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: Russian and U.S. journalist and author Masha Gessen (right), and family in Moscow. 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 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 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tourists from far-flung parts of Russia, recognizable in the ways all country people are: soft bodies, gnarled teeth, outdated haircuts, and tender smiles.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 agressively 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.

A high degree of emotion is set free in the secret labyrinth of gay nightlife. There was Amin, a 21-year-old Muslim sex worker from Chechnya, a dapper, muscular, self-conscious little charmer with black eyes and acne-kissed cheeks who twice cried on my shoulder in the downstairs lounge at Central Station, a diner-like space varnished in Soviet manila. Both times were because a man had just rejected him for sex — not the paid kind. And Tatiana, the 40-year-old divorcee, her only friends a gaggle of 20-year-old hairdressers, also cried on me while recalling her ex-husband, and spent the night asking strangers for beers.

I was invited here by Vince, a preppy, clean-shaven American who is out tonight with three expatriate friends from Western countries. Vince and his friends have lived in Moscow for nearly a decade, have white-collar jobs, and are in their 30s or 40s. I stand in a circular formation with the guys listening as they discuss their gay Russian lives for my benefit.