On Sunday, the BBC released an interview in which Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov went full Ahmadinejad. He ignorantly claimed that Russia’s Olympic host city is bereft of gay people — despite the fact that his interviewer, John Sweeney, had attended one of Sochi’s gay clubs the night before.
In truth, as Pakhomov almost certainly knows, the warm Black Sea resort city has been a destination for gay Russians and vacationers since the days of Communism, when homosexuality was a criminal offense punishable by hard labor.
The vibrant venue Sweeney visited is evidence that while Sochi may not be P-town, when it comes to the Caucasus, it's the next best thing. Club Mayak has catered to international visitors and natives alike for over eight years, and can expect to thrive throughout the 2014 Olympics as tourists, Olympians and reporters from international news agencies stop by to see the club’s diverse cabaret-style drag performances, dance on its Saturday Night Fever-style lit floor and purchase overpriced drinks.
However, despite the booming business, Club Mayak's story isn't necessarily a positive one. The post-Olympics fate of the venue remains in jeopardy thanks to Russia’s so-called gay propaganda law. Passed last year, the federal legislation forbids both Russians and foreigners from equating homosexual and heterosexual relationships, and bans the distribution of pro-gay materials. Doing so much as holding hands can lead to a steep fine — among other risks. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that Olympians and attendees in Sochi are not at risk of prosecution, hate-based attacks have been on the rise throughout Russia since the law's passage.
The situation has become so bad that Club Mayak’s co-owners, a long-term couple named Andrei Tanichev and Roman Kochagov, applied for and were denied asylum in Europe. Meanwhile, though their club may be bright and welcoming inside, its front door is now unmarked and nondescript. The venue’s sign had been ripped down so many times that Kochagov simply stopped bothering to replace it, and even as the international community takes an interest in the club, attendance by the local gay community is falling.
In celebration of Sochi’s imperiled gay scene, and in rejection of Pakhomov's dedicated ignorance, here are 20 photos of Club Mayak at its best. (And here’s hoping that Tanichev and Kochagov can continue to run their business, and remain safe, for years to come.)
Club Mayak owner and Sochi resident Andrei Tanichev can be seen sitting in the audience.
... performers get ready ...
... and rehearse.
Before the show, they don makeup ...
... and costumes ...
... among other things.
Back out front ...
... the stage features performances ...
... singing ...
... and, of course, dancing.
While Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov may not like to admit it ...
... Sochi has a long history of welcoming the gay community.
For its part, Club Mayak is a place ...
... where gay and straight clubgoers ...
... of all genders can mix.
Perhaps, instead of feigning ignorance ...
... Pakhomov should pay Club Mayak a visit.
I'm sure he'd be welcomed with open arms.
Ultimately, Club Mayak seems well prepared for the Olympics. With any luck, it will welcome both tourists and locals for years to come.