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


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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little