Kiev’s Battle of the Rainbow: Gays, Thugs, and a Soviet Monument

The Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Ukraine next week and watched by as many as 180 million people, has been embraced by liberals. But nationalists are not happy.

Anna Nemtsova/The Daily Beast

KIEV—A giant banner unfurled over Kiev’s central Maidan Square last week: an enormous broken chain stretched from black smoke, symbolizing the revolution that took place in this very place three years ago, and stretched through broken links to the blue sky: Ukraine’s happy future with Europe.

For a country at war, the message was important. For a country about to host the Eurovision Song Contest, a phenomenon embraced and celebrated by millions every year, including gays who have seen LGBT artists win repeatedly, the symbolism was more important still.

“Freedom Is Our Religion,” read the banner.

Significantly, Russia was banned from this year’s Eurovision contest for choosing a contestant who had violated Ukrainian law by visiting Russian-occupied and annexed Crimea. But it’s probably worth noting that the government of President Vladimir Putin in Moscow has backed secessionists fighting in eastern Ukraine and is also notoriously homophobic. “Freedom” is not the Kremlin’s religion.

Yet the atmosphere in Ukraine is not as welcoming as the contest organizers or many Ukrainians want it to be. Right-wing nationalists and religious leaders have criticized Kiev’s decorations for Eurovision as too liberal.

“The broken chain symbol stands for our liberating struggle against Russia, but there is another strong metaphor, right around the corner, making nationalists mad,” one of Ukraine’s LGBT leaders, Zoryan Kis, told The Daily Beast as he waved in the direction of a huge arch over Kiev’s central Kreschatik Avenue half-painted in the colors of the rainbow.

In fact, Eurovision preparations already had raised considerable tensions between the social liberals in Kiev’s city hall and conservative right wing politicians when authorities made a decision to paint a giant Soviet monument, The People’s Friendship Arch, in the LGBT colors of the rainbow.

Nationalists from the radical nationalist Right Sector threatened the workers, blocking the rainbow painting works, and releasing a statement: “We, the Right Sector, Svoboda and other nationalist organizations disagree with these so-called decorations.”

Last week LGBT activists Kis and his partner Timur Levchuk found themselves in the epicenter of the rainbow scandal.

The Ukrainian LGBT community welcomed the idea of covering the arch in happy rainbow colors, and the monument is the symbol of a Kiev Pride event that the LGBT organizers plan for June.

“The half-finished rainbow shows that our revolution has not been finished yet,” Kis told The Daily Beast.

Ukrainian nationalists publically curse Kis and his fellow activists for spreading LGBT propaganda; the Right Sector also accused Kiev authorities of the scandal. “This is just the city hall’s decision, an effort to be liked by Europe,” The Right Sector’s statement said.

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Although the level of homophobia in Ukraine is not nearly as dramatic as in Russia’s Chechnya, or several other post-Soviet states, local gay people are concerned about the right wing rising.

Last month, three main nationalist political powers, the Right Sector, Svoboda and The National Corps, united and introduced a memorandum to the Ukrainian Parliament, Verkhovna Rada, that proposes a radical agenda.

One of the top goals is to form a new Union of Baltic and Black Sea countries. “The nationalists think they can drag Ukraine away from Europe and into some ‘third way’ discussion—that would be a suicidal path for Ukraine,” Timur Levchuk, who is the leader of the Fulcrum LGBT group, told The Daily Beast. “Nationalists have minuscule support in Ukraine but they are dangerous because authorities often fall under the nationalists’ influence and say, ‘that’s what the patriots think.’”

As people from all over Europe arrive in Ukraine for the contest next week, they will see Kiev in all its festive beauty, with live music, street festivals, and cocktails served on open verandas. Spring has burst upon us, and the parks are sprinkled with cherry, chestnut and lilac blossoms.

But visitors will also see dramatic portraits in the Maidan Square of Ukrainian soldiers left without legs and arms by the guns of pro-Russian militants.

And then they will see that rainbow arch, and they will learn that the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists won this time.

On Thursday Kiev Mayor Vitaliy Klichko said on television that the gap left on the rainbow would be painted the colors of nationalist insignia.

“It is still a cool statement for the country that just recently had its first peaceful pride parade,” says Mustafa Nayem, a member of parliament. “Just imagine an enormous rainbow in increasingly conservative Paris or Budapest today,” Nayem said. “Yes, we have issues. The left and right wings debate and have conflicts, but Eurovison is our chance to demonstrate how much we have changed; that Ukraine has never been closer to Europe, than it is today."