Heading to Russia for the world cup? Here’s some tips to make sure you’re safe during your travels.
During the World Cup, Russia are opening their usually strict visa requirements to allow anyone (even those not attending World Cup events) to visit the country and travel freely for the duration of the competition. Nevertheless, laws against LGBTQ+ propaganda and reports of gay men being tortured in Chechnya make it hard to decide whether it’s worth visiting the world’s largest country if you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
We spoke with Rainbow Future, a gay rights organisation based in St Petersburg about how you can stay safe in Russia when you visit and what to do when you are there.
Is it safe?
According to Rainbow Future, “Russia is a beautiful country in many ways and is definitely worth visiting – however the situation is quite difficult, and all the visitors should be aware of that. I am sure the Russian authorities will do their best to protect tourists, especially during the World Cup, but unfortunately the state sponsored homophobia created a situation where the level of violence and aggression against LGBT is very high.”
The law in Russia states that you can be arrested for LGBT propaganda and its interpretation can be very loose. In 2013, Dutch tourists were imprisoned for filming a documentary about the gay community in Murmansk. They were accused of promoting homosexuality to children. It is therefore advised to be discreet when visiting as an LGBT person and to stick to the main gay hubs in Moscow and St Petersburg.
In terms of local opinion, around 88% of Russians support the ban on gay propaganda and about 54% believe it should be banned or prosecuted. Many of the issues faced by LGBT+ visitors to Russia are instigated by locals and gang members rather than the law. So how can you interact with other members of the community?
Meeting other LGBT+ People
There have been some concerns raised about the use of gay dating apps in Russia. Rainbow Future believe “the safest way would be to communicate at the LGBT venues. The apps for dating are also popular in Russia but homophobic groups often use them to find people to humiliate or blackmail.” Attackers often post videos of this homophobic abuse online and the Russian authorities are unlikely to take action against offences driven by homophobia.
Extra caution should be taken when using Grindr and similar apps – meet in a mutual location, ask for social profiles and remain vigilant at all times. The best option still remains not to use the apps and to meet other gay people in the major venues in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Despite the large levels of discrimination, the gay scenes in Moscow and St Petersburg are still relatively vibrant. “There are many different places with different shows, and those spaces are relatively safe (sometimes there can be police inspections)” say Rainbow Future, “but people should be careful when they are going in or leaving. I would suggest using taxis.”
Try to get a taxi a little bit away from the venue if you can to avoid harassment from drivers and the police and always exercise caution in the areas surrounding the bars.
Some of the best places to go in Moscow include:
Central Station: The main gay bar in Moscow. The venue was relocated to a safer location in 2013 due to gas and bullet attacks in their city centre location. It has been incident free ever since, but do still be careful when entering and leaving. Like many gay bars in the rest of the world, Central Station offers drag shows, popular music and a colourful interior. There are also posters with LGBT safe taxi numbers and staff can also advise you further on getting around the city.
12 Volts Night Bar: Many of the gay bars in Moscow will only accept men or will at least charge women considerably more. 12 Volts is mostly a Lesbian bar but accommodates everyone from the LGBT+ spectrum. It is a tad old fashioned, but is a safe space for meeting others from the community.
LGBT Friendly Tours: Gay.ru, AirBnB Experiences and other online vendors offer a variety of LGBT+ tours of Moscow that you can book before you arrive or whilst you are already there. These tour guides are experienced and can show you the queer highlights of the city in a safe way.
Please be aware that though Pride events do occur in Moscow, the official event was banned by the government and there will likely be trouble from both the police and local citizens
In St Petersburg, the main gay bar is also called Central Station and tends to attract an older crowd and is open 24/7.
For a younger feel, try Blue Oyster bar just around the corner in the same building. They have a floor dedicated to trance, cheaper drinks and a music-free room for relaxing with the local LGBT+ community.
In general, the advice remains to stay discreet and vigilant whilst visiting Russia. Though the gay scenes are centred in Moscow and St Petersburg, you can still visit other cities within the country if you are happy to stick to the regular tourist activities or if you know a local that can show you the underground scenes. Steer clear of the Caucasus regions, particularly Chechnya, and avoid engaging in discussions about LGBT+ issues with locals publicly.