LGBT HOLIDAYS IN RUSSIA – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE?

Despite lifting her iron clad apron during the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Football World Cup, not everyone has experienced a warm invitation into Mother Russia’s traditional family home. Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia. However, under the 2013 Propaganda Law, introduced by President Putin, it is illegal to promote 'non-traditional sexual relationships' in the presence of minors. This means there are no legal gay pride events and speaking openly about gay rights can result in a fine, 15 days’ detainment and/or deportation.
I want everyone to understand that in Russia there are no infringements on sexual minorities' rights. They're people, just like everyone else, and they enjoy full rights and freedoms.
– President Putin speaking in Amsterdam, April 2013
When compared to other countries’ anti-gay laws the Propaganda Rule may not appear all that bad. Don’t be fooled; it has alienated Russia's gay communities and depicted LGBT lifestyles as the antithesis to traditional Russian family values. It has also given traditionally macho male patriarchs a metaphorical birch with which to beat their sons’, and daughters’, backs. Fear of the liberal West infiltrating young, impressionable minds is basically the horse that Putin rode to power on. That, and the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which anywhere between 40 and 70 percent of Russians identify with. The LGBT community has been turned into a tangible target for anyone with a slight mistrust of the West, and foreigners can be vulnerable; in 2013, four Dutch visitors were jailed for making a film of LGBT life in the city of Murmansk. It's not hard to see how this ‘fear’ has been perpetrated. As state sponsored media stations play upon nostalgic nationalism and paint a rosy picture of Soviet times past, Russia has never looked so far adrift from the rest of Europe.
A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women's and gay rights.
– Andrew Higgins, Moscow correspondent for The New York Times
During Soviet times, Russia's approach to sex, in general, was strictly private. Don't ask, don't tell. After the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s attitudes started to soften. Newly liberated countries, such as Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, began to reset their moral compass. However, the sexual revolution in Russia wasn't adopted with quite the same level of permanence. Hate crimes against the LGBT community, particularly gay men, have continued to rise since the introduction of the Propaganda Law, and many more will have gone unreported. Perpetrators are far from fearful of being punished for their actions, as police often turn a blind eye or won't openly recognise an assault as being connected to a hate crime. In Chechnya, under the blessing of the Kremlin, a whole new set of rules apply. The ultra conservative state supports violence towards the LGBT community and encourages 'honour killings' by members of the victim's own family. As Putin has another six years in office since his largely uncontested win in 2018, this anti gay philosophy, no matter how many sporting events Russia hosts, ain't going away any time soon.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE LGBT COMMUNITY

It would be wrong to consider all of Russia to be vehemently anti gay. It’s a vast country, and Russians aren't all stony faced stereotypes, either. Remember the spoof footage of the near naked air cadets twerking and gyrating to the Benny Benassi club classic tune 'Satisfaction'? After posting on social media they found themselves in hot water and all but hung out to dry in the Russian media. However, parts of the Russian public hit back. College students, military cadets and even a couple of St Petersburg pensioners copied the performance in online protests across the country. The Kremlin was silenced and eventually backed down from earlier calls for expulsions. State prosecutors even admitted that there was actually nothing illegal about what the cadets had posted, and it turned out that the majority of Russians weren't all that bothered. Was it really that different to watching a bare chested Putin riding bareback on a pony?

Despite the findings of British TV presenters, such as Reggie Yates in his Extreme Russia – Gay and Under Attack documentary produced by the BBC in 2015, the majority of Russians aren’t violent and wouldn’t wish harm on the LGBT community or anyone else – especially visitors to their country. However, conservative attitudes persist. Opinion polls taken when the Propaganda Law was being discussed in 2012 found less than 10 percent of Russians opposed the law, and nearly two thirds of all Russians considered homosexuality ‘morally unacceptable and worth condemning’. By 2015, an independent survey on homophobia found more than 80 percent of those surveyed were still in favour of the law banning homosexual propaganda.

The LGBT community in Russia has a voice. There are also plenty of 'gay-friendly' clubs and same sex nights in Moscow and St Petersburg. Women only nights in the capital are becoming increasingly popular. Venues will often have a double life turning from an everyday establishment by day into something quite different after dark. This is how it works in Russia. You need to know the right people, the places to go and how things operate before you can truly feel comfortable. Mobile phone apps allow for more discrete hook ups although reports of fake accounts encourage an air of caution, especially for those not tuned into the telltale signs. Don't think that just because the police or security services are patrolling nearby that your safety is guaranteed, either; far from it. Vigilance, discretion and caution are the key watch words in Russia.
Conformism and passivism are now behind us. We managed to generate passion and hope this finds its way into the hearts of many LGBT people in Russia and to revive the spirit of activism.
– Nikolay Alexeyev, Russian LGBT rights activist, lawyer, and journalist
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about LGBT or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

HOW TO STAY SAFE

It’s best to avoid openly displaying your sexuality. Don’t hold hands in public or display any outward shows of affection, especially in cities and towns outside of St Petersburg and Moscow, and don’t wear 'openly out apparel' (pride badges, rainbow flags etc.. It is not advisable to discuss anti gay laws and attitudesin public or with people you don’t know.
You should have no problem booking a double room for a same sex couple in a large city hotel although the further you get from St Petersburg and Moscow, the more staff eyebrows will rise. Avoid pro-LGBT protests, demonstrations and marches as these are magnets for far right groups; don’t expect protection from police or security services attending these events.
If you are checking out the scene in Moscow or St Petersburg be careful when you’re leaving a premises, especially at night. Book a taxi with a trusted firm in advance and be sure to arrange a safe place to pick up and drop off. Basically, if you are looking to investigate Moscow’s and St Petersburg’s gay scenes be discreet and don’t take risks when it comes to partying or meeting people that you don’t know.
Read the British Government’s LGBT foreign travel advice.

LGBT TRAVEL IN RUSSIA

Russia is vast, and attitudes vary across its expanse as much as the landscape. Sightseeing with a small group in Moscow and St Petersburg will bring you into close contact with urban Russians, while on cruises around Russia’s Far East, you’ll encounter little more than Arctic wildlife. Taking the Trans Siberian Railway will take you across remote tundra, of course – but it will also place you in close proximity to Russians living and working in rural areas, who use the train to commute and visit family. For same sex couples considering this as a vacation, it’s definitely best to have an open and honest chat with your tour company to gauge their opinions.

It’s completely understandable that many LGBT – and non-LGBT – travelers would be keen to boycott Russia. However, we don’t believe anyone should ever be prevented from exploring a country as a result of their gender or sexual preferences. If you do want to visit, don’t be put off.

Do your research; talk to tour operators. All of our tour operators are LGBT friendly and they will be the best people to speak to regarding staying safe and traveling with confidence in Russia. Companies should ensure that accommodation owners, especially outside St Petersburg and Moscow, are happy to host a same sex couple sharing a double room prior to booking. Finding out more about local culture and traditional customs is fundamental to having a deeper traveling experience, wherever you are in the world, and Russia is no different. Learn a few key phrases before you leave and tailor a tour to include a gay-friendly local guide or join a small guided group. Your tour operator, and guide, will be able to tell you where’s safe to visit and where is safer avoiding – Chechnya, for instance. If you’re not sure about accommodation or if a situation makes you uncomfortable, an emergency contact number, to someone that you trust, can be invaluable.
Sources:
Reuters: www.reuters.com
BBC: www.bbc.co.uk
Levada Center: www.levada.ru
New York Times: www.nytimes.com

Further reading:
The Guardian website: www.theguardian.com
Read more in our guide to LGBT vacations
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: torbakhopper] [Topbox: Alexei Kouprianov] [Police : Marco Verch] [Manezhnaya Square, Moscow: Oner TokapeB]
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