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Thursday, March 14, 2013

British Comedian Confronts Russian Lawmaker on ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban

MOSCOW â€" The British comedian and author Stephen Fry brought a sharp tongue and a Twitter following of millions on Thursday when he confronted a Russian lawmaker who drafted the ban on “homosexual propaganda,” in the city of St. Petersburg.

Mr. Fry, who is openly gay, arrived in Russia with a BBC television crew on Tuesday, to conduct interviews for “Out There,” a documentary on homosexuality in various countries.

But many of Mr. Fry’s followers on the social network were confused, stunned even, when he mentioned that he would interiew City Councilman Vitaly Milonov, a fiery conservative best known for spearheading a $10.7 million lawsuit against Madonna for supposedly promoting lesbianism to minors during a concert last August.

Mr. Milonov posted photographs of the two men chatting amicably in his office before the interview on VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook. (The photographs also showed that the councilman’s computer screen was on a Google Image search page reading “KOSOVO IS SERBIA,” hinting at his interest in defending the pan-Slavic Orthodox Christian nation against all assaults.)

A screenshot from the VK.com page of the Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov showed him meeting Stephen Fry in his office in St. Petersburg on Thursday.VK.com A screenshot from the VK.com page of the Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov showed him meeting Stephen Fry in his office in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

The interview, Mr. Fry reported later on Twitter, was an intense exchange.

Mr. Milonov, for his part, told a St. Petersburg news site, “according to Stephen Fry, Russians are uneducated â€" more specifically, partially educated barbarians.” Still, Mr. Milonov called the frank exchange valuable, since, he said, Mr. Fry is not a diplomat and therefore is more open about voicing “what the British society and the British leadership thinks.”

The councilman also told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that he would pray for Mr. Fry and his family. “It was curious, like touching another civilization. I mostly listened,” he said. “He believes I am the worst man in Russia.”

Given that Mr. Fry’s Twitter updates go out to 5.5 million readers, word of the encounter traveled fast. Mr. Fry wrote that he was “rather startled” to find a scrum of journalists wa! iting for! him when he emerged from the interview.

Later Thursday, he was mobbed by dozens of fans at the airport as he left St. Petersburg.

Video of Stephen Fry signing autographs at the airport in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

Mr. Fry’s visit lent rare star power to the battle against anti-gay legislation in Russia, a drive to restrict rights that many Russian celebrities, even tose vehemently opposed to President Vladimir V. Putin, either avoid commenting on or actively support.

While a recent ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans has been a major news story in the United States, and the jailing of members of the protest group Pussy Riot last year garnered broad criticism from Russian celebrities and visiting pop stars, a series of laws against so-called homosexual propaganda have been less controversial in a country where support for same-sex marriage is minimal.

As our colleague David Herszenhorn reported, gay-rights demonstrators were openly attacked in central Moscow outside of Russia’s St! ate Duma ! in January, when a preliminary version of the bill passed with a vote of 388 to 1.

Attackers, some singing religious hymns, hurled eggs and paint at the gay rights advocates, and shouted “Moscow is not Sodom!” In response, gay rights advocates shouted: “Fascism will not pass!” and “Moscow is not Iran!” Skirmishes broke out, and the police arrested about 20 people â€" most them opponents of the bill, who were accused of demonstrating without a permit.

Video recorded by the news site Grani.ru showed the assault on the protesters.

Video of gay-rights protesters being attacked outside the Russian Parliament in Janauary.

Mr. Milonov has firmly placed himself at the vanguard of that movement. The St. Petersburgban, which stipulates a fine of up to $16,000 for “advocating” for homosexuality among minors, matched similar bans in a half-dozen other Russian cities, as well as a law banning gay pride parades in Moscow until the year 2112.

Anton Krasovsky, the former editor-in-chief of a pro-Kremlin television station, was fired in January after he said on air, “I’m gay, and I’m a person just like President Putin.” Mr. Krasovsky was one of many Russians to share images of Mr. Fry meeting Mr. Milonov on Facebook on Thursday, commenting, “And you said it was a fake.” He also expressed regret about not getting to speak with Mr. Fry during his visit.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Mr. Fry’s success came in an evening news segment on the state-controlled NTV station. Billed as a “discussion among men,” Mr. Fry’s meeting with Mr. Milonov had “possibly attracted more attention than a heavyweight championship fight,” a newsreader said.

Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz.