Tania and I are standing on a vast parapeted platform next to an office building. Our city is before us: the Daugava, the Kirov bridge, the TV tower. We are right in the heart of the city. We are alone. It isn’t often now that you might see any guests here. Only office workers who come out to smoke, couples, who turn accidentally round the library corner, street cleaners, that’s probably it. What has happened to the only gathering place for the LGBT community in Vitebsk?
“How come everything fell apart? And how did it all start? Who were the people who used to come here?” Tania tugs at my arm. Well, here is the whole story.
People started gathering at The Balcony around ten years ago.
© Tanya Alipchikova
Maxim: I don’t quite remember what year it was, I think 2007, maybe 2008. But probably 2007. I was dating one guy back then and we had a hobby of finding interesting spaces in the city. So once he said he wanted to show me The Balcony. It was a place where one could sometimes run into “our people”. By “our people” he meant lesbians and gays, obviously.
We went there and saw a rather interesting couple. Later it turned out it was Ler and his girlfriend.
We looked at them and understood everything, and we thought they did too: “Here are two couples, not just friends”. Finally I said something to them, and a conversation got going. That was how it all started.
Later we met a few more times at The Balcony. Back then Ler was nurturing the idea of “expanding” this place, making it known among LGBT people, turning it into a place where you could not only to run into “our people”, but to make it a platform for regular meetings. In the end he asked us all to help do this.
— You said your boyfriend had already known that “our people” used to come hang at The Balcony. How did he know?
— Apparently, a friend of his who is bisexual told him he could drop by there. I could be very wrong but it seems to me that The Balcony had existed for a long time as a meeting place. But as a meeting place for lesbians. I know one thing for sure: not many people from the community visited The Balcony, no one attributed any special meaning to it. There was no particular concept around it.
© Tanya Alipchikova © Tanya Alipchikova© Tanya Alipchikova
In July Ler handed out leaflets to everyone. If I remember correctly, there was something abstract painted on them, something like a same-sex couple and an obscure caption, I think it read “If you feel special, come to this place”. Our task was to distribute the leaflets to people in the street. Those, whom we thought might be LGBT, judging by how they looked. This is how it all started.
It was an amazing feeling, you know. We would go around the city with a stack of leaflets and somhow have no fear at all. There was a strong feeling of freedom and change.
By July, quite a large group started gathering at The Balcony. Of course, it grew by word of mouth to a large extent: our friends and their friends, people we knew, and so on… But there were also some people who came thanks to the paper invitations.
We would come every evening around seven o’clock, sit on the parapets and wait… Then people would come and introduce themselves timidly…
At some point we simply realised that the talk was going around the city, so we didn’t have to advertise anymore.
People would gather at The Balcony all the year round, young people mainly. I don’t remember anyone much over thirty, for example. They were people of my age, 16 to 25 years old. We would play games: statues, feet, and lots of others. We had fun. We definitely didn’t come there because we wanted to talk about art. It wasn’t like that. We were together because of the freedom. Guys could kiss other guys, girls could kiss girls, that was normal and didn’t bring any questions. Everyone could be open to others. Although there are many banks and offices of all kinds near The Balcony, neither passersby, nor the militia paid any attention to us. “So there are kids hanging out. Fine”.
Only now I understand that it was the first community in my life, the first time I felt free.
Of course, there were all kinds of shenanigans, people dated each other but it was all good-natured somehow. The Balcony wouldn’t go empty in autumn either: yes, there were fewer people, but they kept coming. Usually everyone would hide in a small yard next to the Lenin street. I don’t know why everyone was drawn there regardless of the weather. I guess it was the strong team spirit and the happiness of being understood.
After the first winter we waited terrified that no one would come but we were wrong. There were even more people. At its height, which was in 2009, fifty people could gather at The Balcony at night. It seemed incredible.
After peaking, in 2010 The Balcony started getting less popular. Why? It all just fell apart: some people had rows with others, someone else moved away, others grew up… Apart from that, punks and other kids from The Pit (the Vitebsk countercultural scene’s gathering place) started coming here. Unfortunately, it all ended. Now I still go there sometimes because it is the place where I started to truly live.
It would take an average person seventy steps to walk along The Balcony’s perimeter.
© Tanya Alipchikova
Roma: I learnt about The Balcony from a friend. It was autumn and the empty space I saw didn’t make a particular impression on me. Then I found myself there in the spring: we sat on the parapets and talked, someone was playing music, someone else was drinking. It seemed to me then that the most educated and the coolest guys gathered there, the “elite youth” of sorts. It felt out of my league. Then it all settled down. I wouldn’t say that I was accepted by the crowd — not at all. It is probably just that they all got used to me, and I to them. I didn’t have only to hang out with gays, there were a lot of different people. Kids from different scenes, you know.
The Balcony didn’t give me any special kind of insight into myself. True, there was huge support, like a shoulder. You could tell things about yourself, not be afraid of yourself, ask for advice, but still, it was impossible to get answers to really important questions. We were all kids. Teenagers. Maximalists. Everyone thought of the future only in terms of studies/vacations, nothing more than that. Which one of them could explain to me back then how to live being gay, how to come out to my parents, how not to break down? No one could, of course.
There is one difference that I see clearly: at the time few were interested in sex as such, people used to pay more attention to one’s personality. That’s what I miss today. The Balcony taught me understanding, but it only seems this way to me now, I don’t know what I’ll say in a year.
Now I don’t see many people from those times. I’ve heard everyone had gotten successful in life in one way or another. Does that have anything to do with The Balcony? It might have, anything’s possible.
The Balcony is adjacent to 10a, Gogol lane.
© Tanya Alipchikova
Irina: I came to Vitebsk when The Balcony was already dying. Many people used to tell me then that someone was gathering there. “Our people”, and so on. I remember being very scared to go there for the first time. I even took a friend to go with me after classes. We got some beer and came. So inspired, you know, so naive… We thought there were some special people or something extraordinary, but in reality we faced someone else’s arguments and quarrels. There was even a fight on the following day.
I guess I just didn’t get something back then. It is quite probable. But anyway, that place has stayed in my memory as a crowd for no strangers, and I was one, so there was no place for me.
I didn’t quite feel like going back there and I still don’t.
Part of The Balcony’s surface is a garage roof.
© Tanya Alipchikova
Katia: No one told me about the Balcony, actually. It all just happened by itself. There wasn’t anything like: “Come with me, I’ll show you something…” I just remember before we all got together, I met Ler and he wanted to bring me to a new place without emphasising what kind of people went there.
And anyway, to me personally the Balcony wasn’t a special LGBT platform, different kinds of people would hang out here. Maybe someone did attribute some special meaning to it, but not me. I could bring my friends there who didn’t belong to any scene, and we would still have fun. I don’t remember anyone strange coming to have a look at LGBT representatives. Most of the people there were brought by someone, or were absolutely random passersby, who just saw people having fun and decided to join. I don’t know how long we’d hung out here. There was a circle of people who would come together, then it fell apart and The Balcony ceased to exist as a hang-out spot. Now I still come here out of habit sometimes, but not nearly as much as I used to back when something went on here every night.
I can’t say I miss those times. It is just that I was of a certain age, and there were certain people who were fun to spend time with and who I shared interests with. I am still in touch with some of them but have lost all contact with others. That’s natural: someone has moved somewhere, someone has changed their priorities. The Balcony wasn’t there because of someone in particular, the time came and everyone went their own way. There couldn’t have been any final point, so to speak.
— Is there a place for LGBT people in Vitebsk now?
— I don’t even know. There is probably a new Balcony or something, it’s just that I no longer follow of what’s going on. I’m no longer interested in that.
We finish our cigarettes and leave the completely empty rooftop that some call The Balcony.