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.
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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.