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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of the Shadows: Gay Life in Russia

It was only three years ago that homosexuality was a crime in Russia. While this is no longer the case, bigotry and ignorance remain a daily reality -- but so do gay night clubs, gay rights groups, gay literary journals, even gay businesses.

Lisa Dickey surveys the scene.

Under the vaulted archways of St. Petersburg's Gostiny Dvor, men begin to gather at twilight. This historic building, with its dark recesses and long, covered walkway, has for decades served as a meeting place for gay men.

In the years of Soviet rule, when homosexual acts between men were punishable by five years in prison, it was a place where gay men came to find each other, seek out sex, tempt fate by skirting the roving police and reassure themselves that they were not alone. For many, this was the only place in the city where they could acknowledge their hidden desires.

Today, there is a well-lit, outdoor caf? across the street from Gostiny Dvor's cruising spot. On any given night, groups of men can be found gathered around the white plastic tables, drinking, talking, embracing and flirting, in a scene unimaginable here even five years ago. The caf?, opened two summers ago, was not planned as a gay night spot. The gay men who began gathering there simply saw an opportunity to move away from the shadows and secrecy of the past, and have claimed the caf? -- and its visibility -- as their own. Many still cruise the darkened corridor of Gostiny Dvor, but increasingly, it is the relative openness of the caf? that draws men out on mild evenings.

This is the nature of the coming-out process for Russia's gay men and lesbians, according to the country's homosexual activists: not through Western models of gay pride parades and noisy demonstrations, but through simple acts of claiming space and taking advantage of the gradual shifting of society's opinion about public involvement in private lives.

"Russian society was always based on independence," says Yury Yereyev, director of the Tchaikovsky Foundation, one of St. Petersburg's two gay and lesbian support organizations. "It's in the Russian nature not to give a damn what your neighbor is doing.

"But Soviet power changed all that. Suddenly everyone started worrying about what their neighbors were up to, and meddling in each other's business. Now Russians are finally moving back toward their own natural impulses. People are messing with each other less. And gays and lesbians are benefiting."

Masha Gessen, a Moscow journalist and lesbian activist, puts it even more bluntly: "The strides in gay and lesbian rights have nothing to do with gays and lesbians in general," she says. Instead, Gessen believes the shift in attitudes can be traced to another, much broader fact. "Something has happened in the last eight years," she says. "Russian society has gained the ability to change its mind."

Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code (since repealed):

Sexual relations between men [sodomy] shall be punishable with incarceration for a period of up to five years.

Enacted under Stalin in the early 1930s, Article 121 was repealed by a stroke of President Boris Yeltsin's pen April 29, 1993. With that move, Russia's fledgling gay and lesbian movement found itself suddenly blessed with an unexpected legitimacy. No longer could the argument be made that the struggle for homosexual rights was an indirect violation of the laws of the Russian Federation. But what effect did the repeal really have on the lives of gay men and women in Russia?

One obvious effect is that gay men no longer need fear imprisonment for consensual sexual acts. While exact figures on how many men were imprisoned under the law are not available, estimates by those who have researched the subject indicate that, in the 60 years the law was enforced, tens of thousands of men were jailed for homose|ual activity.

And for every man jailed, dozens of other men were interrogated, harassed and threatened by police looking for information.

"One of my first lovers was arrested and imprisoned," says 42-year-old marketing representative Alexander Blinov. "The police called me in repeatedly for questioning, asking me for information, for names of other gays."

In this way, the police compiled so-called "pink lists" of homosexuals, which could be used for blackmail and recruiting informants. With the repeal of Article 121, such harassment would -- at least theoretically -- no longer take place.

But despite what would seem by any measure to be a considerable legal stride, there is debate among gays about whether the repeal of Article 121 has resulted in any measurable changes in Russian gay life.

According to Dima Kuzmin, publisher of "Risk," a gay literary journal, "The situation [for homosexuals] is changing, but not because of the repeal. The repeal is just one element of the change. There's a gay press now, and gay discos, but they started earlier, in 1991 and 1992. But the repeal did strengthen things."

Blinov, who is not an activist, says that his life has changed little since the repeal. "I can't really say I do anything differently, or act differently. The same things I did before, I do now." After a pause, he adds, "It's true that now I don't really have to worry about being called in for questioning any more, but I tried never to let that bother me too much to begin with. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to live."

Gessen, however, sees it differently. "The repeal of Article 121 marked a huge change. And there are significant numbers of people who were not necessarily affected by the law's existence, but who are affected by its repeal."

This, of course, includes lesbians, whose sexual behavior was never outlawed in the Soviet Union, but who were frequently forced, nonetheless, to undergo involuntary psychiatric treatment to "cure" them of their sexual proclivities.

Increasing societal tolerance of male homosexuality can logically be taken as a positive sign for gay women, although lesbianism is still frequently dismissed as a phase, illness or temporary female hysteria rather than a legitimate identity.

Letter to the editor from a young man in the popular Russian weekly Argumenty i Fakty, May 21, 1996:

I fell in love with this girl, but when it came time for us to 'do it,' she refused. She cried for a whole hour, and then confessed. She says she's never been with a man, but she has with women ... Does this mean nothing will ever work between us, and that this will last her whole life? Can she be cured?

Editor's response: Don't get upset just yet. Doctors frequently can fully cure women from a 'pink' [lesbian] orientation. And in your case, it looks like treatment will have the desired effect.

The mass media, as any activist knows, do not simply report, but also to a large degree shape public opinion. In the case of media coverage of homosexual issues, it is safe only to say that the Russian press is unpredictable at best. Argumenty i Fakty, for example, which has the largest circulation of any Russian newspaper, has run articles that both promote tolerance of homosexuality as well as excoriate, in the harshest possible terms, gay clubs and the people who attend them. And, as shown by the example above, ideas that long ago ceased to have currency among Western medical and psychological experts -- including the "curing" of homosexuality -- are frequently still presented as accepted facts.

In terms of news reporting, however, there seems to be some new objectivity -- which, again, is not necessarily directly related to gay rights, but from which the gay movement benefits.

"We have been getting a lot of press," says Zhenya Debryanskaya, director of Moscow's Triangle Association and one of the first gay activists in Russia. "And they have been very objective articles, not just looking at homosexuality to laugh at it. People's perception is changing; they no longer mention 'prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals' in same breath."

Russian television programming has also shown flashes of tolerance unheard of in Soviet times. A Russian-made documentary film on gays and lesbians that aired in early October was an evenhanded treatment of the subject. And the appearance on Russian television of such films as "Longtime Companion" and "Henry and June," with their open, non-sensationalist portrayals of same-sex love, further push the idea of homosexuality as a reasonable alternative to traditional relationships.

Nowhere is this more welcome than in the small towns and provinces of Russia, where gay men and lesbians don't have the same resources available in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For many, any source of information is a lifeline: in the words of one young lesbian in Novosibirsk, "For three years I thought I was the only one in the world who felt like this. Then I read an article about Martina Navratilova where she said she loved women. And for the first time in my life I didn't feel alone."

"The number one problem for lesbians in Russia," says lesbian activist Olga Krause, "is loneliness. These people think that nobody else on the planet feels the way they do." To help counter this problem, Krause publishes a small, xerox-copied journal called "Awakening," which she sends by post to hundreds of women across Russia.

The pages of "Awakening" are filled with personals from women all over Russia seeking to meet other women: "Married woman, 25, dreams of meeting a girlfriend with a similar situation." "Lonely Lyudmila, 46, still hopes to meet the woman for her." "Green-eyed brunette, 34, raising independent 15-year-old daughter, would be happy to meet a lonely, decent woman."

To protect the privacy of women placing ads, Krause does not publish their addresses; all responses must be sent to Krause herself, who then passes them on (again by post) to the women. It is a long and frustrating process, but for many women outside the cities, there is still no other alternative.

Percentage of Russians, according to a 1989 poll taken by the All-Union Center for Public Opinion, who advocated 'extermination' in response to the question, 'How should one deal with homosexuals?': 33.

Percentage of Russians, according to a 1995 poll taken by the St. Petersburg Sociological Institute, who advocated 'extermination' as a means of dealing with homosexuals: 6.

Famous Russian homosexual or bisexual historical figures: Pyotr Tchaikovsky (composer), Vaslav Nijinsky (dancer), Sergei Yesenin (poet), Marina Tsvetayeva (poet), Rudolf Nureyev (dancer), Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (brother of Tsar Alexander III).

Number of homosexuals in Moscow, assuming a 1-percent estimate of total population: 100,000.

Percentage of Russian women, according to a poll quoted in Ogonyok magazine (No. 16, April 1996), who say they've had a sexual experience with another woman: 23.

It's difficult enough to characterize the attitude of Russian society toward homosexuality. But perhaps it's even more difficult to characterize Russian homosexuals themselves. As American journalist David Tuller argues in his book, "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia," the Russian concept of sexuality seems to be a much more free-form entity than the sometimes rigidly-defined categories popular in the West.

Tuller bases his argument on the many Russian men and women he meets who not only sleep with people of both sexes, but who also refuse to identify themselves as members of any sexual minority. The Western tradition of politicizing one's sexual preferences, argues Tuller, is an alien and off-putting phenomenon to Russians, which, in turn, makes the idea of a homosexual rights movement similarly alien.

This, according to Masha Gessen, is not the only factor inhibiting the nascent Russian homosexual rights movement. "In the United States," she says, "the gay and lesbian movement grew naturally out of the black civil rights movement and the feminist movement. None of that has happened in Russia. So to expect a gay and lesbian movement to go out and demonstrate in front of the Duma is unrealistic."

Perhaps as a result, the people who take positions of leadership in Russia's various gay rights organizations are a strong-willed, stubborn and fractious lot. Many Russian gays were openly contemptuous of groundbreaking activist Roman Kalinin, who was one of the first to openly agitate for gay rights in the Soviet Union.

St. Petersburg's two gay organizations, Krylya (Wings) and the Tchaikovsky Foundation, have long been at odds, with the two leaders barely on speaking terms. Virtually any conversation with gay activists in Russia comes around sooner or later to virulent criticism of what the rest of the activists are -- or aren't -- doing.

"Gay movement? Excuse me, but what gay movement?" charges 25-year-old businessman Sergey Polev. "They're all just a bunch of drunkards. What do they do with money they get from abroad? Spend it on men, on drinks at the bar? They don't do anything for anybody."

Polev, a whiz-kid advertising entrepreneur who has expanded his company, Poleff Group, from one to 35 employees in three years' time, plans to open a gay travel agency, a gay club, and start a gay newspaper within the next six months. In his opinion, gays should concentrate more on improving their economic clout as a means of bettering their status in society.

"What we need," says Polev, "is to be able to show off gay men and women who have good jobs, and who are upstanding in society. And the more gay-oriented commercial entities there are, the more power we will have."

But Polev's vision of how to win a happy future for gays isn't without its own hints of intolerance. "Russian gays shouldn't act like queens so much," he says with disgust. "That's why ordinary people hate gays. We should try to fit in; we have to live by the rules of the straight community first, then create our own private culture."

From a sex manual published in the Soviet Union in 1964: With all the tricks at their disposal, homosexuals seek out and win the confidence of youngsters. Then they proceed to act. Do not under any circumstances allow them to touch you. Such people should be immediately reported to the administrative organs so that they can be removed from society.

There can be no doubt that it is easier in today's Russia to come out as a homosexual. This is especially true in the big cities, where with the help of the social organizations, magazines and discos that have started up in the years since 1990, gay men and lesbians can find each other with much greater ease. And, in the case of discos like Moscow's Chance and St. Petersburg's Mayak, they're finding that hip, young straight people want to join in on the action.

Ironically, while the discos make it easier for patrons to acknowledge their homosexuality, the managers aren't so open about the nature of the clubs. In filing official paperwork to open such venues, no mention is made of the target audience, for fear of provoking authorities.

"When I do the paperwork to open my club," says Polev, "I won't mention that it's for gays. That would just cause unnecessary problems."

Similarly, an administrator at Chance insisted in an interview that "Chance is not a gay disco.

"It's a club for the intelligentsia," said the administrator, who declined to be named. "And the intelligentsia is more tolerant of gays, so gays feel comfortable here." When asked about the lower ticket prices for men, the male sex videos at the bar, and the aquarium show featuring buff men swimming in the nude, the administrator shrugged. "Maybe there's a slant toward gays. But it's not a gay club."

After a damaging article in Argumenty i Fakty denigrating the club, and a frightening visit from the OMON earlier this year, the club's administration could be forgiven for being wary of what they're called. In addition, there is the problem of anti-gay violence, which, according to anecdotal evidence, seems to be especially persistent outside discos and other venues where gays openly gather. While hard statistics on violence against Russian gays are hard to find, gay bashing is by no means a rare occurrance. In many ways, despite the strides of the last few years for Russian gay men and lesbians, the closet may still be the most comfortable place to be.

On the other hand, perhaps labeling a club as "gay" is viewed as unnecessary, much in the same way as is labeling a person's sexual preference. As the ever-larger number of gay men and lesbians flocking to the Terrace caf? can attest, it matters little what they call a place; what counts is how comfortable people feel there. Judging from the groups chatting, laughing and drinking at the outdoor tables, they're feeling more and more comfortable all the time.