"We need to unite": Meet the Russian queer creatives defying strict anti-LGBT+ laws

As shown in O-zine and the Calvert Journal, these are the Russian queer creatives at the forefront of the movement against strict anti-LGBT+ laws.

The heavily made up eyes of a drag queen

Russian queer creatives are paving the way forward for a new artistic revolution in defiance of their country’s strict anti-LGBT+ laws. In collaboration with O-zine, the Calvart Journal showcased 18 queer creatives, from drag artists to musicians, who are fighting back against this brutal environment

O-zine was set up by journalist Dmitry Kozachenko and queer sex blogger Sasha Kazantseva in 2018. Due to Russia’s “gay propaganda law”, the website, as well as any material relating to LGBT+ life, has to have an 18+ label. Yet this has not stopped the online publication capturing the beauty and wonder of Russian queer creatives who draw inspiration from their cultural heritage and create something bold and different from it. 

In the Calvert Journal, Kozachenko said, “Western culture is very ahead in terms of sexuality and gender. Our reality is different, but it also makes our own queer culture different and special. We didn’t have Stonewall, we have no Pride – but in these circumstances something new, political, and fierce is born.”

Here are the Russian queer creatives highlighted:

Angel Ulyanov, musician

Angel Ulyanov, a Russian queer creative, wearing black and white Addidas top and a barbed wire tattoo circling his head.

I am gay, but I don’t think that my sexuality determines my identity or creativity. I have no boundaries: if I want something, I do it. The most difficult thing about living as a queer person in Russia is to stay true to yourself: to dress the way you like, to express your feelings to your partner on the street. But to be yourself is even more difficult — not to conform to the pressures of society, especially in small towns.

I would like to see the Russian queer community become more united and open. I often see fragmentation and inconsistency in the views of people from the community, even on fairly obvious topics like Pride and inclusivity. The LGBT+ community, like Russia itself, is slightly resentful of others, but also of themselves and people like them. I would like to see more positivity and mutual support. I want to see Pride. But that’s an issue not only for LGBT+ activists, but also for common people. I have big questions about governmental propaganda. But I also believe it’s possible to change the world starting from yourself and the people around you.

Lorina Rey, drag queen

Lorina Rey, a Russian drag queen, showcasing her long red studded nails.

I first came across drag five years ago in a nightclub in Rostov-on-Don. I started trying out make up by watching YouTube tutorials and performing at local clubs. Then I met my current partner, who is a fashion designer, and a couple of years after moving together to Moscow, we started working on my drag persona together.

The Russian media tries to ignore the LGBT+ community and drag. We’re perceived as sick weirdos or fairy tale characters. But I still see progress: thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there are more and more LGBT+ bloggers and role models who are able to speak about themselves and the community without censorship. There are LGBT+ friendly places and events — all we need is great drag parties, which is my dream.

Lorina Rey, a Russian drag queen, standing in front of a rug.

Drag for me is not about dressing as a woman, but an embodiment of my imagination. It is art and performance. I feel like my persona is not very well understood in the Russian drag community, because of narrow-mindedness and standardised thinking. It’s the same when it comes to the whole country’s attitude to the LGBT+ community. For the future of Russia’s queer community, I want safety and common sense. I would like to turn up in a public space in drag and receive positive emotions rather than curses. I want people to see drag as art rather than perversion. I want the majority to be OK with everyone being different and expressing themselves the way they feel.

Slava Rusova, musician and activist

Slava Rusova, musician and activist, standing in front of a dotted background which blends in with their coat.

I identify as a non-binary queer person. Non-binary identity has resolved a lot of questions for me, which would never be possible within a binary system. My activism is mainly directed towards members of the community. I want queer people to know that their lives and rights are valuable, and no one can doubt or breach them. I try to speak about important issues, not just in activism, but also in music. I have songs which raise the topics of domestic violence, stigma around mental health, the fear of simply leaving the house because in the eyes of society you’re different.

A close up shot of Slava Rusova, a Russian musician and activist.

The most difficult thing about being a queer person in Russia is the constant feeling that you’re being evicted from your own home. You were born here, grew up here, fell in love for the first time here — yet you’re constantly being shown the door. The rise of queer culture that we’re all feeling now offers a lot of strength, hope, and the feeling that you’re not alone. I think one of the reasons for this rise were Russian feminist activists, who showed us how to fight for our rights.

Nikita Egorov-Kirillov, creative director and founder (Popoff Kitchen)

Nikita Egorov-Kirillov, a Russian queer creative, wearing a skirt and red socks.

We are living in conservative, Orthodox, and homophobic surroundings. Accepting yourself and coming out is a huge challenge for all young Russian gays. The most exciting thing is to feel even tiny shifts in the perception of the LGBT+ community. We are now on the path that Europe and the US started on decades ago. We are the first generation of open gays in Russia who speak out loudly and fight for our rights. Looking back even three or four years, the difference is obvious. And I’m proud that Popoff Kitchen is part of these changes. Throughout history, it’s quite common that visionaries, creators, and fighters emerge when pressure is at its highest.

Sergei Nesterenko, promoter (Popoff Kitchen)

Nikita Egorov-Kirillov and Sergei Nesterenko, promoter of Popoff Kitchen, standing in front of stairs.

We’re living through a very interesting moment in Russia. On the one hand, queer culture is in a grey zone. There are oppressive laws and some parts of society act aggressively towards LGBT+ people. On the other, the new generation of Russians is different. They are truly tolerant, respectful, and there is a sense of community among the young. The future I would like to see for the Russian LGBT+ community is a future made by us: freedom, no prejudice, with queer people being open about themselves. For this to happen we need to understand who we are, we need to unite, and form a strong and brave community.

Nikita Kalmykov, fashion designer

Nikita Kalmykov, a Russian fashion designer, sitting on the ground while an older man sits in a chair in the background.

The main thing for me is personality. I am free from the norms, clichés, and restrictions connected to gender. I’ve always had intimate relationships with men and women. Now I’m married in an open relationship, so I guess I can call myself bisexual, or more likely polyamorous. In the context of contemporary Russia, I feel it’s important to talk about these things. I haven’t always been vocal about belonging to the LGBT+ scene, but now this abbreviation is inclusive which is great. When there is oppression or injustice, I can’t be silent. In our day and age, it’s stupid to judge a person by their age, gender, or sexual preferences.

The most difficult thing for me in being queer is the fact that people openly judge others by the way they look. People hold back on self-expression because of fear. It’s great that more and more young people understand the meaning of freedom and don’t limit themselves. The Russian queer community is fractured, people are repressed and scared. But the new generation is cosmopolitan and educated, which makes me happy — although, of course, it’s mostly concentrated in big cities.

Dasha, artist and teacher

Dasha, artist and teacher, posing wearing red paired with a white polka dot dress.

I am bisexual. I think that we all are: heterosexuality is just imposed by society. When it comes to queer culture in today’s Russia, it gets the same treatment as any other taboo subject: it either becomes a counter-culture or it’s forced out of the media environment. Historically, the Soviet Union repressed and marginalised sexuality, and prosecution of homosexuality only stopped in 1993. I think Russia will follow its own path, different to other countries, which will eventually lead us to freedom of expression. In this moment, all we can do is fight the political system, which has penetrated all the institutions and tries to make us into obedient robots.

Dagnini, artist

Dagnini, artist, wearing signature four arm style. Two hands on knees while the other two rest on men's shoulders.

In life, as in my art practice, I try to avoid rigid, concrete statements. I like uncertainty. Personally, I don’t feel that my face, body, name, or gender reflect who I am inside. Every person is a collection of wandering personas mixed together, unstable and changeable. I think that everyone has a boy, a goddess, a gay, an artist, and a gopnik within them. Homophobic people are scared to look inside themselves and see something scary or unknown. They are afraid of their own desires. People in Russia are very vulnerable, and we’re still very embarrassed of who we are.

I have certain performance personalities — one is a hybrid of a gopnik and a gargoyle, one is a half-naked, headless, four-legged dancer. For me, total overdress and variable appearance are not necessarily about becoming someone else, but a way to let out some of my inner entities. I think if I tried to identify myself, I’d say “creep” rather than queer. Often, the most shocking and weird look feels most natural.

Dimitri Shabalin, artist

Dimitri Shablain, Russian queer artist, wearing a black mask over one half of face.

I make masks. I express human and cosmic ideas which are based on love and harmony. Through the masks I channel ideas of interplanetary civilisations from the past and future. Everyone knows that in ancient times, masks were used to communicate with spirits, and spirits have no body and no gender. Anything we wish for will come to pass. I wish everyone patience and to yearn towards the light. Love is forgiveness.

Gleb Osipov, poet and performer

Gleb Osipov, poet and performer, wearing a candelabra-esque earrings.

This year I released my third poetry collection in audio format: it offers a balance of art and pop music, and it’s my hymn to the LGBT+ community. I am queer, which is not only integral to my creativity — in a way, it is my creativity, my inner freedom, my fight with preconceptions, prejudice, and judgement. In the last five years, I’ve felt the rise of Russian queer culture: people are braver and more open to dialogue. Yes, we’re moving in little steps, and the path is winding and dark in places. I endlessly appreciate and respect the work of LGBTQ activists. They do a colossal amount of work overcoming numerous obstacles.

The hardest part of being queer in Russia are the teenage years. You live with constant internal fear, afraid of yourself and others. There’s no sexual education or psychological support at school. You just have to live through this moment, but not everyone has enough courage and mental strength. I’m happy to see that teenagers are braver now, partly thanks to the Internet providing information. I believe in constructive dialogue, and our ability to change people’s perception of LGBTQ issues. Love wins over hatred.

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In August, another one of the Russian queer creatives O-zine spoke to was makeup artist and ‘drag experimenter’ Maya Reyes, the Goddess of Reincarnation, from Ulyanovsk. Their makeup style is visually stunning, describing drag and makeup as “part of me.” Each photo they post on Instagram tells an intricate story, empowered by rich symbolism.

As part of a recent Russian queer creatives article, Khatima Mutaeva interviewed the father of the Russian Alexander Zalupin – a pioneer of the gay chanson style of singing. Gay chanson, as described by Zalupin, “gave a voice to the one who was silent before – a homosexual prisoner… I believe that the prison of modern beliefs and prejudices will also be destroyed, and we will all be released from prison, no matter who we are.”

Publications such as O-zine and the many Russian queer creatives are making themselves known through online platforms. Finding a community across the digital space as a means to let their art be seen and heard in a powerful declaration of presence. Their voices, vision and defiance is a sign of hope within this hostile environment.

A group shot of the Russian queer creatives who took part in the O-zine and the Calvert Journal collaboration.

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