Midnight is falling in Moscow, and I'm trudging my way along the city's abandoned side streets, covered with piles of graying snow. It doesn't really feel like a prime location for a party venue, but this club is different. Tonight, we're taking a tour of Moscow's gay scene—a world too many people in Russia seem intent on making disappear, or at the very least fade into secrecy.
"People go to the gay bars so they don't have to hide their homosexuality. They can be free," my Russian friend Sasha (I've changed her name) tells me before I head off. "But you always have to be super careful—you never know when there can be a group of bullies waiting outside. That's happened to me before, but I told them some story and they believed me. Make sure you don't hail a cab right outside."
My guide for the night, John (I've changed his name, too), is quick to reassure me. "Moscow is the gayest city I've ever been in," he says. John, from the UK, first came to Russia to study, and after graduation returned to Moscow to work as an English teacher. He says that, for him, coming back was never in question simply because of Russia's notorious anti-gay laws: "you just need to know where to go."
We'll be starting our night at Moscow's biggest and most notorious gay club: Central Station. Tucked into a respectable side street far from the city center, Central Station is as out and proud as it's possible to be in modern day Moscow. This building is a new location and was picked for safety, not style. In late 2013, a group of men sprayed the outside of the last premises with bullets. Weeks later, a gang released harmful gas inside the building with more than 500 people present. The final straw came when a group of men tried to bring down the club's ceiling, aiming to crush the people inside.
"It was a real shock to me when the attacks happened," John tells me. "I'm pretty sure the club now has bulletproof glass. The club is now a ten minute walk from the nearest metro station for a reason. If you're willing to drag yourself all the way out here, then you really have to want to cause trouble."
We've deliberately come early, because if we're going to risk being turned away from anywhere tonight, then this is the place. This is a men's club, and women—gay or not—will often get refused entry. If you are so blessed to be permitted without a penis, then you'll be paying for it; tickets for girls can be up to 2500 roubles ($37).
We leave to head into the city center. Located in a quiet courtyard, our next bar has a name above the door, but seems far more discrete. Once inside, the club is full of white polystyrene balls on the floor designed to make it look like it's been snowing. We both instantly pray that this floor décor does not continue in the dark room. There's no suggestion of bulletproof glass here, but the toilets are plastered with several rainbow-colored ads for "safe LGBT taxis."
The real pull here is the drag act. Tonight is a Maslenitsa special—a bit like the Russian Orthodox version of Shrove Tuesday—and the stage is decked out with a traditional Russian Samovar and food. "I have no idea why drag acts are so popular here," says John. "But almost every bar will have one. Maybe it's because in the UK there would be specialist drag bars, but here there isn't the amount of bars for places to specialize in just one thing. Almost every bar has the same things: a drag queen, a karaoke bar, and a dark room."
I start to appreciate what Alexis meant earlier in the night when he said that the official scene was "all the same." Aside from the creative floor décor, this bar offers in many ways the same music, the same performances and the same experience as Central Station, or any other gay bar I'd been to in Moscow. The risks posed to gay clubs in the city may not have wiped them out, but has drastically cut their number and the diversity on offer.
Our host for tonight, Veronika, comes out to a rapturous welcome, miming to Russian pop hits. "People like Lady Gaga aren't the big gay anthems here," John shouts over the applause. "It's all about the Russian music. A lot of the Soviet songs are really popular, too. Russian singers like Alla Pugacheva have a big gay following."
Veronika's act ends with a dance to the Soviet classic, "Kalinka." "Happy holidays, bitches!" she shouts as the song ends, giving her place on the tiny stage over to the next act.
The club doesn't close its doors until 8 AM, so we leave early again. It's been a successful night and, as we walk down the main street, John points out all of the straight bars which also have unofficial gay nights. It almost makes me feel hopeful. The openness of straight bars is giving LGBT people a wider choice of venues and freedom, and can optimistically be seen as a sign that Russia's LGBT youth aren't content to stay in the shadows forever.
Since we're a boy and a girl together, we chance it and hail a regular taxi. "The homophobic attacks won't stop me from going out," says John. "To be honest, I don't really feel scared going to the gay clubs in Moscow. But there is always the underlying worry that someone will be waiting outside—the gangs who wait to beat you up. That's the feeling that never goes away."