Members of Moscow's gay community gathering at the Gay and Lesbian Archives, stocked with articles, poetry and prose.
Visitors to the tiny library would be hard-pressed to find another place where Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf share shelf space with Igor Kon, Sophia Parnok and Marina Tsvetayeva.
The founder and keeper of the Gay and Lesbian Archives is a middle-aged teacher who asked that she be referred to in this article by her English-language initials, H.G., as she fears being fired. She walks around the room as if walking through the years. She runs her fingers along the spines of 19th- and early 20th-century poetry, as well as dozens of texts that were not published and foreign authors who were not translated until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
She hauls down a large binder from a top shelf and flips through pages of Russian newspaper articles about homosexuals, then sifts through piles of gay men's magazines that appeared and disappeared in the early and mid-'90s. She points to a stack of back issues of the two gay-themed publications that remain in Moscow, Ostrov (Island) and Organicheskaya Lady (Organic Lady), black and white texts held together with staples.
In addition to building her archive, H.G. wanted to create a place where unpublished writers could show their work to an appreciative audience. She began displaying her collected materials in 1995 and visitors add to it when they stop by Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. "I understood that we needed a library and not some abstract organization that's fighting for some rights."
"She is a living monument to our movement," said Natalya Vorontsova, a well-known author in gay circles.
Vorontsova utters the word "movement" with a touch of irony, since many gays and lesbians in Moscow agree that no movement exists. Opinions are divided over whether it should, or could.
"There have been rudiments of such in both Moscow and St. Petersburg," said Viktor, 50, who asked that his last name not be used. He shares with the archives part of his own massive collection, including "Zerkalo" (The Mirror), a bulletin from his organization GenderDoc, which catalogs and collects stories from Russian print media.
"Some organizations have broken up, some have stayed on, most turned more into social clubs. This is good, ultimately, but they do not respond to the social task," he said.
Yet others say that there is not much of a social task to attend to.
"It doesn't exist because no one needs it," Yevgenia Debryanskaya, 47, said of gay activism.
Debryanskaya, a political dissident in the '80s, was one of the first Russian gays to proclaim her homosexuality in 1990.
These days, though, she spends time organizing Saturday night parties for women. "Political activity is almost zero," she said.
The early 1990s was marked by a burst of political and social organizations and publications by gays and lesbians, including the newspaper Tema; the Tchaikovsky Fund; MOLLI (The Moscow Organization of Lesbians in Literature and Art); Krylya, or Wings; and Treugolnik, or Triangle. Several were sustained by money from the West, as well as the implanted notion of politicizing sexual identity. Triangle, where Debryanskaya was director, received an almost $40,000 grant from the European Commission's TACIS program.
"The problem with early-'90s funding was that it was offered for no particular purpose, but as a general support," said Nikita Ivanov, 25, a lawyer and an editor at Gay.ru, a cultural, political and social web site that registers 30,000 hits daily.
Some say those entities faded along with hopes for adopting Western political and organizational models and the disappearance of funds. People weren't willing to volunteer, and with the decriminalization in 1993 of homosexuality, "the leaders of early gay [organizations] in Russia had no clear view where to move further," Ivanov wrote in an e-mail interview.
Gay Russians say there are reforms they could be pushing for, including partnership registration and anti-discrimination laws, though not everyone agrees either is necessary. The larger task, some say, is to educate people about homosexuality.
"It's a latent homophobia. It's not explicit," Victor said. "You go out on a square and say 'I'm gay!,' some people will laugh and some will beat you up."
Those who believe that a revival of gay activism is necessary also see a long road ahead, not least because their rights are not at the top of the list while the Chechen war continues and poverty is widespread. For now, they insist they are not activists.
"But the problem of attitudes toward gays and lesbians goes to a wider level and becomes a problem of social tolerance," Victor argued.
In the coming years, H.G. wants to compile an anthology of lesbian literature. Debryanskaya says that once the snow melts, she wants to gather club owners and plan an international gay conference next year in Moscow. Nikita Ivanov wants to open a gay community center and a gay information bulletin, with Western aid and strict monitoring of finances.
At the cluttered reading salon, the clock hits 8 p.m., and those who lingered pack up to leave, bidding hasty good-byes until next week.