Feb. 12, 2014— -- As Russia enjoys the spotlight that shines from the multibillion-dollar splendor of the Sochi Winter Olympics, over in Moscow, dismay runs through Central Station, Russia's largest gay nightclub.
With its bullet-sprayed doors and protective razor-wire fencing, Central Station management says it has been subjected to shootings, water and gas attacks, and vandalism. Considered by many patrons as "the cultural center" for gays in Russia, the lively venue is known for its colorful, irreverent drag shows and modern house music. But the staff says a recent spate of homophobic attacks has terrified the gay community there.
They say it's all part of an intensifying anti-gay sentiment in Russia, a country that's never been widely accepting of homosexuality, but recently has been inflamed by a controversial anti-gay propaganda law.
The law, signed by President Putin last June, bans the "propaganda of non-traditional relationships" to minors, and has received international condemnation. It claims to protect children from information about homosexuality, but human rights activists say it's really a crackdown on gay rights, a form of institutionalized homophobia meant to suppress gay-rights activists from holding public events and gay people from living their lives openly.
"More than 90 percent of people support this law," said Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg lawmaker who helped craft the law. "That means that the other 10 percent, it's whatever, maybe one tiny part is against this legislation, so it's not a problem. "
Citizens who have protested the law before and after its passage have been violently accosted and attacked by anti-gay activists who claim to favor "traditional" Russian values. People unfurling rainbow flags and other pro-gay displays have been aggressively detained. The law arguably has emboldened a new wave of discrimination and violence, including vigilante groups that lure gay teens online, then torture and humiliate them.
"Nightline" spoke to several members of the gay community in Moscow and Central Station patrons. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
"They just have a legal right to hate us," said 20-year-old "Alexei." "Now they think that gay people can harm children."
"Alexei" says he is "100 percent gay," but acts straight in public to survive.
"I'm trying to be one of the crowd, black and white," he said. "I'm trying to be invisible."
Alexei and many of his friends find refuge at Central Station, one of the few places they say they can be open about their identities.
"For gay society, this club is very important," said club manager Andrew Lishchinsky. "It's a symbol of freedom. It's a symbol that the rights of gays are not discriminated."
Alexei works at the club as a drag queen. With make-up and costumes, he literally transforms. And yet, he said, it makes him feel more "himself."
"This mask makes me be real," he said, applying his make-up. "Strange, but it always works that way. On the outside world, I wear [the] mask of straight guy, to be one of them, to hide."
Here, Alexei and his drag queen friends step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, onto a bright stage where they are applauded and respected. In a society where gays are hated and reviled, Alexei said, drag is empowering.
"It's the only place we can do everything we want," Alexei said. "We dress like we want, we do everything we want, we kiss everybody we want. We are free here."
But, Lishchinsky said, things have changed for the worse and he is worried about the survival of the club.
"I cannot say that old times, the situation was very good," he said, "but not very bad as now."
In October, an unidentified gang of men hung signs that said "gay club entrance" to ensure that no one could enter Central Station anonymously.
"It's very dangerous to go to the club with that kind [of] advertising," said Lishchinsky.
"Look up at the banner," said Anton Krasovsky, a longtime patron of the club. "The sign means exactly: gay people, the people of the second class, are here in this building. If you want to beat them up, you're welcome to."
Lishchinsky, the club manager, said the signs have led to a new spike in gay muggings and bashings outside the club. In November, he said, two armed men tried to break into the club and left bullet holes through the front door.
"They say, 'We would like to kill gays. We hate gays'," said Lishchinsky, describing the attackers.
"Twenty-first century Moscow," Krasovsky said, in disbelief. "It's not Bagdad. It's not Kabul. Moscow. It's like Stonewall in '68. But nobody protest."
"Our police, unfortunately, don't help you because they hate gay society," said Lishchinsky.
The attacks have hurt business. And yet, despite the dangers, the drag queens return each night.
"For many of us, it's just like our home; it's our family," said Alexei. "We can't just leave it."
Throughout November and December, Lishchinsky said, the internal ventilation system was rigged to attack patrons with water and, in some cases, toxic gas. There have been more than eight gas attacks, he said, forcing hundreds of club-goers to evacuate.
"If people stay in the premises during all the time, they have headache and they have to throw up," he said.
A chemical report provided by the club showed hydrogen sulfide, a potentially deadly gas, was found in the dance room in amounts 75 times higher than acceptable Russian government safety norms.
In another attack, a group of 50 men strong-armed their way onto the property and went into the attic, where, Lishchinsky said, they destroyed the roof and stole property before engaging in a shoot-out.
A "morality patrol" van monitors the club, videotaping patrons as they come and go, which, Lishchinsky argued, is another form of harassment.
"We just want people to know that the LGBT community is there," said Nikita, a member of the "patrol." "Because underage kids can be tempted to go there. ... So we just want the younger generation to be able to make a choice -- that you can develop in different ways."
Nikita and Sasha, the men who drove the van, denied that they were there to harass or expose gay people. Instead, they said, they were there to provide security for the guests and to make sure nothing illegal happened.
The "morality patrol" had heard of the attacks and suggested that extremist anti-gay groups were responsible, pointing out that many local groups disapprove of gay clubs and homosexuals.
Some of the most extreme anti-gay activists are members of a radical Orthodox Christian group called "God's Will." Dmitry Enteo, the group's leader, said, to them, homosexuality is "filth."
"To us, homosexuality is no different than pedophilia, necrophilia, scatology," he said. "It's a real plague, a real virus that needs to be destroyed. We need to stop this tumor so it doesn't metastasize."
The group said it collected signatures to help the passage of the anti-gay propaganda law, and that it was confident it had majority support in Russia, even for its most extreme ideas.
"We want to introduce -- with the approval of the democratic referendum of course -- death penalty for those who want to promote homosexuality," Enteo said. "They should be stoned to death, like God ordered."
The group said it deeply opposed gay clubs and places that gays gather, but doesn't engage in raiding them.
But the constant harassment of Central Station, whatever its source, has taken its toll.
Throughout Moscow and beyond, it's not infrequent for Russian celebrities and politicians to make inflammatory remarks about gay people.
"To be publically gay it's not illegal, it's immoral," said lawmaker Vitaly Milonov. "It's disgusting to a majority of people because it's unnatural, it's a shame, a sin." In regards to Russia's gay clubs, he said, "I know some of them, but I prefer not to smell a bad taste."
To handle the harassment, club manager Lishchinsky has penned an open letter to President Putin asking him to help keep the club safe from anti-LGBT attacks.
But some are crumbing under pressure. One club manager had already left the country for Washington, D.C., and was seeking asylum in the United States. "Viktor," who has performed at Central Station for years, had a plane ticket for San Francisco. And a dancer named Alexander had a departure date for New York City. Alexei, too, said he was planning to leave the country.
"I don't feel like Russia can be better," he said. "I am saving my money to move from Russia and that's everything I can do now."