It is late in the evening in Samara, an industrial hub in central Russia, and the city’s one gay nightclub is not easy to find. My companion, Andrei, leads me into a dark car park opposite a row of garages. There are none of the tell-tale signs of a nightclub: no queue, no music or crowds of smokers spilling out into the street. For a moment I begin to doubt Andrei’s navigation.
We approach the solid metal door of what looks like an office building, and Andrei rings the buzzer as a security camera eyes us from above. The metal panel swings open and a wave of thumping music gushes out into the night as if trying desperately to escape. We slip inside, restoring silence to the unsuspecting street.
In recent years, Samara has been dubbed Russia’s most homophobic city. In 2012, there were seven gay clubs here. Today, the discreet venue Andrei has led me to is all that is left.
Security is tight —our bags are meticulously searched and I am asked to leave my camera at the door. Thugs and vigilante groups have attacked gay clubs even in more cosmopolitan cities like Moscow and St Petersburg. In Samara, they’re not taking any chances.
Despite his ardent love of clubbing, Andrei doesn’t come here often. It’s not hard to see why: compared to the vibrant gay nightlife of Moscow, it is a wholly forgettable experience.
The club itself is well-kept and clean, but there is an inescapable air of decline. Despite it being the last gay club in a city of over 1 million people, it is half-empty on a Saturday night. A saccharine mix of Russian and Western pop music echoes around the cavernous room while couples sit in the shadows of the faux leather booths which line the dancefloor.
“It’s just the same people every time,” Andrei later laments. “No one new.” Sure enough, he knows half the people in the club. He introduces me to Obra Delis, a stocky but muscular guy, clad head-to-toe in black: black jeans paired with a black v-neck t-shirt. The tufts of ginger hair which sprout out from underneath his black beanie cap are the only flashes of color. You’d never guess that he was a transvestite.
“Just sometimes, I’d like to go out dressed-up here, but there’s no way I could do that”, he tells me as we stand under the red strip lighting of the nightclub cloakroom. From the next door room, an apt anthem pulses – Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.
Situated on the banks of the river Volga, around six hundred miles to the southeast of Moscow, Samara was famed for its intolerance even before the Kremlin adopted its current socially conservative stance. Sexual minorities have been attacked here for years, prompting many to flee to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
When a 22-year-old gay man was brutally beaten to death here in 2009, his attacker was sentenced to just five-and-a-half years imprisonment, the most lenient possible under Russian law. Two years later an assembly of local Cossacks – with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church – called for gay people to be banned from working in education or state-owned media.
The introduction of a national law banning ‘gay propaganda’ in 2013 has made things even worse. The law itself is limited in scope, and to date only four people have so far been prosecuted under it across all of Russia. But the crescendo in homophobic rhetoric as it passed through parliament was accompanied by an increase in violence against LGBT people, according to Human Rights Watch. A small but toxic segment of Russian society began to feel that the law was on their side and a culture of vigilantism flourished. Oksana doesn’t blame people who have decided to leave Samara. “Everyone has to save themselves in whatever way they can. But if we leave, who would people call?”
It is in conservative heartlands like Samara that the LGBT community is most at risk from this kind of atmosphere. The activists standing up for them here are overworked, and dangerously exposed.
Oksana Berezovskaya is the first person to call if you’re gay and find yourself at the police station in the middle of the night in Samara. Utilitarian in both her speech and her appearance, Oskana wears a neatly pressed button-down shirt, a mobile phone in one breast pocket, an e-cigarette in the other. As the legal services coordinator of Avers, Samara’s LGBT rights organization, her phone almost never stops ringing.
Born and raised in Samara, Oksana has long been open about her sexuality with her friends and family, but she didn’t become an LGBT activist until the ‘gay propaganda’ law was passed in 2013. “That law set us back, now we are like the slaves in Ancient Rome” she says, taking a heavy draw from her e-cigarette. “Second-class citizens.”
Oksana doesn’t blame the gay and lesbian people who have decided to leave Samara. “Everyone has to save themselves in whatever way they can” she says, without bitterness. “But if we leave, who would people call?”
I meet her at a Volga center, a community hub recently opened by Avers, the LGBT rights group. Located in a deliberately non-descript building in a residential part of the city, the center doesn’t look like much, but it is one of a dwindling number of safe spaces left for Samara’s LGBT community.
Avers have been forced to carry out most of their work in discreet, indoor settings such as this since 2014.
In April of that year the group held a small picket in the city center to mark an international day of solidarity with LGBT youth. Despite the fact that the demonstration was legal, the police arrived. They sent the participants home – but not before noting down their passport details.
“A month later, they began to hunt us” says Oksana, gravely. “From the beginning we didn’t break any rules so they couldn’t just take us in for questioning. But the authorities still wanted to punish us.”
Over the following month one by one those who had been present at the protest had some kind of unexpected run-in with the local authorities. The police summoned the co-founder of Avers, Sasha Kornieva to account for a supposed irregularity with her car. According to the protestors, the police showed up for no reason at the house of another activist’s mother. One young man present at the rally was called up for military service shortly after.
“The conscription office, who sent him that summons, broke the law. Because they knew full well that he has an exemption on health grounds,” said Oksana. “It was an agreement between the police and the conscription office to frighten the guy.”
As well as being a safe venue for activism, the Volga center provides a much needed social space. On Saturday nights, they show films. A white bedsheet taped to the wall serves as a projector, and a table in the middle of the room overflows with bowls of sweets and popcorn. Young visitors curl up and chat throughout the screening.
The center also runs counseling sessions, support groups for LGBT families as well as legal workshops. One Sunday afternoon I sit in one of these, watching as respected criminal lawyer Tamara Sarkisiyan leads a seminar on legal rights.
She begins by talking about what people should do if they become victims of a violent assault.
Sitting next to me is a transgender woman who is listening attentively. I see her flinch from the corner of my eye every time Tamara describes some of the attacks her gay clients have faced.
About forty-five minutes into the session, there comes a poignant reminder of its importance. There’s a loud bang on the door of the centre and the noise of someone fumbling with the locked door. Everybody jumps anxiously as Sasha, the co-founder of Avers, goes to investigate. She opens the door to a woman who she quickly spirits away into the next room.
This is Alexia, a transgender woman who was violently attacked by an armed gang just one week earlier.
Alexia and some transgender friends had built a summer house on an island in the Volga river only accessible by boat. It was a rare refuge where they could be themselves, but then suddenly a group of five men wielding guns descended on it.
One of the women was beaten so violently that she was placed in an intensive care unit with severe head injuries. Alexia has a fresh scar across the bridge of her nose from where it was broken, and jaundiced bruises have pooled beneath her eyes.
The workshop pauses for a break and Sasha brings me next door to talk to Alexia, who is standing with her arm wrapped across her chest. Her eyes dart around the room anxiously in response to even the slightest sound. She rarely makes eye contact. Sasha comforts and coaxes her like a concerned parent.
Alexia explains that she went straight to the police station to report the attack, only to find herself detained for 9 hours before she was allowed to go to the hospital.
“The police don’t believe we are normal people”, she says, swaying from one foot to the other, nervously. I notice that her shoulder-length blonde hair is held back by a rainbow bandana. She seems to be more defiant than her fearful body language suggests. Before we part she quotes me a lyric describing how she feels. I’m not sure where it comes from, but it echoes the spirit of Gloria Gaynor in the nightclub. “It’s like that song,” says the bruised woman. “The more they beat us down, the higher we will soar.”