In February of last year, one of the biggest “lifestyle” magazines in Russia, Afisha, published a “gay” issue featuring interviews with 27 people from all walks of life who identified as gay or lesbian, and many of the interviews also included photos. (Note that the cover for this issue cautions that it is for readers over 18.) Another popular online publication, Bol’shoi Gorod, published a similar feature not long after Afisha‘s. Although the editor of Afisha was sacked a few weeks later, the archive of that unprecedented issue still exists online. Since then, more laws discriminating against gays and lesbians in Russia have been passed, strangling the movement toward openness and acceptance before it had much time to breathe. Masha Gessen, a well-known and pretty fearless journalist and the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, has since left Russia, because of the passage of a law that could result in having her children taken away from her. She’s since resettled in New York and was a driving force behind a new anthology, Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories (as well as a fascinating recent book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot). The interviews are translated into English in one half of the book, and you can flip it over and read the originals in Russian. The publisher is also distributing free PDF copies of the Russian version and provides a page of advice for “How to Smuggle Gay Propaganda into Russia“ – encouraging digital samizdat either by embedding the PDF behind a very large image (steganography!) or by hacking a router to create a Gay Propaganda wireless hotspot.
I’ve been working on a much less sophisticated attempt to do my part to help people in the Russian LGBT community tell their stories, by translating those original interviews from Afisha into English and putting them online. (See the first two below.) No need to smuggle them into Russia, but at least more people who read English can learn from the interviewees’ own words about their experiences. That feels like some Digital Humanities to me.
Svetlana Dolia, director of special projects for the “Rain” television channel
about false stereotypes and family life
A woman should always be a woman. And all of my friends, about 90% of whom are lesbians, are lovely. They’re beauties, they’re successful, men and women like them! I want so much to announce that a lesbian is not a scary “little hamster” without any sexual characteristics. And if a women looks like, for example, I do, she can also be a lesbian.
I started having relationships with girls at nineteen, and at some point I fell in love for real. We practically started living with each other right away. And it was a real family, in its most literal sense. Sasha knows all of my relatives. At work – and at that time it was for Playboy magazine – everyone knew that she was my girlfriend. And I never thought to hide it. Wherever Sasha and I went together it was obvious that we were a couple. We kissed in the street, in front of our parents, without worrying about it – there was never a particular moment when we thought is it okay or is it not okay. Sasha is half-Georgian, and that’s important, and when she brought me home, she didn’t say, “This is my girlfriend, Sveta.” But everyone, except for her older brother and her father, knew that we lived together. Her mother really loved me, and we had our own secrets apart from Sashka. When [her mother] was ill with cancer, the whole struggle and her eventual succumbing to it lay heavily on both of our shoulders. It wasn’t the mother of my girlfriend who died, but my mother-in-law. And at work that’s exactly how I talked about it. Because that’s how it felt to me.
I wanted to marry Sasha. When we went abroad I wanted people to understand that we weren’t just friends. And when I came to the hospital to see her mother, I didn’t want to have to pretend that I was a second- or third-cousin. For me that was demeaning. It made me crazy to think about how, if I or Sasha got sick or is something happened to us, we would officially not be anyone to the other person – not sign a paper, nothing. If something really serious would happen then i would want the apartment that I live in to become hers. It shouldn’t happen any other way. But the law would make it look like Sasha was nobody to me. Or what if there was a sudden serious health problem and a decision has to be made for someone? At that moment she is the only person I would trust. If it was possible for two women to have babies Sasha and I would probably have had at least two. We were even thinking about some of our guy friends as potential fathers: blue eyes, good genes, excellent family — he’ll do. However, in all honestly, I think that children should be born out of love, they have to be given by God. And of course, it tore me apart that it’s just physically impossible to give birth to the child of the person you love.
For the first time in the five years since Sasha and I broke up, I’m probably not just in love but in love and ready for a serious relationship. And it’s a man. I want a family, I want children, a house. It’s true that I don’t yet completely understand what exactly it will be like to live with a man. I think that women understand each other more profoundly. I don’t know if the same kind of strong, very special bond that can form between women is possible in a relationship between members of the opposite sex. I hope it can. Yes, it hurts me that gays have almost no rights in our country. But, on the other hand, no one really has civil rights in our country. And that being the case, crying that we can’t get a normal mortgage or adopt a child seems kind of funny. There are much more important civil rights it makes sense to fight for that are not dependent on sexual orientation. Interview by: Elena Vanina
Ruslan Savolainen, in the modeling business
About the “Nashi”* movement and the Catholic church
My father is Palestinian and my mother is a Russian Finn. I spent a lot of time in Jordan when I was a child living with my father’s family. When I was ten his grandmother came from Saudi Arabia – she was the head of our large clan – and soon she decided to take me under her wing. On the very same evening my mother and I gathered our things and returned to Russia. Since then I’ve never seen my father. Before we moved I didn’t know the word “gay” – they didn’t use it there in any way. But then, when I was already in Russia I saw a film on TV3 called “My Best Friend,” starring Madonna, and I understood that all that can happen.
There was no love lost between me and my peers in Russia. I was always shorter than everyone else. It took me until almost 10th grade to fit in, and I had only one true friend (a girl). One time the kids from a neighboring school pushed me under a moving car. I escaped with just a broken leg. After that I had many more encounters with street violence on that soil, I had serious problems with my health: after one attack my eyesight was catastrophically affected, and more than once I ended up in the hospital, and I’ve had six concussions. The last time it was in “X” on Zvenigorodskaia street: some Daghestanis beat up me and my friends, and one of them was a girl, really badly.
My first love story happened in 11th grade. At that time I was part of the “Nashi” movement and often went to Moscow for various activities. They had quite an influence on me, because I found myself in a new environment, where no one knew me and I could decide for myself what to reveal and what to hide. I ended up having friends, and I even started to behave differently. One time we were in Moscow, then everyone was headed out of town, and I ran off and decided to go to the “Three Monkeys” club although I was terrified to take the risk, I’d never been in a club before. At a certain moment I understood that I was sitting at a table with a guy and we’d already been talking about life for two hours. Things continued on until morning, we went out for a walk, he accompanied me to the train station, and right then for the first time in my life I felt something that I’d never experienced before. My friends were mad at me, of course, because I’d ditched them. I cried for a long time, and when I got to Petersburg I found a job so that it would be possible for me to travel to Moscow. Ever since then I went to see him every week, he introduced me to his mother, which was a shock for me, and everything was great until one day he disappeared. He showed up six months later, but he was already a completely different person.
I was in “Nashi” for three years, until after my second year of university. There were different types of activities, lots of charity work, then marches against one thing or another. One time I helped to organize those events – gathering people, leading agitational meetings in schools. And there everybody knew about me. While I was still in the 11th grade I decided that from that moment forward I would begin a new life and not hide anything from anyone. For the most part people treated me pretty positively. There were, of course, people who expressed their dissatisfaction, but as a rule they were overwhelmed by the kids who were ok with it. In the summer we went to Seliger with a thousand kids from all over Russia. And I had long hair, little tshirts and in general — it was obvious from a kilometer away. And it turned out that out of a few thousand people I was the only one. Some people even came over just to look at me. They brought some big lugs with them who tried to persuade me: hey, you can’t go around like that. But our group chased them off with sticks. Iakimenko phased it in a Putinesque way that, well, it’s not that I’m against it, it’s just that the population will suffer. (I saw Putin and Medvedev, shook both of them by the hand.) So there wasn’t any significant oppression. There were other gays there, but they were very careful about hiding it. And when I went to Seliger for the last time there were already two guys, a couple who lived together openly. Then the lesbians organized themselves into a small community and one of my classmates even came out there.
On Sundays I go to mass at a Catholic church. I became a catholic four years ago, not long after I left “Nashi.” There was a guy who took me there, and it felt somehow easy for me to be there. I saw people who treated everyone with greater loyalty. The pastors say out in the open that for them it is unacceptable, there have been attempts at morally uplifting conversations, but when they understand that it’s hopeless, then they give up all that and accept you as you are. There are a lot of gays in the catholic church, so many. The guy who brought me there is trying very hard to overcome it in himself and just recently he went to study at a Catholic seminary to become a priest. And here are lots like that. For them Catholicism is a way to fight it. And I just found understanding, unity, and peace there. And just a few weeks ago I even became the godfather of the daughter of a good friend.
I’ve noticed that in the last six months I’ve been more hesitant to say that I’m gay — despite the fact that I haven’t hidden it since I was in high school. I’ve concluded that if if members of the LGBT community didn’t hide it then people would relate to them differently. If you yourself put yourself in a demeaning and humiliating position, then it will be easy for other people to take advantage of it. But there’s progress, too — if not for that situation, then those conversations wouldn’t be happening and everything would be just like always. So my thanks to the deputies. They provided a great push for popular discussion.
Interview by: Dmitrii Simanovskii
*”Nashi” is a pro-Putin youth organization that is very politically active and well organized