SIMEIZ, Crimea—The buxom drag queen hikes up her sequined emerald gown and reaches into the crowd to pull a man onto a makeshift stage.
“Stand there, handsome,” she says and then coaxes two more volunteers on stage before announcing that they are now taking part in a striptease contest.
As Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” begins playing from the speakers, the pants start coming off.
Drag shows like this used to be a regular fixture at a small handful of venues around Crimea. Now, this bar in the small resort town of Simeiz is the only place left where a drag queen can shimmy to dated Western pop. Locals say it’s the last gay bar on the peninsula. And it may not last much longer.
According to human rights groups, since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 the situation for the LGBT community has deteriorated badly. Over the past four and a half years of occupation, Russian-state-sponsored homophobia has led to a rise in violence, closures of gay-friendly venues and the demise of activism—crippling the peninsula’s queer community.
In the oppressive climate, the Simeiz bar provides LGBT people with a getaway where they feel they can be open, still, with displays of affection without fear of persecution.
But this venue has suffered under Russia, too. For more than two decades, it was a renowned destination for the gay community, its shows drawing hundreds of tourists from across the former Soviet Union and beyond. On a warm Saturday night last August, perhaps 50 people were there to watch the show, and there was about the whole evening a sense that an era of openness, of freedom, was coming to an end.
Back in 2013, which seems a long time ago now, Sasha and Volodya decided to move to Ukraine’s Crimea. For a couple of years they had run the gay-friendly Hotel Friends in Sevastopol, even though they were based in Moscow. But finally the oppressive atmosphere generated by President Vladimir Putin’s homophobic policies, which played on and exploited the worst instincts in Russian society, were just too much for them to bear.
Sasha and Volodya spent their winter holiday in Kiev during the revolutionary Maidan protests. “To us it seemed that everything was more free there,” Volodya, 39, told The Daily Beast. Slim, with brown hair and a warm smile, he does most of the talking.
Both Russia and Ukraine decriminalized same-sex relations in the early 1990s, but the situation for LGBT people has been deteriorating in Russia in recent years, while Ukraine took measures to improve LGBT rights after the EuroMaidan revolution. The situation there is not ideal—many still choose to conceal their sexual orientation and gender identity—but it’s definitely better.
Outside a Kiev gay club in 2014 the pair watched patrons approach a drag queen for photos, and thought back to Moscow.
“In Kiev, they can go outside, stroll along the Khreshchatyk [main street] in heels and no one will do anything” Volodya said. “In Moscow, they would be throwing stones at them.”
The couple had always planned to emigrate from Russia. They were tired of traveling from Moscow to Sevastopol and thought the pro-European sentiment would spread to the peninsula. On March 12, they signed off on the final purchase agreement for their apartment in the suburbs of Sevastopol.
Less than a week later, Moscow staged an illegal referendum to annex Crimea from Ukraine and the pair found themselves back under Russian jurisdiction. Since then, tens of thousands of people have left the peninsula, most of them Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians. But they also included members of the LGBT community. Human rights groups say many LGBT people who remained went underground.
Moscow’s occupation meant Russian laws would now be imposed in Crimea, including the highly controversial “anti-gay propaganda” legislation, which was adopted by the government in 2013 to ban “the promotion of non-traditional relationships” to minors.
Rights groups condemned the law, saying it fostered prejudice against the LGBT community. But Crimea’s Russia-controlled authorities only fueled the Kremlin’s state-sponsored homophobia. Following the occupation, that September the peninsula’s de facto leader, Sergei Aksyonov, announced that Crimea didn’t need gay people and they would not be allowed to hold public events. If they tried, he said, the police would quickly explain to their supporters what orientation they should have.
Sasha and Volodya briefly considered moving to Ukraine’s seaside city of Odessa or Kiev. But they had just poured their money into a home and an extra rental property on the peninsula. And, of course, there was also their hotel.
Before the annexation, their business came from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. After, almost all their clientele became Russian. And the Russians supported the government regime. “When they came to our hotel and we said we wanted to live in Ukraine, they’d say ‘you’re separatists’—as a joke,” Volodya recalled. “But in every joke there is a grain of truth.” Then, in 2017, most of the Russians stopped coming, too.
The final blow to their business came when the couple decided to put on a Ukrainian-themed New Year’s gathering.
“We started getting threats,” said Volodya.
They cancelled the party. But about a month after New Year’s the phone calls started again, warning them to shut down their hotel. Volodya said the callers identified themselves as local journalists and had their personal information—including Sasha’s real name, which he hadn’t used in some 20 years.
The implications were sinister. If journalists tracked down their personal details, they could dig up information about their guests, more than half of whom weren’t open about their sexual orientation and included high-ranking figures. Fearing for their guests, the couple shut down the hotel.
According to a 2016 report, Violation of LGBTI Rights in Crimea and Donbass, by Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial and Kiev-based Center for Civil Liberties, social attitudes “changed under the influence of Russian homophobic propaganda” and the community “became more secretive” in Crimea. It notes several cases where homophobic locals would lure members of the LGBT community to meet with them, only to humiliate them and beat them up. As homophobic norms were spreading across the peninsula, support services were disappearing. According to the report, Crimea only had one NGO on the ground that worked with the LGBT community and its organizers left when Russia came. Russian LGBT groups, meanwhile, haven’t expanded their operation to Crimea because they don’t recognize its annexation, the report states.
Before March 2014, Ukraine’s mainland-based NGO representatives would regularly travel and work with the community on the peninsula. But after Russian-manned checkpoints appeared on the Ukrainian-Crimean border, it became harder for human rights groups to do their jobs.
“Crimea for us... used to be just another region of Ukraine that we worked with,” said Oleksandra Romantsova, deputy head of the board at the Center for Civil Liberties.
“In March ... we thought that Ukrainians would be able to monitor the situation but after August we understood that... with a Ukrainian passport you are not able to work as a monitor on the peninsula.”
Last year, Romantsova was banned from entering the Russian Federation, and consequently the peninsula. She said rights groups have also lost connections with LGBT people in Crimea because many here fear speaking to activists and monitors. The absence of NGOs combined with growing state-sanctioned homophobia has had ugly consequences.
Last month ADC Memorial documented the first case of torture of a gay man on the peninsula, dating back to the fall of 2014.
In a five-minute video, the man, who only identifies himself as Alexander, provides a harrowing account of being taken to his district police station, beaten and raped.
He said the officers handcuffed him, knocked out his teeth, bruised his ribs and left him with spinal problems. The 34-year-old said he also now suffers from post-traumatic syndrome.
While at the station, Alexander said he saw a list of names—including his. Some of the others he recognized as members of the LGBT community.
He said amid the torture, the officers pulled out paperwork, forcing him to sign over ownership of his home. “They just shove the papers in front of face, beat you and say, ‘If you don’t sign, we’ll kill you. No one will even look for you.’ I tried to resist but what could I do?” he told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
Alexander had lived alone then. His parents had died. So had a friend, after being similarly targeted by police a few months earlier. “They planted drugs on him and put him in jail. They say he committed suicide there. But I don’t believe that,” he said.
Alexander signed the papers and fled to Odessa, where a middleman helped him apply for a Polish visa. From there, he started making his way to the Netherlands, where he applied for asylum.
But in the Netherlands, Alexander’s application was rejected. In part, he said, because he didn’t have any proof of what had happened. “You need documents confirming that something happened. But I had nowhere to go. I just fled,” he said. “Under that system, you go [to the hospital] for battery and the medical staff are obligated to call the police. And who will come then? Those same police officers who beat me.”
He said he knows other Ukrainians who have successfully sought asylum in Europe with assistance from LGBT groups in cities like Kiev. “But Crimea had nothing like that,” he sighed.
ADC Memorial’s Inessa Sakhno said while LGBT people are not the only group persecuted by authorities on the peninsula, they are an especially easy target. “This group is less protected because they don’t turn to police or rights groups and don’t organize protests because it’s unacceptable to talk about these things,” she said.
When Ruslana arrived to work in Crimea in 2016, she found there was nowhere for the queer community to go. Together with another girl, she decided to throw what they referred to as a “thematic” party, but struggled to find a venue.
“As soon as they learned about the theme of the party, they refused us straight away,” she said. “Even those that needed money still refused. They told us it would ruin their reputation. They didn’t want others to think this was a gay establishment.”
She later started telling owners they were putting on a private event for girls to get a venue.
But not everyone in the LGBT community feels persecuted by the Russian regime on the peninsula. In an apartment deep in the suburbs of Sevastopol, Dasha and her partner are in the middle of unpacking their new flat.
Assertive, with a deep voice and her dark hair pulled back, she tells me she’s not concerned about the gay propaganda law. “I haven’t come across [problems with law enforcement] despite the fact that I’m not sitting here in the dark. I can walk around hand in hand with her,” she said, rummaging around the small kitchen for mugs. “Of course, we’re not having sex on the hood of a car in the middle of town.”
At the same time, she says society here was more accepting of two women together than two men. “The attitude towards men is significantly worse than towards women. Again, that’s that Soviet mentality. They’ll watch foreign girls-on-girl films and that’s cool, but guys rubbing genitals is bad,” she said. “The guys don’t say anything, they hide. Even within their friends group. It’s harder for them.” Later, this sentiment is echoed by drunk men loitering around the gay bar in Simeiz. They buy tall cans of beer from an adjoining convenience store and throw around the Russian word for “faggot,” occasionally eyeing the bar but refusing to go in. Inside, rows of wooden tables and benches lead to a veranda, where a group of 20-somethings chase shots of vodka with wine at the bar.
Although its reputation is known, the venue doesn’t openly advertise itself as a gay bar. In daytime, only the wall at the end of the service counter, painted in bold rainbow stripes with the bar’s coat of arms in the centre, hints at its status.
At the stroke of 1:00 a.m., a booming voice comes over the loudspeaker and the drag show begins. The atmosphere is lively but the bar looks half empty.
“Before, we’d get anywhere from 150 to 450 people coming for a show,” Denys Kratt, the bar’s former art director and leading drag artist, later tells me in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Kratt’s alter ego Zhanna Simeiz had been a big name within Crimea’s drag scene since the mid-2000s.
The 44-year-old spent the busiest months of the tourist season living and working on the peninsula. Sporting an undercut and top knot, Kratt fondly talks about days spent at the beach followed by champagne-fuelled nights in Simeiz.
“It was where we spent our youth, some of the merriest and some of the best years,” he said.
When Russia annexed the peninsula, Kratt lost more than just his job. “The people there were all one big family, everyone knew each other, caroused, had a good time,” he said. Like many Ukrainians, Kratt hasn’t returned to the peninsula since the annexation.
And although he fears Crimea won’t be de-occupied in his lifetime, he does hope to one day come back to the place that was once his second home. I ask him what that would look like.
“The trains from Kharkov to Simferopol will start up again... I’ll drive up to my friend’s dacha, we’ll open up the rusted gate there, run to the shops, buy a bottle of Sevastopol champagne—Zolotaya Balka—in hryvnias [Ukrainian currency]. We’ll go up to [the bar], celebrate and cry,” he smiles.
“And of course, I’ll pack the dress in the suitcase.”