Moscow is set to host the capital's first bullfight next month as part of its "Portugal Days" festival. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, a groundswell of protest against the spectacle is mounting -- from both animal-rights activists and Aleksii II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Prague, 24 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Early next month visitors to Moscow's Olympic Stadium will witness a curious event never before seen in the Russian capital.
Baton-wielding toreadors on horseback and matadors on foot will tease and dodge charging bulls, gradually taunting them to the point of exhaustion.
This is a Portuguese-style corrida -- or bullfight -- and it's part of a cultural festival in the Russian capital called "Portugal Days."
Organizers say they hope up to 35,000 visitors will pay an entrance fee of between $7 and $200 to see the event.
Participants that have already signed up include Lidia Artamonova, the only Russian professional bullfighter and one of only a handful of women toreadors in the world.
But the prospect of a bullfight is causing consternation among the capital's animal-lovers.
Vera Maximova is the president of the Russian Society for the Protection of Animals.
She says this is the third attempt to hold a corrida in Russia after two earlier plans -- in 1990 and in 1995 -- were scrapped. She says she believes this one will go the same way.
"As the president of the Russian Society for the Protection of Animals, I'm completely convinced it will not go ahead, because every day [protests] against the corrida are gathering more and more strength."
Maximova says her organization has appealed to many state bodies in the last month to prevent what she calls a "highly cruel and sickening spectacle." But she says she has yet to hear back from President Vladimir Putin's office:
"The communists, including the government, had a negative attitude to the corrida [in 1990]. Under Yeltsin [in 1995] there was also a negative attitude toward it. But we've had no reaction from Putin's administration."
The news of the Moscow bullfight quickly spread among animal-rights activists abroad, who organized petitions against the event.
The most famous of these animal-lovers, French actress Brigitte Bardot, sent an open letter to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov pleading with him to cancel it.
"These animal fights are Western Europe's shame. They are archaic and cruel and symbolize man's darkest and most wretched aspects," she said in the letter, quoted by Agence France Presse.
Bardot, a former sex symbol, yesterday found an unlikely ally in the form of Patriarch Aleksii II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In an open letter to the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," Aleksii II wrote that the corrida would contribute to what he called the "obsessive propaganda of violence in our society."
He said that even if the risk to life and health is kept to a minimum, simply to spark such a cult of cruelty will be injurious to morals. He said he would like to add his voice to "those who ardently oppose the staging of such shows in Russia."
But fans of the corrida are having none of it. They say the animal-rights activists are just ill-informed.
They point out that the Portuguese bullfight is markedly different in several respects from its newer and more famous Spanish counterpart.
For one thing, no bulls are killed in the arena. While Spanish bullfighters came down off their horses and took up swords in the 18th century, Portuguese practitioners observe an older tradition that evolved from the war exercises of the Middle Ages, when the native Iberians were engaged in a centuries-long struggle to overthrow Muslim invaders.
Contemporary Portuguese-style toreadors use dart-like objects to tease and tire the bull without killing it. The sport is considered as much a display of equestrian skill as it is a struggle between fighter and bull.
David Asatryan runs corrida.ru, a Russian website for bullfighting fans.
He told RFE/RL that the corrida planned for Moscow is no more cruel than a circus show, and that the bulls will be simply led off the arena at the end of each fight.
He says the bulls will also have leather coverings cushioning the tips of their horns to protect the toreadors and their horses. And the bulls will be wearing thick rubber collars to prevent the toreadors' darts from damaging their hides.
Yevgeny Matuzov is one of the organizers at the Russian Academy of Entertainment. He says he has little patience for the protesters:
"They appealed to the patriarch [Aleksii] with very twisted information. We read the letter they sent to him where they said that the animals undergo terrible suffering and torture before the corrida. This is just not true. There's no intention to torture. We totally understand why the patriarch answered this letter this way, but he was responding to twisted facts."
For Maximova, however, a corrida remains a corrida, regardless of how it is conducted.
"The animals always suffer. As the president of the [World Society for the Protection of Animals], Andrew Dickson, wrote to Putin, a corrida in any form causes suffering to animals and it shouldn't go ahead because then the efforts around the world to cultivate a peaceful population will come to nothing. If the corrida goes ahead in Russia, what will happen is that we will be cultivating aggressors, terrorists, violent people. It's terrible."
She says that Aleksii's protest shows that God is on their side. And that, she says, means the bullfight will not happen in Russia. In a sign that she may have even more reason to hope, Luzhkov said yesterday he will consider the issue again once he returns from his summer holiday.