Behind Moscow's Eurovision extravaganza, a less harmonious Russia

The same day it hosted the finals of the 42-nation singing contest, police quashed a gay rights parade.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
Norway's Alexander Rybak (c.) reacted Saturday as he was proclaimed winner of the Eurovision Song Contest final in Moscow.

MOSCOW – Two very different Russias, the paradoxical outcome of nearly 10 years of relative prosperity dubbed "the Putin era," were on full display in the streets of Moscow this weekend.

One Russia, keen to excel in all forms of international competition, opened its collective heart to participants of the 42-nation Eurovision contest, which climaxed Saturday night with a boisterous, standing-room-only extravagant finale in the 80,000-seat Moscow Olympisky Stadium.

The contest, won by the Belarussian-born Norwegian singer Alexander Rybak, reportedly garnered a global TV audience of 100 million, making it one of the most watched spectacles on the planet.

In Russia, it seems that nearly everyone watched the extended television coverage that went on for much of the night, including interviews with winners and losers among the 25 final acts.

In one case, many members of a studio audience – including ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – burst into tears of appreciation as two Armenian sisters, Inga and Anush Arshakyan (who came in 10th), offered their deep-throated impromptu rendition of a famous old Russian folk song.

"It was just beautiful. It feels like Moscow has become a regular European capital now," says Tanya Marchenko, a Moscow music student. "It was a really civilized event, everyone communicated through music and got along together very well."

Well, not quite.

Though local media barely mentioned it, quite a different Russia massed over 1,000 riot police in the city's central Pushkin Square on the same day to thwart a planned rally by Russian gay rights activists and a handful of their foreign supporters.

When protesters switched locations, and tried to show up on the Sparrow Hills – in front of the hulking main campus of Moscow State University – they found scores of plainclothes cops waiting for them. About 30 activists, including Russian gay rights leader Nikolai Alexeyev and British supporter Peter Tatchell, were efficiently seized, bundled into waiting vans, and driven away.

It all happened so fast that even some passersby on the Sparrow Hills, a favorite spot for weekend promenades, said they didn't notice a thing.

The rally organizers, pointing to the extensive gay influence on popular culture, had hoped that Eurovision participants would speak up for gay rights in Russia. In the event, none of the contestants did so.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, but gay activists say social acceptance still eludes them. For several years running, gay groups have been unable to obtain a permit to hold any sort of public assembly in Moscow.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has described gay parades as the equivalent of "weapons of mass destruction" and vowed never to allow them to take place inside the city limits.

"The Russia you see on TV is for outside consumption," says Yevgeniya Albats, deputy editor of New Times, a critical Moscow newsweekly. "That Russia is very friendly and open to outside cultures. That Russia is happy to pour $42 million into staging the Eurovision contest" and bask in the glow of popular festivity that it generates, she says.

"But the other Russia, for domestic consumption, is a rather dark and intolerant place, where it's up to the authorities to decide who can march in public," she adds.

Ms. Albats points out that Russian nationalists and communists are permitted to hold rallies in central Moscow – an antigay meeting near Pushkin Square was left undisturbed by police on Saturday – but "people with a different sexual orientation are treated as enemies.

"There are two Russias, and this is the problem of my country," she says.

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