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Final Blog From Moscow Pride 2010 - How Russian Gay Activists Outwitted the Secret Police

By Andy Thayer
GLN permalink 5-29-2010

Many people around the world followed the UK Gay News' informative and often amusing live blog by Andy Harley in the days leading up to today's Moscow Pride. If you haven't seen it yet, it's a must-read at: http://ukgaynews.org.uk/Archive/10/May/2701.htm

Due to security reasons, there was much going on that Harley knew about but couldn't say. There were other things, especially on the final day, that he deliberately falsified to throw the Russian security apparatus on false trails - and they fell for it.

As a result of this and other measures, Russian gays and lesbians accomplished their most successful Pride yet - a highly visible event with lots of press coverage, no arrests and no beatings, despite government bans and a police dragnet.

Here is the main purpose of my final blog from Moscow: Now that the action is over we can finally tell the truth about how Moscow Pride activists accomplished this remarkable feat. The aim is to share the experience with other activists within Russia and elsewhere who are facing difficult circumstances. All content of this particular blog have been cleared with Moscow Pride organizers so that no organizers are put in additional jeopardy.

A secondary purpose of this blog is at the end, to allow principal organizer Nikolai Alekseev to draw out the broader significance of today's action.

Anna Komarova leads the final meeting.

Final meeting in one of the secret assembly flats before the action.
Anna Komarova leads the meeting.

Insomnia - friend of writers everywhere. First my morning tweet:

5 am-Moscow, Russia. It's Pride morning & all the cute Russian boyz and girlz will soon gather @ secret place & then go stand vs homophobia!

Just wish I'd had enough characters left to add a hearty "Woo Hoo!" to it.

Aside from that tweet, I won't be posting the rest of this blog until after the Pride parade today because, well, since finally finishing distributing my last post at around 1 this morning and now, not a whole lot has happened. Just a bunch of people sleeping on beds and floors-fortunately no snorers.

What I do know that's interesting, I can't share with you now because it would put the action in jeopardy. So let me begin spilling my guts now, and only post this after the action once it's safe to do so.

Months of preparations, and no doubt tremendous financial sacrifices, have come down to this: Moscow Pride is banned once again this year - no surprise there - and we are marching anyway.

It pains our Russian friends greatly when any Pride participant, especially a non-Russian, gets hurt in any way. It's really very sweet of them, because they are the ones who are risking far more than us non-Russians are. We're just honored to be taken into their confidence.

So the trick is, without putting people at excessive risk of injury from cops or fascist homophobes, how do you conduct an illegal action in the middle of a city of 10 million people, crawling with police, paramilitary, para-whatever? They've got so many different police uniforms in this city, I couldn't begin to figure them all out, with the exception of the notorious OMON thugs - a cross between riot and SWAT cops. Think beefy white Chicago cops, except uniformly in shape. In a country where borderline malnutrition is not uncommon, they certainly stand out.

But I digress.

For the last few days our Minister of Misinformation, Andy Harley, in addition to giving out good information, has purposely been giving the wrong location for our action - outside of the office of the European Commission - on his live blog for UK Gay News. A few photographers on our side have been dispatched to film the inevitable mass assembly of OMON riot police there.

9:30 AM - Russian and Belorussian lesbian and gay activists have been arriving at one of our secret rendezvous flats in Moscow for the last half hour. Everyone is asked to keep our voices to a whisper. There is a great concern that the numbers in our modest flat will arouse suspicion and someone in the building will call the police. It reminds me of books I've read about the Russian revolutionary underground at the beginning of the 20th Century, where every apartment block had a building keeper who inerrably was in the employ of the police and reported everything, no matter minor, to them. How true that is today, I have no idea, but it certainly was true during Stalin's reign, and we have a former head of FSB (successor to the KBD) as Prime Minister.

One thing you quickly recognize as you are working with our Russian and Belorussian friends is their level of seriousness and dedication. No ego trips and other bullshit. Gay rights is not a hobby for them, a pleasant diversion along the way to meeting Mr. or Ms. Right, as we often see in the self-satisfied West. The stakes are too high for casual participants to stick around long.

The dangers they face - loss of jobs, housing and family connections - weed out those who are involved for any other reason than the goals of the movement, and they have to feel those goals very deeply. Yes, I know that last sentence was an almost verbatim repetition from an earlier blog, but people in the West need to hear it. Political activity for too many long-time activists in the West is a trivial affair, a source of gossip and comraderie. I have no problem with the latter, unless it is the main goal of the ostensible "political" activity.

I just switched over to Andy Harley's blog again and read the wonderful bullshit he is putting up there:

We have just been tipped-off by the Pride Press Officer that this year the organisers want to bring more colour to their event. In addition to the 20 meters Rainbow Flag, it is expected that Nikolai Alekseev will show up as the 'captain of the event'. What does that mean? Will activists arrived by boat? The European Commission office, where the Pride is planned, is located on the banks of the Moskva River. Or are they going to do something by air like during Soviet times when someone landed on the Red Square?

Now expect these morons, I mean OMON, to deploy police boats on the River! I's not for nothing that Moscow Pride activists have avoided preemptive arrests before the previous four years' actions, and have thus far succeeded in #5.

Now Harley has a real "scoop":

09:50: Pride participants are forming small groups across the city and are heading to the centre, in the direction of Kremlin. Andy Thayer and Louis Georges Tin went first. They were followed by Peter Tatchell and Sergey Androsenko the organizer of Minsk Pride.

As I'm bravely sitting behind the keyboard in my comfy chair here in one of the secret rendezvous flats, I'm told that I'm really marching heroically to the city center! What marvelous bullshit! Harley tells me that Russia Today is now gullably feeding off of his blog.

10 AM - Two hours before the action and there are probably about 30 people packed into the flat now, but the noise traveling outside the apartment is nil, so well disciplined are the activists. This is not a party, not a social gathering. The Russian and Belorussian activists came here at great risk, and socializing can happen later.

More bullshit "news" from Harley. In contrast to the disciplined group of mostly 20-somethings we see in front of us, now standing room only, he describes a bunch of giggly school boys and girls:

10:10: Things can best be described as "organsied chaos". Lots of very small groups all over the downtown area heading towards the "march".

The message: send the OMON to the City Center right now! - where the legendary Moscow street traffic will make it very difficult to get anywhere else once the real action begins. Harley, sitting right next to me, is supposedly blogging from a cafe near the Kremlin. That "news" is to go out in a few moments, he tells me. How many English-speaking cafe twits will be hassled as a result?

10:30 AM - The Russians and Belorussians have just had a meeting, all in Russian, and aside from what Nikolai told us English speakers last night, we are ignorant as to what additional "tweaks" have been given to that basic plan. Last year, in response to a cordon that police had put up around the city, radical changes were made to the action's plan shortly before it happened. Nikolai himself is elsewhere, as he cannot safely travel in public right now as he is well known to the authorities. Our action begins in about an hour and a half, right outside our secret flat. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to continue this stream of consciousness report as for all I know, the timing has changed.

10:50 AM - Sudden burst of activity among the Russians and Belorussians. A whole group hurriedly leave the room I'm in. I'm completely ignorant as to what plans they're making. They'll let me know when/if I need to know. Just got a message of good wishes from John Selig relayed by email to me by Nikolai. Sorry, John, but I can't answer you at the moment, as right now I'm supposedly bravely leading gays to the city center, not sitting behind a keyboard, or at least that's what Harley's live blog says I'm doing.

Real report just relayed to me by Harley - police are following the journalists, apparently to try to find us. If this is their best lead, so far our cover is not blown! One hour to the action, and still no preemptive arrests!

Harley just blogged a mixture of truth and fiction:

11:00: SMS messages going in ... Cops, who are trying to find out exactly what is happening, are reportedly following the journalists ... [true] German MP Volker Beck says that he is being discretely followed ... [true] Groups of participants are getting close to the Moskova River where they have been told they will board a boat. [fantasy!]

Whether he knows it or not, Volker Beck is our General Patton during D-Day. In the run up to the famous battle, the allies put the famous military commander in charge of a fake decoy army, complete with fake tanks and radio traffic, all to fool Hitler that the invasion of mainland Europe was to take place at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. The Nazis fell for it. Let's hope they do so again.

Why all the diversions? The Russians explained to us that their aim this year was to avoid mass arrests. So many were arrested last year, and for some, the consequences were very serious. Instead, our aim will be to hold a public demonstration as long as we can avoid the police, and then scatter in all directions. Run like hell, then blend into crowds where we can, and rendezvous later, hopefully without arrests. Being pretty damned ignorant of the local geography, this is going to be a trick for me. I have a temporary Russian cell phone, but am not confident I know how to use it. The lousy map from one of my Moscow guidebooks has been ripped out of the book and crammed into one of my pockets.

11:12 AM - Volker Beck just tweeted to Harley: "Place in front of City Hall packed with militia and OMON units."

Lots of activity among the Russians and Belorussians. I've been told to gather my shoes but to not put them on yet. We can't have dozens of stomping feet on the floors above our downstairs neighbors.

11:35 AM - The big European news agency Agence France Press has been following Harley's blog for nearly two hours now. We leave any time now.

11:40 AM - Harley has posted his last blog for a while. I'm signing off too.

Well maybe not yet. I'm listening to important last instructions...in Russian!

11:53 AM - Seven minutes before the action, still in the flat. Coats on, shoes on. I've followed proper pre-arrest protocol. Use the toilet, limit liquid intake for the previous hour. Never know when you'll next have that opportunity if taken into custody. I've got a "nice package" now - Pride flag crammed down my pants. Even without the Pride flag, I ... Oh well, fantasize for yourself!

Lots of last minute instructions and discussions, all in Russian. I trust my friends, and know I'll be told what I need to know, when I need to know it.

12:07 PM - My temporary Russian cell phone rings for the first time. It's R___, Nikolai's partner. He asks me why we are delayed. I tell him I have no idea, and pass the phone to Anna, the leader of the group in the flat, who apparently briefly explains. We are apparently waiting for someone (or more) outside of the group in the flat to do something, which will then allow us to leave. Maybe we are waiting for the press? A tricky proposition given that they're being followed by the police, and with their bulky cameras sticking out like sore thumbs, don't exactly "blend" even if they were so inclined. They could easily lead the cops right to us, and yet we want and need press coverage. A conundrum our Russian friends have encountered before.

12:27 PM - Message texted to Harley: "Blog update: organizers say, we are a bit delayed as the police is after us but we will be soon be out in the streets."

12:29 PM - Message texted to Harley: "Activists reports that city hall, pushkinskaya square and the office of the EU are locked by police and packed with OMON."

I find it hard to believe that we will entirely avoid arrests.

12:37 PM - Another message to Harley: "Everything is on plan."

12:42 PM - "Pride is a James Bond Type operation commando. It is as complex to organize logistically than a pride with floats and many participants."

12:47 PM - Text apparently from another flat: "Everyone impatient here. All want to march."

One last tweet before I sign off: 1:07 PM Moscow - Pride action delayed. Police swarming downtown area. Action WILL go forward!

As it turns out, the plan once we were to leave was to run to pre-positioned vans with waiting drivers who sped us out of the area if police gave chase on foot, then dropping us a short while later and we made our own ways to separate destinations.

For the first time in five years of Pride in Moscow, we have had a complete success. This is the first year without arrests and beatings, despite the best efforts of the security police.

Great press coverage included most of the back page of Friday's Moscow News, lots of coverage of Thursday's press conference, tons of coverage today in spite of police tails on some journalists (see a preliminary list of links at http://tinyurl.com/MoscowGaySuccess).

Here is a final interview with Nikolai Alekseev drawing the broader lessons from today's action.

What connections do you see between the lesbian and gay rights struggle in Russia with the cause of democracy?

I think that we are in the forefront of the human rights battle. We are not only going in the streets, we are fighting in the courts. The problem of assembly in the streets is a big problem in Russian. If you look at the courts, gays are the only ones who are appealing up through the court system in Russia. And it's terrible, because if everyone would appeal against the bans, the problem would be solved already. Leaders of the [mainstream] opposition didn't even go appeal [until recently]. They only started to do it when we've been doing it for five yrs.

It [the forthcoming European Court decision on 2006, 2007 and 2008 Pride Parades] will not only be the first-ever decision on LGBT issues in Russia, but also the first decision on against the current federal law on assemblies, which guarantee the right of assembly to everyone. So this will be the first case of its kind. We not only appealed the ban, but the whole procedures for appealing, because the whole procedure prevents an enforceable court order before the date of the event.

One Russian tourist guidebook I read noted, "Anyone dark-skinned can expect to be stopped by the Militia on a regular basis. Some years, gangs of neo-Nazis have rampaged through the streets on Hitler's birthday (April 20)-many embassies advise their nationals to keep off the streets at this time." A bitter irony for a country which lost 27 million people to the Nazis during World War II. What is the connection between gays and the rights of other people in Russia fighting discrimination?

This European Court decision will benefit everyone. The 31st Article of Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. Russia is fairly notorious internationally for its treatment of some non-Russian nationalities, particularly people from Caucuses region. Non-Russians don't even have any demonstrations, they are afraid to just live (here).

They don't want to be associated with the gays, they know about what's going on, but they are scared to be linked to this topic.

In the last 10 years there were many cases of people being attacked because they are from the Caucuses, because they are dark skinned. There were many gangs of neo-Nazis who attacked.

There were cases of people being killed on the commuter trains and in the metro just because of ethnic tensions.

For us it [the European Court decision] will be a very important moral and legal victory, because the Moscow mayor has said he will never allow a gay parade here. This victory will mean a lot for everyone. People will say, "Well look, even gays won the case in the European Court. Why shouldn't we have the right also?" So there are a lot of consequences, it will be the first case on the Law of Assembly of 2004. It's a major, it's huge. The consequences will go far beyond gays. That's the issue of democracy, human rights. As soon as one minority is winning its rights, it's always good for democracy. Others will be inspired to do the same. And if gays win the right to manifest, and are allowed to do it, this country will make a huge step forward in its way forward for human rights.

If we didn't continue to go out into the streets despite the bans, the issue would just die out, and no one would care. The government thought that they would frighten us, that we wouldn't want to go out into the streets again. They were wrong.


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