the picketers against the extremists who controlled the square. He pointed to us and said to the officers, “Arrest them. Take them to the bus.”  He said we had organized an unsanctioned demonstration!  …

I pointed out the demonstration of the nationalists that was already going on: I said, that is illegal, shouldn’t you stop that?  The officers said, “We can’t, there is a deputy leading it.” I said, “What about the people standing there listening to him?” They said, “Well, they are listening to a deputy.”7

Meanwhile, in the square, a few LGBT people began arriving. Volker Beck, an openly gay member of the German Bundestag, and a few others stood near the statue and opened rainbow flags. Immediately, some twenty people, including skinheads, surrounded them and ripped the flags from their hands. A Human Rights Watch representative was shoved to the ground. He witnessed Volker Beck being struck with a rock, then a fist, in his right eye: Beck’s partner was also struck in the face. At this point several dozen police intervened. However, instead of trying to separate the two groups they encircled all of them, crushing them tightly together and forming a close cordon within which the violence continued.

While some violent demonstrators were arrested, police also arrested lesbian and gay demonstrators who were engaged in lawful, non-violent activity. Yevgenia Debrianskaia, a longtime leader of Russia’s lesbian movement, was arrested while speaking to journalists. She recounted to Human Rights Watch:

When I got there I was appalled. I saw an unsanctioned demonstration, headed by a Duma parliamentarian, who was calling for gay people to be killed, and no one was disturbing him or interfering. So I climbed a few steps to the monument and turned around. The journalists know me; they turned their cameras to me; I started to talk. I said, I came to exercise my civic responsibility, about the unfair ban on gay people. But I did not get to say much. The extremists started to throw things at me, rocks and bottles and soda. A policeman with three big stars on his shoulder broke through the journalists and told me my actions were illegal and I was under arrest. Immediately I was grabbed roughly by the arms, by two OMON people, very painfully, and dragged to the bus. At one point I tripped in a pothole and fell. A friend of mine tried to help me so they grabbed her as well and threw us in the bus.8 

In other cases, victims of violence were arrested. Volker Beck, bleeding copiously from the wounds to his eye, was arrested together with his partner. They were held in the bus “for more than an hour …  until police figured out who we were.” Then police freed them, saying “they had only detained us for our own security!”9

A Human Rights Watch representative saw a man beating a journalist while a woman held the victim to keep him from running. The assailants were both detained by the police—along with the journalist.

Police harassed and even detained people who were taking pictures of the violence. Maxim Anmeghichean, a Moldovan gay activist who works for the International Gay and Lesbian Association-Europe (ILGA-Europe), told Human Rights Watch:

At one point I saw a policeman talking to a guy who was only taking pictures. He said, “Why are you taking photos?” The guy said, “I’m just taking pictures of the events.”  The cop said, “No. You are taking photographs of police officers engaged in their duty and this is against the law.” And he dragged him to the bus.

At another point I was standing with two other people in a part of Tverskaia Street where nothing was happening—we were in front of a bookshop trying to stay out of the fighting. Around five policemen came and started trying to push us toward the skinheads—physically shoving us, violently, with their hands. “You have to go over there!”  We said, “We’re not going there!” They were trying to retaliate on us for taking photos.10

For the following hours, skinheads and other anti-gay protesters were left in virtually uncontested control of the area, and roamed the streets around Tverskaia Street targetting lesbians and gays. One witness told Human Rights Watch that, arriving at the nearby Pushkinskaia metro station—about 500 meters from City Hall—-he heard a large group of skinheads saying that they would wait at a McDonald’s restaurant to “monitor the fags’ movements.”11

[4] The tomb of a soldier killed in World War II, the memorial commemorates all Soviet soldiers killed in the war against Fascism.

[5] By law, conditions for holding a picket are far less restrictive than those governing a march. Officials may question the appropriateness of the picket to the stated ends, or may propose alternative times or venues, but strictly cannot deny permission altogether.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Nikolai Alexeyev, Moscow, May 28, 2006.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with Dimitri Makarov, Moscow, May 27, 2006.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with Yevgenia Debryanskaia, Moscow, May 28, 2006.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with Volker Beck, Moscow, May 27, 2006.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with Maxim Anmighichean, Moscow, May 28, 2006.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with a man who wished to remain anonymous, May 27, 2006.

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