While gay men risked imprisonment a decade ago, now they dance at nightclubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and surf Russian-language sites. Yet unlike in the West, they can’t stop by the nearest kiosk to leaf through a rack of gay-oriented publications. That’s why Ed Mishin launched KVIR, or "queer," Russia’s only gay magazine. The glossy monthly for gay men may not yet be sold on street corners, but it can be found in clubs, saunas and bookshops from Moscow to Vladivostok, and has a circulation of 15,000.
This New Year issue boasted a tanned model in a silver fox fur on its cover and featured interviews with Russians in drag alongside shots of scantily dad models in Santa Clauses. The issue also offered more serious articles, from a review of a book on homosexuality to a calendar of historic dates connected to gay issues.
Despite the magazine’s colorful format, however, the back cover and inside front cover do not carry advertising. According to Mishin, who formerly worked as a technology journalist, this is because local firms are reluctant to associate themselves with a gay publication.
Even international businesses that advertise in Western gay magazines believe that advertising in KVIR could harm their image because they assume that Russians have a "totally different attitude to gays," as Mishin put it. But In Mishin’s opinion, the difference between Russian and Western attitudes isn’t so much social as commercial. Just like Russians, he said. Most people in the West have a "rather cautious and strained attitude" to gay people. However, while Russian businesses would not advertise in a gay magazine, western advertisers are much more likely to do so because "they consider that the gay audience is more loyal and well-off."
Indeed, the typical KVIR reader is between 30 and 35 years old and makes an above-average income, Mishin ‘said. A magazine survey shows that KVIR readers are also 20 percent more likely to have a car, apartment and credit card than toe average Russian. Despite problems with advertisements, some companies have cottoned on to the magazine’s potential; recent editions carry ads for tours to India and Spain, hair removal and dental clinics, and a security firm that sells keyless Invisible locks."
"What Russians need, Mishin believes,
is a new gay role model."
The editor elected to create an "Information and entertainment magazine" after watching several erotic gay magazines spring up and close down in the 1990s because of low advertising revenue. Nevertheless, the magazine’s arty shots of naked men, which Mishin calls "erotic only at a stretch," shock more than a few. Distributors generally pigeonhole the magazine as pornography, but are reluctant to sell it alongside heterosexual sex mags in city kiosks.
First published in August, the magazine has yet to make a profit, not to mention break even. But one-off donations at a fundraising event in November covered publication expenses for at least "two months," Mishin said.
The publication grew out of Gay.ru, a web site about gay issues and events that Mishin founded in 1997, and is only part of Mishin’s efforts to improve gay life in Russia. The editorial office is part of a small center called "Together" (or "Ya Plyus Ya" in Russian) near Patriarch’s Ponds, which includes a meeting room for regular discussion groups and psychological consultations for gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
Plans for next year include a free telephone help line and, more ambitiously, the opening of a gay community center, where Mishin envisions people coming to "have a coffee, see what new books have come out, watch a film, have an appointment with a psychologist and just meet people."
While gay activities in Moscow are largely confined to nightlife, Mishin is determined to widen the boundaries. "According to our surveys," he said, "only around 7 percent of our readership goes to clubs. The other 93 percent don’t go. For most people it’s not interesting."
What Russians need, Mishin believes, is a new gay role model. For many, gayness is synonymous with figures like Boris Moiseyev, a pop singer who favors makeup and evening gowns. Mishin sees his role as persuading Russians - and not just gays - that homosexuality is not always accompanied by show business or transvestitism.
"When people find out not that someone like Boris Moiseyev is gay, but that a friend or an uncle is gay... then most people start to change their attitude to gay people right away," he said. "When people come to our support group, they often say in the feedback session that the most important thing that they got out of the group was the realization that it’s possible to be gay and normal," Mishin went on. "They say, ‘I saw normal people, and it just astounded me.’"