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Gay Life In St. Petersburg

by Jasper Groen in Travel and weekendtrips , 24 december 2010

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar


Think of Russia and gays and you’ll picture rainbow colored demonstrators being attacked by neo-Nazis with clubs perhaps. You’ll remember the images of police officers arresting not the bald-headed aggressors but the gays. You’ll think of Dutch singer Gordon and the Eurovision Song Contest, when the mayor of Moscow refused to issue a license for a gay demonstration and the singer didn’t join the protests because his safety could not be guaranteed.

In short, Russia and gays, it doesn’t sound like an ideal combination. One wouldn’t expect to have a nice holiday there like in Gran Canaria or Mykonos. But that is a mistake. Both the capital, Moscow, as well as coastal city St. Petersburg, have plenty to offer to the gay traveler. If you like a bit of adventure, that is, and if you can tone it down a bit in public.

Moscow

A year ago I visited Moscow and within a few hours of my arrival I found myself in an underground cellar with a lot of action: handsome boys in the corners, an enthusiastic and crowded dance floor and a lot of inevitable vodka. “12 Volt” was the name of this cellar club, secured by a triple entrance. It didn’t dampen the atmosphere, I can tell you.


And the morning after was also good, waking up with beauty of the day Yura, who fixed me a typical Russian breakfast of cooked potatoes, bacon and some bread. During that stay in Moscow I also saw something I’d never seen anywhere before: a lesbian beat, in the middle of town at the foot of the monument for the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Tens of girls were sitting on the benches fondling each other on the Tverskoy Boulevard. Out in the open. Lots of other girls paraded lazily around the same benches, looking for a single one.

A Russian journalist explained that there was also a park for men in Moscow but advised me not to go there: way too dangerous. Men are in more danger of getting bashed than women. Russia even sent the French-kissing T.A.T.U. girls to the Eurovision Contest a few years ago. I was in de city in connection with a photo exhibition, in which there were also explicit images of women having sex. There was not one local who protested that week, also because the organization hadn’t said anything about the nature or the theme of the photos in the press.

Tsar Peter

Still, this story is not about my trip to Moscow, but to St. Petersburg, according to many people the most loved city of Russia. A European, relaxed and big city the rest of Russia speaks of with awe. The city in which Dostoevsky wrote “Crime & Punishment,” where Putin was born and where one can find the mother of all museums: The Hermitage.

Tsar Peter the Great pulled St. Petersburg out of the swamp in 1703 and named it not after himself but after the apostle Peter, the patron saint of the city. This Tsar Peter was no softie: he had his own son tortured to death on the account of high treason and it was him who had consenting sex between two soldiers in the army criminalized.

Officially this was because the Tsar wanted to model his city according to European norms and values: in Western Europe homosexuality had been outlawed for a long time already. But a British officer, sentenced to death for sodomy himself, shed a new light on the matter.



He declared during his trial that he’d seen Peter in bed with a carpenter-made-prince. Peter wanted to remodel his city after Western European examples after three trips to the continent. He also spent a few months in Holland, as Dutch ship wharfs were flourishing in that time. It brought him to import culture and fashion as well. With force sometimes, like a predecessor of Geert Wilders’ “head rag tax” shows: religious people who wanted to live according to the traditions of “Old Russia” were only allowed to grow a beard, if they paid extra tax for it.


Sailors

As a result of this import the city still has a western feel, even today. The Tsar’s influence, as much that of the harbor, with ships arriving daily from all over the world. The entire city, built on various islands, seems to breathe with the sea; everywhere you can spot the young sailors. They walk the streets in little groups, from their classes to the bars, or on their way home. Or they walk with their arms around their girlfriends, enjoying their short time off duty on land. Sailors are being trained at sea, but also at one of the many institutes in the city. The most well-known is the Admiralty, a huge building on the banks of the omnipresent river Neva. The middle tower, with the golden boat on top, can be seen from kilometers’ distance, and is the most prominent symbol of the city.

The Admiralty lies at the start of the largest boulevard of the city: the Nevsky Prospekt. Dutch author Kees van Kooten compared the promenade with the Champs Elysées and added: “but then six times as long and interesting, with its hundreds of eighteenth century baroque and its fin-de-siècle Russian Art Nouveau buildings.” It’s easy to get rid of your freshly exchanged Rubles. Especially the backside of the buildings at the start of Nevsky Prospekt is riddled with fur shops and jewelers, while tourist restaurants and more ordinary shops take in the front. There are also plenty of theaters, museums and galleries here.

Russian sailor, photographed during Sail 2010

Hermitage

The Hermitage is the absolute highlight, directly next to the Admiralty. This museum complex, consisting of several buildings, contains more than three million works of art, of all main disciplines in art. They are exhibited in enormous palace halls that have no equal in all of Europe. Just climbing the white marble staircase is a memory I will always cherish. I can’t even begin to tell you the things that can be seen, but I give you the tip to go straight for the two rooms with Picasso. Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh are all nearby, but I was most impressed with the bronze sculptures by Francesco Messina (Italy, 1900-1995).

There are two sculptures, in two separate rooms right behind Picasso’s rooms. St. Petersburg actually seems to be the Hermitage to the max. The city feels like one big open-air museum. If you cross the Neva with the Dvortsovy bridge, from right in between the Admiralty and the Hermitage, and you can’t get enough of the sailors, you can go to the Maritime museum with its mighty Neptune on top of the building.

There, on the riverbank, are also two authentic, 3500-year old Sphinxes, a Tsar acquisition from 1820. Across a long row of pompous buildings. Across another bridge lies the Peter & Paul Fort, with another golden tip on a tower. Not to mention the numerous churches and cathedrals.




Contrast

All this excess is in shrill contrast with what a gay visitor has to make do with. There’s literally only a handful of clubs and bars, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be bored. The two best hotspots in town are in the same street, which is practical at least: 1e ul. Lomonosova.
To get in the mood you could first eat a homemade salmon sandwich or warm chicken at Atelier Bar, which we would call “gay friendly.” Gorgeous boys in impeccable blue shirts serve fresh pressed juices and all sorts of teas; on the top floors there’s a bar with liquor and an exhibition space. The Atelier Bar also shows movies and they have bands every now and then. Although it’s supposed to be “gay friendly” it’s better to be very discrete with dates or partners.


If you like to get physical perhaps better start at the neighbors’: The Blue Oyster. To keep trouble at bay they don’t have a sign on the door, it’s just behind the big brown door to the right of Atelier Bar. When I ring the door at around nine in the evening a twenty-year old in just sports shorts and a damp t-shirt opens the door. Unfortunately this turns out to be a member of the cleaning company, in standard working gear, better to come back later.

At 10.30 p.m. I’m inside a dark standard sized room. Some sort of Persian rug on the wall, a VJ projects trendy movies on to it; the DJ pumping out minimal techno and mild house. The fresh cleaner was replaced with a closely shaved boy with a fringe hiding his eyes.

Photo: A vandalized banner during the International Queer Culture Festival, at the space for a photo exhibition, which had to move to a squat. The move was bound up with the reproduced fax, in which St. Petersburg’s city council prohibits an exhibition at a legal location in the city. This fax was send off 24 hours before the official opening, through which the exposition almost didn’t take place. With the help of many volunteers everything turned alright in the end, even though it was in a squat and was the exhibition the victim of vandalism

We strike up a conversation and he talks about poems of famous Russian writers. This characterizes the Russians I got to know: they’re straightforward and sooner or later will always start talking about poems or literature. “Or,” like a lesbian guide later put it, “if you don’t like poetry, you can’t be really Russian. It’s impossible for a Russian not to love Pushkin.”

Central Station

When you’re done at the Blue Oyster you only have to take a few steps to join the queue for the most sparkling gay club of St. Petersburg: Central Station. Sprawling over four floors there are eight separate bars, two stages, a karaoke bar, a dance floor and some shady corners to get comfortable in.
National celebrities and lesser-known international acts love to pop in. They also organize an after party for Sensation White, and Madonna’s birthday is always good for a party too. Right next to the performers, and after the shows, attractive strippers prance around on stage and on the balconies. To top it off there are many would-be strippers on the dance floor as well, and a nice mix of other punters.

The second, smaller stage of Central Station focuses on drag queen shows. The drag queens are very popular in Russia, much more so than in Holland. Some have a real hero status. If you’re into a night with drag queens only, you can go to Cabaret Bar in another part of town.

There’s one major setback when moving around St. Petersburg at night: the many bridges that divide the city are open for all passing ships, whoever is in a wrong part of town at one in the morning, will have to stay there until six in the morning. As Johan Cruijff taught us though, is that every setback, has its perks. Central Station’s not getting quieter, to the contrary: after five the place is overrun, by straights unfortunately. Russian society doesn’t accept homosexuality for one bit: recent research showed 84% of the population thinks it’s “morally unacceptable” – but when all other clubs in St. Petersburg close only Central Station remains open, so who bothers? This also explains why this club proudly displays their signboard.

“A club like Central Station is no danger to the Russian law and order,” says Polina, a lesbian woman in one of the many suburbs of the city. Since two years she organizes the International Queer Culture Festival with the Coming Out organization, which takes place in September. “But whoever goes public with it will be smacked down.” And she’s one to know: the municipality banned an exhibition of her festival, with gay art and photography, so they took it to a squat. But then they were vandalized. A party with Drag Kings, organized in what’s usually a safe club for lesbians, needed to be evacuated because of a bomb scare. Although this story was probably a ruse from the authorities to be able to interrupt the party.

The reality in Russia of today is a bizarre contrast. There’s a lively nightlife for gays, while most Russians loathe homosexuality. The government prevents anything from becoming more organized lest it would present a statement against what’s normal and accepted. Out of a fear of change.

When I speak with Dmitry, the boy with the crew cut at the back and the eye-hiding fringe, things get too much for him at a certain moment: “I would so love to be free. But I’m not. The only time I feel free is when I read poetry or look at art.” Overwhelmed by emotion he grabs his glass. “Now, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”



Dmitry, with the Peter and Paul Fortress in the background, photographed at a location where many brides are photographed before they’re going to marry

Legislation Concerning Homosexuality In Russia

For a long time gays had nothing to fear in Russia. It wasn’t until Peter the Great introduced the first anti gay laws. At first only aimed at the regime in the army. Kissing, and even oral sex was allowed, but anal sex was banned. In 1835 this law was extended by Tsar Nicolai I to the entire population, with a maximum sentence of four to five years of hard labor in Siberia. In 1903 the punishment was limited to a maximum of three years, perhaps because several members of the Tsar’s family were openly homosexual by then.


After the October revolution of 1917 the article disappeared from the criminal legislation altogether: gay sex was decriminalized for the first time in two centuries.
But in 1933 Stalin issued a decree criminalizing all homosexual acts, with maximum punishment of five years in Siberia.

Active raids started and the successive communist rulers all put lots of gay men on transport to camps. In 1993, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin scrapped the anti-gay laws again, which doesn’t mean gays are safe to go where they want to and be who they want to be.

They often lead double lives, fearful for being thrown out of the family. Gay festivals or parades have to deal with bomb scares, attacks by extreme right youth groups, and restrictions from the authorities on the basis of “possible disturbances in the public domain.” Still, the underground nightlife flourishes.

Summary!

Club? Central Station, 1e ul. Lomonosova 28. Strippers, acts, dark corners, nice audience. What more does one want? The place to be. Between 2 and 10 euro cover charge.
Bar? The Blue Oyster, 1e ul. Lomonosova, to the right of Atelier Bar. If you want a change from Central Station, and because of the handsome boy behind the bar.

Drag queens? Cabaret, Nab. Obvodnogo Kanala 181. Shows all night through. Audience focused on artists.

Lesbian? Shum (Noise), 5e ul. Sovetskaya 45. Also called Club Pamela, after the image of miss Anderson on the wall. Women only. With large dance floor, long bar and seats.

Festival? International Queer Culture Festival (various locations, music and art, September) and Side By Side (various locations, film festival, October). You’ll find program online. Politically sensitive so they pose a slight risk.

Sandwich? Atelier Bar, 1e ul. Lomonosova, near club Central Station. Cultural free haven in the local gay hotspot street, with concerts, exhibitions, films, and good sandwiches.

Eating? Monet, nad. reki Fontanki 40 (cellar café near the Anichkov Bridge, Nevsky Prospekt). Cheap, full of trendy students and excellent food. Not listed anywhere!



 







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