As if the Russian gay rights movement does not have enough problems on its hands, now it has to deal with the very public, very anti-Semitic meltdown of its leading figure.
For years, Nikolai Alexeyev was the most outspoken and brave of Russia’s small group of gay activists. Head of the group Moscow Pride, he has tried repeatedly to stage gay rights marches (described by then–Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as “satanic”) in the Russian capital, only to face attacks by police and fascist thugs. Alexeyev successfully sued the city government in the European Court of Human Rights; in response, Moscow banned gay pride parades for 100 years. He has been a constant presence in the Western media, talking about the plight of gays in Russia, a topic that has earned massive attention over the past few months in response to the passage of a law banning “homosexual propaganda” to minors.
But something snapped in Alexeyev over the past several weeks. Once one of the Kremlin’s most strident critics, he’s fallen from leading opposition figure to discredited bigot. His reputation, or what’s left of it, lies in tatters.
The trouble began August 17, when Alexeyev took to his Facebook page to explain his “revelation” that “I hate the West not less than Putin.” The next day on Twitter, he condemned “Western hysteria around LGBT rights in Russia and Sochi Olympics” and claimed that there “is not a single hint of gay oppression here,” a sharp departure from the things he has been saying over the past several years.
Alexeyev was then recruited by the Kremlin-funded multilingual broadcaster RT to defend the anti-gay law, publishing a rambling and nonsensical article on the network’s website under the headline “How gay propaganda laws actually only help.” (The logic, apparently, is that the law will force Russian gays to become more active, a bizarre claim considering that the laws essentially render gay activism illegal.) The piece was intended as a form of damage control, as just a few days earlier, I had punked the network with a two-minute, rainbow suspender–clad rant about the anti-gay law that went viral. Following this embarrassing episode, RT probably imagined it could score a major coup by enlisting the country’s top gay activist in its anti-Western agenda. In his article, Alexeyev condemned calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics and lambasted his fellow Russian gay activists, some of whom, he claimed, had exaggerated the extent of homophobia in Russia to obtain asylum in the United States, an effort he likened to a “Russian mafia scam.”
As disheartening as Alexeyev’s sudden shift from Kremlin critic to slavish defender might have been, it doesn’t hold a candle to the days-long, anti-Semitic tirade he unleashed on Facebook and Twitter. The meltdown was sparked by a column in OUT magazine by Michael Lucas, a Russian-born Jewish gay pornographic film director and actor. Citing Alexeyev’s defense of the propaganda law and attacks on fellow activists, Lucas wrote that Alexeyev was a Kremlin “pocket gay.” He likened Alexeyev to the handful of Russian Jews who, in an earlier era, joined the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Republic to attack dissident “Refuseniks” and defend the Soviet Union from claims that it was anti-Semitic. Lucas offered several possible reasons for Alexeyev’s apparent defection: perhaps the Kremlin pressured him—a reasonable assumption given the way the Russian government deals with its domestic critics—or “simply bought [him] off.”
In response, Alexeyev unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse. On Twitter, he retweeted a user who called OUT a “Jewish slut magazine” and Lucas a “Jewish pig” and “Israeli monkey.” Alexeyev claimed the director was “probably paid to promote Jewish [vodka]. Distilled through his sperm.” He also threatened to “personally hire a contract killer to kill” Lucas. So enraged was Alexeyev that he announced his departure from gay activism altogether, only to tell BuzzFeed two days later that his outburst was a “social experiment” designed to “find out who was my enemy and who was my friend.” That question seems to have been answered when RT, in spite of Alexeyev’s erratic behavior, hosted him for a panel discussion about the anti-gay law the very next day. (Full disclosure: RT asked me to appear on the same panel, an invitation I refused.)
As of this week, Alexeyev’s anti-Semitic ranting was barreling ahead at full speed. On Twitter and Facebook, he blamed the “Jewish lobby” for putting the kibosh on a conference call he was scheduled to participate in sponsored by the group Human Rights First, also condemning “Jids [sic]” and an “American Jewish mafia.” Alexeyev has now taken on the cast of a run-of-the-mill anti-Western Russian nationalist, echoing Putinist propaganda in his praise of Libya under “Colonel Gaddafi” as a “terrific country” the U.S. “destroyed.” On Twitter Sunday, he compared himself favorably to the late gay Austrian neo-Fascist leader Joerg Haider, writing that he “will do what [Haider was] not able to finish.”
And for the coup de grâce: on Tuesday, RT reported that Putin “will consider” meeting with Alexeyev after the gay activist publicly called for an “urgent” sit-down with the Russian president to discuss “the situation surrounding LGBT in Russia and in the whole world.” Such a farcical encounter will serve two purposes, neither of which will benefit Russia’s gays. First, it will let allow Putin show that he’s not the uncaring homophobic tyrant that so many in the West have accused him of being. And second, it will further boost Alexeyev’s profile as the country’s leading gay voice. After years of attacking Putin and his regime, only now—after defending the Russian government, flinging arrows at the West, and spewing forth a tide of anti-Semitic nonsense on Facebook and Twitter—has Alexeyev won an audience in the Kremlin.
Alexeyev denies being anti-Semitic, unconvincingly telling a Russian website that his attacks are not directed at Jews per se but merely a “group of people in America which is engaged in clandestine subversive activities.” His erratic behavior has led many to speculate about his sanity or question just what the Kremlin has on him. (Police raided his home last week.) But the answer may be more simple and depressing: Alexeyev, like many people whom we in the West optimistically identify as “liberal”—in the sense that they generally share our values of open-mindedness and tolerance—is, at heart, a chauvinist.
As shocking as Alexeyev’s downfall may be to his erstwhile supporters, his rhetoric is depressingly familiar. Anti-Semitism has a long and disgraceful pedigree in Russia, from Tsarist pogroms through Soviet “anti-Zionist” campaigns to the common, grubby prejudices held today by so many Russian people. No matter the form of government they have been unfortunate enough to live under, Russians have long been subjected to a steady and consistent stream of anti-Semitic invective passed down from their families and spread by political and religious leaders. The lesson of Nikolai Alexeyev is that even those people who by dint of their own status as an oppressed minority ought to know better are not immune from this most ancient and versatile of hatreds.