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. …