Inside Kazakhstan’s secret drag scene

Inside Kazakhstan’s secret drag scene
The gay club in Astana, Kazakhstan is unassuming, hidden behind a plain door in one of the city’s many Soviet-era housing blocks. Inside, it’s the centre of an entire community.

At 11pm, the sun has long set over Kazakhstan’s custom-built capital city Astana, and the streets are quiet. After knocking on the door and saying the code word through the intercom, I am ushered inside. At first glance, the club consists of a small dance floor, a bar, a smoking room, a stage, and a dozen cabaret-style tables. Customers drink cocktails, puff on nitrous oxide balloons, listen to Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Britney Spears, and chat amongst each other. At first, the atmosphere is calm, but by the first drag performance, the crowd are sufficiently uninhibited and cheer loudly.

Aside from the sounds of chatter in Russian, the club could easily be mistaken for a small gay bar in Soho. Camp decor is everywhere – pride flags, disco balls, bowls of condoms in the bathroom, mirrors on the walls. Even the bartenders’ aprons depict a ripped, shirtless chest. The seated customers sip champagne and eat chechil, the Armenian cheese popular in Central Asia. The first performance is an homage to Madonna’s performance of Vogue at the 1990 MTV awards, with drag queens in Marie Antoinette-style dresses, draped in pearls.

I meet Nur*, a gay man from Astana, who has been going to queer clubs in the city for the past 8 years. He says, “the club is a safe space where you can feel like yourself, dance however you want, be free in your movements, make whatever jokes you want. The music that plays there, the atmosphere and the people, it’s all of these things that make us feel like ourselves.”

Nightlife has been a sanctuary for queer people around the world for centuries, offering a respite from judgement and discrimination; things unfortunately all too prevalent in Kazakhstan. Though homosexuality is decriminalised, gay marriage and civil partnership are illegal, and many people, particularly amongst older generations, see it as morally wrong.

“Kazakhstan has a rather homophobic society,” Nur says. “There have been different gay clubs in Astana since 2016, and in my memory each of them has experienced police raids. I haven’t heard of raids like this in regular hetero clubs. In the midst of the party, the police can walk in and start checking for everyone’s ID and asking them their reasons for visiting the club. It’s the homophobia in society and the permissiveness of the police that allows them to do all this.”

Astana, which translates to capital in Kazakh, lies in the north of the country, around 400 km from the Russian border. Its mix of brash, futuristic architecture and functional apartment blocks tells the story of a city reinventing itself; from its Soviet past to a 21st-century future. Partly due to its freezing winters – with temperatures regularly dropping below -20°C – and partly due to its car-oriented roads, the streets are sparsely populated, creating a sort of glittering ghost town.

Upon becoming the capital in 1997, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev spent huge amounts of oil money on giving the city ready-made tourist attractions like Khan Shatyr’s indoor beach, which has sand imported from the Maldives. It can feel like Vegas without the gambling, isolated in the steppe rather than the desert. The city is young, and its subcultures and nightlife aren’t as established as those in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, located in the mountainous South. But this is changing, as Astana itself develops, and the (generally more liberal) younger generations gain more power to shape their city.

As I sit in the stuffy, faux-graffiti-covered smoking room, people chat to me about Rosalía, Hunter Schafer and Drag Race in a mix of Russian and English – despite being miles from Europe or the US geographically, Western pop culture seems to be a universal language. More people speak English here than anywhere else I’ve encountered in the country, partly thanks to music, TikTok and TV; media and the Internet acting as a virtual haven from a conservative reality.

Regardless of how their city and country may view their sexuality, the people I speak to seem proud of them. Though drag performances, emceeing, and most conversations take place in Russian, there is an important tie to Kazakh culture. There are drag acts with the nation’s traditional two-stringed instrument, the dombra, and a real sense of patriotism, and emphasis on the Kazakh language, amongst the people I speak to. A customer called Di* says, “the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed my idea from ‘sometimes I need to speak Kazakh’ to ‘I have to speak Kazakh everyday’”.

Since the war, the Russian language has become a contentious subject throughout post-Soviet nations. Many people are increasingly opting to speak their native languages – such as Kazakh, Uzbek, Ukrainian or Estonian – as a way of reclaiming their culture and reinforcing their independence. The Kazakh government has put a particular emphasis on using Kazakh over Russian, especially in the media, though the latter remains an officially recognised language and is spoken widely.

At around 2am, the floor has filled up and people are dancing. A middle-aged man with a shirt that says ‘Keep Calm and Love Thailand’ drunkenly spins around; beside him, a businessman in a full suit sways to the music, as though he arrived straight after work to let loose. Friend groups dance, sing, and chatter, and couples take advantage of the judgement-free atmosphere. The air is full of dry ice, the floor littered with beer cans and balloons.

“The club is a safe space where you can feel like yourself, dance however you want, be free in your movements, make whatever jokes you want”.

Nur

As the night drags on, people slowly start to leave, with friends or partners. It’s an unspoken rule that you don’t order a taxi, or a Yandex (the Russian-owned answer to Uber), from the door. “There have been cases when cabs took people away after the club and they were raped and beaten”, Nur tells me. As a precaution, the location is revealed on a need-to-know basis, and it won’t come up from any Google searches. Usually, the address is passed along through friends or on apps like Tinder or Grindr.

He unfortunately knows the dangers from personal experience. “After my birthday party, we left the club and suddenly the police met us at the door, saying we were violating public order. The police randomly grabbed people from the crowd and interrogated them, so my friends and I decided to run away, and we managed to do it. The cab driver asked what kind of club it was, and when I said it was a regular nightclub, he started joking that he knew it was a club for “f*ggots”.

There are other, less overt problems that can arise when the only place you can be yourself is a club. Rates of alcohol abuse and dependency are statistically higher within the LGBT+ community, as are rates of drug abuse. One customer said that the club means “nothing special” to him, as gay clubs are “too depraved”. Yet he’s been partying there for the last two years, as there are virtually no other LGBT+ venues in the city to meet friends or partners.

Spiking has also been an issue in Astana’s gay clubs. “There was a club called Monroe, where there were cases of substances being put into alcohol behind the bar. For example, my ex-boyfriend once went there to celebrate New Year's Eve and something was slipped into his cocktail, he doesn't remember how he got home, and his body was bruised”, says Nur.

Whilst the past may be sobering to revisit, the queer community of Astana has faith in the future. Nur says, “I have hope. Recently in big cities, safe spaces have opened for LGBT+ people such as bars and cafes, as well as clubs. The younger generation is less homophobic, and in general, people aged 19-29 are very well-disposed towards LGBT+ people.” When I asked what hopes he had for the future, one performer simply said, “polnaya svoboda – complete freedom.”

*Names changed for anonymity

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