samara.jpgCoda Story Human Well Being 

Clubbing and Surviving in Samara

This story was originally published by Coda Story.

By Amy Mackinnon

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 600 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.

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 nonde­script 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 45 min­utes into the ses­sion, there comes a poignant re­minder of its im­por­tance. There’s a loud bang on the door of the cen­ter and the noise of some­one fum­bling with the locked door. Every­body jumps anx­iously as Sasha, 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 nine 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.”

*****

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Amy Mackinnon is a Moscow-based Coda Story senior editor.

[Photo by Amy Mackinnon]

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