Once again the world’s media has been focused on the horrific breaking up of an attempted protest in Moscow.
This time is was the "Gay Pride" march. This is another in a long line of already brutal repressions of opposition activities that are a hallmark of Putin’s regime.
Although Russia’s constitution formally guarantees the right to hold protest activities, increasingly opposition activists are being prevented from being organised. This is the case not only in provincial cities, where the police and state authorities are not subject to international scrutiny, but also increasingly in Moscow. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov, whose wife happens to be Russia’s richest woman as a result of the lucrative building contracts gained from the city, has increasingly moved to repress protesters. A recent law proposed in the Moscow City Parliament called for organisers of any meetings (which could include a group of people gathering in a flat to discuss tea making) to require permission from the city council!
Naturally, after Luzkhov announced that he considered all gays to be "Satanists" it was to be expected that any request for the "Gay pride" event would be banned. Once permission is refused for a demonstration the police are given the green light to move in.
On the day, the streets in central Moscow were full, not only of police and the thuggish "OMON" riot police, but also fascists and religious fanatics. I was there as a journalist. I arrived at the statue of Yuri Dolgorukov opposite the Mayor’s office at about 12 o’clock and joined the other journalists. After a short while a group of participants in masquerade costumes followed by a crowd of reporters came into the square. What happened then is not clear. I saw people being arrested and pushed into the police buses. On the other side of the square another group of protesters tried to shout slogans.
Then a group of black-shirts appeared, shouting homophobic slogans. When the police did nothing, I shouted at them to shut up. One of them went up to one of the many plain clothed cops milling around in the square and pointed me out. Then someone came from behind me and grabbed me, telling me I was required to "come for a chat". When I shouted out that a journalist was being attacked, I was pushed against a police van, sworn at profusely and then frog marched out of the area and bundled into a van with barred windows. The van was terribly stuffy. There were already inside a number of protesters, including Volker Beck, a Green member of the German Bundestag and, as I understand, his partner. He commented ironically "What a free country – this is already my second time". The foreigners had their passports taken by the police and while we were waiting police and plain clothed cops milled around. The police refused to even give us water when we asked – it was 35 degrees in the sun that day.
After a while, Beck and his partner were led away and we were taken to the police station. As we were taken in, there was also a bloke in a black gown – a Russian orthodox priest. From behind his disgusting beard, he told us how God had ’destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah’. He announced he was a servant of God sent to fight the queers, and threatened us that we would be met outside. As this was going on, a cop intervened, asking "What, are these the queers?" He soon found common ground with the priest, as they discussed how to fight Gomorrah. The priest distributed his black hundred newspaper to the police (the black hundreds were a fascist organization in pre revolutionary Russia, who were behind the horrific anti Jewish pogroms). Other police pretended not to notice how we were being insulted. Eventually, after the police checked my documents again and saw I was a journalist, I was released and told to "go and join my colleagues, we need the room as there is another group of arrested on their way". As well as some journalists outside the station, there was also a crowd of young and old black hundreds waiting.
Once again these events have shown that the authorities not only tolerate fascists when they turn out to beat up gays and foreigners, but actually work with them. Whilst the gay pride event was banned, at the same time two fascist meetings were allowed in different parts of the city. These were held under the slogans "liberalism leads to degeneration – only national socialism can save the health of the nation". These fascists shouted "glory to Russia" whilst giving the nazi fascist salute and waving portraits of Hitler!!! Despite a wave a racist murders over the past couple of years (one young fascist has recently admitted to killing 20 people) the perpetrators are never found guilty of racially murder but let off on lighter charges such as "hooliganism". At one trial currently taking place of the fascist who killed a young anti fascist musician, the judge turned on the victim’s mother in court and attacked her for not trying to re-educate her son so that he was not anti fascist!
The fact that the Russian regime is itself whipping up intolerance and collaborating with fascist groups is exposes the hypocrisy of the Russian government who, just two weeks ago, bitterly complained that the Estonia government was being disrespectful to the fight against fascism after the latter moved a statue to Soviet war veterans in Tallinn.
"Sotsialisticheskoye soprotivleniye" is against the repression meted out to the participants in Sunday’s gay rights event and calls for all charges to be dropped. All groups, except the fascists, who preach racial hatred and have been responsible for a wave of murders, should have the right to demonstrate and protest. Naturally, the left should actively participate in campaigning against any form of discrimination. "Socialist Resistance" has been the first left group to take up the issue of LGBT rights.
However there has been a difference of opinion amongst LGBT activists on how to campaign on these issues. These differences came to a head during the preparations for this "Gay pride" event. The leading organisers are more interested in promoting their own images and clubs than in taking up the real issues of discrimination and other problems faced by gays in the workplace and society in general. At best they limit their demands to a call to legalise single sex marriages.
In Russian society, which for years has been headed by reactionary religious and later Stalinist cliques, any sign of non conformance with "social norms" is not only not tolerated but brutally repressed.
The approach during the Stalinist era and of Putin’s regime today is in stark contrast to that of the period immediately following the Bolshevik revolution. Following the Bolshevik Revolution for example there was no mention of homosexuality between consenting adults in the 1922 criminal code. This was explained by the then recognized expert on sexual relationships in the new state, G Batkins. He argued "the revolution has dismantled stone by stone all the old and extremely bad laws. Bourgeois laws demand that dual standards in relation to sexual relations are dominant. As far as homosexuality, sodomy and other forms of sexual satisfaction that European legislation treats as threats to social morality are concerned, soviet laws treat them in the same way as "natural" sexual relations are treated. All forms of sexual relationship are a matter for private choice."
But as the Stalinists carried through the elimination of the old Bolsheviks and pushed through the bureaucratic counter-revolution. They introduced the notorious article 121 of the criminal code. This made homosexuality a crime. Every year, on average a thousand men ended up in prison on this charge. Today, Putin has made the demographic crisis a central theme in his propaganda, arguing that women should play their role as good mothers, to strengthen what he calls "maternal capital" using financial incentives to encourage more child bearing. The church, public bodies and of course the mass media continue this theme. There are endless talk shows dictating how men and women should run their lives. As a result, just as other reactionary ideas, such as national chauvinism, anti Semitism and oppression of women are very widespread in society, so too are anti gay sentiments in Russia.
In this context, members of Socialist resistance have explained that the decriminalization of homosexual relations, which we fully support, will not lead to a reduction in the extremely high level of homophobia in society unless a widespread campaign is conducted to explain the issues. We have been prominent in arguing, along with other lefts, gay activists and human rights groups that it is necessary to prepare "public opinion" on the question of LGBT rights. This should be done by attempting to build a wider movement with other oppressed peoples facing economic and social discrimination, and to take the issues of discrimination and freedom up within the workplaces and colleges.
This approach has been opposed by the organizers of Gay Pride. Unfortunately, they represent a layer of the "gay elite" – club owners and media figures who use their sexual orientation for their own benefit and public relations purposes. This was clearly demonstrated in the discussions in the run up to last Sunday’s events. The whole structure of the parade was undemocratic and restricted to those people who agreed with the organizers. The aim of the event was not to attract and involve a wider layer of gay and other activists but to ensure the participation of gay "VIP"s. For example, when the question of legal aid for anyone arrested was raised, it was stated by the organizers that only certain people would be helped. Even worse however, is the blatant political positioning of the organisers with Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s "Liberal Democratic Party."
Zhirinovskii first came to the world’s attention when his party won a considerable number of places in Parliament in the early days of Yeltsin’s reign. Then many commentators described his party as fascist. Since then his party has maintained a considerable faction in the parliament by whipping up reactionary, chauvinist and of course anti gay sentiments in elections. The party is not fascist in the classic sense, although there are several deputies who could be described as such. Instead the party has been a consistent bulwark of support for the Kremlin, never voting against the President’s proposals but in elections, acting as a mop to pick up a layer of lumpenised voters who would otherwise support parties openly opposed to the Kremlin.
It is therefore viewed with disgust by many gay activists that the organizers of Gay pride have promoted an alliance with one of the leading deputies from the LDPR in the forefront of their activities. This individual, Mitrofanov, the best known member of the LDPR after Zhirinovskii, was given pride of place at the pre-march conference. This is particularly incredible, not only because the LDPR was one of those most active in whipping up anti gay sentiments last year, but also because Mitrofanov himself is well known for his homophobic statements. As one activist commented "this just proves that the organizers are more interested in public relations for themselves than genuinely campaigning for the rights of ordinary gays. I won’t be surprised to see some of them as LDPR deputies after the election!"
Discussion on this question was, of course, not allowed. Activists who wanted to raise the issue were not allowed in to the conference. "Socialist Resistance" members who raised a banner of protest saying "Mitrofanov – Non passaran" when he was speaking were quickly ejected from the hall.
As a result of the tactics of the organizers, Sunday’s event has not been productive. It gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate that gays are extremely isolated within society. In addition, the participation of Mitrofanov will strengthen the impression of many people that this was not a genuine protest against discrimination but a public relations spectacle. By not conducting any preliminary explanatory work to wider layers of the population and uniting with their struggles, the reactionaries in the church and fascist organizations have been given a free hand to whip up a further wave of anti gay propaganda. The state was given the opportunity of conducting another wave of mass arrests and beatings. In the absence of a genuine campaign, this served to discourage other people from getting organized.
International activists like the British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, German Green parliamentarian Volker Beck and others came to participate in the banned Moscow pride with the best of intentions and out of sense of solidarity and wishing to make a protest against Putin’s regime. They suffered, along with Russian activists, the brutal beatings from the fascists who acted in collaboration with the police.
Yet within Russia there is now a debate about how to fight against oppression of gays and all other oppressed people and how to combat discrimination. Socialists and other gay activists are opposed to collaborating with the likes of the LDPR or others from the Russian "gay elite" who have no interest or programme to end the discrimination and exploitation faced by the majority of gays and lesbians in Russia and others oppressed by Russian capitalism.
Following the exclusion of left and rank and file activists from discussions around Gay pride, an alternative conference was held on the Saturday. This was attended by gay and left activists and by members of human rights groups. Gay activists spoke of the need to work with human rights activists and to consolidate and strengthen the LGBT movement. In the discussion, I spoke in favour of gay activists breaking out of isolation by taking part in the wider movement in defence of democratic and social-economic rights, together with other groups that experience discrimination. I rejected the idea that the main problem for gays in Russia is single sex marriage, and pointed out that discrimination in the workplace and in education is far more pressing and that it is necessary to publicise the issue, particular in trade unions and when necessary to defend those facing discrimination. In line with this, the alternative conference organized a separate protest picket demanding an end to discrimination on the Saturday. This was held under slogans against discrimination, for the freedom to demonstrate and against fascism and went off without arrests. Participants held photographs of those arrested and beaten on last year’s protest.
Given all the difficulties that have faced Russian society over the past decades, this issue of course has not had a prominent profile. Now however activists are taking up the issues and "Socialist Resistance" will make sure that it plays a prominent role in the struggle.