Gay Russians are equal? One club asks Putin to take closer look.

In an open letter to Vladimir Putin, the owner of Moscow's biggest gay nightclub says it has come under repeated attack recently, but that police refuse to help.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
People watch a performance at Mayak, a gay cabaret club in Sochi, Russia, in October. The owner of Central Station, a major gay dance club in Moscow, says in an open letter to Vladimir Putin that his business has been attacked multiple times by bigots in recent months, and police have refused to help.

President Vladimir Putin contends that Russia's gay citizens are "absolutely full-fledged and equal in rights" with all other Russians.

But critics argue that's legalistic window-dressing which serves to mask an ugly social reality. They say LGBT Russians find themselves unable to rely on the full protection of the law, which ought to be enforced evenhandedly by police, and are increasingly vulnerable to persecution by self-appointed anti-gay vigilantes.

It's a debate that can only be settled by specific examples, which is why the Kremlin and all other interested parties ought to be closely watching what's been happening at Moscow's biggest and most popular gay nightclub, Central Station.

The place is in a secluded former industrial building, an adults-only club that has not been charged with legal violations.

Yet, according to its owner, Andrei Lishchinsky, it has been attacked more than 20 times in recent months, including by two gunmen who allegedly opened fire on patrons, and several times by assailants who he says sprayed "some kind of harmful gas" into the building.

Last weekend an organized mob of about 100 attackers allegedly occupied the building's attic, stole equipment, and destroyed its roof. The Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets covered the incident and published a photo of the damaged roof.

This week Mr. Lishchinsky penned an open letter to Mr. Putin, charging that while police frequently launch raids on the club to check for illegal drugs and other infractions, they have done nothing to investigate the escalating attacks by what he calls a "professional raider company" whose acts are motivated by "hatred or hostility towards members of the gay community and had obvious extremist features."

The issue may be complicated by a dispute between Lishchinsky and the new owners of the building who, the Moskovsky Komsomolets story suggests, have been employing strong-arm tactics to drive the longtime tenant from the premises. In Russia, such struggles are frequently settled by private force rather than through the courts.

But Lishchinsky insists he has appealed repeatedly to police, and they have declined to even investigate.

"In total, against the club visitors and staff, more than 20 such episodes of wrongful acts were commited [sic] motivated by hatred and enmity, for which more than 30 relevant statements and letters were filed to the law enforcement agencies," he writes. "However, despite clear signs of crimes and evidence from witnesses, those responsible for organization and execution of crimes were not identified, and by results of the formal checks a decision was made against initiation of criminal proceedings."

Igor Kochetkov, chairman of LGBT Net, a nationwide movement to defend gay rights, says that while the murky property dispute is of a familiar Russian type, the homophobic motivations of the attacks and the police inaction are also apparent.

"There have been several attempts to move the club out of that building in recent months. Since they rent the premises legally, nothing could be done through the courts, and so [the building owners] resorted to this series of provocations," he says.

"It's reached a point where there's been a shooting, gassings, smashed doors, and a demolished roof. We can see economic motivations here, of course, but the homophobic element is clearly integral," he adds.

In his letter, Lishchinsky asks Putin to instruct law enforcement agencies to investigate the situation around the club and "take measures to protect the security of both visitors and [the] operation of Russia’s largest leisure center for LGBT people."

In its own coverage of the story, Moskovsky Komsomolets suggests that Putin ought to take note.

"Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that in Russia 'there is no infringement of the rights of sexual minorities.' The president also suggested that foreigners could visit the capital's gay clubs, if they want to confirm this in person. That is why the club's defenders are hoping Putin will help," the reporter writes.

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