Gay Cruise in stand-off with Russian Army

Gavin Knight takes a river cruise with some of Moscow's defiant gay community and encounters the Rus

There was an atmosphere of defiance in the air as members of Moscow’s gay community boarded the crowded gangplank for a gay river cruise. The rumour going round was that the boat was going to be torpedoed by the Russian Navy.

Party-goers passed through a cordon of heavy-set OMON commandoes (whose cyrillic letters spelt out OMOH) under the lights of Kievskaya Bridge. They joked that Luzhkov had personally given the order to the navy to blow the ship up. The cruise was reviving a tradition that dated back to the USSR prior to Stalin’s criminalisation of homosexuality. It was organised by gay members of the press, owners of shops and restaurants and had major sponsors including Pepsi.

Those paying 1,000 rubles (about £20) to get on board, talked excitedly about a rumoured outings on NTV of an anti-gay nationalist MP. There were several planned stops along the river until it’s 4.30am finish for people to come on and off. Little did we know that at one port we would find encounter hostility. On May 27th gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was attacked, beaten up and then arrested by Moscow riot police on a gay pride rally outside City Hall on the main street Tverskaya.

For now the only sign of trouble was when our photographer friend’s camera was confiscated at the door and had to be retrieved later by stealth. “Face control” was in operation here and like any Moscow club the aim was to gain entry to the ever more exclusive VIP areas.

So we left the riff raff larging it en masse on the lower deck and ascended a metal ladder to the top VIP deck. Midnight is too early to club in Moscow, and the top deck was fairly thinly populated. Someone pointed out how the barman in his sailor suit looked like young Vladimir Putin. He gave us our complimentary vodka shot but made us pay through the nose for a syprupy apricot mixer.

Yuri, an impossibly tall transvestite swayed around in a green dress. Sacha, a camp window cleaner from the suburb of Kalchuga asked us if we were on television. No, we said, we’re just foreign. He jumped with excitement and clapped his hands. It was as if Jack McFarland (from Will & Grace) had just met Patti Lupone.

You could not blame Sacha for jumping. "Moscow is one of the biggest gay communities in the world," Val, a Russian who works in TV, explained to me. "If you are gay in Kalchuga, where do you go? Moscow!" Val had been able to marry his English expat boyfriend in a civil partnership and joked how his partner was taking on his Russian name.

Sacha’s situation in the provinces was worse even than the Little Britain’s sketch “the only gay in the village”. In his provincial town, and in most outer regions of Moscow, he was likely to be beaten up for being openly gay. Until the 1980s gays in Russia were committed to hospitals for treatment by psycotropic drugs, with homosexuality only being taken off the list of mental disorders in 1999.

More revellers now climbed onto the top deck as Russian pop pounded out like the thud of a paddlesteamer. The overhead metal bars became an acrobatic dance aid, as men hoisted themselves up, performed rhythmic gymnastics on their partners with a knee clamp followed by a tumbling dismount. After a few vodka and red bulls this move became less Olga Korbut than Ronnie Corbett.

Val had also noticed that we were not in the most exclusive part of the boat. An even smaller VVIP area at the bow of tables cordoned was off by a knee-high perimeter of curtain cord patrolled by three stony-faced men in black suits. Beyond them VVIPs, indistinguishable from everyone else, sat formally at their tables, not dancing. We soon discovered, like Kate Winslet in the Titanic movie, that by far the liveliest partying was to be had down in steerage.

Blonde lipstick lesbians snogged with nervous giggles. A quiffed chapstick lesbian with aviator glasses pumped her arms infront of the mirrored pillar to an electro synth number. Eighties-style dancing was very much in evidence as everyone let off steam. The floor-filler of the night was a club mix of Rhianna’s Umbrella. Then as we passed the Kremlin’s walls, lit up from below, couples rushed out to photograph themselves on their mobiles kissing against the backdrop of the towering red walls.

Driving the good humour and party atmosphere was the sense of a community used to being under attack. A year before the Tatchell beating, activists had similarly been arrested and attacked by nationalists. Gay clubs had been blockaded. Moscow still boasts vibrant cruising areas near the centre in China Town (Kitay Gorod) and numerous clubs like 3 Monkeys. However many have now changed to straight clubs.

In January Moscow's Mayor Luzhkov called the gay pride march “satanic” and later in June The Russian Supreme Court upheld his decision to ban the march. So the pictures of men kissing on camera-phones were not just due to the magical, romantic background of the Kremlin, but more to stick it to the symbol of Lushkov’s authoritarian regime.

Then the atmosphere changed. The boat came in to dock at the second stopping points to find a jetty lined by paramilitary police. Rumours spread that they were not letting anyone on or off the boat. I pointed out how grim-faced the officers looked peering out from under their visors. “You would also not be smiling if you were paid the same as the soldiers in our army” someone said. A few heated exchanges with an officer ensued.

A short-haired woman - who looked like Rosa Klebb out of From Russia with Love - patrolled the side of the boat, her hand on her holster.

In the end the tension subsided and the boat moved on. Perhaps they were there to protect the boat from a boarding party of nationalists. It seemed unlikely. It also seemed absurd that a supposed European democracy like Russian was using its armed forces to police a peaceful cruise down the river.

Where were these troops being diverted from – guarding a missile silo, patrolling the Chinese border?
The day after the cruise religious Orthodox extremists took an iron-clad ship down the Moscow river to “cleanse it of the filth”.

Photos by Zed Nelson

Don't miss next week's New Statesman Gay Special with Brian Whitaker on the new global gay politics. Plus we talk to Peter Tatchell and we've got Julian Clary on gay Britain.

Gavin Knight has written for the Guardian, Times, Newsweek, Prospect and Evening Standard. He also has appeared on CNN, Sky, BBC and ITN. He spent two years with frontline police units and dozens of gang members researching his non-fiction book on inner city crime, Hood Rat, published by Picador.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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