Our anonymous insider has spent months in Ukraine, where the LGBT community are still finding ways to hook up as the missiles fall.
A town in the Donbas, 40 kilometres from the front line. Pavlo* is a 22-year-old student who was training to be a lawyer at a university in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. He spent the first week of the war in the basement of his dormitory as the Russians pounded the city with artillery. The Russians were routed from Kharkiv’s outskirts. Now, his course has moved online, and Pavlo is back in his hometown in Donetsk Region, which like Kharkiv is still regularly the target of Russian missile strikes.
All of this was covered in our introductory small talk on the dating app where we became acquainted. But by now the conversation has moved on to more interesting territory. According to the app, he’s less than one kilometre away, but we can’t meet up. It might be only 9.30pm, but the town is already under curfew. But sexting is a good way to while away the long, cold winter nights when everything is closed and you’re not allowed leave the building anyway.
A video comes through from Pavlo. Based on the thumbnail, it looks like a hot one. But the hotel’s wi-fi isn’t cooperating. I hold my phone up to the window, hoping to catch a better signal.
At that precise moment, there’s a brief flash, then a soft whoomph of air which passes right through my body. Then immediately afterwards, a very loud explosion that shakes the building and sets off all the car alarms in the street outside. About 30 seconds later, there’s a second explosion – more distant, but still very loud.
I go into the corridor. There’s some commotion as a smattering of civilian guests emerge from their rooms. The soldiers that form the vast majority of the hotel’s inhabitants aren’t even bothered enough to get out bed. I don’t fancy making my way down to the bomb shelter, accessed via a sarcophagus-like iron hatch in the floor.
That was close 😕
Yep. You okay?
Fine. Almost shat myself tho))
Nice video btw.
Hehe thanks 😊
While Russia’s full-scale invasion that began in February 2022 may have dealt a profound psychological blow against the people of Ukraine, those who have remained in the country have strived to maintain some sort of normality in the face of the horrors of war. This applies equally to Ukraine’s gays, who – to their great credit – have not let the small matter of Europe’s largest conflict since WWII get in the way of getting laid.
It goes without saying that tank battles and marauding troops can stymie the potential for a romantic escapade. But this is not everyone’s experience of war. Ukraine is a big country, and where a person happened to be on 24 February 2022 (and whether or not that person chose to or was able to leave that place) has had a huge effect on that experience. For many, the worst excesses of this conflict are something that they, like us, have largely witnessed on a television or phone screen, albeit with greater geographical and psychological proximity. In their lives, the gruesome realities of war take a back seat to more mundane forms of disruption and inconvenience.
There is a nationwide curfew in Ukraine. This can be as late as midnight in some places and as early as 8pm in others. After curfew, it’s forbidden to be out on the streets at all until the following morning. This means that anyone heading for an evening hook-up risks having to spend the night there. But gay hook-up culture is not geared towards spending the night – instead, most guys like to be in and out within the space of an hour. But heading back out into the night post-nut risks missing one of the dwindling number of taxis, and making the long walk home while dodging police cars that prowl the deserted streets for rulebreakers.
In October, Russia also started targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with long-range missile strikes in an attempt to freeze the country’s population into submission. While the campaign failed in its strategic aims, it did deal another challenge to hook-up culture. More than one guy told me stories of being in the middle of showering (or, worse, douching) in anticipation of a gentleman visitor, only for the power and water suddenly cut out. However, the gays – like Ukrainian society as a whole – adapted and overcame. These days, Russia is running low on missiles and Ukrainian engineers can get damaged infrastructure back online within a few hours. For now at least, Ukraine’s bottoms can breathe a sigh of relief.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men have volunteered to fight for their country and tens of thousands of those have tragically lost their lives or been permanently maimed. Given the risks involved, it is not surprising that many are reluctant to sign up. As a result, military recruiters are resorting to increasingly forceful measures to meet their quotas. And the horniest and most prolific demographic, men in their twenties, are also precisely those most actively sought to defend their motherland against Russia’s aggression. While in Kharkiv, I get chatting to 24-year-old Maksim:
Whereabouts are you?
In a village near Kharkiv.
Where are you?
What, in the city?
Aren’t you afraid?
What do you mean?
They are literally grabbing guys off the streets there.
One minute you’re going to the shops for some milk, the next minute you’re in the army.
That’s why I’m staying at my grandma’s.
In Ukraine, as in pretty much every other country around the world, hook-up culture revolves around apps, the most popular of which is Hornet. Like its better-known competitor Grindr, Hornet displays potential matches in a grid of photos arranged by proximity. This means that in areas closer to the action, some eligible guys can be the wrong side of the front line. Which begs the question – is anyone is ever horny enough to brave checkpoints, minefields and artillery barrages for the sake of a hook-up?
In Zaporizhzhia Oblast, half of which was annexed by Russia following sham referendums in September, I start chatting with Sasha, an attractive, athletic blond who looks to be not too far away.
Whereabouts are you?
I look on Google Maps. Vasylivka, as it is known in Ukrainian, is less than an hour’s drive south of Zaporizhzhia. I check on an app which has a map overlay reflecting the current state of the conflict. Vasylivka is in the part highlighted in red, meaning it is occupied by the Russians. It seems weird not to address this:
Are the Russian soldiers behaving themselves there?
Very well, in fact
Why do you ask?
The answer to this question seems obvious. Hasn’t he seen those images from Bucha that shocked the world? The mass graves of Irpin and Mariupol? Maybe he’s afraid of speaking freely. Maybe he is a Russian soldier.
But he could be telling the truth. Not every town under occupation is a Bucha or an Irpin. In many places, the Russians simply swept in overnight, and – for the majority of people at least – not much changed apart from the colours of the flag flying on the town hall. Even in the midst of a war, some people still travel back and forth between the two zones to visit relatives and check up on property, although this now usually involves a very long and circuitous journey through Poland, the Baltic States and Russia to avoid having to cross the front line.
Regardless of his backstory, at this point Sasha obliges an earlier request to share more photos. The fit blond in his profile pic is not him. He is, in fact, much older, fatter and balder. Certainly not worth a tryst in no-man’s land and a potential spell in a Siberian gulag. I block him.
One thing that sets Hornet apart from other gay dating apps is a feature where users can broadcast livestreamed content. Most of these streams, it turns out, are pretty dull. Nudity and sexual content are banned. But scrolling from one to another nevertheless slowly becomes oddly absorbing – a series of vignettes of gay life in Ukraine, in all its mesmerising mundanity.
One user, Oleh, sits in a dorm room in a Kyiv hostel looking forlornly into the camera. He is young and well-built, but clearly not very bright. Oleh has had a bit of a rough time of it. In one stream, he explains how he came from his village to Kyiv, at first sleeping at the train station and now bouncing from hostel to hostel. But for the most part he barely speaks at all, apart from occasionally thanking users for tipping him with virtual tokens or responding monosyllabically to messages they post in the live chat. Most of these are just along the lines of ‘hey’ or ‘nice biceps’. But one user pops up to call Oleh a ‘filthy hohol’, a Russian slur for Ukrainians, and tells him to ‘fuck off and die’.
‘I’m not a hohol’, Oleg replies with quiet dignity. ‘I’m a human being’.
Another livestreamer is simply called ‘Soldier’. He broadcasts from what looks like a dugout, in full camouflage, most of his face obscured by a balaclava. In the background you can occasionally see one of his platoon mates eating unidentifiable gruel out of a can or polishing a Kalashnikov. He says even less than Oleh, occasionally mumbling a response to the chat or briefly interacting with his real-life companions. One wonders if they know he is livestreaming the minutiae of their lives at the front line to a virtual room full of thirsty gays. One also wonders if officers from Russia’s military intelligence are studying the screen for any clues as to his position or scanning the background chatter for hints of upcoming offensives – just as the UK’s own GCHQ used Russian soldiers’ chatter on Grindr to help predict the Russian invasion back in February.
Hornet’s livestream feature also allows streamers to match up with other users at random and broadcast a two-way conversation. This produces an interesting dynamic, whereby Ukrainians are often paired up with their neighbours in Russia, where the app is also very popular. In one stream, Oleh matches with 22-year-old Sasha: ‘Where are you?’ asks Oleg. Sasha tells him he is in Buryatia, a majority-Indigenous region in Siberia that has supplied more than its fair share of cannon fodder to Putin’s war effort. ‘What about you?’ asks Sasha. ‘I’m in Kyiv.’ Oleg responds. ‘Oh, cool,’ says Sasha. ‘I went there in 2016.’ ‘Cool,’ says Oleg. After an awkward silence, the conversation moves on to safer ground.
Occasionally the Russian participants in these conversations betray their curiosity about the situation in Ukraine: Isn’t it dangerous there? … I heard you have a lot of blackouts? … But for the most part, there seems to be a tacit agreement to ignore the elephant in the room. These interactions are fascinating as, at present, there aren’t many contexts where Ukrainians and Russians can communicate face to face, or at least not in an environment that isn’t buzzing with hostility or constrained by censorship. Here, the underlying solidarity among LGBT people – or perhaps just the fundamental horniness of gay guys on the prowl – seems to mostly override any potential antagonism.
This isn’t to say that enmity doesn’t factor in people’s sexual preferences. A lot of profiles feature anti-Russian slogans (‘RUSSIAN WARSHIP FUCK OFF’, ‘PUTIN IS A TWAT’) or requests to varying degrees of bluntness to correspond only in Ukrainian. Equally, however, many bios and private messages continue to be written in Russian, suggesting that the language issue is less politicised than it is often characterised to be.
This is indicative of wider dynamics in Ukrainian society. While it is true that many Ukrainians (particularly among the upwardly-mobile, internationally-minded intelligentsia) have switched from speaking Russian to Ukrainian since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and while this process may have accelerated for obvious reasons since February 2022, Russian nevertheless remains the language of every day communication for millions of Ukrainians; for most of them this is viewed as an apolitical fact of life.
In a reversal of Soviet-era dynamics, though, Ukrainian has now become the language of public life while Russian is increasingly retreating into the private sphere. But according to Zhenya, 27, a Kyiv-based OnlyFans model and escort, one sphere where Russian retains its dominance is the bedroom. Zhenya claims that most Ukrainians – even those brought up in monolingual, Ukrainian-speaking families – switch to Russian when fucking. Ukrainian is seen as a bit too soft, too effete for talking dirty.
Zhenya’s escorting work hasn’t taken as much of a hit from the invasion as other sectors of the economy have. If anything, the influx of journalists and NGOs has provided a new client base for him. But while he used to jet off to Dubai and Bali to record content for his OnlyFans with co-stars from across the globe, now he has to make do with more prosaic surroundings and parochial collaborators. All Ukrainian men of draftable age – from 18 to 60 – are forbidden from leaving the country. Zhenya also has a five-year-old son, who left with his mother for the safety of Slovakia when the war broke out. Precluded from travelling abroad, Zhenya hasn’t seen him in almost a year.
Zhenya invites me to a gay club named after a tacky Italian fashion brand. It’s a Sunday night so my expectations are low, but the place is reasonably busy. Like many gay clubs in parts of the world with less enlightened attitudes towards sexual minorities, the entrance is low-key, but without the steel door and heavy security that are standard in, say, Russia. Because of the 11 o’clock curfew in Kyiv, the night starts at 5pm and finishes at 9. ‘You can have a full night out and be in bed by ten,’ says Zhenya. ‘I’ve never felt healthier.’ He says he hopes the scene never reverts to all-night parties ending at sunrise, even after the war is over.
At 7.30, the evening’s entertainment starts. Skinny twinks in jockstraps unenthusiastically go through the motions of stilted dance routines to gay anthems and local pop hits. These are followed by performances from some drag queens with varying degrees of charisma, nerve and talent. Incidentally, the entirety in the show is in Russian, including all the lip-sync numbers.
One indicator of the dire economic straits Ukraine finds itself in is the proportion of boys at the club who are turning tricks. Zhenya and a young associate (or perhaps competitor), 20-year-old Vitalik, are going after an American NGO executive in his mid-forties. The tactic of plying him with drinks soon backfires: it isn’t long before he is barely able to stand. The guy just about makes it outside to be violently sick; Zhenya pats him on the back as a topless Vitalik watches on apprehensively. A frigid wind blows in straight off the Eurasian steppe, peppering Vitalik’s bare torso with grit-like snow. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ Zhenya says to him. ‘He’s not taking you anywhere in this state.’ Zhenya carries the American into a cab and later posts a photo on his Instagram Story of himself tucking into room service at the Four Seasons, while his oblivious host lies passed out the background.
Back inside, I chat to Denys, an androgynous sex worker who is propping up the bar in a 90s get-up of red lipstick, crop-top and skirt. I stumble over some of my word endings – Russian is a more gendered language than English. I ask whether Denys uses masculine or feminine forms, guessing this is the equivalent of asking someone their pronouns. ‘I’m a guy,’ he says. ‘This is just an outfit. The clients like it.’
On the dance floor, Vitalik seems to have quickly got over his disappointment and is already making out – with a girl. Later, over a couple of drinks, he tells me that he is originally from Donetsk, a large city which has been under Russian occupation since 2014. ‘Is your family still there?’ I ask. ‘I don’t have a family. I’m from an institution.’ He asks if I’ll buy him a Jägerbomb, then he starts to cry.
It’s 9.30pm and the club is closing. Vitalik doesn’t have anywhere to stay. A friend, Bohdan, offers him a place to spend the night. Bohdan is from Bucha, previously an obscure satellite town of Kyiv, now known across the world for all the worst reasons. Bohdan’s brother is serving in the army, fighting at Mariinka in the outskirts of Donetsk, Vitalik’s hometown. As Bohdan ushers a tired and emotional Vitalik into a cab, the stragglers from their club make their way upstairs and out into what is now a full-on blizzard. Denys, the cross-dressing sex worker, has scrubbed off his make-up and changed into an Adidas tracksuit for the ride home.
The streets of Kyiv are emptying out as curfew approaches. Through the flurries, you can make out the plaintive wail of air-raid sirens that struggle to compete with the howling of the wind. It’s time to go home.
*Names have been changed