After a wave of attacks on LGBTQ activists in Russia, St. Petersburg has shut down one of the few spaces where it’s permissible for the city’s queer community to organize.
Field of Mars (or Marsovo Polye) is a large public park located along the Neva River in the city center. Named for the Roman god of war, the space is designated as a “free speech zone,” meaning that groups don’t have to obtain a permit to hold events there. Since the local government began allowing Pride events in these designated areas in 2014, Field of Mars has become a popular site for the festival.
The Moscow Times reports that following a devastating attack on this year’s Pride event, the city is revoking the park’s status as a site for free speech.
Field of Mars erupted in chaos on August 12 when a group of white nationalists targeted festival attendees with pepper spraya number of which included journalists covering the event. Fifteen people were injured. An estimated 100 people gathered at this year’s Pride, making it the largest turnout in seven years.
Police have since investigated the incident as an assault, arresting at least one person.
Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager for Russian LGBT Network, confirms in an email to INTO that organizers would no longer be able to hold events at Field of Mars, effectively leaving the Pride festival without a home.
“Field of Mars was the only space in the city center available for the public actions without the permission of the authorities for all kinds of activists,” Zakharova says.
Zakharova tells INTO that it is “very difficult” for the local LGBTQ community to get permission to hold events outside of the allotted free speech zones. Organizers must apply for a permit through the city government, and officials cite the 2013 propaganda laws as justification for denying space to LGBTQ events.
Passed by a unanimous vote 436-0 in the Russian parliament, the legislation prohibits spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Those find in violation of the law can be fined up to 500,000 rubles (or $8,000).
If St. Petersburg officials don’t use the propaganda laws to block LGBTQ people from organizing, Zakharova says that authorities will falsely claim that another rally is already taking place at the same time. For local officials to approve a group’s application, there must be no other competing event that day.
The Times points to this year’s Pride event, whose application was rejected because a conflicting WWII memorial event. Reports claim that only five people showed up. Many believe that the remembrance was scheduled in order to prevent the festival from taking place.
Even despite opposition, that event could go on because of the presence of free speech zones like Field of Mars.
Zakharova laments the loss of these spaces, which she says provide a sense of “protection and safety” that, if imaginary, makes people feel more secure to be themselves. But as she notes, LGBTQ people have been arrested even while organizing at zones that are supposed to be safe for them.
Russian LGBT Network reports that following the August attack on Pride, LGBTQ activist Anna Grabetskaya was detained by police for two days. Grabetskaya was accosted for picketing with a rainbow flag and a sign reading: “I Love My Wife.”
Authorities claim that she was apprehended for disobeying police orders after law enforcement officials asked her to “cease her unlawful actions.”
The revocation of Field of Mars from the official list of free speech zones follows an uptick on attacks against LGBTQ organizers in the Russian city, which was once known as a shade more tolerant than its ultra-conservative neighbors.
In May, LGBTQ activists protesting the murder of at least 100 gay men in Chechnyaa predominantly Muslim territory of Russiawere accosted by police. Ten activists marching along the Anichkov Bridge were arrested, dragged away by cops clad in riot gear. At least one person was taken away in an ambulance after fainting.
A group of anti-LGBTQ protesters targeted QueerFest three years prior by “cleansing” the crowd with “colored antiseptic from syringes.” The St. Petersburg festival also received numerous bomb threats.
Zakharova claims that these setbacks, while undoubtedly disappointing, will not shove Russia’s LGBTQ community back into the closet.
“I don’t think that it will stop all public activities,” Zakharova says. “However, this particular act shows that the space for free expression is shrinking rapidly, and that the authorities are not willing to leave any space for public protests.”