Sunday, May 17, 5 PM local time
GLN permalink posted May 18, 2009
MOSCOW - By the time I am finally posting this, many already know the basic story of violent government repression of Saturday's Gay Pride Parade in this city.
A member of OMOH, Russia's SWAT police
The delay in this post comes as a result of being a participant in the action. Several hours were lost due to police detention and then feverish attempts to help our Russian and Belorussian colleagues facing far more serious situations. Finally, our Moscow police friends are now in the possession of a very fine Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ6 memory card, so this story is mainly illustrated with the help of another photographer who would lose her job if properly credited for her work.
I'll therefore concentrate on the parts of this remarkable story that people who saw the news reports still don't know:
* the bizarrely extensive lengths that the authorities undertook to pre-empt our action
* the tactical finesse shown by Pride organizers that allowed us to dodge that pre-emption, and
* my personal experience as a participant in the action.
But first and most importantly, here is the latest news on the situation facing our Russian and Belorussian friends:
Around mid-day today, Moscow Time, all of our people were finally released. Holding him and other key activists well past the mandated three hour time limit, the Russian authorities are trying to make an example of Moscow Pride's foremost organizer, Nikolai Alekseev, by slapping multiple charges on him beyond the traditional "demonstrating without a permit" violation.
Even though he is finally released following a hearing this morning, Alekseev's attorney Dmitri Bartenev told me that the exact nature of the charges against Alekseev aren't clear, except that since he has been released, he cannot now be sentenced to jail time. Bartenev and the public were barred from this morning's hearing. Alekseev faces trial on May 26.
Despite the violent attack by OMOH cops, the Russian equivalent of SWAT police, fortunately no one was seriously injured. Also, after some initial very worrying reports about threats to deport our Belorussian friends, who might in turn face incarceration by their country's dictatorial regime, we're happy to report that they have been released.
The Russian State vs Gays: The bizarre lengths to which they will go
As noted in an earlier post, days before Saturday's Pride action we learned that the authorities were planning a pre-emptive arrest of lead Pride organizer Nikolai Alekseev. This was forestalled by having the entire group decamp to a rural location outside of Moscow, rather than at their usual homes and workplaces. Round 1: Pride organizers
The day before the action we learned through a reliable press source that the authorities were planning on blockading the main roads into Moscow. Despite having more than10 million inhabitants, there are only seven main roads into the city, and the police were on the look-out in particular for a bus with some of the usual suspects plus a generous gathering of 20-something activists.
To a Westerner this story sounds like the product of feverish paranoia, but to those who live in what can at best be described as a quasi-democracy, such a report can't be dismissed out of hand. So with the help of friends in other vehicles, the story was checked out in person and yes, police were stopping and searching almost all vehicles coming into the city limits. Another activist reported seeing police in possession of photos of key activists.
Showing remarkable poise the Pride organizers quickly changed transport plans, switched us from coach to a commuter train just outside the check points around Moscow's ring road, directed us to take the train for one stop inside the ring road, then switched to a group of vans to take us the rest of the way to the protest site. Round 2: Pride organizers
One of the main difficulties in organizing a public action in a police state is deploying the action to the press and public before the authorities round everyone up. But with an extra bevy of cameramen, sound people, still photographers and print people in town for the huge Eurovision music festival, to say that they can't blend into a crowd is an understatement. Add to this the fact that while our side has sources in the media, the police do as well, especially all of the Russian-based broadcast media, who are a virtual telegraph agency to the other side.
The media have to be advised of the specific time and location of the action at the last possible moment, as any gathering of them tips off the cops that something is about to happen. Anyone in proximity to them is of course suspected of being an illegal demonstrator despite not showing any banners or signs.
So we came to a popular bluff on the Moscow River overlooking the city, where lots of weddings take place, camouflaged as ... a heterosexual wedding party. The groom? Why, of course, Nikolai Alekseev! And the bride walking arm-in-arm with "her" man? A young Belorussian gay activist dressed in a fine wedding gown. "She" and the groom passed very well, thank you, including through a few ranks of loitering policemen en route (thanks also to their rented limousine). Other groups of the "wedding party" converged from other directions.
As a rank and file participant in the protest lacking even basic Russian language skills, I didn't know the overall plan until it unfolded in a rolling manner, with groups of activists unfolding banners, flags and signs to a forest of media cameras. Shortly after each group revealed itself, Russian OMOH cops (their equivalent of SWAT police - yes, that's "HOMO" spelled backwards) waded through the sea of press and violently arrested the protesters.
Nikolai Baev, left, and Edward Murzin, right, talk to the press (while they can)
I was taken into custody for holding up a bilingual sign and rapidly taken to a waiting Moscow squadrol. I was soon joined by a few other protesters, at which time the police checked our identification documents. Apparently the police decided it was too much of a hassle to deal with a foreign national from the west, and they released me.
Not seeing the error of my ways, I went right back to a nearby corner where about 50+ press personnel were milling about filing their reports, identified myself to one of them as a protester, and began speaking to her about why I was proud to participate in the protest. This rapidly drew a gaggle of dozens more press around me. They knew better than I that speaking out in favor of gay rights on a street corner of Russia was a civil liberties train wreck waiting to happen, and they wanted to film it as the inevitable happened.
After a sentence or two praising the courage of Russian and Belorussian LGBT activists, I began speaking about how the police attack on gay and lesbian rights should be a concern of all Russians as it was an attack on their democratic freedoms. At just that point the OMOH cops grabbed and dragged me away, making my point much more effectively than any words I could have uttered.
By cleverly timing their event to coincide with Eurovision, which is probably Europe's highest-profile annual cultural event, Pride organizers scored an unprecedented victory for LGBT rights in Russia. Alekseev reports that this year's Pride gathered far more press than the very heavily covered events in previous years. By coinciding Pride with Eurovision, an event which should celebrate free expression not just in the arts, but everywhere, Pride organizers helped drive home the danger of the government's prohibition on the right of assembly for Russian gays and lesbians. The 4th annual gay Pride in Moscow was an unqualified success, with the political points of its organizers broadcast around the world, which can only serve to help isolate the anti-gay regime.
As I write this Sunday afternoon at the dining room table of a Russian flat, I'm surrounded by a joyous gathering of Russian LGBT activists celebrating the release of the last of the imprisoned, talking rapidly in Russian with me not understanding a word. That's okay. Their spirit is infectious, their determination to continue fighting clear.
Nikolai Alekseev celebrating his release with friends
I learned a ton from our Russian and Belorussian friends over the past few days. To say that it was a useful organizing experience is a huge understatement.
- Andy Thayer