East-West Divide

In and Out In ‘90s Russia

A gay themed film festival in Moscow, 1991. Photo © Marc Geller

An observer looks back on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, for gays in Russia

When I first lived in Russia in 1991, during a leave from my job at The San Francisco Chronicle, life was falling apart and cracking open simultaneously. The Soviet state was collapsing under the weight of its own terrible history. But gays and lesbians were, for the first time, breaking through the decades of silence imposed on them by the regime.

Gay clubs and bars were sprouting up like mushrooms in large and small cities. Some brave men and women emerged as outspoken leaders of this newly visible minority. One of them, a provocative young man named Roman Kalinin, made headlines by announcing his intention of running for president. (He intended it as a joke; the Russian press took it seriously.)

Sex between men was still a crime in 1991, but it hadn’t been in the early years of the Soviet Union. After the revolution, the new regime abolished the Tsarist legal code, which criminalized homosexuality. But in 1934, Stalin introduced new anti-sodomy legislation. Many gay men were swept up in the purges of the late 1930s. Homosexuality disappeared from public discussion. That didn’t mean, of course, that gay and lesbian life disappeared — it survived underground, like everything did, in friendship circles that had weathered the decades of Soviet repression.

By 1993, when Russia finally repealed the sodomy law — the much-hated Article 121 — the situation finally seemed to have reached an irreversible turning point. It felt like people had generally recovered from the shock of learning that homosexuals existed, and even lived next door. Besides, in the turbulence of the Boris Yeltsin years, people had so much to worry about — and in particular scraping together a living — to spend much time thinking about anything else.

That’s all changed, of course, now that Russia has banned the dissemination of material supporting “non-traditional” relationships. Even before I arrived, American friends warned me to be careful, to avoid drawing attention to myself. They worried I could be detained by police or beaten up by the homophobic street thugs known as remontniki, or “fixers.” I was slightly nervous myself, but I also knew that Russian life always revealed more nuance and color than the grim impressions haunting Western imaginations. (I did shave off my facial scruff, as I always do when heading for Russia, to reduce the chances of being perceived as a Chechen, Dagestani, or anyone else from the Muslim areas of the southern Caucasus.)

The anti-propaganda regime has had serious repercussions. Teachers who have not proven sufficiently tough on non-traditional families have been forced to resign their positions. Courts have ruled against media organizations for running positive portrayals of homosexuality. In the provinces, local authorities can act with even more autonomy and make life miserable for people. And there is no real protection from those who beat up gays and lesbians, blackmail them, or out them to family members and employers.

And yet, as always in Russia, the reality is more complex. Contrary to some of the fears evoked by my American friends, authorities are not bursting into people’s homes and arresting them for homosexuality. Men and women still hang out in bars and nightclubs, without much fear of harassment. The fact that the law is a civil offense with limited applications provides some measure of protection, although of course Russian authorities manage to apply laws in an arbitrary way to people they dislike.

Sasha Kondov, a sociologist from St. Petersburg, told me, “In Russia, as always, there is the law, and there are people, and we live in parallel countries.”

I understood what he meant. But I wouldn’t have in 1991, when I arrived with the expectation that gay life in Russian would look much like it does in the U.S. — just many decades behind. It wasn’t like that, of course. I discovered that, beneath the grim public exterior, people had created parallel lives rich in friendships, love and sex, as people always had. They faced more extreme circumstances and dangers than I did in my life, of course, but they seemed to accept them as immutable realities, like Siberian snowstorms, and managed to survive more or less intact, at least most of the time.

In the early 1990s, waves of Westerners of all varieties swept across Russia and the many former Soviet republics. They rushed over to teach these backward peoples how to thrive in the modern world: How to build democracy and have elections! How to protect private property! How to sell advertising! Banking reform! Education reform! Let’s do investigative journalism! Moscow, Tashkent and Yerevan were full of foreign experts, preaching so-called best practices.

American gays and lesbians were no different, and no less patronizing in their approach. Some took it upon themselves to enlighten and educate their Russian counterparts on… what, exactly? I wasn’t quite sure. Things just didn’t translate. Take the concept of “coming out” — so axiomatic to the U.S. gay experience. Russians understood what it meant, of course. But it made much less sense to them. People who had grown up in the Soviet era had honed their skills at shielding their inner lives from public scrutiny. Why would they feel a need or desire to suddenly reverse course?

And why, my friends wanted to know, did Americans insist that an unwillingness to come out meant that people suffered from “internalized homophobia”? From their perspective, it made no sense. The people I met did not express shame about their sexual orientation; they simply saw no reason why it was anyone else’s business. As one friend said, “David, what am I supposed to do when I go to the bakery? Say, ‘Hi, I’m a lesbian, I’d like to buy bread?’” This notion, of course, caused much merriment among my friends. How naïve and stupid Americans sometimes were, they told me, and I couldn’t say that I disagreed with them.

Privacy, I came to learn, was sacrosanct in Russia, and not just because of the watchful eye of the authorities. Many people I met, male and female, lived in tiny apartments with their mothers, or other family members. (Fathers were often dead, in alcoholic stupors, or somewhere unknown.) People living in close quarters, I learned, found ways to construct mental zones of privacy given the lack of spatial ones. Other family members respected these zones and refrained from asking intrusive questions.

So when I came out to a relative, I did not earn the congratulations which I had expected from my friends. My dad’s first cousin, Sopha, lived in a grubby suburb an hour-and-a-half from Moscow. I used to visit her at least monthly; sometimes I’d stay over. Her mother, Figusia, was my grandfather Joseph’s sister. Figusia had stayed behind in the village, in what is now Ukraine, with the rest of the family when Joseph fled to New York after the Russian Revolution, during the violence and chaos of the civil war. Sopha was an accountant; her husband had been a longtime party member.

Over time, as Sopha and I grew to know one another, I dropped hints — about not being married, about knowing people who had died of AIDS, about my newspaper work covering the gay and lesbian movement in the U.S. So by the time I told her, she had already figured it out. She said of course it made no difference to her. She said it was something that was never talked about, although of course she knew there were “these kinds of people.” She recognized how difficult life must have been for them — to grow up knowing they were so different and to face such challenges finding their place in the world. She did gently suggest that I not tell my elderly great-aunt Zhenya, “because she has a weak heart.”

I felt proud of myself in coming out to Sopha — a small victory, I thought, against the forces of darkness and ignorance. My friends hooted when I told them what I’d done. For an American cousin to show up in a Moscow suburb was already “exotica,” one friend said, “like having a giraffe in the house.”

Despite this abuse, I pressed on and explained that Sopha not only accepted it well but even sympathized with the situation faced by gays and lesbians. “A very big thanks, David,” said my friend. “By your charm, you conquer the world, and have now converted to our view the lovely wife of a Party functionary…”

In 1994, I spent a weekend in a sort of gay-lesbian encounter group led by three well-meaning, but clueless, Americans activists. They spoke no Russian and had little apparent understanding of the country, yet this was their third visit for the purpose of “community building.” In any event, whatever community they were building seemed of little interest to the Muscovites. The event started off well enough, with 50 or more people turning up on a Friday evening. Only half came the next day, and that dwindled to a dozen or so by Sunday.

Few people, it seemed, took to the trust games and open confession sessions and relentless promotion of positivity and disclosure that marked these kinds of gatherings in the U.S. As a temporary Russian, I agreed with the locals: Why would anyone want to sit around and reveal intimate details to people they didn’t know? It might make sense at Big Sur or the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival but not in some cheesy basement in Moscow three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without hot tubs on a cliff, the process of building trust took years and decades to build, not minutes.

In an interview, one of the Americans, a young self-styled “lesbigay” activist named Alma, said she’d recently learned about the Young Pioneers, the Komsomol, and all the other Soviet forms of institutional ideological coercion. She’d found this information to be extremely useful in her work. “There’s been a lot of dysfunctional group behavior that causes people to have a lot of shit and pain around groups and leadership,” she told me and my friend Laurie Essig, a sociologist also living in Moscow at the time.

The fact that Russians suffered from “dysfunctional group behavior” and experienced “a lot of shit and pain around leadership” appeared to be news to Alma. This surprised Laurie and me; we glanced at each other. Had Alma heard of Stalin?

I told my friends about this group encounter session. “Well, Americans think they can save us, they think they are the Messiah, or Superman,” said one. “And as for the American gays and lesbians, they think they are the Supergays and Superlesbianki!”

These experiences considerably tempered my own inclination to frame my Russian experiences through an American lens. Rather, I tried to check my American assumptions at the border and view local realities through their Russian, post-Soviet lens.

Times are different now, of course. In 1991, the word of choice for gay was goluboi, meaning “light blue.” Why light blue? No one knew. For women, it was rosavaya, meaning “rose” (the color). Again, the etymology was vague. The words gay and lesbian also popped up frequently in Russian sentences. When I returned in December, younger people laughed or looked quizzical if, out of habit, I used the word goluboi. Even “gay and lesbian” sounded fusty and archaic. These days, it seems, only LGBT, and sometimes LGBTQ, would do.

The change shouldn’t have surprised me, of course, but it did. Many of the people I met this time weren’t even born when I first arrived, and grew up under realities far different from those I investigated in the 1990s. The world I wrote about — the immediate post-Soviet years — is long past, eclipsed by far more recent traumas. And my friends themselves had moved on. They still don’t enter bakeries and demand bread as homosexuals and lesbians. They still won’t discuss their sexuality with their mothers or other relatives or colleagues at work. But they no longer view themselves as a secluded and self-contained underground. They are part of a larger historical and global phenomenon, a connection discovered and strengthened through the remarkable online universe that did not exist when I landed there 25 years ago.

And I’ve also changed. In 1991, I was part of that messianic wave of Americans arriving to do good. But doing good as I saw it didn’t always conform to doing good as they saw it, and many of the Western-funded efforts at doing good flailed about for purpose and direction — beyond the goal of paying excellent salaries to Western contractors and consultants. My best doing good turned out to be observing and then writing about what I observed — which sometimes involved my embarrassment at the misguided approaches promoted by well-funded American do-gooders.

Americans love to feel they can solve problems in other countries by building banking systems, democracy and LGBTQ communities. They can’t. Americans can provide financial support to LGBTQ refugees, they can create political noise in national and international venues, they can demonstrate outside Russian consulates. But inside Russia, it’s a different story. No one there needs my advice. They don’t need me telling them how “out” or “in” they should be. They don’t need me telling them how to feel about what Putin does. They have to live there. I don’t. So I go to observe, hug friends, and offer support. I don’t go to save them, because I know I can’t.