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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker