My first morning in Saint Petersburg was on one of Russia’s most celebrated holidays, Victory Day. I darted out of bed and marched over to Cafe Singer, one of my favorite buildings in the city (which was originally a sewing machine factory). The Cafe can be found on the 2nd floor through the cities most famous bookshop. I found a front row seat right in front of the window overlooking Nevsky Prospect. Over the course of the next few hours thousands of patriotic Russians marched past me waving flags and munching on ice cream. The older generation were dressed in military uniforms adorned with ribbons and medals of honour. A tribute to the end of World War II and the brave citizens who fought the Nazis.
I stuck out like an obvious tourist and moments after sitting down a local 24 year old Russian man asked to join me at the table to practice his English. The great lover of spontaneity that I am I welcomed him to the table. I spent the next hour or so munching on a danish pastry stuffed with cottage cheese and strawberry jelly and sipped on a latte while he told me about his life in Russia. I soon found out that he was a gay man which opened up a whole can of beans as I started to act like an undercover journalist. I asked him how he felt about the recent law which passed in Saint Petersburg banning “homosexual propaganda.” I was saddened to talk to a man who sort of exuded this air of helplessness about living in his own country. While he never felt unsafe (he visits local gay bars) he clearly lacked rights and never envisions himself telling his family.
I did appreciate how for a moment he spoke with a tone of hope. He referenced Madonna’s upcoming tour which would be playing a concert in Saint Petersburg. To many LGBT in Russia this gesture signifies her support for their plight. She has even made comments in the news after she discovered that she would be playing her concert in a city which had criminalized the gay lifestyle. “I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed,” the 53 year old Material Girl said. Her comments were in direct response to a law passed in March by St. Petersburg’s Governor Georgy Poltavchenko. The law effectively criminalizes reading, writing, speaking or reporting on anything related to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people. Violators of the law — which outlaws all LGBT Pride events — reportedly could face fines anywhere between 5,000 ($171) and 500,000 rubles ($17,000).
I slowly sipped my latte and really had to reflect on how public figures like Madonna and Lady Gaga really do represent a flicker of hope for the many LGBT communities around the world that live in countries that wish they would just disappear.
After an hours chat he had to run and waved me farewell. The Cafe was now packed and two Russian woman asked if I was sitting with anyone. I smiled and offered two more guests to my table. I soon discovered that these two well to do woman worked in the haute couture fashion industry. As we snapped shots of the crowds below they told me stories of the growing prosperity in Russia which is finally being enjoyed by a new middle class. They chatted of their love for art and walked me over to the Russian Museum where they rambled on about their favorite masters.
My simple breakfast at Cafe Singer was a profound one. I walked away inspired by the marching of patriotic crowds, hopeful for my Russian gay comrades and excited to dive into the artistic past of Russia’s greatest artists.