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: Niuta Ginsburg and Lena Mastepanenko, Moscow, 2013

“Russia is dying,” Margret proclaims. “It’s like in Africa: They’re all very religious and then they go and kill each other.” She sees the level of criminal violence in Russia as a decentralized genocide. Ten years ago, the chief research gynecologist in Russia estimated that 250,000 women had become infertile because of sexual violence; the country has the world’s highest abortion rate. Because there is embarassment around sex and a stigma in buying condoms, abortion is the most prevalent form of contraception. This also explains the country’s mind-boggling HIV statistics: the infection rate is twice as high as the United States and, according to numbers released in December, 58% of cases result from intravenous drug use, 40% from heterosexual sex, and 2% from “other,” which includes gay sex.

“I’ve traveled a lot around Russia, and the average 20-year-old, she’s gone through two gang rapes and two abortions,” she says. “So when gay friends tell me it’s so hard for gays, I say it’s not hard for gays. It’s hard for anybody.”

Margret moonlights as one of the most notorious gay rights activists in Russia, a movement that is dominated by heterosexuals, foreigners, and westernized Russians. She makes a hobby of sexually harassing police officers, whose slogan translates to “the competent organ of the state.” She delights in asking scores of officers at political rallies just how competent that organ is.

“Nothing scares them more than being loved, because nobody has ever loved them,” she says. Officers frequently get drunk and leave bawdy comments on her blog. In person they threaten to rape her, but they blush and bolt when she shrieks with delight.

It is here that I understand the incredible shortsightedness of gay civil disobedience in Russia. The country is maiming its women on a scale that connot be compared to the kind of violence seen in sporadic viral videos of neo-Nazis torturing gay people. Yet when the Olympics come there will be, inevitably, some activist waving a rainbow flag on camera. The West will cheer and pat itself on the back, while the whole of Russia will say, ‘What a nice flag. I wonder what it means?’

And while it is not only women who are being slaughtered in Russia, it seems that, for a country which has never appreciated the need for a civil rights movement (after all, the premise of communism, falsely it turns out, is to treat all people as equal), protecting women seems like a viable, digestable starting point for making life better for all. If the country can be convinced to protect one population, it can be convinced to protect others. Until then, the most effective action gay people can take will occur on the grassroots level, by simply coming out to their friends, families, and coworkers. This is how change happens and continues to happen in the United States — not with a parade, but with a tap on the shoulder.

I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. When I return, I notice the thin man in the suit who was eating lunch at the table behind Margret is now one table closer, with a new plate of food. He’s been here for our entire two-hour chat.

“Do you recognize him?” I whisper.

She considers this. “Doesn’t look like FSB to me,” she whispers back. “But sometimes they use outsiders so you can’t recognize them.” The man at the table gives us a sidelong look and slowly chews his mashed potatoes. I’m convinced it’s time to go, but Margret laughs it off. “They won’t do anything to you,” she says, “They just want information.”

We head to the street and I abandon an annoyed Margret at the metro and meander a quarter-mile down the way to a gift shop where I purchase a coffee mug depicting a rifle-toting, bare-chested Vladimir Putin and a refrigerator magnet that reads “I Love Moscow.” I thank the lady and, without looking behind me, go through a passageway to the Russian state library. I take self-portraits in front of the statue of Dostoevsky, to appear as dopey and unthreatening as possible. I admire the concrete and photograph the lawn. I look over my shoulder. The thin man in the suit is nonchalantly there, gazing off into the granite sky.

Monteleone started his photographic career in 2000, moving to Moscow the following year as a correspondent for agency and publishing house Contrasto. Since 2003, he has lived between Italy and Russia, working on long-term projects. Monteleone has published three books:
Dusha, Russian Soul (2007), La Linea Inesistente (2009), and Red Thistle (2012). He has won numerous awards for his work and shoots for a wide range of prestigious magazines and foundations.