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April 2010 Email this to a friend
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From Russia, with love

By Paul Rubio

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"Russia and gay. Moscow and gay. Neither of them mix," laughed my gay cousin, Bernard. Bernard was confused as to why, out of anywhere in Europe, I had chosen to vacation in Russia.
"I went to Russia last year on a work trip," Bernard continued. "I did not even attempt to explore the gay life. I don't even think there is gay life. And if there is any, I am sure people can never come out. The place is so repressive."
I told him I was sure that in such a large country there would be plenty of queers. And if so, there was probably a lot of pent-up homoerotic tension.
"I'll let you know all about it, Bernard," I said, winking. "You know, for your next trip."
In a decade in which Europe continues to break barriers in terms of gay civil rights, Russia has yet to extend even the most basic protections to its gay citizens. Sure, same-sex activity was decriminalized in 1993, but the country's continued homophobia is no secret. Moscow's Gay Pride parade has been banned repeatedly, and gay rights protests are met with violence and brutal police force.
Nevertheless, small pockets of acceptance exist and even flourish in the former communist empire, especially in the country's capital. Homophobia has, in effect, sequestered the majority of the country's gay population in Moscow.
I was initially apprehensive when I planned my trip. The tourist visa process was a hellish ordeal that involved securing a sponsorship letter from hotels, relinquishing my credit card information and detailing my daily whereabouts. Scarce public information on gay travel seemed foreboding. Friends who claimed to have "traveled to Russia" had really only spent 10 hours in St Petersburg as part of a cruise ship excursion, so they had no advice.
On top of that, I knew three words in Russian, and I had no idea how to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet. So I turned to the web for guidance, joining Gaydar.com to meet locals who speak English, gain an insight into gay life and arrange some "love connections" for my holiday.
About 48 hours after posting my travel itinerary on Gaydar, my inbox was flooded with messages in broken English from eager tour guides, with some gratuitous cock shots. Few revealed their faces and most posted modest profiles, indiscriminately selecting "average" for every category. There were quite a few men of Asian descent, a reminder that the country spans both Asia and Europe. Within a few weeks, I had lined up a half dozen playmates to accompany me through the sites of the former USSR.
Thirteen hours of flying and an eight-hour delay in Paris didn't stop me from starting my explorations immediately. I had a 10pm date with Maxim, a bilingual blond who was the first to write me on Gaydar. We met 10 minutes from my hotel room at the restaurant in the Marriott Grand. We instantly recognized each other.
His smile contrasted the cold, unfriendly ambience of the restaurant. He was far more beautiful in person than his bleary profile pictures suggested. His eyes were a deep, crystal blue, his face remarkably handsome and chiseled. His perfect triceps flexed below his sleeves. There didn't seem to be anything "average" about him.
As American pop music deafened us, we talked about the harsh reality of gay life and coming out in Russia, where a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy dictates nearly all professional and social interactions. Like all of his friends, Maxim remained closeted with his family and discussed his sexual orientation only with others he knew to be gay.
I was eager to experience Moscow's famed club scene, but Maxim pointed out that it was Thursday. He explained that the only respectable gay nightlife happened on the weekends. Believe it or not, a city with tens of thousands of gay people had severely limited options. We had only one good choice for a Thursday night -- Bar 911.
After strolling past the fairytale architecture of Red Square, we ducked into a labyrinth of seedy alleyways and came to a large metal door guarded by a pair of intimidating men. We descended into the basement. I was excited to enter this secret world, but neither the club nor the crowd were anything spectacular. The men were cliquey, fashions were mismatched, and the dancefloor was empty. After two drinks, we headed back to Maxim's apartment, where I began to see the real Moscow.
On the outskirts of the city center, the apartment building he called home was a vertical assembly of concrete, unpainted in parts and coated with gray in others. Similar buildings lined the streets in every direction. Untamed weeds grew over plastic playgrounds while sun-bleached dolls lay face down next to piles of trash. Exposed pipes spilled water onto the streets.
The double lock of the building entrance was followed by another on the third floor and eight more securing the apartment itself. I noticed the soundproof padding lining the walls. Maxim explained it was a holdover from the days of the KGB. I took a deep breath and reminded myself I had not entered the chamber from the original Saw movie.
As it happened, Maxim lived with an American roommate who was studying at the University of Moscow. Maxim said he had sought out someone who could help him learn English and what he called "the universal language of gay men." Maxim said he felt more comfortable around expats because he felt they did not stereotype gays the same way Russians did.
Maxim gently grabbed my hand and led me into the bedroom. His body was toned and smooth, still sun-kissed from a recent vacation. His jeans stood perched on his oblique muscles as he undressed me and looked up at me for approval. I reached down for his zipper, and much to my delight -- as suspected -- there was still nothing "average" about him.

Monkey Business
Friday night came quickly. During the day, I traversed the city, studying exquisite Russian art at Tretyakov Gallery, incessantly photographing St Basil's Cathedral from different apertures, circling the Kremlin in awe and struggling to get my bearings as I visited each of the iconoclastic Seven Sisters, seven Gothic skyscrapers built during the reign of Joseph Stalin.
Maxim, who would be out of town until Sunday, had suggested I begin my weekend without him at a bar called Tri Obeziany, meaning Three Monkeys. In a city where police raids can force closings at any moment, Three Monkeys has ruled Friday nights for more than five years.
I arrived early at the colossal nightclub, which regularly accommodates 1,000 people in the upstairs lounges, outdoor bars, main dance floor and dark room. I ordered my first pricey cocktail and enjoyed the light breeze cooling the oversized terrace. I cautiously approached the tall, fresh-faced twink who had been staring at me. His English was rudimentary, but he was eager to engage in dialogue. I understood nothing of our 40-minute conversation, but his noble attempts were adorable. Two drinks later, he whispered in my ear, "I have boyfriend. But must I to kiss you after to leave." I understood his meaning, obliged with the kiss, and he left.
As the crowd swelled, I found myself immersed in a Bel Ami fantasy. The foam party had begun on the main dance floor, and nearly everyone had stripped down to their underwear. Most were between 18 and 30, one hotter than the next, built and sexy with strikingly prominent bulges. Unimpressed with the men in Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Krakow, I had finally achieved nirvana here in Moscow.
The masses had grown frisky and frivolous. So had I. I handed my clothes over at the coat check, applied a bit of baby oil to avoid irritation from the suds, and entered the wild, foaming festivities. I was recently single, at the height of my post-breakup promiscuity, in a completely foreign country to which I may never return. I groped my way across the wet dance floor, ultimately befriending a group of young, chiseled men who minutes before were living out my wildest pornographic fantasies. The friendliness of these guys and of the crowd in general defied the stereotype of the standoffish Russian that I had expected. The language barrier was an issue, but for short introductions, I was fine.
I finally left the club at 5am with a heartthrob predictably named Vlad, who resembled Nick Lachey from the waist up and Tommy Lee from the waist down. Vlad was built like an American football player, with a broad muscular back, protruding lateral muscles and solid, thick thighs. He had devilishly black eyes, cropped brown hair and a sweet, baby face. He was from eastern Russia and had moved to Moscow to live as an out gay man. His English was remarkably good, except when he tried to translate sappy romantic lines. But his charm was unmistakable.
The sightseeing by day/partying by night combination continued on Saturday as I joined Vlad and his friends 30 minutes outside Moscow, at a club called Body & Soul (locally known as the Chance Club). Welcoming 2,500 men every weekend, the six-room dance hall reminded me of my first gay experience at Tunnel in New York, circa 1997. But come 2am, I bid my new friends farewell, braving the long, sketchy taxi ride back to the Marriott for some much-needed rest.

Propaganda and more
Reuniting with Maxim on Sunday evening, we indulged in his favorite Russian comfort food at a restaurant called Moo Moo downtown. He was curious to hear about my weekend and seemed especially interested in the erotic details. Hot and bothered, he asked if we could make a pit stop at the hotel before going out for drinks. Naturally, I said yes.
Afterward we ventured towards the former KGB headquarters to one of Russia's trendiest straight nightclubs, Propaganda, which hosts an unofficial gay night for the more fashion-conscious crowd. Unlike the massive palladiums of Friday and Saturday night, Propaganda was more intimate, with a small, sunken dance floor and adjoining chill-out spaces. The party had spilled out onto the street sometime after midnight. A perfect end to my weekend, Sunday was more about sharing drinks with new friends than unadulterated hedonism.
Russian authorities raided and shut down Body & Soul in August 2009, part of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's morality campaign. That hasn't put a dent in gay nightlife, however. New clubs appeared later that year, including the trendy Discotheque. Propaganda recently made headlines for hosting Naomi Campbell's birthday party at the Sunday gay night. Three Monkeys is stronger than ever.
No matter the obstacle, gay Russians have no plans to relinquish their nocturnal kingdom anytime soon. As Maxim told me my first night in Moscow, "The night belongs to the gay men of Moscow. It's the only time we live our desires freely. Nobody can take that away."

Moscow Gay Bars
Click Moscow for our full listings of gay bars and saunas plus some hotels, restaurants and info resources in the Russian capital city.
For quick links to the bars mentioned above see:

Three Monkeys
(11 Nastavnichevskiy Per, Building 1. Metro: Kurskaya/Chkalovskaya).

(7 Nizhniy Susalny Per, Building 8. Metro: Kurskaya).

(7 Bolshoy/ Zlatoustinskiy Per. Metro: Kitay Gorod).

Click St. Petersburg for listings in the old imperial capital city.

Author Profile:  Paul Rubio

Paul Rubio took a break from his life as a Harvard economist to document his world travels as a gay man. 65 countries and 6,500 stories later, the Cuban-American's seductive syntax graces most gay publications around the country.

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