Peter Tatchell of gay rights group Outrage looks back on a weekend where shame was brought on the Mayor of Moscow as activists celebrated Moscow Pride.

Russian gays have won an important moral and political victory. Yuri Luzhkov said a gay pride parade would never happen while he was Mayor of Moscow. But Moscow Pride did happen, on 27 May, despite the Mayor’s ban, police arrests, and violence from neo-fascists, right-wing nationalists and Orthodox Christian fundamentalists.

The vicious homophobic abuse and violence I witnessed on the streets of the Russian capital last Saturday shows why Moscow Pride is necessary.

The Mayor’s ban on Moscow Pride contradicts Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. It comes just a week after Russia assumed the Presidency of the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog that guarantees freedom of expression and assembly. Is Russia fit to hold the Presidency, or even be a member of the Council of Europe, if it wantonly violates fundamental freedoms, like the right to peaceful protest? President Putin’s silence is damning.

Moscow Pride has been a milestone in Russian lesbian and gay history. A handful of courageous gay Russians defied the authoritarian regime of Mayor Luzhkov. By insisting on the right to protest, they were defending more than gay rights. They were defending the democratic freedoms of all Russians, gay and straight.

Some gay people say Moscow Pride has stirred up trouble and provoked a backlash. But 20 years of quiet lobbying has achieved very little for Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The holding of Moscow Pride has been a catalyst for cultural change; generating more media coverage and debate about gay issues than the whole of the last decade combined. In terms of its impact on most ordinary Russians, it has been hugely successful in raising awareness, dispelling ignorance, challenging prejudice and promoting understanding and acceptance of lesbian and gay people.

Mayor Luzhkov’s overt and unapologetic homophobia has given a tacit green light to the homo hatred of the political and religious far right. The bigoted atmosphere he helped create fuelled the homophobic violence on the streets of Moscow last weekend.

On Russian Radio, on 26 May, Luzhkov sought to justify his ban on oscow Pride, citing moral objections: “I believe that such a parade is inadmissible in our country above all for moral considerations. People should not make public their deviations.”

He told an interviewer that gay pride parades are “absolutely unacceptable for Moscow, for Russia….As long as I am mayor, we will not permit these parades to be conducted.”

The Mayor went to extraordinary lengths to suppress the gay pride parade. To prevent it from taking place, he mobilised a quarter of the central Moscow police – over 1,000 officers.

Nevertheless, small groups of lesbian and gay Russians – and their international friends and supporters – did parade, as planned, in Manezhnaya Square by the Kremlin, on Moscow’s main shopping thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street, and at the Yuri Dolgoruky monument opposite the Mayor’s office, City Hall.

Moscow Pride was due to start by the Kremlin Wall in Alexander Gardens on the edge of Manezhnaya Square, at the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates Russians who died in the war against Nazi fascism from 1941-45. The Moscow Pride organisers wanted to lay flowers to highlight their opposition to the revival of fascism in Russia, including the violent homophobia of neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists.

When we arrived, the square was ringed by police and militia, and dotted with nearly 300 homophobic counter-protesters, including neo-fascist thugs, extreme nationalists and Russian Orthodox fanatics waving religious icons.

I was with the Moscow Pride coordinator, Nikolai Alekseev, and a few of his colleagues. We crossed the square to the Tomb. Each of us was carrying a bunch of flowers. Much to our surprise, the way was barred by locked gates. Apparently, the Moscow authorities thought it would be an insult to Russia’s war dead to allow gays to lay flowers. So

they closed the gates to the Tomb.

As we approached the locked gates, a dozen of us were set upon by 100 anti-gay protesters. They began shoving, punching, kicking and pelting us with eggs.

Our flowers and rainbow flags were snatched from our hands. They abused us with chants of ‘No sodomy in Moscow,’ ‘Death to fags,’ ‘Russia is not Sodom’ and ‘Put the pederasts on the iron’ (a reference to an ancient Russian method of executing gay men by forcing an iron rod up their anus). Initially, the police did nothing to protect us.

A phalanx of police and militia eventually broke up the melee; arresting Nikolai Alekseev. He was taken to a nearby police van. The rest of us were forced further up Manezhnaya Square by advancing lines of militia and police.

While the police were attempting to disperse us, we were repeatedly surrounded and abused by gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads. At least two people were physically attacked by the homophobic mobs.

About 20 of us re-assembled on the edge of Manezhnaya Square and attempted to follow the planned Moscow Pride route up Tverskaya Street to the Yuri Dolgoruky monument.

Some gay marchers did get through. We did not. Our path was blocked by groups of neo-fascists and ultra-nationalists; screaming homophobic threats and hurling smoke bombs and tear gas canisters.

We made a hasty retreat and left Manezhnaya Square via a different exit.

Meanwhile, some of the right-wing thugs, many of them masked, stormed up Tverskaya Street looking for gay and lesbian people to attack; lashing out indiscriminately at shoppers, including non-white passers-by. None of the assailants were detained by the police.

Our group made its way through the backstreets to the Yuri Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Street, opposite City Hall, to join the picket against the Mayor’s ban on Moscow Pride.

At the monument there were another 20 gay pride marchers. They had been attacked earlier by neo-fascists chanting ‘Gays and lesbians to Kolmya’, a reference to the gruesome gulag camp where dissidents were incarcerated and abused during the Soviet area.

The German gay Green MP, Volker Beck, was one of those who was bloodied, having been hit in the eye and on the nose. He was arrested but his attacker was not.

When the veteran Russian lesbian activist, Yevgenia Debryanskaya, tried to speak from the steps of the monument she was snatched by the police and bundled into a van.

By the time we arrived, helmeted OMON riot police, with flak jacketsand heavy truncheons, had pushed the neo-Nazis and nationalist extremists away from the monument and back into Tverskaya Street.

Having contained the right-wing bullies, the riot police turned on the gay pride marchers; driving us away from the monument, straight into an oncoming posse of about 20 fascists and skinheads.

Fortunately, we were strung out in ones and twos – and they didn’t seem to recognise us. We managed to escape down a side street, only narrowly avoiding another of the many gangs of homophobic thugs who seemed to be marauding around the city all afternoon with apparent impunity. Eventually, we found refuge at the nearby Bar Gogol.