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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gay Scene Shifts From Shadows Into the Neon

When the sun sets behind the Bolshoi Theater, the babushkas, families and other daytime visitors get up from their benches and drift out, leaving the little park on Teatralnaya Ploshchad to a very different crowd.

As the fountain falls quiet and the theater is floodlit, gay men and boys linger on the benches and the rim of the fountain, chatting or just waiting for the right one to come along.

Gays give conflicting explanations for the square's nickname, pleshka, which translates as "bald spot" but could also be the Russian diminutive of the French word place, or square. Every major city in Russia has its own pleshka, but the one in front of the Bolshoi Theater is by far the most famous.

Gays have met in this square for decades, defying a Soviet ban on homosexuality to meet in the most public of places in the capital. But now, the landmark changes going on in Russian society are achieving what 70 years of Soviet oppression failed to do.

"The pleshka is dying," said Sasha, 21, swigging a bottle of sangria as he sat on the rim of the fountain. "As soon as discotheques and bars opened up for gays, the pleshka started to fade away."

The boom in gay nightlife in Moscow, with three nightclubs, a bar and a restaurant opening up in the span of only two years, was made possible both by the country's market reforms and by last year's abolition of the Soviet-era ban on consensual sex between adult men.

But the dark side of Russia's reforms, the rise in crime and prostitution, has also taken its toll on the square.

"Decent people don't come here anymore," said Dima, 18, a prostitute who is so skinny his friends nicknamed him Skeletka. "You can get catch diseases here. They can rob you. Foreigners have become too scared to meet with us."

Some of the prostitutes lure wealthy foreigners and rob them, but the prostitutes are at risk too because they make around $200 per client, Dima said, adding that he has hired a well-known gang for protection. Until the ban on gay sex was lifted, criminals knew that homosexuals were fair game because they could not complain to the police, he said.

Time magazine last year alleged that the square was a den of child prostitution, but their pictures turned out to be fake and prostitutes there insisted their youngest colleagues are at least 16 years old.

Dmitry Lychev, editor of the gay magazine 1 in 10, said the square had become an embarrassment to the gay community, already hard put to gain acceptance in a society that until recently was told that homosexuality did not exist.

Once a discreet meeting place with a faintly artistic image, it has become a seedy pick-up place for quick sex, similar to Washington Square Park in New York or Hampstead Heath in London, Lychev said. Many of the regulars are recent arrivals from outside Moscow who can not afford the pricey clubs and bars or do not even know they exist, he Lychev said. Many of the regulars are recent arrivals from outside Moscow who can not afford the pricey clubs and bars or do not know they exist, he added.

Few mourn the square's decline, but all agree that it was, until recently, the symbol of the gay community in the Soviet Union. "It was the only place everyone mentioned," said Vladislav Artanov, editor of the gay magazine Argo. "People who had no idea where to go at least knew about that place."

Its visibility, ironically, was one of its main attractions, Artanov said, as gays could disappear in a regular crowd.

"The authorities always knew that gays met there. They knew, but they did not know who," he said. "How could they arrest everyone on the square?"

Alexander, 40, said he attended a fireworks party marking the centennial anniversary of the pleshka in 1976, but added that the organizers made sure their celebration coincided with a city-wide firework display.

Alexander said he was detained several times by police but never jailed. "I just told them: 'Are you crazy? How can you prove it until you catch me with a man?'"

Over the years, the pleshka branched out into Tverskaya Ulitsa, Pushkin Square and the public toilet in Alexandrovsky Sad. Older gays often preferred the more discreet Staraya Ploshchad, right outside what was then the Communist Party headquarters. Bigger parks, popular in the West, were never an alternative because they are closed at night.

Shortly after the abortive August coup in 1991, when the Soviet-era taboo on homosexuality was broken and prominent Russian gays came out more openly, young men like Sasha and Dima flocked to the square from across the country and made it one of the city's most fashionable gay meeting places.

But now, the place to be is Premiera, a gay discotheque held four nights a week in the Film Actors' Theater. On Saturday, as a crowd of 300 gays and straight couples danced, Eduard and Ramon were in the adjoining red-velvet decorated restaurant.

According to Eduard, a wealthy mafia gang is planning to open a high-class gay discotheque, marking another step in the emancipation of gay nightlife in the city.

"Gays are big business now," Ramon said. "They don't care about gays as long as they can make money." added.

Few mourn the square's gradual decline, but all agree that the square was, until recently, the symbol of the gay