If you’re LGBTQI, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it might be best to steer clear of Russia on your travels, given the country’s hardline stance on sexual orientations that aren’t heteronormative. While same-sex relationships are legal in Russia, public expressions of homosexuality are frowned upon, backed up by anti-gay propaganda legislation. Homophobic attacks have also increased since the law was introduced in 2013.
Despite this, there’s a thriving, if outwardly discreet gay scene in St Petersburg and Moscow if you know where to look for it. So even if you’re there for a quick visit, like Richard Ayoade and actor/comedian Greg Davies’ Travel Man Moscow sojourn, you can have a rewarding time.
But you’ll need to practise discretion, vigilance and general commonsense while travelling in Russia. Here’s what you need to know to make your trip as smooth as possible.
Attitudes towards LGBTQI communities in Russia can be less than tolerant
Despite same-sex relationships being legal in Russia - homosexuality was legalised in 1993 – and thriving gay scenes in St Petersburg and Moscow, attitudes towards LGBTQI communities in this conservative society can be considerably hostile. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 16 percent of Russians believed homosexuality should be accepted by society, while a study by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in the same year found a staggering 42 percent believed “non traditional sexuality” should be prosecuted, up from 19 percent in 2007.
At the other extreme are disturbing claims that in the Southern Russian republic of Chechnya, gay men are being detained, tortured and even killed in concentration camps in an effort to force them out.
It is illegal to promote "non-traditional sexual relations to minors"
Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law bans the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”. Australian Government advisory website Smart Traveller warns the law “potentially makes any action, statement or dissemination of information which appears to promote LGBTQI issues illegal”.
The law applies to LGBTQI tourists who can be fined, arrested and detained, or expelled if the law is deemed to be breached. For example, it’s advised that LGBTQI couples don’t show affection in public, or display pride flags or symbols. You should also be careful not to post any kind of material that “promotes” LGBTQI lifestyles on social media.
Tourists have been jailed under the law. In 2013, four Dutch nationals making a documentary on the gay community in the northwestern city of Murmansk were jailed under the law for suspicion of “promoting homosexuality to children”.
The VCIOM study found that 88 percent of the Russian population is in favour of the propaganda ban.
Be aware that homophobia is common
Homophobia and violent attacks have become more prevalent due to the anti-gay propaganda legislation. Intolerance towards the LGBTQI community is common and more so, according to Smart Traveller, outside of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Use dating apps with caution
Be careful when using gay dating apps in Russia. There have been cases of anti-gay Russian vigilante groups luring users out to be attacked or in some cases killed. The law may not be on your side if you are attacked. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch cautions that inaction by Russian law enforcement agencies has led to “widespread impunity for homophobic crimes”, with agencies not treating “even the most blatantly homophobic violence as hate crimes”.
Stick to the thriving gay scenes in Moscow and St Petersburg
Your best bet is sticking to the more tolerant cities of Moscow and St Petersburg where there are thriving gay scenes. Elsewhere, gay scenes tend to be underground. UK expat “John” (not his real name) tells Vice that "Moscow is the gayest city I've ever been in... You just need to know where to go."
The five-storey Central Station is the biggest of Moscow’s gay clubs, but it’s a men’s club so be aware that women are often refused entry or at least charged more for entry. While not necessarily dedicated gay venues, some bars and restaurants have gay nights and events.
A word of warning: when leaving gay bars, be aware of homophobic attacks. It’s best not to hail a cab directly outside the venue. Also, be aware of possible police harassment around gay clubs and cruising areas in Moscow.
Ultimately, while visiting Russia sounds like a scary prospect for LGBTQI travellers, there are plenty of opportunities for a great experience. To stay safe, just keep your wits about you and respect Russia’s laws.
Watch the Russia episode of Travel Man at SBS On Demand right here: