SOCHI, Russia — The Winter Olympics weren't even a day old when the Western journalists started venturing past the high-rise hotels and glitzy nightclubs in downtown Sochi, down an alley on the side of an apartment building and finally toward the discreet, unmarked entrance with a locked door and security camera.
They have come looking for Mayak, the most successful gay bar in Sochi, to find out what it's like to live in a country whose overt, government-sponsored homophobia became an international curiosity and global controversy in the run-up to the Games.
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And when that door opens, once the security guards have heard what the strangers want and why they're there, the locals are not comforted but rather even more skeptical. This, you see, is a disruption. All the attention from foreigners, all the focus on Russia's so-called "gay propaganda" law has made it impossible for the regular patrons of Mayak to live a lifestyle they've become accustomed to: discreet but what they believe to be relatively safe.
Now they wonder what happens when the cameras and reporters leave, when the Olympics are over, when the focus is off Russia. Will this hurt more than help?
"We just want Western journalists to leave us alone," says the club's co-owner, Roman Kochagov.
They are scared.
You might be, too, if you knew that you could walk out of that club one night the way 24-year old Andrey Ozerny did and end up on the wrong end of an attack by a cab driver.
"It's a bit fake, all this attention," Ozerny said through an interpreter.
But this is real. Ozerny says he got into a taxi after a night at Mayak with two female friends who had been with him. After they were dropped off at home, Ozerny says the driver began shouting anti-gay slurs at him and then physically assaulted him, breaking his phone and taking his money. Ozerny went to the police and told them what happened. But the courts refused to consider it as a hate crime, he said, because "it doesn't go like this when it's homophobia," and the driver was only charged with a petty offense.
"Those (kinds of) problems happen everywhere with everyone, but it's not published, there's no noise about it," he said. "No one would say I got attacked. No one would speak openly."
Ozerny is an exception in more ways than one.
In late January, Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov made international headlines when he told the BBC there were no gay people in his city, then acknowledged there might be, "but I don't bloody know them."
On some level, Pakhomov's aloofness was funny, even to Ozerny. So he decided to fulfill his civic duty and write the mayor a letter informing him that, if nothing else, there was at least one gay person in Sochi.
He still hasn't gotten a response.
"They're supposed to give a response in 30 days, so he's still got time," Ozerny said jokingly.
But the humor goes away when talking about what gay life is going to be like for Russians after the Olympics.
Although the government insists its law is strictly aimed at propaganda toward minors, it has – at the very least – inflamed homophobia. And with this issue becoming so high-profile in American and Europe, Ozerny fears gay people will be blamed if the Olympics aren't viewed as a success or if attendance is poor.
Already, more than 10 gay rights activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been arrested since the Olympics started, according to local reports.
That's why various groups from the USA who've been pushed into action at these Olympics know they need to tread carefully while still building a long-term strategy to help the Russian LGBT community.
"It may be scary at first, but you can't move forward if you don't help," said former Olympic diver David Pichler, who is here working with the Human Rights First delegation. "I was in Atlanta, I was in Sydney. I never had an issue. Now 14 years later you have to come to an event to stand up for gay people because they can't be safe? That's frightening to me."
And yet, the notion that these Olympics and the spotlight on Russia's gay culture will improve their situation seems far-fetched, at least for now. Even for Ozerny, who has not been afraid to point out injustice, there's a nagging feeling that Russian society is not ready to accept him. In some ways, he thinks, it was better when gay people in Sochi could life silently and relatively safely.
"It's a very hard thing to explain to foreigners," he said. "Russia suffered a lot for the past centuries. We had dictators. Putin is a dictator, also. People went to prisons during Stalin's time just for nothing, no reason. Most Russians live with the mentality, with the thought in their mind that at some point everyone could be taken to prison for no reason."
Meanwhile, the bar – more spacious than you might expect, with a stage in front, sofa booths and an open kitchen that serves European food and sushi -- was beginning to fill up as the drag show was about to start. Groups of three and four began knocking on the door to Mayak, which is translated to "Lighthouse," meeting the approval of the host before being waved through. The Olympics have brought a lot of unfamiliar faces to Sochi, which makes the owner of Mayak uncomfortable. Typically, he said, you couldn't get in unless you were a trusted friend.
How long will it be like this? When will they feel safe enough not to take such precautions? Can the patrons here envision a day when Russia stops going backwards and catches up to the rest of the modern world?
"I hope," Ozerny said, "but I don't know."
Contributing: Elena Vlasova