It’s not that difficult to meet LGBT people in Moscow as Keph Sennet discovered when she visited the Russian capital
You’ve seen the iconic landmarks: the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (where Pussy Riot was arrested), the colourful spires of St Basil’s Cathedral (in front of which Tilda Swinton famously unfurled a rainbow flag), and the Kremlin. This is Moscow — at once beautiful and imposing.
There are many reasons why you might wish to visit — perhaps you’re curious about the largest country on earth, and maybe you want to connect with this LGBT community, one of the most marginalised in the world—and you should. Moscow is a handsome place, rich in history, and shaped by politics. It’s also home to scores of interesting, thoughtful, creative people, many of which are LGBT. Go meet them. Here’s what you need to know.
Before you can enter Russia, you’ll be required to get a visa, and the application is thorough. Expect to be asked standard questions about your criminal record and employment, and not-so standard questions about your community or political affiliations. You’ll need to book in advance which will allow you to get a tourist invitation, required for your visa. All of this can take some time. While you’re waiting, start getting to know some LGBT Muscovites.
Gay men should try Gay Russia, Gay.ru, Planet Romeo, and Moscow Bears. Dating and hook-up apps like Grindr and Hornet are also useful. As always online, you’ll need to exercise caution and common sense, but social networks are a key way to connect. For lesbians, it’s a bit more difficult, but searching on Facebook and VK (known as “Russian Facebook”) for lesbian clubs and events will get you started.
Once you’re on the ground, your new Russian acquaintances are going to be able to give up-to-date information on venues and events, and to help you navigate the city. Gay clubs often relocate, and even established clubs are usually unmarked (and even if they weren’t, you’d have to be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet).
Speaking of Cyrillic, you’ll probably want to load your phone with a translation app (Google’s works well), and a Moscow Metro app. Use one that shows the stations in Cyrillic and English, and avail yourself of one of the best transportation systems in the world. You’ll need it — Moscow does not have a gay area, and LGBT venues are scattered throughout the city — but you’ll find that the journey is as interesting as the destination. Built in several phases in the early part of the 20th century, the stations are themselves magnificent examples of Stalinist architecture, and contain mosaic and frescoes depicting bygone eras in Russian history.
Gay and lesbian bars are the most common meeting places, and they’re also relatively safe*. Be prepared to pass security on the way in, and don’t bring a camera (in some venues photography is forbidden). Gay men looking for a nightclub experience should try Propaganda (Metro Kitay Gorod) on Sunday nights or Chance (Metro Polezhayevskaya); Numbers near Metro Pushkinskaya is a bear bar. Ustritsa (Oyster, in English) is a multi-level lesbian bar located near Metro Novoslobodskaya, and for late-night/early morning dancing, the women move to Enjoy Night, near Metro Ulitsa 1905 Goda.
There’s a long tradition in Russia of going to the banya (sauna), and there’s no reason why LGBT travellers shouldn’t partake. Anyone not blatantly looking for sex can choose between single-sex and mixed spaces, but for men seeking a gay establishment, try Mayakovka Spa (Metro Mayakovskaya), Voda (Metro Frunzenskaya), or Nashe Spa (Metro Krasnye Vorota).
If your time is limited, centre your sightseeing around Red Square (Metro Ohotnii Ryad, Teatralnaya, or Ploshad Revolutsii). For a show of militaristic precision watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the north end, and then enter through the gates. Red Square, so named after the word kransiy, meaning beautiful, is the largest public square in the world, and it would be easy to spend several hours there.
There are guided tours inside the Kremlin, or you can explore on your own. The entrance to Lenin’s Mausoleum is on the east side of the Square and admission is free, but you’ll have to leave your cameras and electronics outside. When you emerge, you’ll be only yards away from St. Basil’s Cathedral, and a shopping mall that takes up the western side of the square. If you need help, there’s a tourist information counter outside of the main gates and several paces to the west.
With a bit more time to your itinerary, you may want to take in some of the finest ballet and opera in the world at the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre (Metro Teatralnaya), or spend some time at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum (Metro Kropotskinskaya).
*A note on safety: Russia’s current anti-gay propaganda law has contributed to hostility against the LGBT community in Moscow. However, people are more concerned with what goes on in public than in LGBT spaces. Kissing, holding hands, or other kinds of public displays of affection are completely taboo, but once in the club, LGBT people can socialise freely.