Above: Ghibi Shavgulizdze and Ortem Viktovskiy, Moscow, 2013.
From 12 stories up I see the sign “Gay Bar Entrance” above the barbed-wire gates through which two gunmen have just fled. It’s a night like any other in gay Moscow: some violence, some tears, and a cold rain. Beyond the railway station, the vast concrete morass of Soviet housing blocks extends into the horizon from the outer rungs of the city to the far-flung suburbs. To find a gay bar in Moscow without a guide is nearly impossible. The gay scene is a network of back-alley stairwells and unmarked doors. Storefronts are disguised as flower shops, trap doors lead to secret passages. There are only about a half-dozen such bars in this city of over 11 million, but that seems to be plenty.
With the West preparing to descend on Russia, determined to plant rainbow flags and deliver a message of solidarity to the country’s troubled gay population, I have come on a hunch, unnerved by the media coverage that is either overly sentimental or sensationally victimizing. I’ve come for a glimpse into the ordinary lives of gay Russians, to understand what should be done to help — if anything at all. I didn’t expect to return with an answer.
Until this point I have not been frightened to be an openly gay man traveling through Moscow. Granted, I have two things working for me: I’m a foreigner and I’m in a cosmopolitan city. The fear only comes when I check the American newspapers and see headlines using words like “crackdown” to frame the violence here as a sort of government-driven bullet train to genocide, when I see my friends on Facebook raging about the tyrannous state of things in Russia. That’s when I question my safety, when I use more discreet language in my emails, when I become suspicious of people.
Winter always seems to come too early in Russia. I sleep through daylight’s afternoon cameo and drive an hour outside the city through a beaten landscape of shopping malls, scrap yards, gaunt birch forests, and a low sky to Ilya’s gay dacha compound for Sunday dinner. Inside a privacy wall that gives the property a fortress-like quality are three identical houses, a communal sauna, a fish pond, and a chicken coop. Eight other gay families live in the village nearby.
Sergey is a journalist who has been writing for Moscow newspapers since the days of Soviet censorship. Like many gay people, he’s “not in the closet, but also not out,” largely because even in Moscow there’s always the possibility of losing your job for being gay. Since the summer he has been dissecting the paradoxes created by the antigay propaganda law and the media, particularly the entertainment industry, for a Moscow daily.
“From every corner of this country, on every TV station, all you hear is ‘gay.’ Such public attention to this topic has never occurred in Russia,” he says. “So many people are interested in gay items, even people who didn’t think about this before. The people who started this antigay law have contributed not so much against, but for gay propaganda. It’s a good thing.”
We’re by the fireplace, amidst a harem of young guys in loungewear basking about the dacha like stoned housecats. I’ve caught the eye of a chiseled young blond from Belarus, a soldierly beauty with shoulders like polished stone and a tribal tattoo on his arm. But he’s shackled to Nikolai, a bald, extremely fat, extremely rich Russian man of few words who doesn’t take his eyes from the dinner plate.
The first course stretches along the table: wild Siberian mushrooms, European blood sausages, salted sturgeon, salmon caviar, and homemade bread. Sergey has known Ilya since 1994 when Ilya opened Russsia’s first official gay bar, and comes to this dacha every Sunday for dinner. He’s an unassuming man in dark glasses who shares my passion for hypocrisy. The story du jour involves the recent Eurovision Song Contest. This year’s compe- tition, broadcast from Sweden on Russian state TV, was officially sponsored by an LGBT organization, and the finale even featured an onstage lesbian kiss, but rather than refusing to air the show, an act that would certainly have caused civil unrest, the state-run network pretended not to notice.