Dutch Actors in St. Petersburg Speak Out Against Russia's Gay Discrimination

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs laws curbing the promotion of homosexuality

Amsterdam's Toneelgroep theater group say that they could not "stay silent" when "journalists and gays" were being harassed.

MOSCOW – A troupe of Dutch actors appearing at a Russian theater festival in St. Petersburg have spoken out against attacks on journalists and controversial new laws outlawing the promotion of homosexual lifestyles to young people.

The laws, introduced by the Kremlin earlier this year, have provoked international condemnation of President Vladimir Putin's regime and prompted fears that gay and lesbian athletes competing at next February's Winter Olympics in Sochi could face arrest if they openly show support for the LGBT community.

Members of Amsterdam's Toneelgroep spoke out following a performance Friday evening of the play The Russians! -- based on an adaptation of Anton Chekov's works by the group's artistic director, Belgian-born Ivo von Hove -- stating that they could not "stay silent" when "journalists and gays" were being harassed in Russia.

The play was part of a Baltic House Theater Festival that coincides with a cross-cultural Russia-Netherlands Year here.

Following the performance, the actors addressed the audience from the stage, urging the Russian authorities to "stop discrimination" against journalists and homosexuals.

The incident, witnessed by Andrey Pronin, a contributing editor to St. Petersburg's lifestyle magazine Sobaka, prompted some people to leave the hall and at least one to denounce the troupe as pedophiles.

"This is how we live today [and it] sucks," Pronin wrote in comments on a social media site.

After taking a bow before the audience, the actors asked for quiet and read out a statement, Pronin said.

According to Pronin, the actors said: "We cannot be silent, because we know that in Russia journalists and gays are harassed. We want to express out support and solidarity and wish to plead with the Russian authorities to stop discrimination."

The statement prompted "several men in ties" to rush for the exit, Pronin said, and one elderly woman in the back row "stood up and shouted 'pederasts! Shame! Burn in hell!' "

The majority of the audience -- several hundred people -- stayed to give the players a standing ovation, Pronin said.

The incident, which has so far not prompted any official or legal reaction, comes at a time of renewed fears of a crackdown on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender visitors to the Sochi Olympic Games.

An investigation by Russian journalists into Kremlin procurement programs suggests that electronic surveillance of athletes and spectators at the Sochi games will be unprecedented in scope.

International Olympics Committee officials have already expressed concerns that openly gay athletes could risk arrest and imprisonment of up to 15 days if Russian authorities perceive their actions as breaking laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexual lifestyles to children under the age of 18.

Olympic Torch bearers began their long relay from Red Square, Moscow, to Sochi Monday, the day after the flame arrived in a lantern on a flight from Athens, the home of the games.

The Sochi Olympics are due to open on Feb. 7, 2014.