New East Digital Archive

For these queer young Russians, makeup is both armour and a weapon

In Russia, gender politics is the site of an ongoing culture war that can make it hard for those who stand out. In their own words, queer, young Russians tells us how makeup is helping them break free of traditional gender roles and confront the conservatism of their society.

1 April 2019

Beauty in 2019 is about much more than appearances. Behind all the bright pigments, meticulous contouring, and power brows lies one of the fastest-growing global industries.

Beauty brands today are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with new technologies (AI lipstick, anyone?) At the same time, they are redefining not only beauty standards, but traditional gender roles as well. Makeup has always been a powerful form of self-expression. For the queer community, makeup has also given rise to greater acceptance and inclusivity.

Read more For these Russian women, self-love is a radical weapon

There are now more gender-neutral beauty brands than ever before. Still, earlier this year, a male model was pulled out of the Russian campaign for the cosmetics brand NYX, following concerns that the Russian general public would not welcome a man wearing coloured eyeshadow. Gender politics in Russia remain an endless battle ground — but a new generation of queer youth is pushing back against the country’s conservatism.

We teamed up with photographer and feminist activist Miliyollie and makeup artist Sasha Volkova to celebrate the young queer Russians who are defying the status quo with a bold lip or a dash of glitter. Here, they explain why makeup is their armour, their joy, and a valuable weapon.


I am a non-binary transgender person, or just queer, and my pronouns are they/them. My gender assigned at birth is female, and I was raised as a girl, but I became interested in makeup only after the emergence of my trans personality, my pronoun change, when I took on a more masculine image, and moved to a bigger and safer city. My masculinity allows and, at times, demands the use of makeup. Before that I used to dodge any discussion of beauty products.

When I paint my lips red, wear platforms and fishnets, I feel like a drag diva. Any makeup for me is like drag, whether it’s feminine or masculine. Most of the time, society perceives me as a girl, but when I paint my lips red, wear platforms and fishnets, I feel like a drag diva. Even when my image seemingly fits the social norm, it still has queerness and rebellion.

“When I paint my lips red, wear platforms and fishnets, I feel like a drag diva”

Despite my love for makeup, I don’t use anything apart from two dark lipsticks, a few eyeshadows, and glitter. In my day-to-day life I will sometimes wear dark lipstick as a confidence boost. Makeup gives me strength when I have to defend my rights. But mainly I use makeup for LGBTQ+ parties when I can be sure that I’m safe. It’s important for me that people use the right pronouns and perceive me as a trans person even when I wear makeup. This doesn’t always happen at LGBTQ+ parties, let alone everyday life — that’s why I rarely wear makeup outside of my community.

It’s obvious that makeup and gender are strongly connected in Russia. It’s not just about the fact that cis-gender men can’t wear makeup. As long as feminine trans people are beaten on the streets, no one is free. As long as women who wear a lot of makeup are treated with aggression or condescension, no one is free. If makeup only equals cis-gender woman, no one is free. Transphobia, homophobia, sexism are all supported by traditional makeup companies in Russia. Freedom of expression is part of my agenda as a trans queer activist, and makeup is directly linked to it. I want to destroy the association between makeup and gender. In the end, it’s just lipstick!


I identify as agender, my pronouns are they/them. I love playing with my gender presentation, and makeup helps me to deal with my own stereotypes and rethink how a person of a certain gender should look. My interest in makeup started during the rise of the emo scene. Back then, I remember a lot of people in Russia used to use red lip pencil as eyeliner, and use black eye pencil on lips to replicate My Chemical Romance.

My favourite looks are inspired by films and divas from the 1920 and 30s, particularly sci-fi, like the cult films Metropolis and Aelita; the New Romantics movement from the 1980s; and the makeup of 20th-century ballet dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava. I love retrofuturism and theatricality. My favourite products are dark purple blush, gold foil, dry flowers, and dark red lipstick.

It’s strange to talk about makeup without mentioning patriarchy and capitalism. In Russia, a lot of women are afraid of even taking the trash out with no makeup on, and can sometimes go for years without going makeup-free in front of their partners. At the same time, anyone who wears makeup and doesn’t look like a cis-woman is putting themselves in danger. Makeup is an art, and while it helps a lot of people ease their gender dysmorphia, for some people it becomes a tedious duty. Still, everyone should have a choice whether or not to use makeup, and it shouldn’t be strictly tied to gender.


I identify as bigender, and makeup definitely helps me to express myself. Sometimes I use makeup when I feel like a girl — but at times when I feel like a girl I don’t always feel I need to wear makeup. I can also use makeup when I’m feeling masculine. For me, it is an expression of a mood or feeling, and I love different colours and textures, its ability to emphasise certain features, its power to change one’s image. I like a dark smokey eye, imperfect eyelashes, and smudged wine-coloured lipstick — grunge and drama, all the way.

A lot of people are scared and uncomfortable with expressing themselves in Russia. Experimenting with makeup can be freeing whatever gender you identify with: the main thing is to be brave and not ashamed of yourself.


I’m currently in the midst of searching for my gender identity, leaning towards non-binary — but don’t really want to put a tag on myself.

Make up really helps me to express myself. When I feel bad I will put on music and just walk around the house with makeup on. Makeup is my go-to when I am heading to a party or just want to try on something new or unusual.

I love the NYX Ultimate palette, with all the bright shades. But since the recent scandal, I don’t want to support the brand. When I had brightly-coloured hair, my favourite looks encompassed coloured eyebrows, bright eyeshadow, yellow eyeliner, and blush of course.

Makeup in Russia is very strongly related to gender. Women have to constantly look for the middle ground between natural beauty and expressive makeup, and for many it’s just a routine necessity. Makeup on men is perceived as something sinful and wrong, and most of the public is not very aware about queer and non-binary identities. But I think a change is slowly happening thanks to activists and bloggers.


I identify as a non-binary person. Makeup is a big part of my personality and artistic identity. I had dreamed of being on stage since the age of five. When I used to use my mum’s lipstick as a child, I didn’t really question my identity, but already thought of myself as an artist. I’m currently working on a music album. Aside from making music, I invent different visual personas; for this reason I can’t imagine myself performing without a wig and makeup.

I have problematic skin and suffer from acne. I used to be very insecure about it and couldn’t leave the house without a layer of foundation. But I’ve learned to accept myself the way I am. Makeup for me is about self-expression and originality, not a flawless face. My daily makeup is moisturiser, Nyx total control primer, MaxFactor Healthy skin harmony foundation, and a moisturising lipstick. Sometimes when I go out to a party, community centre, or a walk with friends, I use glitter and highlighter.

My friends are my greatest inspiration, they also use makeup to create crazy characters and I love it! I want to believe that we are moving towards greater freedom of expression. Makeup is for everyone! I want to live in a world where my friends and I feel safe; where it’s accepted that wearing makeup does not determine your sexual orientation or gender, but is a way to express one’s personality and mood.

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For these queer young Russians, makeup is both armour and a weapon