Andrei Tanichev fondly remembers the first time he came to Sochi. He was dancing in a gay club when he noticed that there were windows. And while passersby sometimes stopped to stare, they didn't seem bothered by what they could see.
Three months later, the blonde-haired, square-jawed entrepreneur moved here for good. This resort town with its palm trees and pebbly beaches – Russia's scraggly Miami – seemed freer to him than his previous home in Moscow. Sochi, he says, is the most comfortable place to live an openly gay life in Russia.
A decade later, Mr. Tanichev is the co-owner of Mayak, a cabaret and dance club that is the centre of gay society in Sochi and a stylishly lit counterpoint to the idea that all Russian gays are repressed and on the run.
"There's a good atmosphere here, better than in other cities," says Nikita, a 25-year-old drag queen as he applied makeup ahead of an evening strutting Mayak's stage in a white sequin dress and globular artificial breasts while belting out disco classics. Nikita and his partner Timur were visiting Sochi from the central city of Yekaterinburg, a place where gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered Russians are much more cautious about revealing their orientation.
Mr. Tanichev said he's expecting a flood of foreign visitors to Mayak over the next two weeks as Sochi hosts the Winter Olympics. (A camera crew from The Colbert Report was in the club on Thursday, asking what Mr. Tanichev said were some "very humourous" questions.)
The club Mr. Tanichev first went dancing in has been closed, and there are no windows in Mayak's walls through which passersby can peek in on the 200 guests that gather most nights to enjoy the dance floor and drag show. The entrance to the club is a black door with a discreet red sign above it, and guests are asked upon arrival whether they know and are comfortable with the fact they're entering a gay bar.
But – despite a recent assertion by mayor Anatoly Pakhomov that "we do not have [gays] in our city" – almost everyone in Sochi knows where and what Mayak is. The club has been a gay hangout since the 1970s, when it was the queerest state-owned "cafeteria" in the Soviet Union.
Though homosexual relationships were criminalized in the USSR, Sochi has always had special status as the favoured resort of Russian leaders, something that apparently leant the Black Sea port a more socially permissive air.
Even during the conservative Leonid Brezhnev era, Mayak was known a place where gay men could socialize. And Sochi, helped by foreign tourists visiting its Black Sea coastline, slowly came out as the gay capital of Soviet Russia.
It started at a beach just outside the city centre, near a sanatorium named for the USSR's trailblazing Sputnik satellite. "Foreigners established a separate gay area on the beach near Sputnik. Then Russians found out about this and started to go there too. Nowadays, it's a famous gay beach," the 35-year-old Mr. Tanichev said.
When the Soviet Union crumbled, private owners moved in and kept Mayak (the club's name means "Lighthouse" or "Beacon") running during the 1990s, though now as an overtly gay establishment. Mr. Tanichev and his long-term boyfriend Roman Kochagov bought the club in 2004.
Mr. Tanichev says the city's history – and the constant influx of tourists and immigrants to this Black Sea port – have kept Sochi "the most tolerant city in Russia." Business in Mayak is good, despite the official homophobia on display in remarks like Mr. Pakhomov's, and a law signed last year by President Vladimir Putin that criminalizes "propaganda" that portrays gay and lesbian relationships as normal.
Mr. Tanichev says there's another, smaller, gay club in Sochi "right by the mayor's house."
But even in Sochi's freer air, bartender Artyom Rakitskiy says intolerance remains a serious issue. "Inside the club the atmosphere is great, but it's not like we can hold hands on the street outside," the wispy 22-year-old said. "There have been attacks. Sometimes they wait for us outside the club."
Nikita, the drag queen from Yekaterinburg, says the situation that has gotten worse around the country since the introduction of the "gay propaganda" ban last June. "Those people who were already against gays now feel that they have the support of the government."
Human-rights activists say that homophobia was already high in Russia before the new law. Many believe the Kremlin – facing an economic downturn (numbers released Friday show the country's economy posted zero growth in December 2013) – appears to have embraced a socially conservative agenda to ensure the support of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
Mr. Tanichev, a businessman, is careful not to criticize local authorities – he assumes Mr. Pakhomov was misquoted by the British Broadcasting Corp. when he said there were no gays in Sochi – or the Kremlin's new law, which he said has no practical effect on gays and lesbians who quietly live their lives.
He speaks optimistically about how the Olympics can help open Sochi even further, by spreading a culture of hospitality and open-mindedness, even as he chuckles about the ineffectiveness of foreign protests and boycotts aimed at helping Russia's LGBT community.
"Boycotting Stolichnaya vodka doesn't influence things here. Maybe if European gays were willing to boycott Russian [natural] gas, that would help," he said, in a reference to the Kremlin's economic reliance on oil and gas exports.
But Mr. Tanichev is nervous about the future. Many Russian gays believe the Kremlin softened the wording of its gay propaganda law in the hope of blunting criticisms ahead of the Olympics that began here Friday. Other anti-gay legislation, including a proposed law that would see children taken away from gay parents, were proposed in Russia's parliament, the Duma, but dropped ahead of the Games.
There are worries that such measures will be resurrected once the Games are over and the international media and spectators have moved on.
"The government knows that by adopting such laws, they decrease the attractiveness of Russia to foreigners and to foreign investors," Mr. Tanichev begins hopefully. He pauses before adding a large caveat: "But since the IQ of our Duma deputies is very low, we can't predict the future. We don't know what to expect."