Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Politics of Pride: The LGBT Movement and Post-Soviet Democracy

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Politics of Pride: The LGBT Movement and Post-Soviet Democracy

Article excerpt

Hoping to avoid violent conflict or confrontation after being denied an official permit to march through the streets of Moscow, a small group of gay and lesbian activists gathered peacefully at the entrance to the public park Aleksandrskii Sad on May 27, 2006 for the first gay pride event in Russian history. With the goal of undertaking a peaceful demonstration against homophobia and discrimination, they gathered for Moscow Pride as individual citizens, so as not to be charged with staging an illegal protest. However, they were over whelmingly outnumbered by police and protestors. As the marchers--some carrying rainbow flags or signs reading "Gay Rights," but most holding bouquets of red and white flowers--pressed together for safety, they were bombarded with verbal taunts that soon devolved into physical violence. While Russian Orthodox militants brandished ornate crosses and chanted, "Moscow--not Sodom," women bearing religious icons sang hymns and in termittently chided participants, "You will burn in hell for all eternity." In the face of intensifying violence, police looked on before making arrests--ultimately carting more marchers to the stations than violent protestors. As he was dragged to a police bus, primary organizer Nikolai Alexeyev shouted it was a victory.


What factors set the scene for this brutal confrontation that Western politicians and activists decried as an egregious breach of human rights? The Russian social scene tends to be antagonistic to the notion of organizing publically around issues of identity, particularly those of sexual orientation and gender identity. Official legislation decriminalizing homosexuality and allowing some social organizing after the collapse of the Soviet Union have by no means led to acceptance of gender non-normative people, or even, for many, a desire for visibility. Some activists' desire to stay in the shadows exists in conflict with the public endeavors by activists such as the organizers of Moscow Pride. An examination of the phenomenon of Moscow Pride and its proponents--particularly in light of the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling against the bans--can offer insight into the development of a human rights discourse in Russia and how this discourse connects to the country's developing civil society and disputed democracy. In undertaking this examination, it is first necessary to review the legal, institutional, and social factors stemming from the Soviet era that contribute to homophobia in Russia today.

A Culture of Silence

In 1933, the passing of Article 121 in the Soviet Criminal Code made sodomy a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison. The renowned Soviet writer Maxim Gorky hailed the new legislation as "a triumph of proletarian humanism," denigrating homosexual behavior as undermining the goals of revolutionary Communism. Homosexuality came to be reviled as a tool against the state, while proper heterosexual relationships were seen as both correct and patriotic.

The Russian attitude toward sex is often generalized with a reference to the Soviet woman's exclamation that Russia has no sex. Beyond the overarching enforcement of silence around sexuality revealed in this statement, an ingrained insistence on sexual normality was seen as key to furthering Communist ideals. Under these norms, the image of the good Soviet citizen was constructed as a hardworking proletarian, devoted to the Party, and absolutely and necessarily heterosexual. Because of static gender roles and the ideological responsibility of the Soviet couple to work during the day and produce children at night, homosexuality was perceived as defying both appropriate gendered behavior and the couple's responsibility to society.

In addition to the stigma attached to public discussions of sex and non-normative sexual behavior, the notion of organizing around identities was not accepted in Soviet society, largely because of the official line of negating the worth of the individual in favor of the collective. Sociologist Laurie Essig, who studied 1990s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trandgender (LGBT) activists for her ethnography Queer in Russia, wrote of the Soviet period that although taxonomies of gender, class, and ethnicity were prevalent, few people felt the need to publically self-identify, given how few individual identities were publicly permitted in Soviet Russia. Identities, like sexual behaviors, were meant to revolve around the Soviet state and alternatives were considered illegitimate or even dangerous. The state's focus on "the people" as a unified ideological group but not as distinguishable individuals reflected the largely fabricated ideal of the united collective.

Vestiges of such Soviet norms are responsible for a still-limited Russian discourse around sexuality, lack of acceptance of unconventional identities, and continued distrust of ideas of social organizing for change. In addition to skepticism of proper motives for public action, the attitude that sexuality is not something to be publically discussed remains prevalent. In a survey about why--not whether--the Moscow authorities were correct in banning the pride parade, the most common response was that intimate relations should not be publically displayed. This sentiment ties into Russia's enduring suspicion of things Western; indeed, stereotypes of Western immorality and imported images of feather-clad, half-naked men have tainted Russians' opinions of what it means to be gay. Furthermore, stigma around the AIDS epidemic as an immoral disease "imported from the West" is often directed at gay men to fuel arguments for their Western-imported immorality. Additionally, the resurgent popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church as representing Russian traditionalism has also played a role in propagating homophobic attitudes.

Another factor fueling anti-gay sentiment around pride parades, often utilizing anti-gay religious discourse, has been the vociferous denunciations of former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Though Luzhkov has now been dismissed by President Medvedev and replaced by the more moderate Sergei Sobyanin, the former mayor's denigration of homosexuality--calling it "satanic," the cause of the HIV epidemic in Russia, and propagandizing its immorality, among other things--led many to attribute the degree of violence and lack of police intervention disturbing each parade to Luzhkov's disavowal of the march. Ongoing condemnation of gay pride events thus represents retained cultural attitudes and legislative limitations originating from Soviet times. While some degree of organizing was attempted in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the repeal of Article 121 in 1993 and increased social permissions and openness accompanying perestroika and glasnost, many organizations from the early 1990s were disbanded by the end of the decade due to internal conflict and Russia's 1998 economic crisis.

After a decline in gay and lesbian activism in the late 1990s, the latent movement did not publically reemerge until 2005, when the announcement of the upcoming pride parade evoked homophobic antipathy and condemnation of public displays with unprecedented force. Since the eruption of violence that marked the first Moscow Pride in 2006, each subsequent year has seen similar institutional roadblocks and societal opposition. The only year that was not marred by violence and arrests was 2010, when activists deliberately threw authorities off track by publicizing one time and place for their march, but gathering elsewhere for a "flash mob" and dispersing before police or protestors could intervene. While the extensive public antipathy to a gay movement is explained by historical factors as well as Russian cultural attitudes, perhaps more surprising is the aversion to the parades even within the Russian LGBT community.

A Movement Divided

Nikolai Alexeyev, the director of the LGBT Project and main organizer of the five Moscow pride parades, has emerged at the forefront of the public movement. His confrontational tactics, as well as what is often criticized as his arrogant commandeering of the movement, have alienated not only anti-gay opponents, but LGBT Russians as well. Members of the gay community have objected that his bold public actions defy Russian notions of acceptable behavior and are counterproductive to the aims of the movement, succeeding only in further angering an already homophobic population. Recent allegations of anti-Semitic statements on Alexeyev's blog have reinforced the controversy around him, fueling distaste on the part of other activists. In general, some fear that increasing publicity via his provoking methods could heighten intolerance rather than acceptance, while others believe visibility is not the most important right to fight for.


After the religious antagonism and attacks at the time of the first parade, some gay activists referred to the plans as "suicidal," while others released a statement calling the parade dangerous, untimely, and shocking. Ed Mishin, who owns a gay-themed business, voiced his concern that the parade would be more likely to incite further hostility than to offer a peaceful venue for the promotion of awareness, arguing that organizing this amid such deep homophobia and hatred is irresponsible, at least until society is ready for it in the coming years.


Though the idea of gay pride in Russia has been dominated by Alexeyev's personality, not all activists are categorically against the parades in and of themselves. Valery Sozaev, who studies intersections of religion and LGBT identity, writes that while he dislikes the tactics by which the parades have been organized, he believes visibility is important to fostering acceptance. Yet he says that the idea of coming out in a declaration of pride, particularly regarding a stigmatized identity, seems inconceivable to many Russians. Most members of the LGBT community and society at large, he writes, do not comprehend the notion of "gay pride," or understand what gay people could have to be proud of in the first place. Polina Savchenko, a lesbian activist with the community- and research-focused organization Coming Out, agreed that although visibility is important to gaining acceptance in a traditionally intolerant society, the loud public activism of advocates like Alexeyev has proved more detrimental than advantageous to the movement as a whole. She notes in an email that people doubt they can make a difference and have a weak understanding of social responsibility, adding that Alexeyev's tactics have not helped attract people to the public nature of his movement.

In addition to individuals' skepticism of public displays and distaste for Alexeyev's seemingly self-aggrandizing displays, many believe that free assembly is not the most important right that the LGBT movement should push for. Russian sexologist Igor Kon has argued that the publicity around the parades has detracted from more serious struggles for LGBT rights, causing the truly important issues to be ignored. He notes that Russian authorities and their Western critics treat the issues of sexual minorities as merely a question of whether Gay Pride parades should be permitted, rather than addressing why and how to combat homophobia, given social taboos and political neglect of the subject.

Alexeyev, inevitably, would disagree. He defends his tactics as successfully opening discussion on a topic that has until now been shrouded in silence, and defends himself as an activist not only for LGBT rights, but also for human rights in general. Despite the violence and controversy that have defined both the pride parades and Alexeyev's role in their execution, it appears that the demonstrations have largely succeeded in the goal of increasing internal and international discussion on sexuality, and drawing the attention of Western politicians and human rights organizations to the plight of Russian LGBT citizens. The amount of news coverage alone has drastically increased since Alexeyev announced his intention to organize Russia's first pride parade, a fact Alexeyev links to enhanced international notice in general. "Moscow Pride has been a campaign which was supposed to attract maximum attention to the rights of LGBT people," he said at a speech given at Columbia University in March 2011, adding that press coverage of the pride parades, though not always favorable, has at least gotten people talking about LGBT rights. Of the sudden and high-level media attention to the first pride he said, "It was from this point they started to take gay activists seriously."

Alexeyev has described a two-pronged approach to his branch of activism. In addition to the direct action work of the pride parades themselves, which aim to focus attention on violations of LGBT rights "by all possible means," he described the legal approach that has propelled him, as a lawyer as well as an activist, to submit 168 cases against the Russian government for failing to recognize LGBT rights to the European Court of Human Rights. While most have yet to be reviewed, the European Court ruled on October 21, 2010 that Russian authorities violated the articles of the European Convention which require states to ensure the rights to freedom of assembly and association, the right to effective remedy, and prohibition of discrimination, by banning the pride parades of 2006, 2007, and 2008. In the ruling, the Court observed that the authorities' main rationale for banning the marches appeared to be their disapproval of the promotion of homosexuality, directed by the "strong personal opinions" of the mayor. Accordingly, the Court determined that the government had discriminated against Alexeyev based on his sexual orientation and ordered the government to pay Alexeyev approximately US$40,000 in damages and costs. The Moscow City Government has submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the ruling, but activists feel confident that it will be denied.

Although Alexeyev's methods have been met with contempt from opponents of gay rights and aversion from many members of the gay community, Alexeyev's apparent success in obtaining both international attention and a European Court of Human Rights ruling in his favor suggest that his methods may have merit in spite of their unsavory qualities. Nonetheless, the combination of a deeply rooted distaste for unconventional sexuality and an inability to grasp the usefulness of publicly discussing social problems of minority identity, along with a culturally specific notion of appropriate public demonstrations, continue to inform the enduring antipathy toward sexual minorities in general, and particularly toward those who seem to force their sexual deviance into the public domain. Still, Alexeyev and his allies believe it is in the best interests of the LGBT movement to risk violence and arrest to gain visibility and highlight the extent of oppression, persecution, and continued prosecution in Russia.

Implications for Russian Democracy

While the coupled limitations of an authoritarian anti-individual regime and an intolerant public attitude toward sex in general were characteristic of the non-democratic political structure of the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia is cast as a democratic society--albeit a sovereign democracy that consciously rejects western constructions of democracy in favor of a single ruler and a strong state system. Nevertheless, a report by the research organization Russian LGBT Network notes that Russia's Constitution declares it as a democratic state, one bound by its laws and in which human rights and freedoms take supreme value--as such, the state is obligated to recognize, observe, and protect said rights and freedoms of its citizens. The report thus makes the point that the country is obligated under these qualifications to recognize and respect its citizens' ideological diversity, equality in their public associations, and official separation of church and state.

With Russia's constitutional commitment to democratic ideology, Alexeyev argues, the country must include gay pride parades among its institutionalized protections. Having argued that LGBT Russians deserve the rights to freedom of speech and assembly just as other Russian citizens do, Alexeyev states the parade participants have managed the great feat of not only introducing LGBT rights to the political agenda in Russia, but also setting themselves at the forefront of human rights advocacy in Russia in general. Just as this discourse of human rights and democracy has constituted a founding principle of Alexeyev's push for pride parades, Russian sexologist Igor Kon has argued that a country's level of acceptance for sexual minorities is inextricably linked to the general level of social toleration and the common perception of human rights in one's society. While gay rights are a human rights issue that a democratic society would address in open debate, Kon contends that this notion is foreign to Russian cultural attitudes.

Nonetheless, Peter Tatchell, a British activist and politician who was brutally attacked as police looked on at the 2007 parade, said that the world must not shut its eyes to the human rights abuses in what he described as "the most homophobic country in Europe." Defending the usefulness of the parades in combating biased attitudes and spreading notions of equality and acceptance, Tatchell said, "What happened here shows the flawed and failed nature of Russia's transition to democracy ... This isn't just about protecting the rights of the gay and lesbian community, it's about the rights of all Russians to democratic freedoms." Despite a history of political strictures and cultural constraints against homosexuality and social organizing, post-Soviet Russia must, as Tatchell argues, respect the rights of all its citizens, including LGBT Russians.

Thus, Russia's embrace of democracy remains tentative at best and dubious at worst. Russia remains a culture accustomed to silence around sexual issues, adherence to conservative and often religious ideals, and a low capacity for social and economic development. Still, if Russia is to live up to the democratic values it now ostensibly promotes, it must act ill accord with its ties to the European Convention on Human Rights. While the Russian government may be hesitant to embrace the increasingly accepted international discourse on human rights, if the country hopes to maintain its role on the Western stage, it must at least recognize the impact of this discourse on its own social and political constituents and its legitimacy as a modern actor.

What's Next?

Though the tie between social tolerance and political democracy seems apparent, the gay pride parades remain contentious within the schema of fighting toward these goals. The removal of the socially intolerant Moscow Mayor Luzhkov seems to have opened up the capital to a future with more European ties and a growing democratic tradition, but whether this will come to fruition under the new mayor remains to be seen. Moscow's political future will inevitably exact influence on the social standing of the Russian LGBT community. But many fear that the past mistakes of its more radical constituents will impede the community's development from reaching the highest potential.

By focusing on the ritual frame of a celebratory parade, Alexeyev has alienated a broad spectrum of the Russian population--including many LGBT-identifying Russians--and by calling on Western supporters to bear witness to their situation, he has only deepened many Russians' suspicions of his agenda. While Alexeyev maintains that his movement has succeeded in obtaining a European legal decision against Moscow, seen the removal of Luzhkov, and made significant public progress in general, the differing ideas of what desired progress is speaks to the conflict between international notions of human rights and internal beliefs about how to live in accordance with existing Russian cultural values. The question of whether the advances gained for LGBT Russians will prove more valuable than the slower progress of a less confrontational but more cohesive movement remains to be seen.


Recent months have brought developments to the public side of Russia's movement for LGBT rights that will undoubtedly have ramifications for both sets of activists. Many LGBT Russians hope that these developments indicate a trend of positive change. As May 28, 2011, the projected date for the sixth Moscow Pride, approaches, Russia is now under more international scrutiny to continue to recognize LGBT human rights. Yet Mayor Sobyanin has stated his belief that Moscow "does not need" a pride parade--albeit noting that this is his personal opinion and will not contradict constitutional protections--and ongoing controversy around Alexeyev's motives may continue to hinder rather than help public opinions on Russia's LGBT population. Thus, it is unclear how these recent developments, however monumental considering the movement's past, will affect its future.

staff writer


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