I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010
I hadn’t planned to say another word about Nikolai Alekseev, Russian activist and anti-Semite. But yesterday Doug Ireland (“International Affairs Editor” for Gay City News) published a piece in which he tries, after seven years of nonstop flattery, to cut his ties to Alekseev. Ireland was perhaps Alekseev’s greatest promoter to non-Russian audiences. This might, then, be a chance to admit that mistakes were made. But no. Doug insists he was right to praise Nikolai so fulsomely all along. It’s just that, in the last few days, the “brilliant and charismatic young lawyer” and “respected gay activist” has “gone over the edge into madness.” Who’d have predicted it? At GCN, “We were,” he writes, “shocked by Alexeyev’s diatribes in recent weeks” –shocked! Ireland sounds exactly like the neighbor interviewed after the reclusive loner’s rampage. He seemed like such a polite young man. I never thought to ask why he wanted all those missile launchers. We never had a clue.
Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either
Ireland’s innocence is a put-on. He, and Nikolai’s other non-Russian supporters, had all the evidence years ago of the man’s instability and hatred. It’s important to tell the truth. It’s important, because the Alekseev story reveals a lot about the potential pathologies of gay activism: the cult of celebrity, the belief in saviors rather than social movements, the way Westerners project their desires and fantasies onto other countries. Why did Doug and others keep promoting Alekseev, and actively denigrating other Russian activists? They damaged the whole Russian LGBT movement in the process. They shouldn’t get off the hook. And we need to learn lessons from how they went so wrong.
1. What did they know? and when did they know it?
Let’s go back to 2007. A slew of foreign activists and celebrities descended on Moscow for several days that May, in support of Alekseev’s second annual attempt to organize Moscow Gay Pride. Peter Tatchell was among them. Andy Harley, editor of UK Gay News – a big fan of Alekseev’s, who makes a regular trip to Pride every year – reported on Day One that “Mr. Tatchell hit out at some Russian human rights activists who refused to include gay and lesbian rights in their campaigns.” Attacking Russian human rights activists for their supposed homophobia was Tatchell’s theme that year. He picked it up in his keynote address at the Pride Conference in Moscow’s Swissotel.
It is sad to see some human rights activists here in Russia distance themselves from the LGBTI human rights campaign — and from this weekend’s bid to stage the Moscow Pride march. When human rights activists pick and choose which freedoms to defend, they undermine and compromise the whole human rights agenda.
Now, I was in the audience (I went to Moscow in 2006 and 2007, to lend support); and I knew, and everybody in the hall knew, that Peter’s accusations were wrong. Mainstream human rights groups in Russia (specifically, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which Nikolai had been viciously, publicly defaming all that week) hadn’t “distanced themselves” from Pride because they were cherrypicking freedoms. They weren’t there solely because another person was there, sitting at the dais. The reason was Aleksei Mitrofanov.
White nights for white people: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011
Mitrofanov, a Duma member from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far-right, neo-fascist, racist party, was infamous for inciting violent hatred against immigrants, Chechens, and Muslims. He was also one of very few prominent politicians whom Alekseev recruited to support Pride that year. He wasn’t doing it for “human rights” reasons. Mitrofanov, who got his start as a music promoter, was in business with the titillatingly lesbian-themed pop group t.A.T.u. He hoped Pride would bring publicity for the band (and a weird movie project about them he was pushing on Hollywood). He also hoped the European politicians who’d flown to Moscow for the festivities would help him wangle visas to Western capitals: the E.U. barred most Zhirinovskyites from entry because of their extremist xenophobia. A boxcar of a man in an Armani coat who looked the very image of the Russian VIP and vozhd, Mitrofanov loomed over Pride like a mountain over a profitable molehill. Alekseev, glued to his side, fawned on him as an honored ally. Indeed, Nikolai announced at the conference that he would run for the Duma himself in the fall, as a candidate either of Zhirinovsky’s party or of President Putin’s own. (Mercifully, that never happened.)
Peter Tatchell knew perfectly well why the Moscow Helsinki Group refused to attend the conference. It wasn’t a secret; Lyudmila Alekseeva (no relation to Nikolai), the Group’s revered head, had told the press forthrightly. They refused to sit on the same stage as the racist Mitrofanov.
Alekseev’s indulgence for right-wing racism is nothing new, then. It should come as no surprise to Tatchell, Doug Ireland, or anybody else who’s followed his career closely. The evidence was right at center stage in 2007. Tatchell defamed the Moscow Helsinki Group without ever talking to them directly. (In fact, the day after Pride, the Helsinki Group held a press conference to condemn the crackdown, as well as to discuss other human rights abuses against Russian LGBT people — proof they weren’t “distancing themselves” from the issue. I was one of the speakers. Tatchell sat in the audience, drawn by the prospect of press attention. He left, however, without saying one word to anybody from the Helsinki Group.)
Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to European Parliament member Marco Cappato in the background.
Other problems with Nikolai Alekseev were evident in that year’s Pride disaster, for all to see. There was the fixation on media and stardom; there was his indifference to what happened to ordinary Russian LGBT folk. Mitrofanov furnished lawyers for Alekseev and the foreign celebrities who faced arrest. But Alekseev made it clear that no “unauthorized” pride marchers would get legal assistance. 13 young lesbians and gays who showed up to support Pride were arrested and taken to Presesenskaya police station far from Moscow’s center; they were kept in an unventilated, overheated truck outside the jail. Their plight got no mention in press accounts, which focused on the glossy figures of famous Europeans in custody. (I was arrested too, very briefly – a fact I never even tried to make an issue of. The Russians who were arrested risked far worse abuse than any of us foreigners – and talking about ourselves was just a distraction.) I went to Presesenskaya with Alexey Kozlov, a heroic leftist activist and experienced protester, almost the only person who tried to help the arrested men and women. No one from Alekseev’s circle showed any interest in their condition. (HRW and ILGA-Europe’s 2007 report on Moscow Pride gives a detailed account.)
Toward midnight on the day after Pride 2007, a journalist in the US addressed Alekseev on a listserve: “You are a hero, Nikolai, and history will say so.” Exhausted and exasperated in Moscow, I typed out a private answer on my Blackberry. I sent it to the reporter; after thinking a moment, I forwarded it to Doug Ireland too. Here it is, misspellings and all.
Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group
I have been here for three days investigating 20 hours a day, and between us and in confidence, I can assure you nikolai is no hero. He deliberately refused to organize any form of legal assistance (or doctors on hand, or even a rendevous point so that people could determine who needed help or who was missing) in advance, putting in danger everyone who attended. Dozens of young lesbians and gays who showed up at their first pride were left to fend for themselves callously. Its not as though this is forgetfulness on nikolai’s part. I approached him about this … others did as well, and his answer was that mitrofanov had promised there would be no trouble, so there would be no trouble. Mitrofanov is a fascist, racist, and anti-semite. Nikolai allied himself with him because he thought mitrofanov could manage the skinheads, and apparently because nikolai wants to run for the duma, I guess on the zhirinovskyite ticket. When asked at the press conference–where he placed this nazi front and center–about mitrofanov’s vocally expressed opinions on chechens, immigrants, and others, nikolai said, “I haven’t heard of any such opinions.” Meaning he’s been in a coma for three years, because everyone in russia had heard of them. Mitrofanov’s only interest in this has been to get respectability by appearing on the dais with serious European politicians, and getting publicity for tatu, which he apparently half-owns. Three days before pride the moscow helsinki group offered nikolai legal assistance for any arrestees. Furious becaause they had refused to appear at a previous press conference because they”d have to appear with mitrofanov as a fait accompli (and you must realize the moscow helsinki group would under no circimstances appear with a thug like mitrofanov) nikolai told them he would not accept legal aid because they are “extremists.” This is the Moscow Helsinki Group, the spiritual and institutional heirs of sakharov and yelena bonner: and nikolai calls them extremists? … Last year dima makarov and alexey kozlov of Green Alternative furnished almost the only Russians who came to Pride and stood on the street and braved the skinheads–most gay russians were too scared (legitimately, which is why it’s so sad the gay russians who showed up this year got screwed by the organizers). Dima and alexey are straight but they did it because as genuine activists they believe in human rights, and they wanted to support nikolai. And how did nikolai show his gratitude this year? When they objected to mitrofanov being at the center of events, nikolai banned them from coming into the swissotel during “his” human rights conference. … This year, alexey kozlov stood for hours outside jails trying to get help to those arrested sunday. When the partner of volker beck [German MP] called alexey last night at 11 trying to find a lawyer for nikolai [who was in custody], since most human rights lawyers had been personally insulted by nikolai and wouldn’t touch the case, alexey ran off to try.(He found one: his wife was willing to represent nikolai, from what I understood: but by then mitrofanov had found some other nationalist lawyer, and nikolai preferred him). I will also note that since his release some 8 hours ago nikolai has shown no evident interest in the others who were arrested, many through his own incompetence. …
The most obvious hero of the last few days has been alexey kozlov, who has been working constantly and selflessly but whom yoiu won’t read about in the gay press, or any other press, because he is allergic to publicity and spends his time arguing with police captains rather than looking for cnn. Nikolai alexeev has certain defined pr skills but he is neither the only nor really the bravest advocate of lgbt rights here.
Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride
Nor did Ireland need to take my word. As self-described leftists, both he and Tatchell surely read the article about Moscow Pride 2007 by a member of Russia’s Sotsialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (Socialist Resistance), published in English by Socialist World that June. The Russian author told how Moscow’s progressives urged Alekseev to
build a wider movement with other oppressed peoples facing economic and social discrimination, and to take the issues of discrimination and freedom up within the workplaces and colleges. This approach has been opposed by the organizers of Gay Pride. Unfortunately, they represent a layer of the “gay elite” … who use their sexual orientation for their own benefit and public relations purposes. This was clearly demonstrated in the discussions in the run up to last Sunday’s events. The whole structure of the parade was undemocratic and restricted to those people who agreed with the organizers. The aim of the event was not to attract and involve a wider layer of gay and other activists but to ensure the participation of gay “VIP”s. For example, when the question of legal aid for anyone arrested was raised, it was stated by the organizers that only certain people would be helped ….
It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda
Even worse however, is the blatant political positioning of the organisers with Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s “Liberal Democratic Party” [LDPR]. Zhirinovskii first came to the world’s attention when his party won a considerable number of places in Parliament in the early days of Yeltsin’s reign. Then many commentators described his party as fascist. … It is therefore viewed with disgust by many gay activists that the organizers of Gay pride have promoted an alliance with one of the leading deputies from the LDPR in the forefront of their activities. This individual, Mitrofanov, the best known member of the LDPR after Zhirinovskii, was given pride of place at the pre-march conference. … As one activist commented “this just proves that the organizers are more interested in public relations for themselves than genuinely campaigning for the rights of ordinary gays. I won’t be surprised to see some of them as LDPR deputies after the election!”
Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov’s speech, Pride conference, 2007
Discussion on this question was, of course, not allowed. Activists who wanted to raise the issue were not allowed in to the conference. “Socialist Resistance” members who raised a banner of protest saying “Mitrofanov – Non passaran” when he was speaking were quickly ejected from the hall. As a result of the tactics of the organizers, Sunday’s [Pride march] has not been productive. It gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate that gays are extremely isolated within society. In addition, the participation of Mitrofanov will strengthen the impression of many people that this was not a genuine protest against discrimination but a public relations spectacle.
Doug Ireland can’t say he wasn’t warned.
2. Shared fantasies and beautiful friendships
Ireland, Tatchell, and the rest should have done two things. They could have looked objectively at the problems in Alekseev’s politics and person as far back as 2007, and stopped promoting him as the only legitimate Russian gay voice. And they could have talked to other Russian LGBT activists, to get a picture of their work, goals, and strategies. They did neither.
Instead, they heaped unqualified praise on Alekseev, and they actively insulted other Russians’ struggles. After Moscow Pride 2009, for instance, Tatchell took to the Guardian to declare himself “awestruck by the masterful strategy and tactics of the organisers,” and added a gratuitous swipe at other Russian LGBT groups:
The gay parade organisers realise that the conferences, glossy reports and low key vigils of other Russian gay organisations have little or no impact on the government — or on public consciousness.
In 2010, Tatchell called Alekseev “a real pioneer and hero.”
His actions are supporting, broadening and strengthening the wider democratic and human rights movement in Russia … Alekseev’s campaigns show him to be a man of great bravery and moral principle. He is risking his life for the sake of liberty and freedom.
2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of action Alekseev never joined
The odd idea that Alekseev had any part in the broad anti-Putin, pro-democracy movement was one that both Tatchell and Ireland regularly spread. It was completely false. As I’ve noted above, in 2007, Alekseev even announced (with Tatchell present) that he proposed to run for Parliament as a Putin supporter. For years he made it clear that his beef was with the Mayor of Moscow, not Russia’s President. He has always refused to support pro-democracy marches or demonstrations, and has insulted democracy activists as “extremists” (a Putin-era code word for terrorists) or worse. (See the endnote below for more on this.)
Doug Ireland kept up the drumbeat. (Gay City News has, strangely, taken down many of Ireland’s articles on Russia. No use hiding evidence, though: many are still online elsewhere.) Ireland admits he has “has done more reporting on Alexeyev’s activism and interviewed him more frequently than any other [journalist].” In 2010 he called him “Gay Moscow’s Man of Action,” “intrepid, militant,” and “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” (Funniest line: “the dauntless Alexeyev, who rarely talks about himself.”) Alekseev’s “indomitable courage and perseverance” made him “the principal catalyst for modern Russian gay organizing.”
Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US
There were ample other incidents of Alekseev flirting with right-wing ideologies. When, in 2008, he renamed Moscow Pride “Slavic Pride,” allegedly in solidarity with other former Soviet nations, some Russian gays pointed out the Slavophilic and ethnocentric implications. (Putin had already revived 19th-century ideas of “Slavic unity” as part of his imperial discourse.) Not all citizens of Russia or the rest of the old USSR are “Slavs,” they observed, and the name excluded Asians, Muslims, Jews, and others. Surreally, Peter Tatchell praised the idea of a “broader panSlavic movement for queer liberation.” (This is a bit like praising the homo-friendliness of the Black Hundreds.) Tatchell took it upon himself to reprove Viacheslav Revin, a distinguished Russian activist, who raised doubts:
As this Slavic Gay Pride took place in Moscow the focus was on homophobia in Russia. In future the focus will be on homophobia in Belarus and other Slavic [sic] countries. I do not think it is helpful to criticise a successful protest that has done so much to raise awareness of gay people and gay issues. [Tatchell to Euro-Queer listserve, May 19, 2009]
Then consider how Ireland and friends dealt with earlier evidence of Alekseev’s overt anti-Semitism, when it emerged in 2011. Ireland conveniently omits any mention of that incident in his recent article. He’s forgotten completely.
I played a role in outing Alekseev that time. In early 2011, a Russian colleague alerted me to something Alekseev blogged during the Egyptian Revolution: commenting on Israel’s apparent support for Mubarak, Nikolai went off against “the Jews.”
And who, after this, are the Jews? In fact, I knew already who they are.
I posted this on a listserve. Alekseev was about to launch a tour of the US; some of the sponsoring organizations, such as Equality California, indignantly withdrew their support for his gigs.
What hue and cry! John Selig, a blogger and friend of Ireland’s, wrote on the Bilerico Project: “Scott Long is scum in my opinion.” Someone named David Badash published a long defense of Alekseev, arguing that of course Alekseev wasn’t a bigot, because Doug Ireland said I was a bad person. In a fine example of circularity, Doug Ireland then reposted Badash’s article, claiming it disproved the “nasty and absurd accusations against Nikolai.” The anti-Semitic comments were “justified criticism,” Doug said.
Gay City News also intervened in Alekseev’s defense. In an adulatory article on Alekseev’s speech in New York, it dismissed the anti-Jewish slur by “Russia’s foremost LGBT leader” as merely a critique “regarding the State of Israel’s support for Egypt’s dictator.” Gay City News accused Alekseev’s critics of “blacklisting” him:
“Gays have no way to express themselves [in Russia],” [Alekseev] said. “If you are gay, lesbian, homosexual, you are blacklisted.” Blacklisting was something Alexeyev risked being subjected to in his US visit as well, once news of the Israel-Mubarak blog post went viral … “I have respect for everyone,” Alexeyev said. “My comments were misinterpreted.”
The puff piece was headed, “Nikolai Alexeyev tells New Yorkers why he remains an optimist.” Why not be an optimist, when you’ve got friends who’ll excuse anything you do?
In fact, Ireland is still pushing the Alekseev myth: claiming that Nikolai always was the unique and fearless leader, before his descent into “madness” two weeks ago. He now writes,
The courageous young women of the agitprop punk band Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year prison sentence … and the equally brave female Russian Olympic athletes who staged a same-sex kiss in front of the cameras to signify their opposition to Putin’s anti-gay repressions in a photo seen around the world, are both linear descendants of [Alekseev’s] Moscow Pride street activism, which no doubt inspired them.
“Linear descendants”? Ridiculous. The anarchist and punk movements that gave rise to Pussy Riot are exactly the ones Alekseev expelled from “his” Pride in 2007, and vilified after. (Ireland might want to look up Voina, the street-art collective from which Pussy Riot sprang. It’s older than Moscow Pride. And “street activism” in Russia far predates Alekseev, and needed no inspiration.) Anyone who has seen Pussy Riot’s work, and who’s been to Moscow Pride (Ireland never attended) knows there’s no relation between the former’s po-mo visual shock, and the latter’s traditional march-and-picket style. As for the “same-sex kiss,” Doug obviously is ignorant that the two women athletes have insisted their embrace had nothing to do with protest, gays, or Putin. He might want to check these things before going to print.
Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012
Then Doug offers up this gem:
Recalling how Alexeyev had been kidnapped and drugged by Putin’s security forces in an attempt to pressure him to drop his lawsuit against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights — while Putin-controlled news media put out a phony story that Alexeyev had sought political asylum in, of all places, the homophobic dictatorship of Ukraine! — we thought it was not entirely impossible that the anti-Semitic garbage being attributed to Alexeyev was the work of hackers from Putin’s sophisticated Internet control operation working to discredit Russian gay activists.
First off, by “Ukraine” Doug means “Belarus”— after all these years writing on “Slavic” lands, Doug still confuses countries. The incident he referred to happened in late 2010. Scheduled to board a flight to Switzerland at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, Alekseev disappeared, and went incommunicado for two days except for cryptic calls and SMSes. (Reports that he was seeking asylum in Minsk came from Belarusan state media, not Putin’s.) Doug and his friends understandably tried to rouse international concern – I even advised some worried people on how to contact UN human rights experts. When he resurfaced in Moscow, Alekseev claimed he’d been arrested, drugged, and pressured to withdraw his lawsuits.
But none of this happened; almost as soon as he surfaced, we knew it was all fake. Russian human rights activists will tell you what really transpired: airport police refused to let Alekseev board and then detained him, after he flew into violent fury when asked to remove his shoes. Having texted his “kidnapping” to a waiting world, though, Alekseev had to follow through on that story. If evidence is needed that the incident was trumped up, it’s that the litigious Alekseev – who sues mayors, cops, and human rights activists almost weekly — never pressed a case against police, airport, or airline for the alleged abduction. Alekseev’s onetime “kidnapping” doesn’t suggest that his present statements are forced. Instead, Ireland might ask whether Alekseev’s present instability isn’t more proof that the kidnapping was a fraud.
In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news
Doug Ireland is perhaps a uniquely awful case. I’ve dealt with many strange reporters over the decades, but Ireland stands out in his favoritism, his mendacity, his capacity to mishear or misrepresent the simplest of facts. He’s loathed me for years, because for years I’ve been on to him; I figured out how he works – or how he doesn’t work: the facts he never checks and the mistakes he never corrects, the basic laziness with which he treats his stories. It’s a reputation that goes back a long way. Friends at The Nation recount how, before they fired him, he used to bellow with rage when editors insisted on correcting his slothful translations from the French. He’s notorious for never interviewing more than one source for a story – less, if he can get away with it; like the Unitarians, he believes in at most one God. (You’ll notice that for his new piece on Alekseev, he spoke to absolutely no one else, in Russia or beyond.)
Still, it’s not just Ireland. Many journalists inflated Alekseev’s reputation over the years; many ignored the signs of trouble. What won him this persistent fan club?
First: It didn’t hurt that Alekseev was on the rich side, with a wealthy Swiss partner. Alekseev flew Peter Tatchell and US military campaigner Dan Choi to Moscow Pride at his own expense. Some gay journalists, like the UK’s Andy Harley, he invited to sojourn in his chalet in the Vale of Chamonix. When these people went on to write in Alekseev’s extravagant praise, you might expect them to mention their material debts to him. In the tiny worlds of gay activism and journalism, though, with their omertà and codes of silence, ethical standards often don’t apply.
Second: a connected but more important fact. To many Western eyes Nikolai wasn’t just a Russian. In Joseph Conrad’s phrase: he was one of us.
Alekseev had long lived in France, was fluent in both French and English. (Cold-War educational xenophobia left many Russian rights activists monolingual; it puts them at a serious disadvantage if they want to attract foreign attention.) But Nikolai’s attractiveness went beyond his multilingual charm — and beyond his blond good looks, though the number of times Ireland describes him as “young” is certainly suggestive. For Westerners, he offered reassurance that their ways of working were really better, and would work anywhere.
When I met Nikolai back in 2006, I thought he was an idealistic activist with a lot of potential. I also recognized him immediately as a type I knew from years in Eastern Europe: the exile who returns home full of notions about how things should be done, determined to override the provincial idiots’ inadequate ideas. I saw these people flooding Hungary and Romania in the 1990s, flush with ambitions to Westernize everything. In most cases, they got realism knocked back into them quickly, along with a sense of indigenous possibilities, though not without alienating a lot of the people they wanted to help. However, Nikolai was cushioned from ever discovering Russian reality — by the foreigners who discovered him.
Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles “Chad” Meacham
From the first, in 2006, Moscow Pride played to the foreign gallery. As Moscow authorities announced they’d quash it, foreign activists started signing up to attend in solidarity. By the time I arrived that May, I found it was hardly a Russian event at all. When, at the last minute, Alekseev suggested calling off the march for safety reasons, only about 10 out of more than 100 people in the conference hall were his compatriots; the rest, us tourists. I suggested that the non-Russians leave the room so that only Russians could decide – a move that enraged Nikolai. He’d identified his main audience.
Western adulation meant that Alekseev didn’t have to give a damn about what Russians thought. He confirmed to Westerners that their methods – visibility, marches, rainbow flags – were universally valid; he adjusted his demands to imitate what Westerners wanted, pushing for marriage rights instead of protections from violence. The Prides turned into a repeated drama played for the Western press, detached from Russian reality. Indeed, they fed xenophobia, and helped stigmatize LGBT issues as a foreign intrusion. Evgeny Belyakov, Andrey Demidov, and Igor Yassin have written:
Well-educated, arrogant, wealthy, and flamboyant, Alexeyev presents an elitist and “bourgeois” image of what it means to be gay. Some have even argued that his position is a repetition of the postcolonial discourse depicting Russia as being a “barbarian” country that has much to learn from the “civilized” West.
Sometimes, Westerners just get in the way. Activist Ruslan Porshnev has described perceptively how the 2011 beating of a single, sympathetic Russian — lesbian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko (whom Alekseev never invited to Pride) — affected public opinion far more deeply than years of antics by foreign guests.
Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock
Third: People relentlessly projected their own fantasies onto Alekseev. In him, disaffected Western activists could see their own dreams of heroism, prestige, and power.
The story of Alekseev that Tatchell and Ireland spun was that of a single, heroic figure changing the world not through politics but through gesture: by sheer force of personality. This wasn’t about Alekseev. It was about themselves. Alekseev vindicated their isolation; they described themselves in him. He embodied the idea that “direct action,” symbolic activism, solo stunts, could move mountains. Media coverage meant more than movement building; as Tatchell wrote,
It is only visible and challenging actions, like the [one-man] gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda. The same has been true all throughout history. It has been direct action by radical campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice. [emphasis added]
The arrogant pleasure of comparing yourself to King and Gandhi is only one agreeable byproduct. The main joy lies in arguing that your loneliness makes you special. When Tatchell condemns the “conferences” and “low-key vigils” of other Russian LGBT groups, he’s telling us that community organizing and collective effort are secondary. It’s the solitary martyrs, madmen, and gunmen who make history. They’re accountable to nobody and untrammeled by obligations. Gay politics fades into the wild, wild West; the Western, or Westernized, hero rides across its lunar landscape, masked and ready — the Lone Ranger.
For some of Alekseev’s allies, these self-aggrandizing fantasies were urgent. Doug Ireland’s career as a journalist was pretty much washed up by the time he staggered into the Last Chance Saloon of Gay City News. Hitching himself to Alekseev’s ascending star looked like a smart move. A romantic collusion of matching narcissisms, of insecurities and delusions of grandeur, it was as if Doug’s desperate dreams and Nikolai’s strode off together into the credits: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The people who suffered for it, though, were Russian LGBT folk. Because individuals don’t move politics: movements do. Dozens of LGBT groups in Russia have slowly been creating broad-based social movements. They’ve been building their communities, making spaces for youth, women, the gender-nonconforming. They’ve been connecting to other political movements and human rights groups that can offer not only support but services. They’ve been trying to carve out a place in the historic pro-democracy campaign. They’ve been reaching out through less confrontational means — film festivals, art exhibitions, publications — to a wider public. It’s not just that Ireland’s and Tatchell’s obsessive promotion of Lone Ranger Nikolai marginalized them and made their work invisible. It’s that the Lone Rangerism made LGBT rights in Russia revolve, in media narratives and then in popular paranoia, around a few flawed, foreign-identified figures. Alekseev’s polarizing prominence was a walking cry for backlash. Alekseev’s fans and fantasists have to answer for the damage.
Alekseev may be finished as a figure, but the forces that dreamed him up live on. Already activists in the West who work on Russia are looking for a new Lone Ranger: somebody else to be the “go-to person,” “new and prized leadership, an imperative voice for the plight of LGBTI Russians.” When they find the guy (it’s usually a guy), they’ll forgive almost anything as long as he gives fodder to their fantasies and says what they want to hear. Just consider this. Alekseev is a racist and an anti-Semite. He finally rubbed his supporters’ faces in it so hard they had to let him go. Michael Lucas, porn king and political commentator, is a racist and Islamophobe. He has a column in Out magazine, and white guys hang on his words for wisdom about the Russia situation. The only difference between the two? Lucas, a professional at feeding other people’s fetishes, knows better than to Tweet while drunk.
NOTE: There is no question that Nikolai Alekseev showed genuine bravery in subjecting himself to arrest on a number of occasions. Some realism about these incidents is necessary, though. First, there’s the matter of their numbers. Ireland claims in his recent piece that Alekseev was “arrested some 40 times in civil disobedience to Russian bans on gay demonstrations.” That’s strange, because after Moscow Pride in 2009 Ireland wrote, accurately, “This is the fourth time the young lawyer has been arrested for holding a gay rights protest.” Either Alekseev was arrested four times in his first three years of activism, then 36+ times in the next four, or Ireland is simply making up figures out of whole cloth. Doug Ireland is serially inaccurate; of course he’s inventing the numbers.
The perhaps six or seven times that Alekseev has actually been arrested for exercising his right to free assembly represent a grave violation of human rights. However, he has never spent more than 24 hours in jail as a result. It is simply wrong for Ireland to compare him to the women of Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year sentence under inhuman conditions. (It’s even more immoral for Ireland to suggest falsely that Alekseev somehow galvanized Pussy Riot to action.) Equally inappropriate is equating the dangers Alekseev faced to those braved by dissenters whom Putin’s regime murdered, including dissident journalists and others.
Peter Tatchell claimed in late 2011 that “Nikolai’s activism put him in great personal danger from bashings – even assassination … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered.” The fact is, though, that Alekseev has consistently disclaimed any affiliation with human rights defenders or the anti-Putin opposition. He is not a pro-democracy activist. There is no evidence that his life has ever been in danger. It does no credit to the courage he actually showed to place him in company where he does not belong, or to exaggerate the circumstances. And in doing so, Tatchell and Ireland insult the memory of activists who have paid the hardest price for truly supporting democracy.
Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006