Photographer Maria Babikova meets the Siberian drag queens challenging Russia’s gay propaganda law, through their expressive use of costume and make-up
In recent years, Russia has been regrettably known for the systematic oppression of the LGBTQ+ community. The so-called “gay propaganda law”, which was passed in 2013, has not only outlawed the representation of LGBTQ+ in mainstream media and culture but also has triggered an increase in homophobic violence. Russia’s conservative powers are keen to create a heteronormative image of the country — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite being largely unknown in the West, Russian queer underground culture exists — and it’s diverse, fearless and beautiful. The drag scene is a large part of it and is widespread across the country. Drawn by its creativity and fierce spirit, photographer Maria Babikova has documented the drag queen community in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
Originally from Russia but based in London, Maria Babikova first came across the Siberian drag scene on social media, through the biggest regional pageant “Diva of Siberia”. After connecting with a few performers online, she travelled to Novosibirsk and immediately found herself immersed in their lifestyle.
“There are drag clubs in Novosibirsk now, and I photographed the residents of one them. I spent months talking to some of the community online but when I entered their reality it was a very powerful and emotional experience. Some have second jobs, so on Friday they come straight from work to the club, they go 24/7. It’s a very intense lifestyle, and it’s like the rest of the city exists in a different time zone,” Maria remembers. “I timed my visit with the Pride party, a wild foam night with around 500 people. It was big but still quite private. When you’re there, it’s very free, almost like being in Berlin, but in the past, there was a number of homophobic attacks on the party. The LGBTQ+ community always lives in this dichotomy: building an inclusive safe space but knowing the safety could crumble any minute.”
Novosibirsk is the third biggest city in Russia with a population of over 1.5 million people. It is a regional cultural capital and one of the main centres of Russian scientific research. “In short, it is a regular large Russian city,” Maria sums up. Portraying the drag community in the Russian landscape beyond the capital of Moscow was one of her goals — not only because of the fact that the vibrant and fierce drag scene seems completely out of place there but for the possibility to survey the broader Russian mentality.
“There are three drag clubs in Novosibirsk and seven professional drag queens. In Russia there is a big scene, in almost every city where there is a gay community there is at least one gay club and its own drag artists,” says Madam Butterfly, one of the key drag queens on the Novosibirsk scene. “We mainly meet at contests in different cities. The biggest one happens in Sochi at the beginning of September, and I participated myself in 2015, which really inspired me to grow. Russian drag queens mostly follow each other’s work and connect through social media. In Novosibirsk, we have “Diva of Siberia”, a pageant for drag queens across the region. On stage, we are competitors, but in the day to day life we often meet and spend time together.”
Beauty has always been crucial for the drag community worldwide — it’s not just fake eyelashes and wigs, but rituals, products and inspiring images which have the power to completely transform one’s identity. For the Russian drag queens, beauty is a getaway into a more exciting and more accepting world. Beauty is escapism, beauty is passion, beauty is a political statement.
"I got into drag because I’ve loved the stage since childhood. At 13, I first saw the Hannah Montana series and I wanted to live like her: in her ordinary life she’s Miley but once she changes clothes she is a superstar! I used to wear my mum’s dresses and heels, I wanted to transform and shine!” says Vlady Heels, another drag queen from Novosibirsk. “I come up with my costumes together with my stylist and often make them. I order wigs from other cities or countries. In Russia, it’s not easy to find female heels in size 43. In the beginning, I had to work in size 40 by squeezing my feet in and coping with pain for the look!”
Olga Leonidovna got into drag through classical dance, making her way as a drag show back-up dancer in 2012. She describes her favourite stage persona as a careless blonde. Her approach to drag beauty is similar to any professional stage make-up. Professional make-up brand Kryolan is a firm favourite. “I do my make up myself," Olga says. “It was difficult in the beginning but I now have a steady experienced hand.”
Madam Butterfly also pointed out that online shopping has opened more possibilities for experimentation with one’s image: “It’s getting much easier, online shops have a great variety of wigs, jewellery, shoes of any size and style, which is great for emerging drag performers."
Maria Babikova’s portrayal of Novosibirsk’s drag community is honest, intimate and subtle and gives a true insight into their reality. It documents the way drag queens strive for beauty and perfection in their craft and the supportive spirit of their community. This series is also the first instalment of Systems of Order, a broader investigation into the Russian psyche. “I often come back to my memories growing up in Russia,” she says. “There was a lot of joy but also a lot of fear connected to living there. To me, there is an invisible relationship between fear and joy, which is deeply embedded within the Russian system. I am grateful to the brave community who allowed me into this space and allowed me to deepen my understanding of these subjects.”
“I think, because of the Russian love for beauty and performance, drag can sometimes to be tolerated or even admired. At the same time, these communities live very much outside of the system of accepted order,” Maria adds. “What moved me was that on the one hand, it was beautiful to see these talented performers express themselves creatively and perform their art. But on the other hand, they were trapped by the reality that this form is the only place where they can be their true selves.”