LGBT travel to St. Petersburg, Russia

 As Baltic cruise season approaches, we recall our gay experience in St. Petersburg

markdaleThe “gay-friendly” score of a destination can change over time—sometimes improving, sometimes worsening. Lately, Mark and I have been remembering our 2009 Baltic voyage, and how that itinerary will be much different for LGBT travelers this year, especially when visiting St. Petersburg.

We sailed aboard Celebrity Constellation with Atlantis, eagerly anticipating from our first day onboard that we would have two days in St. Petersburg.  In advance of our journey, I read everything I could about this historic city. We knew the city was the site of key events in the 1917 revolution, and that it had from 1924 to 1991 bore the name Leningrad. We also knew that Putin, who assumed the Russian presidency in 2000, hailed from St Petersburg, and that he viewed the new-found freedom in his home city with suspicion.

Hermitage Museum St Peterburg Russia

Awestruck in the Hermitage Museum.

Ironically, our visit to Russia coincided with our first trip with Atlantis, so we experienced this country in very queer company. Along with 12 other men from the Atlantis group, we booked a bus tour excursion of the city. The guide, whom I will call “Ekaterina,” (not her real name), picked up the microphone, faced forward and mechanically said, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.”  She then glanced in the rear-view mirror, turned around, thought for a moment and said “Uhm…welcome gentlemen…”

As tour guides go, the 20-something and very Russian-looking Ekaterina began by offering fairly dry facts. She told us the name and bio of every Countess posing in every portrait, along with more than we wanted to know about the home furnishings of the Czars.

During a restroom break, we were encouraged to peruse any of several tiny neighboring stores catering to tourists. We saw several shops, all with scores of different brands of vodka indistinguishable to us, labeled as they were, in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Hoping to encourage our guide to bring more gay flavor to the tour, I took Ekaterina aside. I explained to her, “You know, Ekaterina, this is a gay group. We’re all homosexuals!  Our ship is all gay!”  Showing no emotion, she took in that information.  Not sure she understood, I continued, “If you know any gay or lesbian people, we’d enjoy learning about what it is like to be gay here in St Petersburg.” Ekaterina nodded, still stone faced, and said in her thick Russian accent, (insert your best impression of a Slavic 007 girl here) “Well, I can help you with that, because I myself am not straight either.”

Peterhof St Petersburg Russia

The Peterhof, Palace of Peter the Great.

Ekaterina then got back on the microphone and told us that she could be free to speak with us because “Our driver speaks not a word of English.” She explained that of all the cities in Russia, St. Petersburg was at that time the most tolerant regarding LGBT people, and Moscow the least. Still, she explained that there were no protections and LGBT people had to be very careful. Ekaterina proceeded to tell us about the lively St. Petersburg arts scene, and underground activities kept quiet for the sake of safety. We left the tour feeling that we gained at least a small window of insight into the local LGBT culture. We felt grateful for Ekaterina’s willingness to share with us.

Sadly, the persecution of LGBT people has became much harsher in Russia in the eight years since that cruise. In 2013, Putin signed the notorious “gay propaganda” law. We think often of our guide “Ekaterina” and wonder how she navigates the difficulties of being a lesbian in today’s Russia.

Peterhoff gardens St Petersburg

Scupture in the Peterhof gardens.

We also wonder how 2017 LGBT travelers to Russia will experience that country. Will some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender cruisers opt to remain onboard when their ship docks at St. Petersburg? Will those who do disembark feel a chilling effect from the Russian law? The U.S. Department of State website points out that Russia’s anti-gay law can potentially be applied not only to Russian citizens, but also travelers (“fines, up to 15 days in jail, and deportation”) Given the current state of US politics, can LGBT travelers count on our government’s help in dealing with Russian officials?

What are your thoughts? Do you have plans to travel to Russia soon? We know this is a complex subject for LGBT travelers, and we respect and value the diverse opinions our community members may have on this topic. We’d love to hear from you — feel free to chime in with your two (or more) rubles.