MOSCOW — Saint Petersburg has long been seen as Russia’s most liberal city. But now it may be leading a national movement to ban public displays of gay life across Russia.
When gay rights activists recently released a rainbow of balloons from a Saint Petersburg park, the predictable happened. City police herded activists into a waiting bus. Then, black-shirted nationalists attacked the bus.
In March, Saint Petersburg, Europe’s fourth largest city, banned any public display of “gay propaganda.” Now, Russian legislators are debating adopting a nationwide ban. The goal is to keep gay life behind closed doors, out of the sight of children.
A gay pride march last month in Berlin shows Russia is a target of the international gay rights movement. As 700,000 Berliners watched or paraded, a cannon shot a rainbow of colored confetti at Russia’s embassy.
But 1,300 kilometers to the east, here in Saint Petersburg, no one is laughing.
Artem makes a specialty of tracking down gay rallies and breaking them up.
To him, gay parades and posters, gay-themed talk shows and art shows all add up to undermining traditional Russian society with the gay lifestyle.
He says that Russia will never permit open displays of what he calls “filth.”
Once Artem is out of sight, Olga and Irina step from behind the bushes to talk. Olga says that she and her partner of seven years are not recruiting converts. They are simply looking for tolerance, equal rights and the ability to get married.
With no tolerance for gays on the horizon in Russia, Olga and Irina plan to move next year across the Gulf of Finland, to Helsinki. There, this couple of seven years can register their partnership and legally adopt a child.
Downtown, Olga Lenkova works with Vykhod, or Coming Out, a gay rights group. She says the new law is changing life for gays in Saint Petersburg, long seen as Russia’s most liberal major city:
“Part of the community just goes back into the closest and tries to hide even more than they did before. And, part of the community becomes more active than they ever were, or becomes active for the first time,” Lenkova said.
For now, the gay movement’s biggest allies are from outside Russia.
Early this month, Lenkova was one of several Saint Petersburg activists who met with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Next it will be Madonna, who gives a concert here on August 9. In advance, the American pop star has denounced Saint Petersburg’s “gay gag law” as “a ridiculous atrocity.”
But with polls showing big majorities of Russians backing bans on public displays of gay life, Russian police may be breaking up gay rallies for a long time to come.