A small idea of what it means to be homosexual in Russia might be gleaned from the life and death of composer Peter Illich Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893 after contracting cholera from a glass of water.
A large part of the population here doesn't buy the official cause of death. The story persists -- probably a myth, historians say, but who cares? -- that the gay genius was confronted by former classmates, who accused him of assaulting the honor of their school with his male dalliances. A five-hour "trial" was held, the story goes, and Tchaikovsky took his own life in an agony of shame and regret.
This week, Russian gay activists are trying to stage the nation's first gay pride festival in a country that now officially tolerates a variety of lifestyles, but which in many ways has changed little since the days more than a century ago when homosexuals could legally be beaten with birch rods.
"There is still a huge problem in this country," said Nikolai Alexeev, organizer of the Pride '06 festival. "When you get outside of Moscow, people have nowhere to go. They are completely closeted, they cannot have any kind of open, happy life. They are basically scared to say they're gay."
The Pride '06 festival opened Thursday with a lecture by Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde, the homosexual writer who spent several years in a British prison. About 20 protesters entered the hall, shouted anti-gay slogans and released an unidentified but apparently harmless gas before being arrested.
Moscow is home to a number of gay clubs, restaurants and bars. The federal law making homosexual activity a crime has been off the books since 1993. Indigo, a chic gay products store that features risque bikini underwear, lesbian calendars and works by noted gay authors, stands on one of the capital city's most elegant shopping streets, almost directly across from City Council headquarters.
Yet the proposal to stage a Gay Pride parade Saturday in connection with the festival has polarized the city, with even some gay activists issuing a statement that such a spectacle is "untimely, dangerous and provocative" in a city in which large segments of the population still view homosexuality as a perversion and an affront to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Political and church leaders have voiced strong opposition, and Russia's chief Muslim religious leader, Talgat Tadzhuddin, condemned the idea in even stronger terms.
"Under no circumstances should something like this be permitted. And if they come out into the streets anyway, they should only be beaten up. Any normal person would do that -- Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike," he said.
Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov denied festival organizers' application to permit 2,000 to march Saturday through central Moscow to Lubyanka Square, headquarters of the Federal Security Service. Deputy Mayor Lyudmila Shevtsova, in her recommendation for the denial, cited more than 200 letters of protest.
"In our country, homosexuality and lesbianism have always been considered sexual perversions, and were even prosecuted in the past. Currently, the stated actions are not prohibited by law," she said, "but their agitation, including gay festivals and a parade of sexual minorities, is in fact propaganda of immorality, which may be prohibited by law."
The potential for violence was apparent last month, when about 300 protesters organized by the nationalist Russian All-National Union swarmed outside a club at which a gay and lesbian party was planned, waving Orthodox icons and shouting anti-gay slogans.
Owner Grigory Plotkin said the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles as staff members from his club, which is not normally a gay gathering place, tried to exit. Demonstration organizer Igor Artyomov, a member of Moscow's regional council, said they were throwing only eggs and tomatoes.
"We have repeatedly stated our opposition to the public propaganda of such phenomena as homosexuality and lesbianism, because we believe they run counter to the norms of the main religions that are practiced in Russia," Artyomov said.
He said 43 of his activists were arrested and spent nearly 20 hours in jail after police cracked down on the protest. The next day, 22 more anti-gay protesters were arrested near a major Moscow public center.
Organizers of the Pride '06 festival say they will proceed with an unsanctioned picket action Saturday, to be held in an unannounced location in the city to try to avert violent protests.
"The mayor said it was because he had received so many letters of protest against a gay march, and because of that, he could not provide security," said Alexeev, a former graduate student at Moscow State University who left the institution after being told he would not be allowed to complete a dissertation on the rights of sexual minorities.
"The European Court [of Human Rights] has said many times that saying you cannot provide security means that you are surrendering to the people who would be against the minority. And they will always win. This is not democracy, if you organize your society in this way."
Fesitval organizers insist that they are trying not to stir up trouble but to move the debate in Russia an inch at a time up the road. It's too soon to talk about gay marriage in Russia, Alexeev said, but he would like to see legislation prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.
Only this week, Alexeev said, a professor at Moscow State University who had been planning to speak at the festival was told he would not have a job in September if he appeared. "And this was said at a university that considers itself one of the leading universities in the world," he said.
But Yelena Kidanova, head of the civil rights group Tolerance and a manager at the Indigo store, said she elected to sign the statement opposing the "untimely" parade.
"The problem is acute, but an event like a street march can hardly help solve it. I personally wouldn't gain anything from marching up and down the street waving flags," Kidanova said.
"It would be much more helpful to get legislation passed. I think real political power lies in the hands of... those who quietly, diligently work every day."