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How the Fake Lesbians of t.A.T.u. Changed Queerness in Russia Forever

The ‘All the Things She Said’ generation is now grown up, sparking a cultural shift in their anti-gay nation. Does it matter that t.A.T.u. were never the real deal?

Like many young Russian girls in the early 2000s, Polina Titova played a cassette filled with t.A.T.u. songs until the tape was fuzzy. She was 5 years old, barely in kindergarten, and enjoying that brief, shining moment in 2002 when Lena Katina and Julia Volkova earned an unprecedented stay in the global consciousness. Russia isn’t known for exporting pop culture, but 200 Km/h in the Wrong Lane — the duo’s debut album — sold a spectacular 760,000 copies in North America. Titova remembers t.A.T.u. being everywhere, igniting the world with jagged falsettos, dirty Eurotrash grooves and a tawdry creation myth.

Go watch that infamous “All the Things She Said” video. Katina and Volkova, in their trademark schoolgirl uniforms, are locked in a sweaty makeout in front of a septic filter and thick steel bars, while a team of grim scientists look on, analyzing every lusty nuance of their prisoners as coils of harsh rain pound the pavement. It’s queasy and sexy, a willful monetization of a taboo fascination with the lesbian experience. The lyrics hint at a fundamental ache: the insatiability of an insurgent love affair pushed against a legislative body that’s reclassified LGBT outreach as anti-state propaganda.

Of course, Titova didn’t realize that in full until she had time to grow up.

“When I realized I like girls, I was crying in the bathroom, singing ‘All the Things She Said,’” she remembers. “I asked my mom for the clothes that t.A.T.u. have. She said, ‘Poor girls, they’ve been [exploited] for money.’”

Today, Titova is a prominent designer in Russia’s feminist arts community. Last year, she drafted a calendar with each month dedicated to a distinct subsect of the country’s marginalized communities. Within her portfolio, you can also find a vast typographic project sourced from 5,000 different tweets deployed by Russian “troll farms” during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Each of those tweets are printed in blocky seriffed text on the back of postcards. Naturally, the piece was called “From Russia, With Love.”

Titova’s self-actualization didn’t have a lot in common with t.A.T.u.’s fame. We know now that Katina and Volkova are not, in fact, lesbians, though Volkova identifies as bisexual. Both are married to men, and the slimy directorial fixation on their verboten allure was always tepid and male-gaze-y, akin to the Coors Light commercials of the same era. Moreover, Volkova made headlines in 2014 on Russian television when she said that she’d refuse to “accept” a gay son. “I would condemn him, because I believe that a real man must be a real man,” she explained. (Katina responded to her bandmate a few days later, saying simply and limply, “I think everybody should be free to love who they love.”)

t.A.T.u. perform on MTV’s TRL. (Photo by Getty Images)

Titova is aware of all of this: the callous profiteering on false queer identity, and t.A.T.u.’s latter-day refusal to offer any solidarity toward a movement they plundered. But she, like many Russian queer people, cannot find it within herself to fully disown the band.

After all, there was a time in Titova’s life where Julia Volkova and Lena Katina gave her the words she needed. “I was looking for my identity,” she tells me. “I fell in love with girls my age; we were hanging out together and hugging. I didn’t think that it was ‘wrong’ before my mom caught us. t.A.T.u. described exactly how I felt. I wasn’t thinking about them as a business venture. In childhood, I was just crying to their songs in bed.”

t.A.T.u. has mutated into something of a meme in the West. It’s difficult to imagine the version of America that briefly fell in love with these alleged Moscow lesbians, enough to host them on the MTV Movie Awards and watch them surreptitiously kiss on the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Personally, reflecting on t.A.T.u.’s dominance brings to mind a certain 2003-ish bawdiness that was eventually besieged and conquered by good taste: a time of The Man Show, Girls Gone Wild commercials, Tucker Max and the floral bitterness of Axe Body Spray.

In Russia, though, they belong to a much different lineage. It is no secret that t.A.T.u.’s home country remains a violent, malicious place for queer people to live. NBC reported in April that one in five Russians wants the LGBT population “eliminated,” and a “majority” believes that queer folks are actively plotting against national values. Despite that, a huge number of Russian pop-cultural figures — particularly in music — are queer-coded. In a 2013 piece for the Atlantic, Olga Khazan highlighted the openly gay, bleach-blond vamping of beloved siren Boris Moiseev, and the impressively bouffanted Philipp Kirkorov, who divorced his wife and bore a child with the help of a surrogate under unclear circumstances. As repressive as the Putin hegemony tends to be, queerness leaks out in the Muscovy arts; the afflictions and conspiracies foisted upon Russia’s LGBT community are put on hold for the greats.

“It’s a combo of older Russians having poor gaydar, willfully ignoring that things like cross-dressing are markers of queer culture or identity, and, frankly, just sticking their heads in the sand about the likely sexuality of some of their favorite stars. They really believe what they want to believe when it comes to their music,” says Khazan, whose book about living life as an outsider, Weird, arrived in April. “Most Russian singers who have queer themes in their shows or music aren’t actually out of the closet, so it’s easy to pretend that they’re just ‘colorful,’ especially when you’re a culture that doesn’t really have a lot of exposure to gay people out in the open.”

(Photo by Getty Images)

Hristina Zarembo, a Russian nonbinary musician who dedicated their debut album to “all the women they’ve ever loved,” remembered that same shock when t.A.T.u. entered their world. They were too young to read them as queer; if anything, they always had an inkling that their perceived sexuality was a massive farce. But Zarembo remembers the seismic impact the group had on their parents, who were just becoming accustomed to life after the U.S.S.R., and the onslaught of Western indulgences pouring across the sundered Iron Curtain.

“I remember a feeling of freedom. Like, there was everything on MTV: different kinds of artists and their music videos with sexual content, violence, drugs, everything. It was a time without any censorship,” they write over email. “Now I realize that t.A.T.u. were a huge trigger for post-Soviet people who didn’t know how to react when they saw something outrageous. They never had the permission for self-reflection. They didn’t know how to express their feelings appropriately.”

Boris Konakov recalls a similar zeitgeist. Today, he runs an exhibition that highlights queer art from all over Russia, called the Queer Biennale. But as a teenager, Konakov was living in the remote reaches of Western Siberia. At 13 he had no internet access and was a ways off from discovering his own sexuality. As such, t.A.T.u. slammed into his town like a meteor. Konakov didn’t have the tools to decipher why the group was so scandalized by his parents and superiors; the loaded confessionals baked into “I’m crazy, I need her,” and “This is not enough” were a language rendered cryptic and indecipherable by a stringently heteronormative environment. But he did sense the natural vibrancy of their emancipation, and in a way he didn’t yet understand, he wished to be emancipated in the very same way.

Singers Lena Katina, left, and Julia Volkova, third from right. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

“I felt crazy, powerful energy from them. I perceived them as people who weren’t afraid — to sing strange songs, dance strange dances, kiss each other,” he tells me. “I wanted to be like them in this — to be able to do what I want — to dance in the rain. To sing and not think about anything.”

Konakov mourns that part of his youth, that burgeoning cosmopolitan temptation — when the floodgates busted open and anything seemed possible. Russia’s fledgling democracy was marred by corruption and devastating economic collapse, and today, the country has regressed into Soviet-era censorship. The Putin regime has muzzled the press and detained hundreds of political prisoners. In 2020, it even took a significant step to isolate its internet structure from the global information trade, which could serve as a huge deterrent to popular sexual liberation.

So as far as Konakov is concerned, t.A.T.u. represents a Russia that simply can’t exist under current circumstances. “In modern Russia, with its increased level of censorship in general, and self-censorship in culture in particular, a group as popular as t.A.T.u. is impossible,” he says. “They would have been blocked from all possibilities, hiding behind the church and repressive legislation. And they would have to go into what I call the Russian queer underground.”

Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

That, of course, is the central paradox for every queer person who ever felt seen by t.A.T.u. For as much as Konakov and Titova latched their own identity onto Katina and Volkova — as much as they let those girls sing through them — it will not, and cannot, change the reality that t.A.T.u. never advocated for the Russian LGBT community. The group sold real queer people, under real bondage, up the river for a Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance.

Konakov is well aware of that irony. He tells me that if a pair of artificial, pantomiming lesbians arrived in his artist coterie today, they would immediately be turned away. The Russian youth is too well-informed, and too cynical, to be hoodwinked like that again. There is no way to fully rationalize the deceit.

Zarembo moved on from t.A.T.u. a long time ago. They still like the songs, and they still appreciate Russia’s brief sapphic mania, but they also know there are so many other queer people, hiding in plain sight, waiting for their own t.A.T.u. moment. The age of simulacrum is over. Zarembo is tired of open secrets. If there is to be a renaissance for queer Russia, it won’t be powered by carpetbaggers like Katina and Volkova.

“We just need to continue speaking about queer issues through the lens of our own experience. It will be great if queer celebrities could support queer projects and organizations,” they say. “But firstly, they need to stop hiding and pretending about who they are.”

Konakov completely understands that perspective, but he’s also a bit more sympathetic to t.A.T.u.’s legacy. Despite all the horrible truths about the band, Volkova and Katina still presided over a moment where it was proven miraculously possible that a pair of Russian lesbian lovers could be two of the most famous people in the world. Which leaves an undeniable precedent: If they could do it, so can you. No matter how potent the acrimony for queer people might be, no matter how indifferently government policy might treat that victimization, no matter the bleakness on the horizon, there is still t.A.T.u.

And therefore, there is still hope.

At the first Queer Biennal, Konakov threw on a bunch of t.A.T.u. songs to consecrate the evening. He witnessed hundreds of Russian queer kids, singing and dancing to the music that kicked down the door to their brain. This is what a movement looks like — seeds of the “All the Things She Said” generation in full bloom — no matter what Volkova and Katina have to say about it.

“Everything is bad with the rights of queer people, but how can we fight for them if we have no hope? How can we loudly declare ourselves if we don’t have fun and dance? And t.A.T.u still helps us with this,” Konakov concludes. “We’re being persecuted, but they’re not gonna get us.”