SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA | In the age of social media, news comes so fast that we are barely able to digest real information from prejudiced dross.Â Reactions to Cyril Kaluginâ€™s one-man protest during an annual Russian military holiday were instantaneous and mixed. They range from those who see him as “brave” and “courageous” to others who call him “suicidal” and “a fool.”
The rage against Russia has taken a life of its own, given the escalating violence and repressive current climate for LGBT people in Russia. Since June, the situation has definitely grown worse. The Russian parliament and President Vladimir Putin signed into law an “anti-propaganda” bill that levied punishment against those who speak about homosexuality to minors. It makes sense that Russian LGBT people and human-rights activists are taking matters into their own hands. The rest of us who can only watch whatâ€™s happening on the TV and have fingers on the computer keyboards cannot help but feel powerless.
Often it is worth questioning the democracy of social media by just re-viewing a second time and diggingÂ a little bit deeper. The video below which documents Kaluginâ€™s confrontation with former Russian airborne troops has gone viral. Whatâ€™s also spread like wildfire is the outraged and sometimes ill-informed commentary on it. It is easy to lash out at Russian government officials. If you look closer at this story though, the surface is not what it seems. Predictably the paratroopers still act like goons and louts. Yet in this case, the Russian special forces which intervened turned out to be the good guys. This incident on VDV DayÂ could have become bloody and tragic.
Here is what happened:
LGBT activist Cyril Kalugin staged a one-man protest on St. Petersburgâ€™s Palace Square only to be attacked by former Russian airborne soldiers and pilots during that countryâ€™s annual Russian military pride celebration.
Every year Russiaâ€™s ex-paratroopers put on striped tank tops and take to the streets to celebrate their history. The annual professional holiday, called Russian Airborne Troops Day, is referred to as VDV Day.Â VDV is an abbreviation of vozdushno-desantnie voiska (airborne troops in Russian). It always happens on August 2. It always involves flag-waving, great merriment, displays of masculine affection, swimming in the fountains (which is forbidden) and the public consumption of alcohol (which is apparently not).
Sometimes drunk troopers get into confrontation with militia or security guards. They have been known at other times to beat people from the south countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States or just those people who havenâ€™t served in the army.
Into this volatile fray enters the red-headed Kalugin (his first name is sometimes transliterated as Kirill Kalugin). He specifically chose the same Friday (August 2) to protest Russiaâ€™s controversial “gay propaganda” laws. He stood alone on the main square with an unfurled rainbow flag.Â The rainbow banner he held up read â€śThis is propagating tolerance.â€ť
He alerted reporters who dutifully came to the main square where Kalugin began to shout a few words stating that Russian society should be tolerant of all sexual minorities.Â He was knowingly breaking the draconian anti-gay “propaganda” law that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law this past June.
Naturally the Russian Airborne service members who were drinking and carousing near the world-famous Hermitage museum were not too happy to spot Kalugin at the palace square during their VDV Day. These drunken soldiers immediately moved in on him and surrounded him. Locking him inside a rowdy circle, the men manhandled and intimidated him. Their brawny leader, wearing a typical a blue beret, started to interrogate him.
As the video below shows (from the Russian LiveJournal blog of Ilya Varlamov), Russian special forces stepped in to protect Kalugin from the bullying paratroopers. WriterÂ Marina Galperina of AnimalNewYork.com translated the heated discussions between Kalugin and some of Airborne service members, captured in the video:
â€śWhat are you doing here on Airborne Army Day?â€ť one paratrooper asked.
â€śI am picketing,â€ť he says, trying to keep on his feet while being manhandled by the group.
â€śWell, we do not agree with this and ask you to stop this sort of action and your one-man picket.â€ť They begin to push him around. He falls.
â€śOh, look he slipped and fell. Donâ€™t do that,â€ť the soldier says, performatively at the journalists trying to get closer. The man is visibly frightened as the soldiers form a chain around him and began to chant, smacking their fists into their palms.
â€śCALL THE POLICE ON HIM,â€ť someone jeer. â€śSTAND RIGHT THERE,â€ť a few yell. The police arrive (blue shirts, police hats) and attempt to drag the man out of the circle, so the soldiers move closer, blocking their access and pushing them away.
â€śWhat the fuck were you thinking, showing up at Palace Square, faggot?â€ť the leader yells.
â€śYou guys are animals,â€ť the protestor rasps, while another soldier chokes him and shakes him by his neck. As the cops try to remove the illegally protesting young man, the soldiers start shoving them and throwing punches.
In the next shot, they encircle the police vehicle â€” â€śWeâ€™re not going to let them fucking move anywhere.â€ť â€” after their leader tries to get into the cruiser and drag the protestor out, yelling, â€śWhy are you defending him?!â€ť
Things had gotten out of hand. The drunken paratroopers were visibly stunned that the Russian special forces threw the drunken soldiers into detention buses. They had expected the police to arrest the LGBT activist.
A soldier screamed, â€śThey took our guys. They attacked our guys!â€ť
â€śItâ€™s our job,â€ť a cop replied.
Instead a fight broke out between the soldiers and the police.Â The paratroopers also attacked journalists and smacked down a few cameras.
The ex-paratrooper leader was furious at the police. Later in the video, he can be seen ranting at the camera about the â€śevil darknessâ€ť of â€śthe bitchesâ€ť in Russia and how bothered â€śwe, normal human menâ€ť were by the existence of LGBT people.Â â€śThis is evil,” the leader hissed. “Putin is a fag and the rest of it is all shit. The entire country is on its knees. We are Russians!â€ť
In the background, a soldier screamed at a cop: â€śWhy are you not ticketing the faggot parade?â€ť
(A joke: The Russian special forces in the video are the men wearing â€śOMOHâ€ť jackets, Cyrillic alphabet letters which, if spelled backward, would read to Westerners as “HOMO.” ActuallyÂ “OMOH” is pronounced as “Omon.” It meansÂ Otryad Milicii Osobogo Naznacheniya”Â or “Police Special Purposes Unit.”)
After the violent scuffle in which the paratroopers resisted arrest, two paratroopers were jailed and charged with disorderly conduct, Fontanka.ru reports.
As for Cyril Kalugin, he too was held at the 78th police station after the rally on Palace Square in St. Petersburg. After questioning by the police, he was released later that afternoon.
He said in an interview on GayRussia.ru that among the troopers who beat him up were several “dressed as nationalists.” He said he consciously made the decision to hold his one-person rally on VDV Day. Why? He said he wanted to “dispel the ridiculous notion that the VDV Day and Gay Pride were incompatible.”
An interesting too-intellectual point.
Here is the video of his lone protest on Saint Petersburg Square (in Russian language):
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