‘We decided not to hide’ The war and anti-LGBTQ+ laws forced much of Russia’s queer community to leave, many choosing to resettle in Turkey
After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, much of Russia’s queer community chose to move abroad. While life had been difficult even before the invasion, the complete ban on what the authorities call “LGBT propaganda,” introduced in 2022, made life in conservative Russian society even harder. Photographer Sergei Stroitelev talked to queer people who left Russia for Turkey, capturing their new lives, their feelings about moving abroad, and their plans for the future.
Varya and Ira
Both are 23 years old
We met in Kazan in 2021, and within a few months we were talking about getting married. This was impossible in Russia, so we just organized a party with our friends and took the same surname.
As soon as the war broke out, we started to think about leaving. Many of our friends had already left Russia, but we kept putting it off. The law [introduced in November 2022] increasing the punishment for “LGBTQ+ propaganda” was what finally tipped us over the edge. That was when we decided to move to Turkey.
When we first moved to Antalya, we were worried about getting cornered in an alley — but that’s probably just the scars leftover from life in Russia. We’re more at ease now. We walk around our neighborhood holding hands. We have an LGBTQ+ flag hanging in our window. It’s probably even visible from the mosque across the street.
26 years old
While isolating in 2021, I began to self-reflect and read articles about non-binary and transgender identities. It was a relief to realize that there was a name for how I felt.
In Kazan, I led a support group and roundtables on LGBTQ+ issues at a local NGO. My social circle was relatively artsy, everyone there was very close and accepting. I also designed sportswear at a clothing factory. Once, one of my co-workers said to my face that “gays should be burned.” Older women I’d come by on the street were often confused about my gender and say, “What are you?”
My parents don’t accept me. My mother once saw I’d listed my pronouns as “he/she” on social media. She said to me, “why don’t you add ‘it’ to the list?” I don’t talk to my father. He’s a hard drinker and a drug addict. He’s extremely homophobic.
When the war started, all my other concerns felt like nonsense. The war came to me as a tragedy. I was crying constantly and started taking antidepressants. I decided to move to Turkey in April . I settled in Antalya.
Unfortunately, Turkey doesn’t have a queer community. My non-binary identity has started to fade and I’ve begun to doubt myself. Most Turkish people see me as a girl. While it’s not the safest country for queer people, most don’t really care — maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner.
I’m very glad I wasn’t in Russia when the new law banning “LGBTQ+ propaganda” was passed. Even from afar, it was hard for me.
Politically speaking, I feel more free here. Emotionally, not so much.
Fyodor and Igor
24 and 23 years old
We started talking about leaving Russia in the fall of 2021. We’d taken a video of us kissing in front of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and received a lot of homophobic comments in response. What’s more, the authorities started concocting a criminal case against us for “offending against religious feeling.” Although it was scary, we still decided to stay in Russia — we wanted to keep fighting and to prove that we were in the right.
The war was the last straw. We moved to Istanbul in early January 2023.
We don’t feel completely safe here. Turkey is a Muslim country, and we try not to show our feelings publicly. We don’t intend on staying — we’re planning to move to Argentina, where it’s more LGBT-friendly.
At the time of publication, Fyodor and Igor had already moved to Argentina.
33 years old
I joined the Russian LGBT network as a bisexual in 2013. A year later, the whole Mayak movement, which protects people in the LGBTQ+ community and women experiencing violence, emerged from the small branch in Vladivostok where I was registered.
In 2016, law enforcement workers from the Interior Ministry started coming to our events. They’d always say they’d received a call about some children being exposed to pornography. Dealing with law enforcement is always really unpleasant. For example, when I was 19, a police officer threatened to plant drugs on me and forced me to perform oral sex on him.
When the war started, they came and raided my place. After that, I tried not to sleep at my home address, so that they wouldn’t frighten my mother.
Even then, I didn’t leave. I would think to myself, I live in Russia, it’s up to me to make it a better place. But I knew I had to leave after they announced the new law against “LGBTQ+ propaganda.”
When I first arrived in Turkey, I just stayed home. I needed to just exhale and think about what to do next. It wasn’t the stress. I just needed to recharge. I applied for a humanitarian visa to Germany and am now waiting for a response.
Itil has been declared a “foreign agent” in Russia. She now lives in Germany.
Mercy and Yan
19 and 25 years old
We left on March 8. We got tickets for the first flight we could and ended up in a tiny town on the Turkish coast. We’ve lived here for almost a year, with a feeling of helpless anger from hearing all the news and with the feeling that this nightmare has become the new normal.
We’re fine. Here, in Manavgat, it’s empty and quiet. Only the sea makes a sound. No one stares at us, even when we’re holding hands. It’s probably because we’re visitors.
20 years old
I studied at a cadet school in Krasnoyarsk. I don’t think it’s worth explaining what kind of values they instilled in us. I can clearly remember how happy I was when Russia annexed Crimea. Now it’s shameful to even think about it. Obviously, I didn’t tell anyone about my sexual orientation.
After graduating, I decided to study at the Higher School of Economics. What followed was the age-old story of a small town guy moving to Moscow. It was scary, but I got lucky: my friend from cadet school was accepted to the same university and we moved together.
I came out in Moscow, in the fall of 2020. I didn’t post about it anywhere. I just told my friend from Krasnoyarsk and felt better afterwards.
The war turned everything upside down. I was scared of a possible mobilization and that the borders would close, since I’d be called up in the first rounds. I couldn’t imagine myself on the frontlines, committing war crimes.
In April 2022, I decided to move to Turkey. I didn’t need a visa and I knew quite a few people who’d already moved there. I don’t feel too marginalized here. My friends helped me find a place to live and have given me a sense of stability. I like Istanbul. It’s fairly free here, especially for foreigners.
I’m still studying at the university, but officially I’m on academic leave. In the summer of 2022, when I went to Moscow to finish the semester, I was interrogated at the border for two hours.
When I first left, I thought that maybe I’d wait for a month and then come back. But the war still goes on.
33 years old
I didn’t come out as gay – I was outed by my relatives, who told my mother when I was 17.
A relative came to visit me in St. Petersburg, and at one point we started discussing girls. I said, “I’m not that interested.” He told my whole family about that. I had a very awkward conversation with my mother — nothing negative, she just said she wanted grandchildren.
By the time I was 19, I fully identified as gay. I never hid it, but I also didn’t go around waving a rainbow flag. It seemed to me things like that just scared homophobic Russian society.
When the war started, I realized I had to leave. It was obvious that everything was heading south. At first I thought about going to Astana for a couple of weeks while the situation unfolded. Then my flight got canceled, which really scared me. In the end, I decided to fly to Istanbul.
My boyfriend Konstantin was especially worried, asking me why I thought it would be better [in Turkey]. I didn’t know if it would be, but I was sure it would at least be calmer than in Russia.
In Turkey, I received a residence permit letting me rent a place. I organized a small chat for queer people and queer allies. I’m more or less on autopilot now. My boyfriend and I are trying to figure out how to keep up a long-distance relationship, but it’s hard. We’ve been able to see each other once since I left.
Misha and Marina
27 and 23 years old
We’ve decided not to hide. Getting called hateful slurs and receiving dirty looks has become an everyday occurrence.
We haven’t encountered overt homophobia from locals in Turkey. Just from surprised Russian-speakers when we hug on the beach. Honestly, there really isn’t much of an LGBT community here — but that’s a minor issue. We live in hope that the war will end soon. That’s what keeps us going.