Queer St Petersburg: dispatches from the front lines of Russia’s LGBTQ creative revolution

What do you know about the LGBTQ community in Russia? Violence, homophobia, state oppression? These are the issues that make international headlines, but there is another side to the story. In this hostile environment, a new generation of queer Russians is rising. For this special project, shot in Russia’s two major cities, Moscow in St Petersburg, The Calvert Journal in collaboration with O-zine showcases 18 queer creatives — artists, activists, musicians, and drag queens — who represent this new wave. The future of Russia is here, and it’s fearless, fierce, and unapologetically queer.

1 August 2019
Photographer: Artem Emelianov
Styling assistant: Olga Naydenova
Make up: Poli Djo

In 2018, journalist Dmitry Kozachenko and queer sex blogger Sasha Kazantseva started O-zine, an online publication aiming to represent not just the challenges facing Russian queer culture, but its joys, pleasures, and beauty too. Under the terms of Russia’s notorious “gay propaganda law”, all materials pertaining to LGBTQ life have to be labeled as 18+, and the community still has to fight to maintain a presence in the media sphere and in public life.

More and more people, however, are choosing to be open and vocal about their sexuality, especially in big cities and online. This fearlessness comes from the fact that oppression for them is part of day-to-day life; but also, from their experience of global connectivity. Thanks to the internet, Russian queer youth understand that they are not alone. The question arises: what is it, then, that makes Russian LGBTQ people different from their peers in other countries?

“One of the aims of O-zine is to support Russian queer creative youth. In this project, we were trying to tell their stories, but also to find out what “Russian queer” is and what it looks like,” says photographer and filmmaker Artem Emelianov, who was responsible for the visuals. He and Kozachenko chose to shoot the project outside the Izmaylovo Kremlin in Moscow and on the beach of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg — well-known tourist hot spots, perfect sets for subverting and reclaiming Russian stereotypes. “Bears, balalaikas, furs, and onion domes are for us just as funny as the stale, heteronormative ideas stuck in the heads of the majority,” Artem adds.

The life of the LGBTQ community in Russia is still tough, but there is also hope for a better future.

“Western culture is very ahead in terms of sexuality and gender,” says Kozachenko. “Our reality is different, but it also makes our own queer culture different and special. We didn’t have Stonewall, we have no Pride — but in these circumstances something new, political, and fierce is born.”

Kate Messorosh, chemist, engineer, programmer, trans activist

I started trans-activism in 2016, by chance. I went to the T-Action organisation, where trans people work to improve the lives of other trans people in Russia, because I wanted to find answers to my questions and meet other trans people outside of the internet. At the moment, I am one of the most open activists on the team. I give a lot of interviews, public talks, and seminars. My aims are simple: I do everything I can so trans people stop being perceived as an abnormal oddity, so they can feel human.

Living in Russia as a trans person you face two main difficulties. Homophobia (no one distinguishes between different groups of the LGBTQ community, to them we’re all faggots) and fear, internalised shame. It’s not easy to confront the bully who threatens you. It’s always difficult to go against the current, but going with the flow is not something that trans people are permitted, even if they’d like to. There are no positive or even neutral stereotypes or social constructs, no place for us in society. You have to either mimic or hide, and that’s not easy.

Dress by ZaZa, top by Kyandzhaliev Roman

Roman Gunt, creative director

In my work, I try to show the diversity of subcultures in Russia, and the LGBTQ community and its struggle to become more visible. It’s difficult being different in our society. Sometimes I get lonely and feel as if the world is slipping away because of hatred against the community. I’m lucky enough living in St Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia. It really gives you more opportunities to be yourself. If I’d stayed in Volgograd, where I was born, I might have had to hide my orientation for the rest of my life.

The new wave of Russian queer culture has arrived simply because we were waiting for it for so long that we reached the end of our tether. 2018 was really explosive. In club culture, two parties were launched dedicated to the LGBTQ community and its freedom — Popoff Kitchen and GRAN’; O-zine was also launched. I think we have great potential. I hope to see more artists supporting the queer community in Russia, because that will lead to a greater understanding of sexuality among younger generations. I think it will take years before people in our country become more tolerant of difference. But our mission is to make society pay attention to queer people, to make them more visible.

Suit by IS iRRELEVANT

Miliyollie, photographer

As a bisexual, fat feminist with a disability, I grew up without seeing people who looked like me. Everything from advertising to TV tried to convince me that there are only cis, heterosexual, skinny white people, and if you didn’t fit that description you were better off not leaving the house. It took me a long time to get over it. In my work, I want to depict people who are usually ignored by pop culture.

There are a lot of challenges to living in Russia as a young queer person. The fear of being attacked. The fear that your family will not accept you. As a creative person, I struggle to find people to collaborate with and platforms that won’t discriminate. As a fat woman, it’s difficult because in the queer community there is also a lot of fatphobia. In the 2000s, back when it wasn’t so dangerous, a lot of straight Russian artists played around with LGBTQ themes, like t.A.T.u. and other pop groups. But these days, exposure is the preserve of the community, who are not afraid to fight.

Dress by So Number One, shoes by Buffalo

Roma Valero, artist

In my art, I explore the aesthetics of the human body, rebellion, the uncompromising spirit of youth, and fierce gender fluidity. My understanding of sexuality is beyond the binary. As an artist, model, and photographer, I try to provocatively play with the essence of different genders. For the burgeoning queer culture of the future, we need to learn to be open and ready to support our peers — artists, photographers, designers, influencers — and help talented allies to express their queer selves.

Jacket and skirt by Roberto Cavalli (SUPERSHOP), hat by MATH, belt by IS iRRELEVANT

Dmitry, artist

My work is to be myself: the aim is self-expression through all types of creativity, constant self-development. The idea is to show people how amazing life can be if you do what you want. I am a free person. On my neck there is a tattoo with a tag with a letter “D”. On the left side of my chest, “100% ART, Made in Russia”. Those are the only labels I would like applied to myself.

I think that, even in a context of increasing restrictions of human freedoms in our country, no one has ever felt as free as we are now. You can do whatever you like if you do it confidently. But I have to add that a lot of people don’t desire freedom. Feeling free means telling a truth that other people can follow. Russia is a beautiful country. I am a patriot in terms of culture and heritage, especially the language. The most difficult thing is to remain yourself everywhere and all the time, regardless of circumstances.

Masha and Masha, Mashino Hozyastvo

We make casts of the genitals of people of all genders, which can then be turned into lollies, soap, chocolate, candles, or plaster sculptures. We are very involved in issues of body positivity and the new wave of sex education. We host all-girl parties aimed at developing self-acceptance through exploring the vulva, we participate in events about tactile experience, and work on educational materials about sensuality. We identify as queer, although we use the term bisexual more often. Queer identity is a big part of our personalities and creativity, and what makes us who we are.

At some point, we realised that we wanted to stop hiding, to speak up and involve other people in the conversation, and it turned out a lot of people around us shared this desire. The most challenging and the most amazing thing about being queer in Russia is to move forward not knowing what the future holds. We want visibility and openness for the community, and I guess the best we can do is to try to be open and visible — to engage in activism as much as we can.

Dress by OFF vintage store, blazer by Thom Browne (SUPERSHOP), shirt by Comme des Garçons (SUPERSHOP), hats by M_U_R

Nedos, empress of queer communism

I got into political activism at 17, and it was a whirlwind from there: speeches at demonstrations, curation, performances, actions, petitions. I cut my teeth on everything. After a picture of me with a poster demanding a woman for president blew up the Russian internet, I took a break. While searching for myself, I found drag. It enriched my understanding of the struggle: kitsch personas with a queer agenda, what could be better? I came back to politics a year later with an extravaganza of sweary punk manifestos and vulva costumes — the communist Divine, the LGBTQ Jesus. White, cis, hetero-patriarchal bitches, beware! Your end is nigh at the hands of the self-proclaimed empress of queer communism, Nedos!

The future is queer communist. It’ll begin with the kind of free outlooks that characterise “Western” tolerance. I think that’s obvious. What is to be done? Fight! Don’t be afraid to be yourself! Yes, in spite of all the archaic relics that surround you. Express yourself, cry out in your own voice, announce your existence. That’s how it happens. Then people go out on the street with banners, share content, create projects, unite — the world shifts leftwards with every second. I don’t believe, I know that our free and equal future is coming. The victory of queer communism is inevitable.

I am the Parnassian, holy fool empress of queer communism, aka the drag-thug, rapper-queen, queer-whore, an artist of the sharp-fanged and bristling word “cunt”, banally magnificent, the master of ceremonies, the eagle of Lenin and the Mahdi of Allah, the defender of social justice and the meta-modern, the strength of youth and the might of spring, the taste of free will, the genius, die-hard clitoris shot through with the blood of Yakutsk and the passion of Angela Davis, the personal vendetta of the tsar of straightdom Putin, the dominatrix of kitsch and phantasmagoria, and the madame of the total fucking annihilation of [white-hetero-cis-patriarchal-capitalist] global evil.

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