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NEW YORK — Neither Ded Moroz (Father Frost) nor his young snow-maiden assistant, Snegurochka — traditional New Year’s Eve figures in Russia — made an appearance here at a party of exiles celebrating their homeland's biggest holiday.
But inside this small bar on the Lower East Side, there were many other reminders of New Year's Eve in Russia, which during Soviet times replaced Christmas as an appropriately atheist year-end bash. Caviar, vodka and tinsel were abundant, and revelers were treated to an impromptu performance of the song "I Like That You Are Not Mad About Me" from the 1970s Soviet film "Irony of Fate," shown perennially during this season back home.
These were traces of a motherland many have only recently left behind but have little hope of returning to anytime soon. As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Russians, many feel they have been chased out of their home country by a growing homophobia prevalent among the political and religious elite and recently formalized in a new law.
While Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, in August, the government banned the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," which in effect stigmatizes LGBT individuals.
Human-rights groups have criticized the law, and other countries, including the United States, have used the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia as an opportunity to express their disapproval.
For LGBT Russians with the means to travel abroad, exile and safety have become preferable to remaining at home.
It's a choice Vitaly, like many others at this party, has made.
After a hastily arranged departure, the 25-year-old physicist — who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution against him or his family — arrived in New York in October.
His mother had told him, "You better leave. It is better you live in America than something happen to you here again."
Two years ago, he said, he was brutally attacked by skinheads in his native Siberia. When the police arrived to investigate, he told them he believed he was targeted for being gay. Then in September, when Vitaly participated in a protest against the new law, he was arrested, then detained by the Federal Security Agency (FSB) for days while his parents, who didn’t know where he was, frantically looked for him. While in custody, the agents taunted him with homophobic slurs and beat him, he said, using their fists, books and rubber sticks.
His mother and father took care of him after both attacks, which each time left him with physical wounds that took weeks to heal. But, he said, his parents came to believe that it was better to let their son go, even if far away. Realizing he could be assaulted again, Vitaly agreed.
"It's not easy to be there for people like me," he said. "I miss my parents. I don't miss anything else."
Aaron C. Morris
legal director for Immigration Equality
Vitaly has joined a community that is growing rapidly in New York City, according to Nina Long, a co-president of RUSA LGBT, which hosted the New Year's Eve party.
"Russians were one of the biggest constituencies at this year's pride parade," she said.
That tracks with what Immigration Equality, which represents LGBT individuals seeking asylum in the U.S., has noted.
"We saw a remarkable rise in the number of Russians contacting us for assistance," said Aaron C. Morris, the group's legal director. "Inquiries skyrocketed over the summer."
According to Immigration Equality, in the month after the law was passed, Russians overtook Jamaicans as the organization's largest group seeking asylum. This year, 127 gay or HIV-positive Russians requested help from Immigration Equality, more than twice than in the previous year. Overall this year, 224 Russians won asylum, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The agency does not track what share of those were based on LGBT-related claims.
Morris said that while the organization’s Russian clients have long been relatively successful in winning asylum by establishing a well-founded fear of persecution back home, the new law has made it easier for them to argue their cases.
"If before we were able to prove that nongovernmental entities like skinhead groups were hunting down queer people, this is an even stronger indication that the Russian government isn't interested in helping them or is even actively seeking them out," he said.
Alex and Misha, who were also at the New Year's Eve party, recently arrived and applied for asylum in the United States. When the couple, who declined to give their last names first visited the U.S. on vacation in December 2010, they were stunned by LGBT people's ability to have the kinds of weddings and celebrations reserved for heterosexual couples in Russia. On a whim, they decided to get married in the U.S. Back in Russia, they kept their marriage hidden, resuming a pretense of being roommates.
Then, the men said, FSB agents kidnapped Misha in order to coerce Alex to inform on the international aid agency for which he worked. The FSB previously approached Alex, who consistently refused. In addition to attempting to intimidate them physically, the couple said, the agency tried to use their sexuality for leverage. They told Misha they knew about his and Alex's marriage and now, with the new propaganda law, they could prosecute them if Alex wouldn't cooperate.
Alex and Misha decided they had to leave Russia. They quickly sold their belongings and returned to the U.S. on the tourist visas they already had. Their asylum case is pending.
As Champagne and cream puffs from a bakery in the heavily Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach were passed around, Alex reflected on a life in exile. The hardest part, he said, was living in limbo and not feeling fully settled here.
"When we were working, we would dream of vacation," he said. "When we have a kind of vacation now, we dream about work."
But Alex and Misha said they are happy to be here, even if they had to leave behind many friends and relatives in Russia.
Alex translated into English what Misha told him the first time they visited the U.S. and attended the wedding of two gay men: "I was born in the wrong country."
Alex said that he, too, loves living here. "I'm not afraid to take Misha's hand, to show we love each other," he said. "To say that we are married."
While many at the party said they are relieved to be out of Russia, they worry for those left behind. Several people said they anticipate the situation in Russia for LGBT individuals will further deteriorate after the Olympics, when international attention fades.
That gives RUSA LGBT a crucial role, said Long. "The diaspora has a huge effect because we are still very connected with people in Russia. Our group is important to the fight against homophobia at home."
To help, several members of the expatriate community have told their stories in an upcoming book, Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.
But on this late-December evening, a few days before the actual changing of the years, the fight seemed far away amid the New Year's festivities. People took turns strumming a guitar while others stepped up to a microphone to sing songs in Russian.
As drink orders were shouted across the bar, even the non-Russian-speaking bartenders handed over glasses with the New Year’s greeting "S Novyim Godom."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the Crimea region of Ukraine might already be lost to Russian control