4 min

Army of lovers

Prostitution is the preferred income supplement for Russia's low paid soldiers

MOSCOW MULES. Communist leader Stalin would be surprised what a solidier will do for 100 rubles. Credit: Xtra files

Before his service in the army, Sergei, 20, could not even begin to imagine that a man could have sex with another man.

Born and raised in a small remote town of the Russian Siberia, he had heard there was a “pidaras” – a rude word for homosexual – in a neighbouring town, but could not imagine his own connection to homosexuality.

When he turned 18, Sergei (the names of the soldiers and their clients have been changed for this story) found himself serving in Moscow. Before he was able to think too much about the low military pay (100 rubles, which is about $3 a month), his sergeant brought it to his attention, and explained to him about the business of supplementing his income.

“He told us about gay places: clubs, cruising areas where men go for sex,” Sergei says. “‘Gays will pay 100 rubles for almost nothing but it is possible to earn as much as 500 rubles if you are ready for anything,’ he told us. He says it was easy money. It is almost a traditional business having been done by many previous drafts serving in Moscow.”

Part of the money earned had to be given to the sergeant.

It’s one of the secrets of life in the Russian military that there is no official tolerance for open homosexuality, but, as part of the underground, it is an essential part of the package.

Prostitution in the military mirrors the strange way homosexuality fits into Russian culture.

“Like democracy and the rule of law, the closet was probably one of those Western ideas that Russians adopted even as they strongly suspected it was a sham,” writes the English language Moscow alternative magazine, Exile. “Laws barring civilians from practicing sodomy were eventually introduced into Tsarist Russia, but few people were ever prosecuted for it, and bisexuality among the Russian upper classes was common. By the late 1800s, the Russian army, particularly the Dragoon regiments, had become a celebrated haven for gay orgies.”

Things changed when Communism took over. Revolutionary leader Stalin’s Article 121, passed in 1934, prohibited male homosexuality, a dictum that lasted until Communism collapsed and the law was rescinded in 1993. It has been suggested that, in the 1980s, as many as 1,000 men a year were arrested for homosexual acts (lesbianism was not acknowledged in Article 121).

When US writer David Tuller visited Russia in 1991, he was surprised by attitudes about masculinity and homosexuality.

“I was… confused by the married ones, or those who had been married, or planned to marry, or simply slept from time to time with members of the opposite sex – all of whom fell outside my standard definitions of the gay and lesbian categories,” writes Tuller in his book, Cracking The Iron Closet. “While some of the Russians complained bitterly about the need to live a double life, a great many discussed their heterosexual liaisons with a nonchalance and freedom that startled me, steeped as I was in a deep distrust of bisexuality as a fraudulent pose.”

When Sergei’s sergeant told him he was expected to trick to make ends meet, he felt he had no choice.

“Everybody did it so I had to,” he says.

The same happened to Andrei who came to serve in Moscow from the provincial town of Stary Oskol in northern Russia.

Andrei will never forget his first working night when their sergeant brought five soldiers to Kitay Park, a very busy cruising area in the Moscow’s downtown. It was late and he recalls the place being “ugly and dark” but still very crowded.

“Men were walking around and looking at one another. Many looked at us and some made comments about our behinds and so on. I thought then, what I will write to my mother and girlfriend who are waiting for me for the next two years? They expect a war hero to return.” Andrei says.

From where they stood, they could see a group of the soldiers from another unit standing at the opposite corner.

“They had naval uniforms. Oleg [our sergeant] called them bastards and assumed they came earlier than us to take the choice spot right by the parking lot.”

Andrei recalls hiding in the bushes that night while the police raided the place after 2am.

“We left the unit illegally and if they caught us, we would be in big trouble,” he says, “It was like in a film. They passed just two metres away from us with the flashlight and I thought I would die, I was so scared, lying there.”

After a while, it was Andrei’s group’s turn to take the prime spot. He was picked up, though he set strict limits on what he would do.

It was so long ago. Now Andrei is a skilled prostitute and says he easily makes 5,000 rubles a month. He sends some to his mother.

“I want to find a rich older man and stay with him in Moscow after I finish the service. There is much more money and jobs here,” he says. He smokes expensive Dunhill cigarettes and has a good CD player. He says his friend, also a soldier, met a businessman here and now they live in America.

In a poor country, prostitution’s not just a way to make more money. It’s the possibility of escape.

Valentin, 25 and a regular sex worker in Kitay Park, says almost every military unit located in Moscow is involved in this business.

“They don’t even have money for buying cigarettes, so of course, they have to find some way,” he says.

Sometimes there is even fighting between the groups of soldiers who come from different units and will not share the preferred spots. “They fight for the place closest to the parking lot.”

Vladimir, 57, has been doing buying sex from soldiers for long time. He says it was going on even in the Soviet times.

“Sometimes they are a bit dirty and you have to wash them. But I myself enjoy it,” he admits. In many years of practice he has only had two bad episodes. First, when a soldier stole his watch and the second, when his shoes were stolen.

Slava and Oleg, the sergeant, serve in the platoon located in the downtown and have just five minutes walk to Kitay Park. Slava says that he never works without Oleg and recalls one incident when a man who looked wealthy and decent picked him up. But when Slava came to his flat, he locked the door and Slava saw six other big guys inside.

“They said they would use me for free. They called it work for the community,” he says. He ended up breaking the window and jumping from the third floor window. Unfortunately, there was no one he could complain to.

“Leaving the unit without the permission is crime and we have no rights. This guy was without the permission to leave,” Oleg says.

In the end, that’s the Catch-22 of the Russian military: you’re expected to do it, but you’re also expected not to get caught.