Eurovision, Russia-style

MOSCOW — The woman let out a blood-curdling scream as massive riot police dressed in blue fatigues pushed her into a waiting police van. Her shirt was nearly torn off in the tussle when the riot police, truncheons at the ready, violently broke up an unsanctioned gay pride rally in Moscow on Saturday and arrested all its participants.

Welcome to Eurovision, Russia-style.

Tonight, Moscow hosts the Eurovision final, an orgiastic display of over-the-top performances and squeaky pop music.

Members of Russia’s beleaguered gay community thought they would use the concert, which has a well-known gay following, to throw a spotlight on their plight.

Instead, as ever, they found themselves speaking into a void — met by violence from Russian authorities and silence from Eurovision organizers and participants.

Andy Thayer, a gay rights activist from Chicago, said he came to the march to show solidarity with his “Russian brothers and sisters.”

“Today, they are not only fighting for gay and lesbian freedom here in Russia. They’re also fighting for the soul of Russian democracy,” he said, before the swell of riot police pushed forward and threw him into a police van, carting him off to a Moscow holding cell.

British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell was also among those detained. Many of those carted off from the protest in front of MGU, Russia’s most prestigious university, flashed peace signs as the trucks rolled away. Others shouted “Gay pride! Without compromise!”

Homosexuality was a criminal offense here until 1993 and most Russians still hold to the idea that it is an illness and social disease. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, when denying gay rights activists the right to march two years ago, famously called them “satanic.”

Last week, the Moscow city government blocked an attempt by two lesbians to wed, in what would have been the country’s first gay marriage.

An anti-gay rally, held by Russian Orthodox and nationalist groups, was authorized by city authorities and took place without incident earlier Saturday.

From Eurovision organizers, who host a concert that has featured numerous openly gay acts, there has been total silence. Graham Norton, an openly gay Brit who will be a commentator on the event for U.K. television, reportedly refused to comment on the issue at a press conference this week.

Russian authorities have instead focused on promoting the event as a sign of the country’s international importance.

Last week, state-run television broadcast a visit to the concert site by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The streets of Moscow are plastered with posters advertising the Eurovision final in the city’s enormous Olympisky Stadium, for which tickets initially sold for $1,000. (Click here for more about Eurovision in Moscow.)

This year’s final is the most expensive in Eurovision’s history, with Moscow shelling out $40 million to host the event, which organizers estimate is watched by about 100 million people each year. The three-hour show will feature performances by Cirque du Soleil and a video link-up with cosmonauts holed up in the International Space Station.

Moscow won the right to host after Dima Bilan — a man, incidentally, dogged by rumors of homosexuality which may fade after his recent marriage to a woman — won the contest held in Belgrade last year.

More than 10,000 people have flown to Moscow to attend the final, Bloomberg reported. Twenty-five contestants will compete for the title.

Felipe Rubio, 31, a Spaniard who works for the European Union in The Hague, flew in from the Netherlands for the event, his first ever live Eurovision. “The Russians know how to do lights and glitter, so in that sense I think it will be a success,” he said. He called on international organizations, rather than Eurovision, to denounce the violent breakup of the gay pride parade.

“Russia wants to give the impression that it’s European. But this doesn’t happen in other [European] countries.”

Nikolai Alekseev, who organized the gay pride parade and was also detained, called on all contestants to boycott the Eurovision final.

“The Russian government is using this year’s Eurovision in Moscow as a gala showpiece to show the world how far the country has improved since the early 1990s. However,
what was witnessed this afternoon on the streets of Moscow shows the world just how little Russia has traveled when it comes to supporting fundamental human rights,” Alekseev said in a statement. “This episode has shamed the Russian government and Moscow authorities before the world.” 

More on music and Russia:

Russia sings the Eurovision blues

Putin takes a chance