It’s a warm afternoon in St. Petersburg, a crowd of shoppers fills the streets of Nevskiy Prospekt, the city’s main shopping street. None of the passersby seem to have ever heard of a ‘liberal’ church in the neighbourhood.
I’m about to meet Russia’s openly gay priest.
After ten minutes of waiting outside the building, Aleksandr arrives. He frets down the street, a Winston in his mouth and a leather briefcase in his hand, wearing a black bowler hat and a long black coat decorated with a mix of religious and activist symbols.
His look is not exactly what you would expect from a priest in Russia.
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The Independent Catholic Church in St. Petersburg is unique in its kind for being open to different sexual orientations and gender identities—Aleksandr’s work is groundbreaking in a country known for its rife transphobia and homophobia.
At just 22 years old, Aleksandr Khmelyov is already running services as an openly gay priest, and has become a well-known figure in the St. Petersburg’s LGBT and activist communities.
Born in Mezhdurechensk, a town at a distance of over 4,300 km east of St. Petersburg, Aleksandr had to leave both his hometown and the Orthodox church where he was serving because of homophobic harassment.
His troubles started when he openly discussed his opposition to the war in Ukraine during one of his sermons and re-posted a picture in condemnation of the conflict in his social media.
“I think someday people will thank us for what we did back then, for what we are doing now.”
“It started with a 1,000 rouble (£13) fine and the confiscation of my laptop, then they wanted to send a court order to the Russian Communication Watch authority. They even wanted a second court hearing to block my VK profile. All that was funny,” he laughs.
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The immediate consequence of his legal struggle was a media scandal in which his sexual orientation also became public causing both offline and online threats.
At home he encountered hostility but the situation was even worse on the street. Passers-by would often yell homophobic slurs at him, and online social media groups began inciting violence, even sending death threats.
“That was horrible, that was terrible. I ended up in a hospital with a breakdown, my nerves could not bear it any longer. But in the end I left. First I went to Buguruslan to visit my friend, and from there… I just didn’t come back.”
Once in St. Petersburg, Aleksandr found his community in the independent church and in local protests and demonstrations.
Being an openly gay priest in Russia
At his LGBT-inclusive church services, he makes no secret of his politics or sexual orientation.
“I think someday people will thank us for what we did back then, for what we are doing now. For me it is important to be an activist because I’m rallying not for the rights of other people but, first of all, for my own rights,” he explains.
In a country where the church has increasingly become an institution of support to government policies, the Independent Catholic Church offers a platform for free thinking and open discussions as well as a second home for LGBT christians.
Standing in front of a rainbow flag, Aleksandr recites his sermon peeking into some notes on his phone. He talks about his coming out, the importance of speaking out and being able to be who we are.
Far from being a traditional mass, his words come straight from his personal experience and resonate with a community that for too long has been excluded by religious institutions and who can finally find acceptance in a church that welcomes them for who they are.