MOSCOW (AFP) Gay Russians waving placards and rainbow flags demonstrated in central Moscow on Sunday in defiance of an official ban on gay pride events and abuse from far-right opponents.
The annual pride demonstration had been outlawed by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who has dubbed gay pride events "Satan's work," reflecting a strain of Russian society that remains suspicious of liberal values.
A police spokesman told AFP 36 people had been arrested at the event at which Russian Orthodox and far-right opponents hurled eggs at gay activists and, in one instance, were seen punching a gay man to the ground.
Those arrested were mainly opponents of the pride event rather than gay activists -- suggesting police were keen to minimise trouble rather than strictly enforce the ban.
The demonstration started with about 25 people gathering by a statue of 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, widely considered to have been gay.
"We came to bow before this great composer in this most symbolic place in the capital," gay rights leader Nikolai Alexeyev told the demonstrators.
"It is more symbolic than the building where the country's greatest homophobe sits," said Alexeyev, head of the Gay Russia organisation, referring to the Moscow mayor.
Sunday's event was timed to mark the May 27 anniversary of a 1993 change in the law that decriminalized homosexuality in Russia.
After meeting by the city's music conservatory, demonstrators, dressed in sober casual clothing and carrying a giant rainbow flag, moved to the mayor's imposing office building.
A group of gay activists unfurled a banner from a nearby balcony reading "Rights for Gays and Lesbians. Condemn the Moscow Mayor's Homophobia."
Police intervened, detaining those hurling abuse as well as some elderly ladies who were holding an anti-gay vigil on the pavement, dressed in headscarves and holding icons of Orthodox saints.
"Pederasts! Your place is in hell!" shouted one bearded demonstrator. Another demanded "Why this perversion in our Orthodox country?"
Alexeyev said one gay activist had been briefly detained.
In the two previous years the unauthorised annual demonstration has descended into violence, with participants punched and kicked by far-right youths.
This year's event saw fewer foreign activists attending, after previous years saw the arrest of European lawmakers and an attack on a grandson of the gay 19th century writer Oscar Wilde.
However one Canadian activist, Ken Coolen, told AFP: "We've decided to support our brothers and sisters here.
"To put so much effort and hatred into attempts to downtread human beings is so sad," said Coolen, from the organisation Vancouver Pride.
And the gay mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, sent a letter to Alexeyev voicing "absolute and complete support" and expressing hope that recent statements by Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, on the need for greater liberty would apply to homosexuals.
Medvedev stressed the need for greater liberty in Russia at his May 7 inauguration and has also repeatedly spoken of the need to establish the rule of law in Russia.
Afterwards Alexeyev hailed the event as a success.
"Our people showed that we are not only a force for gays but a political force and won't compromise on our rights," he told AFP.