MOSCOW — Kirill Kalugin, a St. Petersburg gay activist, recently tested Russia’s new ban on gay rallies. He chose national paratroopers’ day, in front of the world famous Hermitage Museum.
Photos of paratroopers manhandling Kalugin circled the globe.
“In general, being openly gay in Russia isn't very safe, but when you're an activist, you get used to feeling unsafe,” Kalugin, age 22, said in an interview later.
Kalugin was protesting Russia’s new law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”
He said, “The government showed the people who's the new 'enemy.' They chose one of the weakest groups in society that can't protect its own rights. And the law actually restricts any objective discussion of the issues.”
A few blocks away from the Hermitage, at the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Vitaly Milonov dismisses Kalugin as a publicity seeker. Milonov wrote Russia’s first gay propaganda ban. Now, this legislator leads Russia’s reaction against gay rights.
“We are not trying to create something new -- we are trying to preserve the natural way of living,” he said in an office decorated with Russian Orthodox religious icons. “We do not have enough authority to call a same-sex couple a family. A family is a man and a woman, it's said by God. The first society exists from two individuals - Adam and Eve, it was the first family.”
Far from the protests, Alla Kuzmina, a St. Petersburg business student, says Russians oppose gay parades.
“You want to be gay, be gay,” said Kuzmina, who adds that she had many gay friends when she lived overseas. Capturing Russian thinking, she continued: “But not by walking in lingerie in front of my window, where my five-year-old kid is looking out the window. Don’t influence my family and my kids. Don’t give them ideas.”
Gay rights parades in Europe and the United States increasingly include calls for a boycott of next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova says the Kremlin underestimated the impact of the gay rights issue.
“Because they couldn't understand that this predatory law that the Duma passed would raise such a scandal outside, such a huge, powerful wave in the Western world,” she said of the protests.
Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed the controversy in an interview he gave to the American news agency, The Associated Press.
“We have no laws against people with non-traditional sexual orientation,” he told the visiting American journalist. “One can be absolutely sure that Russia will faithfully follow the Olympic principles, which do not admit any kind of discrimination, national, gender or sexual.”
Kalugin, the activist, says that is for foreign consumption.
“I want people to not listen to Putin when he says that we don't discriminate against sexual orientation. This discrimination does exist here,” said Kalugin. “We have a big problem with human rights in Russia, and I think, as long as Putin is in power, this problem won't be solved.”
When U.S. President Barack Obama visited St. Petersburg early this month for the meeting of the G20 heads of government, he took time out to meet with local gay and community activists.
Looking around the room, he said: “The kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia’s development -- and I’m very proud of their work.”
One participant was Olga Lenkova, who works with "Vykhod," or "Coming Out," a local gay rights group.
“We were talking about the abuses of human rights against LGBT people,” she said afterward. “We were talking about hate crimes not being properly investigated and prosecuted. We were talking -- and suggesting to President Obama -- that these issues should be issues of international interest.”
Three months after Russia's gay propaganda ban went into effect, the debate is just heating up -- inside Russia and outside.