New East Digital Archive

The Russian drag artists who could win RuPaul’s Drag Race

In its 11-year run, TV phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race has elevated drag queens to the ranks of international pop stars and inspired a new generation of Russian drag stars

19 June 2020
Top Image: Jenia Filatova

Drag has rich underground history in the West: from vaudeville performances in the early 20th century, to the underground drag pageants in 1970s New York. As well as being integral to queer culture and the LGBTQ community, it’s also been a space for radical experimentation on gender, beauty, and social norms. By comparison, the history of drag in Russia is little known, aside from a few accounts made to police in pre-revolutionary Russia. In recent years, however, TV phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race has elevated drag queens to the ranks of international pop stars: transforming drag into a mainstream global phenomenon and inspiring a new generation of Russian drag stars. These queens might be no less talented than their Western counterparts, but who still face discrimination, violence, and persecution at home.

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Much of this official harassment stems from laws passed in 2013, where Russian lawmakers banned anything that could “promote non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Queer culture was effectively banned from Russian mainstream media, education, or public spaces. Yet, a little like particles of glitter that slip between the floorboards, drag has historically found a way to exist even within rigid conservative societies. There are drag performers in every major city in Russia, as well as large-scale drag pageants in Siberia (photographer Maria Babikova documented Novosibirsk’s drag scene in her project Systems of Order). One of Russia’s the most loved post-Soviet pop stars, Verka Serduchka, is in fact a drag queen. If If Russian drag over the past two decades was more about hyper-feminine divas, today’s drag personalities are radically experimenting with non-binary personas, reinventing themselves as aliens or extraterrestrial angels.

But thanks to digital tech, this new generation of Russian drag stars is no longer limited to local gay clubs. Many have a social media followings all over the world. But this also means being tasked with immense responsibility — to represent Russia’s LGBTQ community and bring about social change in their country.

Meet the digital stars or Russia’s drag scene, in our special collaboration with Ozine magazine.

Lorina is my alter ego: an alien creature stuck in our reality, who lives in her own universe and doesn’t play by the rules. Lorina is a daring, fearless butch queen who will go out of her way to stand up for her girlfriends in the nightclub, and is ready to kick any offender with her red Louboutins.

Everyone is pursuing their own goal in drag. Some people are searching for gender identity, some people are building their own vision and style through drag, while others use it to play as different characters. It’s like playing The Sims, where you’re the main character and can create your perfect self — someone you’ve always wanted to be in “real life”. Drag gives you the freedom to do that.

Drag is the future. The world is becoming more free and more people are not afraid to make themselves heard or to invent their own looks. Russia lags behind the modern world, but social media has helped normalise the idea of a guy in makeup. It’s also cool that now there are a lot of girls in Russia who are trying-out drag and reinventing it in their own way.

My drag story is about beauty and the beast. Sometimes, I’m the beauty; other times, the beast; and often a hybrid of both. I’ve loved drawing since childhood, and got into makeup as a teenager. I discovered the drag world in all of its stunning variety through RuPaul’s Drag Race.

For me, drag is a hub for new ideas. The most interesting thing for me is the process of bringing personas to life and the satisfaction you get from the results. But I don’t want to downplay the physical discomfort involved, from the shoes and the corsets.

I think drag helps to express things which we suppress in our daily lives, and it can be very gender-fluid. Despite all the homophobic laws and social prejudice, drag in Russia will continue to grow and develop — and I can’t wait to see how.

My drag persona is like a chameleon: fluid both in terms of gender and aesthetics. Faeshion is all about embracing change – they live in fantasies which could last half an hour or a week.

My favorurite part of drag is the queer community, specifically uplifting other drag artists and receiving support from queer people who simply appreciate drag. The greatest challenge for drag and LGBTQ culture is the lack of accessible safe spaces outside of nightclubs.

My drag persona is gender-fluid. To start with, my drag was very feminine but gradually moved to become more non-binary. I see more more artists who describe themselves as a drag creature or drag queer, and I think it mirrors the social tendency of seeing gender as a social contruct and overcomining the idea of a gender binary.

Judging by the online space, drag in Russia is becoming more and more inclusive and diverse. I believe that this will influencing offline spaces too, which would mean more diverse artists in many fields, not just gay clubs.

My drag persona is Gena, a redhaired non-binary diva with perfect makeup. Drag is what makes me happy! In drag, I am confident and capable of so much and more. Drag has enriched my life with events, people, and possibilities. Thanks to drag, I’m not the same person as I used to be. Drag is healing: it has helped me to work through a lot of issues and problems and understand myself as a person.

We live in the country with a “gay propaganda” law, prevailing homophobia, and heteronormativity. But drag in Russia has a lot of possibilities. Society views us as guys dressed as chicks – but at least they’re looking at us. When I look to the future, I dream of Gena strutting down the streets at Pride celebrations.

My drag persona, Robert, is a sexy metrosexual, silly, funny and not very talkative, and he’s married to Skinny Jenny. I got into drag spontaneously, through going to Drag University at Moscow’s BoyZ club with my boyfriend and friends. I was a regular audience-member and nothing more until the host challenged me to participate.

I think both drag and cosplay are for anyone and everyone. Drag certainly helps to look at the meaning of gender in the new light — but it more depends so much on a person’s openness.

The most difficult thing for me in drag is coming up with costume ideas. Men’s tailored suits are more expensive to buy and more complicated to make – and I don’t want to be solely limited to suit jackets.

As a country with an avant-garde theatrical tradition, I always thought Russia could be accepting of drag but that’s not always been the case. On the other hand, it was long before cosplay reached the mainstream. I hope the same will happen with drag.

I don’t divide myself and my drag persona. I wear this makeup in my day-to-day life, save for the red lipstick. My drag persona is an enhanced, polished, and more confident version of me. I’ve always been attracted to hyper-femininity: broad shoulders, small waist, a slim physique. My version of drag is a cartoon vampire sitting in her red room listening to music and applying makeup for hours.

Just like many new-gen drag artists, I discovered drag through RuPaul’s Drag Race. I later learnt how to do makeup by doing a course and watching online tutorials: my drag mum and dad have been YouTube and Instagram. I think drag is open to everyone regardless of your gender, age, height, weight, or skin colour. Drag is a way of self-expression. You can be whoever you like. Drag helps to overcome stereotypes; it erases the boundaries of feminine and masculine. For me personally, drag was a way of accepting my femininity and gender-fluidity.

Drag started for me in very early childhood: by the age of three or four I loved getting dressed up and lip synching in front of my family. But I discovered what drag was at the age of 15 after seeing Rupaul’s Drag Race.

My drag is multifaceted: sometimes I am inspired by historical images or club kids, sometimes I want to look very feminine, sometimes androgynous My drag persona is not so different from me, apart from t that in drag I’m more fun, loud, and confident.

For me, the most fascinating thing about drag is the possibility of transformation: how your appearance changes and how your looks and characters evolve. It is not without sacrifice: wigs, makeup, clothes, heels, tucking, and bandaging your waist, all necessitate time, effort, and money. But it’s worth it if you really love drag.

For me, drag is a territory which is free from gender and gender-conditioning. You look the way you want, act the way you want, and think only about drag and thrill it gives you.

I believe that the more that people see drag artists, the more their perception of this art form and gender itself will change. Drag helps to break stereotypes and preconceptions, I’m an optimist, and I see a positive future for both drag and the LGBTQ community in Russia – although homophobia in both legislation and public opinion remains an obstacle. All we have left to do is to break through and keep enlightening people.

I put a smile on people’s faces. My drag is unique, surprising, sexy and, most importantly, kind!

I was a very artistic child, always staging performances and concerts at home. When I turned 18, I started working at a restaurant as a waiter. There was a stage for live shows and gigs, and I used to always stare at it and imagine myself performing on it. Despite being laughed at and hardly ever being allowed to experiment, I gradually started performing and soon was performing at a few places.

Gender and drag pose an interesting question. Sometimes I see people who get into the persona and never leave it, who stay as these crazy jealous and vicious queens in their daily lives. And there are guys who have become braver and happier thanks to drag.

What is the future of Russian drag? Well, does Russia have a future? Drag will go on! The audience will always be there.

The first time I heard about drag was at the age of 16 or 17, through a Russian fan group of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The first time I wore drag in public was at a cosplay festival, because there you can be sure that no one will judge you.

Drag is free from any boundaries. You can look like you want to, paint your face whichever way you like, and fully express your creative potential. Sometimes, it can take a few months to come up with a persona that will surprise the audience — other times, it can take only a few hours to go from initial idea to finished look. I think cosplay and drag help a lot of people find themselves.

Russian drag certainly has a future. I don’t want to brag, but I am proud of our community and artists. There are lots of people to admire and look up to. I hope that sooner or later, drag will emerge from the underground and become accessible to everyone who wants to participate.

This article was produced in collaboration with O-zine, an independent publication about Russian queer culture – you can support it through Patreon here.