When a U.S.-based pornographer accused him of selling out Russia's LGBT community to the Kremlin, Nikolai Alexeyev didn't take kindly. The country's best-known gay activist announced his immediate withdrawal from campaigning for LGBT rights; threatened to sue the author of the offending article for $2 million; and publicly mulled hiring a hitman to kill him in the event that the article caused his mother's death.
Days later, however, Alexeyev admitted that his hysterical response to an article by Michael Lucas in Out magazine accusing him of "[betraying] his former cause," was a ruse.
"I wanted to find out who was my enemy and who was my friend — who would dance on my bones if I left," Alexeyev, who called his statements a "social experiment," told BuzzFeed by phone from Moscow Friday.
Since Russia passed a law in June banning "promoting non-traditional sexual relations to minors," or "gay propaganda," Alexeyev has frequently found himself at odds with the global surge of interest in Russian LGBT rights. He opposes boycotting Russian vodka and the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He has attacked LGBT Russians who seek political asylum in the U.S. on grounds of persecution, which he says is unwarranted. He has written an article for Kremlin-funded propaganda network RT (formerly Russia Today) arguing that Western media has grossly overstated the problem with the law, and slamming several Russians who had spoken out against it. And his increasingly extravagant social media — an announcement that he had taken part in a porn shoot, a claim that "Russia needs to re-criminalize homosexuality to make lazy Russian gays fight for their rights," and accusing two fellow activists of being pedophiles — have led many of his ostensible supporters in the West to wonder whether he had been hacked, blackmailed, or kidnapped.
"I've always been part of the struggle — I've always been at the forefront of it," Alexeyev said. "The whole community in Russia would collapse if I left. Why should I talk to some idiots who live in America? They have nothing to do with the movement."
A lawyer by training, Alexeyev, 35, abandoned his studies when Russia's leading university rejected his thesis about the legal status of LGBT groups. He turned to activism in 2005 when he founded the Gay Russia group, which organizes rallies and files appeals on LGBT cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Over the subsequent years, he has become the go-to figure in the Western press on Russian LGBT issues, in no small part thanks to his appetite for publicity in the face of hostility and violence. He once stormed off a TV debate show, whose host equated support for gays with necro- and pedophilia, and damaged the set in the process after an audience member accused him of "homosexual extremism." Authorities have grown so tired of refusing him permission to stage gay pride rallies that a Moscow court banned them for the next 100 years. When Alexeyev holds protests regardless, police arrest him with a regularity that would border the mundane — were it not for their usual failure to arrest the rock-throwing skinheads, nationalists, and Orthodox priests who attack the activists with him.
Alexeyev's prominence has also earned him the ire of Russian officials, although he has not been charged under the "propaganda" law. On Tuesday, investigators raided the apartment where he lives with his mother as part of an investigation into criminal libel against the bill's author, lawmaker Elena Mizulina, which could see him spend up to a year in prison.
"I don't need to do anything to attract attention. I had my apartment searched, why should I do anything else?" Alexeyev said. "The Russian government gives me free publicity."
Alexeyev's erratic behavior, which includes comments tinged with anti-Semitism, has led many in the Western LGBT community to question whether he is a fit spokesperson for the Russian movement. Yet calling into question the commitment that saw him rise to prominence in the first place — which sent him over the edge after Lucas' article — would be difficult. He won the first ever case before the European Court in Strasbourg on LGBT rights in 2010, when it ruled that Moscow's ban on gay pride rallies was illegal; he says he has a further 30 pending before the court.
"I have freedom of speech — I'm not an official person with an official position. People call me, I answer," Alexeyev said. "Nobody else is doing anything in Russia — that's why they call me."
Video of the raid on Alexeyev's apartment:
UPDATE: Alexeyev went on a bizarre anti-Semitic tirade Monday, accusing the "Jewish lobby" of conspiring against him and the Russian LGBT community:
"I don't agree. The Yids are destroying the LGBT movement in Russia right now. In any case I don't want to be a part of it anymore."
After BuzzFeed broke the story that Obama is to meet with LGBT activists in Russia this week, Alexeyev complained about not being invited:
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at email@example.com.
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