Maybe it makes sense to dump vodka in the street — or maybe it doesn’t. But doing nothing isn’t an option.
Last night, about 100 people gathered at New York’s LGBT Community Center to talk about strategies for fighting Russia’s new law against “homosexual propaganda” — a measure that bans most forms of gay public expression. Attending the event, convened by the groups RUSA LGBT and Queer Nation, were about a dozen LGBT Russian New Yorkers, including both longtime residents and recent arrivals. With their American supporters, they discussed ideas ranging from vodka pour-outs to marches in front of New York’s Russian Orthodox churches — church leaders in Russia support the law — to campaigns against U.S. corporations, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, that have a large presence in Russia and are sponsoring the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
We checked in with some of the Russian attendees to see how they feel about their country’s new crackdown on gays, what should be done about it, and where to get the best Russian food in New York City.
Aleksandr Bergan, 27, shipping agency exec, and Ivan Samonov, 32, telecommunications exec (pictured above)
“We moved here in July. We’re both seeking asylum. We’re from Murmansk.”
How long have you been together?
Aleksander: Six years this October. Our parents know about us. I’m lucky because my mother said, “I’m not okay with this, but I accept you.”
Ivan: Like all parents, mine were not glad that I was gay, but they said that they love me whether I’m gay or not. My mother said she was sorry I was born in a country where I could not be happy. They asked me not to tell the neighbors or their friends.
A: We kept our relationship secret. We told everybody that we were students sharing an apartment together.
Do you hold hands here in NYC together?
I: Not yet. I am embarrassed and shy about it. It’s very difficult to change your habits. When he calls me a sweet term, I still get nervous even though most people here don’t know Russian. We call each other sladkiy, which means sweetie, or zaya, which means my little rabbit.
What can Americans do against the Russian law?
A: Help Russian gays get asylum. And ask big American companies working in Russia to protect Russian people. But honestly I don’t know how to help gays in Russia because nothing can be done.
How has New York treated you?
I: It’s great. We like Central Park, to see small, wild nature in the heart of the industrial city. People smile in the streets here, on the subway.
Roman Mamanov, 30, Upper East Side
“I arrived here last October. I lived the last twelve years in Moscow.”
Did you feel the atmosphere changing in Moscow even before this law passed?
Twelve years ago, when I moved there from a small town, it was more free than now, more gay clubs than now. I wasn’t afraid of being beaten or persecuted, or to walk around with my friends holding hands and laughing and hugging. Now you can feel the threat in the air.
Why the change then?
The government and the majority of society need a common enemy. We’ve become the targets because the Russian government needs someone to remove the focus from real problems like the economy, immigration, the political system, and corruption.
Are Russians homophobic?
Russian society is religious. My mom loves me, but she didn’t accept me as a gay. She doesn’t want to speak about that.
You were a news presenter on Russian TV?
Yes. My colleagues knew I was gay. I got threats on my life in messages and phone calls. So I quit. I’m seeking asylum here. I want to still be a journalist. I want to get some education here. I feel secure here. I have friends and opportunities here.
Do you like New York guys?
I like American guys in general. They have masculinity. I don’t have a boyfriend right now, but I want one. My type is dark, a little bit hairy. The Eagle bar type.
Michael Lucas, 41, gay porn mogul, Chelsea
“I left Russia in 1995 for Germany, then came to New York in 1997.”
What do you miss about Russia?
Nothing. I brought my whole family here in 2001 when I got my green card. I had a horrible youth because of Russia’s anti-Semitism and homophobia. Everyone from my generation in Russia is traumatized. I won’t forgive Russia.
So, what do we do about the new law?
I think it’s important to put the pressure on the International Olympics Committee and also to boycott the Games. Some people are saying, “Oh, but so many athletes are training so hard.” There are millions of gay Russians who are suffering versus some athletes.
What should Obama do about this issue?
Wear the rainbow pin when he goes to the G20 summit in Russia this fall.
Will your next porn film contain anti-Russian propaganda?
I just was in Russia for three weeks and produced a documentary about gay Russians. The new law wasn’t signed yet, so I didn’t get in trouble. It’ll be done in November and going through all the film festivals.
Nina Long, 34, finance executive, Long Island City
“I am from Belarus. I’ve been in America for twelve years and in New York for nine. I’ve been out as gay probably for eight years.”
What do you think about what’s happening in Russia right now?
The situation is getting worse. Recently there was an attack in the center of Moscow, in a bar in a luxury area that’s considered safe. It wasn’t by skinheads or neo-Nazis but by regular people who attacked other people just for looking gay.
Why are things getting so bad now?
The Russian government is forcing so-called traditional values to make Russia seem different from the West. Putin didn’t really have a campaign or ideology at first. He’s trying to create one now with this family-values thing. He wants to preserve an authoritarian regime, and his opposition is very pro-gay.
Should we be boycotting Russian vodka?
It’s a symbolic gesture against an iconic Russian product.
Bella Proskurov, 44, clinical psychologist, Brooklyn Heights (Nina’s fiancée)
“I left Russia in 1991. At that time it was not a very good place. That was the year of the putsch, the coup. I remember lines for basic things like bread.
Are you and Nina going to have a big Russian wedding?
We’ll probably have Russian food. Blinis, caviar, salade Olivier — which is like a potato salad that every Russian eats at New Year’s and birthday parties.
What about this meeting tonight?
It’s great. The Russian vodka dumps got people talking about this issue. The reasons Russian Jews were able to leave Russia years ago was because of the publicity their persecution got.
What should Obama say to Putin?
He can quote Hillary Clinton and say, “Gay rights are human rights, and you need to repeal this law.”
Oleg Jelezniakov, 38, film publicist, Forest Hills
"I’ve lived in New York since 1999. I left Russia in 1996 and went to Switzerland, then New Orleans. I’m from Kirov."
What has changed in Russia?
Back in the nineties, Russia was more liberal. Regarding gays, it was more open. There were a lot of gay clubs in Moscow. It was a coming-of-age time for Russia, and sexuality was part of that. This new law is about scapegoating and pitting people against each other. It’s one of a series of ambiguous laws that gives the government a green light to do whatever it pleases. Putin is just concerned with himself and his team of oligarchs.
What should the next steps be?
I like the idea of protesting Coca-Cola. They’re sensitive to their human-rights image, and they’re a longtime sponsor of the Olympics. We can start with a Coca-Cola dump.
What do you think of the Russian lady who runs the kitchen on Orange Is the New Black?
I saw the first episode and didn’t like it. The acting was horrible, and it was too gimmicky.
Slava Revin, 30
“I’ve been here for three weeks. I’m thinking about applying for political asylum.”
Where did you come from?
I’m from Nizhny Novgorod, which was called Gorky in Soviet times. I was an LGBT activist there, and I worked on an HIV-prevention initiative. HIV is a hidden epidemic in Russia that’s not recognized by government officials. People don’t say they have HIV when they go to see a doctor, so it doesn’t make it into statistics.
Has anything bad ever happened to you in Russia?
When I colored my hair white in school, people bullied me and told me I’d be popular at a gay club.
Are you happy or sad to be here?
I’m not nostalgic. I talk to my family all the time on Skype. If I get asylum I want to learn English, get an education, and keep being a gay activist.
Rihanna or Lady Gaga?
Lady Gaga. Oh, come on.