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Love in the Time of Putin

The period following the collapse of the Soviet Union charaded as an era of progress for LGBTQ+ individuals in Russia. In 1993, the government legalized homosexuality, and in 1997, it allowed people to change their gender on legal documents. As with many other facets of Russian society at this time, the country appeared to be moving in a liberal direction. Yet, Russia’s outward projection of a more open culture was only a political move intended to help it join the Council of Europe, which required “abolishing [its] anti-sodomy law.” Same-sex relations were still expected to remain unnoticeable and unspoken about, pushing queerness into the shadows of Russian society. However, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” sentiment of the post-Soviet era failed to stave off the formation of a unique queer Russian identity. In spite of persistent legal and political attacks, which have only worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, community members have found ways to continue celebrating and expressing their queerness.

Putin’s rise in 2012 marked a new era of repression for the LGBTQ+ community. In 2013, the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly, the State Duma, passed a bill that would impose fines on violators promoting “nontraditional” sexual relationships to those under the age of 18. The ban invited waves of homophobic attacks throughout the country, and the rates of violence against LGBTQ+ Russians doubled in the five years following its implementation. Additionally, since 2017, hundreds of gay men have been detained in the strictly conservative Muslim Republic of Chechnya in southeast Russia in what are described as “anti-gay purges.” Those held are reportedly “humiliated, starved, and tortured” in detention facilities before being returned to their families or, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

The atmosphere of fear created by state repression has undeniably limited the LGBTQ+ community’s ability to thrive openly in society. But as the Kremlin’s restrictions on sexuality tightened throughout the 2010s, people living in more conservative, rural areas flocked to major cities where they could find acceptance. Putin’s attempts to suppress discussion about sexuality and gender expression thus facilitated a lively underground culture by making Moscow and St. Petersburg crucial hubs for LGBTQ+ Russians to come together and embrace their identities. 

The underground nightclubs and bars of the 2010s were especially important for a younger generation of LGBTQ+ Russians who grew up under the Kremlin’s anti-gay propaganda law. Each of these spaces contributed to a larger subculture that allowed queer youth to gain confidence in their identities. This culture was only able to survive because of the willingness of everyday Russians to push against their government’s repressive hand. The simple act of expressing one’s identity became a means of preserving it: Gay nightclubs and bars existed as emblems of hope in the face of rising homophobic violence and unrelenting state oppression.

Partying in the shadows is anything but easy––nightclub and bar owners often struggle with the enormous responsibility of keeping community members safe. In 2012, a group of masked men broke into the 7FreeDays Club and physically assaulted guests and staff during a National Coming Out Day party. Then, in the months following the passing of the 2013 law, one of the most popular gay clubs in Moscow—Central Station—was the target of a barrage of violence including a shooting, a gas attack, and the dismantling of the club’s building. 

Those who govern these spaces often take extreme precautions to protect partygoers: Nikita Egorov-Kirillov, for example, throws a club night called Popoff Kitchen but promotes the party under the guise of a culinary event. And Milo Chemodanov, a DJ who used to throw one of the most popular queer parties in Russia, “Cherti,” adapted his event to the post-2013 landscape by downsizing to a smaller venue, hiring security guards, and reverting to word-of-mouth rather than social media to spread information.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the landscape for LGBTQ+ people has become even more treacherous. In an article from The New York Times, reporters Valerie Hopkins and Valeriya Safronova explain that the Kremlin has used the LGBTQ+ community as a scapegoat during the ongoing conflict “to create an internal enemy to divert attention from battlefield setbacks and an unpopular draft of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.” In November 2022, nine months after the war’s outbreak, the State Duma expanded its prior “gay propaganda” bill to restrict any portrayal of homosexuality.

A month before the new prohibition was implemented, a Russian drag performer expressed to The New York Times the concern that a full ban on activities considered “gay propaganda” would force the queer community further underground until it becomes untraceable. To a certain extent, such fears have come to fruition. The news coverage of queer spaces has been nearly nonexistent since 2022, and websites of bars and clubs named in articles from the 2010s are no longer available. The Instagram of O-zine, a magazine founded in 2018 to amplify the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ Russians, has been taken down, and the only relic left behind is a farewell letter that can no longer be accessed. Chemodanov decided to stop hosting “Cherti” and instead joined the ranks of LGBTQ+ Russians compelled to flee the country. A 2023 survey showed that “83 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents said Russian society has become more homophobic since the outbreak of the war.” 

However, the LGBTQ+ community continues to persist in the face of intensifying government pressure. Popoff Kitchen’s doors are still open for LGBTQ+ youth looking for a place to freely express themselves. After all of the violence Central Station endured, it continues throwing events and openly promoting itself on social media. The resilience of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia defies the narrative presented by those abroad that queer people are singularly defined by the constant subjugation of the Kremlin. The Russian queer community, and dissenting Russians in general, must be recognized for their strength. Despite all the challenges they face, LGBTQ+ Russians have been able to create a thriving underground way of life, one that allows individuals to shine even in the shadows.