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Eurovision, Russia-style

Ahead of Eurovision final, gay rights activists are detained in Moscow.

Police detain Russian gay rights leader Nikolai Alekseev during an unsanctioned gay rights protest in Moscow May 16, 2009. Dozens of riot police broke up a gay rights demonstration ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest final, grabbing protesters and throwing them into police cars and a waiting bus. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

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.