MOSCOW — In Russia, you can steal a nightclub as long as it’s a gay nightclub.
Dietrich, one of three lesbian bars in Moscow, was snatched from its owner in broad daylight, the latest sign that gays and lesbians here are being turned into second-class citizens.
At 6 p.m. on Dec. 10, the club’s landlord ran into the club and shouted, “The Petrovka [Moscow’s police] is on their way here now! Everybody get out!”
Eugenia Debryanskaya, Dietrich’s owner and founder, threw the keys to Maksim Kozlouvskiy, the landlord, and fled.
But the police never came. Instead, Kozlouvskiy and security guards changed the locks, and took possession of a small fortune’s worth of stereo equipment and alcohol.
The next day, Kozlouvskiy called Debryanskaya and invited her to meet him at the McDonald’s on Pushkin Square. There, he told a surprised Debryanskaya that despite their 12-year contract, which was due for renewal on Jan. 1 of 2016, he was taking over the lesbian bar to start a “natural nightclub.“
Debryanskaya protested, but Kozlouvskiy replied that as the landlord, he owned everything in the building.
“You are nobody,” Debryanskaya recalled him saying.
He was wrong about that, though. Debryanskaya is a leading activist in Moscow’s LGBT community. In 1990, she and Roman Kalini held in press conference to declare the beginning of the first LGBT rights movement in Russia and subsequently started the “Association of Sexual Minorities.“ In 2006, she was arrested in front of the Moscow City Hall during a pride parade.
Debryanskaya, 62, knows the law and said she hesitated to leave the club that night.
“My business is legal, why should I be afraid of Petrovka?“ she says she asked Kozlouvskiy at the time. Kozlouvskiy assured her that he only wanted to protect her from unnecessary trouble with the authorities.
Russian gay clubs are legal as long as the clientele is over the age of 18. And Dietrich seemed particularly safe. Hidden from the main street behind flashy bars like Dyxless and Noor Bar, visitors had to be persistent in the face of challenges like trying to find the right cellar door in an empty and silent courtyard. (Either Dietrich’s sound system was too soft or its walls too soundproof.) “We were invisible,“ Debryanskaya said.
Authorities are unlikely to shutter LGBT nightspots, but they won’t interfere with anyone who does so on their own.
That’s why, when I asked Debryanskaya if she was going to the police, she laughed at me with her smoker’s voice.
“I complain,” she said. “But I am sure they will do nothing.”
There is no doubt that things have gotten more difficult for Russia’s LGBT population since the 2013 introduction of the LGBT “propaganda law.” The law makes it illegal to use the Internet or media to promote “non-traditional relations.“ Its advocates justify it with the need to “protect children” and aid the survival of traditional family values. Two years ago, Moscow’s oldest gay club, Body and Soul, was suddenly shut down two years ago because of pressure from Oleg Mitvol, a “moral campaigner.”
When they weren’t shutting them down, police have routinely ignored attacks on gay clubs in Moscow.
Take the ordeal of Central Station, for example. In 2014, a few men sprayed tear gas into Russia’s largest gay club on one night, smashed equipment on another, and fired gunshots and beat up partygoers in between. Central Station’s owner Lishchinsky made 30 complaints to the police and all of them were ignored. Eventually, the club had to close and Lishchinsky requested asylum in the USA.
Of course, Petrovka’s unreliability is not exclusively reserved for the LGBT community; the police are notoriously unreliable in general.
Debryanskaya founded the bar in 2003 as 12 Volt. Then there was more clubbing and even a “kissing room.” The club got tamer as the environment got more hostile and last summer, she rebranded the club to Dietrich. The new concept was art exhibitions, concerts, and dinner parties. A normal Friday night at Dietrich would involve women and a few men in turtleneck sweaters “prinking” by eating pizza and drinking wine, before getting down to some Michael Jackson and Katy Perry around midnight.
The Dietrich Facebook page is flooded with comments by regulars.
“If you want to spend the best years of your life in court then go to the authorities.“ Another one cheerfully reads, “Sorry… lawlessness!“ Grimmer posts read something like “at least it was without bloodshed.”
Debryanskaya says that she will file another appeal to the police, even if it is “absolutely useless to try and defend a gay club in Russia.“ She has all the documents to prove that she owns the sound system and had paid the rent all along. She’s also planning a press conference at a friend’s exhibition space next weekend. Her hope is that “after the press conference maybe somebody will defend us.“
I asked Debryanskaya whether, if she doesn’t get her club back, she would start another one? No, she said, she is 62 years old now and needs rest. She wants to spend more time with her grandchildren, she said—but then she pauses.
“But I would still throw some big parties.”