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“Nobody wants to go to a club that can be raided by the police”: How queer clubs in Russia survive after the country’s “LGBT movement” ban

On November 23, 2022, Russia’s State Duma banned the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among people of all ages. A year later, the country’s Supreme Court declared the non-existent “international LGBT movement” to be “extremist” — putting it on the same legal level as al-Qaeda. Since then, nightlife for the country’s LGBTQ+ community has changed radically. In early May, eight people in the Tula region were fined 50 thousand rubles ($550) each for their participation in a February “Amore Party” that was broken up by the anti-extremism department of the country’s police force. The court determined that the partygoers’ “manner of communication, walk, and dances indicated that they adhered to non-traditional sexual relationships and encouraged these among the club's visitors.” Due to police raids and increasing pressure, formerly gay-friendly clubs nationwide are being forced to cancel drag shows and prohibit flashy clothing. Club owners told The Insider that while a significant part of their former customer base has left Russia, plenty of their younger patrons still find it hard to believe that the Kremlin is serious about eradicating all public manifestations of gay life.

Content
  • “Nationalists armed with brass knuckles and bats intimidated our guests”

  • “They're even cracking down on female striptease now”

  • “I'm all for bans myself!”

  • “The club has become almost entirely straight”

RU

In early December 2023, after operating in St. Petersburg for nearly twenty years, the gay club Central Station closed its doors without even waiting for a visit from law enforcement. A few days later, OMON riot police officers accompanied by Dmitry Chukreev, coordinator of the United Russia “People's Control” project, raided the Yekaterinburg gay club Fame. At the end of February, Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk announced its closure just days after it was visited by a group composed of police officers and nationalists from the far-right “Northern Man” movement.

Staff members from the Pose club in Orenburg suffered an even worse fate. On March 9, 2024, law enforcement officers and activists from the far-right “Russian Community” raided the club, resulting in the country’s first criminal case over involvement in the non-existent “international LGBT social movement” (part 1 of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code). The owner of Pose, Vyacheslav Khasanov, its art director Alexander Klimov, and administrator Diana Kamilyanova were all detained and now face up to 10 years in prison. The human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” considers all three to be political prisoners.

Despite the repression, some establishments catering to the LGBTQ+ community remain open. On the condition of anonymity, employees from four such venues spoke to The Insider about working under these new conditions.

“Nationalists armed with brass knuckles and bats intimidated our guests”

Maxim (name changed for privacy), former employee of the Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk.

Elton Bar opened in May 2022, before the stricter law on propaganda was enacted. However, it only lasted a year and a half.

Our clientele was diverse, but the majority—up to 70%—weren't gay; they were women, most likely heterosexual. They felt comfortable there: no one harassed them, and they could get drunk without worrying about getting home “without their underwear.”

On December 30, 2023, a month after the Supreme Court declared the LGBT movement extremist, an anonymous caller informed the Krasnoyarsk police that Elton Bar was hosting events with “active gay propaganda.” The police came to investigate. Initially, they detained seven of our staff but then released them, keeping only twelve male patrons in custody. These visitors were questioned, fingerprinted, and then released.

The bar faced administrative charges of propaganda (Clause 2, Part 1, Article 24.5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation). The accusations were based on three main points. First, our visitors allegedly told the police that Elton was a gay club with gay propaganda, but they didn't specify what kind. Second, offensive anonymous reviews on platforms like 2GIS and others, where our club was called derogatory names. Third, footage from our security cameras, which the police seized.

The recordings showed two or three instances where people of the same sex were hugging and kissing. However, since the hard drive was seized improperly, the court did not accept it as evidence. On February 19, we won the case, with the court ruling that the performances by the artists in the club were humorous, not promoting LGBT themes.

The court ruled that the performances by the artists in the club were humorous, not promoting LGBT themes

A few days after the court ruling, a regrettable incident unfolded. On the night of February 22-23, a disagreement among guests led to one of them pouring beer on two others. Our security promptly escorted the instigator out. Feeling aggrieved, he retaliated by sending a video of a drag show we held for Defender of the Fatherland Day to Ekaterina Mizulina [head of Russia’s “Safe Internet League” and an outspoken supporter of the decision to declare the “international LGBT movement” as “extremist”]. In the video, an artist sings while clad in attire reminiscent of a military uniform. Mizulina posted the video on her Telegram channel and reported it to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

We gave our patrons permission to record video inside the club. Why should we prohibit it? Firstly, we don't believe we did anything illegal. After all, artists portraying the opposite gender are still featured on federal TV programs. Secondly, one can't monitor everything. Recordings can be made discreetly—a ban won't solve anything.

Later that same evening, nationalists from the “Northern Man” movement arrived, armed with brass knuckles and bats. They surrounded departing guests or those attempting to enter, intimidating and threatening them. Fortunately, they noticed some of our security staff and refrained from causing a riot.

Subsequently, OMON [riot police] officers arrived. By then, only our staff and just a couple of guests remained in the hall. Some were taken to the police station but were released the same day. But it appears that the police were just looking for an excuse to pay us a visit, as the legal case gained new momentum.

Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk being raided by the police
Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk being raided by the police

The police lodged a complaint with the regional court, which subsequently decided to review the case. Surprisingly, we were found guilty of allowing same-sex individuals to hug and kiss, and our artists were accused of promoting LGBT themes due to their colorful makeup and prosthetic breasts. Consequently, on March 26, the previous court ruling was overturned, and the club was slapped with a hefty fine of 450,000 rubles ($4,951).

Initially, the law on LGBT propaganda didn't apply to offline events and primarily targeted media, films, and literature. There were no prior complaints against the bar after the law's implementation. However, subsequent amendments broadened its scope, introducing the clause prohibiting the “demonstration of non-traditional sexual relations,” which led to our penalty.

In the wake of the February incidents, the management made the difficult decision to close the bar. It became increasingly impossible to ensure the safety of our guests, especially after nationalists intimidated our security staff, threatening to expose their place of employment — a move that would have severely compromised their safety. With our security personnel refusing to work and little faith in law enforcement to maintain order, Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk ceased operations for good on February 26.

Nationalists intimidated our security staff, threatening to expose their place of employment

The following day, an 18-year-old blogger named Vladislav Pushkin visited Elton Bar in Novosibirsk, a venue established in 2018. He recorded a video urging the bar's closure and shared it on a local Telegram channel, as well as with Mizulina. Once again, she vowed to reach out to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, it was discovered that there was already an ongoing case against Elton. On April 18, the court reviewed the administrative offense protocol and levied a fine of 500,000 rubles ($5,501). Currently, the owners are disputing both fines.

Around the same time, Orthodox human rights activists in Novosibirsk lodged a complaint against us. Somehow, they obtained our past advertising posters and forwarded them to the prosecutor's office, urging an investigation into Elton for potential extremism. Police officers subsequently arrived at the bar with canine units, conducting thorough checks on alcohol licenses, searching for narcotics, and interrogating both staff and patrons. Despite their efforts, no drugs or counterfeit goods were found, leaving the final outcome of this investigation uncertain.

The makeup room at Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk
The makeup room at Elton Bar in Krasnoyarsk

In Novosibirsk, the bar has been rebranded as “Britney” but had to adapt its offerings. The venue no longer features drag performers, with shows now restricted to women playing the role of women and men playing the role of men. Guests are urged to refrain from any public displays of affection, as such acts could now be deemed an offense under the prohibition of demonstrating “non-traditional sexual relations.”

After the inspection in Novosibirsk, management made the decision to relocate the administrators, despite no active search efforts against them. The drag artists bore the brunt of the changes, abruptly losing their livelihoods after many years in the industry. Many are now transitioning to alternative professions, such as hairdressing or nail artistry.

People don't want to go to clubs where instead of relaxation, there's a risk of ending up at the police station. Therefore, as far as I know, attendance has dropped significantly. Consequently, there's less money as well. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the bar in Novosibirsk may also have to close.

“They're even cracking down on female striptease now”

Oleg (name changed for privacy), owner of a club in a city in central Russia

We saw it coming back when they were discussing the bill to label the “international LGBT movement” an extremist organization. Once the Supreme Court's decision was announced, we consulted with lawyers and put up notices in the club that went something like this:

“Dear patrons! Any public display of non-traditional sexual relations, according to Russian legislation, is equated with propaganda and extremism. Therefore, we warn against engaging in such behavior.”

At first, our patrons were completely baffled by the sudden change in our establishment's visitation rules, and they voiced their frustration. It took them about a month and a half, until New Year's, to grasp the situation fully. The realization sparked panic, leading them to entirely boycott our venue.

When the crackdown began, I decided to leave the country. I spent a year abroad, but I soon realized that the club couldn't thrive without my presence. Consequently, I returned at the end of the previous year, swiftly addressing any loose ends, clarifying matters to the most vocal dissenters, and ensuring the club complied with legal requirements.

Typically, January 1st sees higher attendance than the family-focused December 31st. However, this year was an exception. We witnessed an absurdly low turnout. Despite being a small club, we usually welcomed 150-180 people on January 1st, and in good years, even two hundred. Yet, this time, fewer than thirty showed up. It was undeniably shocking.

Our clientele spans various age groups, but it was the youth under 25 who expressed the most outrage. At 20, hormones run high, and they struggle to reconcile their lives with the political climate. Having grown up in a freer society, they find it challenging to adapt. Conversely, older patrons grasped the situation immediately and quietly drifted away.

At 20, hormones run high, and young people struggle to reconcile their lives with the political climate

We found ourselves compelled to adapt and restructure promptly. Now, instead of hugs, everyone exchanges high fives when greeting each other.

Our first step was to discontinue drag shows. We now exclusively feature male dance performances, though they're more about dancing than striptease. Some of our former drag performers, who used to embody female personas, transitioned to male roles. We apologized to other drag performers and explained that we could no longer offer them opportunities. They weren't staff members but freelance artists with their own costumes and routines — they had simply performed at our venue. Upon learning this, their immediate reaction was to consider relocating to Moscow. However, after contacting clubs there, they discovered the situation was even worse; even boys with painted nails were not allowed into clubs.

Regarding the issue of painted nails, we haven't addressed it yet. Unfortunately, we had to stop admitting people who violated gender norms in their attire. For instance, there are a few drag queens in our city who present themselves in feminine clothing while identifying as male. We had to explain to them: “Sorry, guys, but we can't take risks. Please adjust your appearance to comply with Russian legislation.”

We had to explain to the drag queens: “Sorry, guys, but we can't take risks. Please adjust your appearance to comply with Russian legislation”

In response, we faced a barrage of unpleasant remarks. I reiterated that we had two options. First: continue as before, with boys in heels, but risk closure. Second: adhere to the law and maintain our establishment. Those who scoffed stopped coming altogether. Those who understood switched to conventional attire. Even our security staff urged patrons to comply: “Let's put away the mesh shirts and rainbow beads and dress normally.”

Initially, we considered negotiating female strip shows. But now, it's absurd: even clubs hosting them face scrutiny. The government's new stance is: while our boys are in the trenches, how can you indulge in such revelry?

We transitioned to themed parties: birthdays of “approved” [flamboyant] stars like Philipp Kirkorov and Sergey Lazarev, White & Black Parties, masked carnivals, and “paper parties” with confetti. While enjoyable, they lack the flair of our previous events featuring drag shows, contests, and jokes. Now, we filter events rigorously, canceling ambiguous contests like measuring male members on stage.

We had to cancel ambiguous contests like measuring male members on stage

We closed off the dark room, which occupied a quarter of the club. If a couple kisses, security intervenes, issuing a warning. We often refer to the statement of Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]: “Do what you want at home.”

We informed regional authorities of the changes. They chuckled but acknowledged our actions. Every weekend, plainclothes officers are present. Previously, they relaxed in the club with their girlfriends; now, they ensure no “LGBT propaganda” occurs. They understand their duty, and we understand the benefits. Apparently, during meetings at the governor's office, these officers brief their colleagues on prohibited items in clubs, including in ours.

As for the Pose club staff's arrest, we find it rightfully alarming. I don't know what those folks drank or sniffed, but they seemed oblivious to the country's situation. From what I saw on TV, they probably thought, “We'll do as we please.” And likely, the authorities gave them a public flogging as a lesson.

The Fame club in Yekaterinburg being raided by the police
The Fame club in Yekaterinburg being raided by the police

Back in the early 2000s, we made our club inclusive, catering to both men and women. This decision stemmed from the fact that our city is relatively small, and relying solely on one target audience wasn't sustainable for the business. So, on one hand, it was a commercial imperative — to survive. But there was also an ideological aspect: we aimed to bring together both heterosexual and LGBTQ+ people. Currently, about seventy percent of our clientele is heterosexual.

We've always prided ourselves on being the safest club in town. Our security measures are top-notch, and any hint of aggression results in immediate ejection from the premises and a follow-up conversation. If someone even thinks about throwing a punch, they're on our blacklist for at least a year. Thanks to these strict policies, we've never had any brawls, unlike some other places.

In the past, even local tough guys would send their wives here, saying, “Your club is the safest place for her.” But those days are gone. Initially, everyone expected trouble, but as incidents increased nationwide, our clientele dwindled. The high rollers don't show up like they used to. Our financials have taken a hit as a result.

Around a third of our regulars left the country after the mobilization began. Some enlisted, while others fled to places like Georgia, Armenia, Europe, and beyond. Within a month or so of the mobilization announcement, we felt a sharp decline in our guest numbers and, consequently, in our sales volume.

Around a third of our regulars left the country after the mobilization began

The revenue was gradually declining and continues to fall. The year 2022 was magnificent. On February 15, COVID restrictions were lifted, and people rushed out to socialize in clubs. But in 2023, due to mobilization and laws banning LGBT activities, fewer people visited us, and revenue dropped by a third. This year continues to set record lows. After paying rent, utilities, and taxes, the income is almost equal to the expenses. The club is turning from a business into a labor exchange. Only a faint trace of former glory remains. But we do everything to ensure that the audience enjoys the excitement and fun.

If we start operating at a loss, it means we'll close down. Or we'll follow our audience, who moved to other countries. But in general, the club industry is dying because any form of entertainment, from “naked parties” to LGBT events, is considered inappropriate for the current moment. Now it's fashionable to open military museums instead of entertainment venues.

The club industry is dying because any form of entertainment, from “naked parties” to LGBT events, is considered inappropriate for the current moment

All of our employees stayed. Where would they go? They need to support their families. Although we advised them all to leave the country because life is getting harder; sooner or later, the law against homosexuality might be brought back. And then, everyone will be at risk. When people ask me what's happening in Russia, I say, “Everything is bad. It will get worse.”

“I'm all for bans myself!”

Konstantin (name changed), owner of a club in one of the cities in southern Russia.

The club has been operating for over ten years. We don't have the acronym [LGBT], we're just a nightclub. If the club operates normally, people understand where they are and what they're doing. Nothing like what happened in those clubs that were closed ever happened here. There was never male stripping, never any scantily clad boys in underwear. No porn, no dark rooms, baths, or saunas. At least, not as far as I'm aware. There were no flags. Why irritate people? Everything here is decent and dignified.

We didn't suffer in any way. There were no checks or problems. When the decision on extremism came out, we carefully read it and understood what falls under it — what is allowed and what is not. The only thing we did was cancel the drag queen show. Now we invite regular artists, DJs, and ballet dancers. So there's nothing like what happened in Krasnoyarsk and Orenburg. It was really tough there.

In our club, everything is allowed within reason. You can't fight, bring drugs, guns, or knives. We have ramped up security measures, so there's no rowdiness, no fights. Everything is calm and peaceful. The police won't raid us because we don't have anything that could even warrant a complaint against us.

The police won't raid us because we don't have anything that could even warrant a complaint against us

I personally know our audience pretty well. I know many people. We don't attract reckless, fearless teenagers who can put on makeup and wander the streets like that. Our club is 21+, we check IDs at the entrance. The main clientele is people aged 27 to 45. They don't need flags or paraphernalia; it's not important to them.

The capacity of my club is up to 400 people. We have a strict face control system and metal detectors at the entrance. People cannot simply walk in; they must be accompanied by someone known to our security. This person takes responsibility for their guest, and any issues could result in a permanent ban from entry. This strict policy instills a sense of accountability, encouraging people to behave appropriately.

People mainly come to us not to watch shows, but to relax: to socialize, dance, and have a drink. If I were to introduce male or female striptease or the debauchery seen at Pose, guests would pelt me with eggs and tomatoes, and then up and go.

In our city, there were guys who tried to host pride parties for youngsters. They danced in coffins, boys wore tights, and walked naked on stage. It's just awful and depraved. Neither myself nor the people who come to us want to see this nonsense.

People mainly come to us not to watch shows, but to relax. If I were to introduce male or female striptease, guests would up and go

Nor do I consider myself part of the LGBT community. My interest is purely commercial. I'm quite well-known in my city. I opened the club because I've been working in this industry for 23 years, I know how to do it, and I can do it. And I don't plan on closing the club.

I'm all for bans myself. Laws regarding LGBT propaganda and extremism aren't implemented arbitrarily; they serve a purpose, and it's evident why. The entire LGBT agenda, along with its organizations, is backed and financed by countries like America and Canada. This aspect deserves attention. However, I doubt you'll cover it. Do you truly believe that our Russian citizens would spontaneously rally with banners demanding “Give us a gay parade”? If they weren't backed by sponsors and didn't have influential figures supporting them, nobody would be pushing for it.

For the most part, our society doesn't concern itself with people's personal pursuits. As long as individuals aren't flaunting their activities publicly — kissing in parks or engaging in public displays of intimacy — no one really pays much attention. Feel free to do as you wish in clubs or at home; there are no restrictions there. But when members of the LGBT community take their activism to the streets, advocating for same-sex marriage and adoption, it's seen as nonsensical. They should pursue such matters elsewhere, not in Russia.

“The club has become almost entirely straight”

Vladimir (name changed in the interests of the character), former co-owner of a cabaret in Sochi.

I closed the chapter with the club for myself in 2013 when the law on LGBT propaganda among minors was passed. It became clear that we were not welcome in this country. Moreover, at that time, I gave interviews that fell well within the scope of propaganda. I left Russia and sold my half of the club to my business partner. However, I remain informed about business affairs and give him advice.

For all these years, I've been worried about my partner. I didn't want him to end up in prison, so I demanded that he close the club. At first, he put it up for sale, but he set an inflated price because, in reality, the club is profitable, and my partner didn't want to sell it. Besides, he treats this club like his child, even though catering to a heterosexual audience is not his field of work. In the end, he refused to sell it, but at least he changed the concept.

We never identified as a gay club; we've always been a cabaret. Even before the arrests in Orenburg, we started operating like clubs in Moscow, such as Three Monkeys or Central Station. We completely changed our concept in accordance with the law, including our show programs and entry policies.

Previously, we had drag queen shows, transgender contests, male stripping, and a dark room. Now, none of that exists. It's forbidden for guys to kiss guys. We even had to change our decorations and remove a painting by Vasya Lozhkin because it depicted a gay flag. For me, it's a completely different club now. It's become almost entirely straight.

The Fame club in Yekaterinburg being inspected by the police
The Fame club in Yekaterinburg being inspected by the police

In early 2023, when the law [recognizing the LGBT movement as extremist] was just being discussed in the State Duma, it was clear to us that it would be passed. And we began to change the concept of the club. It was a slow and lengthy process that took a whole year. First and foremost, we changed the interior, and lastly, we removed the drag shows. It used to be in the style of Comedy Club, but now we don't invite stand-up comedians. Parody shows are still there, but it's not serious. Since we couldn't immediately fire all the performers, we asked them to revamp their acts, replacing female characters with male ones. We also invited a female ballet. And after we hired a DJ, more young people started coming, more girls.

Since we couldn't immediately fire all the performers, we asked them to revamp their acts, replacing female characters with male ones

Overall, there has been a shift in our clientele from predominantly male to predominantly female: currently, about eighty percent of our visitors are heterosexual girls. This year, on March 8th, we broke records with 500 girls and approximately 50 boys in attendance. It used to be the other way around. However, we also dismissed the idea of making the club exclusively for women. This decision stemmed from the need to avoid including male striptease acts, which, following Nastya Ivleeva's “naked” party, could be associated with LGBT propaganda. Speaking of which, Ivleeva's event prompted us to tweak our concept as well. We scrapped the “Popular Striptease” contest, and our ballet artists toned down their costumes, opting for less revealing attire.

There has been a shift in our clientele from predominantly male to predominantly female: currently, about eighty percent of our visitors are heterosexual girls

In the past, we were concerned about the potential for our show program to be recorded on mobile phones. Initially, our security team would cover the cameras on visitors' phones as they entered the premises. Although we later abandoned this practice, we continued to display banners on the walls explicitly prohibiting photo and video recording. Additionally, we stationed guards during the shows to monitor the audience and discourage any recording activity. However, as our entire club program now fully complies with Russian legislation, we have removed these banners. The only aspect that remains consistent is our policy allowing guests to dress as they please.

Many of our waiters and bartenders left after the recognition of the LGBT movement as extremist. Half of our guests, who contributed to the atmosphere, also left to live abroad. Especially those who live as couples, because any neighbor could report them to the police.

Government inspectors visited the club in December 2023. This occurred amidst a series of police raids in clubs across Moscow. Our establishment received visits from a range of authorities, including OMON, the police, [federal consumer protection service] Rospotrebnadzor, the prosecutor's office, fire inspectors, and officials from the city administration. They were all on the lookout for signs of LGBT propaganda, but by then, such content was absent from our premises. While I acknowledge that nowadays, anything can be labeled as such, they failed to find any basis for accusation.

During the inspection, the police merely took down the details of male visitors they perceived as presenting feminine traits. Rospotrebnadzor uncovered minor infractions, threatening us with closure, but we swiftly addressed them. We opted to keep a low profile to avoid alarming our patrons, yet the police press office posted a video of the inspection online. Interestingly, instead of decreasing, our attendance actually rose following this incident.

Over the year, we've overhauled everything in the club. When they came to inspect in search of LGBT propaganda, they failed to find any basis for an accusation

We underwent inspection prior to Pose and Elton. However, those clubs were clearly in violation of the law: they advertised on Instagram and, as I heard, they even mentioned Mizulina in social media comments, claiming that all clubs were inspected except theirs. They were somewhat audacious, and it was only natural that they attracted attention. From what I understand, at Pose, even without any gay propaganda, they hosted orgies and sex parties involving both girls and guys.

As for my business partner, he remains in Russia. He's unsettled by the situation in the country but continues to resist and navigate through it. My last visit to Russia was in 2020, and I'm hesitant to return. Life is too short to live in deception. I can't fathom the idea of going back to Russia and pretending to be heterosexual.

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