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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Clash of Cultures Near the Kitai-Gorod Metro

APAdvocates for gay issues marching in May. Angry about the protest, Orthodox young people started patrolling a park.
NEW YORK TIMES SERVICE

They came, they said, to clean the park. Just after 7 p.m., a dozen or so Orthodox Christian youths gathered for several weeks this summer around a monument in the Ilinskiye Vorota park, roping off its perimeter and evicting those chatting and drinking beer on its steps.

The youths, who call themselves the Georgiyevtsy after St. George, the patron saint of Moscow, were patrolling the area near the Kitai-Gorod metro station in an attempt, they say, to expel the gay men who cruise the area to meet friends and look for sex.

"They are gathering around a holy place, and engaging in very shocking activities, kissing, and not only," said Diana Romanovskaya, a 19-year-old organizer of the patrol, who said she and others were inspired after advocates for gay issues attempted a demonstration in Moscow in May.

The patrol around the monument to soldiers killed in the 19th-century Russo-Turkish War, which also serves as an Orthodox chapel,also attracted members of various nationalist groups, who have melded the anti-gay demonstration with their own battle against migrants from the Caucasus, who, they claim, similarly threaten Russia's traditions and culture.

The situation became so fraught that riot police have now begun to patrol the park to keep out antagonists from both sides. They acted after a particularly nasty brawl one night in June involving about 100 people left one Armenian teenager with stab wounds. The police made more than 40 arrests. The Russian media said skinheads joined in the fracas.

The tense confrontation suggests a parallel with the violence directed at ethnic minorities in Russia.

Igor Kon, a sociologist specializing in homosexuality, suggested in a recent article published on his web site, Sexology.narod.ru, that anti-gay attitudes belie a broader distrust of society's marginal groups.

"Homophobia is just a litmus test," Kon said in a telephone interview. He said events like the attempted gay demonstration in May served as "a pretext for the mobilization of ultranationalist forces."

Luzhkov banned the May protest, referring to such events as "satanic acts." The protest's organizers -- a coalition of Russians and Europeans -- were quickly detained when they gathered in front of City Hall on May 27 to demand permission for a public demonstration. That same day, the Georgiyevtsy held a counterprotest at the monument, called "For Genuine Love." They condemned what they called homosexual propaganda, and announced plans to begin their patrols of the park.

Starting June 12, they gathered every evening at the monument with a small, but growing contingent of nationalists, politicians and other sympathizers to assert that Russia is unwilling to embrace the rights of sexual minorities.

Referring to the failed demonstration, Romanovskaya said: "If we allow such events in Moscow, we will show everyone that we will become just like the rest of Europe. Our country is special. We have cultural values."

One night early in the patrol, before the police essentially closed down the park, two young gay men sat on a wall at the perimeter of the square, watching as the protesters cleaned empty bottles and other trash from around the chapel.

One, Yury Dyomin, said he would resist any pressure to leave the park.

"We have friends here," he said. "Even if they're gay, it doesn't mean they should be kicked out."

To the patrol's supporters, the gay men who frequent the park are the aggressors.

"The sexual minorities have occupied territory," said Larisa Pavlova, a member of a local parents' association.

She suggested that the area around the monument had become a site not only for gay cruising, but also for prostitution and drug dealing.

"The place where our kids used to stroll is now home to all kinds of vulgar acts," she said.

The Orthodox youth group has disavowed using force to remove gay men from the park, and claims to be the victim of several violent attacks near the monument. In one incident, someone fired on the patrol group with an air gun, hitting a person in the neck, several witnesses said.

Though the police refused to comment, several members of the patrol accused gay people of organizing an intimidation campaign.

While the protests lasted, more outspoken groups set up an unofficial protection service for the Georgiyevtsy, and on most nights, young men with shaved heads and army boots outnumbered the patrol's founders. As their movement grew, so did the specter of more violence, which caused the police to intervene.

The readiness to contest the park was typified by one of the Orthodox youths who took up the cause. Simon Gruzinsky, dressed in black with an orange beard, said he came to recapture the square for what he called normal Russians.

"There's a great summer feel to the place," he said, smiling. "You could say we're preparing for battle."