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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Russian lesbian activist discusses life in St. Petersburg

By Matthew S. Bajko -

There isn't a clearly defined gayborhood like San Francisco's Castro District or Chicago's Boystown. But that doesn't mean St. Petersburg is bereft of a gay scene.
The Russian city, long considered a liberal bastion amid the sprawling Eurasian state due to its proximity to Western Europe, boasts gay nightclubs, poetry and music events geared toward lesbians, and various underground parties for LGBT locals and visitors.
"No, no neighborhood would be specifically a gay neighborhood in St. Petersburg. The cultural gay and lesbian life is very developed I think. There is a lot of things to do," Polina Savchenko told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview last week. "There is a very rich culture but very much underground."
Savchenko, 36, is the assistant general manager of Vykhod, which means Coming Out in Russian. Formed by a group of 15 people in 2008, the organization received its official registration from Russian authorities a year later, the first LGBT group to do so.
"I think part of it is because St. Petersburg is a more liberal city of the country," said Savchenko, who is spending a month on vacation in the United States and will be discussing the work Vykhod does Wednesday night (March 30) at the LGBT Community Center in San Francisco. "This was a great achievement and goes to your question how do we work with the government. Freedom of association is one of the rights being denied to us constantly."
She is also the projects coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, an affiliation of LGBT groups from 14 regions across the country that work together to share ideas and lobby for freedom of assembly for groups working on LGBT issues.
The Russian Federation does not provide any protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, nor are same-sex relationships officially recognized. The country did abolish its sodomy laws in 1993 and does not outright ban open gays and lesbians from the military.
"Russian law really does not have anything specific to homosexual people or same-sex families or anything like that," said Savchenko. "There is a law against discrimination of social groups but it does not include sexual orientation. This is one of our goals, one of our first steps is to include sexual orientation to be one of the traits you can not discriminate against."
Homophobia is rampant, as is disinformation about LGBT people, throughout Russia. Activists in St. Petersburg and Moscow have struggled to host gay Pride parades, turning to the courts for assistance against bureaucratic opposition.
One poll conducted last March among 2,000 Russians found that only 11 percent of respondents personally knew a gay or lesbian person. Another study conducted by the Russian LGBT Network surveyed 341 lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the four cities – St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, Tyumen, and Arkhangelsk – and found that 92.1 percent concealed their sexual orientation from society.
"The only information the public receives is from the media. The media usually portrays gays and lesbians in negative stereotypical way," said Savchenko. "Our first goal is to provide adequate information to all layers of society. We do that by doing information sessions with key groups like journalists and medical workers. Then they go in the field and use the knowledge they receive from us to influence other people."
There are signs of positive change. The Russian LGBT Network today (Monday, March 28) is kicking off its fifth annual Russian Week against Homophobia. This year's slogan is "Love is stronger than hatred" and activities are planned in more than a dozen cities.
"Have you ever wondered why it is simpler and easier to hate than to love? For the same reason that to destroy is easier than to build. If we try to understand each other, many of the problems will go away by themselves, and for many people the love will cease to be something forbidden," stated the chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, Igor Kochetkov, in a release announcing this year's event.
In the city of Arkhangelsk another LGBT organization recently won official status from the government. The group, Rakurs, means "angle of view" or "perspective" in Russian.
It had initially registered as a women's organization. Its attempt to re-register as an LGBT group was at first denied by the city administration. Undaunted, Rakurs members sued in court, losing the first round at the district level but succeeding in the regional court.
This fall Vykhod will host its third annual International Queer Culture Festival. The weeklong series of events – it will take place September 15-24 this year – attracts thousands of people each year. Despite having to find a new venue last year for the opening ceremony, the festival organizers have received growing support not only from fellow Russians but also LGBT activists, politicians and artists throughout Europe.
It is also attracting less-hostile media coverage of homophobia and transphobia in Russian society.
"It is a very successful event. Last year, we had 160 articles from Internet media, which actually is a lot," said Savchenko. "The best thing is the tone of the articles was no longer scandalous and yellow-like. It began to be informative, neutral and sometimes sympathetic to our goal, which is also big achievement. Before the media only cover scandalous issues, they would not want to be real informative reporting."
Meeting with Bay Area LGBTs
This isn't the first stateside visit for Savchenko. Her mother left Russia for Chicago when Savchenko was a child and she herself moved to America for a time, attending university in the United States. She moved back to St. Petersburg four years ago.
In 2009 she spoke in Philadelphia at an Equality Forum-sponsored panel about the challenges Russian LGBTs face. On this trip she spent a week visiting her mother in Chicago and has been staying with a friend in Mountain View.
She came to the attention of local LGBT activists this month amid the controversy surrounding the visit of Moscow gay rights leader Nikolai Alekseev. Alekseev's invitation to speak in early March at the LGBT Community Center in San Francisco was withdrawn after blog postings by the Muscovite surfaced that many deemed to be anti-Semitic.
Alekseev said the accuracy of his statements, which had been written in Russian, was lost in translation. But his refusal to immediately address the issue caused a number of Californian LGBT groups to withdraw their sponsorship of the town hall. The matter then devolved into an increasingly nasty argument via emails between Alekseev and his American detractors.
Amid the vitriolic back-and-forth came an email from Savchenko that caught the eye of Gloria Nieto , a lesbian activist in San Jose. She reached out to Savchenko via email and the two began an online correspondence that led to the invitation to have the St. Petersburg resident meet with Bay Area counterparts in the international human and LGBT rights movement.
"I wanted to talk to a Russian lesbian. I just don't hear that many women's voices in international work," said Nieto. "With her being here that was a great opportunity to promote a different kind of cultural exchange than what I had seen in the past or been part of."
Nieto said she had been unaware of the work that Vykhod had been doing and is intrigued to learn more.
"My only knowledge of what was going on in Russia was what was happening in Moscow. The fact this was all going on in St. Petersburg ... the graphics on their webpage are fabulous and the fact they are using the word 'queer' in the title of the festival like that and gotten international funding, I just have a lot of questions," she said.  
Nieto happened to talk to Kate Kendell , the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and mentioned Savchenko would be in town. Kendell, in turn, agreed to have her group sponsor a town hall and pay to rent a room at the center.
"I think it is always important for local activists to both hear about other strategies, provide other activists lessons we have learned and to kind of have in some sense a reality check of how much more difficult it is in so many places in the world to live as a queer person," said Kendell. "I think, especially with the Internet, we are all feeling a sense of the world being smaller and the importance of recognizing we are all interdependent."
Due to a schedule conflict, Kendell won't be able to attend Savchenko's talk and is hoping to meet with her one-on-one this week. Nieto said she will be introducing Savchenko to San Franciscan lesbian pioneer Phyllis Lyon, who with her late partner, Del Martin, launched the world's first lesbian organization the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955.
All of the interest from American LGBT leaders has been a surprise, said Savchenko.
"I am very happy to see how much interest there is in what happens in Russia. There was a time I believe America very much not interested in what happens in other countries," she said. "I believe it is very important for Americans to know what kind of work takes place in other countries, including Russia. I believe we can help each other collaborate on projects, exchange volunteers. There is a lot of things we can do together."
As for the brouhaha that engulfed Alekseev's visit, Savchenko declined to comment on it directly since she does not know him personally and that his statements and actions "speak for themselves."
She did offer that she was saddened to see the conversation degenerate into personal attacks as it did.
"My deep belief, really, is your work speaks for itself. That is bottom line. I never had interest to get drawn into these exchanges of different attacks and digging dirt up on each other and things like that," she said. "There is a large field of opportunity in Russia and a lot of work to be done. There is a place for a lot of different approaches and different strategies.
"We really have no reason to fight with each other," added Savchenko. "I think LGBT activists all over the world should support each other, respect strategies of work even if we don't agree with them."
She is grateful to have an opportunity to speak with local LGBT activists and is looking forward to the discussion Wednesday night.
"I am very thankful to be awarded this opportunity to bring this information to American activist community," said Savchenko. "I believe the work we do is very deep, fundamental work that will bear fruit in the long-term."

Savchenko will speak at the LGBT center, 1800 Market Street, at 7:30 p.m. To learn more about the Russian LGBT Network, visit

For more information about Vykhod, visit


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