By Diana Markosian
They are ex-mayor Yury Luzhkov’s sworn enemies: three Russian activists who have for years fought for gay rights in Russia.
Their campaign has resulted in harassment, threats and detainment.
This year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia had violated the rights of gay activists by refusing to allow them to openly protest, and ordered the government to pay a fine and damages amounting to about $40,000.
It is a rare victory for the marginalized gay community, which for years has unsuccessfully lobbied the government to sanction public demonstrations.
Anna Komarova, 38, a self-described “photographer turned gay activist” never thought she’d be demonstrating, but is now a major force in the Gay Russia protest movement.
“I never wanted to be an activist,” Komarova says. “But life circumstances made it that way. This is now my life and I can’t give up.”
Often young and politically inexperienced when they join, campaigners include an unlikely set of leaders, among them an interior designer, a translator, and lawyer who was dismissed from his postgraduate program for his thesis on sexual minorities.
Nikolai Alekseev, 32, now executive director of Gay Russia, has put his college days behind him. He is now one of the most well-known gay activists in Russia.
“I have been fighting against injustice for more than five years, almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Alekseev says. “When I first started campaigning, I realized it would not be possible to change things in Russia by just writing - I had to be an activist to try to bring about change.”
It is been a long battle for gay rights campaigners, who have unsuccessfully lobbied the Russian government to sanction public demonstrations but have instead been arrested and beaten.
“Our phone conversations are always tapped, and we are followed and harassed,” says Komarova, who moved out of her home after a campaign of police harassment that saw daily visits by the police.
“This is a deep problem that goes beyond one government official. It has to do with our society,” she said.
Luzhkov, an outspoken opponent of gay rights groups, memorably described gay pride events as “Satanic.” But even with the recent departure of the long-serving mayor, Russia remains one of the most intolerant countries in Europe towards gays and lesbians – despite the fact the Kremlin repealed the Soviet law criminalizing homosexuality in 1993.
Unlike Alekseev, who has turned activism into his full-time job, most activists are volunteers. Nikolai Bayev, 35, was born into a military family and moved to Moscow to work as a translator. He met his current partner 11 years ago, while finishing his graduate degree.
“It was difficult to tell my parents.” Bayev, a long-time supporter of the battle to stage a Gay Pride parade in the Russian capital, says. “When I told them, there was a big row. They are conservative. We ended up not speaking for a long time. But now they accept me as I am.”
Alekseev, the activist-journalist-lawyer says he tries to fight stereotypes about gays every day. The Moscow Pride campaign he launched in 2005 has grown from less than ten activists to some 40.
“The first year, our opponents used all their tools to intimidate us, hoping that we would give up,” Alekseev says. “They sent 1,500 hooligans against us at our first Pride in 2006; there were 5,000 anti riot police mobilized by the Moscow authorities in the streets. That did not impress me and my fellow activists at all.”
Unfazed and determined to bring about some change in Russia, activists planned to hold a demonstration on Tuesday 9 October, but were denied permission. They are now planning to submit their proposal to stage a pride parade, hoping for a different answer than the once they’ve received for the last 5 years.
“Through my work, I have learned a lot about Russia and myself,” says Komorova “The people who face serious problems in this country aren’t the ones who talk about them, they are the ones who try to solve them.”