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.