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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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.