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How the Soviet Union accidentally rolled out the red carpet for a delegation of gay activists

How the Soviet Union accidentally rolled out the red carpet for a delegation of gay activists

  • It was the mother Russia of all cover-ups.
Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin

It was the visit that was never meant to happen in Communist Russia – and now it’s being made into a TV series.

In 1978 a woman and two gay men from Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW) visited Moscow as VIPs.

But their whole visit was a mistake. The Soviet Union punished male homoesexuality with between two and eight years in prison – a law that remained in place until 1993.

In fact, a high-ranking official invited them after mistaking them for a communist activist group in West Berlin.

However, once they were there, other officials decided it was better to cover up the mistake rather than admit to it. So the trio were given a farcical tour – but eventually their hosts’ care couldn’t disguise the grim life LGBT+ people faced in the Soviet Union.

Now an Oscar-nominated Russian producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, is making the story into a TV show.

Indeed, Rodnyansky believes Russia is ready for his story – Red Rainbow – despite the country’s harsh anti-LGBT+ ‘propaganda’ laws.

‘Shower them with all the queers I could find’

The story seems almost too absurd to be true.

It all starts when Ivan Kapitonov, head of the Soviet executive leadership, travels to West Berlin. While there, he sees a demonstration by HAW – an early LGBT+ protest group – and mistakenly thinks it’s a communist protest.

It inspires him to invite the group to Moscow.

At the time Larissa Belzer, was a 33-year-old German translator working for the International Institute for the Labour Movement.

She had the task of researching HAW. But she only discovered what the group was really about after putting in a call to Germany.

Initially, she and her colleagues found the idea that the leadership had invited them for a VIP visit hilarious. But the institute’s curator realized the mistake could spell real trouble if those further up the chain of command discovered it.

Instead, they chose a cover-up. Belzer had to look after the VIPs, pretending everything was fine. In return, she was given an extra month’s salary, use of an official limousine and a Communist Central Committee chequebook to cover expenses.

She told The Independent her instructions were to ‘take the delegates anywhere I wanted, “shower them with all the queers I could find” – just as long as they were put on the plane back to Berlin in 10 days’ time.’

‘They asked where the gay diskoteks were’

It soon became clear that the gay male couple had invited their female friend with Down’s syndrome as an expression of left-wing solidarity with disabled people. She in turn brought along a slobbering English bulldog.

But the trio were not ready for the reality of life in the Soviet Union.

Their request for ‘dog food’ drew blanks. At the time humans often struggled to get enough food.

But it was their demand to visit the ‘gay diskoteks’ that really proved problematic.

Belzer recalls: ‘They asked where the gay diskoteks were. I muttered the nearest were in the prison camps of Siberia.’

Despite the inauspicious start, the naive westerners maintained an idealistic vision of life under Soviet rule for several days.

At one point Belzer even resorted to showing them graffiti of men looking for sex in public toilets. The alternative would have been introducing them to her secretly gay friends – which would have put them at risk.

But in the end she felt she had to come clean.

Even this was tricky. Belzer believed the KGB – Russia’s secret police – was tracking the visitors. Eventually she found a quite café to tell them the truth – about their visit and the anti-gay law.

Belzer says: ‘We talked and we talked and we talked in that cafe. And by the end, those pretty boys were crying.’

‘The time has come to talk about tolerance’

Rodnyansky’s project is at an early stage and he plans to hire a well-known British screenwriter to tell the story.

But he believes Russia is ready for Red Rainbow – despite it banning Pride parades and other forms of LGBT+ expression under its ‘propaganda’ laws.

He said: ‘I’ve always believed Russian society is more humane than its laws.

‘I’m certain the time has come to talk about tolerance using the full range of human emotions. Calmly, authentically, dramatically, sympathetically, but not without irony either.’

Rodnyansky’s production company boasts two Oscar nominations for director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s critically acclaimed films Leviathan and Loveless.

Meanwhile, you can learn more about Russia’s secret LGBT+ history here. And discover the gay life of its most famous composer, Tchaikovsky, here.