Comparing gays to paedophiles and terrorists, medical cures for homosexuality, homophobic murders, bans on gays working with minors, an absurd case against Madonna (without Madonna!), and now the laws against gay “propaganda” taking nationwide effect. As of summer 2013 things aren't exactly going great for gay Russians when it comes to the law, and there are some — indeed, many — who think that we're heading back to the Eighties, when there was still a working law against sodomy. The whole situation has only been exacerbated by a recent spate of homophobic murders: in Volgograd, two young men, with previous convictions, tortured and killed a 23-year-old man because of what is known in Russian as his “non-traditional sexual orientation”; the same motive was suspected in the recent violent death of a 39-year-old in Kamchatka in the far east of the country.
It might seem to the casual observer that, just as — to quote a famous saying — there was no sex in the USSR, so there is no gay culture in today’s Russia, or even any gay life at all. And, indeed, in many parts of Russia the possibility of living an open and untroubled life as a gay man or lesbian is only getting more remote. But in Moscow, or at least, within certain circles in the capital, gay life continues unabated, and largely unabashed.
“The dance floor is filled with beautiful boys in make-up and crop tops”
Things are different though. I first went to a gay club to celebrate my own 15th birthday. The club is called Chance — it's in a huge office building, two or three metro stops from the centre. It's just as Bret Easton Ellis describes it in Glamorama: “It's freezing … everyone's breath is steaming and we're waving away flies, the floor littered with piles of confetti, and the smell of shit ... even more pervasive”. To the left there is the singer Nikita, who is extraordinarily popular at the time; to the right — fashionable drag queen Fiery Lady; and straight in front of me — a gaggle of male models (still quite a rare breed in Russia then). Aspiring professional gymnasts from out of town take a dip in the pool and the dance floor is filled with beautiful boys in make-up and crop tops; a stream of people emerges from the dark labyrinth of corridors: smiling middle-aged men on business trips, foreign tourists, politicians and many others in search of a quick adventure. If you put everyone in fashionable Twenties' clothes then you could call in Baz Luhrmann to shoot some of the party scenes for The Great Gatsby. Fun, Freedom and Sex — these are the three words you’d use to describe gay life at the beginning of the Noughties.
Thirteen years on, and everything has changed. Year after year, Nikita tries to resurrect his singing career; Fiery Lady has gone off to become an artist and only wears dresses at house parties; most of the models these days are skater boys, and they're mainly straight; the sportsmen have left en masse to become internet escorts; the beautiful boys have stopped going to gay clubs, the expats hook up using apps like Grindr or Hornet, and the politicians are openly passing homophobic laws. The only remnant of the good old days is Sunday nights at Propaganda, but even these are becoming more and more like those house parties where everybody has known each other for years.
Vitaly Kozak at Love Boat
But for all that, Moscow gay culture hasn’t disappeared: it has metamorphosed from one big, and pretty happy, scene into a mass of little subcultures. Bearded bears, stylists, suburbanites, hipsters, artists, the creative intelligentsia, lovers of various narcotics, ad-men — they’ve all gone off into their own little circles, and getting them all together isn’t exactly impossible, but it’s difficult enough that no one can really be bothered.
Gay restaurants and gay cafes have disappeared from the city as a genre. In theory, there are still a few very specialised venues, but, if you've got a sensible head on your shoulders, they’re not the sort of place you'll ever find someone they can have a proper chat with. They’re visited by gay guys coming in from the provinces looking for easy money, suburbanites who traditionally go out to the same place once a week, and butch and unkempt lesbians who quickly break into an ecstasy of dancing or an ecstasy of brawling. But a lot of gay-friendly places have sprung up, although they do everything they can to distance themselves from that title. If you go to the restaurant at Propaganda at 9pm on a Tuesday, you’ll run into half your contacts from dating sites or half your Grindr favourites, and over lunch at incredibly bourgeois restaurant Uilliam’s you and your friends can discuss a famous TV presenter’s new boyfriend when he’s sitting two tables away. One of my friends met his partner at a branch of a popular sushi chain.
“A lot of gay-friendly places have sprung up”
The situation with gay clubs is the same as with bars: the only dedicated gay club still working is Central Station, on Komsomolskaya Square just north-east of the city centre, and the clientele’s pretty much the same as in the gay bars. Instead the city’s major gay creative forces usually congregate at various different events. Vitaly Kozak, a former buyer and stylist, insists that I shouldn't say that he runs gay nights and is at pains to stress that he's happy to see boys and girls of any orientation, but nevertheless it’s at his Love Boat events that all Moscow’s key players in the gay scene have their fates decided and their hearts broken.
At Love Boat, clothes designers, gallery assistants, marketing managers, restaurateurs, doctors and journalists dance together to Eighties' disco and Russian hits from the early Nineties. The Moscow topography of Kozak’s nights range from high society events to former hipster haven Solyanka, Simachev, the central Moscow bar opened by designer Denis Simachev, and open-air events at Red October. I met my current boyfriend at one of them.
Love Boat New Year's Eve party
The techno nights at factory-turned-club Arma (a sort of Moscow version of Berlin’s Berghain) are frequented not only by lovers of a crisp, monotonous beat, but also by fans of casual sex and chemical highs. On a Saturday night there you can be in and out and on your way to a 24-hour sex marathon with a good-looking guy with a beard and tattoos in less time than it’d take to get a takeaway pizza if you’d stayed at home. One of the other important “not gay, but gay” nights was the weekends at Barry Bar. All of last year this little box in a basement in Kuznetsky Most was bursting with young hipsters in skater gear and thirtysomething men in upmarket streetwear brands. Cheap Long Island Ice Teas and vintage Madonna worked better than any powder and not many punters made it through to the end of the night. In early 2013 the team that ran the nights at Barry Bar were “asked” to move on because the owners of the bar wanted to see a more sophisticated audience in their establishment. They didn’t go far though, and have set up in Cafe Mart, on Petrovka, near the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s packed every weekend.
“Where, how and with who you spend your evenings is a right that no law can take away”
While it might have its own Berghain, gay Moscow does not, unlike Berlin, have any sex clubs, shared interest societies, cinemas, gay guides, beauty salons, hotels, hostels or gay neighbourhoods. There are just three saunas here and only two newspapers that just reprint three-month-old news from the internet. Plus there’s the seriously backward situation with gay rights, which is only getting worse, and public opinion, which is not exactly kindly disposed to homosexual relationships. Not that this makes life too difficult for some gay Muscovites. A famous restaurateur and his boyfriend are planning on having a kid via in vitro fertilisation soon. Another famous female producer married her partner just days ago in Amsterdam.
Sure, all the assistants at the top galleries and the diplomats’ kids will only go to the infamous destinations of Berlin and London to have sex. But other people are building their lives and their happiness right here and now in the city, regardless of public opinion and politicians. The presence of the internet, the relative openness of the borders — the chance to travel and to realise your creative plans in the city — makes life for gay men and women in Moscow not only possible, but relatively happy. Where, how and with who you spend your evenings is a right that no law can take away. And with a population of 11 million, you have plenty of people to choose from.
For more information about LGBT travel in Russia, and particularly the issue of safety, see here.
To sign an All Out petition in support of gay rights in Russia, go here.