Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network reports from Moscow in the run-up to Slavic Pride

MOSCOW: After 14 hours of flights, last night I found myself in Eastern Europe for the first time in my life, warmly greeted by lesbian and gay activists who, despite state repression, are organising their fourth annual pride event in this city. This year’s event is dubbed ‘Slavic Pride’, denoting the significant participation of activists from around the region.

The previous three years’ events have gone forward despite bans from the authorities and violence from neo-fascists in Russian orthodox and skinhead garb. This year the authorities not only banned the Pride event, but for good measure, approved the anti-gays’ application to hold their own event last Tuesday.

That same day, our Moscow friends countered with their own unsanctioned action at the Department of Registration of Acts of Civil Status – an attempt by two lesbian activists to get a marriage licence. Leading Slavic Pride activist Nikolai Alekseev said the action was inspired in part by a February civil disobedience action at a marriage licence bureau in Chicago. The Moscow action received widespread international press coverage, including the New York Times.

As I shadowed Alekseev around the city last night, press coverage if anything seemed to build, with Nikolai’s two cell phones ringing incessantly and meetings with Finnish and Slovenian journalists held near midnight just outside of Red Square.

Slavic Pride is slated for this Saturday, amidst the Eurovision final being hosted this year by Moscow. For those not familiar with what Eurovision is, think American Idol times ten, with a profusion of media coverage and street banners that puts Chicago’s 2016 Olympics bid hype to shame.

While our specific plans for Saturday are necessarily secret at this time, the aim is to cause maximum embarrassment to the government if they attempt to arrest us or allow the neo-fascists to attack.

In response to Moscow activists’ application for a permit this year, police chief Vladmir Pronin told the Russian news agency Interfax that gay pride parades in the capital are “unacceptable – gay pride parades shouldn’t be allowed”.

“No one will dare to do it, such ‘brave-heart’ will be torn to shreds,” he added. “The West can say we’re bad guys, but our people will see it is right.

“Our country is patriarchal, that’s [sic] sums it up … I positively agree with the Church, with the Patriarch, politicians, especially with [Mayor] Luzhkov, who are convinced that man and woman should love each other. It is established by God and nature.”

However, Moscow Pride organizers have vowed to move forward with this year’s Pride event despite the police chief’s threats.

“Mr Pronin already showed his incompetency last year when his services were unable to prevent us unveiling a banner directed against the Mayor, right opposite his office,” said Alekseev.

The main pride event successfully took place nearby at the monument to the famous Russian gay composer, Peter Tchkaivosky, while the authorities and neo-fascists were hoodwinked in to thinking that it would take place outside of homophobic Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s office.

Today at the start of a gay rights conference at an undisclosed location east of the city, I was joined by British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and LGBT activists from around Russia and Belorussia – Minsk, Rostof, Sochi, Ufa, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, Ekaterinbourg, Volgodonsk, Ryazan and of course Moscow.

As we gathered on a coach to go to the conference, Moscow activist Nikolai Baev explained how a group of young activists from Ryazan, about 200 miles south of the capital, got involved in organizing this year’s Slavic Pride:

“There is a very discriminatory law in the Ryazan region which prohibits so-called propaganda about homosexuality and among minors. The law passed in 2006 and we had pickets that said that homosexuality is absolutely normal and we are proud of our situation. We picketed in front of schools in Ryazan and we were detained because it was illegal.”

Two people were found guilty and fined 1,500 rubles (about £30) each. Alekseev came to Ryazan to help in the campaign and in the appeal of their cases to the Constitutional Court of Russia.

Sergey Yenin, 19, explained how he became involved in gay rights organizing in Belorussia :

“I felt myself to be gay from my early childhood. Last year I came to Minsk and there I got acquainted with some gay activists and I thought it would be great if I fought for my gay rights. There are a lot of people who don’t fight for their rights, who don’t participate in such activist movements, and they just consume our achievements. For example, we fought for our gay club, our one gay club in Minsk. It was in danger of being closed [by the government], but it still exists due to us.”

I asked Sergey if he had participated in Minsk Pride events before.

“Yes, of course. The most outstanding Pride parade took place in 2001. But I didn’t participate because I was only 11 then. There were over 300 people participating in this event and 300 watching. This was fabulous. This was an historical moment in Belorussia.

“The last one took place in October of 2008. It was named Queer Walk and it took place on the 11th of October 2008, the international day of coming out, and we organised a pride parade. It was a rather private, intimate event, there were fifty participants because we cannot organise such a public event because of our government. If we applied for an event, we would be denied.

“There is an action that takes place [each year] called Chernobyl Way, and all of the opposition parties take place there, and our LGBT group participated last year and this year. Last year we raised the rainbow flag and there were a lot of bad comments about it, there were a lot of threats [of violence].

There were such political parties as Right Alliance, and they threaten us all of the time. This year we didn’t raise our rainbow flag because the organiser of the Belorussian National Front, the main opposition party, they coordinated a call to us, do not raise your rainbow flag, not because we have anything against you, because our fight for clean air, free of radiation will turn into a fight for gay rights.”

I asked Sergey why he personally joined the 15 others for the ten-hour train ride from Belorussia to join this Saturday’s Slavic Pride:

“I made the conclusion [to come] on the 12th of May because I was really very frightened about myself and my friends. I know that there is some information that Pride is going to be canceled, and more than this, that Pride participants are going to be beaten.”

And why did you decide to come anyway?

“Because this is my fight really. If I don’t go to the pride parade, who will go there? My reasons to come was to support my friends and of course to support gay rights.”