The Russian issue(s)

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a "Day of Kisses" protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of  the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a “Day of Kisses” protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.

§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.

§ Open Democracy published an opinion piece by activist Igor Iasine on what Russian LGBT communities need right now: movements strong enough to carry the fight forward on Russian ground.

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We  need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.

§ Spectrum Human RIghts Alliance also interviewed Iasine here. And Open Democracy also carried an interesting piece by writer Sergey Khazov:

I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Solidarity in Poland, April 1981

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement, Paris, April 1981

§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at a.reid.ross@gmail.com. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia, November 2012: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.

Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.

But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s

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. … 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.

If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.”  One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.

I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”!  “Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”!  His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because

Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.

Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.

In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.

Two women at the "Day of Kisses" demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters.

Two women at the “Day of Kisses” demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters. © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

In Russia they resist, too

 September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system

None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.

Yesterday there was  a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev —  “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.

This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?

One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:

met-protest-IS-bWe all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first.  Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.

Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves.  That’s wrong.

The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.)  It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying “Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center. © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread  “materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent. 

Family, private property, and a State I don't like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Family, private property, and a State I don’t like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook: 

The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.

The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.

When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.

Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:

Dear Mr. Nutter.

Viacheslav Revin

Viacheslav Revin

As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.

I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.

I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.

I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.

On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.

By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.

Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.


What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.

But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):

alexeyev sochi protest tweetsI don’t know how much good this will do in Russia. But one thing you have to grant Alekseev is that his single-mindedness, and his focus on the bright lights, would serve him very well in America.

Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell respond: In solidarity, again

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

I believe — I’ve always believed — that everyone should have their say. That includes both Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell, whom I critiqued in the last post. It’s true that both Tatchell and Alekseev rarely stop talking. But that’s even more reason to ensure they get every opportunity to be heard. So addicted are they to soliloquy that, deprived of the microphone even for a moment, they might go on some awful withdrawal rampage, smashing up the premises like a minor cast member from Reefer Madness or Breaking Bad. 

Cycle of addiction

Cycle of addiction

Doug Ireland posted his long-postponed criticism of Nikolai Alekseev on the Euro-Queer e-mail listserve this weekend. Nikolai wrote in to comment — mainly on me, and my refutation:

Hi friends,

Just a few corrections on Mr. Long’s corrections in Mr. Ireland’s article. 🙂

We just counted and tried to make it as accurate as possible. If that is what matters for Mr. Long and Mr. Ireland. I was arrested by police 13 times for civil public protests in Russia since first Moscow Pride in 2006. [I had questioned Ireland’s extravagant claim that Alekseev was arrested 40 times.] This is a rough estimate. But I guess this is very important whether it is 1, 40 or 13.

Mr. Long wrote that political art groups in Russia appeared before Moscow Pride. This is totally wrong. Group Voina, which Mr. Long is quoting officially formed in 2008. This can be checked in Wikipedia here.  I don’t know if those gentlemen know the existence of such an international resource … Moscow Pride first announced in July 2005 and first action took place in May 2006. At this time there was no even a hint on any known political art groups. …

It is true that I never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups. We will co-operate with any politician who supports LGBT rights in Russia, whether in power or in opposition. This is our credo!

As for anti-semitism, I just need to have concrete proof of anything I said in 2007, as Mr. Long is saying. Otherwise it is a libel.

Hope that once again explains who Mr. Long is and who Mr. Ireland became.

All the best to all,
Nikolay Alekseev
GayRussia
Moscow Pride

That makes it all clear, then. I dealt with Nikolai’s actions in 2007 in detail in my earlier post. As for the Russian anarchist arts collective Voina: I mentioned it in my post as the group that gave rise to Pussy Riot, since Doug Ireland had claimed falsely that the real inspiration for Pussy Riot was Alekseev himself. It’s true Voina only “announced itself to the public” in 2008, but as its website notes, its founders Vor and Kozlenok (pseudonyms of Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol) started working together in 2005 — they’d married years before. Vor had been doing street art since 1995, on his own and with others. They have never had anything to do with Alekseev.

This brings us to Peter Tatchell. Tatchell Tweeted defensively about all this last night — defensive, I mean, about the idea that he was perhaps a little lax in ignoring or excusing Nikolai’s anti-Semitism over the years:

Tatchell tweet on Alekseev copy

“10.09am BST 3 Sep!” Sorry one missed that. Maybe a single Tweet is not the firmest way to dissociate yourself from a politically intimate ally of long standing. But let’s consider the “criticism” he made back in 2011. It came in an October 2011 article by Tatchell titled, suggestively, “A Tribute to Nikolai Alekseev.” In the fifth paragraph, Tatchell wrote:

Over the years, Nikolai said and did a few things that were in my opinion mistaken (but haven’t we all made errors?). … . I disapproved of Nikolai’s remarks which appeared to be anti-Semitic (although I personally doubt that he is prejudiced against Jewish people).

If you say that remarks only “appeared” to be anti-Semitic, and actually did not reflect any anti-Semitic feeling, you cannot claim later to have criticized the speaker for anti-Semitism. 

That one paragraph was far outweighed by the rest of Tatchell’s article:

Huge thanks to Nikolai for his amazing, ground-breaking work over many years … Even his harshest critics cannot deny Nikolai’s immense dedication and courage. … 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. But Nikolai did. Not once but dozens of times. [sic]

Then Tatchell turned on Alekseev’s critics, including those who had accused him of anti-Semitism:

Nikolai was sometimes subjected to poisonous smears and sectarian attacks by other LGBT activists, which caused him great hurt, as they were mostly without any truth and delivered with the venom you’d expect from the far right, not from fellow LGBT campaigners. Sadly, too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.

Those of us who champion LGBT human rights surely have a duty treat others in ways that are consistent with human rights values?

Now, let’s say –just hypothetically, I’m not making any comparisons — I write an article called “A Tribute to Joseph Goebbels.” In it, I say that I disapprove of the way the guy stupidly made himself look anti-Semitic, though I don’t really believe he was. I go on to praise his his groundbreaking work, his courage — which you losers can’t deny whatever you may think of him — and to attack those sectarian people who smeared him with malicious accusations of racism and so on. I wonder how it would go if, later, I announced the article proved I’d been an anti-Nazi all along.

Obviously, Alekseev is no Goebbels; it’s an interesting thought experiment, that’s all. The truth is that Tatchell (and Ireland, and quite a few others) didn’t care about Alekseev’s politics one way or the other. All they cared was that cameras followed Alekseev wherever he went. By following him in turn — or playing his PR agency, in Ireland’s case — they could bask in the borrowed light of the paparazzi. Other Russian activists, who believed in democracy and weren’t racists and were doing serious and important work, didn’t offer the automatic promise of getting your name in the papers. The cult of Alekseev revolved around publicity, from beginning to end.

Media at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Cameras at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles “Chad” Meacham

Tatchell followed up tonight by posting in Euro-Queer himself, in the thread about Doug Ireland’s article. He didn’t criticize Alekseev, naturally. He just criticized me. In full:

Scott Long has made factually inaccurate assertions about me and others. But I will not bother to refute them.

Euro-Queer was not established so that activists can abuse it to attack and smear fellow activists. Sectarian attacks have no place in the LGBT and human rights movement.

We should all concentrate on working together for the common good, whatever our differences. Fight homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – and all human rights abuses – not each other. Solidarity! Peter

Yes, this is clear, too. Peter’s not going to “refute” me, because he can’t. But he also thinks it more important to knock me than to state an opinion of Alekseev’s prejudices or past history. (I think my name can be substituted for “all human rights abuses” in the final sentence.) And once again he sees Nikolai — who claims I “libelled” him — as a victim of “sectarian” attacks. Comrades, the real enemy is among us!

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

As they resume “working together for the common good, whatever our differences,” I can only wish Peter and Nikolai the best of fortune. My only question is this. Alekseev has now made clear that he “never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia.” So you have to wonder: Who’ll be their target, unless other activists? What exactly are Alekseev and Tatchell going to do?

NOTE. Ruslan Porshnev has kindly included the full English text of his thoughtful article on Moscow Pride 2011, in the comments section of my last post. Check it out! It’s from AntiDogma, an important collective online resource on LGBT Russian issues. Queerussia today also carried an article in English on the Alekseev controversies, and his Western advocates’ (at least partial) desertion.

A Russian activist colleague also writes me with an interesting question about the new direction taken by Alekseev’s one-man show, GayRussia. For years Alekseev has insisted that no genuine activist can accept funding — something relatively easy for him to say, since he’s wealthy enough to fund his own activities; it’s been a way to bash the human rights groups in Russia that rely on grants to perform their vital work. This summer, though, he set up a fund in Switzerland to support GayRussia. From back in August:

alekseev fundraising 2 copy
As my friend points out, this fund can’t legally be used to pay fines. Russian law says these must be paid

by Russian citizens using Russian banks and currency. [To pay them from Switzerland] is close to illegal “money laundering” from foreign sources, or – see the next point. …

The most interesting part. Right now Russia has a draconian law against foreign financing of NGOs. Any NGO which is caught using foreign money for “political” activities (whatever that means – nobody understands this), is subject to severe fines. An NGO can escape fines only by registering itself as a “foreign agent.” Right now there is not a single Russian NGO which did this. All human rights activists all over Russia refuse to do this because it puts a shameful label on them being “foreign agents” acting in favor of their western sponsors, who are, obviously, right now enemies number one for Russia’s integrity and safety. I’m sure you are familiar with this rhetoric.

But this suggests an ominous possibility about what Alekseev is planning to do.

My thought is that Alexeyev and his Fund are being prepared to become the first self-registered foreign agent in Russia, since nobody wants to do this voluntarily. Alexeyev never spoke against this law while this is a number one hot issue for all Russian NGOs right now (many of them are under trials or in the process of closing down). Look what GayRussia writes on Facebook: “We are determined to become the ONLY fully transparent LGBT organization in Russia.”

In other words, Alekseev would break with the defiant consensus of real human rights groups in Russia, and become Putin’s first Potemkin NGO under the law — proof, for international consumption, that groups can register as “foreign agents” and do just fine. My friend adds that Alekseev’s proposal to meet with Putin “is in same line with all this”: volunteering to serve as window-dressing, to show the regime is rights-friendly. It seems unlikely Alekseev would go that far. On the other hand, those who have really paid attention to him for the last seven years know there’s no predicting how far he will go.

Doug Ireland and the Nikolai Alekseev circus: Lone Ranger fantasies in the wild, wild West

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

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

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: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

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 MEP Marco Cappato in the background.

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

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

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

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

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 thing in which Alekseev never took part

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

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.

Nikolai Jews 2011 copyI 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.

Ireland anti-Semitism copy 2Gay 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

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

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

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

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.

The Lone Ranger (cover)

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

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006