This article was originally published by Coda Story.
By Evgeniy Shapovalov
On a chilly summer night, members of an ultra-right nationalist group attacked a gay club in Moscow. Although the police intervened and no one was seriously harmed, witnesses recalled that within the roaring crowd that surrounded the club, old Russian women in headscarves held aloft religious icons as they cheered on the mass assault.
That attack on May 1, 2006, was when an alliance between politically insurgent Russian Orthodox Church Christians and violent homophobia got its start, a partnership between icons and clubs that would continue to resonate in Russian politics a decade later.
In the years since that first attack, an eruption of a pro-Church hooligans and militant babushkas wielding iron crosses has metastasized into an organized movement promoted by the highest reaches of the Russian Orthodox Church, sanctioned by the state, and supported by growing ranks of Russian Christian laity.
In the months following the nightclub attack, a neo-Nazi group known as RONS (the Russian abbreviation for Russian National Union) rose to prominence through a series of attacks on gay parades. An Orthodox presence was increasingly visible in these attacks, and in a 2007 street assault two Orthodox priests were captured by cameras literally ordering far right activists to inflict bodily violence against the well-known journalist Roman Super, reportedly because one of the priests disapproved of his earring. Foreign activists were also beaten, including the British musician Richard Fairbrass.
“Normally the driving force in far-right street riots are Neo-Nazis — they simply have much bigger experience in fighting than the Orthodox activists” said Alexander Verkhovsky, a prominent human-rights activist and head of The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. “But RONS combined the two: it was a union of old-school Nazis who fanatically embraced Orthodox fundamentalism.”
A year after the Moscow gay club attack, the Orthodox Church was itself sponsoring organizations specifically aimed at attacking gay expression. One group called Georgievtsy! removed homosexuals from Ilyinsky Square — the hot spot for Moscow’s gay community. Positive coverage of the Georgievtsy! in the official press indicated the authorities’ support for the organization.
In the early 1990s the Kremlin banned many neo-Nazi and nationalist movements, but by 2006 in Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia many of the groups returned to the political scene. RONS was not the only one. In fact, like a scene from a Mad Max movie, the gay pride parade brought out a cornucopia of raging Orthodox and nationalist groups including the Black Hundred, the National-Socialist Union, the Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, Kuryanovich Crew, and Slavic Union among others.
As the number of Orthodox activists grew, things got tougher for Russia’s gay community. The promise of freedom brought by the dissolution of the Soviet Union was gradually replaced by militant piety. That piety became the norm by the time four Russian girls rocked the world by singing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012. Pussy Riot infuriated many Russians, including professional boxer Vladimir Nosov and businessman Andrey Kormukhin who set up a group called Sorok Sorokov (“Forty by Forty”). What set Sorok Sorokov apart from dozens of Orthodox organizations mushrooming throughout Russia was army-like discipline and the athleticism of its members.
On June 11, 2013, when Russia’s controversial anti-gay propaganda law was passed, Kormukhin and his fellow skinheads, including his two teenage sons, were in the forefront of the attack on LGBTQ activists in front of the Duma. They were not wearing their red-white fascist-like uniforms, but are easily recognized in photos.
Less than a year later, Kormukhin organized an impressive demonstration where 4,000 young men marched around Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in a symbolic assurance to the Russian nation, and to the Patriarch Kirill in particular, that the power of the Church was unshakeable. The Church, it turned out, took notice.
At the time, the Russian Church faced resistance over its plan to build 200 churches around Moscow. Much of the money for construction was to come from a charity fund called the Moscow Temple Construction Support Fund. Its board of directors includes many government officials and some of the most powerful men in Russia: Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin; Patriarch Kirill; the head of Russia’s Sberbank, German Gref; the head of Gazprom, Alexey Miller; and Vladimir Potanin, who tops Forbes’ Richest Men in Russia list. This fuelled speculation of massive corruption involving state and church officials, but what really enraged Moscovites was the fact that many of these churches were to be built in public parks.
On June 18, 2015, dozens of young pro-church activists, wearing red T-shirts with white circles, moved into Torfyanka as the construction of the temple began. But pro-park activists proved to be trickier targets than the other frequent political targets in Russia such as gays, pro-Western liberal politicians, journalists, independently minded business owners, and human rights defenders. After a tense, nine-month standoff that culminated in a massive street fight between the two sides, Moscow authorities announced they were stopping construction of the church. The church activists lost, but they also learned their lesson.
“Do not openly beat up regular people,” said Verkhovsky of the SOVA center. “Unlike beating up gays, it would cause reputational risks for the Church.”
The far right’s response was to launch a campaign that claimed that LGBT activists were involved in the anti-temple riots. “Templephobe” became the antonym of “homophobe.” The activists distributed leaflets that read “Not happy with the temple? Welcome to the gay parade!” They simply stuck a gay label on their new targets.
The pro-temple movement gained muscle and fists, and increasingly public approval of the Church. In September 2015, members of Sorok Sorokov and another Orthodox group called Bojya Volya (God’s Will) smashed to dust hundreds of thousands dollars worth of sculptures at an exhibition of famous Russian sculptor Vadim Sidur. The attackers were arrested but released with no charges after five days. Soon afterward the Church spokesman Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin declared that Sidur’s exhibition was “deeply immoral” and contained “propaganda of homosexuality.”
And the Church seems especially supportive of Sorok Sorokov. In February 2016 the Patriarch personally congratulated the founder, Kormukhin, on his 45th birthday and gave him a valuable icon as a present. While Sorok Sorokov seems to have lost the Torfyanka fight, Sorok Sorokov claims to have “protected” 14 other temple construction sites in the last two years by managing to associate a pro-park opposition to new churches with homosexuality and gay rights groups. The growing number of Sorok Sorokov’s followers (Kormukhin, the co-founder, claims 10,000 members) tend to win popular sympathy: fueled by anti-gay and anti-liberal propaganda, many Russians increasingly view new churches as a spiritual shield from Western depravity.
Evgeniy Shapovalov is a Moscow-based journalist. He has worked as a translator and writer for Vice, BBC, and CNN. He tweets @shapovalover.
[Photo courtesy of kishjar?]