WASHINGTON, October 16 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – The city of San Francisco has cancelled plans to participate in an upcoming 150th anniversary ceremony recognizing the Russian Navy for its critical, historic assistance in fighting a massive fire that consumed much of the San Francisco financial district in 1863, an organizer of the event told RIA Novosti.
“We had an agreement with the City Hall, with its fire department, police department, port administration, that they will participate in the event,” said Leonid Nakhodkin, chairman of the nonprofit United Humanitarian Mission (UHM), a civil society group which describes its mission as the promotion of “universal human values.”
“At the last minute, I got a message from the City Hall of San Francisco saying that the municipality ceases all plans to participate in this event, and the same message was received by the Consulate General,” said Nakhodkin, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan and raised in Ukraine before immigrating to the United States
“Why? Because gay community threatened the San Francisco City Hall to hold a protest against Russia at the event,” he told RIA Novosti in recent conversations about the ceremony originally slated for Oct. 23.
Documents from a San Francisco Fire Commission meeting on March 14 show that Nakhodkin discussed plans to order medals commemorating the Russian Navy’s assistance in saving lives in the 1863 fire.
A letter dated April 2 (click on image to read it) from San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White to Russian President Vladimir Putin detailed the “huge fire” with “catastrophic potential to destroy the Bay Area,” and invited Putin to attend the festivities.
“Rear Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov immediately made the decision to send the Russian naval officers and seaman to with help [sic] put out the fires and protect San Francisco alongside City Firefighter groups… in the process rescuing hundreds of people,” Hayes-White wrote in the letter.
“The San Francisco Fire Department will officially take part in celebrating this event and welcomes participants from San Francisco and the sailors from Russia to join in the activities as they are the heirs and surviving legacy of the heroism of the past,” she said in the letter, adding, “We… would be honored to have you visit San Francisco.”
The Russian Consulate in San Francisco details the Russian assistance in fighting the fire on its website, saying it came as exhausted city firefighters were losing the battle.
“These are humanitarian acts, existing above and beyond any politicization,” and the commemoration ceremony “aims at removing the barriers between our peoples,” wrote Nakhodkin in an August letter (click on right image to read it) to San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, asking him to reconsider his position and take part in the ceremony.
“It should be remembered that, when saving the lives of San Francisco residents, the Russian sailors did not differentiate among sexual orientation and saved everyone they could,” he wrote, adding that UHM supports the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in demonstrating “against the oppression of their rights in this and any other country.”
Since June, when Putin signed a law banning the promotion of “non-traditional relationships” to minors, there have been at least half a dozen protest rallies held around San Francisco, including a vodka dump on the steps of City Hall, a rally at the Russian Consulate, and a demonstration at St. Nicholas’ Russian Orthodox Church in the heart of the city’s gay district.
Supporters say the Russian law shields children from harmful influences. But the measure has outraged many in the LGBT community and its supporters, who claim it criminalizes everything from wearing a rainbow pin to gay couples holding hands in public, and effectively encourages persecution of homosexuals.
Contacted by RIA Novosti, a number of prominent LGBT groups in San Francisco said they had no plans to protest the event commemorating Russia’s assistance fighting the 1863 fire, and knew of no plans for such a protest. But they also expressed frustration at what they said has been a stunning lack of response from the mayor’s office in the face of vocal opposition to the Russian law.
“Now, this is San Francisco, it’s a gay mecca, it’s a gay capital of the world practically,” which means the mayor has “a responsibility to take a stand, number one on the Russian vodka dump, and number two, a symbolic stand and agree not to serve any Russian products at any city functions,” said Michael Petrilis, a community organizer with the San Francisco chapter of Gays Without Borders.
Gay rights activists have called on Lee to support their boycott of Russian vodka and to publicly oppose the Russian law, but Petrelis said the mayor has not responded to those requests.
He added in an interview with RIA Novosti that Lee was elected to office with large support from the gay community of San Francisco, and backed a boycott of national fast food franchise Chick-Fil-A last year, following statements by the company president opposing gay marriage.
Lee’s office and the San Francisco Fire Department did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls from RIA Novosti seeking comment for this story, although in August the mayor’s spokeswoman told the LGBT newspaper, The Bay Area Reporter, that “Mayor Lee is deeply concerned and troubled about the discriminatory legislation and anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia and he is interested in actions that can help the LGBT community there.”
City Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is openly gay, called the Russian law “draconian” in a letter this week to a city official, according to SFGate, an online publication of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
He told RIA Novosti on Wednesday he “couldn’t comment” on the Mayor’s lack of response but said, “Mayor Lee has been extraordinarily supportive of the LGBT community on many different issues. He’s a great ally to our community.”
Nakhodkin laments the cancellation of a festive celebration he says was to include antique fire trucks, a parade, even fire ships that were supposed to sail through the bay and give a water salute.
He also said he struggles to understand what was behind the abandonment of an event that “everyone was very happy with,” but told RIA Novosti it is clearly a hot-button topic.
At a recent reception where he tried showing the commemorative medal he commissioned for the Oct. 23 ceremony, Nahkodkin said a city official “backed away from the medal as if it were an atomic bomb and said, ‘Don’t even show me that. We have an order not to touch this subject at all.’”
He said the event has now been scaled down significantly, and will be included in another celebratory occasion to be held at the Russian Consulate on Nov. 1.