Winter Olympics 2014: Business as usual in Sochi – Russia’s gay capital

Arrest of more than a dozen LGBT activists in Moscow and St Petersburg served as a reminder of the growing discrimination gay people face in Russia

Sochi

It’s Saturday night in Sochi, and Roxanna and Dolores are preparing for their drag show in the dressing room of the gay club Zerkala, painting on sweeping, exaggerated eyelids and eyebrows.

A shiny Olympics shirt, with its patchwork of neo-folk-art patterns in all the colours of the rainbow, looks oddly appropriate on the heavily made-up Dolores, or Kostya, a thin, blonde gay man from Volgograd who has come for two weeks of nightly shows. Despite concern over how Russia's law against gay propaganda among children will affect LGBT people during the Games, this resort city is more accepting of homosexuality than his hometown, he said.

“It's more tolerant here,” he said. “It's a little Amsterdam in Russia, but without the excesses.”

But the arrest of more than a dozen LGBT activists in Moscow and St Petersburg on the opening day of the Olympics served as a reminder of the growing discrimination gay people face in Russia, and Sochi, which many people call the country's “gay capital,” is no exception.

“Even here, you can't walk down the street holding hands with your boyfriend,” Kostya said. “The mentality is not there, even in tolerant Sochi.”

President Vladimir Putin often depicts Russia as a bastion of “traditional values” against the moral corruption of the West, and the propaganda law he signed in June has inflamed already widespread homophobia and encouraged violence against gay people, LGBT activists say.

On the opening day of the Games, four activists were arrested in St. Petersburg while holding a sign quoting Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination. Ten protesters were detained on Red Square in Moscow while singing the Russian national anthem and holding a rainbow flag and said they were later beaten by police.

Meanwhile, three American “Street Preachers” greeted huge crowds of Olympic fans and volunteers at Sochi train station on Friday with signs reading “Homo sex is sin” and “God bless Putin for his stand against the sin of homosexuality.” The three men were taken to a police station that afternoon, but were reportedly allowed to return to the busy square after they promised to put the “God bless Putin banner” away.

This was despite the fact that the Russian authorities, after initially banning protests in Sochi during the Olympics, have stipulated that all demonstrations be pre-approved and confined to a remotely located “protest zone.”

Although Sochi has little history of LGBT activism, the city has been a popular vacation spot for gay Russians since Soviet times, when gay-friendly bars and even an unofficial gay nude beach first opened up. In those days, LGBT people would meet at a local Lenin monument they dubbed “Grandma Lena.”

“In Soviet times, Sochi was the gay capital,” said Andrei Tanichev, owner of Club Mayak, which attracts more of a mixed crowd than Zerkala for its nightly drag shows featuring mostly lip-synched pop hits interspersed with racy crowd banter. Tanichev moved from Moscow to Sochi 15 years ago with his boyfriend “because we were struck by the tolerance here,” he said.

That atmosphere of tolerance has been somewhat preserved thanks to the city's tourism-based economy, said Olga Noskovets, a local environmental and LGBT activist.

“When you pay them money, they don't care” about sexual orientation, Noskovets said. “But as a result of the gay propaganda law, people here are closing themselves off.”

“Now I can't imagine that [gay men] would show their feelings openly. Earlier they could,” she said.

Patrons and staff see the two gay clubs, where customers have to buzz to be let in through heavy doors, as oases of tolerance and freedom.

“Putin doesn't interfere with the gay clubs; he gives us freedom. The gay propaganda law is a different thing,” said Roxanna, a transgender drag queen who performs at both straight and gay venues in Sochi.

“There aren't any problems here in this bar. If you go out on the street everything could be different,” said Mikhail, a Mayak patron who declined to give his full name. “They beat people, insult people” over their sexual orientation, he said.

Noskovets plans to leave Sochi after the Olympics to join her girlfriend in the actual Amsterdam. Like many, she anticipates a crackdown on local activists and non-conformers, including members of the LGBT community, after the Games.

“In a month [the journalists] will leave, and then we'll see what we're really made of, what it's really like,” she said.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence