MOSCOW—They marched down Tverskaya, Moscow's version of Fifth Avenue, wearing combat boots and army waistcoats and with crucifixes pinned to their chests. Many had the long hair and beards of Orthodox priests. "Christ has risen!" one of the 20 marchers shouted through a megaphone to the crowd, which had gathered to watch the recent Victory Day parade commemorating Germany's defeat in World War II. "Glory to Russian weaponry!"
The members of the Union of Orthodox Standard-Bearers see themselves as crusaders leading a modern-day Inquisition, and they consider few as heretical as homosexuals. Last May, they were part of a hymn-chanting and egg-throwing mob that broke up Moscow's gay parade. They say they will take to the streets again this year if, as planned, another gay parade is held.
"It's forbidden to propagandize any sin, such as homosexuality or murder," says Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich, the head of the group. "I personally think homosexuals need to be treated by doctors."
In that, he is not alone among Russians. Moscow's mayor, Yury Luzhkov, has called gay parades "satanical" and vowed not to permit them. And in a 2007 survey by state pollster VTsIOM of 1,600 Russians, 56 percent of respondents said they thought homosexuality was unacceptable behavior, and almost a quarter thought it should be criminalized.
Russian gays are divided on the best way to combat such hostility. Some see a parade as a stepping-stone to increased tolerance; many others view it as aggravating tensions and would prefer educational approaches or lobbying by foreign governments. The debate has descended into an ugly personal conflict between two prominent figures in the gay community.
Homosexuality was illegal in many East European nations under communism. In recent years, gay parades have been the focus of a struggle for rights, as well as scenes of violence. Protesters pelted gay activists with excrement and fruit in Riga, Latvia, in 2006 after authorities banned a parade. It took place peacefully in 2007.
Disturbances also have attended parades in Warsaw, Poland, and Chisinau, Moldova. But Moscow has drawn most attention. At last year's parade, which drew about 100 people despite lacking city approval, western marchers, including Volker Beck, a member of Germany's parliament, and Richard Fairbass, singer with the British band Right Said Fred, were beaten by skinheads and members of religious groups. "I was almost knocked unconscious," says gay activist and former British parliamentarian Peter Tatchell, "The Moscow police stood by and allowed this assault to happen. Then I was arrested, while my attackers walked free." A police spokesman declined to comment on Tatchell's allegations.
Homosexuality was legalized in Russia in 1993 (it had been criminalized in the Soviet Union in 1933), though only in 1999 did Russia's psychiatric association rule that it was not an illness. Some in the medical establishment still have decidedly old-fashioned understandings of it. In a recent Q&A column in one of Russia's top-selling papers, Argumentiy i Faktiy, a doctor wrote: "There's no biological reason for gays to act so shockingly, but they do have a lack of self-restraint." Tiny gay scenes have developed in Moscow and St. Petersburg but virtually nowhere else in Russia.
The Russian government does not keep statistics on homophobic attacks, but rights activists say there are plenty. Nikolai Alexeyev, the organizer of the gay parade, helped two men claim asylum in Spain after they were attacked. Taxi drivers have been known to beat and rob passengers picked up outside a Moscow gay club, Three Monkeys. Protesters threw holy water and eggs at party-goers at that club in April 2006.
Alexeyev, 30, blond and boyish-looking, is partly motivated by his own experiences of homophobia. He left Moscow State University in 2001, before finishing his degree, after professors in the faculty of government administration would not let him write a thesis on homosexuality. He took the university to court, where he says documents described his sexual orientation as "inadequate." He also took Russia's chief mufti to court after the Muslim leader said gays who participated in the parade should be beaten. Court documents in that case called homosexuals a "deviant social group," Alexeyev says. Both cases were rejected.