"If one imagines a national coming out in Russia as a potential nightmare — and I used to imagine it could turn out like that — the reality has been the opposite," 35-year-old Pasha Zalutski, Russia's first (and only) out gay comedian, remarked, adding: "I feel so so loved."
And, despite news stories describing the persecution of gay men in Chechnya, religious authorities comparing gay marriage to Nazi Germany and an ever-ominous law banning gay "propaganda," Zalutski thinks, based on the way his fellow countrymen are accepting his comedy, the answer to the question “Are Russians homophobic?” is not so obvious.
"I can't say exactly that, considering this outpouring of love I'm feeling upon myself," he said. "I think that Russians aren't homophobic, they simply haven't been exposed to enough gay people, on the level of knowing someone more intimately and being able to see they're just as human."
Zalutski first came to national prominence by appearing on Otkryti MikrofonI (Open Mic), a critically acclaimed TV series on the Russian-speaking world's most-watched network, THT. The network boasts an audience of 104 million — that's only 7 million less than this year's Super Bowl, the fifth most-watched program in TV history.
"If you think about it, I told my story in prime time during three telecasts to 104 million people," he said. "One could have said it wouldn't have been possible in a country with the 'gay propaganda ban.' But it happened. I took a risk, the producers took a risk, the network took a risk — and we've reached out to an immense amount of people."
Zalutski was revered by his competition even before appearing on the show. "When I attended the casting session for the TV show, there were aspiring comedians from the North Caucus region — the tough guys, beards and all — and they were overheard saying to each other, 'Have you seen the faggot? He's amazing!'"
The judges were also charmed by his story and his quick wit. "This is the alternative to the country's general mood, and what we just saw wouldn't be possible elsewhere," judge Timur Karginov said of Zalutski's performance during round one.
"You come to this stage to talk about what scares you most. It requires a lot of courage. And Pasha Zalutski beats everyone at that," judge Yuliya Akhmedova said after he advanced past round two.
It wasn't just Zalutski's advancing that was incredible; so was the genuine interest in him from the judges. "We know how we straights react to things," judge Ruslan Belyi, (who Zalutski described as "your stereotypical Russian tough guy") said during round three. "How do you gays react to these things? We want to know." Zalutski felt that Belyi's statements signaled not only a curiosity, but a clear acceptance. It's an acceptance all too rare for many LGBTQ people, Russian or otherwise, and one Zalutski admits was not always the case.
Born and raised in Minsk, Belarus, Zalutski spent much of his life closeted. "In my teens I went through my share of shame and attempts at self-repair," he said. "In quiet disbelief, I was just keeping my fingers crossed that it would go away."
This began to fade at 18, when he met his first love, and essentially ended at 20, when he moved to the United States on a U.S. Department of State scholarship under the Freedom Support Act. The U.S. provided an opportunity to live outside of the closet. "During my first year studying I had an exhilarating dose of freedom, so I started living openly right away, not hesitating for a second," he said. "The university campus community embraced me as I was, which was wonderful. I got a huge dose of inspiration from the United States."
He went on earn a degree in Mass Communications from the University of Missouri-St. Louis before heading to Los Angeles for a prestigious internship at the Academy of Television, where he was assigned to work as a production assistant on an NBC series.
"I was the worst production assistant ever," Zalutski said with a laugh. "At that time, I didn't know that I had ADHD, so I had a very hard time explaining to others and myself why my glorious arrival in Hollywood didn't materialize into anything further. My self-esteem was totally ruined, and I spent a lot of the subsequent years trying to prove that I can be a detail-oriented multi-tasking worker, but I never succeeded in that."
His 20s were spent bouncing around cities — Los Angeles, Houston, New York — working a series of odd jobs, including as Russian translator with an oil and gas corporation, janitor at a university cafe and producing a Russian float in the NYC Pride Parade.
At 33, he finally sought out therapy for ADHD which allowed for a drastic turn-around in his life, eventually leading him back home to Belarus. "Deciding that I will no longer work to fix my weaknesses, I concentrated on my strengths — which, since childhood, had been performing live and telling stories," he said. "And I knew I wanted to do this in my motherland: I wanted to go all in, I wanted to be fully present to the reality of life in my home country. I no longer wanted to be on the run from it."
This brought him to open mics in his native Minsk, where he came out as gay the very first time he performed. "Now that I was in Belarus, I wasn't going to settle for a closeted existence, yet I just didn't feel safe to be open with people on a daily basis. So I figured, I would be open on stage, it would be a safe place for me to do that."
His success in stand-up led to his first appearance on Otkryti Mikrofon in 2016, which put him immediately on the map. "I've just performed eight shows in seven days in St. Petersburg, and that meant a lot to me since we've come to think of St. Petersburg as the birthplace of the 2013 federal law banning gay propaganda," he said. (A similar law had first been passed locally in St. Petersburg in 2012).
He's not only booking work, but earning an affectionate and vocal fanbase. "In St. Petersburg, of all places, I encountered more support than anywhere else," he said. "During the daytime, when I would walk around downtown, strangers on the street would recognize me and stop me and literally bask me in words of love, and over and over again I heard people saying, 'Will you go on after the TV show? We want you to.' I felt so grateful and so connected."
There's also the outpouring of love he's received on social media, where he's amassed thousands of messages. "And guess how many of them were homophobic?" he boasted. "One. Yes, one out of thousands."
So what's next for Zalutski? After being eliminated during the third round of Otkryti Mikrofon, he went on to develop a stand-up show, As I Am, that he's currently touring around the world in countries including Ukraine, Czech Republic, Belarus and later this summer, Scotland. He hopes to bring the show eventually to America.
Is he at all bitter about not advancing to round four? Not at all. "If you think about it, I'm still fresh at this," he said. "I honestly had never thought I would be even cast. The network took an incredible risk with me. They clearly challenged the status quo in the society. So the way I see it: they took three courageous risks, and they did all they could, and considering it's the first time anything like this is attempted on Russian TV, I think it's a great first try."