A Russian Gay Activist Speaks Out



Nikolai Baev, 38, is a veteran Russian gay activist born and raised in Moscow. He founded the first gay group in the city of Novosibirsk when he was a university student there, and is one of the original organizers of the efforts to stage the banned Moscow Gay Pride.

Baev has been on the front lines of the most militant wing of the Russian gay movement’s work. As one of the handful of Russian queers brave enough to speak out in the media, Baev has again and again defied official repression.

Nikolai Baev address his nation’s draconian new law, the value of boycotts, and the status of organizing

Baev is the complainant in a lawsuit challenging a repressive, “no-promo-homo” law passed in 2006 in the city and region of Ryazan that came in response to the first Moscow Gay Pride demonstration. Baev was arrested under this law in 2009, the first such arrest in Russia, and his challenge to the law is now before the European Court of Human Rights. This law was the precursor to the draconian anti-gay legislation recently passed by the Duma –– the Russian parliament –– which has aroused worldwide protest and condemnation, including from President Barack Obama.

Baev, in an extensive email exchange this week, gave Gay City News an activist’s inside report on the situation for Russian LGBT people today.

Nikolai Baev organizing with other activists in Europe’s Slavic countries.

Nikolai Baev organizing with other activists in Europe’s Slavic countries.

DOUG IRELAND: When, how, and why did you become a gay activist?

NIKOLAI BAEV: I’m a gay man and very proud of my identity. I decided to become a gay activist when I was a student. It was the most liberal era in Russian history, the 1990s, under President Boris Yeltsin, who repealed criminalization of gay sex in Russia. I love this time in my life and in the history of my country. But my personal motivation was idealistic. I couldn’t agree with any homophobic attitude and any kind of discrimination against LGBT people. I personally don’t believe in God, I am agnostic, and the only sense of my life could be: What can I do for human rights, for justice and freedom in human lives? What could I personally contribute in order that LGBT people can be free and safe in this time and in this country? So I decided to do what I can for this.

I was student when I came out. I lived in city of Novosibirsk, where I studied at the university. I founded a gay group in this city. Later I moved to Moscow, my native city, where I live now.

DI: How many times have you been arrested?

NB: I have been detained by police a total of four times for being openly gay. By the way, the very first time it was in Novosibirsk, while I was walking on the street hand in hand with my boyfriend. Police detained us; this was a long time before all the new anti-gay laws in Russia.

DI: Please describe what happened to you in Ryazan when you were arrested under its precursor to the new anti-gay law.

NB: The ugliest thing I faced having been arrested in Ryazan was the homophobia of the policemen in the police station. They regarded me and LGBT activist Irina Fet, who was arrested with me, as beings of second class, almost as freaks. Homophobic jokes, abusive words –– we experienced all this.

We spent a couple of hours in custody in the police station. The next day we appeared in a court and a judge fined us for “gay propaganda among minors.” It was our aim to challenge this homophobic law in the city of Ryazan, which had adopted the first of such a kind in Russia in 2006. In such a way, we wanted to appeal against this law in the courts and repeal it as result.

My claim is still waiting for a decision at the European Court for Human Rights. In case of my victory, it will destroy the federal gay propaganda ban because such a law will be judged as discrimination against LGBT people. Therefore its decision will be crucial for the future destiny of anti-gay legislation in Russia.

DI: What so far has been the effect of the new anti-gay legislation passed by the Duma?

NB: First of all, the authorities now have a kind of “legal” tool in order to ban any public activity of LGBT people in Russia. This gay propaganda ban targets gay visibility and LGBT activism. Now authorities may ban any public event, picket, rally, manifestation of LGBT activism. For example, the city hall of Sochi, where the Olympic Games will be held in 2014, has already banned a gay pride rally on basis of this homophobic law, explaining that any gay event can propagate homosexuality among minors.

Secondly, the social and political climate in Russia has become much more homophobic than before thanks to this new federal law. Homophobic hysteria has flourished in Russia recently. A new bill has been proposed in the State Duma –– a deputy from the ruling United Russia party wants to take children from parents who are openly gays and lesbians. It’s becoming madness. The authorities have made LGBT people kind of public enemies.

This new federal law officially proclaimed LGBT people citizens of second class. It literally states that it is forbidden to speak about the equal social value of “non-traditional” sexual relationships.

Finally, the effect of the new law is seen in growing homophobic and transphobic violence. Thugs, neo-Nazis, Orthodox fanatics received a kind of license to kill from authorities. And we know about new cases of beatings, humiliations, assaults, attacks, and murders of LGBT people, especially in Russian provinces and small towns.

Nikolai Baev with longtime militant British activist Peter Tatchell.

Nikolai Baev with longtime militant British activist Peter Tatchell.

DI: Is any LGBT organizing even possible under these horrible new laws?

NB: Such organizing is being blocked by the authorities. It was one of the aims of this law. However, this law’s passage also gave more courage to LGBT activism. The movement became more radical because everyone sees there’s nothing to be expected from the government.

You know, Russia is a very radical country. Exactly because this is a very conservative country. The more conservative Russian politics is, the more radical the revolution will come. This is a law of Russian history.

A new generation of LGBT activists came on the streets to protest against this law. And these youths are absolutely fearless. They will destroy official Russian homophobia.

DI: What is the current mood in the Moscow and Russian gay communities?

NB: The mood is ambivalent. As I said, a part of LGBT activists became more radical. They want to repeal the homophobic law together with [removing] Putin’s government. Because they understand that nothing can change without the change of the political regime in Russia.

Other gays and lesbians in Russia are scared of consequences of this law. The closeted gays became more closeted, especially in provinces. A lot of them want to leave Russia and to emigrate to the West where societies are more tolerant.

The brave ones became braver, the scared ones became more scared and are waiting for repressions.

DI: How bad is the anti-gay propaganda in the Putin-controlled media?

NB: Pro-Kremlin media portray LGBT activism as a part of anti-Russian politics, as something which is opposite to “traditional” Russian ideology. Homosexuality is portrayed as a Western “plague” which wants to destroy the Russian nation and its diminishing population. Russian conservative politicians and journalists insist that the West wants to spread homosexuality in Russia as a part of anti-Russian conspiracy so that the Russian population will keep diminishing.

Recently, Putin lost a very important battle with the Ukraine. The Russian government tried to force Ukraine to refuse European integration. However, the Ukrainian parliament supported an agreement on association with the European Union. After this, the Kremlin-controlled media in Russia proclaimed that Ukraine will be forced to legalize gay parades and support “sodomites”. That’s how homophobia is being used by Putin’s media.

DI: What is your view, and that of your colleagues, about the Western efforts to start various boycotts of Russia and Russian products and the Olympics –– is all this helping or hurting Russian queers?

NB: I take the boycott for useless, because this is not the Cold War time when Western nations could seriously challenge the Soviet regime. Current leaders in the West are much more cowards than previously, and they will not spoil their relationships with Putin. Therefore it’s senseless to declare a boycott of the Olympic Games in Russia because no one will support it.

On the other hand, the boycott discussion really helped Russian LGBTs because never before we had such enormous attention to our situation in Russia. So I would say the boycott itself is impossible, [but] the attention provoked by the boycott discussion is very helpful.

DI: To what extent are Russian gays aware of the huge outcry in the West against the new anti-gay laws? Does anything filter through the Putin-controlled media?

NB: Putin’s media portray the Western outcry about homophobic laws in Russia as a political conspiracy against the Russian government. TV channels and other media compare the Western campaign against the homophobic law with the outcry against imprisonment of Pussy Riot [the feminist, pro-gay agitprop punk rock group of young women]. They say: Look, the satanic West wants to spread homosexuality in Russia just like they previously supported Pussy Riot blasphemy in church. Russian media say: In both cases, the West wants to destroy Russian “spirituality” and the Orthodox Church. This is what is being reported in government-funded media, especially on TV.

However, the Internet remains still quite uncensored in Russia. And we have a lot of websites which publish translated articles from foreign media. Internet users can see different points of view.

DI: What has been your reaction, and that of your colleagues in Moscow Pride, to the recent anti-Semitic statements by Nikolai Alexeyev? (See the Gay City News editorial, “The Strange, Sad Case of Nikolai Alexeyev.”)

NB: I was shocked by Alexeyev’s words about “Jewish mafia” and all this anti-Semitic madness. As soon as he published this on his Facebook page, I immediately asked him to delete these statements and apologize for this. He refused. Moreover, he answered me with stupid Nietzsche-styled words that he wouldn’t apologize because it would weaken him. All this rubbish Übermensch attitude was so disgusting for me. I have broken all relationships with this guy.

I hate anti-Semitism. Just because I am gay. I know very well of the closest links between homophobia and xenophobia. Hatred against gays is the same hatred against Jews. The same violence, aggression, humiliation of human dignity. I know this very well from my own experience. Therefore, I hate anti-Semitism like all other forms of nationalism.

As for Nikolai, I knew him very well within the last eight years when we worked together on Moscow Pride. And I think he has been changed a lot. Enormous psychological pressure from the government and during his activities changed him. Several times, he’s declared that he’s “retired” from activism. One time he declared in his Internet blog that he wants to commit suicide. I think he went mad. And he needs good assistance of a psychiatrist.

Whatever his anti-Semitism is –– either a madness or political irresponsibility –– it doesn’t excuse him, and this is the end of his good reputation.

DI: Have these statements by him hurt queer organizing work?

NB: His reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. However, this number changed from time to time, after his new scandal. In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.

After his anti-Semitism, this support became even smaller. In his last interviews he said that Putin was not a homophobe –– a man who signed two homophobic laws, on gay propaganda and a ban of gay adoption –– is not a homophobe? What a madness…

However, Nikolai and his supporters during the last years did the most important thing: they awoke the LGBT community in Russia. And the new generation of activists which is coming and protesting on the streets is much more tolerant and free from those xenophobic prejudices Alexeyev may have.

DI: Without revealing anything you don’t want the authorities to know, can you tell us what, if any, organizing initiatives are being planned now? And are you doing anything special around the Olympics?

NB: To do anything during the Olympics in Sochi is impossible because President Putin made Sochi a “closed city” by his decree prohibiting any public event in Sochi during the Olympics. The authorities have already banned any Sochi gay pride event, arguing it would propagate homosexuality among minors.

On the other hand, we can organize a lot of protests in other Russian cities on the day of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games. It will attract attention from all global media, and I think the global campaign will be needed on that day in other cities of the world.

DI: What is the degree of police surveillance and harassment of you and other gay activists since the new law was passed? Be specific: Do you think your phones are tapped? Your Internet under surveillance? Are your comings and goings watched?

NB: My phone is being tapped since a long time already. I don’t care about it. Do they want to know about my activity? OK. You’re welcome! I am absolutely open, and have nothing to hide. I don’t feel any harassment or surveillance so far. However, every time during gay Pride events in Moscow, LGBT activists are always being surveilled by police and secret services. This is always a kind of military operation in Moscow every year.

DI: I understand that at least one French film with a gay theme has now been banned in Russia. Are there other specific instances of anti-gay censorship since the new law of which you are aware?

NB: Russian media try to avoid any mentioning of LGBT subjects in their reports. I would call it self-censorship. Editors in Russian media are scared to speak about homosexuality.

The most stupid attitude of Russian officials was the recent words of Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky that Piotr Tchaikovsky was not gay. This is very symptomatic. The authorities want to delete any fact of homosexuality from Russian history. For them this is a kind of taboo.

DI: What is the future of the Russian gay communities and of gay organizing work?

NB: First of all, let’s look at the present, and from this point of view let’s try to understand the future. Right now, the LGBT community in Russia lives in a vicious circle. We face hatred, aggression, murders, and humiliations every day. We are looking for the protection of our lives and our rights through the Russian law which prohibits hatred against social groups in Russia. But this is in vain. The police don’t protect us and don’t prevent homophobic and transphobic crimes. Policemen are totally homophobic. The prosecutor’s office where we are trying to start investigations refuses us. Courts and judges support this refusal. What can we do in this situation? We go on the streets to protest. But the authorities ban us from protesting! They don’t want us to appear publicly to speak about our problems, discrimination, and rights. The silence is being enforced, and hatred, aggression, and murders go on. The circle is closed.

It is very important for us to break this circle, to come out from the ghetto where the authorities want us to remain. Visibility and equality –– this is what we desperately need here in Russia.

Another point is that such changes will not come as long as this political regime is not changed. Putin must go. If he does, we will have hope that the LGBT movement in Russia will develop like in other European countries.

I believe that we will have equal rights in the future. We will go the same way like in other countries fighting homophobia and discrimination. This way will be harder in Russia.