By Matt Simonette
Staff writer - 10/10/2007 - Chicago Free Press - LINK
When Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev looks back on the last few years, he can be brutally honest.
“If I knew in 2005, (that) it would have taken so long, I don’t know if I would have started,” he said last week.
Alexeyev spoke Oct. 3 about the frustrating struggle GLBTs have been waging for equality in Russia at a talk sponsored by the Gay Liberation Movement at Berger Cultural Center in Edgewater.
He described an often-uphill struggle against Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has opposed GLBT rights in Russia. Earlier this year, Luzhkov called gay people “satanic” and his opposition to attempts to hold Moscow gay Pride celebrations in 2006 and 2007 resulted in violence and arrests.
When homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, according to Alexeyev, the Russian gay community was not quite ready for what would come next.
“To reach decriminalization was the final goal. No one was thinking about anything else,” he added.
He said that the decriminalization came about not so much because of sudden societal concern for human rights in Russia, but because the country needed to align its human rights laws with those in western Europe, adding that most Russians were apathetic to human rights issues that did not concern them.
He described the attitude of most Russians as being, “As soon as I realize it doesn’t touch me, I just don’t care.”
Russian human rights activists have been slow to step up to the GLBT cause.
“Most of them were dissidents in Soviet times and were brought up in an era when this was illegal,” Alexeyev said.
But GLBT rights, in just two years’ time, have slowly been coming to the fore in activist circles. Alexeyev called the battle “the first front in the fight for human rights in Russia” since GLBTs have been the only group willing to take their struggle to the courts.
“Other groups never appeal in (Russian) courts or European courts,” he added.
He noted the irony that violence initiated by protesters at the Pride celebrations resulted in activist arrests. While not officially sanctioned, the government tends to look askance at intolerant extremists.
“It’s fine with (the government) that they exist. It keeps the people in fear,” Alexeyev said.
He added that, under Russian law, the Pride gatherings were completely legal.
“They put it into federal lawthere is no way to ban a peaceful event,” Alexeyev said. But, both of the past two years, he was arrested anyway.
In 2006, he was held for three hours.
“They have the right to (detain) you for three hours to find out who you are,” Alexeyev said.
In 2007, he was held for 24 hours.
“The official reason was that we were standing in the road, and we disobeyed the police orders to step aside,” Alexeyev said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been noncommittal. When he was asked about gay rights by a French journalist, Alexeyev said, Putin essentially “didn’t say anything.”
Nevertheless, referring to right-wing Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who has been openly anti-gay, Alexeyev added, “(Putin) at least is the not like the Polish president. Putin is not like that.”
Ultimately, Russian GLBT rights might depend on support from the rest of the world.
Alexeyev said he expects Moscow authorities to gradually change their perspectives as other European countries soften their stance on gay rights.
“The more places that are doing it, the more authorities in Moscow are under pressure to do the same,” he said. “Whatever we’re doing in Moscow would not be possible without international help.”
International attention to the struggle, Alexeyev added, shows Moscow authorities “that the world is watching what is going on.”