Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Russian gay activist speaks out


Russian gay activist Nikolai Alekseev. Photo: Courtesy Brett Lock
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Russian activist Nikolai Alekseev, who has been on the front lines of the gay rights fight in that country, was to appear in San Francisco next week, but the organizations sponsoring his visit have canceled their sponsorship of it. [See story, page 1.]

The Bay Area Reporter caught up with Alekseev, 33, before news of the cancellation broke this week. He was asked about the state of the gay rights movement in Russia and other issues.

Alekseev, who is a lawyer and journalist in addition to his activist work, agreed to an e-mail interview rather than one via phone or iChat.

What is bringing you to California?

Solidarity. I was once invited to Chicago by a local gay group, Gay Liberation Network, some years ago and we always kept in contact. Andy Thayer from the group came to Moscow Pride twice in 2009 and 2010. He was even arrested in 2009 with us. He has been a great help for us writing articles and commentaries about what he witnessed in Moscow and about our struggle.

I really appreciate our collaboration because Andy is not the kind of guy who will start to give advice on everything. He is coming to show his support and solidarity and to help. Often when foreigners come, they are crossing the line. They believe that because they have the experience of what happened in their countries some years ago, you have to mirror the same strategies and replicate the same thing. Well, Moscow of 2011 is not New York City of 1971 or Paris of 1981. Sharing experience is great – imposing a strategy is not what we need.

What are you going to say here?

I'll give the primer for those who will come to listen to me but in a nutshell, as the last weeks have shown in North Africa, things can change very quickly in the world. These changes have been initiated by people, not by politicians. It should be a boost for many of us as it really shows everyone can make a change. I believe this to be true at all levels. 

You've been critical of the U.S. and some U.S. gay activists on your Facebook page. What's the nature of the disappointment, in a nutshell?

U.S. activists are, on average, often seen abroad as too self-centered. I know the excuse that I often hear from people when I say that is, "We cannot care for all the world." Usually, those who say that are those who do not care for anyone. It's like denying to make a small donation for people starving in Africa on the basis that it will not change anything. I do not understand that.

You know, there's something I cannot understand. I was looking at the money that was pulled in the campaign against Proposition 8. [The No on 8 campaign raised about $43 million.] It's amazing. What a waste of money. Plus, the vote was lost, which showed that after all, it was not only a question of money. Only 1 percent, and maybe less, of the budget could have changed so many things for gay rights around the world but the same amount would not change the final result of the vote. But I am not naive. The companies who thought that it's smart to give money to fight against Prop 8 are not those who would give something for gay rights in Asia or Africa. Perhaps there is a logic here but if one looks at it from the moon, it is hard to understand.

I remember an article from the Washington Blade which was detailing the paychecks of those working in the big quasi institutional LGBT organizations (I am not talking about grassroots). Amazing. Well, a very good job and a very well paid one for most of them. This is something that I cannot understand. When you're campaigning for gay rights or for any other rights, you must be animated by a passion. I am not asking everyone to be like me and do it as a job without any income, but what I am saying is that there should be a kind of "ethic" and a limit. I made the choice not to earn anything from anyone in order to keep my independence. This is key. I don't owe anything to anyone. You know, as soon as you get something from someone, you lose your independence either directly or indirectly. Plus, you risk falling in the game that you start spending more time running after donors to renew budget and future paychecks than doing the effective job on the field. All that is nonsense for me. 

U.S. diplomacy is a bit strange for me. On one hand I read in the U.S. papers that [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and [President Barack] Obama are gay friendly. Clinton said often that she considers LGBT rights as part of her diplomacy, but at the same time they behave in an opposite way. Clinton came to Moscow in 2009. She inaugurated hand in hand with the former mayor a statue to a U.S. gay poet at the same place where three weeks earlier, all of us, by the way, also Andy Thayer, were arrested for staging the banned Pride. Not a word for us but nice photos and nice smiles with the homophobic mayor. Same thing some time later, when she was speaking about LGBT rights in Eastern Europe at an official dinner and mentioned the struggle of gay activists in ... Albania. She found the right country in Europe where the U.S. had no strategic interest. As for Obama, he also came to Moscow. We were banned from organizing a rally while he was in Moscow (that was even advertised in the media) and at the same time, we were banned from taking part in the meeting his staff organized with local human rights activists. What does that mean? Gay rights are not human rights?

What's the conclusion of all that? There's a lot of hypocrisies here. Yes, they care for LGBT rights but to an extent that it does not hurt any other discussion. They care, but just a bit. It's more a political tool than a real philosophy. But at the same time, how many people in America wrote to Clinton to tell her behavior in Moscow was not acceptable? Can you believe if only 1,000 people had done it? And if 1,000 people wrote her a letter before her trip to Moscow asking her to raise LGBT issues there? She would have remained quiet? At least, she would be more careful. That's my message in a few words. With [just] sending a letter at the right time, you can make a change. We don't ask for money.

These incidents have really been a big frustration for me. Really.

What does the struggling Russian gay movement need from other nations? Money? Political pressure? Delegations of visitors, for example, during Pride Week?

Money is definitely what is not needed. It only creates tensions and makes everyone nervous, especially in Eastern Europe. I am not saying that we are sitting on cash, as we have nothing, but what I am saying is that to change things, you don't need money. You need passion, you need ideals, you need courage, and ideas also. It's not money that changed power in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. It's courage.

Foreign delegations are important but it needs to be done respecting a certain logic. It's a well-known fact that in Russia we are just a small handful of activists ready to go in the streets. If you bring a delegation of 200 Americans or foreigners, it would be counterproductive. It would show that the Pride is a march of foreigners. Local media and anti-gay groups would be using it against us. This is the issue that activists face in Latvia or Lithuania, for example. In these smaller countries, it is difficult to find locals ready to show their faces, to face angry protesters and march in the streets. As a result, their Prides have a high concentration of foreigners. I think there is no shame for us to be 30 [people] trying to march in Moscow. If that's what we are then that's how it should be. The political opposition regularly attempts to organize public rallies as well. When these are allowed they are just a few hundred taking part. Can you believe it? In a city of 17 million and a country of 141 million?

The problem with our gay community is that people, when they can afford to, are ready to go to Prides in Paris, London, Berlin, or Amsterdam because for them it's real fun. When we tell them to join us in Moscow, they say something like, "No, it is not possible here, people are not ready, it is too dangerous." They simply do not understand by going to Europe that they benefit from the result of the struggle of other activists some 30 years ago.

You have fought for more than five years to have a Pride march in Moscow. [Former] Mayor Yuri Luzhkov always banned it, then sent the cops to beat you up when small groups of people tried to march anyway. Finally, just recently, you won a big court case at the European Court of Human Rights against these bans. What have you learned from all this?

First of all, that we were right. For five years, I regularly filed dozens of court decisions from Russia that were all telling me that I was wrong. That the Pride [march] was banned lawfully, that my organization was barred to be registered lawfully, that it was constitutional to have a law which prevents the propaganda of homosexuality and all that kind of thing. The Moscow Pride decision that we won at the European Court is the first court decision that told me that I was right and that our rights were breached illegally.

I can tell you that after all these years of hearing the same stupid and illogical court decisions, I started to almost lose hope. It's kind of strange but all these decisions were making me furious after I received each of them. Even though I knew in advance the result, I could not get used to it.

Moscow has a new mayor now? Is there any chance this year will be different?

Can you believe which level we have reached in Russia that despite the fact the constitution grants freedom of assembly to every citizen, that Russia ratified international treaties saying the same thing, and that we have just won this major case on the ban of the Pride at the European Court, we are still asking ourselves whether the new mayor will allow the next Pride. It's kind of unrealistic. To answer your question, I believe that the decision will be taken neither by the mayor [Sergi Sobyanin] nor by his people, but after a consultation with the presidential administration. The previous bans were personally decided by Luzhkov but his successor is a pure "Kremlin product." He will be more careful. Once again, I am not saying President [Dmitry] Medvedev will be asked to opine on that (it's only a Pride event, not the START treaty) but most likely one of his advisers will do.

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