We share another important perspective on the recent assault on LGBT activists in St. Petersburg, Russia, by Paul Goble, a former US State Department official who served as special adviser on Soviet nationality issues and Baltic affairs to Secretary of State James Baker.
Staunton, October 14 – Police in St. Petersburg told a group of LGBT activists attempting to hold a demonstration in the northern capital that Cossacks, Orthodox and Muslim clergy, and other opposed to homosexuality would beat them so badly that the gay group would “not be able to stand up again before the [Sochi] Olympics,” according to Gazeta.ru.
On Saturday, the Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality and the Out organization planned to hold a demonstration in St. Petersburg’s Field of Mars in support of gay rights and opposition to homophobia and other forms of discrimination. Because that locale is an analogue to Hyde Park, city officials did not raise objections (gazeta.ru/social/2013/10/12/5703209.shtml).
An hour before the meeting was to occur, the police sealed off the space saying that they had received information about “possible clashes” between the LGBT activists and “supporters of traditional sexual relations.” As Gazeta.ru’s Nikita Zeya put it, that “information was confirmed.”
Thirty minutes before the protest was to start, some 30 Cossacks aged 18 to 25, accompanied by other young people in camouflage dress with nationalist slogans of the type “I am a Russian,” appeared. They totaled about a hundred in all, the journalist said.
The Cossack commander, a Colonel Chernyshev, said that the Duma had passed and President Vladimir Putin had signed the law prohibiting “the propaganda of homosexuality” and that whenever LGBT activists challenge it, “we are obligated to stand up in defense of the law!” His views were reiterated by a Russian Orthodox priest and a mullah.
Tanay Cholkhanov, a representative of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of European Russia, said that “we have assembled in order to prevent this shame from taking place on our land! God is with us!” After the two religious had spoken, a nationalist said, “As long as Russia stand, pederasts will not be normal people … They should be electrocuted.”
When the LGBT activists attempted to reach the site that the authorities had agreed they could meet on, their opponents shouted out their slogans against them; and when the LGBT activists complained to the police, the latter said that the anti-LGBT groups had an equal right to hold a demonstration, even if that prevented the gay rights group from doing so.
As soon as the two groups came together, the police reacted instantly, arresting both LGBT activists and their opponents, including even the Russian Orthodox priest. Those arrested, approximately 20 from each camp were loaded onto buses and driven away to the local police station.
One of the gay activists, Natalya Tsymbalova, said that none of the LGBT group had suffered serious injury. Noting that the police report said that both groups had cursed police and refused to follow the orders of the latter, she indicated that the LGBT activists plan to appeal these charges in court.
But this equality in treatment does not mean the police were not more supportive of one side than the other, she indicated. Earlier on Saturday, Tsymbalova said, “police officer asked us to put off the action: they said that well, [those who are coming to oppose the LGBTs] will beat you so that you will not stand up again until the [Sochi] Olympiad.”
This report reflects a doubly troubling trend in the Russian Federation today. On the one hand, the Russian authorities or at least some among them are quite prepared to use groups in the population that are more openly extreme than the government chooses to be to try to intimidate anyone who seeks to disagree with the regime.
And on the other, the authorities at least on paper are doing this in ways that make it appear they are treating all sides equally, an approach that will make it more difficult or at least less likely that human rights groups, even those concerned with whatever the particular issue is at hand, will be able to complain or attract broad attention to their complaints.
As a result, the Kremlin may be able to extend its crackdown on human rights in a way that will allow it to deflect responsibility onto ordinary Russian citizens, thus exploiting a tactic that other authoritarian regimes have used with unfortunate success in the past. Such actions thus must be monitored closely.