In 2018, journalist Dmitry Kozachenko and queer sex blogger Sasha Kazantseva started O-zine, an online publication aiming to represent not just the challenges facing Russian queer culture, but its joys, pleasures, and beauty too. Under the terms of Russia’s notorious “gay propaganda law”, all materials pertaining to LGBTQ life have to be labeled as 18+, and the community still has to fight to maintain a presence in the media sphere and in public life.
More and more people, however, are choosing to be open and vocal about their sexuality, especially in big cities and online. This fearlessness comes from the fact that oppression for them is part of day-to-day life; but also, from their experience of global connectivity. Thanks to the internet, Russian queer youth understand that they are not alone. The question arises: what is it, then, that makes Russian LGBTQ people different from their peers in other countries?
“One of the aims of O-zine is to support Russian queer creative youth. In this project, we were trying to tell their stories, but also to find out what “Russian queer” is and what it looks like,” says photographer and filmmaker Artem Emelianov, who was responsible for the visuals. He and Kozachenko chose to shoot the project outside the Izmaylovo Kremlin in Moscow and on the beach of the 300th Anniversary Park in St Petersburg — well-known tourist hot spots, perfect sets for subverting and reclaiming Russian stereotypes. “Bears, balalaikas, furs, and onion domes are for us just as funny as the stale, heteronormative ideas stuck in the heads of the majority,” Artem adds.
The life of the LGBTQ community in Russia is still tough, but there is also hope for a better future.
“Western culture is very ahead in terms of sexuality and gender,” says Kozachenko. “Our reality is different, but it also makes our own queer culture different and special. We didn’t have Stonewall, we have no Pride — but in these circumstances something new, political, and fierce is born.”
I am gay, but I don’t think that my sexuality determines my identity or creativity. I have no boundaries: if I want something, I do it. The most difficult thing about living as a queer person in Russia is to stay true to yourself: to dress the way you like, to express your feelings to your partner on the street. But to be yourself is even more difficult — not to conform to the pressures of society, especially in small towns.
I would like to see the Russian queer community become more united and open. I often see fragmentation and inconsistency in the views of people from the community, even on fairly obvious topics like Pride and inclusivity. The LGBTQ community, like Russia itself, is slightly resentful of others, but also of themselves and people like them. I would like to see more positivity and mutual support. I want to see Pride. But that’s an issue not only for LGBTQ activists, but also for common people. I have big questions about governmental propaganda. But I also believe it’s possible to change the world starting from yourself and the people around you.
I first came across drag five years ago in a nightclub in Rostov-on-Don. I started trying out make up by watching YouTube tutorials and performing at local clubs. Then I met my current partner, who is a fashion designer, and a couple of years after moving together to Moscow, we started working on my drag persona together.
The Russian media tries to ignore the LGBTQ community and drag. We’re perceived as sick weirdos or fairy tale characters. But I still see progress: thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there are more and more LGBTQ bloggers and role models who are able to speak about themselves and the community without censorship. There are LGBTQ-friendly places and events — all we need is great drag parties, which is my dream.
Drag for me is not about dressing as a woman, but an embodiment of my imagination. It is art and performance. I feel like my persona is not very well understood in the Russian drag community, because of narrow-mindedness and standardised thinking. It’s the same when it comes to the whole country’s attitude to the LGBTQ community. For the future of Russia’s queer community, I want safety and common sense. I would like to turn up in a public space in drag and receive positive emotions rather than curses. I want people to see drag as art rather than perversion. I want the majority to be OK with everyone being different and expressing themselves the way they feel.
Coat by Roma Uvarov Design, shoes by Jimmy Choo
I identify as a non-binary queer person. Non-binary identity has resolved a lot of questions for me, which would never be possible within a binary system. My activism is mainly directed towards members of the community. I want queer people to know that their lives and rights are valuable, and no one can doubt or breach them. I try to speak about important issues, not just in activism, but also in music. I have songs which raise the topics of domestic violence, stigma around mental health, the fear of simply leaving the house because in the eyes of society you’re different.
The most difficult thing about being a queer person in Russia is the constant feeling that you’re being evicted from your own home. You were born here, grew up here, fell in love for the first time here — yet you’re constantly being shown the door. The rise of queer culture that we’re all feeling now offers a lot of strength, hope, and the feeling that you’re not alone. I think one of the reasons for this rise were Russian feminist activists, who showed us how to fight for our rights.
Dress by Roma Uvarov Design, coat by Aprelikova Polina
We are living in conservative, Orthodox, and homophobic surroundings. Accepting yourself and coming out is a huge challenge for all young Russian gays. The most exciting thing is to feel even tiny shifts in the perception of the LGBTQ community. We are now on the path that Europe and the US started on decades ago. We are the first generation of open gays in Russia who speak out loudly and fight for our rights. Looking back even three or four years, the difference is obvious. And I’m proud that Popoff Kitchen is part of these changes. Throughout history, it’s quite common that visionaries, creators, and fighters emerge when pressure is at its highest.
We’re living through a very interesting moment in Russia. On the one hand, queer culture is in a grey zone. There are oppressive laws and some parts of society act aggressively towards LGBTQ people. On the other, the new generation of Russians is different. They are truly tolerant, respectful, and there is a sense of community among the young. The future I would like to see for the Russian LGBTQ community is a future made by us: freedom, no prejudice, with queer people being open about themselves. For this to happen we need to understand who we are, we need to unite, and form a strong and brave community.
I make masks. I express human and cosmic ideas which are based on love and harmony. Through the masks I channel ideas of interplanetary civilisations from the past and future. Everyone knows that in ancient times, masks were used to communicate with spirits, and spirits have no body and no gender. Anything we wish for will come to pass. I wish everyone patience and to yearn towards the light. Love is forgiveness.
Jacket by IS iRRELEVANT
The main thing for me is personality. I am free from the norms, clichés, and restrictions connected to gender. I’ve always had intimate relationships with men and women. Now I’m married in an open relationship, so I guess I can call myself bisexual, or more likely polyamorous. In the context of contemporary Russia, I feel it’s important to talk about these things. I haven’t always been vocal about belonging to the LGBTQ scene, but now this abbreviation is inclusive which is great. When there is oppression or injustice, I can’t be silent. In our day and age, it’s stupid to judge a person by their age, gender, or sexual preferences.
The most difficult thing for me in being queer is the fact that people openly judge others by the way they look. People hold back on self-expression because of fear. It’s great that more and more young people understand the meaning of freedom and don’t limit themselves. The Russian queer community is fractured, people are repressed and scared. But the new generation is cosmopolitan and educated, which makes me happy — although, of course, it’s mostly concentrated in big cities.
In life, as in my art practice, I try to avoid rigid, concrete statements. I like uncertainty. Personally, I don’t feel that my face, body, name, or gender reflect who I am inside. Every person is a collection of wandering personas mixed together, unstable and changeable. I think that everyone has a boy, a goddess, a gay, an artist, and a gopnik within them. Homophobic people are scared to look inside themselves and see something scary or unknown. They are afraid of their own desires. People in Russia are very vulnerable, and we’re still very embarrassed of who we are.
I have certain performance personalities — one is a hybrid of a gopnik and a gargoyle, one is a half-naked, headless, four-legged dancer. For me, total overdress and variable appearance are not necessarily about becoming someone else, but a way to let out some of my inner entities. I think if I tried to identify myself, I’d say “creep” rather than queer. Often, the most shocking and weird look feels most natural.
This year I released my third poetry collection in audio format: it offers a balance of art and pop music, and it’s my hymn to the LGBTQ community. I am queer, which is not only integral to my creativity — in a way, it is my creativity, my inner freedom, my fight with preconceptions, prejudice, and judgement. In the last five years, I’ve felt the rise of Russian queer culture: people are braver and more open to dialogue. Yes, we’re moving in little steps, and the path is winding and dark in places. I endlessly appreciate and respect the work of LGBTQ activists. They do a colossal amount of work overcoming numerous obstacles.
The hardest part of being queer in Russia are the teenage years. You live with constant internal fear, afraid of yourself and others. There’s no sexual education or psychological support at school. You just have to live through this moment, but not everyone has enough courage and mental strength. I’m happy to see that teenagers are braver now, partly thanks to the Internet providing information. I believe in constructive dialogue, and our ability to change people’s perception of LGBTQ issues. Love wins over hatred.
Top and jockstraps by SORRY I`M NOT, trousers — vintage, blazer by Aprelikova Polina
I am bisexual. I think that we all are: heterosexuality is just imposed by society. When it comes to queer culture in today’s Russia, it gets the same treatment as any other taboo subject: it either becomes a counter-culture or it’s forced out of the media environment. Historically, the Soviet Union repressed and marginalised sexuality, and prosecution of homosexuality only stopped in 1993. I think Russia will follow its own path, different to other countries, which will eventually lead us to freedom of expression. In this moment, all we can do is fight the political system, which has penetrated all the institutions and tries to make us into obedient robots.
Top dress by Nastya&Masha, bottom dress and shoes by Aprelikova Polina
Click here to read part II — shot in St Petersburg — of our project with O-zine.
Support O-zine via their Patreon here.