Love In Putin's Russia

2.5.2014

By Chadwick Moore

Life for gays and lesbians in Russia is clandestine and convoluted. But the country is inscrutable to the West, so it may be impossible to seek civil rights advances like anything we’d imagine.

Above: Katia Andreeva and Maria Krilova, Moscow 2013

“This gay propaganda law is absolutely, 100% a project for uniting the conservative electorate; I guarantee you won’t see one case implemented under this law,” Sergey says.

Ilya is partial owner of Central Station, along with a handful of other clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and continues to be one of the country’s three major players in gay nightlife. He’s a solid man with a blond crew cut, cerulean eyes, and a paunchy, bulldog face. He brags about his parents, who were famous Soviet scientists, and his cooking, and the lithographs on the dining room wall. I like Ilya; he is warm and proud.

“Putin does not care about gays. The government only cares about maintaining power,” he tells me one night as we cruise down Tverskaya Street in his red Mazda Miata past a canyon of grim housing blocks revamped in Vegas-like glitz. “This is about suppression. It’s funny when the gays say, ‘We have to go into the streets,’ because other people cannot go into the streets either. It’s not just a gay thing.”

Back in the city, I take the metro to meet the publishers of the websites Gay.ru and Kvir.ru. The orderliness and precision of the subway — a fraction of the size of New York’s with twice the daily ridership — is dazzling. Every 90 seconds trains arrive, dispelling commuters who march silent and beetle-like through buzzing, ornate catacombs of chandeliers and gilded mosaics.

Mike Edemsky, who goes by the name Ed Mishin, greets me with coffee and a bowl of wafers. His five employees have gone home for the day. The office is in a spare bedroom of Edemsky’s seventh-floor apartment in a nondescript residential tower in the far northwest corner of the city tucked behind a quiet street in a neighborhood of working families and pensioners. After the gay propaganda law passed, Kvir, which means “queer” in Russian, a print magazine with a monthly circulation of 35,000, was pulled from bookshelves nationwide and now lives on as a website.

Vlad, its editor-in-chief, looks a bit like a handsomer, able-bodied Stephen Hawking and Edemsky is grey, equally academic-looking, standoffish and wiry. Vlad’s embarrassed of his struggling English, though it’s still far better than my Russian, and insists Edemsky does the talking for him. During Soviet times the gay scene, absent any legal protection, looked virtually the same as it does now: a network of secret doors and closed parties. People talk about a costume designer for the Bolshoi who held salons in his apartment where he’d sew gowns for his friends and hold secret drag competitions. It was illegal to print the word homosexual, let alone have a gay-oriented press.

Above: Russian and U.S. journalist and author Masha Gessen (right), and family in Moscow.

Gay.ru began in 1997, when many gay Russians say the nonchalance of a newly freed people made life easier for them. They were also decadent years, with experimentation and few questions. It was a decade when average Russians believed gays existed only as a strange, bougeois Western phenomenon.

Today Gay.ru gets 50,000 daily hits, Kvir around 20,000. About every six months they might receive a harassing phone call. After the passage of the law in June, a government oversight committee investigated Gay.ru as a gay propagandizer but decided, since the site has an “over 18” sticker on its homepage, it could continue publishing whatever it wishes.

“Maybe tomorrow morning somebody will decide, ‘Let’s make this law more effective,’ and in one hour every gay club in this country will be closed and all media shut down, and it will be absolutely legal because they have this law,” Edemsky says. “We are sitting in the hole and waiting. Will the cat decide to go into the hole and eat the mice, or will it decide to keep us maybe for tomorrow’s dinner?”

Tucked behind an apartment building about a kilometer from the Kremlin, a small glass storefront advertises flowers for sale. At night, the floor lifts up, revealing a stairwell that leads down to the gay club Nashe Kafe.

The club is a narrow rectangle with a small dance floor in the rear and a bar cut from the wall where a bartender rests his chin on his palm like a disaffected civil servant. The walls are black and the lights are blue, lavish red curtains frame the dining area, and the crowd is festive in silk shirts gyrating to Russian pop music. At all clubs, between shots of vodka, the gays, like their straight counterparts, eat meat and caviar all night long.

From a Muscovite’s perspective the scene is rotten with provincial tourists from far-flung parts of Russia, recognizable in the ways all country people are: soft bodies, gnarled teeth, outdated haircuts, and tender smiles. From Volograd to deepest Siberia they touch down in droves, many of them very young and traveling under the guise of a cultural trip to the capital.

For the rest, an overarching joylessness, bred by isolation and familiarity, prevails. There are the cliques, petty prejudices, fistfights, and high drama that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in rural gay bars in America. People can be aggressively inviting and highly sensitive. They are both ashamed and entranced by foreigners. They love drag queens. Darkrooms, where patrons elope for sex, are more public amenity than novelty.

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