Nikolai Alexeyev tells New Yorkers why he remains an optimist
BY DEAN WRZESZCZ | As Russia’s foremost LGBT leader, founder of the advocacy group GayRussia (GayRussia.eu), and head of the Moscow Pride Organizing Committee, Nikolai Alexeyev has been subject to interrogations, arrests, beatings, and even abduction. All but one of the five annual unsanctioned Moscow Pride demonstrations since 2006 have met with police brutality and violence perpetrated by ultra-right counter-protestors.
Immediately upon his arrival in the US in late February, Alexeyev became the subject of considerable controversy over a statement on his blog, which had already been removed, regarding the State of Israel’s support for Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, in his final days in office — a statement some charged was anti-Semitic.
Alexeyev addressed these subjects and more on March 2, when he spoke to a gathering of Queer Rising, a direct action group, at the LGBT Community Center as part of his US tour to promote support for Russia’s struggling LGBT community and its upcoming 2011 Moscow Pride.
The self-assured 33-year-old Alexeyev admitted to naiveté in his early days as an activist. With Russia having decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, he said, “I thought I would be able to change everything in a year.”
But with the mindsets of many stuck in the Soviet era and Vladimir Putin substituting religious orthodoxy for the previous ideological rigidness as a means of social control, homophobia remained strong, and Alexeyev recognized the LGBT movement had to start with the basics.
“Before we can expect changes regarding hate crimes or same-sex marriage,” he said, “we must first make Russia respect freedoms that we are already entitled to under the Russian Constitution — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. We must do this first, or we can go no further.”
He now regards his broad range of activist endeavors — in organizing, public awareness, and court challenges — as “investments in the future.”
As an attorney, Alexeyev has brought many cases against the Russian government before the European Court of Human Rights, including a successful challenge to Moscow’s denial of permits for gay pride gatherings from 2006 to 2009. The unanimous eight-judge ruling issued October 21 of last year — Alexeyev noted with satisfaction that even the Russian judge supported his challenge — found violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and awarded him damages of roughly $16,000 and expenses of about $24,000.
The Russian government has appealed that ruling, but Alexeyev expects that gambit to be dismissed prior to this year’s scheduled Moscow Pride on May 28.
“Gays are not the only ones being suppressed” in Russia, he acknowledged, but insisted that other human rights activists have greater freedom to air their grievances.
“Gays have no way to express themselves,” he said. “If you are gay, lesbian, homosexual, you are blacklisted.”
Blacklisting was something Alexeyev risked being subjected to in his US visit as well, once news of the Israel-Mubarak blog post went viral during his first 48 hours in this country. The post, translated from Russian, was first disseminated by Scott Long, a longtime Alexeyev nemesis who is the former head of the LGBT desk at Human Right Watch. Long called the language Alexeyev used “troubling” — a formulation favored by Long — and urged the Russian activist to publicly explain himself.
The post at issue read: “The Israeli Prime Minster urged Western leaders to support Egyptian dictator Mubarak… And who after this are the Jews? In fact, I always knew who they were.”
California sponsors of an appearance by Alexeyev, including Equality California, the state’s leading LGBT lobby, moved quickly to cancel the event, charging the Russian “made anti-Semitic remarks against Jewish people.”
As he had the evening before during a talk at Columbia University, Alexeyev, in response to a question, addressed the controversy at the LGBT Community Center.
“I realize I didn’t choose my words carefully,” he conceded, but made a distinction between his objections to the policy of the Israeli government and any sweeping generalization about Jewish people. He also questioned why Long had not immediately objected to his allegedly anti-Semitic post at the end of January, but instead waited nearly a month until Alexeyev arrived in the US.
“I have respect for everyone,” Alexeyev said. “My comments were misinterpreted.” He explained that the blog post was “directed against the Israeli government. When I used the words 'Jews,’ some people took that to mean that I meant all the Jews in the world.”
The Russian activist spent considerable time at the Center explaining how his movement maintains visibility in the face of harsh crackdowns by Moscow officials. Beginning in 2008, he said, Moscow Pride adopted what he humorously described as “James Bond” tactics in order to stay a step ahead of officials. That year, one portion of the Pride group staged a flash mob near a famous statue of Tchaikovsky while others unfurled a protest banner from the third floor of a building opposite City Hall.
The banner included disparaging remarks about the aggressively homophobic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who had characterized gay parades as “Satanic” and out LGBT Russians as “weapons of mass destruction.” With the banner, the Pride group garnered significant media attention while avoiding the violence that would have resulted from trying to bring the same message to the streets surrounding City Hall.
The following year, the Moscow activists played host to Slavic Pride, a joint project of gay groups in Russia and Belarus. The event was planned on the same day as the Eurovision Song Contest, a huge media event taking place in Moscow that year. The organizers hoped once again to outwit officials by announcing a scheduled location, then changing the venue at the last minute. Police, however, caught up with the group and made numerous arrests, including Alexeyev, British activist Peter Tatchell, and Chicago gay leader Andy Thayer, who was the Russian’s host in the US and on hand at the Center.
His arrest at that event, during which he became separated from the rest of his group, Alexeyev explained, was one of the two times in his activism that he has feared for his life. He was held overnight and subjected to hours of interrogations.
Last fall, he was abducted outside normal police protocol at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, while preparing to board a flight for Geneva, after which he was spirited to another location and held for three days.
The Moscow Pride demonstration in 2010 avoided the violence of the previous year, Alexeyev explained, thanks to further cloak and dagger tactics. Activists flooded blogs and websites with false information about the intended location of their demonstration. As police set up blockades and closed down metro stations in an attempt to quash the protest, the activists gathered in a flash mob along one of Moscow’s main streets and were able to march for 15 minutes carrying a 20-meter-long rainbow flag. The delay in the authorities catching on to the subterfuge allowed the activists to disperse without suffering any violence or arrests after having scored significant international press attention.
Noting that LGBT Russians face both violence and the potential loss of their jobs by protesting, Alexeyev said the numbers who are willing to march has waned, now amounting to no more than 30. Still, he underscored, visibility is crucial, no matter how small in scope or scale.
“We need the support of international activists,” he said.
As one willing to make “investments in the future,” Alexeyev remains optimistic. The city’s new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, told the Moscow News, “The city does not need gay Pride marches,” but the activist noted he qualified that statement by saying it was his own personal opinion. Should the European Court reaffirm its earlier ruling against Moscow’s Pride ban prior to this year’s planned event, Alexeyev gleans a window of opportunity there.
Either way, he said, “Russia must realize that on May 28, 2011, the world will be watching.”