Perestroika, the ambitious policy of economic and government reform instituted by the Mikhail Gorbachev regime in the late 1980s, has meant a high-speed race toward a free-market economy, and - ultimately - a complete transformation of the Soviet Union into a network of 15 independent republics. For lesbians and gay men, both in Russia and visiting, Perestroika paved the way for the establishment of a still-nascent but increasingly dynamic queer culture.
Russia today has two principle cities with burgeoning gay scenes - St. Petersburg and Moscow. Whether your travel interests revolve around meeting other gays and lesbians or simply experiencing the marvels of someplace different, both of these world-class cities have plenty going for them.
A minimally stocked state department store before the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow's GUM shopping arcade now contains dozens of high-end boutiques like OGGI and Calvin Klein.
First and foremost, compared with other high-profile European cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow are relatively unknown to non-Russians, and especially non-Europeans. The tourism infrastructure is limited but rapidly coming of age, and the Russia you can see today is still a constantly evolving, slightly daunting, and tremendously exciting country.

GAY LIFE IN RUSSIA

Officially, gays and lesbians are persona non grata in Russia, at least from a legal standpoint, but then this is still technically true in parts of the United States too. Soviet law simply does not acknowledge queer people. But, compared with the policies of the Soviet era, this is good news for gay people: same-sex activity was decriminalized in 1993, and while gay rights aren't presently protected, gays and lesbians are not the target of the government either. The age of consent, incidentally, is 14 - both for gay and straight sex.
So, by all means, you should feel safe from a legal perspective hooking up with either your own partner or a new friend while in Russia. But, as is true anywhere - but especially in nations where tourists tend to be wealthier than many residents - it's a good idea to exercise discretion, to travel with a friend or a reliable guide, and to think twice about shacking up with anybody who seems the least bit sketchy or untrustworthy. Gay (and straight) prostitution is technically legal, but keep in mind that agencies providing the services of gay rent boys are considered highly unreliable and dangerous.

Also, the legal status of Russian queers makes for political grandstanding in the State Duma, the nation's parliament. Only recently, conservative members of parliament attempted to introduce a law that would make the "perverted satisfaction of one man's sexual desire with another man" a crime punishable by up to five years in prison (the lawmakers do not appear to be targeting lesbians). Some religious groups have backed these right-wing legislators, but the majority in the Duma, especially those wishing to increase Russia's visibility in the European marketplace, seems to be firmly against this movement.

GETTING THERE

The actual logistics of visiting Russia can seem a bit intimidating, but, in fact, traveling here has become less of an ordeal, especially as Moscow and St. Petersburg city leaders have begun trying to promote tourism. Nevertheless, because it's a nation with a fairly complicated economic structure, a unique language and alphabet, and an abundance of bureaucratic hassles, it's wise to employ the services of a tour operator before visiting. You may be interested in an American company Atlanta-based Go To Russia who works with a highly acclaimed tour company in Russia, Intel, to provide complete tours of the country and, optionally, the republics of the former U.S.S.R.
RUSSIA FACT FILE

The rather infamous airline Aeroflot is no longer the quintessentially bureaucratic and impersonal airline that it was under the Soviet regime. This is now a privately owned company, one of 300 civil airlines in Russia, serving some 25 Russian and 54 international airports. In terms of service, the airline still lags behind Lufthansa, SAS, British Airways, and some other airlines that serve Russia, but it also tends to offer better fares especially in business class and more direct flights to Moscow and St. Petersburg than other airlines.

Although rubles are the currency you'll use in Russia, sample prices are: 1.80 for a beer and a light meal (hot dogs, baked potatoes, etc.) from a street vendor; 2.15 for a Corona at a gay nightclub; 110 for a night at Moscow's luxurious Sheraton Palace Hotel; 30 for dinner for two at a mid-range restaurant; a few pence for a single ride on the Moscow Metro.

McDonald's was the first fast-food company to franchise in Moscow - the city now has more than 40 McDonald's, in addition to outposts of Pizza Hut, KFC, Sbarro, and T.G.I. Friday's. On the hotel front, a number of Western chains have properties here, including Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton. There are about 14,000 restaurants in Moscow, and about 170 hotels.

Of the 1.7 million visitors to Moscow in 2001, just 120,000 came for tourism purposes. Russian tourism officials hope to draw more than 5 million visitors annually by 2010. In Moscow, tourism revenue accounts for 1.5 percent of the city's economic inflow - the city hopes to increase this to 15 percent over the next decade.

This summer 2002, Go To Russia began introducing special week-long packages (three nights in Moscow, three in St. Petersburg) geared toward gay and lesbian travelers, which include upscale meals and lodging, and sightseeing and club-hopping with a gay tour guide; these can be booked directly through www.gotorussia.com or through its sister site, the fast-growing gay/lesbian travel portal www.bluway.com.

MOSCOW

Moscow, a city of more than 9 million, still has a somewhat disorganized gay scene that's characterized by nightclubs coming and going seemingly every few months. No matter the exact status of any particular gay disco or cafe, however, there are always at least a couple of very fun, extremely friendly, and quite vibrant queer nightspots in Moscow at any given time, plus a handful of gay saunas.

ST. PETERSBURG

St. Petersburg, the political hub of Russia from the early 18th through early 20th centuries, is arguably more accessible, both geographically and socially, to non-Russians than Moscow is. It's an easy train or ferry ride from Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn, and it's home to a population that is, overall, even more progressive and tolerant than Moscow's. Perhaps the city's history has something to do with its relative gay-friendliness - it was founded in 1703 by Czar Peter I, who dabbled more than a little in same-sex relations. Known as Leningrad until the fall of communism, St. Petersburg has rather eagerly embraced the hip, urban beat of its Scandinavian and Baltic neighbours and enjoys a lively reputation for nightclubbing and a saucy gay scene. On Sunday nights, lesbians flock to a club called Caprice and in smaller numbers frequent a few other queer establishments around town, while gay guys generally hang out among a half-dozen or more mostly male clubs and bars, plus a pair of saunas.

UKRAINE

Although it's now a separate country from Russia, don't overlook the Ukraine, which many people still associate with the tragic Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. This is a fascinating country whose charming and hilly capital, Kiev, has a small but growing gay scene, including a handful of gay bars. Although the Ukraine is a rather conservative nation, Kiev has quickly emerged as a destination for cafe- and bar-hopping; the city has a stylish, youthful sensibility.

There really isn't such a thing as gay tourism in Kiev, but Ukraine-Rus is a gay-friendly tour-operator that works closely with Go To Russia. In addition to Kiev, the Black Sea resort town of Simeiz - near Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula - has long been the Ukraine's own little Mykonos, although for now it's a tricky place to explore for foreigners, mostly owing to its limited tourist infrastructure. Still, if you're able to visit Kiev, it's worth asking local queers for advice on Simeiz and its celebrated gay beach. Undoubtedly, as the gay scene throughout Russia and the republics continues to come of age, Simeiz will become gradually better known and more practical for Westerners.

Of course, this column only touches on the gay and lesbian scenes in Russia's and the Ukraine's most famous cities. A list of even basic highpoints - including superb art museums, stunningly preserved 16th-century chapels, verdant parks, increasingly international restaurant scenes, and countless notable historic sites - would stretch on for pages. In terms of sightseeing, friendliness, and also cost of travel services, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev hold their own with any notable European city. Whether you're looking to meet fellow gay and lesbian Russians, or you're simply a gay person seeking an exciting, relatively affordable, and culturally rich vacation, Russia is ideal destination.

Andrew Collins authored the Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be contacted here at OutUK.

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