Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday spoke in public for the first time ever about gays – but interpretations diverge about the meaning of what he said.
By: DOUG IRELAND | Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday spoke in public for the first time ever about gays – but interpretations diverge about the meaning of what he said.
At his annual, nationally televised winter press conference February 1, before an audience of hundreds – mostly Russian, but including foreign correspondents as well – Putin was asked by a correspondent from Agence France Presse for his opinion about Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's condemnation of Gay Pride parades as “satanic.”
“My approach towards gay parades and sexual minorities is very simple,' Putin replied, according to Reuters. “It is directly linked to my responsibilities. One of the key problems of our country is the demographic problem.”
At that point, the Reuters report continued, “The auditorium exploded in laughter and applause. The Kremlin leader quickly added, 'I respect the freedom of people in all respects. What was the other question?'”
Mayor Luzhkov – whose police broke up the 2006 attempt to hold a Moscow Gay Pride demonstration – had said the previous Monday, “Last year, Moscow came under unprecedented pressure to sanction the gay parade, which can be described in no other way than as satanic. We did not let the parade take place then, and we are not going to allow it in the future.”
On its English-language Web site, Russia's Novosti press agency – considered to be under the Putin regime's control – headlined its report on the president's remarks: “PUTIN SIGNALS SUPPORT FOR LUZHKOV'S GAY PARADE BAN,” adding in the text of its report that Putin had “avoided a direct answer, but signaled his support for Yuri Luzhkov” – but without citing any specifics.
However, Nikolai Alekseev – the principal organizer of Moscow Gay Pride 2006- chose to put a positive spin on Putin's remarks, issuing a press release hailing them as a “great breakthrough.” Alekseev's communiqué added, “The president made it clear that he respects the rights of sexual minorities- and another ban of the Gay Pride will contradict what the president said.”
Moreover, Alekseev's press release said, “The words of the president have cost us two years of hard, everyday work. We were expecting slightly more from him, but we accomplished the main thing – because of the mere idea of Gay Pride [the] Russian president started to talk about sexual minorities.”
Most Western media put a neutral spin on Putin's remarks, avoiding both Novosti's interpretation that the president supports Luzhkov's ban on Gay Pride and Alekseev's claim that he had stated his respect for “the rights of sexual minorities.”
And the Western press interpreted Putin's remark about “demographics” as a joke at Russian gays' expense – as did the audience at the president's press conference.
Alekseev is the courageous 29-year-old lawyer and gay activist who organized Moscow's Gay Pride demonstration last May 27. Luzhkov's police arrested dozens of gay men and lesbians that day, Alekseev included, and permitted gangs of fascist thugs to attack the gay crowd of some 200 with impunity. Among the many who were injured was Volker Beck, a gay member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. (See this reporter's article “Police, Fascists Crush Moscow Pride,” Gay City News, June 1, 2006.)
Asked whether any Russian media had echoed his gay-positive interpretation of Putin's remarks, Alekseev, speaking in English from Moscow, told Gay City News: “The headlines in the electronic media varied from 'Putin linked gays to demography' and 'Gays responsible for low birth rate' to 'Putin respects gays,' 'Putin made gays happy,' 'Putin respects freedoms in all forms,' etc. You can see that the reaction was mixed, but at least it was not massively negative, most of the time it was neutral or even positive. Though we must admit that we did not understand what Putin thinks on Gay Prides. One politician said to the Kommersant newspaper: 'I did not understand whether Putin supports Gay Pride or not. I personally do not.'”
Alekseev went on to say that Putin's remarks on gays were “the first-ever statement of Putin or of any Russian leader in all the history of the country. He admitted on the state level that gays exist, which was not admitted before. I talked to many people after this press conference and many gays are very happy that Putin talked on gays for the first time.”
“The statements of Putin put new challenges for us,” Alekseev continued. “It is like a two-year period of fight is over, and we now begin a new era from a new starting point. I think the comments of the media and politicians on gays will be more balanced now. This is politics, and whatever Putin thinks on gays he did not express any hatred like the mayor of Moscow is always doing. I think we have to wait for May 27 this year to see if Putin really respects gay liberties, when there will be a chance to demonstrate it in practice.”
The events this coming May 27 – chosen again because it is the anniversary of the 1993 decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia – will, Alekseev promised, include a festival, conference, and cultural events beginning May 25 and culminating in a Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, the 27th.
The theme of this year's Moscow Pride, Alekseev said, will be “LGBT Rights Are Human Rights.” He told Gay City News, “We want mainstream human rights organizations to start to work on LGBT issues as well, which they have previously ignored. And we are starting to get a good response from these mainstream human rights organizations, who are ready to support us in May this year.”
On January 29, having exhausted appeals in the Russian court system against Mayor Luzhkov's ban, Alekseev and Moscow Pride organizers filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, arguing that the Pride ban violated three separate human rights articles of the European Constitution, and asking that the Russian Federation be made to pay 20,000 Euros – some $26,000 – in compensation for its failure to protect the right of gays to demonstrate.
“Not a single European legal expert we have spoken with doubts the success of our application to the European Court,” Alekseev said.
As a result of the huge publicity around last year's Moscow Pride and the violent repression of it, Alekseev explained, Russian media coverage of gays “is getting better. Two years ago we could not imagine media here talking so much about gays in Russia. And this is the most important. We got a lot of press for our court actions against the mayor, and for our protest at the Iranian Embassy last July. After that the wave went down, but since we launched the court application in Strasbourg, and since Luzhkov's and Putin's remarks, the coverage has started to increase again. I can already say that now at this point we have more than a year ago at the same time.”
This has resulted in “More and more people in and around Moscow coming forward who want to help organize this year's Pride,” Alekseev said, pointing to one happy result of the new attention to gay issues. And, he said, there have even been signs of change in parts of Russia far from Moscow.
“We had attempts by local activists to register their gay organizations in two regions-in Omsk and in Tumen,” he said of two areas north of Kazakhstan, at the western end of Siberia. “All applications were denied on technical reasons and they are continuing to fight for that. It just proves that people in other cities are starting to wake up.”
Yet life remains dire for gays outside Moscow. Two Russian gay men were granted asylum this week in France as sexual refugees because of police persecution, the French gay magazine TETU reported Tuesday in its daily e-bulletin. One, a 44-year-old man from Glazov – a city of 100,000 located on the Trans-Siberian Railway line in Russia's far east – was severely beaten by police there because he is gay.
The other, 25, from Kaliningrad, a seaport enclave on the Baltic between Poland and Lithuania, was arrested in a gay cruising area by police, who tortured him.
The two gay Russians were represented in their successful asylum claim by ARDHIS (Association pour la Reconnaissance des Droits des personnes Homosexuelles et transsexuelles à l'Immigration et au Séjour), an eight-year-old French organization that fights for political asylum for LGBT victims of persecution.
Alekseev, invited as an honored guest to Pride celebrations in London, Paris, Turin, Berlin, and other foreign cities after the violent repression of last year's Moscow Pride, underscored to Gay City News that “world solidarity in LGBT movements is vital. If we did not have this solidarity for Moscow Pride we would never have what we have now, with even the president beginning to speak about sexual minorities.”
Alekseev explained he has traveled to 30 countries “trying to bring my knowledge and expertise to gays in other nations. Here, we joined solidarity actions on Iran which were very effective, and we are supporting similar actions in relation to other countries. Even in Russia we live in a much freer country and society than many others do, and we have to help progress LGBT equality in the world. Some people can only dream to have what we have here. But they are being prosecuted, executed, killed, harassed without any hope for the better life. It is our obligation to help them and to raise these issues all the time at all levels.”
The Russian activist was critical of U.S. gay groups.
“I know very well that American organizations are not much involved in the international struggle,” he told Gay City News. “This is really a shame. We got many promises from the U.S. organizations but it has never materialized in real help.”
And, Alekseev added, “I will always be on the side of activists and people who try to change their situations radically, no matter where they live. Even here in Russia I am representing the radical wing of the LGBT movement. I am convinced that no one will bring us what we want, we have to take it ourselves.”
Asked about his evolution as a gay activist, Alekseev said, “My coming out was relatively gradual and I can't give an exact date. It was around the time of my scientific research on the rights of sexual minorities at Lomonosov Moscow State University, for which I was expelled. I started to be interested in the rights of sexual minorities professionally at the university because I was studying law. This sphere was not developed in Russia at all and I started to be very interested to work on it. Then I published two books on this, but I gradually started to realize that I would not change the situation in Russia in such a way. So, I started to think about launching an LGBT human rights organization, which we did in 2005.”
Moscow Gay Pride is still struggling to pay off a massive debt of some $30,000 from last year's events – and, said Alekseev, “We are still not sure how we will finance this year's Pride because we have only promises but no money to do it.”
For more information, or to find out how to help, visit the English-language Web site run by Alekseev and his comrades, http://www.gayrussia.ru/en/.
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.