Above: A drag queen performs “I Will Survive” on February 8. Interestingly enough most of the performances were done in English rather than Russian.
SOCHI, RUSSIA — There was no place to stand in Cabaret Mayak without blocking someone’s view of the stage, stepping on a foot, or inhaling cigarette smoke. Patrons sat at tables surrounding the dance floor in the small, dark room. A man in a suit started to shuffle dancing visitors off the stage. A young, blond girl holding a balloon in the shape of a heart flashed to life on a screen.
She began to sing Russia’s national anthem in a mousy voice and was soon joined by most of the customers, who held their drinks and fists in the air. It isn't what you'd expect to hear at an American drag show. But here they belted the words, showing off their national pride. Afterward, people chugged their drinks and cheered, and two men kissed at the bar.
Cabaret Mayak’s popularity snowballed with its hometown hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. As co-owner of one of the few “out of the closet” gay bars in Russia, Andrei Tanichev (pictured right) has been interviewed more than 200 times, which is likely far more than most Olympic athletes.
His "popularity" was spawned last year by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s signing of a bill classifying “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” as a punishable crime. Those who make pro-gay statements are at risk of getting arrested or fined. The law, however, is often overlooked in Sochi, Tanichev assures reporters.
“Sochi is just like all other parts of the world,” Tanichev said. “We have gay people here, and we are not hiding.” At a time when Putin is doing his best to make a good impression on the world, Tanichev can sometimes sound in sync. “Sochi is a very open-minded city; it’s very multicultural and young and forward-thinking.”
Tanichev’s club has attracted the spotlight during the games, and Cabaret Mayak puts on a good show.
Above: Opening the door while getting ready, Miss Zhouzha inquires who’s outside. Zhouzha was in the army years ago, before falling in love with a fellow soldier.
Sochi's Original Diva
Andrei Sargisyan stood in the doorway of Cabaret Mayak’s dressing room dodging cameramen. Standing in a two-foot-by-two-foot room, he used a tiny mirror to put on his earrings. His contoured face scrunched as a photographer bumped into his back.
“We have been getting a lot of attention from the media,” Sargisyan said. “But we are not surprised or turned off by the attention we get. In fact, it’s not that different from the rest of the time here. We are superstars here.”
Sargisyan has been dressing in women’s clothing since he was in second grade. Growing up in Armenia, he would change his clothes when no one was home and perform in front of the mirror. Practicing his performances only in private would continue until he saw a man singing in front of Lakomka, an ice-cream shop in Sochi, in 1996. The man stood on a bench wearing a wig with split ends, an oversize dress, and sneakers. People on the street tipped him as he performed, and Sargisyan’s eyes opened.
It was the first thing in Sochi he saw that made him feel better in his own skin, he said.
“I still don’t know if he was an actual drag queen or just a straight man having a little fun,” Sargisyan said. “I remember watching him sing terribly and getting paid for it. I thought, I have been doing this my whole life: it’s time I make some money.”
One month later, at age 22, Sargisyan was on the stage at Lakomka for the first time as Mijuja. He pulled various necessities from girlfriends — he borrowed shoes from one, a dress from another — and bought a wig. After the first show, he knew he could make a business out of performing.
He began appearing in cafés, parks, apartments, or wherever he could find a crowd willing to watch and tip. It wasn’t long until others began copying what Sargisyan was doing. They would use the same songs and mimic his costumes, but no one asked for help until Gdyan Bartan Bartanovich saw a performance. Afterward, he approached Sargisyan, who agreed to mentor Bartanovich because he was also Armenian.
“We share the same blood,” Sargisyan said. “I let him perform for me and saw potential, so I decided to help him. Plus, I was the only consistent queen of the time. If we performed as a team, the shows would run smoother.”
Sochi’s first drag family was born.