Love In Putin's Russia

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. Photographs by Davide Monteleone



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 and 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.