The following two stories about LGBT folks in Russia are by guest writers who have been to the major gay cities in Russia–Moscow and St. Petersburg.
My own experience of Russia last year was far away in Siberia via the Trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing to Ekaterinburg then back to Vladivostok. The cities along the way were hardly gay meccas, although Ekaterinburg has had gay pride marches.
These two stories describe modern gay Russia. The first focuses on the seething sexuality that poverty makes available to foreigners. The second reflects on a culture still mired in old Soviet attitudes about homosexuality. The long struggle for recognition and validation goes on as the Russian LGBT community stumbles toward more enlightened European ideas and openness.
A new gay Russia story will appear here in May 2010.
DNA Magazine Sydney
Updated March 2006
“I have been watching you for a long time,” whispered the buff brunette hovering inches from my ear “You are very sexy to me. Come with me to your hotel.”
His Slavic tones flowed into me like honey as I grabbed my coat and stumbled my way in a vodka-driven haze out into the morning air.
And so began my first night in one of Russia’s most romantic cities. St Petersburg is a cold town, made even colder by the abrupt nature of its citizens. Following decades of misrule by the Communist Party, its citizens are only now realising that it’s not the work one puts into earning a dollar, it’s the speed with which it can be raised. Little did I know that I had entered this spinning economic machine.
Brave New World
First impressions of a country always speak volumes and mine came before I even stepped foot aboard the Russian-made Aeroflot aircraft. “You know we call it Aerofucked in the business,” cackled a travel agent friend of mine with a love of terrorising his less-well-travelled acquaintances. “The amount of crashes they hush up each year is is incredible. Did you ever hear about the massive jumbo jet they had go down last week over Siberia?” “No,” I answered wide-eyed and quaking. “Well, of course you didn’t,” he smirked back knowingly.
Aerflot is definitely not Russian for luxury. On my sparsely populated flight, half the seats were completely broken and the guy next to me made the sign of the cross as we took off. Mile after mile of identikit grey concrete slabs (otherwise known as apartment blocks) greet one and all upon arrival, each one populated by grey identikit Russians who seem to have adjusted their pallor to match the colourlessness surroundings.
Sergei, my interpreter and guide during my stay in St Petersburg, urged me to close my eyes during the ride from the airport through the outskirts of the city “This is not the best part of the city,” he sighed. St Petersburg central, however, is an explosion of Renaissance architecture. Pastel colours dapple the walls of almost every building as monolithic streets and parades create epic spaces fit for, well, a tsar.
Even more common than museums and palaces in St Petersburg is the sight of well-muscled Russian soldiers weaving their way through the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Whether they are casually smoking a cigarette on a street corner (the most common possibility) or directing traffic at an intersection, these late teen wonder boys have the bodies of an Adonis and faces to match. Russian budget cuts have meant that uniforms tend to be on the tight side. The result is an appreciation for economic frugality.
“The gay scene here in Russia is very new, yet very exciting,” explained Sergei. “I remember when I was in the army it was not something you discussed. Almost everyone had sex with each other in order to cope with being a soldier, but you would never actually talk about it with any of your friends or colleagues.”
“You like our boys?” asked Sergei as we sped by our umpteenth barracks. “It’s hard not to,” I replied.
“Well they’re all for sale at some price or another. You just have to negotiate– the boys are straight but very poor.”
It promised to be a memorable evening. The vodka flowed freely, largely due to the price, about $US1 per bottle. Russians know how to guzzle and I found it hard to keep up. A generous people, they have absolutely no problem spending their last rouble on a round of drinks. After all, it’s taken for granted that you, as a rich Westerner, will pick up the tab for the rest of the rounds that evening.
Off to the Bars
Cheapskates need not panic. Alcohol costs next to nothing, so you’ll find yourself more than happy to spread a bit of capitalist joy. At the first club of the evening, Geo, a lacquered brunette named Svetlana waved me over to her gathering of work colleagues. A group of radio producers from one of Russia’s most popular stations, they were celebrating the birthday of one of the miscellaneous cluster of drunkards congregated at their private booth. “You are a foreigner, aren’t you,” asked one on all fours who coyly checked me out. “Yes. How did you know?” “Because your wallet is bigger then your package,” she giggled. “In Russia it is just the opposite.
Russian girls and gay men are cursed to a life of constant poverty with very little sex. I think it is God’s little curse.” The head of the broadcasting contingent, Ivan, managed to switch places with Svetlana, hoping to introduce me to the wonders of Russian vodka. His chosen method of passing me drinks was through his mouth. Clock one up to international diplomacy
Stumbling out of the backroom, Sergei returned to find me in a compromising position with The Voice of Russia and quickly ushered me to the second establishment of the evening. The 69 Club, St Petersburg’s oldest and most established gay hotspot, is generally considered by many to be the hippest place in town. Depressingly, straights have begun invading the space, hoping to cash in on the current wave of gay chic storming the city.
A bit like a gay Disneyland on acid, screaming clusters of Russian fag hags dance around their purses, giggling at the occasional sight of two men kissing on the dance floor. Entertainment is provided by the local drag queens (who could definitely use a day or two of make-up application therapy). On the evening I visited, opportunities for a Bel Ami porn star pickup were decidedly limited. The men were more likely to blurt out, “I’m straight”, in halting English whenever I approached.
“This is not my favourite club,” admitted Sergei. “But it is a good place to see how the scene is evolving.” According to Sergei, the backroom was decidedly lacking in action and I decided to take his word on it. Top of the clubbing stakes, therefore, rested with Sinners, which was conveniently located near my hotel.
Here I met the buff brunette wearing a Red Army uniform who promised me untold pleasures. Through my vodka giggles, we lurched back to my hotel where he pealed off his military greens and ran a bubble bath in the marble lined tub. “Now fuck me,” he ordered while crouching on all fours in a sea of foam. I was never one to disobey
The next morning, a full day of touring was scheduled and I was forced to usher my soldier from the bedroom. And it was at that moment that he said, “I am a very poor soldier with little money,” he began. Suddenly it dawned on me that the man I had spent the night with was doing it for more than just pleasure. “If you could give me 500 roubles, I would be very happy” | Considering that this amounted to about 30 Australian dollars, I found | it difficult to say no.
When the bisexual Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in 1703, he could not have guessed that his own sexual preference would continue to flavour the city three centuries later. Formerly the cradle of revolution, it is now the cradle of capitalism and locals have learnt the first law of marketing: sex sells. Go-go boys, mostly students and transplanted Scandinavians, seem obligatory in every club, creating an atmosphere that oozes sex. Even restaurants get in on the act. One well-known cafe, The Cat, does little to hide the fact that its waiters are also on the menu.
A quick trip to Moscow and the sophistication, safety and sultriness of St Petersburg disappears. The current mayor, Yury Luzhkov is determined to rid his city of immigrants. A police state has evolved requiring residents to carry registration papers at all times. For the most part, this rule was designed to separate possible Chechen dissidents from the general population. The number of beatings encountered by visitors who look slightly Central Asian has risen as a result. This evolution from communism to fascism has been rapid.
Luzhkov isn’t keen on homosexuals either Last year’s attempts to organise a gay pride march ended abruptly at the steps of city hall with LuzhRov stating, “such demonstrations outrage the majority of the capital’s population, are in effect propaganda of dissipation and to force upon society unacceptable norms of behaviour” ..
“Life in Moscow is changing all the time,” sighs Nikita Ivanov, a gay tour guide and editor of the website www.gay.ru. “People come, people go, but the city has been here for over 800 years. And the gay community has been here just as long. It’s not going to stop us from fucking.”
Indeed. The wave of hard core porn coming out of the former Soviet Union is astonishing. Scores of directors are flocking to the Russian Republics with dreams of finding fresh flesh and well-muscled bodies willing to fuck for a buck–almost literally “I recently had a guy from New Jersey over here whose main goal was to film Russian youths having sex with him in his hotel room,” says Nikita. “Needless to say, he needed very little of my translation services.”
Shopping for Men
Most of the boys are straight but grindingly poor. Many will also be on leave from their required service in the armed forces. In the West we say that the difference between a gay man and a straight man is six beers; in Russia it’s about 100 roubles. Walk into any gay bar in Russia and there are hundreds of lithe, young gay men available for a bargain price. Accompanying every shot of vodka is a hastily scrawled phone number promising endless pleasures in exchange for a few roubles and a metro ticket home.
“Moscow is a very transient place,” said Nikita as we sipped our Kir Royales in the lobby bar of the elegant Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel. “Most visitors come here on business. They’re lonely. And the guys know that.” America’s strongest economic growth of the 20th century occurred during the last decade. Russia, on the other hand, awoke from the communist dream only to face capitalism head on and admit defeat. Every marketplace is overcrowded with dodgy spruikers urging you to buy poorly produced tat from every corner of this once great state.
Every nightclub is a meat market bustling with hustlers. “There is a tradition in the Russian army,” explains Igor, a soldier I met at The Three Monkeys bar in Moscow. “New recruits have to give their elders money from their pockets in order to guarantee protection. Intimidation is the most common practice the higher-ups use to get their pockets lined and the young kids are expected to get the money to them using whatever means possible. This often results in them prostituting themselves.” Later that evening, Igor offered me a blow job and such was his skill and enthusiasm I doubt he considers himself purely ‘gay for pay’.
For gay men in Moscow, the epicentre of the oldest profession is just off Red Square in Kitay-Gorod. Soldiers, sailors and holidaymakers congregate in the dimly lit public park with hopes of a quickie. Paying customers also hope to hold onto their wallets. It’s not uncommon for customers to find their wallets lifted or their ribs broken following the transaction.
“A common practice to get money without having to go through with the act is to entice a guy to a dark alley and either run away before you have to do anything or just rob the guy,” says Igor “No one ever reports anything to the police as they don’t care what happens to fags in this country.” The recent murders of four foreign gay men in Moscow has been a wake-up call to the local queer community but only insofar as to warn people from going to the Chameleon Bar – widely considered to be the link between the four deaths.
Gay Spice and Life
Moscow’s gay scene is also starting to wake up. For years, the only place for poofs to meet was informally at the front of the Bolshoi Theatre. In addition to the Three Monkeys (Moscow’s oldest and longest-running gay establishment). there’s Tsentralnaya Stansiya, otherwise known as Central Station and Chance. All offer plenty of opportunities to mix and mingle with the locals, many of whom will be eager to practice their English with you.
Theme nights are common, often involving strippers and students and charge between five and ten US dollars at the door to keep out the riffraff.
“We’ve been having a great time,” grunts Graham, one half of a beaming British couple visiting Moscow for the weekend. “The drinks are cheap and the boys even cheaper. That guy over there was only 300 roubles last night and he could suck the dust out of a Hoover,” he says, pointing at a skinny kid shivering in the corner. The clubs are full of boys hailing from across the Russian Republic, all with stories of sex and sin in the back alleys of the great Moscow metropolis.
“I have this guy who sees me every Wednesday,” grins a painfully thin teenager from Siberia. “He meets me near my school and I give him a blow job. It’s good for both of us because I get a ride home and he gets to cum in my mouth. Accustomed to turning a blind eye, urban Russian society accepts that people do what they must to survive. So as new-money Russians spoil themselves with Gucci, Versace and Prada, the less fortunate turn tricks in parks and bars.
Shopping for other Stuff
Moscow, however, is not all about shagging. While St Petersburg boasts magnificent palaces, monumental museums and stunning views, Moscow has a timeless place in Russian history. For high-end shopping, GUM is a wonderful place to lose yourself. The vaulted ceilings and marbled hallways seduce the most jaded traveller, even if you can’t afford anything in the shop windows.
Livelier and more affordable shopping can be found on the Arbatskaya where stall owners ply their wares to unsuspecting tourists looking for a piece of local merchandise. Best buys include the ubiquitous Matros Uka ‘nesting’ doll, Beluga caviar, amber jewelry, lace and Russian army paraphernalia. A KGB pocket watch at about $AU3 is hard to beat.
Welcome to the former capital of communism. Many of these boys like what they’re doing, lifting their legs with a willing smile. I may have been drunk and the lights were dim but I swear that my bubble bath Russian soldier thoroughly enjoyed himself. Either that or he was the best actor since Stanislavsky. I’m willing to go with the first option.
(http://channels.netscape.com/ns/news/story.jsp?floc=FF-PLS-PLS&id=1230215200 0276611&dt=20021230215200&w=RTR&coview= )
December 30, 2002
Russian Gays Still Suffer, Despite Sexual Revolution
Photo from Living Gay in Russia
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) – When Communism collapsed a decade ago and Russia cast off its Soviet conservatism, the ensuing sexual revolution generated looser public mores and a boom in the sex industry. But Russian gays and lesbians say traditional gender roles and homophobia are still deeply ingrained in the post-Soviet mind-set.
The Soviet ban on homosexuality may have been lifted, but homosexuals say modern Russian society still discriminates against them. Some believe it could take generations for their status to improve. “I don’t feel there has been any progress in Russia in the past 10 years in terms of tolerance toward sexual minorities,” said Ignat Fialkovsky, president of St Petersburg’s Association HS-Gay-Straight Alliance. “I would consider myself lucky to see some progress even in the second half of my life,” he said.
In Russia, male homosexuality was punishable by up to five years in prison. Lesbians ran the risk of being sent to psychiatric institutions as late as May 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code. That seems like a bad dream now.
But fears of homosexuality being outlawed again have not died out completely. In May 2002, a group of deputies in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, tabled an amendment reintroducing prison sentences for homosexuals as part of what they said was a campaign to restore traditional moral values in Russia. “I know the draft law was largely viewed as a publicity stunt by the deputies, and it wouldn’t have scared me if I knew that the president condemned such a position. But Putin is a terrible homophobe,” said Alexandra Sotknikova, who runs St Petersburg’s lesbian organization Labris together with her partner, Marina Balakina. “I think such a ban has a real chances of resurfacing in Russia,” she added. (The amendment failed to pass.)
Another reminder of how widespread and socially-accepted homophobia is in Russia came on International Human Rights’ Day on December 10. Gay and lesbian groups were banned from holding a news conference in St Petersburg’s House of Journalists. “Personally I can’t stand gays, because I don’t love men. I don’t mind lesbians that much,” said Vladimir Ugryumov, the president of St Petersburg’s Union of Journalists and editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Vecherny Peterburg, the man who cancelled the conference.
“I don’t think the intimate life of certain people has anything to do with human rights, and I don’t think sexual questions should be discussed in the public arena.” Local gay and lesbian activists say Ugryumov’s reaction merely reflects a widespread attitude in Russia toward homosexuality and a reluctance to discuss sex in public, a habit inherited from the prudish Soviet past. This lack of public debate and the consequent ignorance of gay and lesbian issues serves only to perpetuate the high level of homophobia in Russia, gay groups say.
This is particularly true of female homosexuality, according to Fialkovsky, who says most Russians understand the word ‘homosexuality’ as relating exclusively to men. Balakina says there are still many women in Russia, particularly in the provinces, who experience homosexual feelings but are unaware of the existence of female homosexuality. “I have met women who lived three or four years before realising they weren’t the only lesbians on the planet,” she said.
Fear of rejection and discrimination has led many gays and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation from their families, friends and colleagues. Those who have come out say they are marginalised by society and often rejected by their own families. “Our social circle is very restricted, it is mainly composed of gays and lesbians. We would like to have more contacts with heterosexuals, but it is difficult,” said Sotnikova. “At work, the situation is also stressful because I am constantly preparing answers to questions from colleagues to cover up the fact that I am lesbian,” she said, adding that it took her family almost four years of conflict to accept her relationship with Balakina.
The scant attention paid to homosexual issues has translated into a lack of legislation. Russian gays and lesbians do not have many of the rights enjoyed by some of their Western counterparts, such as the right to marry, adopt children, or have parental rights over their partner’s child. Some same-sex couples say they are even afraid of having a child, fearing their relatives or the authorities would take it away on the grounds that it needs both a father and a mother.
But the desire to form a family and the conviction that the state will not take any measures to allow them to do so has forced some Russian homosexuals, like Balakina and Sotnikova, to turn to unusual and complicated solutions to bypass the law.
“We are planning to have a baby soon with two gays from Moscow who also want a child,” said Balakina. “That way, our child will have a father. Of course we had to search a long time for the right people: our relationship will have to be based on trust, because there are no laws in Russia to protect the rights of people like us.”