What the two men in this photograph are doing is now illegal in Russia. Amidst an alarming—and frequently violent— government crackdown, being out, or simply supporting gays and lesbians, can now get you thrown in jail, beaten up, or worse. On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Jeff Sharlet embeds with the new enemies of the state and reports on life in the Russian underground.
The door leads to a club called Bunker, which is really a maze, twisting through the rest of the building’s vast basement. It’s dark; you have to feel your way through. The men who go to Bunker—many or maybe most of them “straight” men, married men, says the bartender—are looking for bodies, not faces. They don’t want to see or be seen, only to touch and to be touched in a place where nobody knows them.
Those are the choices: light or dark, tea or poppers, a well-lit game of charades or a grope in the dungeon. Sweet or sordid, it doesn’t matter: In Russia now—in the throes of a fever stoked by the Kremlin—both must be hidden. They are not hidden well enough.
One evening in November—the city center like a bowl of pastel candies, Orthodox onion-domes rising above it like spun sugar—two strangers found their way to LaSky. They walked down a long street between a busy road and a canal until they came to an arch in a building. They went through the arch and down a dark alley before they arrived at an unlit empty parking lot, blacktop crumbling. Here they may have stopped to put on their masks. They crossed the lot toward a stand of scrub trees and weeds and took a left down a narrow path, then down an even darker set of uneven stairs to an unmarked steel door. The strangers stood at the threshold.
It was Rainbow Tea Party night. A woman named Anna asked who was there. “We’re looking for our friend!” replied one of the strangers. They shoved past her. In the hall, a man named Dmitry Chizhevsky was looking for his jacket. Behind him was a girl I’ll call Rose, a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday. Rose glanced toward the door: two men wearing ski masks. “Then,” she says, “they started shooting.” Chizhevsky: “The first bullet came into my eye. The first, the very first.” Rose: “I had a thought in my head—maybe I should do something, maybe I should scream.” Chizhevsky: “I can remember more closely what was audio.” Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, he recalls hearing. Five, he thinks. He says he remembers the sound of the bullet hitting his eye.
Dmitry went down, and Rose ran, and Dmitry crawled. The men followed, kicking. One of them had a bat, “a baseball bat, yes,” says Dmitry. They were screaming. “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” The bat came down. And then the faggots in the other room charged the men with the gun and the bat and the masks, and the men ran away. Dmitry and Anna, who’d been shot in the back, inspected their wounds. An air gun, they determined. Thank God.
They say you can shoot an eye out with an air gun, but that’s not exactly what happened. The pellet, a round metal ball, lodged behind Dmitry’s eye.
"They tried with a magnet to take it out," says Dmitry. "But, uh, they failed."
What did they try next?
The doctors told him he was lucky; a little farther, it would have entered his brain. All he’d lose would be his vision.
I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Books are being banned—Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley’s Brave New World—immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn’t just coming undone; it’s imploding. I wanted to visit the bottom of the heap. The golubye. The blues, which in Russia is another word for queer—any way of being other than “Russian,” which, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a kind of sexual orientation. I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that “homosexualism” is a threat to its “sexual sovereignty,” that “genderless tolerance,” in Putin’s words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of “traditional values,” a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.
One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who’d recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia’s new anti-gay law. He wasn’t always so principled: One of Alex’s early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer’s computer for evidence of homosexuality. “I was just lucky it wasn’t my computer,” Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.
His boyfriend wasn’t as glib: “It’s Germany in the ’30s,” he declared. “Hush, hush,” Alex said. “Not so loud.” It’s not Germany in the ’30s, he said; it’s Russia now. And that’s a subtler problem.
Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There’s a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their “interrogations” online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God’s Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims.
But such people exist everywhere, said Alex. The difference in Russia now is who’s standing behind them.
The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay “propaganda,” but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what “propaganda” was. The new law explicitly forbids any suggestion that queer love is equal to that of heterosexuals, but what constitutes such a suggestion? One man was charged for holding up a sign that said being gay is ok. Pride parades are out of the question, a pink triangle enough to get you arrested, if not beaten. A couple holding hands could be accused of propaganda if they do so where a minor might see them; the law, as framed, is all about protecting the children. Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and the author of the bill, says that it’s too late to save adult “homosexualists,” as they’re called, but Russia still has a chance to raise a pure generation.
Mizulina’s dream isn’t old-fashioned; it is, as one fascist supporter told me, “utopian.” He meant that as praise. And the Russian dream is not alone. Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don’t advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of “family values” churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight “globalization”—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror.
In Russia, the process is accelerating. In 2006, a bill similar to the law was laughed out of the Duma, dismissed by the then deputy prime minister as “a row of mistakes.” In June it passed, 436-0. Alex the cop says 2010 was the best year, a new club or café opening every other weekend. New LGBT groups were forming all over. “It was like a party,” one activist told me. What happened between then and now has as much to do with the unstable price of oil and Putin’s eroding popular support as it does with actual queer people. The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills. Putin, says Patriarch Kirill, the church’s leader, is a living “act of God.” Forget about the price of bread and what you can’t afford. Putin has come to save the Russian soul.
Article 6.21, the law’s official designation, has proven to be the Duma’s most popular social initiative of the year; according to one poll, only 7 percent of Russians firmly oppose it. Another new law requiring nonprofits that receive support outside Russia to register as foreign agents has been used to justify police raids on the country’s leading LGBT organizations. In July, Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by gay parents abroad.
And in October, the Duma started to take up a law to remove children from LGBT parents in Russia. It’s been put on hold, but it’s expected to return once the Olympics and international scrutiny have passed.
"The problem is bigger than laws," a gay activist named Igor Iasine told me, tracing a line through his beard where neo-Nazis had broken his jaw. "The law is icing on the cake."
For Dmitry Kiselyov, the director of Russia’s massive new state media corporation—created in December to swallow up state media entities that show any hint of autonomy—laws are not enough. He’s concerned about organ donors, the possibility of a queer heart beating in a straight body.
When homosexuals die, he says, “their hearts should be burned.”
"I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine,” a kid named Kirill tells me at a hidden gay club called Secrets. “We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He shrugs. He has heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He prefers not to. “Everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. This is their experience, not mine.” He says he does not know what the word closet means.
"Something Is Coming"
In an upper-middle-class neighborhood close to Moscow’s city center, two apartments face each other. Two families, two daughters. They leave the doors open to allow easy access from one to the other.
Pavelmet Irina not long after he moved to Moscow twelve years ago, and almost immediately he knew that someday he’d start a family with her. Irina felt it, too. They agreed on it one night over vodka, after a night of clubbing. The party had moved back to an apartment, where they kept drinking, Irina teasing Pavel, Pavel marveling at Irina’s bold friends. She was a Muscovite; Pavel had come from one of those distant eastern cities, 4,000 miles from Moscow. Irina was six years younger, but she was his teacher, teaching him how to be silly and modern and free. They drank and danced, Pavel discovering his hips, until they both collapsed around a kitchen table and, over more vodka, Pavel tried to be funny and Irina thought he was, so she said, “Someday I would like to have a child with you.” Pavel said, “I feel the same.”
Suddenly they were sober, giddy but clear: They knew it was true. But they had to wait. To have children is a great responsibility, Pavel thought. You have to have a place to live. You have to earn. You have to have a partner you can rely on. In 2010, they were ready. Their best friends, Nik and Zoya, were having a baby, too, and they lived right next door. Their children would grow up together. Two little girls: Nik and Zoya’s Kristina, and then Pavel and Irina’s Emma.
Now they are one big happy family, inseparable. Pavel has always been great with kids. He likes to read the girls Russian fairy tales, and he buys DVDs of old Russian cartoons, the ones he was raised on. They watch them together. The girls toddle between the apartments through the open doors. Pavel thinks little blonde Kristina looks like an angel. Emma’s darker, serious like her father. Both girls call him Papa. The children share a nanny, too, who helps the parents with light cleaning, dishes, and dusting, making sure all the family pictures are in place.
"Nobody would suspect us," Pavel says. Not even the nanny.
Pavel’s secret isn’t that he’s gay. It’s that they all are, the adults: Pavel and Nik and Irina and Zoya. Both girls have two mothers, two fathers; they have beds in both apartments. Their life together was, until recently, the fulfillment of all that Pavel had wanted, an ambition that had come to him at almost the same moment he’d realized he was gay: to be “normal.” If he were normal, he thought, then he could be a father. “That,” he tells me, “has been my precious dream.”
Pavel agrees to talk to me because soon, he fears, the laws that have passed and the laws to come may make it impossible to hide. I’m told to meet him at a metro station. When I arrive—with my translator, Zhenya, a gay activist—no one is there. A phone call from a mutual friend directs us through the empty station, around a corner, and down some stairs to a basement restaurant, Georgian cuisine, a man in a corner with a bottle of white wine. Is this—? Yes. He smiles. We sit down.
"Something is coming," says Pavel. What it will be, he’s not sure. He’s worried about "special departments" in local police stations, dedicated to removing children from gay homes. He’s worried about a co-worker discovering him. He is worried about blackmail. He is worried, and he does not know what else to do. He wishes he could fight, but he doesn’t know how. Sign a petition? March in a parade? Pavel would never do that now. "My children," he murmurs.
"This law," he says, referring to the ban on "propaganda." "If something happens, it touches only me. And I can protect myself." But the next law: "This is about my child. My baby." If the next law passes, they will leave. The two women are doctors and Nik works in higher education, careers that will require new certification. Which means that only Pavel, a manager for the state oil company, will be able to work right away. They will be poor, but they will leave. They might have to separate, Pavel and Irina and Emma to Israel, where Irina can become a citizen, Nik and Zoya and Kristina to any country that will take them. They might have to become the couples they pretend to be. For now, they are staying. "We’re going to teach them," he says of his two little girls, Emma and Kristina. "How to protect themselves. How to keep silence."
This is how the law really works: It’s the little things that break first. Like a child who wants to call her father Papa. “Father can be only one,” Pavel tells Kristina. She can never call him Papa again. If someone overheard her… No, not even at home. She must forget that was ever his name. “I can be anybody but Father,” he tells the girl he used to call daughter.