The Gay Scene in Russia and Kazakhstan

– Everett Peachey, RPCV

Having served in Peace Corps in both western Russia and Kazakhstan, I feel that I can make a few general statements about the gay scene and community in these two countries and give advice for success as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in this part of the world.

Our Pre-Service Training (PST) in Russia was held in a Moscow suburb, and my work site was located about 90 minutes from St. Petersburg, so I guess you could say that I had the epicenters of Russian gay culture at my disposal. I went to a few gay clubs in Moscow during PST, and I quickly realized how small, yet close-knit, the gay community there was. Everyone seemed to know one another or had dated one another at some point. The clubs and bars almost carried with them a ‘Cheers’ sort of attitude — a place where everyone knows your name. Over all the scene was underground, yet thriving. There were a handful of gay clubs, cafes, coffee shops, and even saunas available. It was quite incredible that in ten short years from the fall of the Soviet Union that such progress was made. Yet that progress still seemed quite limited considering that 10 to 11 million people lived in Moscow and its environs.

Despite the progress, there were many things that immediately caught my attention:

1) Many of the people who frequented the club were closeted in their day-to-day lives. Most of the drag queens at the club brought their own apparel with them and changed in the bathrooms when they got there.

2) Many of the gay clubs had at one time been raided by the police and/or shut down for violations of various city ordinances.

3) Most clubs and saunas have tyomni komnati, or dark rooms, which are basically the same back rooms that helped spread HIV in metropolitan areas in the United States twenty years ago.

4) There is a lack of regard for condom use by many young people in the gay community. They often trust one another’s word, and because of that, there is a rampant increase in STDs and HIV infections in the gay community in Russia. Because the epidemic is still in its relative infancy, many of the long-term effects have yet to be realized.

I saw many of the same things in St. Petersburg. In fact, in some St. Petersburg clubs, I actually ran into some of the people that I had met in the clubs in Moscow. Although St. Petersburg is more of an artistic and intellectual capital, the scene there is much smaller in comparison to Moscow. For many things in Russia, Moscow is the revered center of the universe, and everything revolves around it, and that includes the gay community. Anything from fashion trends to gay web sites comes out of Moscow and radiate from there to St. Petersburg and to the rest of the former Soviet Union.

I was relatively closeted at my work site, although I was out to my Russian counterpart and to a few select students. I found this extremely helpful in the beginning since I was the only volunteer at my site, and there was really no one with whom I could talk about gay issues. Despite my proximity to St. Petersburg, the mentality of the average Russian in my community was closed. There was one particular incident in the spring semester that shocked my perceptions of my surroundings.

A closeted German professor at my university was murdered, presumably because of his sexuality. I was not very close to him. I was aware of his sexuality because another gay teacher in my community with whom I was friendly told me about him. When I sought solace with a gay friend in St. Petersburg, he was saddened to hear the news, but told me that the same thing happened to an acquaintance of his a few years earlier. He said that it was just a part of Russian life.

In Kazakhstan, I found the gay scene to be much more underground and on a much smaller scale than in Russia. Part of this had to do with the relatively small population of Kazakhstan. There were many similarities though. Everyone seemed to know one another, and the same mentality was there; for example, that trust of a partner was more effective than condom use.

One area of concern present in Kazakhstan to a greater degree than in Russia is the use of intravenous drugs. The city of Temirtau is especially plagued by HIV (there are over 1,000 reported cases) due primarily to intravenous drug use. Injection drugs are readily available and cheap in Kazakhstan because it is close to Central Asian drug trafficking routes.

The local gay communities exist on a much smaller scale here, and this was evident even in large urban centers like Karaganda (pop. 600,000), where I was a volunteer. There were a handful of people who were out in Karaganda, and every new gay person I met knew everyone else I knew. One way that gay people communicated was through the Internet. When I first came to Karaganda, I met people who later became friends on gay message boards because it was the only way I could meet gays in Karaganda. This is something that I would never have done in the United States. In Kazakhstan the Internet is one of the few places where gay people can meet. I perceived that placing online ads was generally a much safer practice there than in the United States. Kazakhstanis are looking for sympathetic ears too, and I can say that it was also a great way to practice my Russian!

I found that many gay men in Kazakhstan and Russia understand their sexuality only in terms of sex. There are many men who still believe in getting married and having children because that is what you are supposed to do. Many of these married men seek sexual release from gay friends (many of whom are also married). I believe this is part of the reason why a guy I knew from my work site brushed me off after I told him that I wouldn’t sleep with him. He had asked me out of the blue. He didn’t see a gay relationship as a viable option in Kazakhstan, and thus looked no further than sex. By the way, to further illustrate the size and interconnectedness of the gay community in the former Soviet Union, this man claimed to have seen me the previous year in a gay club in St. Petersburg, and knew two of my gay friends from Moscow. Small world!

Despite all of the progress in Russia and Kazakhstan during the last ten years, there is still much progress to be made. I hope that my insights and experiences living in the former Soviet Union will help new volunteers get a better grasp of the situation there. I found the former Soviet Union an amazing place with stark contrasts in geography, culture, and history. It is definitely worth considering as a place for Peace Corps service. Volunteers no longer serve in Russia, but are involved in projects in many of the Central Asian Republics like Kazakhstan.

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The Russian Far East – Where Are the Lesbians?

-Karen Kowal, RPCV, May 2000

I’m sitting here at the computer on the morning of New Years Eve and writing. My Russian friends would think that I am crazy if they knew. First of all, I have to admit that it is nice to say that I have friends. I’ve been at site for only three months and I know that many of my fellow volunteers can’t say the same. It seems this third month is some sort of marker. The holidays are here and whether we want it or not some level of homesickness occurs, but for the most part we have overcome those early stages of culture shock. Though things are surprising, aren’t they?

It surprises me to sit in my apartment and wonder what’s the matter, especially when things appear to go well. I have some friends, as I have already mentioned. My job as a teacher at a university is good. It has its ups and downs as teaching does. Essentially my city is great in many ways.

I write home and like to compare it to Madison, WI, the city of my college days. It is about the same size and a university town as much as a Russian city can be. It sits between two rivers not two lakes like Madison. That’s where the comparison may end for the most part. Madison is liberal and would boast a gay-friendly atmosphere. They elected Tammy Baldwin to Congress on her merits and as a bonus she’s a lesbian. I wonder if this atmosphere exists here.

These feelings I have seem unexpected in some ways. I don’t like to believe that I came here with blinders on or naively because I expected for the most part not to find our gay culture here. I didn’t expect to be confronted with the notion that I would miss that gay atmosphere. It is something that I didn’t predict myself. I wouldn’t define myself as a gay-activist in anyway. I’m not a flag waver or a banner carrier. I’m not striving for the toaster oven. I find myself longing for that comfortable lifestyle and wish I had some forewarning about this gay culture shock sometimes. We didn’t address any gay issues in training. We only received the LGB RPCV newsletter and I read an article by a woman in Latin America. I felt sympathy and thought, God, it’s going to be hard. I’ve come to realize that sympathy is like sunburn on a hot day in some ways. You’re sitting outside and your friend looks at you and mentions how red your skin is. You reply that it only looks bad and it doesn’t hurt. Then you are home alone the next day and realize damn, this hurts like hell. It’s not painful to be homosexual in the Russian Far East maybe just lonely.

Its hard to leave the house some mornings with this desire to see someone like me. Sometimes I just pretend to see a lesbian. It’s a game to make me feel better. There are enough beautiful women here to keep it interesting. Essentially though there is this sense of constraint. Some days I feel like I’ve entered a time machine and I am having the same experiences as I had ten years ago. I seem to be under the rubric “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I first felt it in training. There is the anxiety of losing these new friends and just the general fear of alienation if found out. With these possibilities in mind, it would lead to a long two years. I monitor my speech when talking to people and classes. I have gone back to playing the pronoun game and generally hoping that certain subjects don’t come up in conversation. Then there is the idea of being conspicuous. As an American I am automatically conspicuous. Do I want to be doubly conspicuous? I look in the mirror daily and wonder if I should be wearing some lipstick. Am I a lipstick lesbian? Did I dress too much like a lesbian today? I asked this to one of the other volunteers here and she replied, Maybe you think that because you ARE a lesbian!!

Oh yeah, I AM a lesbian. Who should know this fact though? It is painful to look at people I know and people I am developing potentially deep friendships with and know that there is already a line drawn in the sand. You can only come this close. I’ll only let you hold me at arms length. We have a culture bump that exists and do you notice it? I feel like I’m involved in a crapshoot and I wonder if it’s worth the gamble. The loneliness is in not knowing how much credit to give people. This isn’t just towards the Russian people but also towards the other volunteers here in the Russian Far East. I find myself longing to be with the other gay volunteer because I know he understands and has been through the same things I have been through. Sometimes it isn’t simply the desire to talk to him but the comfort of sitting next to him simply because he knows. I realize at times that I have digressed to the past again. I don’t give other volunteers a chance like I did with my friends at home after coming out, to build a different sense of trust. These old statements return to my mind. They only think they know. They only believe they understand. They don’t have the answers I’m searching for. They are the same old questions which are now of a different color.

Where are the answers though? They are somewhere inside of me. I have to assume this to be true. They are harder to find. All things seem harder here in Russia though. It is more difficult, more challenging. Another volunteer asked me once, How do you find the lesbians? I laughed and said, Well, there isn’t a map, they aren’t marked with an L in the phone book. At this moment, I really wish they were.