THE BLOG

From Russia With Cheer: Queer Festival a Major Success in Saint Petersburg

09/27/2013 05:57 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

"The feeling is we can survive and accomplish anything." -- Polina Andrianova, Russian LGBT rights activist

On Saturday, Sept. 28, the fifth annual Queer Pride Festival will come to a close in Saint Petersburg after an exhilarating nine-day run of events, discussions, screenings, and debates. More than 150 visitors, many representing human rights organizations, showed up for the opening, crowding into a small art gallery in Russia's "cultural capital." As always, foreigners were a big draw, with diplomatic missions from the EU and United States there to show support.

Saint Petersburg's civil society groups have had it rough in recent years. There were the police raids in 2008 when activists were put through hell by prosecutorial pressure and beatings by security forces. Long before the world and Vladimir Putin had discovered Pussy Riot, the main global campaign for persecuted artists in Russia focused on freeing Voina.

Then things got worse. In the summer of 2012, the Duma passed a law requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents." Authorities in Saint Petersburg were especially repressive, conducting a series of state inspections of NGOs. Under pressure, Russia's civil society showed united in opposition, and the fight continues in courts.

Two St. Pete-based LGBT groups were fined under the "foreign agent" law: Vykhod (Coming Out) and Bok o Bok (Side by Side) Film Festival, though the court decision against Vykhod was reversed in August. A representative of the organization took part in the G20 sidelines meeting with President Obama, using the opportunity to discuss gay rights in the context of broader human rights violations in Russia.

Activists from Coming Out and Side by Side played a key role in the Queer Festival's success. The opening exhibit featured key moments from Russia's LGBT history, and there's a lot to be proud of. Before things got sour under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union was a leader on gay rights, knocking out all the tsarist laws that criminalized homosexuality and allowing openly gay bureaucrats to serve in the government. In modern Russia, same-sex relations were decriminalized once again in 1993.

The Queer Festival's opening couldn't be foiled by protestors led by Vitaly Milonov, the author of the city's infamous ban on "propaganda of lesbianism, sodomy, bisexuality, and transgenderism." The law wasn't of help to the bigots this time, so the police left, finding no cause for action.

Coming Out's Polina Andrianova shared her impressions of the Festival over email:

"Being the first festival after the adoption of the federal anti-'propaganda' ban and after severe repressions of the organization under the 'foreign agents' law, when for a period the survival of the organization seemed uncertain, this year's Queer Festival is especially dear to the hearts of the organizers and the LGBT community of St. Petersburg and Russia. Each event venue is full, and the atmosphere of a true pride celebration reigns here. If the LGBT community can make a celebration of LGBT rights, pride, and culture under such hostile conditions, the feeling is we can survive and accomplish anything."

When I wrote "Convenient Targets" -- a report analyzing the federal anti-"propaganda" ban and its regional precursors, including in Saint Petersburg -- I approached the otherwise-grim situation with similar optimism. I noted that even as Russia backslides on human rights, there is unprecedented unity among civil society activists and visibility for gay rights groups. Queer Festival is a yet another sign that LGBT Russians will continue to demand respect for their rights and their dignity.

Russia's traditions are deep and remarkable, and they are most certainly LGBT-inclusive. So cheers to that -- and congratulations, Saint Petersburg.