Russia's Gay Subculture

From the outside, Moscow seems sluggish and provincial. At least that is how it seems to me. I have never felt at home here: old women in sweat suits, village boys whose confusion shows through their impudent Russian smiles as they look around in amazement, gypsy women cracking sunflower seeds ... But this sluggishness masks an aggressive malice, energy, cynicism. A strange portrait of my favorite city, isn't it?

But what about those village boys, simultaneously masculine and feminine, so often combining the best qualities of the Slavic nation -- masculine self-esteem and feminine solicitude? I was recently in California where I had many opportunities to talk with the "export variant" of these boys. That is, with Russian gays who found a foreign sugar daddy and who are now living abroad and happily looking after them. Many people think that only Russian girls are being sought out by foreigners, but the reality is that Russian boys are no less desirable. People don't talk much about how Russia has become the West's supplier not only of willing brides, but of healthy Siberian "bears" as well.

In fact, homosexuals are generally met only with irony and bewilderment in Russia these days. They have become so passive that even those foreign tourists who come here especially to meet them have a hard time finding them. You would expect them to be lining up to show every brutish German or Englishman the virtues of the Russian character, but this is not the case. And there is a reason for this behavior.

It is well known that the law criminalizing voluntary sex acts between men was only repealed about a year ago (women were never persecuted for such acts). Most Russians know about the fates of the singer Vadim Kozin, the director Sergei Paradzhanov and the writer Gennady Trifonov: They were arrested and either imprisoned or deported simply for their feelings. But these are just the famous cases. This attitude meant that now Russia has virtually no homosexual subculture to meet the particular needs of this segment of the population.

Generally accepted statistics say that roughly 10 percent of the population is inclined toward homosexuality. Think of our provincial boys, growing up and discovering their attraction to their own sex: They come across the strange, almost Gogolian, word gomoseksualism, which says nothing to them. Their development more often than not remains on a childish level, focusing on outward manners and habits. Sexual development outstrips spiritual development. The drive for sex, sex, sex is rather more urgent than the desire to get an education or begin a career. This is what has turned Russia into a sexual playground for foreigners where for the price of dinner at McDonald's an adventurer can "get" not just a teenage boy, but even a 10-year-old. These children are flocking to Moscow from around the country and can be found hanging out in the restrooms at all the city's train stations.

For some time now various Western and local organizations have been active here, trying to help Russia's sexual minorities. They have started up Wings and the Tchaikovsky Fund in St. Petersburg and the Triangle Association in Moscow. But these efforts so far have not had positive results. Instead of enlightening the public, the groups more often than not spend their funds supporting various activists, sending them on trips abroad and financing their provocative demonstrations, which do nothing but alienate the public. Such magazines as Risk, 1 in 10, and Chance have so far proved unable to tackle the serious problems facing sexual minorities and their pages often seem more like pornography than information.

Perhaps the only recent event that really helped Russia's gays understand part of what it means to be homosexual was the appearance of Eduard Limonov's novel "It's Me, Eddie," which contains many graphic scenes. This book presented one facet of male homosexuality. But when Moscow's gays gathered at the first public meeting with Limonov, expecting to find in him one of their own, they were disappointed. Raised during the old Soviet days and a slave to public opinion, Limonov refused to answer any questions about his homosexual orientation.

Moscow's small gay community divides generally into three parts. First, there are the so-called activists, those open gays who are involved in social action. Second, there are the young people from the provinces of whom I have been speaking, those who have no residency permits and who are living either with foreigners or with Russian friends. Finally, there are the locals, who live quietly and do not advertise their sexual orientation. Naturally, there is also a fairly large colony of foreign citizens who are now part of the gay community.

But the lack of a gay subculture -- with clubs, stores, etc. -- means that gays in search of partners quite often end up the victims of crime. Most often, these crimes are limited to robbery, which is referred to as remont in gay circles, but there are often murders as well, sometimes involving foreign nationals. Homosexuality is the predominant form of sexual contact in prisons. This problem was especially bad in the past when victims simply could not turn to the police for help, since they would themselves be arrested as homosexuals.

For now it continues. Our young, empty-headed, enthusiastic provincial boys -- beloved sons and grandsons -- are running to Moscow in the hope that someday soon they will wake up and find themselves in San Francisco or Birmingham, taking classes in business school. Some, with luck, will adjust and become real Westerners. And they will look back with nostalgia on their old friends and will send them parcels occasionally as they slowly forget how to speak Russian. These strong, pale blonds -- our export variant.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor-in-chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.