The death of ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko has raised questions about the state of Russian society, but gay rights campaigner, Nikolai Alekseev, has also uncovered hostile elements of homophobia simmering under the facade of democracy. Cliff James reports.

Nikolai Alekseev, the Russian gay rights activist who organised Moscow Pride 2006, was presented with an award “for his courage in challenging homophobia in Russia and beyond” by the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) in London last month.

In his acceptance speech, Alekseev, 29, spoke about this year’s Moscow Pride and urged gay Britons to show their solidarity with gay Russians by attending next year’s Pride in Moscow on 27th May 2007.

“Come to Moscow, come to support us. It’s a very nice city; it’s a very tolerant city,” he said after he had received his award.

“Sometimes there is a need to fight for the rights, there is a need to accept the problems which we had, and to solve them, and to try to make it better next year. And only with the help of the Western community, with the help of the activists from abroad and the people from abroad that we can make some progress in Russia.”

The Gay Pride march in May this year was officially banned by the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, “for the protection of health and morality” and for “the rights and freedoms of other people.”

Undeterred by this ban, Alekseev and several supporters from the international gay community, including Peter Tatchell of the UK-based group Outrage!, attended Moscow for the march. Alekseev was arrested by the Moscow police for attempting to lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin.

Alekseev confessed that this homage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was as much a personal tribute to his own grandfather who died fighting against the Nazis, as it was a political symbol for gay rights. “My grandfather died in the Second World War defending his country against fascism,” he said.

However, Alekseev explains that it is now the fascist groups which want to ban gay Pride happening in Moscow: “The main opposition is coming from national extreme far right organisations, with a neo-Nazi agenda.”

Right-wing skin-head groups had fired flares and smoke bombs at the Pride marchers in May, and had beaten up a number of supporters. Reports from the day say that there were about one thousand riot police officers stationed near Red Square. Eye-witnesses said that the police did little to prevent the assaults on the marchers.

Alekseev says that it is the Church which is the real force behind the banning of Pride in Moscow: “I think that a very important thing is that it’s about the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church which is enormous now,” he said. “Now they have become very powerful, and they are dictating lots of things in society, and the morals of society.” In March this year, Patriarch Alexius II of the Russian Orthodox Church wrote to the Moscow Mayor congratulating him on his decision to ban Gay Pride. With enemies like these, Nikolai Alekseev needs as much help as he can get.

Fortunately, some big guns from the world of entertainment have already indicated their willingness to help. In an interview with The Observer, Sir Elton John said that he would like to be involved with a Gay Pride concert in Moscow to challenge the “huge anti-gay movement” in Russia. Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters has also expressed a desire to play at Moscow Pride 2007.

Nikolai Alekseev is delighted with this support. “I am inviting people to next year’s Pride,” he said. “If it stops now we will be pushed back ten years. If we continue we will reach our goal – a legal pride – in five years. Russian courts have dismissed all the complaints about the illegality of the ban, and we are now preparing for the European Court of Human Right’s case. We are absolutely sure we will win.”

But Alekseev is clear that any victory for gay rights in Russia depends upon the solidarity of the international gay community.

As a final message to the British people, he said: “we should move forward with the help of the Western people, with the help of people who are ready to come and are courageous enough to take part in this event. You need to be courageous; you need to be brave; you need to be an activist. People need to be ready to be insulted and arrested but it will be different when it is legal.”

For more information about Nikolai Alekseev and Project Gay Russia, or visit http://www.gayrussia.ru/en/