Having served in Peace Corps in both western Russia and Kazakhstan, I feel that I can make a few general statements about the gay scene and community in these two countries and give advice for success as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in this part of the world.
Our Pre-Service Training (PST) in Russia was held in a Moscow suburb, and my work site was located about 90 minutes from St. Petersburg, so I guess you could say that I had the epicenters of Russian gay culture at my disposal. I went to a few gay clubs in Moscow during PST, and I quickly realized how small, yet close-knit, the gay community there was. Everyone seemed to know one another or had dated one another at some point. The clubs and bars almost carried with them a ‘Cheers’ sort of attitude — a place where everyone knows your name. Over all the scene was underground, yet thriving. There were a handful of gay clubs, cafes, coffee shops, and even saunas available. It was quite incredible that in ten short years from the fall of the Soviet Union that such progress was made. Yet that progress still seemed quite limited considering that 10 to 11 million people lived in Moscow and its environs.
Despite the progress, there were many things that immediately caught my attention:
1) Many of the people who frequented the club were closeted in their day-to-day lives. Most of the drag queens at the club brought their own apparel with them and changed in the bathrooms when they got there.
2) Many of the gay clubs had at one time been raided by the police and/or shut down for violations of various city ordinances.
3) Most clubs and saunas have tyomni komnati, or dark rooms, which are basically the same back rooms that helped spread HIV in metropolitan areas in the United States twenty years ago.
4) There is a lack of regard for condom use by many young people in the gay community. They often trust one another’s word, and because of that, there is a rampant increase in STDs and HIV infections in the gay community in Russia. Because the epidemic is still in its relative infancy, many of the long-term effects have yet to be realized.
I saw many of the same things in St. Petersburg. In fact, in some St. Petersburg gay clubs, I actually ran into some of the people that I had met in the clubs in Moscow. Although St. Petersburg is more of an artistic and intellectual capital, the scene there is much smaller in comparison to Moscow. For many things in Russia, Moscow is the revered center of the universe, and everything revolves around it, and that includes the gay community. Anything from fashion trends to gay web sites comes out of Moscow and radiate from there to St. Petersburg and to the rest of the former Soviet Union.
I was relatively closeted at my work site, although I was out to my Russian counterpart and to a few select students. I found this extremely helpful in the beginning since I was the only volunteer at my site, and there was really no one with whom I could talk about gay issues. Despite my proximity to St. Petersburg, the mentality of the average Russian in my community was closed. There was one particular incident in the spring semester that shocked my perceptions of my surroundings.
by Everett Peachey, RPCV
Source – Lesbian and Gay Peace Corps Alumni