Tall and handsome, they walked hand in hand across Madison Square Park to look at the Flatiron Building. They were both smiling. They had many reasons to feel happy in New York City.
Mikhail Zygar, a celebrated Russian author (whose books focus on Putin’s elite and his use of propaganda), and his partner, Russian actor and model Jean-Michel Shcherbak, recently showed their home country an example of coming out with courage and honesty. They celebrated a big and fun wedding—their own—in Lisbon, Portugal. Russia has not seen a happy same-sex wedding before. Mikhail, former editor-in-chief of the Russian TV channel Rain, and Jean-Michel were the first to make that jump for each other.
Dozens of friends, mostly exiled Russian journalists, came from all over the world to celebrate the couple in a picturesque square in the Portuguese capital. For three years they had to hide their love in Russia, where the law allows the removal of children from gay parents. And now Zygar’s 12-year-old daughter was with them at their happy party of friends and family.
Not all of their family members were present: Zygar’s father wrote to him in the first days of the war against Ukraine, that both he and his circle disrespected Zygar’s anti-war position—the two do not talk. And Shcherbak’s mother agrees with the Kremlin’s ideology. In the first days of the war she told him, “You are no longer my son,” for his anti-war position.
After their official ceremony on Oct. 25, Zygar took a deep breath and wrote on social media: “We got married. Love, freedom, truth and happiness. Start liberalization from yourself.”
Expecting a shaming storm in comments, he posted and turned his cellphone off. “I would compare it to a jump with a parachute,” he told The Daily Beast. “The lightness of being, the happiness, the relief I experienced was overwhelming,” Shcherbak added, with a big, happy smile on his face.
It was his first visit to New York, and their honeymoon was full of new impressions and parties. Shcherbak and Zygar left Russia in early days of the war, moved to Berlin feeling “as if everything behind has been burnt,” Zygar said. “Here in New York on this trip I finally stopped missing the past,” Shcherbak added.
The public reaction to their wedding surprised the couple. They received thousands of supportive comments and warm personal messages from Russians, who were sincerely happy for them. “Our wedding turned out to be a unique discovery for many people. Each one of them has a chance to be free, in spite of stereotyped thinking,” Shcherbak said.
But neither his mother, nor Zygar’s father, a retired GRU officer, congratulated them. “My mother hates gay men, she let me understand it clearly, when I was 15 years old,” Shcherbak said. “The biggest surprise we had was the overwhelming supportive reaction from thousands of Russians, which basically shows that people in Russia are not homophobic, just brainwashed,” Zygar added.
The Russian economy may be shrinking, the Russian military has failed in all the Kremlin’s deadlines for winning the war in Ukraine, but the Russian authorities still find time to persecute Russia’s LGBTQ community. Lawmakers are discussing what else can be banned under the definition of so-called “LGBT propaganda”—now there is an idea to ban any promotion of homosexuality on the internet and in culture.
“The Kremlin is busy destroying the image of the enemy, since Putin’s war is the war against what the authorities constantly characterize as the decaying West—and they make their point by drafting LGBTQ and HIV-positive people into their argument,” out Russian journalist and personality Karèn Shainyan told The Daily Beast. “The guys’ wedding and public reaction to it demonstrated the gap between the state propaganda and public views. Something is changing in Russia for sure. In spite of the pressure, LGBTQ literature is growing very popular, and sells really well.”
The wedding was also a step toward the “creation of a new free and honest Russia,” Zygar hopes. Just a few days before their wedding, Russia designated Zygar, as a “foreign agent.” The writer learned from his Russian publisher that the authorities had created a list of “banned authors”—writers with an anti-war position—and distributed it around Moscow’s book stores. The blacklist included Dmitry Bykov, Boris Akunin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Zygar himself. Stores were banned from putting Zygar’s work on the shelves alongside bestselling books; the books were still on sale but with a note inside that said: “Foreign agent.”
“By law every ‘foreign agent’ has to post the official label required by the authorities next to every post on social media, so we had previously discussed what kind of fun labels Misha should publish if he gets designated,” Shcherbak told The Daily Beast. “We agreed he would not stick to the required one.”
One of the supportive messages the couple received after their wedding was especially memorable. It came from Ukraine, and said: “We fight for your values too.” The turmoil of the last few months was overwhelming for both the grooms but the awareness of the steps they took was sharper than ever. “We knew that there was a lack of freedom in Russia, and now we realize we can fight for it with every step we make in our personal lives,” Zygar told The Daily Beast.