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: Kostantin Tyutrin and Nikolay Nedzelskiy in Moscow, 2013

The night after the shooting at Central Station I phone Ilya. There were no injuries. The shots were fired into a wall at 5 a.m. when about 500 people were still inside the club. The police are investigating, but for Ilya there’s no mystery: The purpose was coercion, not bloodshed. His landlords have been trying to strong-arm him into breaking his lease, which expires in 2017, in order to sell the property to a developer.

Three months ago they installed the large yellow sign that reads “Gay Bar Entrance” in Russian, and then a second sign, in neon pink lights: “Gay Bar,” with an arrow pointing to the door. This was meant to intimidate customers. They intended to squeeze out Ilya financially. Instead, the signs have become a running joke for the hundreds of people who come here each week, and they’re overlooked by the thousands more who pass by every day or wait for the bus across the street.

The following week there will be a second attack, this time involving poison gas, but again there will be no injuries or fatalities. Although being a gay establishment makes Central Station more vulnerable to brazen vigilantism, Ilya insists this has all the hallmarks of a business move, not a hate crime. He also has faith the police will take this investigation as seriously as any other, which may not say much.

Margret has a thing for cops. In Russian society, this makes her more perverted than any homosexual. She and I glide on a Muzak cloud through the GUM shopping mall past Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, looking for a place to eat and discuss genocide.

“There’s nothing more preposterous than absurd, beastly homophobia in a country where the majority was brought up by same-sex couples, by mom and grandmom,” she says.

Margret is a traumatized, petite, copper-haired woman who’s lived in six war zones and done humanitarian work in over 50 countries. She’s like a shell-shocked Amy Sedaris. If you crack a small joke she blinks and checks out the room before laughing.

“I’m surprised you showed up,” she says to me, having already scolded me once via email for lapsed responses.

Born in the U.K. to diplomat parents (her father was the head of the Anglican church in Russia) and a demographer by training and criminology expert, Margret came to Russia just after the second Chechen war to address the sexual violence epidemic, though officially speaking there’s no such thing, since the police don’t keep rape statistics.

“There’s no mystery about Russia’s soul,” she says. “It’s a ghetto of troubled teenagers. If you go to a suburb of Paris populated by immigrants, or some ghettos in the United States, you see the exact same mentality. The question here is why is it on the scale of a whole nation?”

We’ve found a cafeteria where she’s taken a sausage and a pickle, while I settle for a cup of coffee, and we go to a small table.