Queer Russian musicians
Credit: Francesca Roh/Xtra
Music
24 min

Baiting the bear: Queer Russian artists fighting to be heard

Creativity meets bravery as LGBTQ singers and bands challenge state-sponsored homophobia

Few countries have gained as much notoriety as Russia has over the past decade in the way the country treats its LGBTQ communities. In 2013, a controversial “anti-propaganda” law was passed that restricted any public display of affection between LGBTQ people, either in public or in the media, based on the belief that children exposed to queer and trans people would “become” gay. Then, in April 2017, news broke of the abductions, tortures and murders of queer and trans people in Chechnya.

Making queer art in modern-day Russian isn’t just difficult—it can be dangerous. But in 2018, the digital queer media site Otkrytie (which translates to “The Open Ones”) was launched. Also known as O-zine, the site soon became a much-needed platform for queer Russian artists, transforming the possibilities of making and distributing art.

Queer culture in Russia wasn’t always so hidden: After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ’90s, Russian pop culture was quick to adapt Western influences. Many ’90s male pop stars were extremely flamboyant: Shura, Boris Moiseev, Oscar. (The latter now lives in New York and recently came out as a trans woman, and performs using the name Scarlett La Queen.) Even Ruki Vverh!, originally a straight male duo, made a music video about a drag queen without any criticism or censorship.

In their music video for their 2002 debut hit, “All the Things She Said,” the teenage duo behind t.A.T.u (arguably the most famous Russian musical export) dressed in high-school uniforms and kissed in the rain. (It later came out that they pretended to be lesbians to gain mainstream international fame.) Around the same time, the pop duo Gosti iz Budushego was mixing club-inspired pop music with queer-themed lyrics. And since the early-2000s, singer-songwriter Zemfira has offered a new look of femininity, embraced by both straight and queer audience.

The protest pop-punk collective Pussy Riot, has been including queer issues in their resistance-themed, independent music releases since their founding in 2011. The group paid a price for its political activism. In 2012, three members were convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Modern-day queer artists in Russia have to do much more than simply take creative risks; they have to fight for their right to be an artist. Xtra asked some of the most risk-taking queer Russian artists about what it’s like to create art in spite of censorship, violence and danger.

Andrei Petrov

Moscow-based beauty blogger and rapper Andrei Petrov

Moscow-based Andrei Petrov, 23, gained massive popularity as one of the first Russian male beauty bloggers. His account has over 1.2 million Instagram followers. In December 2019, he released his debut rap track “Pidor” (the Russian equivalent of “faggot”), and became the first openly gay rapper in the country. In January, he had an illuminating discussion with a young blogger, Volodya XXL, who was once banned from TikTok for homophobic speech: Andrei challenged the blogger on his homophobic views and the exchange became a viral sensation.

I guess I am the first openly gay Russian rapper. What I do is seen by lots of people; I hope it will inspire other queer people to make their own music or develop their own projects. The “anti-gay propaganda law” prevents Russian queer culture from developing. But while official laws are getting worse in Russia and the government keeps pressuring people, there are ways to embrace progressive views. I know hundreds of LGBTQ Russian bloggers, lots of feminists’ accounts.

I think that the majority of 13 to 15-year-old teenagers are very tolerant of queer people—the internet has taught them well. I know that there are drag queens even in small towns; I see [Russian] Instagram bloggers who create makeup on the same level as American drag queens.

Of course, the resistance will keep getting stronger. These days, all Russians live in the state of fighting. But if there’s a fight, there’s also a victory. The victory is inevitable. You can’t stop the mind from evolving.

Augustine

Non-binary singer Augustine lives in the Siberian city of Norilsk
Non-binary singer Augustine lives in the Siberian city of Norilsk

The Siberian industrial city of Norilsk wouldn’t strike any Russian as a Bohemian centre. Yet the city has produced one of the most exquisite and unique queer artists: 22-year-old non-binary singer Augustine. Her debut single “Papa Sever” (“Father North”), a love letter to her hometown, was complemented by a dreamy music video made possible by O-zine’s crowdfunding project. 

I am so happy to see more and more true artists in Russian music—I’m talking about people who hurt, who are not afraid to stand up and discuss the issues that are actually important. It’s not just a hobby or an art project; it’s a full-time job. I write and produce everything and hire musicians. And I’m in charge of everything that comes next, like finding talented artists, photographers and designers. That’s my favourite part! These talented people make me love our country more, and assures me that we can jump over any obstacle.

If I have something I want to share with the world, I do it. I don’t think about making a profit or getting to the charts. The number of subscribers and views don’t matter to me. I fight for my ideas, and I’m glad to be surrounded by like-minded Russia musicians.

HRISTINA

Igor Lidzhiev and Hristina Zarembo of HRISTINA
Igor Lidzhiev and Hristina Zarembo of HRISTINA

Art-pop duo HRISTINA was created in 2017 by 28-year-old  singer-songwriter and LGBTQ activist Hristina Zarembo, who is openly bisexual non-binary. Her bandmate is 36-year-old guitar player Igor Lidzhiev. They released their debut record Neveren in 2019, followed by 2020’s single “Marina,” dedicated to queer women in Russian art. The lyrics are in both Russian and English, while the sound elegantly moves from highly theatrical, punchy guitar-led songs to folky slow-burners with ethereal vocals.

HRISTINA is a young band, we’ve been around for about two years. We only get mentioned and invited to perform by the initiatives that support LGBTQ [people], which is a small number of media and event spaces. We have a video “Slova” (“Words”) that was dedicated to the idea that everyone is equal in love. Unfortunately, this music video doesn’t have a chance on Russian TV—it would be considered “propandazing.” These days Russian queer culture is strictly underground.

I hope our music helps people understand that hate can only destroy, while love can build. But for now, all we can do is to continue thinking about these issues and releasing music and speaking about what’s important to us. Love will always win.

Angel

Moscow-based pop artist Angel
Moscow-based pop artist Angel

Moscow-based 32-year-old queer pop artist Angel has married the gloomy image of the Russian gopnik aesthetic with vogue dancing, queerness and rebellious club-ready pop songs. In June, he dropped “Otpuskai” (“Let Go”), where he chants “Ya ne hochu umirat molodym” (“I don’t want to die young”). As the artist wrote on social media, the track is inspired by the “feeling of youth and hopelessness on the great Russian dancefloor.”  

I make dance, club-oriented music which is also ironic and rebellious. I’m glad if it resonates with the LGBTQ community, but this is not my fundamental goal. I just want to cheer up any listener. It’s always nice to perform at gay clubs: The audience may be more demanding, but they are also friendlier and more care-free. Queer culture is bright, unique and unapologetically stylish. I like that a lot.

I see that Russian queer culture is slowly but surely gaining momentum. Perhaps it has to do with the rejuvenation of the society. People who were born in the 2000s are more perceptive to new ideas and various kinds of sexuality as opposed to older generations.

Chloë

Moscow-based, Moldova-born singer Chloë
Moscow-based, Moldova-born singer Chloë

Twenty-three-year-old Moscow-based, Moldova-born singer Chloë has gained prominence both on social media and in the capital’s busy party scene. One of Chloë’s better known tracks is a cover of “Ty Ne Ver Slezam” (“Don’t Believe the Tears”), originally sung by one of the biggest queer artists in the history of Russian pop music, Shura.

I wouldn’t say much has changed in terms of LGBTQ rights in Russian in recent years. Yes, there is certainly more accessible information. Yes, we discuss LGBTQ issues more often. But I get the impression that a lot of people are just enamored with the idea of discussing something that used to be a taboo topic.

Right now, I’m working on my album. The main theme is love, in every form and shape—my favourite topic. My upcoming video will be my personal coming out story.

SADO OPERA

Queer collective SADO OPERA
Queer collective SADO OPERA. Credit: Andrey Kezzyn

Queer collective SADO OPERA was created in Saint Petersburg in 2009, before the anti-propaganda law was passed. The collective prefers to keep their identities a mystery—all we know is that it consists of Colonel (interviewed below), Katya, drummer Icky and bassist Licky. After several years of throwing raunchy but good-spirited performances in their hometown and Moscow, the core band members moved to Berlin, performing and hosting events across Europe. Their singles, sung mostly in English, are a genre-bending mix of electro, funk and pop, which propelled BBC to brand them a “party band with no borders.”

We see our mission as supporting and building the creation of universal bridges and love affairs that serve a purpose to the international community. We collaborate with many of our Russian colleagues, including artist Anastasia Gorshkova from Siberia, who designs our posters and single covers, and Russian [animators] for our “Patriarchs” music video, shot by the Moscow-based Kling brothers. We also throw parties at Berlin clubs, like Wilde Renate and Ficken 3000, and invite many Russian queer artists. We even helped organize the first Berlin edition of the Russian queer party Popoff Kitchen.

Before the pandemic, we were working on creating a special stage at a huge European music festival, where various members of the Russian queer community were meant to perform and give public talks. We hope to make it happen next year, and we surely plan to continue helping our Russian brothers and sisters.

As told to and translated by Mikhael Agafonov.