Protesters holding Orthodox Christian church banners and icons, singing prayers and throwing eggs helped to bring the city’s first authorized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) demo to an abrupt end in St. Petersburg on Saturday.
According to organizer Maria Yefremenkova, around 20 counter-demonstrators were already at the site of the planned demo when around 10 LGBT activists arrived.
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“They stood there and sang the Lord’s Prayer and some psalms, but the main problem was a bunch of highly aggressive middle-aged men, who were indignant that the police were not dispersing us, but protecting us,” she said.
“They shouted insults and threats throughout the event.”
Later on, a group of 40 men approached the demo, stopped 20 meters away from it and began throwing eggs at the participants, despite the police presence. According to Yefremenkova, the officers looked at a loss for a while, but then detained some of the attackers.
With the police distracted, the men standing near the demo rushed at protesters, seizing a rainbow flag and banners, tearing down a stand and starting to trample it, she said.
The police said 10 were detained and charged with “disorderly conduct.”
Yefremenkova said that activists recognized some of the attackers as belonging to nationalist organizations such as the Russian Imperial Union Order and People’s Council (Narodny Sobor).
According to Yefremenkova, the demo was stopped 40 minutes after it had begun, when a representative of the district administration approached the organizers and asked them to discontinue the event for security reasons.
“It was even said that if we didn’t stop it ourselves, they would stop the event because the security of participants was under threat,” she said.
“They offered to transport us in their bus, which was perfect for us, because we hadn’t thought about how we would leave the scene. The protesters were telling us, ‘You’ll have to go home eventually,’ and making other such threats.”
The demo was timed to mark the United Nations’ International Day for Tolerance, observed on Nov. 16.
Yefremenkova said that the activists had prepared a performance portraying the history of their relationship with bureaucrats, Orthodox believers and judges, but had no chance to perform it.
“They are three sources of homophobia, we believe,” she said.
According to Yefremenkova, the police failed to fully protect the activists. “Considering the nature of the event, they should have surrounded us and acted more decisively in regard to the provocateurs,” she said.
City Hall and local district administrations had repeatedly refused to sanction any LGBT rights rallies until this month. Each of the nine locations proposed for a gay pride event in June was rejected by the authorities on various grounds that the activists described as “derisive.” Five activists were detained when 19 protesters tried to hold a demo without a sanction.
According to Yefremenkova, the Moskovsky district administration refused to authorize a small rally as late as last month.
Last month, a St. Petersburg court ruled that City Hall’s ban of June’s gay pride event was illegal, while the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay damages to a gay rights activist for unlawful discrimination by the Moscow authorities, who repeatedly denied him and other activists the right to hold gay pride marches.
Yefremenkova said that in authorizing Saturday’s event, the authorities may have been influenced by the court rulings and the rally’s theme of tolerance. “We do have a tolerance program in St. Petersburg, even if the issue of homophobia is not featured in it in any way,” Yefremenkova said.