Inside the Iron Closet: What It's Like to Be Gay in Putin's Russia
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
Sunday nights in St. Petersburg are Rainbow Tea Party time. If you're young and queer and hopeful, it's the happiest way to end a weekend. An actual tea party. There are also cookies and—at LaSky, the HIV-awareness center that often hosts the event—more brightly colored giant beanbags than chairs, plus a lot of posters of hunky bare-chested men with floppy hair. There are many, many rainbows, on stickers and pins and brochures, and a rainbow curtain covering a strange little door in the corner.
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.
The activists: Dmitry Chizhevsky (1) and Elena Kostyuchenko (4). The antagonists: Timur Isaev (2) and (3) Dmitry Enteo.
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.
Pavel1met 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."
Eight-year-old Peter doesn't yet know people hate his parents, Sasha and Ksenia, because they are gay.
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.
A Dangerous Pride
In 2006, an activist named Nikolai Alekseyev organized Russia's first pride parade. Moscow's mayor forbade it; he called for "concrete measures" to stop it. On May 27, Alekseyev and a few comrades approached Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with flowers. The tomb is a memorial to the millions of Soviet troops killed in what Russians call the "war against fascism."
The little group found the gate closed. Before it stood a line of police and squads of the OMON, elite riot cops in boots and blue camo and black berets. And a crowd, chanting, "Russia without faggots!" One man, in a fit of apparent generosity, screamed, "You have your nightclubs!" Another began shouting about his grandfather, who had fought in the war. Alekseyev shouted back that his own grandfather died fighting. Then the police arrested Alekseyev, and the crowd took the others, and the Tomb was preserved, safe from gay roses.
In 2007, about three dozen pride marchers tried to deliver a letter signed by more than forty members of the European Parliament to the mayor of Moscow, asking for permission to hold the parade. The mayor called it a "work of Satan." Among those beaten was an Italian parliamentarian.
In 2008, activists applied to hold marches across the city, all denied, and then assembled as a flash mob for moments in front of a statue of Tchaikovsky.
They tried the same trick in 2009, but the police were ready.
2010: Success! Thirty marchers marched for ten minutes before they were captured.
2011: Three minutes, maybe four.
2012: Moscow officially banned gay-pride parades for one hundred years.
Last year: The police were waiting. They brought trucks fitted with metal cages.
At Bunkerone night, a fat man named Yuri, pink-cheeked and furry-chested, leans in close, over my notebook. Not threatening; frightened. "No more parades!" he says. "No more marches!" Yes, he would like to have rights. "But this is Russia!" He's shaking an open palm on either side of my face, making sure I write this down: "I will be beaten!" He points to a teenager. "He will be beaten. All of us will be beaten! And we will go to the police, and they will just smile."
Elena Kostyuchenko knew she would be beaten. It was how hard she went down that surprised her. Not immediately. When the fist connected with her skull, she fell, yes, but then she stood again and raised her rainbow flag. The crowd was silent. Their mouths were open as if screaming, but there was no sound. Her hearing was gone. Then the police grabbed her, and Elena's first gay-pride parade was over.
Elena is 27. "I'm not very tall; I weigh fifty kilos. I can't overthrow this world," she says. But she is trying. It took months, hospitalizations, five medications "to widen the veins in my brain," but most of her hearing is back now, and there's an app on her computer that allows her to jack movies up to 150 percent of what you might consider tolerable volume. She wears her hair in a short black shag with high spiky bangs, and she has big pale blue eyes that lighten in to the pupils. Her voice is droll, her manner deadpan, her presence at first unassuming; I talked to her for a couple of hours before I learned how much violence she's endured since that first pride event in '11, and she never did get around to telling me that when she was 9 she was given up for dead, warehoused in a cancer ward for kids her provincial hospital deemed "unlikely" to survive.
She and Zhenya and I meet at a dull little café near her metro station. Grayish pink walls, two TV screens playing Western pop videos from the '80s and '90s—there's a lot of Wham!—and a fluorescent-lit smog of cigarette smoke. Elena's a reporter, hard-nosed. "Prostitutes, addicts, these are my people," she says. She has fainting spells, but she wills herself to keep standing: "A journalist shouldn't faint." In the nine years she's been working for her paper, Novaya Gazeta—the last major opposition publication—three of its reporters have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, shot four times in her apartment elevator in 2006, the killer still unknown. "I'm lucky," Elena says. She means alive.
She knows some English, but she speaks mostly in Russian. Explaining her view of Russia's rising homophobia, she dictates to Zhenya: "Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it's not kosher. We—" she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya—"are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don't look different, but we are." She inhales. She's one of those smokers who hold your eyes when they're smoking. Cigarettes disappear into her lungs. She says, in English: "It's our turn. Just our turn." She exhales. She has a pleasant smile.
She met her girlfriend four and a half years ago, at a lesbian movie night in a club. The movie was Lost and Delirious, translated into Russian as They're Not Gonna Get You. Mischa Barton, prep-school lesbians. They both thought it was a little childish. Elena liked Anya's seriousness and her broad grin; she liked her earnestness and her calm. Their love was quick and deep and strong. Soon Elena was thinking about a home together. "Then I was thinking, ‘I have health issues. I'm hospitalized once in a while. I can be unconscious—who will come and make medical decisions for me?' Then, at one moment, I realize Anya is the one I want to have my children with." That's when she got scared. "Before that, I didn't feel like I was discriminated against. Then Anya appeared."
She'd reported on pride events in 2009. She found it pitiful: a handful of queers. "Why does nobody want to defend my rights?" she'd ask. "Why does nobody want to fight for my happy future?"
The morning of the pride demonstrations in 2011, Elena wrote a post on her blog that would, in the days that followed, go viral. It was very simple: "Why I Am Going to Gay Pride." She was going for Anya. They would wear silly T-shirts—i love her, with arrows. Elena made a sign that said hate is boring.She put on a black raincoat, Anya an olive green one, to hide their shirts until they got there. "I was scared that at the moment I wouldn't be able to unzip my raincoat, that people would somehow feel we were lesbians, that we would be beaten before raising the flag."
There is video of the man attacking Elena. His name is Roman Lisunov. Not an activist—a family man. "Just a simple Russian guy," as homophobes here like to say. Elena's flag flickers, and then hurtling from behind comes Lisunov's fist, taking Elena's skull flat across his knuckles, just above her left ear. In his defense, he will tell the police that he is baptized. That's it. Good enough! The detective assigned to the case will ask her lawyer, "Why would she go to the street? What protection does she want now?"
They caught Anya on the metro. "They know our faces really well," says Elena. They know all the activists. "They know Anya is my girlfriend." Three surrounded her on the escalator going down. One put Anya in a headlock to hold her still, then smashed his fist up into her face once, twice, three times, four, five. Anya counted.
This was after a kiss-in protest at the Duma last winter. It wasn't like they hadn't been warned. Some neo-Nazis had posted instructions online: "The guys, we beat them until they can't stand up anymore. The women, we break their faces." But the men in the metro weren't Nazis. Their leader seemed to be a man named Dmitry Enteo, a one-man would-be Pussy Riot of the right who leads an "action art" group called God's Will, linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Like performance art, Enteo will tell me later, only, you know, more real. He's kind of a hipster.
The kiss-ins were Elena's idea. She'd been complaining to a friend. "I am tired of standing there with a poster," she said. Well, said her friend, what would you rather be doing? Easy question! "Kissing Anya."
Announcing the event on her blog, she wrote: "A kiss only concerns two people.... It does not need permission from deputies of the Duma." And: "How long should you kiss? However long you like."
Anyone was invited to join them. "I don't like being an activist," she says. But what choice does she have? "It's a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming."
The LGBT movement splits along two philosophical lines, she says. "One of them says we need to work through education and enlightenment. The other says we should stop trying to get everyone to like us. I respect the educational approach. It takes a lot of time. I don't have so much time. We want to have children. I need my rights now." Her demands are modest: marriage, kids, a mortgage. Also, if possible, she would like not to be murdered. She doesn't want to be Harvey Milk: "Harvey Milk was killed!"
"Take a plane," her mother begs her. Emigrate. "Two hours, you will be in another world, where you will be loved and needed." But Elena can't leave. So now her mother calls her after every action. "Are you in a police van?" she asks. "If I say yes, she says, ‘Thank God.' " Better a jailed daughter than a dead one.
The day of the fourth and last kiss-in, the day the law passed, June 2013, the haters tried a new weapon. It gives even Elena pause. She stubs out a cigarette, starts a fresh one, and begins to speak. Zhenya listens. "The homophobes...," he says, starting his translation. Then he stops. "Zhenya?" I ask. Elena continues. Zhenya is nodding, but he says nothing. His face is flushing.
He's 26, grew up in Vladivostok, was beaten, saw his straight friends beaten for trying to protect him. He became an exile at the first chance, living abroad for five years. He worked for a human-rights organization, writing reports on the escalating violence in Russia. It wasn't enough. After the law passed, he came home. "To fight," he says.
"Zhenya?" I say again. He's staring at the wall. Elena says, "He is crying."
He composes himself and continues the translation of the story that overwhelmed him. On the day of the last kiss-in, the mob tried something new. They brought their children. Action art. A mockery. A lesson. Not rocks; the children were their weapon. Who would hit a child? Adolescent boys, 12, 13, moved in packs from activist to activist, one by one, throwing fists, kicking. It was a day of beatings.
It takes me a moment. "Their kids?"
Elena smiles. "Yeah."
"We couldn't fight them," says Zhenya, finishing his translation. He moans and starts to shake. And that's it; now he's broken. Because everybody knows 12-year-old boys can be real shits, these are the same fights they have with one another in the schoolyard, but the hope is that they'll grow up, that their parents will teach them. The hope is always that it will get better.
At a clubcalled Ice, I befriend a long-necked hustler with bright green eyes, wearing a white NYPD cap. His name is Nikolai. He says he kissed his first boy at 14 but that it took him until he was 17 to realize he was gay. He was small in school and he fought often, but he was perhaps a little slow to grasp his social condition; he didn't understand why other boys beat him. By the time he got it, he'd learned how to beat them. Such was his coming-out story.
He was happy being gay, though. He liked knowing what he wanted. The problem was his mother. Gay she could handle, but she wanted grandkids. She made him a deal: an apartment in exchange for grandchildren. Plural. Minimum two.
So Nikolai did what he had to do: "I married a woman. I am a father!" He beams. He has delivered the goods: a girl, 1½ years old; a boy, 4 months. His mother rewarded him with the apartment, and he came out to his wife.
"I don't think there is homophobia in Russia," he says, "because I always carry a gun."
The logic takes me a moment. He means they can't hurt him, because he will hurt them first. His father, a "criminal," he says, found Nikolai on a Grindr-like app once. He said he was coming to kill Nikolai. Nikolai wrote back: "I'm waiting for you." His father never came. Nikolai is waiting. He taps one side of his head and then the other, to show the path of the bullet he'll put through his father's skull.
"Violence Is Acceptable"
There are three faces of homophobia in Russia: that of the state, that of the Orthodox Church, that of the fringe. And yet they're one—a kind of Trinity. The state passes laws; the church blesses them; the fringe puts them into action. The state is the mind of hate, the church, now, its heart; the fringe is made up of its many hands. Some use the courts; some use fists. There are street fighters, and there are polished men and women who attend international conferences on "family values."
Timur Isaev uses cameras. He likes to watch.
That's how his activism began, he tells me one night in St. Petersburg. As young men, he and his friends liked to hunt and beat gays. "For fun," he says. But then he became a father. Like many parents, he worried about the Internet. Late at night, he studied it. He watched YouTube. "Girls," he says, "young girls, undressing themselves." Using a special "tool for developers," he says, he was able to discern that the other people watching these videos at 2 a.m. were homosexual men. "The analysis of their accounts," he says, "showed that they also watched young boys." That's when Timur realized he must become an activist. For the children.
Timur bought a video camera, a very good one. He began documenting LGBT life. At first, demonstrations; then he began idling outside activists' offices, filming and photographing people coming and going. He showed me one of his galleries: dozens, maybe hundreds of faces. Some he has photographed himself, others he finds online. He is a great policeman of VK, Russia's version of Facebook. These days he stays up late at night searching for homosexual teachers. It's kind of his specialty.
I've sought Timur out to confirm a story I'd been told the night before at LaSky, from a former schoolteacher named Olga Bakhaeva. She said she'd lost her job because Timur, posing as a concerned mother, had outed her.
"Is Olga's story true?" I ask Timur.
"Yes!" he says, flattered. In fact, he is working on another teacher now. She's going to be fired next week, he hopes. "We usually fire good shots—good informational shots," he says. Olga was his sixth. He takes out his tablet to shows me the others. He loves social media. He poses for a picture, holding up a photograph of Olga he found online. It's a trophy.
How does he do it? He has connections. In my notebook he scribbles a list of names and numbers, a Who's Who of right-wing St. Petersburg, including Vitaly Milonov, the author of the city's anti-gay legislation. Timur makes calls when he senses something suspicious. Just last night he had another success. There was a support group for LGBT families. He'd been stalking it online. He had information that there would be a minor there. He'd arranged a raid.
It was true. As it happens, I had been at that meeting. The police had been right outside the door, held at bay because they didn't have the right warrant. Inside, there was a 17-year-old boy talking about coming out to his mother. For this, we all could have gone to prison.
In America, I'd dismiss Timur as a crank. In Russia, he seems everywhere to be at the center of events. He scrolls through his photos to show me something special—LaSky, the site of Dmitry Chizhevsky's shooting, with multiple views of the area outside. Timur says the gays did it to themselves. To make Russia look bad. See, he says, "thirteen surveillance cameras." He has documented them. "Here," he says, pointing to a picture, "there is a very good camera. You couldn't have gone unnoticed." He points to another. "Can't get past this camera...." It is impossible, he says. "No sane person would go there with a gun. You would have to go there without a mask and put it on there." Which is what happened. He knows how it could have been done: "I have blueprints of the building."
He moves on, showing more pictures. He slides the tablet across to me, reaching over and flicking through the images, talking about men "who are not worthy of the nationalist name. People like this..." He looks down at the tablet. It is not a picture of a person; it is a picture of an air gun, a pistol, still in the box, on top of it a jar of little metal balls. "Ah," he says. He didn't mean to show that one. I'm just as stunned. "A gift for my son," he says quickly, searching for photographs of the boy. He wants to prove the innocence of the gun.
Timur knows what I'm thinking. He says, "If I wanted to shoot someone, I would think of my safety first." Proof, he claims, that he is not the man who shot Dmitry Chizhevsky in the eye. Too risky.
Besides, says Timur, he is a peaceful man now. He giggles.
At St. Petersburg's biggest gay club, I meet a bartender in tight jean shorts and a skimpy turquoise tank top who whispers to me, "I'm not gay." He pretends, for the job. In fact, he says, "I'm a homophobe." He struggles not to hit his customers. But he wishes he could change. "I don't want to hate anymore," he says. He glances at a man who's been giving him the eye. He shudders. "It's not working."
We are walking down a long dark street on the outskirts of St. Petersburg on our way to a meeting Timur has arranged with Anatoly Artyukh—pronounced "R-2." Artyukh is the big man in Timur's circles, the founder of the St. Petersburg branch of Narodny Sobor—"People's Council"—a national umbrella group for hundreds of organizations dedicated to preserving Russia's "traditional values." It accepts all kinds: skinheads, Cossacks, veterans, Orthodox crusaders, scary squadrons of angry mothers, and more than a few politicians—Artyukh himself is an "aide" to Vitaly Milonov.
When we get to the backdoor apartment-block address we've been given, we're taken into the basement, a rec room that is filling up for a meeting. On the agenda: developing "new tools" to defeat the homosexualists. A lot of old guys, sour with broad pickled faces. Some young guys in track pants; a couple of babushkas in leather. There's a man dressed like a Cossack, like an extra from the big pogrom number in Fiddler on the Roof. One of the last to arrive is Artyukh, a gray-black widow's-peaked buzz cut squaring off a face like Sean Connery plus fifty pounds. Leather jacket, shoulders padded, black suit beneath, black shirt unbuttoned to air out a few iron curls. He says this is a private club but he'll receive us upstairs.
Two floors up, Artyukh settles behind a giant desk. One of Artyukh's lieutenants, exceedingly friendly despite the boss's open hostility, directs us to our seats.
Artyukh leans back, fat fingers knitted across his stomach. Over his right shoulder there's the double-headed-eagle flag of czarist Russia; on his desk there's a bouquet of four flags from the old Confederacy. "Gift from American friends," he says. "We consider them brothers." In fact, many of the People's Council's initiatives—including the "research" in which the anti-propaganda law is rooted—are taken from the curdled theories of the American right. "When people read it, they are shocked! They understand the gays are not some harmless people."
Artyukh says he is afraid blood will be shed. That's why he's for the full criminalization of homosexuality: "to protect the people from being hurt. The homosexual people." They have a choice: let the law walk them back into the closet, or war. He will accept either. "When there is war, you can see the enemy."
Violence is justified?
"Yes, of course violence is acceptable."
"What about actions like Timur's?" I mention the incident at LaSky. "You know about this?"
He does a perfect Tony Soprano, that little pressed-lip half smile with a head nod. "Yes," he says.
"Was it the right way to fight?"
Artyukh glances at his lieutenant and arches an eyebrow. "Timur is Muslim," he says. "Muslim people are heated guys." He thumps his chest. "Fire in their hearts. Cruel men."
He nods. He feels he has said it well. "I only pray for him not to cross the line of the law. I would not want to have to get him out of jail. But we support his activities."
"This confrontation," I say, referring to the shooting, "is that crossing the line?"
"It is," says Artyukh. But only slightly. "If the government doesn't act, other methods will be used. There are going to be fists, and then there are going to be shots."
The last man we talk to that night is the Cossack. Or rather, we listen. Artyukh's lieutenant fetches him for us. He's a big man with sallow eyes and a mighty mustache, his head shaved on the sides and a sweep of black hair falling over his shoulders in a style traditional to Cossacks for hundreds of years before Canadians invented the mullet. His uniform is black with red piping, cinched at the cuffs and above his big black boots.
"Homosexualism is a war against Cossacks," he tells us. So by rights homosexuals should be slaughtered. He recounts some of the ways Cossacks murder homosexuals. Historically speaking. "Of course, I cannot say this officially." He cracks his first smile. "Cossacks," he says, "are known for their humor." For instance, gay men "like to put their cocks in the ass, so we put the shit on their cocks for them." In fact, he says, sometimes they hold a man down and smear shit over his whole body. He chortles, waits for me to laugh. Do I not think this is funny?
"Tell me about your outfit," I say brightly. He shows me his whip, weighted with a sharp lead block. He puts its thick wooden grip in my hand. "Feel," he says. He unsheathes a wide black blade as long as my forearm. He says nothing about the handgun at his side.
"What kind of gun is that?" I ask.
"A good one," he says. He releases the clip to show me it's loaded. He pushes the clip back in. He points the gun at me. Very casual. Just in my direction. Cossack humor. Do I not think this is funny? I lift my notebook off the table. It's time to go. He reaches across and thumps it down. "Pishi," he says. "Write."
The Future, Vandalized
In Russia, things are not falling apart, they're coming together, isolated attacks developing into a pattern, the id of the street ever more in line with the Kremlin's growing ego. My last day in Russia began with the news that Cossacks had vandalized two theaters in the night, neither of them gay but guilty of showing plays with homosexual characters. One got graffiti; the other got a bloody pig's head at its door. Humor. Russia's first queer film festival was to open that night—Gus Van Sant was coming to show Milk—but it was shut down by a bomb threat. In the afternoon, Artyukh just happened to be having a coffee at a café next to the theater. He got into an argument with a gay activist. Artyukh ripped out the man's earring.
By then I was with Timur again, pressing him about the picture of the gun and about Artyukh's words. Were they true? Was he a "heated man"? Timur was furious. He called Artyukh and put him on speaker phone. Artyukh declared Timur innocent. He declared me a liar. He said he had never heard of the attack at LaSky. Timur grew angrier. What right did I have to dispute him? "Whoever did this"—shooting Dmitry—"it's not your place to judge!" He said I was a guest in his country; he said I have no rights. A warning. My flight was midmorning, but I left and went back to my hotel and packed and went to the airport. It was 4 a.m.
I tried not to think about Timur. Instead, I thought about a boy I'll call Peter. He's 8 years old, the son of a lesbian activist, Sasha, and her partner, Ksenia. I'd met Sasha at the LGBT organization where she worked. Peter was watching a cartoon, waiting for his mother. He invited me home with them. Peter's skinny and pale, with rosy lips and big bright eyes, and he does not like to stop moving. As we walked, he bounced back and forth between us, a game he called "white blood cell."
He was born HIV-positive. He's healthy, but when Sasha met him, volunteering at an orphanage, he weighed half as much as a 3½ year-old boy should, and his hair was falling out. The only word he knew was Russian for "Don't do that." The nurses told Sasha not to touch him. Not because of the HIV. It was love they were concerned with. If he received any, he'd want more, and none would be forthcoming. He was aging out of the ward, and now they were going to send him to another one, more hopeless still, where he would be thrown in with lost causes of all ages. And there he would remain, as long as he remained.
So Sasha took him. She lied to the orphanage, claimed she was single, and took him home to Ksenia, and they hugged him and told him they would love him, even though they didn't know him. Six months later, he said the second word of his life: his name. He has a name. It breaks my heart that I can't tell it to you.
My last day, in between the pig's head and the bomb threat, I met Sasha and Peter at the park, where Sasha told me about growing up in a city without a name, one of the Soviet Union's secret closed military cities, left off the map and known only by a number. Sasha is built like an elf, with freckles and red hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was a shy and dutiful girl until she saw Ksenia on the day of her college exams. They marveled over each other. Neither of them knew what to call this feeling. They had never heard of lesbians. Literally—they did not know the word. When they kissed, Sasha wondered if they were inventing something new and wonderful. They knew they could tell no one.
But Sasha's mother confronted her one night. "What do you have with this girl?" Sasha, who had never defied her parents, who had never defied anyone, was speechless for a moment. She had no words. Then she found one. "Everything."
Peter knows his mothers are lesbians. What he does not know is that people hate them. Soon, says Sasha, they will have to tell him. Maybe sooner than they had planned. One law has passed; another is coming. They are thinking about Finland, so they can stay close to Russia. They are thinking about Russia, and about how they don't want to leave.
Peter is thinking about faraway places. Over dinner, he asks me if I'll send him a card from America. I can do better than that—how about a present? "Yes!" he says. He knows what he wants. He asks if he can borrow my notebook. He'll draw it for me.
It's an airplane. A big one, so there's room for his whole family. Everyone who loves him, he says happily, drawing the wings.