The plainclothes security men came first, clustering in jeans, leather jackets and pointy black shoes. Then the policemen in gray uniforms and stiff hats; bulky men in dark suits who appeared to be in charge; a bus load of riot police in camouflage.
A raw wind swept off the Moscow River on Saturday morning, past the souvenir peddlers with their tables of bright wooden matryoshka dolls and T-shirts emblazoned with Soviet iconography. The sky was low and dark over Sparrow Hills, a popular backdrop for wedding photos, a place for limousines, brides and champagne.
The crowd of plainclothes security officers grew, and tension thickened as noon drew closer. One of the security men laughed rudely, pushing at a colleague. “They are not even here yet and Max is already flirting with me,” he joked. “Take him away from me, guys.”
Nearby, a stocky policeman held his portable radio, listening to scratchy commands from above.
“Get all of them!” the unseen supervisor barked.
“Yes,” the officer said. “But how do we know who’s gay?”
They were girding their force and setting their traps to sweep down on what the city authorities have repeatedly described as a threat: the attempt by dozens of gay rights activists to hold a march in the Russian capital. Yuri M. Luzhkov, the Kremlin-backed mayor of Moscow, describes gay marches as “satanic.”
And yet Russia’s gay and lesbian community was determined to stage a march this weekend. Moscow was hosting the final round of the Eurovision song competition, a campy and wildly popular show perhaps best known for launching the career of ABBA. Activists hoped to capitalize on the event to draw attention to the sorry state of gay rights in Russia.
Most of them never made it; they stayed away out of fear, or were pounced on and hauled off before they reached Sparrow Hills. Shortly after noon, about a dozen activists stood on a nearby lawn of thick grass and blossoming lilac bushes and began to shout slogans.
“Homophobia is a shame!” they chanted. The demonstration lasted for about a minute before the police set upon them from all sides, clambering through the shrubs and knocking news cameramen out of the way to seize the demonstrators, pin their arms behind their backs and drag them off into waiting buses and patrol wagons.
They knew it would be a struggle. The city government has repeatedly denied their permit requests. Police in the past have stood aside while ultranationalist skinheads beat gay activists bloody -- then arrested the activists, not the skinheads. (Skinheads, unlike gays, have been permitted to march in Moscow.)
This year, the government seemed particularly incensed. Eurovision should have been a proud moment for the Russian authorities, a lighthearted celebration badly needed after bitter conflict with Europe over the war in Georgia and natural gas shut-offs.
“The Moscow government is declaring that no gay parades have been or will be held in Moscow,” Sergei Tsoi, the mayor’s spokesman, told journalists last week.
Gay activists threaten “not only to destroy the moral pillars of our society but also to deliberately provoke disorder, which would threaten the lives and security of Muscovites and guests of the city,” Tsoi said.
A few minutes after the first demonstration was broken up Saturday, a second group of activists arrived and began to march along behind a banner reading “Equal rights without compromise.” They too were immediately pounced on by police, who snatched away the banner and hauled the men off to the buses.
A man in a wedding dress arrived, only to be shoved kicking and screaming into a bus. After that, the scene melted into a sort of free-for-all, as frustrated police set upon and took away anybody who talked to reporters.
“It’s a shock,” a gay rights activist named Ksenia Prilepskaya said, watching policemen circle menacingly through a crowd of journalists and a few remaining protesters. “It’s against Russian law. It’s direct violence against us.”
As she spoke, police officers noticed Prilepskaya and lunged, wrestling her toward the bus as she screamed and squirmed. Her glasses were knocked to the mud and trampled underfoot, her purse lost. Her clothes had been shredded from her body by the time she was forced to the steps of the bus; police pushed her inside stripped down to her bra.
“Scoundrels!” somebody yelled.
That was the end of it. There was no march. The vendors kept on hawking their souvenirs. A bride and a groom arrived, stared in bewilderment at the crowd of police, then shrugged and headed for a parapet to pose for the cameras, a cheering wedding party at their heels.