With all the international media in Moscow for the World Cup, I reasoned that this was the ideal moment to stage a protest that would secure worldwide coverage of the victimisation of Russian and, in particular, Chechen LGBT+ people. My hope was that this publicity might embarrass the authorities in Moscow and the Chechen capital, Grozny, and prompt them to ease their homophobic repression.
Already, there is evidence that past adverse publicity about anti-gay witch hunts has constrained the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. The homophobic “pogroms” there are not as severe as they were last year.
I went to Moscow with a very simple aim: to support the beleaguered LGBT+ community and its perilous struggle for freedom. I was not telling the Russians what to do. I was there in solidarity with Russian LGBT+ activists, to support their campaigns. It is difficult for them to protest, because the consequences can be so grave. That is why international solidarity is important.
I knew the risks and was prepared to take them. President Vladimir Putin bears direct personal responsibility for the 2013 anti-gay law, which bans the so-called promotion of homosexuality in circumstances where it might be seen by minors. This has been interpreted to mean in any non-private place. It has resulted in the criminalisation of LGBT+ equality advocacy, the sacking of gay teachers and the suppression of welfare organisations counselling vulnerable LGBT+ teenagers. Putin supported this law and still defends it.
In addition, little action has been taken by the Russian government to crack down on far-right extremists who target LGBT+ people for violent assaults – including the instigators of the current threats to beat and stab LGBT+ fans at the World Cup.
Even worse, in Chechnya, which is part of the Russian Federation, for the past year LGBT+ people have been seized by state agents, detained without trial, tortured and, in some cases, murdered. The singer Zelim Bakaev disappeared in Chechnya in August 2017 and has not been seen since.
President Putin has ultimate authority over Chechnya. He could stop the homophobic terror campaign but has failed to do so. He could also authorise the arrest of far-right, queer-bashing gangs. Again, he chooses to take no action.
I did not want to see Putin score an unchallenged PR victory during the World Cup. Russia should never have been granted the right to host this prestigious football tournament in view of its appalling human rights record. There can be no normal sporting relations with an abnormal regime.
For this reason, on the opening day of the World Cup on 14 June, I held a one-man protest by the statue of Marshal Zhukov next to Red Square, holding a placard: “Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people.” Within a minute, the police arrived and demanded that I desist. They were polite but firm, stating that I was violating Federal Law 54, which prohibits protests near the Kremlin, and Presidential Decree 202, which bans all protests for the duration of the World Cup. I argued that the right to protest is guaranteed under Articles 29 and 31 of the Russian constitution and that not even Putin has the right to override it. But the police were undeterred. After stringing out my protest for ten minutes, I was led away to a waiting car and taken to Kitay-Gorod police station.
I was detained for a mere one hour and 40 minutes, instead of the three to five hours when I was twice arrested in the past. My swift release this time was probably in large part due to prompt inquiries by the British Embassy.
Equally, unlike in previous years, I was not treated roughly or abused by the police. The senior officers were very unfriendly; I feared that they were intent on severe punishment. In the end, I got off lightly. But if a Russian citizen had done the same they would have incurred a heavy fine and at least 15 days in prison. Arrest is standard for Russians who protest for LGBT+ rights or against corruption, economic injustice, Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its bombing of civilians in Syria.
Unlike brave Russian protesters, I had the protection of a British passport, which meant I was treated much more leniently. My fate was mild compared to that of Russians who dare to challenge the Putin regime. As a condition of my release, I was required to sign ten pages of documents in Russian that I did not understand, which I made clear under my signature. I am due to appear in a Moscow court on 26 June, accused of an unlawful protest, but I am now back in the UK. My only concern is that I could face arrest for not attending court if I ever go back to Russia.
I decided that to be effective, my protest should focus on one human rights issue: the persecution of LGBT+ people. But there are many other abuses. The Russian human rights group Memorial has documented more than 100 political prisoners. In apparent retaliation for its challenge to state abuses, its offices have been attacked.
There is pervasive censorship. All the news media is under direct or de facto state control. Alternative points of view are rarely heard. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been repeatedly jailed and barred from elections on trumped-up charges. The Kremlin uses kompromat (compromising material) to discredit its critics, including fake tax evasion and child porn allegations, with the latter being pressed against Yury Dmitriev, who documents the Stalin-era terror.
This was my sixth protest in Russia to support LGBT+ campaigners. I was arrested twice and suffered brain and eye damage after being attacked by Russian neo-Nazis, with police collusion, in 2007.
The most moving moment of my trip was being presented with a bouquet of red roses by the Russian LGBT Network in appreciation of my protest. They risk their liberty and their lives. I’m in awe of their tenacity and courage.
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis