Homophobia and intimacy in a Russian sauna

A cottage in Russia Image copyright Thinkstock

A law in Russia banning "homosexual propaganda" has been condemned by critics, who say it incites hatred. But a day hunting and relaxing in the forest - and hearing some extreme views - suggests it has plenty of support.

Saunas are supposed to be relaxing but the prospect of this one filled me with dread.

I was to share it with two heavily armed Russian hunters - Yuri, a steely-eyed veteran of Russia's bloody war in Afghanistan, and Georgy, a burly businessmen who cut his teeth during the violent chaos that consumed Russia after the fall of communism.

That afternoon, with the first snows of the harsh Russian winter blowing in from Siberia, Yuri and Georgy had taken me into the forest. They'd pointed out fresh wolf and elk tracks in the snow - but there was no sign of the family of bears I'd heard lived nearby.

Yuri said our chatter had frightened off any game but he let me fire a few potshots with his formidable but fluffily-named hunting rifle, a Kalashnikov "Tigger".

As the sun set we'd dined on a great cauldron of peppery soup made with pike caught in one of the nearby lakes. They'd produced a slab of what Russians call "salo", smoked pork fat which you eat raw, washed down with shots of vodka.

"Russian central heating," joked Georgy, as I struggled to swallow a lump of lard.

Image caption Georgy, Justin and Yuri were unable to find the bears

The hunting lifestyle is idolised here in Russia. Russians venerate strong men to the point where it can become almost camp.

I'm sure Vladimir Putin, the famously tough Russian president, would be horrified to discover that the bare-chested photos of him shooting, fishing and riding - that he hopes will endear him to men like Yuri and Georgy - are celebrated as homoerotic classics on gay websites in the West.

One more vodka and our meal was over. Time, Yuri said, for our sauna.

Now, it is always uncomfortable undressing in front of people you hardly know but as I slipped out of my clothes I was feeling more than usually exposed.

At first the sauna was so hot we could barely speak. Side by side, we panted gently, listening to the rhythmic splashes as sweat dripped from our bodies.

As gradually we adjusted to the heat, I decided to broach the gay issue. What did they think of this new law, I wanted to know. They were both keen supporters.

"Why should the gay lifestyle be celebrated?" asked Georgy. "It is just disgusting."

"Gays should be killed," he said, frowning. I said nothing. The already humid atmosphere became even closer.

"They should be gassed", he muttered, staring sulkily at the floor. He seemed to find the idea of homosexuality quite repulsive, even frightening.

I turned to Yuri, the Afghan war veteran.

"We didn't even know it existed when I was growing up in the Soviet Union," he said. "Why would people want to do such a thing?"

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Putin is an all-action president

Georgy had shown me photos of his three-year-old son dressed up, just like dad, head to toe in combat gear and pointing a toy gun. With growing trepidation, I ask the obvious question - what if your son was gay?

Now his discomfort turns to anger. "That is just not possible," he says, banging a heavy fist down on the wooden bench beside me.

I feel very vulnerable sitting here naked except for a towel. Time, I judge, to steer the conversation to less sensitive subjects - the money spent on the Olympics at Sochi, corruption in the Russian state.

After a few minutes the hunters begin to relax again. What happens next with the sauna, I ask.

"Lie there," Georgy orders me. I do as I'm told, lying on the bench on my front.

I feel a hand hitch up my towel exposing my thighs. There is a rustle as the birch twigs are lifted from the boiling water and a faintly ominous hiss as - and I am guessing here because my eyes were firmly shut - he presses them onto the hot rocks balanced on the drum of the sauna.

There is a lovely woody smell from the boiling leaves. I gasp as he brings the scalding birch branches down on my back. He does it gently. This is not a whipping but a light beating and I have to admit it is very pleasant.

This will get your circulation going, Georgy tells me, cheerful again now.

With the sauna over, we shower in icy water from the nearby lake and troop back to the main cabin. It is time for bed. We've got separate duvets but we all share the same long platform bed.

As I try to get to sleep, I can't help reflecting on the utterly unselfconscious contradiction between Georgy and Yuri's open celebration of masculinity and manifest enjoyment of male intimacy, and their virulent homophobia.

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