Issue 292,  published February 9, 2021

A Russian Dating Show, and A Way In

“It’s not really easy to be an open LGBTQ person in Russia,” says Kristina Vazovsky from the other end of the Zoom call, where the just-risen sun is making her squint.

Vazovsky, founder of podcast company ТОЛК (“TOLK” in English), is thirteen time zones away. She is not in Russia — not anymore. Even if she weren’t over six thousand miles from her former home, four years would still separate her from her former self, the one that lived in that world but wasn’t out to it.

It’s with this in mind that one must approach По уши (pronounced “POH-shee”), a TOLK production that roughly translates to “Head Over Heels.” По уши is an audio dating reality show centered around a bisexual Russian bachelorette, and it is the particular combination of the show’s premise and its production location that necessitates the handful of characters that follows the show’s title: “18+”.

In 2013, Russia passed a law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” referred to as the “gay propaganda” law and since ruled discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights. This law, Vazovsky says, punctuates a historically — and currently — hostile landscape for queer people: As recently as 2020, the Russian constitution was amended to assert that marriage was only legal when between a man and a woman.

Four years ago, Vazovsky moved from St. Petersburg to London, and with the change in location came a change in lifestyle. “I’m super privileged, being able to live in London,” she says. (She’s temporarily located in Bali.) “In my circle of friends, it’s weirder if you’re not queer.” She laughs, adding, “If you’re a heterosexual and dating a white man, it’s like, ‘This is interesting — this is progressive.’” Vazovsky herself is bisexual, but her Russian audience, which followed her to England, didn’t know that.

“I started my own podcast about two and a half years ago,” she says. That show, a conversational podcast about failures, quickly gained popularity, she says, “not because it was particularly genius or anything,” but because the Russian market was “super small.” This nascent scene allowed her to gain traction. It also put her in the spotlight. Even on a later show in which she would talk about sex, Vazovsky stuck to recounting experiences that read as heterosexual.

In time, she closed the gap, coming out as queer in 2020, even making public statements in opposition to Russia’s recent constitutional amendments. This latter step was a reminder that coming out wasn’t only a test of bravery; it was a legal matter.

Being that Vazovsky is from Russia, the dating show, По уши, would be in her native language, and it would be released for the growing listener base in that country. No matter how much her life had changed — and how the company’s precocious adherence to remote work allowed employees to be based anywhere in the world — the “gay propaganda” law would, indeed, apply to TOLK. Producers consulted lawyers before releasing the show, who advised them to label content “18+” so as to deter youth exposure to queer themes, much as they might disagree with the premise.

По уши debuted in August 2020. While Vazovsky was technically publicly queer beforehand (albeit for only a few months), she looked at the show her studio had produced, the barriers it broke, and the barriers it still faced, as representative of a step that even she hadn’t yet taken.

“This show was my own way to process it, to accept it in Russian language,” she says of her queerness — “to say, for myself, ‘I am visible. I exist. It’s okay.’”

In Vazovsky’s words, Russia — and the United States, I might add — provides “a very little bubble in the big cities,” with conservative and discriminatory rhetoric swelling in many other parts of the country. “In general, it’s not really safe,” she says, and “on a political level, it became worse and worse every year, not better.”

Still, the queer-centric show was mostly met with acceptance, she says. “We were prepared to face hate,” says Vazovsky. “Surprising point: We received zero homophobic comments — zero.” They did receive comments from some queer listeners, though, critiquing the show for not being “queer enough,” she says. “From some people’s perspective, ‘bisexual’ is not ‘queer.’”

Acknowledging her position as both a bisexual woman (with straight-passing privilege) and an expat, she took the feedback in stride. The critiques are fair, she says: Queer characters of other genders might not have endured the same sexualized gaze as a woman, the gaze that she believes may have softened the blow of a queer Russian storyline.

“Women are very sexualized in Russia, in a patriarchal country,” Vazovsky says, speculating that some would-be critics may have even assumed that the bachelorette in По уши was destined to “find a ‘real man’ afterwards.” Playing into the hands of anti-queer sentiment — or queer erasure — comes with the territory of being and displaying bisexual women (who, ironically, are often erased from queerness themselves), Vazovsky says. Moving forward, she wants to push more boundaries.

Many Russian LGBTQ activists have preceded her, Vazovsky acknowledges, and she says that she’s begun using the success of TOLK to support these people by partnering with them. And her original show, about failures, has not only grown from featuring Vazovsky’s friends to bringing on Russian celebrities; it has also featured queer stories, further pushing normaliziation. (It was Vazovsky’s own friend who shared a tale of a man running away from him in the middle of a date.)

TOLK — still a young company, turning only one year old this coming March — continues to grow in the way that a human of the same age might, tackling one milestone at a time, though in quick succession. It reads as a way to engage an audience not only new to podcasts but, perhaps, new to normalized portrayals of queerness.

In this way, Vazovsky and her team continue to iterate, like they have on a new branded podcast for a cab company. First, they inched away from what had the potential to be “terribly cringey” commercial content, she says, instead creating an immersive, simulated taxi ride (believable enough to fool numerous listeners into thinking it wasn’t recorded from home). Then, queer characters began to make appearances.

“We work a lot, and we started from basic things, and we learned how to make them good — then make them better,” she says. The company — once just Vazovsky and an editor — started with basic chatcasts, but its progress could be interpreted as applying as much to technical production skills as to the mastery of sticky, contested topics.

“If they would be translated,” she says, “they would sound progressive, even in English.”

At the end of our call, Vazovsky thanks me for taking the time to talk to her so late in the day; in turn, I thank her for waking up so early.

It’s no trouble, she says; it’s actually how she’s come to prefer it. For her, the day has just begun.

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.