A couple of weeks ago, Russian authorities arrested Nikolai Alexeyev at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. He was about to board a plane to visit his boyfriend in Geneva, Switzerland. For most of us, that’s not such an unusual thing to do. But Nikolay is the best known and, probably at this point, the only committed gay activist in Russia. And that makes him an enemy of the state in this brutal, hypocritical country. At the airport he was dragged away by police, arrested and thrown in jail for three drugged days of sleep deprivation, insults, and brutalization.
Nikolay is relentless. For years, he has tried to organize gay pride marches in Moscow — and for years, he has been frustrated. There have never been more than 30 people at these marches. And the few who do participate regularly get beaten up by thuggish homophobes while the police stand by, amused.
The comments I read on Russian websites who reported Nikolai’s arrest were terrifying: “This ugly retard faggot should be shot dead.” “This slut should be put against a wall and shot in the head.” “These sick creatures should all be exterminated.” “Hitler should have killed them all.” “I wish they will all die from AIDS.” As usual, the Russian people aren’t just satisfied with asking for somebody’s death; they also feel they have to specify the method.
There is a deep cruel streak running through the Russian soul. Russians are incredibly nationalistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti everything that’s not exactly like the mainstream. I have experienced this firsthand. I grew up Jewish and gay in Russia. And I was mercilessly bullied for both.
Less obviously but more insidiously, violence is embedded in the rigid sense of hierarchy that dominates Russian society. Russia has always been a country where people bow to the ones above and kick the ones below. In czarist times, the hierarchy was determined by social rank. Under communism, it was rank in the party or at the workplace. And now it’s simply money.
I know no other place where the moneyed elite behaves with such lack of taste, shows off so tackily, and treats the poor so mercilessly and without respect. I had dinner in New York recently with a somewhat rich and very nouveau Russian acquaintance. He felt that the service was not up to par and commented about the waiter: “If this was Moscow, he’d be under the table shining my shoes.” By showing off how deeply you might be able to humiliate somebody, you prove how great your power is. Throw a diamond-encrusted Vertu telephone on the table and you become unassailable.
Rigid hierarchy (what an irony in a country that briefly went through the fiction of a classless society!) and rank intolerance of course go together: Any flaw will do to put the other down. And so the skinheads feel superior to the “fags” and bash and kill. Official numbers are never reported, but what I hear from my gay friends in Russia about antigay violence is staggering. And better gays hate the lesser gays.
The violence that simmers in Russia is not just about pecking order. The cruel beatings in kindergartens, schools, and universities, in police stations and military barracks, in the crumbling housing estates where the 90% of Russians live who haven’t made it into the gilded classes, are also driven by a pure sadism — pleasure in violence for its own sake. Just watch photos of policemen grinning with amusement while thugs beat up the gays “and give them what they deserve.”
This country will never become a democracy, not even an approximate one. Its core values simply don’t allow it. Intolerance shuts down dialogue, the obsession with hierarchy requires a strongman. Cruel people breed cruel leaders. From ruthless czars like Ivan the Terrible to ruthless communists like Stalin to ruthless dictators like Putin — there is an unbroken line of brutality and an almost religious adoration of the brutes. Unsurprisingly, Putin maintains an overwhelming approval rating.
This country will never have a successful gay pride march: The profoundly democratic sense of identity that binds us in most other countries is anathema to the Russian obsession with individual status. Personal privilege will always trump common civil rights. It’s unthinkable in Russia for rich gay Russians (i.e. the privileged and powerful) to share the street with poor gay Russians. When Nikolai was arrested, even gay websites tried to turn his public activism into a private bid for recognition. They called him the “PR homo,” allegedly happy about the incident because it got him on TV. Of course, they also suggested that his activism was “embarrassing” and “indiscreet” — just like activism about any other cause in this country that’s anesthetized by money and oppression.
I left Russia in 1994 because I couldn’t imagine living there as a gay person (or as any person, actually). In the meantime, ironically, I have become somewhat of a gay icon there — something I don’t derive any pleasure from. My movies are acquired in large quantities (always through illegal download, unfortunately), I am included in a book, Famous Russian Gays, and I have been three times on the cover of the nation's only gay magazine, Qvir. I suspect that has something to do with being a convenient fantasy, far away. Nikolai, who is an inconvenient reality, close by, gets no such admiration. Even though he did a thousand times more for Russia then I ever have or ever want to.
He is, as I said, relentless. Just three days after being released, following the airport incident, he chained himself with a group of other gay activists to the fence surrounding the City Hall office of Moscow’s then-mayor and homophobe in chief Yuri Luzhkov — and was promptly re-arrested. I admire his dedication. But for myself I have come to the conclusion that this country, with its poisonous mix of brutality and intolerance, is not going to change in any real way. I don’t want to be associated with this odious place. I am renouncing my citizenship.