Evgeny Lebedev

Elton makes a stand in Moscow

The Evening Standard Friday 13 December 2013

It takes courage to denounce Russia’s homophobic laws at a concert in the country’s capital — but Sir Elton John was never going to duck the challenge.

The last thing anyone told me as I took off from Nairobi in the direction of Mother Russia was that the concert might be cancelled.

Many people had told Sir Elton that he was not welcome, that he should simply not turn up to his concert at Crocus City Hall in Moscow last Friday. The Russian tabloids had been suggesting (quite rightly, it transpired) that he might use the concert to publicly attack Russia’s new, intensely controversial laws on the “promotion” of homosexuality, and in so doing, break them. Elton has never failed to stand up to the injustice faced by gay people all around the world, so the papers were right to imagine that he would again make a stand, and that it could have serious consequences.

But they were always going to be wrong to speculate — as were parts of the British media who repeated the claim — that Elton might not show up, or be shut down.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time that Muscovite murmurings have been lost in translation on their way to the UK.

I know very well that news turns on soundbites, and some big ones came out of Russia over the summer. “Gay propaganda” (whatever that is) banned by parliament was one. Then in the face of the backlash, the country’s darling pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva leapt to the defence of “standard, normal people”. (For which she later, unsurprisingly, apologised).

But it would be wrong to imagine that there is a great homophobic groundswell on the streets, and even in the corridors of power in Russia. Yes, the legislation is disgusting, and some public officials have said some disgusting things, but Russia is not Uganda, or Iran.

There’s a popular Russian saying that translates quite well into English — every family has an idiot. The UK has its idiots too — Nick Griffin, for example — but they tend to remain on the fringes. In Russia they have a tendency to make it to the mainstream but it doesn’t mean their words should be taken seriously by the outside world, any more than a British idiot’s are.

Before the concert, Elton met a group of representatives, from his own Aids Foundation, which has an active presence in the country, and with various representatives from the LGBT community and Moscow healthcare.

We met a man called Demir who is HIV positive, and so is his partner. His partner’s illness was very advanced but he hadn’t received treatment, partly due to his reluctance to go to seek it because he was gay.

Under Russian law, anyone with HIV/Aids should receive free antiretroviral drugs, but Demir’s partner hadn’t, the reasons for which didn’t make sense to us. One theory was that procurement of these drugs by Russian authorities is so riddled with corruption that the particular cocktail he required simply wasn’t available.

But even Demir, whose partner was in extreme ill health and not receiving the care he should have been, was at pains to point out that most people do receive treatment, and gay people tend not to be the victims of some great social stigma. In the end, with Elton’s intervention, Demir’s partner began receiving treatment the following day.

Elton asked one of the other people present whether he should boycott Russia. If he should stop coming there, and try to get sportsmen to do the same. To not allow Russian artists to perform elsewhere. For it to become a culture of isolation. He was told: “No. Absolutely not. For one, the gay community might be blamed. The retribution could become worse. Russia shouldn’t be isolated. In this, as with all things, there must be a constant culture of conversation, of engagement, of reaching out.”

The concert itself was typically, brilliantly Elton, the air alive with rapturous joy. Such is the power of music — especially his, but he had told me beforehand that he was indeed intending to make a speech on the matter, which would break the controversial new law.

(He has also told me beforehand that Russia is “the gayest place he has ever been”. He has often told the story of how, at his first concert there in 1979 he had sex with his interpreter, almost certainly a KGB agent, on the roof of his hotel.)

When he came to speak, it was a difficult moment. He had admitted he was nervous that there might be a sudden rush to the exits. Certainly, there was a difficult atmosphere in the room, as the electric, positive, happy vibe turned suddenly to something more serious.

As he dedicated the concert to Vladislav Tornovoi, the 23-year-old who was killed in a homophobic attack in Volgograd just before the Duma voted in the law, the feared exodus didn’t happen but I did see one man in a leather jacket storm out in a strop.

If Russia lags behind a little in its attitude, there is a clear enough cause. The Russian church all but went to sleep for a hundred years under the communist system, and then awoke with an unevolved vengeance. Churches in the West, especially the Anglican, are so far advanced in their attitudes, and even the Catholic Church under this new Pope are catching up. But Russia has a long way to go.

The causes for hope were many, but only one made me quietly laugh. By the time Elton sang Nikita, which actually isn’t a gay love song to a former communist leader, though it certainly sounds like one, I noticed the chap who stomped out had quietly snuck back in, and was blissfully singing along, right at the front.

Space for giants

I travelled to Moscow straight from central Kenya, where I had been witnessing the work being done by the British charity Space for Giants, to combat the tragically resurgent problem of elephant poaching in Africa, and which is the beneficiary of The Independent’s Christmas charity campaign. I want to thank all of you for the great generosity that you have shown so far in supporting the Christmas appeal launched by the Evening Standard’s sister paper.

We are already on course for it to be one of the paper’s most successful appeals ever, perhaps even the most successful. That in no small part is due to the support the Evening Standard and its editor Sarah Sands are giving to highlighting the urgency of the problem. Around 100 elephants are being killed each day so their tusks can be smuggled abroad, particularly to Asia.

Early next month I will go back to the continent to see how the money we are raising is already being spent.

On this page is a coupon that details how everyone who wishes to can contribute. You can expect to find out in the new year exactly how those donations are being used to try to save a species so gravely under threat.