November 17 2010 4:00 AM EST
November 17 2015 5:28 AM EST
After suffering through another quashed pride march, intimidation from authorities, and an alleged government-sanctioned kidnapping, Nikolay Alekseyev needed some good news. The 32-year-old Russian gay activist got just that on October 21, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia violated the European Convention on Human Rights when it banned three Moscow gay-pride festivals.
The decision came shortly after Alekseyev, who was a plaintiff in the case, says he was detained without explanation by Russian government agents after he tried to board a plane for a routine trip from Moscow to Geneva on September 15. He says he was abducted to the Russian city of Kashira and pressured to drop his lawsuits in the European court, all while being verbally assaulted as a "faggot" and "pederast." Alekseyev refused to back down, and he says he was booted out of a car in a rural area two days later.
"The news spread abroad via Facebook," the Moscow-born activist says. From Vancouver to San Francisco to Berlin, supporters set up vigils and protested at Russian consulates. "I did not know so many people would care."
Less than two weeks later, on October 1, Alekseyev was back in action, organizing a picket at the Moscow office of Swiss International Air Lines, which he blames for being complicit in his apprehension at a Moscow airport.
A sea change seems to have taken place since the May 2009 Moscow gay-pride march, where 20 activists, including Alekseyev, were arrested, and some were assaulted by police. Alekseyev's newest protest was officially sanctioned; Yuri Luzhkov, the city's antigay mayor since 1992, had been fired by President Dmitry Medvedev days earlier, and police actually protected gay protesters for the first time ever.
Alekseyev is encouraged by the recent changes, but remains aware of how deeply ingrained homophobia is in the fabric of his nation. "Russia emerged from communism 20 years ago," he says. "Just a few weeks after [the fall of the Soviet Union], the ideology we lived with for 70 years disappeared. The government tried to make use of the [Russian Orthodox] Church to impose Orthodox values on the society. Gays are a designed enemy for the church."
Still, he's very appreciative of the progress, the realization of which has been nearly the singular focus of Alekseyev's life since 2001, when he was kicked out of the prestigious Moscow State University for selecting gay rights as the focus of his Ph.D. thesis. (He's since written two law books on the issue, which are now in the U.S. Library of Congress).
"I was out of my mind after being sacked from the university," Alekseyev says. "I decided then to fight against the system."
And he has seemingly succeeded on an unprecedented scale. Alekseyev's good friend Peter Tatchell, a leading British gay rights activist says, "He is risking his life for the sake of liberty and freedom--for LGBT people and for all Russians."
As the most visible crusader in his country, Alekseyev recognizes that he's assuming the mantle as Russia's LGBT figurehead. He knows that America lacks a parallel leader figure at the moment, and the reason, he says, may have to do with the high stakes. "America showed the way with Harvey Milk," Alekseyev says. "But let's remember his fight left him dead."