Last week, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, GQ published “Inside the Iron Closet,” a Jeff Sharlet story that revealed disturbing details about what it’s like to be gay in Russia. The timing dovetailed with Human Rights Watch’s renewed admonition that Russia address the “deteriorating situation” of LGBT harassment and violence. Sharlet, author of the bestselling The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism in the Heart of American Power, C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die, is Mellon assistant professor of English at Dartmouth. He worked on the story with support from the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. He took us through the piece line by line, covering big-picture questions as well as grace notes about craft. Our questions are in blue , Sharlet’s responses in red .
Storyboard: How did this story come to be?
Jeff Sharlet: A young editor at GQ, Eric Sullivan, called and asked if I was interested. Actually, he was assistant to the editor in chief, Jim Nelson. This was his first full feature, I believe, and he’s since been promoted. He was involved at every stage. I like working with young editors, because they care about the story as much as you do. Eric had read an earlier essay of mine for Harper’s, “Straight Man’s Burden,” which is a report from Uganda on the men behind that country’s so-called “Kill the Gays” bill. After that, I told myself I wasn’t going to do that kind of story anymore. (I’ve been reporting on hard-right movements for years.) They’re important, but they can poison you, and I felt pretty poisoned. But it had been a few years, and here was this important and fascinating story. It felt like an opportunity to revisit these issues from the other side. I don’t mean anti-gay! I mean that in Uganda, I’d really focused on the homophobes, what they believed and why they believed it and what it felt like to be consumed by hate. In Russia, I wanted to know what it felt like to be on the wrong side of an official, state-sanctioned crusade, especially after things had been slowly improving for years. I was interested in fear, and, of course, fear’s corollary, courage.
What were the challenges particular to this assignment?
Time. I went to Russia for two weeks in early November and knew I’d have to file in December to get the story into the February issue, while the world was paying attention. I’ve never worked so fast in my life. Two weeks wasn’t a lot in Russia — I slept about four hours a night, trying to experience as much as I could — but even more crushing was the turnaround. I like to do most of my own transcribing, so I can hear conversations with plenty of time to pause and think about them, but with this schedule I needed help. I hired students and young journalists to help me, and together we transcribed about 80,000 words in a week. At the same time, I was deciphering my notes, following up by phone and Skype and library research. Normally I’d like about a month for this phase, followed by a week to just stare at it all and think, then maybe a month to write, revise, let it simmer, and another long spell to work it all out with the editor. Instead, we did it all in about three sleepless weeks. It may be better for the crunch. I had to make the kinds of decisions I normally brood on very quickly, and I think the story reflects that sense of urgency. Maybe a more interesting challenge was one of structure. I knew there wasn’t going to be a resolution to the story. I also knew that I didn’t want to do some kind of policy story with anecdotal illustration. What felt right to me was a story about a mood, or moods. Increasingly, I think this is something that literary journalism can do in a way most fiction — either dependent on plot or defying plot, but always in relation to plot — can’t. Poems can, of course, but there are other things poems aren’t as good at, like information. Literary journalism can give you information and mood at the same time.
Had you ever reported from Russia before? How did you set everything up — or did you simply show up and start reporting?
No, but I had a couple of advantages. My reporting on LGBT rights and homophobic crusades in Uganda, Kenya, and the U.S. had provided me with a lot of contacts in international activism, and they’d liked the Uganda work, in particular, so they were eager to help. Most crucial was Mark Gevisser, a South African journalist who I knew by reputation through his status as an Open Society Fellow. Mark is writing the book — literally — on global LGBT activism, and he’d just come back from Russia himself. He was incredibly generous with insights, connections, and, most importantly, his brilliant young translator, Zhenya Belyakov. Zhenya’s a “character” in my story, and I really wish I could have written more about him. He’s from Vladivostok, got out to escape the homophobia and beatings of his youth, lived happily abroad for five years, and came back after the anti-gay law passed, to fight it. He’d been an LGBT activist abroad, and he had a lot of connections in Moscow, but he was fairly new to the city, and new to how much worse things had gotten since he’d left the country. So we kind of explored together. He wasn’t a fixer in a traditional sense — he was a great and thoughtful translator who knew a lot of interesting people and was as interested as I was, for his own reasons as an activist, in finding more.
I can imagine some more traditional journalists saying “What!? You hired an activist as a fixer? That skews everything.” That’s fine. I didn’t go to Russia to be objective in that sense. You know, “On the one hand, homophobia is terrible; on the other, why do they have to be so gay?” But it was a pragmatic decision, too. In Uganda, I had a straight fixer, a journalist, and he made a lot of underground queer people very nervous.
I had another advantage — my father is a retired “Sovietologist,” a profession that doesn’t exist anymore. He was a political scientist who specialized in the Soviet Union, studied law at University of Moscow, spent his whole working life thinking about Russia. He’d also been very involved with Amnesty International for Eastern Europe. So while he didn’t know anything about the LGBT situation, he was able to give me some context for thinking about human rights and law in Russia. That reference in the story to the similarity between Article 6.21, the gay propaganda law, and Article 70, was his insight.
What is your procedure when you’re out in the field? Do you report all day and write at night? Or report, report, report and write when you get back?
I always mean to report all day and write at night. Usually I report all day, and as long as I can into the night, return to wherever I’m staying, and fall asleep in my clothes with my notebook on my face. Maybe that helps me absorb what I’ve learned. In Russia, the day tends to start late. (Sun doesn’t rise till mid-morning at this time of year.) So I’d start midmorning or later, usually with one or two meetings lined up, and let them lead from one situation to another. Then, at night, I went to gay clubs. It’s a measure of how limited the once-vibrant scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg has become that I could cover almost all of it in two weeks. Most of that’s not in the story, but I went to talk to people, to immerse myself in one aspect of queer life in Russia, to contextualize the people I really wanted to write about dozens of smaller conversations. So, same method: report, report, report, off to the clubs, back to hotel, collapse with my notes. Phrased like that, it’s incredibly dorky. I don’t know any other way.
On Friday, you posted this on Facebook:
Earlier today Elena Kostyuchenko, hero of my GQ story on being gay in Russia, no shit one of bravest human beings I’ve met, was arrested with three others for singing Russian national anthem in Red Square. (Video below.) Word is police took Elena & another out of cell, into room, told them to give them head. If you read my story, you know what Elena gave them. She weighs 50 kilos; but you don’t fuck with this woman. Also today, another activist I met, Anastasia Smirnova, was arrested w/ 3 others in Sochi for holding a banner that declared Olympic Principle 6, equality. Meanwhile, NBC Sports has called Putin a man of peace. We can’t hold Putin accountable, but we can hold NBC accountable.
What’s the latest? And what is it like, watching your story subjects go on to make news?
Elena’s English isn’t great, so I can’t have a phone conversation, but Zhenya tells me she was released, she’s ok, and she’s making more plans. If you’ve read the story, that shouldn’t surprise you. I have to say, when I saw the video of the arrest, I was very upset, even though I knew this was par for the course for Elena. I think it was a reminder of how little my story here in America can accomplish for these people I came to know and admire tremendously. My original ending for the story is pretty close to what it is now, but it was addressed to “Peter,” the little boy of the final scene: “All I have for you, Peter, is this toy airplane on my desk waiting to be mailed; and this story. It is not enough.” I didn’t end like that because there’s more truth in ending with the greatness of Peter’s heart than my own sense of failure, but that failure – the inevitable failure of stories – is true, too. That’s what I felt watching Elena get arrested, going down singing: This story, it’s not enough, not even close.
“Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia”
by Jeff Sharlet
Strangers at the Gate
Sunday nights in St. Petersburg are Rainbow Tea Party time. If you’re young and queer and hopeful, it’s the happiest way to end a weekend. An actual tea party.There are also cookies and—at LaSky, the HIV-awareness center that often hosts the event—more brightly colored giant beanbags than chairs, plus a lot of posters of hunky bare-chested men with floppy hair. There are many, many rainbows, on stickers and pins and brochures, and a rainbow curtain covering a strange little door in the corner. Visual and symbolically rich lede — how did you arrive at it? I didn’t – my editors did. I originally began with the story of Pavel and Emma, below. I wanted the first page or so of the story to be this utterly ordinary domestic life, except that everybody involved was hiding their true identity for fear of losing what they had. But “if it bleeds, it leads” isn’t just a maxim for TV news. GQ wanted to start with this more immediately dramatic scene of Dmitry’s shooting, and although we argued about it, I came to think they’re right, and I’m glad I did it. I don’t think nearly as many people would have read the story if it had started as slowly as I wanted it to. I love slow ledes, where you don’t quite know what’s happening, and if I include some version of this essay in a book – where you don’t have to “grab” a reader – I may shuffle it again. What we came up with, though, is sort of a compromise – it still starts kind of sweetly banal, but there’s this mysterious door, which leads to a maze, and kind of symbolically through the maze you come out into the darkness of violence which is a steady, simmering fact of life for queer Russians. This is a picture I took with my phone of the door. What I found moving about this was how modest a space LaSky was. Here it is, what Putin and his allies deem the looming threat to Russia’s “sexual sovereignty.”
The door leads to a club called Bunker, which is really a maze, twisting through the rest of the building’s vast basement. It’s dark; you have to feel your way through. The men who go to Bunker—many or maybe most of them “straight” men, married men, says the bartender—are looking for bodies, not faces. Poignant use of quotation marks. That’s all it takes to imply the risks of life outside the closet in Putin’s Russia. Yeah, and they’re factually accurate, too. To call these men straight, or “straight,” is to quote their representations of themselves, not to assert those representations as facts. The single word in quotes is of course a Didionism. They don’t want to see or be seen, only to touch and to be touched in a place where nobody knows them.
Those are the choices: light or dark, tea or poppers, a well-lit game of charades or a grope in the dungeon. Sweet or sordid, it doesn’t matter: In Russia now—in the throes of a fever stoked by the Kremlin—both must be hidden. They are not hidden well enough.
One evening in November—the city center like a bowl of pastel candies, Orthodox onion-domes rising above it like spun sugar—two strangers found their way to LaSky. They walked down a long street between a busy road and a canal until they came to an arch in a building. They went through the arch and down a dark alley before they arrived at an unlit empty parking lot, blacktop crumbling. Here they may have stopped to put on their masks. They crossed the lot toward a stand of scrub trees and weeds and took a left down a narrow path, then down an even darker set of uneven stairs to an unmarked steel door. The strangers stood at the threshold. This is beautifully observed. This is also strikes me as a difficult environment in which to take notes. How’d you do it? Oh, I didn’t observe it. I recreated it. I interviewed Dmitry Chizhevsky, first in his hospital room, and then later I went to hear him speak at LaSky. I spent a lot of time at LaSky while I was in St. Petersburg, attending activist meetings, another Rainbow Tea Party, and using a little side room they had for conversations. I knew how hard LaSky was to find, I knew about its security (I attended a meeting on security measures), I knew about the LGBT taxi activists use to get there and leave. I interviewed, I think, four other people who were there. And then I met Timur Iasev, who appears much later in the story. Timur is a rightwing activist who’d been staking out LaSky. He showed me extensive surveillance photos, said he had blueprints of the building, and talked at length about how difficult the attack would be to pull off — which is why, he said, he knew that LGBT activists had done it themselves to make people like him look bad. Normally, I would have also sought out the police investigating this, but given the police track record of investigating hate crimes in Russia, that seemed like a dead letter and a good way to get in hot water for being in the country on a tourist visa.
It was Rainbow Tea Party night. A woman named Anna asked who was there. “We’re looking for our friend!” replied one of the strangers. They shoved past her. In the hall, a man named Dmitry Chizhevsky was looking for his jacket. Why “a woman named,” “a man named”? What does the distancing signal to the reader? That they could be anybody. That they’re just ordinary activists – ordinary people with ordinary lives, enjoying a very ordinary social evening. It could be a man named Dmitry, it could be you. I wanted this to be both very specific to the moment and also abstracted. I love the metaphor mythologist Wendy Doniger uses to describe how myth has a sort of double vision, that of the microscope and the telescope. The microscope, here, is represented by the very minute details. The telescope is represented by the abstraction of the victims. Behind him was a girl I’ll call Rose, a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday. Rose glanced toward the door: two men wearing ski masks.
“Then,” she says, “they started shooting.” Chizhevsky: “The first bullet came into my eye. The first, the very first.” Rose: “I had a thought in my head—maybe I should do something, maybe I should scream.” Chizhevsky: “I can remember more closely what was audio.” Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, he recalls hearing. Five, he thinks. He says he remembers the sound of the bullet hitting his eye. Where did you conduct these interviews? In Dmitry’s hospital room and at LaSky. I took snapshots. (I always take as many snapshots as I can, as notes. I also draw pictures to try and capture a sense of gesture and physicality.)
Dmitry went down, and Rose ran, and Dmitry crawled. The men followed, kicking. One of them had a bat, “a baseball bat, yes,” says Dmitry. They were screaming. “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” The bat came down. And then the faggots in the other room charged the men with the gun and the bat and the masks, and the men ran away. Dmitry and Anna, who’d been shot in the back, inspected their wounds. An air gun, they determined. Thank God.
They say you can shoot an eye out with an air gun, but that’s not exactly what happened. The pellet, a round metal ball, lodged behind Dmitry’s eye.
“They tried with a magnet to take it out,” says Dmitry. “But, uh, they failed.”
What did they try next?
“A hook.” Do you speak Russian? Did you use a translator? I don’t. In addition to Zhenya, mentioned above, I worked with two other translators in St. Petersburg and one at home who helped me read documents. The two in St. Petersburg — Anton and Tatiana, first names only — weren’t activists in the same sense as Zhenya. Anton is gay, but his activism, as such, is religious — he’s connected to a little underground LGBT church in Russia, and since I’ve written a lot about religious issues, we connected really well. That’s important, because while the translator does their best on the spot, you need to be able to have a candid conversation after the interview to get a better sense of the nuances of languages. I was lucky, too, in that Anton is an aspiring writer — he understood why I cared about expression as well as meaning. My other St. Petersburg translator was Tatiana, a straight woman who’d recently attended her first LGBT rights demonstration, motivated by a sense of justice and concern for her mother, a lesbian who would unquestionably lose her job if she was outed. Both were brilliant linguists, but Tatiana’s “American,” in addition to her English, was remarkable — she was a devoted fan of Aaron Sorkin, and spoke in the fast, smart patter of wordplay familiar to fans of The West Wing. So while Anton was good at giving me the heart of a conversation, Tatiana was excellent with irony. Good translators are, in a sense, collaborators. I was very lucky to work with these people, both of whom helped me at some real risk to themselves.
The doctors told him he was lucky; a little farther, it would have entered his brain. All he’d lose would be his vision. How did you arrive at the structure for this piece? How do you handle structure generally? Generally, I come up with a rough outline, start writing the pieces in order, wake up in the middle of the night or pull over on the side of the road to write something that’s been stewing, chop and dice the outline, keep going, start making files labeled “fabric,” and “fabric 2,” “3,” etc., then “outtakes” then “cut (or not).” Once I have a big mess, I look at it all and settle on the major pieces I want. Then I start shuffling them like cards. There’s usually a sort of instinctive structure, that’s half formula – here we have the action lede followed by the second act of context – and half impression. I mean that in the same sense a comedian does impressions. The structure approximates some gestures I found essential to the character of the story as I found it. It’s more concerned with mood than with argument. At some point, I lay out the major pieces on the floor and just stare at them for awhile, trying them out in different arrangements to make sure that the one I’ve settled on is what I think is best. I used to have a writing studio in an old industrial building in Brooklyn, but since I’ve moved to the country, I use one of the special libraries at Dartmouth College, where I teach. Here’s a picture of that final stage – at which it all looks pretty tidy — with another recent story:
I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Did you have any trouble getting a visa? What was the process? Now that the story has appeared, do you think you would allowed to return? On the advice of several friends who’d reported in Russia, I went with a tourist visa. Which isn’t hard to get. A journalism visa would have been more problematic, but it probably would have worked. Some journalists covering LGBT issues had already been deported, but they were walking around with big cameras. I’m a pretty inoffensive character, shuffling around Moscow with my little notebook. And although I talked to a few “officials,” I wasn’t really interested in the usual journalistic paths. So I didn’t come into contact with the kinds of people who could make trouble with visas. (Though, on my second-to-last day, some anti-gay nationalists spent a lot of time bragging about their “visa activism,” demanding investigations of visas of people they didn’t like.) Go back? Probably. Never underestimate the incompetence of bureaucracy. I mean, there are some people — further down in the story — I wouldn’t call up to say, “Hey, I’m here!” but it’s not like Uganda, where one of the leaders of the ruling party told me — in what he genuinely meant as a friendly way, I think — that he’d have me arrested if I ever returned. Books are being banned—Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley’s Brave New World—immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn’t just coming undone; it’s imploding. I wanted to visit the bottom of the heap. The golubye. The blues, which in Russia is another word for queer—any way of being other than “Russian,” which, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a kind of sexual orientation. I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that “homosexualism” is a threat to its “sexual sovereignty,” that “genderless tolerance,” in Putin’s words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. Why is it important establish why you undertook the story? You know, I didn’t think it was, but my editors thought differently, and now I’m glad about that. To me, the suffering, and the perversity of the persecution, are pretty self-explanatory. This could be in Russia, this could be in Kampala, this could be in Manhattan, and wherever it is, it’s a story. If you’re a 17-year-old kid turning tricks because your parents kicked you out, if you’re a young professional like Dmitry, getting shot and beaten because you went to a tea party, it doesn’t really matter to you what country you’re in. But if you’re a reader, maybe it does. One response I’ve had from generally liberal people is, “Why Russia?” I’ve been getting it so often I even wrote a little blog post about it. The medicine is that of “traditional values,” a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.
One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who’d recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia’s new anti-gay law. How did you find your story subjects? Zhenya introduced me to Igor Iasine, a really fearless activist — I mean, you meet this guy and you get an inkling of why the Germans never captured Leningrad — who told me about Alex. Alex, his boyfriend, and a friend of theirs, a gay teacher from the Moscow suburbs, talked with me and Zhenya for a few hours in a café, and thereafter Alex helped us with some further connections. On the one hand, since I was looking for ordinary people, finding subjects was easy. “Do you have any friends I should meet?” On the other, it was tricky, since so many people were frightened, with a great deal at risk. I doubt Alex would have talked to me if he hadn’t already quit his job as a cop. And maybe not if he hadn’t vacationed abroad, if he wasn’t aware that there were places in the world he could be himself without fear. He wasn’t always so principled: One of Alex’s early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer’s computer for evidence of homosexuality. “I was just lucky it wasn’t my computer,” Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.
His boyfriend wasn’t as glib: “It’s Germany in the ’30s,” he declared. “Hush, hush,” Alex said. “Not so loud.” It’s not Germany in the ’30s, he said; it’s Russia now. And that’s a subtler problem.
Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There’s a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their “interrogations” online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God’s Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims. Are these horrific anecdotes based on previously reported work, or did you hear about this during your two weeks in Russia? Both. I met a leader of God’s Will and VK’d (Russian Facebook) with Homophobic Wolf while I was there. Actually, it was an underground gay activist, working in the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church’s intellectual apparatus, who told me about Homophobic Wolf — one of its members had attended a screening of an LGBT friendly film he’d shown. I knew about Occupy Pedophilia and the Volgograd killing before I went — those became international stories — but I learned about the Kamchatka killing while I was there, along with a number of other killings and violent attacks, by talking with activists who are pretty careful about documenting these things. (There are videos of the stones.) In my first draft, this paragraph was about twice as long or more, a real horror show of sadism and murder and diabolically creative violence. But violence is like dialect and accent — a little goes a long way. I realized that most readers, upon coming upon this sort of flat recitation, would imagine the rest. They’d imagine nightmares. And their imagination would be as accurate as reality.
But such people exist everywhere, said Alex. The difference in Russia now is who’s standing behind them.
The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay “propaganda,” but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what “propaganda” was. The new law explicitly forbids any suggestion that queer love is equal to that of heterosexuals, but what constitutes such a suggestion? One man was charged for holding up a sign that said being gay is ok. Pride parades are out of the question, a pink triangle enough to get you arrested, if not beaten. A couple holding hands could be accused of propaganda if they do so where a minor might see them; the law, as framed, is all about protecting the children. Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and the author of the bill, says that it’s too late to save adult “homosexualists,” as they’re called, but Russia still has a chance to raise a pure generation. Did you interview anyone from the Russian government? What were the preconditions of being allowed to research your story? Did you have a minder? No minders, because I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I wasn’t “allowed” to research my story; I just did. Anatoly Artyukh, down below, is technically an aide to one of the key regional politicians, Vitaly Milonov, responsible for the law going national. And I went out to an empty restaurant in the suburbs, accessible only by highway, to have what felt like a very paranoid and clandestine meeting with Dmitry Gudkov, a prominent opposition politician, who has been dubbed “Russia’s Rand Paul.” His big dissent was skipping the vote on the gay propaganda bill, because he considers it an unconstitutional distraction. Of course, he also told us a bunch of gay jokes to make sure we didn’t get the wrong idea.
Mizulina’s dream isn’t old-fashioned; it is, as one fascist supporter told me, “utopian.” Why was this anonymously sourced? This isn’t exactly a controversial opinion, right? It’s Anatoly Artyukh, below. In a news story, I might ID him here. But in a piece like this, I don’t want to ID someone until we’re going to spend some time with him, as we do below. He meant that as praise. And the Russian dream is not alone. Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don’t advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of “family values” churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight “globalization”—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror.
In Russia, the process is accelerating. In 2006, a bill similar to the law was laughed out of the Duma, dismissed by the then deputy prime minister as “a row of mistakes.” In June it passed, 436-0. Alex the cop says 2010 was the best year, a new club or café opening every other weekend. New LGBT groups were forming all over. “It was like a party,” one activist told me. What happened between then and now has as much to do with the unstable price of oil and Putin’s eroding popular support as it does with actual queer people. The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills. Putin, says Patriarch Kirill, the church’s leader, is a living “act of God.” Forget about the price of bread and what you can’t afford. Putin has come to save the Russian soul.
Article 6.21, the law’s official designation, has proven to be the Duma’s most popular social initiative of the year; according to one poll, only 7 percent of Russians firmly oppose it. Another new law requiring nonprofits that receive support outside Russia to register as foreign agents has been used to justify police raids on the country’s leading LGBT organizations. In July, Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by gay parents abroad.
And in October, the Duma started to take up a law to remove children from LGBT parents in Russia. It’s been put on hold, but it’s expected to return once the Olympics and international scrutiny have passed.
“The problem is bigger than laws,” a gay activist named Igor Iasine told me, tracing a line through his beard where neo-Nazis had broken his jaw. The last third of this sentence is so casually violent — all the more powerful for its concision. I included that in one of my early drafts for that very reason. Then, when it came time to fit the story to the space, I thought about cutting it. My editor said keep it, even though we were desperate for lines to cut. Another one of Eric’s good calls, I think. “The law is icing on the cake.”
For Dmitry Kiselyov, the director of Russia’s massive new state media corporation—created in December to swallow up state media entities that show any hint of autonomy—laws are not enough. He’s concerned about organ donors, the possibility of a queer heart beating in a straight body.
When homosexuals die, he says, “their hearts should be burned.” Did he say this to you? And how did you react? For his part, Buzz Bissinger says that, when a source tells you something crazy, “you have to remain calm, as if what you have just heard is of no particular moment at all.” Do you agree? Oh, no. I think if I’d interviewed him on my little tourist visa, my trip would have ended before I got to St. Petersburg. This is well known in Russian LGBT circles. But yes, I’ve been reporting on and spending a lot of time with people who hold very extreme and often violent views for years. I’d say you want to be more than calm; you want to be engaged. Usually that’s okay — people with extreme or violent views will often accept what they perceive to be disagreement if they’re taken seriously, as they should be. I mean that — your job as a writer is not to police the boundaries of reason and good taste, it’s to understand something of what it feels like to be, to think like, someone else. If that someone else is violent, what’s needed is empathy — not sympathy — for the devil. And then, sometimes, as with the Cossack below, you just nod politely and smile if you can, and start figuring out how to get out of there.
“I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine,” a kid named Kirill tells me at a hidden gay club called Secrets. “We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He shrugs. He has heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He prefers not to. “Everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. This is their experience, not mine.” He says he does not know what the word closet means.
“Something Is Coming”
In an upper-middle-class neighborhood close to Moscow’s city center, two apartments face each other. Two families, two daughters. They leave the doors open to allow easy access from one to the other.
Pavel met Irina not long after he moved to Moscow twelve years ago, and almost immediately he knew that someday he’d start a family with her. Irina felt it, too. They agreed on it one night over vodka, after a night of clubbing. The party had moved back to an apartment, where they kept drinking, Irina teasing Pavel, Pavel marveling at Irina’s bold friends. She was a Muscovite; Pavel had come from one of those distant eastern cities, 4,000 miles from Moscow. Irina was six years younger, but she was his teacher, teaching him how to be silly and modern and free. They drank and danced, Pavel discovering his hips, until they both collapsed around a kitchen table and, over more vodka, Pavel tried to be funny and Irina thought he was, so she said, “Someday I would like to have a child with you.” Pavel said, “I feel the same.” This is so interesting. It’s all true, obviously, but stylistically it reads like the beginning of a short story, a fairy tale. Am I reading too much into this? That’s exactly how it should read. As I wrote above, this was my first idea for a lede. I wanted it to be a fairy tale. And I wrote a fair bit more than what’s here, because I was so enchanted with it, the perfection of appearances, the tragedy of hiding. To me, the story is even more painful than what’s here. Imagine this guy, 13 years old in his little provincial city, thumbing through a Russian Joy of Sex book his worker parents left for him to learn the birds and the bees, and he finds the brief little section on homosexuality, and thinks, “Good. I’m in the book.” And then, “So I’m normal. Which means I can be a dad.” And then he systematically organizes his life to make that dream come true. It’s a dream story, which is another way of saying a fairy tale, and it’s a nightmare story. Kind of like the great novelist Angela Carter’s dark fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber.
Suddenly they were sober, giddy but clear: They knew it was true. But they had to wait. To have children is a great responsibility, Pavel thought. You have to have a place to live. You have to earn. You have to have a partner you can rely on. In 2010, they were ready. Their best friends, Nik and Zoya, were having a baby, too, and they lived right next door. Their children would grow up together. Two little girls: Nik and Zoya’s Kristina, and then Pavel and Irina’s Emma.
Now they are one big happy family, inseparable. Pavel has always been great with kids. He likes to read the girls Russian fairy tales, and he buys DVDs of old Russian cartoons, the ones he was raised on. They watch them together. The girls toddle between the apartments through the open doors. Pavel thinks little blonde Kristina looks like an angel. Emma’s darker, serious like her father. Both girls call him Papa. The children share a nanny, too, who helps the parents with light cleaning, dishes, and dusting, making sure all the family pictures are in place.
“Nobody would suspect us,” Pavel says. Not even the nanny. Was there any hesitation on Pavel’s part about talking to you? What steps did you take to ensure that the details you disclose aren’t sufficient to identify him and his family? Yes, a great deal of hesitation, which I try to suggest below through the sort of skulking, Cold War spy meeting measures I had to take to get to him. But he’d reached his breaking point. My plan was to go to his house, to just sit there and watch an ordinary day unfold, but then he got called away to Siberia for his work. I wanted to stay longer so I could go, but then I wouldn’t have made my deadline, this would have missed the February issue, and probably we wouldn’t be talking about this at all. But, of course, fact checkers verified everything. We discussed ground rules at our first meeting, then, after I wrote, I checked some details with him for safety, and fact checkers double-checked and checked some more.
Pavel’s secret isn’t that he’s gay. It’s that they all are, the adults: Pavel and Nik and Irina and Zoya. Both girls have two mothers, two fathers; they have beds in both apartments. Their life together was, until recently, the fulfillment of all that Pavel had wanted, an ambition that had come to him at almost the same moment he’d realized he was gay: to be “normal.” If he were normal, he thought, then he could be a father. “That,” he tells me, “has been my precious dream.” How did you find Pavel and his family? If through a fixer, how did you find and/or decide on a fixer? Alex the Cop’s boyfriend mentioned him, and Alex the Cop put us in touch. As for deciding on the fixer, this wouldn’t have been possible without Zhenya, about whom I wrote above.
Pavel agrees to talk to me because soon, he fears, the laws that have passed and the laws to come may make it impossible to hide. I’m told to meet him at a metro station. When I arrive—with my translator, Zhenya, a gay activist—no one is there. A phone call from a mutual friend directs us through the empty station, around a corner, and down some stairs to a basement restaurant, Georgian cuisine, a man in a corner with a bottle of white wine. Is this—? Yes. He smiles. We sit down.
“Something is coming,” says Pavel. Why the present tense? Is this your choice or GQ house style? I don’t know if it’s GQ house style, but here it was definitely their preference. In general I almost always prefer past tense, because I can be literal-minded. But I can live with the decisions of a great editor who knows his or her readers. What it will be, he’s not sure. He’s worried about “special departments” in local police stations, dedicated to removing children from gay homes. He’s worried about a co-worker discovering him. He is worried about blackmail. He is worried, and he does not know what else to do. He wishes he could fight, but he doesn’t know how. Sign a petition? March in a parade? Pavel would never do that now. “My children,” he murmurs.
“This law,” he says, referring to the ban on “propaganda.” “If something happens, it touches only me. And I can protect myself.” But the next law: “This is about my child. My baby.” If the next law passes, they will leave. The two women are doctors and Nik works in higher education, careers that will require new certification. Which means that only Pavel, a manager for the state oil company, will be able to work right away. They will be poor, but they will leave. They might have to separate, Pavel and Irina and Emma to Israel, where Irina can become a citizen, Nik and Zoya and Kristina to any country that will take them. They might have to become the couples they pretend to be. This is heartbreaking. Reminds me of that Vonnegut line — “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” — except, of course, this family has no choice. Man, you made it bleaker than Vonnegut at his bleakest. That’s about right. For now, they are staying. “We’re going to teach them,” he says of his two little girls, Emma and Kristina. “How to protect themselves. How to keep silence.”
This is how the law really works: It’s the little things that break first. Like a child who wants to call her father Papa. “Father can be only one,” Pavel tells Kristina. She can never call him Papa again. If someone overheard her… No, not even at home. She must forget that was ever his name. “I can be anybody but Father,” he tells the girl he used to call daughter.
A Dangerous Pride
In 2006, an activist named Nikolai Alekseyev organized Russia’s first pride parade. Moscow’s mayor forbade it; he called for “concrete measures” to stop it. On May 27, Alekseyev and a few comrades approached Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with flowers. The tomb is a memorial to the millions of Soviet troops killed in what Russians call the “war against fascism.”
The little group found the gate closed. Before it stood a line of police and squads of the OMON, elite riot cops in boots and blue camo and black berets. And a crowd, chanting, “Russia without faggots!” One man, in a fit of apparent generosity, screamed, “You have your nightclubs!” Another began shouting about his grandfather, who had fought in the war. Alekseyev shouted back that his own grandfather died fighting. Then the police arrested Alekseyev, and the crowd took the others, and the Tomb was preserved, safe from gay roses.
In 2007, about three dozen pride marchers tried to deliver a letter signed by more than forty members of the European Parliament to the mayor of Moscow, asking for permission to hold the parade. The mayor called it a “work of Satan.” Among those beaten was an Italian parliamentarian.
In 2008, activists applied to hold marches across the city, all denied, and then assembled as a flash mob for moments in front of a statue of Tchaikovsky.
They tried the same trick in 2009, but the police were ready.
2010: Success! Thirty marchers marched for ten minutes before they were captured.
2011: Three minutes, maybe four.
2012: Moscow officially banned gay-pride parades for one hundred years. I love this stripped-down timeline. The less information you provide, the more powerful it is. How did you arrive at that mini-structure? I spent a long time learning as much as I could about the history of queer activism in Russia. But here’s the thing: As important as activism is, I find it a little boring. I support it, admire activists, etc. — but the story tends to always be the same. So I thought about how I could capture the stunted experience of trying to be an LGBT rights activist in Putin’s Russia, and it occurred to me that I could represent it in stunted form. I love these kinds of lists, as a literary device. Sort of like listing prose poems. And I mean both sense of the word listing. This section, to me, falls down, sputters out, which is what I wanted to convey.
Last year: The police were waiting. They brought trucks fitted with metal cages.
At Bunker one night, a fat man named Yuri, pink-cheeked and furry-chested, leans in close, over my notebook. Not threatening; frightened. “No more parades!” he says. “No more marches!” Yes, he would like to have rights. “But this is Russia!” He’s shaking an open palm on either side of my face, making sure I write this down: “I will be beaten!” He points to a teenager. “He will be beaten. All of us will be beaten! And we will go to the police, and they will just smile.” At what point in the writing process did you decide to include these short, italicized interludes? And what prompted this? Really, the constraints of space. All these club scenes were sections of their own. But I had to cut a lot. The story had been commissioned short, at 5,000 words. It’s closer to 8,000. But I wrote around 14,000. So before we even started editing seriously, I had to get rid of a lot. The club scenes went. But then I realized we had lost what I saw as an essential aspect of the story, the way oppression actually, you know, oppresses. Some people, like Pavel, maintain their dignity even as they hide; others, like Elena, below, are genuine heroes. But not everybody can be strong all the time. Some, like Yuri, are broken. I met a lot of those people at the clubs. So as we were approaching the end, already in pages, I said, “Hey, these guys have to come back.” But there was no room. Then we hit on a solution: We cut a sidebar timeline (apologies to the editor who’d spent time compiling it) and studded the piece with these little vignettes. I think of them as a kind of countercurrent, a reminder that such struggles come at a terrible cost, and not everybody survives them intact. Structurally, I like that kind of fragmentation, that kind of subtle disagreement within a story. That feels truer to life than a seamless narrative.
Elena Kostyuchenko knew she would be beaten. It was how hard she went down that surprised her. Not immediately. When the fist connected with her skull, she fell, yes, but then she stood again and raised her rainbow flag. The crowd was silent. Their mouths were open as if screaming, but there was no sound. Her hearing was gone. Then the police grabbed her, and Elena’s first gay-pride parade was over.
Elena is 27. “I’m not very tall; I weigh fifty kilos. I can’t overthrow this world,” she says. But she is trying. It took months, hospitalizations, five medications “to widen the veins in my brain,” but most of her hearing is back now, and there’s an app on her computer that allows her to jack movies up to 150 percent of what you might consider tolerable volume. She wears her hair in a short black shag with high spiky bangs, and she has big pale blue eyes that lighten in to the pupils. Her voice is droll, her manner deadpan, her presence at first unassuming; I talked to her for a couple of hours before I learned how much violence she’s endured since that first pride event in ’11, and she never did get around to telling me that when she was 9 she was given up for dead, warehoused in a cancer ward for kids her provincial hospital deemed “unlikely” to survive. So when did you learn this? She has a Livejournal where she records thoughts more personal than those of her journalism (see immediately below). When I got home I spent an afternoon reading it with a Russian translator here in Vermont: Tatyana Bills. She’s a liberal-minded person, writing a masters’ thesis on modern Russian history, but even she was stunned by the suffering that came through Elena’s prose, never for an instant self-pitying. We were both moved to tears by her account of her time in the cancer ward, which she wrote after one of her beatings, to remind herself of the Christian children who would bring her flowers there. She wanted to remember not to hate the people who’d beaten her and her girlfriend in the name of Christ.
She and Zhenya and I meet at a dull little café near her metro station. Grayish pink walls, two TV screens playing Western pop videos from the ’80s and ’90s—there’s a lot of Wham!—and a fluorescent-lit smog of cigarette smoke. Elena’s a reporter, hard-nosed. “Prostitutes, addicts, these are my people,” she says. She has fainting spells, but she wills herself to keep standing: “A journalist shouldn’t faint.” In the nine years she’s been working for her paper, Novaya Gazeta—the last major opposition publication—three of its reporters have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, shot four times in her apartment elevator in 2006, the killer still unknown. “I’m lucky,” Elena says. She means alive.
She knows some English, but she speaks mostly in Russian. Explaining her view of Russia’s rising homophobia, she dictates to Zhenya: “Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it’s not kosher. We—” she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya—”are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don’t look different, but we are.” She inhales. She’s one of those smokers who hold your eyes when they’re smoking. Cigarettes disappear into her lungs. She says, in English: “It’s our turn. Just our turn.” Was this opinion shared by anyone else you interviewed? A lot of people were even more fatalistic than that, but I have to admit I never asked anybody whether they felt it was their turn. She exhales. She has a pleasant smile.
She met her girlfriend four and a half years ago, at a lesbian movie night in a club. The movie was Lost and Delirious, translated into Russian as They’re Not Gonna Get You. Mischa Barton, prep-school lesbians. They both thought it was a little childish. Elena liked Anya’s seriousness and her broad grin; she liked her earnestness and her calm. Their love was quick and deep and strong. Soon Elena was thinking about a home together. “Then I was thinking, ‘I have health issues. I’m hospitalized once in a while. I can be unconscious—who will come and make medical decisions for me?’ Then, at one moment, I realize Anya is the one I want to have my children with.” That’s when she got scared. “Before that, I didn’t feel like I was discriminated against. Then Anya appeared.”
She’d reported on pride events in 2009. She found it pitiful: a handful of queers. “Why does nobody want to defend my rights?” she’d ask. “Why does nobody want to fight for my happy future?”
The morning of the pride demonstrations in 2011, Elena wrote a post on her blog that would, in the days that followed, go viral. It was very simple: “Why I Am Going to Gay Pride.” She was going for Anya. They would wear silly T-shirts—i love her, with arrows. Elena made a sign that said hate is boring. She put on a black raincoat, Anya an olive green one, to hide their shirts until they got there. “I was scared that at the moment I wouldn’t be able to unzip my raincoat, that people would somehow feel we were lesbians, that we would be beaten before raising the flag.”
There is video of the man attacking Elena. His name is Roman Lisunov. Not an activist—a family man. Did you attempt to interview Lisunov? Yeah, without luck. After I went home I got in touch with Elena’s lawyer, who sent me a few legal and medical documents, which Zhenya translated for me. Then I wanted to talk to Lisunov, but it didn’t work. I felt confident in this, though, because it’s represented in legal documents and in video and in multiple accounts. “Just a simple Russian guy,” as homophobes here like to say. Elena’s flag flickers, and then hurtling from behind comes Lisunov’s fist, taking Elena’s skull flat across his knuckles, just above her left ear. In his defense, he will tell the police that he is baptized. That’s it. Good enough! The detective assigned to the case will ask her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street? What protection does she want now?”
They caught Anya on the metro. “They know our faces really well,” says Elena. They know all the activists. “They know Anya is my girlfriend.” Three surrounded her on the escalator going down. One put Anya in a headlock to hold her still, then smashed his fist up into her face once, twice, three times, four, five. Anya counted.
This was after a kiss-in protest at the Duma last winter. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been warned. Some neo-Nazis had posted instructions online: “The guys, we beat them until they can’t stand up anymore. The women, we break their faces.” But the men in the metro weren’t Nazis. Their leader seemed to be a man named Dmitry Enteo, a one-man would-be Pussy Riot of the right who leads an “action art” group called God’s Will, linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Like performance art, Enteo will tell me later, only, you know, more real. He’s kind of a hipster.
The kiss-ins were Elena’s idea. She’d been complaining to a friend. “I am tired of standing there with a poster,” she said. Well, said her friend, what would you rather be doing? Easy question! “Kissing Anya.”
Announcing the event on her blog, she wrote: “A kiss only concerns two people…. It does not need permission from deputies of the Duma.” And: “How long should you kiss? However long you like.”
Anyone was invited to join them. “I don’t like being an activist,” she says. But what choice does she have? “It’s a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming.”
The LGBT movement splits along two philosophical lines, she says. “One of them says we need to work through education and enlightenment. The other says we should stop trying to get everyone to like us. I respect the educational approach. It takes a lot of time. I don’t have so much time. We want to have children. I need my rights now.” Her demands are modest: marriage, kids, a mortgage. Also, if possible, she would like not to be murdered. This is a perfect, horribly funny sentence. Thanks. I struggled with it, because to me it sounded so much better if I wrote “…she would like not to be killed.” “Murdered,” with its wobbly syllables, kind of stepped on the joke. But I really wanted her great Harvey Milk point below, too, and she said “killed.” Your subject always has first dibs on the best words. She doesn’t want to be Harvey Milk: “Harvey Milk was killed!”
“Take a plane,” her mother begs her. Emigrate. “Two hours, you will be in another world, where you will be loved and needed.” But Elena can’t leave. So now her mother calls her after every action. “Are you in a police van?” she asks. “If I say yes, she says, ‘Thank God.’ ” Better a jailed daughter than a dead one.
The day of the fourth and last kiss-in, the day the law passed, June 2013, the haters tried a new weapon. It gives even Elena pause. She stubs out a cigarette, starts a fresh one, and begins to speak. Zhenya listens. “The homophobes…,” he says, starting his translation. Then he stops. “Zhenya?” I ask. Elena continues. Zhenya is nodding, but he says nothing. His face is flushing.
He’s 26, grew up in Vladivostok, was beaten, saw his straight friends beaten for trying to protect him. He became an exile at the first chance, living abroad for five years. He worked for a human-rights organization, writing reports on the escalating violence in Russia. It wasn’t enough. After the law passed, he came home. “To fight,” he says.
“Zhenya?” I say again. He’s staring at the wall. Elena says, “He is crying.”
Have you ever stopped an interview because of the emotional toll it was having on a source? What do you generally do when a source becomes emotional?
No, I’d never stop an interview, though I’d respect it if a subject did. It’s not my place to tell people what they can handle, especially when it’s with regard to their own lives. If a source doesn’t become “emotional” — in some sense — then I look for a way to end the conversation. Data I can get over the phone. The problem here wasn’t that Zhenya was crying. I broke down, too. I’ve never done that before. Ever. I struggled with writing about it for a long time, and while I’m proud of that struggle — I’ll paste it in, if it’s of interest as what you work on for a long time and then cut — I think for the context of this 7,600-word story, it was right to end it where we did. But this is what I wrote, to speak of my own tears, and where they came from, and to recover:
“The homophobes–” he says, starting his translation. Then he stops. Elena continues, very calmly
“Zhenya?” I ask. He takes out his cigarettes, fiddles with them, puts them down, and looks away.
Zhenya grew up in Vladivostock, learned English from Madonna videos—he began memorizing her songs when he was seven–was beaten, saw his straight friends beaten for trying to protect him, cried “this fucking country, this fucking country,” and left at the first chance. He lived abroad for five years. He met Igor working for an organization called Frontline Defenders, writing reports on the escalating violence in Russia. Not enough, said Igor. Come back, he told Zhenya. You’re needed. To fight. “For the motherland,” Igor joked, ironic and earnest at the same time. Zhenya returned. To fight; for Igor. Maybe it was love. So hard to say. They never did. Instead they spoke of the struggle, of demonstrations, of crooked noses.
Elena has stopped talking. Zhenya is still looking away.
She laughs quietly. I realize we’ve been listening to this soft laugh like this all night. What is it? It is not unkindly. It’s stoic, absurd; generous and sheltering. When I think back to this moment I will I have an image of Elena putting her hand on Zhenya’s, but that’s not possible; he’s cupped his around his temple, and Elena sits with one arm folded around her, holding her cigarette with the other.
Zhenya takes a deep breath. With no inflection, he resumes his translation, telling me the story that had stopped him. On the day of the last kiss-in, the day the law passed, the mob tried something new. Action art. A mockery. A lesson. They brought their children. Not rocks; their children. The children were their weapon. Even Igor, who always fought, who maybe likes fighting, was helpless. Who would hit a child? The children, adolescent boys, 12, 13, moved in packs from activist to activist, one by one. It was a day of beatings.
It takes me a moment. “Their kids?”
Elena smiles. “Yeah.”
“We couldn’t fight them,” says Zhenya, finishing his translation. And that’s it; he’s done. Because everybody knows 12-year-old boys can be real shits, these are the same fights they have with each other in the schoolyard, but the hope is that they’ll grow up, that their parents will teach them. The hope is always that it will get better. He moans and starts to shake. Elena speaks to him quietly. The only word I understand is “Igor.” Zhenya looks up. He snorts a little laugh. “She says, ‘Igor does not cry.’” It’s not a rebuke; it’s permission. Because maybe we need some permission, after all, people do, from each other. Elena looks at me. She says in English, “You are crying, too.” She smiles. “I think it is because music.”
At which point I should mention that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the long, haunted version Jeff Buckley recorded before he drowned, has been playing throughout this account of the fourth Duma kiss-in. It’s a real weeper, that song. “Wit and jaundiced comedy,” Salman Rushdie describes it, “desire and loss.” Buckley said it was about an orgasm. I remember when I moved in you, / and the holy dove was moving too, /and every breath we drew was Hallelujah! Say it softly four times. Hallelujah, that’s the refrain. You’ve heard it before; it’s in a lot of movies and it’s popular at weddings and funerals. If we had chosen this song, you’d have to roll your eyes. But there it is, Buckley’s high lonesome tenor and that quiet guitar like light breaking on water, the song we listened to between the words Zhenya could and could not say. I wish you could have heard it with us. Because hymns—and standards, which is what this really is, like “My Funny Valentine,” or “I Will Always Love You”—the way they work, when they work, is that they sound like they’ve always been there, waiting, only suddenly they’re breathtakingly, perfectly intimate to you. They change the way you feel time. There’s a word for this, kairos: a moment that returns again and again and yet is its own with every passing. A moment that is always becoming.
Sort of like this: I’d asked Igor who he’d been kissing with his bloody lip and his broken nose, and he’d said, “I don’t know! It doesn’t matter.”
Or like this, something Elena’s friend said on the way to the Duma for a kiss-in, considering not the stones or the fists but the fact that she did not know who she would kiss, she did not have an Anya: “Kissing there is like praying,” she decided.
Or this: At the last kiss-in, the day the law passed, an activist named Alexey Davydov wrote Elena to ask if it might be possible to push the kiss-in from noon to one. Davydov was one of the founders of Moscow Pride. At a 2011 protest, police shattered his arm so completely that he spent a month in the hospital. There, say his friends, began an infection that would lead to kidney failure. That was just the problem, Davydov wrote Elena; he had dialysis that morning from nine to noon. To attend he would have to turn off the machine an hour early. Elena wanted to help. “But noon is when the deputies will be there.” He understood. He went to the kiss-in, and the Duma passed the law, and then he became the first person charged with breaking it. For holding a sign outside a school that read, “Being gay is normal.” He hoped to take the case all the way to the Constitutional Court. This past December, the Court ruled in favor of the law. Davydov wasn’t there; he died of complications in September, 36 years old.
Who did he kiss that day in June? What did it feel like? We cannot ask him; that moment is gone.
He composes himself and continues the translation of the story that overwhelmed him. On the day of the last kiss-in, the mob tried something new. They brought their children. Action art. A mockery. A lesson. Not rocks; the children were their weapon. Who would hit a child? Adolescent boys, 12, 13, moved in packs from activist to activist, one by one, throwing fists, kicking. It was a day of beatings.
It takes me a moment. “Their kids?”
Elena smiles. “Yeah.”
“We couldn’t fight them,” says Zhenya, finishing his translation. He moans and starts to shake. And that’s it; now he’s broken. Because everybody knows 12-year-old boys can be real shits, these are the same fights they have with one another in the schoolyard, but the hope is that they’ll grow up, that their parents will teach them. The hope is always that it will get better.
At a club called Ice, I befriend Why “befriend”? Was this a different relationship than with your other sources? They’re all my friends! Well, not really. But some are – Zhenya’s a friend, and I certainly hope to see Elena again – and some are for the duration of our time together. I’m not a news reporter. There is no “view from nowhere” for me. I talk to people until I find someone I can talk with. “With” is the operational term, there. As subjects I’m looking for people with whom I can have a conversation that’ll engage us both, not someone I can lob questions at. This was another long scene I cut, but we spent a long evening, at two clubs, with Nikolai, mainly because for awhile we enjoyed each other’s company (and I was paying for beers). He liked telling stories, he liked bragging, and, it turned out, he liked interviewing other people, too. At Secrets, where I met Kirill, above, Nikolai got into the process, recruiting people to come and sit at my table with me and interrupting when he felt they weren’t being honest with me or with themselves. a long-necked hustler with bright green eyes, wearing a white NYPD cap. His name is Nikolai. He says he kissed his first boy at 14 but that it took him until he was 17 to realize he was gay. He was small in school and he fought often, but he was perhaps a little slow to grasp his social condition; he didn’t understand why other boys beat him. By the time he got it, he’d learned how to beat them. Such was his coming-out story.
He was happy being gay, though. He liked knowing what he wanted. The problem was his mother. Gay she could handle, but she wanted grandkids. She made him a deal: an apartment in exchange for grandchildren. Plural. Minimum two.
So Nikolai did what he had to do: “I married a woman. I am a father!” He beams. He has delivered the goods: a girl, 1½ years old; a boy, 4 months. His mother rewarded him with the apartment, and he came out to his wife.
“I don’t think there is homophobia in Russia,” he says, “because I always carry a gun.”
The logic takes me a moment. He means they can’t hurt him, because he will hurt them first. His father, a “criminal,” he says, found Nikolai on a Grindr-like app once. He said he was coming to kill Nikolai. Nikolai wrote back: “I’m waiting for you.” His father never came. Nikolai is waiting. He taps one side of his head and then the other, to show the path of the bullet he’ll put through his father’s skull. Did you ask Nikolai what his father was doing on Grindr? Right! That’s the big question. Yeah, I asked. Who can say?
“Violence Is Acceptable”
There are three faces of homophobia in Russia: that of the state, that of the Orthodox Church, that of the fringe. A fringe in what sense? With backing of the state and the church, the homophobia seems awfully mainstream. Thugs who aren’t officially sanctioned even as they’re winked at by the state and the church and given leeway in which to operate. Obsessive people. For that matter, you might call them the true believers – for the state and the church, homophobia is a useful political tool; for these “fringe” enforcers, it’s a cause, a way of life. And yet they’re one—a kind of Trinity. The state passes laws; the church blesses them; the fringe puts them into action. The state is the mind of hate, the church, now, its heart; the fringe is made up of its many hands. Some use the courts; some use fists. There are street fighters, and there are polished men and women who attend international conferences on “family values.”
Timur Isaev uses cameras. He likes to watch.
That’s how his activism began, he tells me one night in St. Petersburg. As young men, he and his friends liked to hunt and beat gays. “For fun,” he says. But then he became a father. Like many parents, he worried about the Internet. Late at night, he studied it. He watched YouTube. “Girls,” he says, “young girls, undressing themselves.” Using a special “tool for developers,” he says, he was able to discern that the other people watching these videos at 2 a.m. were homosexual men. “The analysis of their accounts,” he says, “showed that they also watched young boys.” That’s when Timur realized he must become an activist. For the children.
Timur bought a video camera, a very good one. He began documenting LGBT life. At first, demonstrations; then he began idling outside activists’ offices, filming and photographing people coming and going. He showed me one of his galleries: dozens, maybe hundreds of faces. Some he has photographed himself, others he finds online. He is a great policeman of VK, Russia’s version of Facebook. These days he stays up late at night searching for homosexual teachers. It’s kind of his specialty.
I’ve sought Timur out to confirm a story I’d been told the night before at LaSky, from a former schoolteacher named Olga Bakhaeva. She said she’d lost her job because Timur, posing as a concerned mother, had outed her.
“Is Olga’s story true?” I ask Timur.
“Yes!” he says, flattered. In fact, he is working on another teacher now. She’s going to be fired next week, he hopes. “We usually fire good shots—good informational shots,” he says. Olga was his sixth. He takes out his tablet to shows me the others. He loves social media. He poses for a picture, holding up a photograph of Olga he found online. It’s a trophy.
How does he do it? He has connections. In my notebook he scribbles a list of names and numbers, a Who’s Who of right-wing St. Petersburg, including Vitaly Milonov, the author of the city’s anti-gay legislation. Timur makes calls when he senses something suspicious. Just last night he had another success. There was a support group for LGBT families. He’d been stalking it online. He had information that there would be a minor there. He’d arranged a raid.
It was true. As it happens, I had been at that meeting. The police had been right outside the door, held at bay because they didn’t have the right warrant. Inside, there was a 17-year-old boy talking about coming out to his mother. For this, we all could have gone to prison. What were the security concerns for you as a journalist? What precautions did you take? I’m not too big into precautions, because I generally figure if someone wants to spy on you, they can. When I was reporting on similar issues in Uganda state surveillance was really helpful — I’d talk to one official, and some rival would call and say, “I hear you’ve been talking to so-and-so! Come to my office in the morning and I’ll tell you the real story.” Once, a guy broke in by accident on a phone call home. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just go on as if I’m not here.” And if people really want to hurt you, they can probably do that, too. So the best precaution is to keep people talking, which is what I try to do. That said, I also wasted a couple hours photographing every page of my notebooks and emailing it to myself, in case my notebooks were taken. They weren’t. If I had known what the meeting at the end of the story was going to be like, I probably wouldn’t have gone, and I definitely would not have asked my translator, Tatiana, to come. In the end, it was fine, but it definitely could have gone another way, and I’m no hero. The stories I’m most interested in revolve around the nuances of expression, not my ability to dodge bullets. (Which is nil. I’d make a terrible war correspondent.)
In America, I’d dismiss Timur as a crank. In Russia, he seems everywhere to be at the center of events. He scrolls through his photos to show me something special—LaSky, the site of Dmitry Chizhevsky’s shooting, with multiple views of the area outside. Timur says the gays did it to themselves. To make Russia look bad. See, he says, “thirteen surveillance cameras.” He has documented them. “Here,” he says, pointing to a picture, “there is a very good camera. You couldn’t have gone unnoticed.” He points to another. “Can’t get past this camera….” It is impossible, he says. “No sane person would go there with a gun. You would have to go there without a mask and put it on there.” Which is what happened. He knows how it could have been done: “I have blueprints of the building.” Seems like a good time to ask: How was this fact checked? Did the checker speak Russian? They worked with Russian translators, as I understand it. The fact checking seemed very solid and nimble to me. I love fact checking, even if it’s not always a pleasurable experience. I teach it to my students as not only a pragmatic practice but an aesthetic one, one that forces you to think more deeply about what you mean by “nonfiction.”
He moves on, showing more pictures. He slides the tablet across to me, reaching over and flicking through the images, talking about men “who are not worthy of the nationalist name. People like this…” He looks down at the tablet. It is not a picture of a person; it is a picture of an air gun, a pistol, still in the box, on top of it a jar of little metal balls. “Ah,” he says. He didn’t mean to show that one. I’m just as stunned. “A gift for my son,” he says quickly, searching for photographs of the boy. He wants to prove the innocence of the gun.
Timur knows what I’m thinking. He says, “If I wanted to shoot someone, I would think of my safety first.” Proof, he claims, that he is not the man who shot Dmitry Chizhevsky in the eye. Too risky.
Besides, says Timur, he is a peaceful man now. He giggles.
At St. Petersburg’s biggest gay club, I meet a bartender in tight jean shorts and a skimpy turquoise tank top who whispers to me, “I’m not gay.” He pretends, for the job. In fact, he says, “I’m a homophobe.” He struggles not to hit his customers. But he wishes he could change. “I don’t want to hate anymore,” he says. He glances at a man who’s been giving him the eye. He shudders. “It’s not working.” How did this come up in conversation? I assume you didn’t ask a bartender at a gay bar if he was gay. I think he wanted to hit on my translator, Tatiana. This was another big scene, and one I thought was pretty funny. He was trying to hit on Tatiana. Just to unsettle him and see what he’d do, I hit on him. Here’s what I couldn’t fit in, right before this vignette:
…He has heard that there were several straight bartenders before him. “They were turned gay,” he says, bringing us another round. It’s not inevitable—he points to the other bartender, a beautiful femme man named Igor, with icy blonde hair and slinky abstract black ink tattoos winding around his lithe, mostly naked torso—and says he’s straight, too. Igor is sucking on a red lollipop. He smiles at Tanya. Igor and Pasha are standing strong. But it can happen. There are so many of them, Pasha says, waving to the crowd, just starting to build at around 1:30. Sober, nobody bothers him. But then they begin drinking. “It is hard to keep calm and not hit when they are caressing me.”
I stroke his arm. To test him. “Like this?”
Pasha twitches. “Joker,” he says. “Tonight I am not free.”
I tell him that if his customers knew he was straight, he might get bigger tips. Some might see him as a challenge. “Forbidden fruit,” I say.
“Too risky,” says Pasha.
“Tell him I think he’s tempted,” I say to Tanya.
“Nyet!” he says, rearing back. “I feel aggression toward them.” He pounds the bar. Then he remembers himself, cocks his hip, and flips his wrist for safe measure. He could never be gay, he goes on, and offers as evidence the facts that he has two older brothers who wouldn’t speak to him again if he was, and that in a school play he was forced to play the part of a girl and he hated it, and that on a vacation to Thailand he thought the ladyboys were the prettiest of all but he never touched one. Plus, he has a girlfriend.
“What’s she like?” I ask.
“Blonde,” he says. “B cup.” He doesn’t love her, he confesses, but he has needs. She doesn’t satisfy them. They are needs of the heart, he says. That’s why he works in Central Station.
“Wait,” I say, “so you are gay?”
No, he says, shaking his head, tired of explaining. He means he wants, in his life, to be tender. He thought he might learn here…
We are walking down a long dark street on the outskirts of St. Petersburg on our way to a meeting Timur has arranged with Anatoly Artyukh—pronounced “R-2.” Artyukh is the big man in Timur’s circles, the founder of the St. Petersburg branch of Narodny Sobor—”People’s Council”—a national umbrella group for hundreds of organizations dedicated to preserving Russia’s “traditional values.” It accepts all kinds: skinheads, Cossacks, veterans, Orthodox crusaders, scary squadrons of angry mothers, and more than a few politicians—Artyukh himself is an “aide” Why is this in quotes? Because it seemed to me to be a title of convenience to explain the back-and-forth between a public figure and a controversial guy like Artyukh, who in disposition is not an “aide” to anyone – it’s hard to imagine a room in which he’s not the alpha. to Vitaly Milonov.
When we get to the backdoor apartment-block address we’ve been given, we’re taken into the basement, a rec room that is filling up for a meeting. On the agenda: developing “new tools” to defeat the homosexualists. A lot of old guys, sour with broad pickled faces. Some young guys in track pants; a couple of babushkas in leather. There’s a man dressed like a Cossack, like an extra from the big pogrom number in Fiddler on the Roof. One of the last to arrive is Artyukh, a gray-black widow’s-peaked buzz cut squaring off a face like Sean Connery plus fifty pounds. Leather jacket, shoulders padded, black suit beneath, black shirt unbuttoned to air out a few iron curls. He says this is a private club but he’ll receive us upstairs.
Two floors up, Artyukh settles behind a giant desk. One of Artyukh’s lieutenants, exceedingly friendly despite the boss’s open hostility, directs us to our seats.
Artyukh leans back, fat fingers knitted across his stomach. Over his right shoulder there’s the double-headed-eagle flag of czarist Russia; on his desk there’s a bouquet of four flags from the old Confederacy. “Gift from American friends,” he says. “We consider them brothers.” In fact, many of the People’s Council’s initiatives—including the “research” in which the anti-propaganda law is rooted—are taken from the curdled theories of the American right. “When people read it, they are shocked! They understand the gays are not some harmless people.”
Artyukh says he is afraid blood will be shed. That’s why he’s for the full criminalization of homosexuality: “to protect the people from being hurt. The homosexual people.” They have a choice: let the law walk them back into the closet, or war. He will accept either. “When there is war, you can see the enemy.”
Violence is justified?
“Yes, of course violence is acceptable.”
“What about actions like Timur’s?” I mention the incident at LaSky. “You know about this?”
He does a perfect Tony Soprano, that little pressed-lip half smile with a head nod. “Yes,” he says.
“Was it the right way to fight?”
Artyukh glances at his lieutenant and arches an eyebrow. “Timur is Muslim,” he says. “Muslim people are heated guys.” He thumps his chest. “Fire in their hearts. Cruel men.”
He nods. He feels he has said it well. “I only pray for him not to cross the line of the law. I would not want to have to get him out of jail. But we support his activities.”
“This confrontation,” I say, referring to the shooting, “is that crossing the line?”
“It is,” says Artyukh. But only slightly. “If the government doesn’t act, other methods will be used. There are going to be fists, and then there are going to be shots.” This is good because the exchange not only documents attitude but also spins the story forward — we get a hint of what’s to come. How do you generally approach section kickers? Feel? That’s a lame answer, I know, but you write and write and write and at some point you get to a line and you say, “there.”
The last man we talk to that night is the Cossack. Or rather, we listen. Artyukh’s lieutenant fetches him for us. He’s a big man with sallow eyes and a mighty mustache, his head shaved on the sides and a sweep of black hair falling over his shoulders in a style traditional to Cossacks for hundreds of years before Canadians invented the mullet. Is that true? I see here that mullets may date back as far as the sixth century. Sigh. You can’t trust a Cossack in a uniform. (In fact, I know nothing of mullet history. It’s true that he claimed his hairstyle was ancient, but I included this detail, and Canadians, because I thought it was funny.) His uniform is black with red piping, cinched at the cuffs and above his big black boots.
“Homosexualism is a war against Cossacks,” he tells us. So by rights homosexuals should be slaughtered. He recounts some of the ways Cossacks murder homosexuals. Historically speaking. “Of course, I cannot say this officially.” He cracks his first smile. “Cossacks,” he says, “are known for their humor.” For instance, gay men “like to put their cocks in the ass, so we put the shit on their cocks for them.” In fact, he says, sometimes they hold a man down and smear shit over his whole body. He chortles, waits for me to laugh. Do I not think this is funny? What were you feeling at that moment? Cold. My whole body was sweating. This is a very truncated scene — by this point we’d been there for I think close to five hours, and we were exhausted, which probably helped us keep our calm. We were numb. But scared, too. I’m not brave. My strength as a reporter, if I have one, is being aware of my fear and using it to be more alert.
“Tell me about your outfit,” I say brightly. He shows me his whip, weighted with a sharp lead block. He puts its thick wooden grip in my hand. A strength of this horrifying detail is that you constrained it to one line — you didn’t tell the reader what it was like to hold the whip. How did you arrive at that choice? ]Fear. Writing this felt deadening. As in a real, awful, deadening sense, not like, “Oh, man, this is boring.” It was flat and I knew it should be flat because that’s what I could salvage from it intact. The flatness, I knew, might convey the fear. “Feel,” he says. He unsheathes a wide black blade as long as my forearm. He says nothing about the handgun at his side.
“What kind of gun is that?” I ask.
“A good one,” he says. He releases the clip to show me it’s loaded. He pushes the clip back in. He points the gun at me. Very casual. Just in my direction. Cossack humor. Do I not think this is funny? I lift my notebook off the table. It’s time to go. He reaches across and thumps it down. “Pishi,” he says. “Write.”
The Future, Vandalized
In Russia, things are not falling apart, they’re coming together, isolated attacks developing into a pattern, the id of the street ever more in line with the Kremlin’s growing ego. My last day in Russia began with the news that Cossacks had vandalized two theaters in the night, neither of them gay but guilty of showing plays with homosexual characters. One got graffiti; the other got a bloody pig’s head at its door. Humor. Russia’s first queer film festival was to open that night—Gus Van Sant was coming to show Milk—but it was shut down by a bomb threat. In the afternoon, Artyukh just happened to be having a coffee at a café next to the theater. He got into an argument with a gay activist. Artyukh ripped out the man’s earring.
By then I was with Timur again, pressing him about the picture of the gun and about Artyukh’s words. Were they true? Was he a “heated man”? Timur was furious. He called Artyukh and put him on speaker phone. Artyukh declared Timur innocent. He declared me a liar. He said he had never heard of the attack at LaSky. Timur grew angrier. What right did I have to dispute him? “Whoever did this”—shooting Dmitry—”it’s not your place to judge!” He said I was a guest in his country; he said I have no rights. A warning. My flight was midmorning, but I left and went back to my hotel and packed and went to the airport. It was 4 a.m. What was going through your mind? What kind of conversations did you have with your fixer about what you should do? Oh, my fixers were all queer or queer-friendly translators — none of them had ever met people like this before. They were freaked out. I didn’t think Timur or his friends would try anything, but I wasn’t as confident as I usually am, and my “precaution” — keep ’em talking — had come to an end because I’d decided to press Timur to see what he’d reveal. So I thought it was time to go. When I got off the plane in New York, I found a whole bunch of text messages from Timur, threatening lawsuits and sending me disturbing pictures. So I think on balance it was good call.
I tried not to think about Timur. Instead, I thought about a boy I’ll call Peter. He’s 8 years old, the son of a lesbian activist, Sasha, and her partner, Ksenia. I’d met Sasha at the LGBT organization where she worked. Peter was watching a cartoon, waiting for his mother. He invited me home with them. Peter’s skinny and pale, with rosy lips and big bright eyes, and he does not like to stop moving. As we walked, he bounced back and forth between us, a game he called “white blood cell.” At what point in the reporting did you meet Peter? Toward the end. He really saved my soul.
He was born HIV-positive. He’s healthy, but when Sasha met him, volunteering at an orphanage, he weighed half as much as a 3½ year-old boy should, and his hair was falling out. The only word he knew was Russian for “Don’t do that.” How did you verify this? I didn’t. I love fact checking, but I find repugnant the kind of fact checking that challenges children to “prove” stories on which nothing but their memory is riding. The nurses told Sasha not to touch him. Not because of the HIV. It was love they were concerned with. If he received any, he’d want more, and none would be forthcoming. He was aging out of the ward, and now they were going to send him to another one, more hopeless still, where he would be thrown in with lost causes of all ages. And there he would remain, as long as he remained.
So Sasha took him. She lied to the orphanage, claimed she was single, and took him home to Ksenia, and they hugged him and told him they would love him, even though they didn’t know him. Six months later, he said the second word of his life: his name. He has a name. It breaks my heart that I can’t tell it to you. Tell us about this line. It’s one of the lines that’s been quoted on Twitter and perhaps elsewhere. I can tell you where and when I was when I wrote it. It was December 11, around 9:30 pm. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and there wasn’t time to tell Peter and Sasha’s story in the fullness that I wanted, so I decided to take a break and see the premiere of The Desolation of Smaug. I’d pulled over to get some gas when I got a text from my pal Quince Mountain, with whom I talk about writing a great deal. I’d been reading him and his girlfriend Blair Braverman, also a writer, sections as I worked on them. For me, every big story needs a listener. I like being that person for friends, and I like friends who’ll be that person for me. Anyway, Q wrote that he was really interested in a line about how, to the Cossack, either you whip the gays or you are gay, and he wondered whether I was going to tell the reader whether or not I’m gay. Not in the story — that seemed obnoxious. But when threatened by fascists, I could and did talk about my wife without having to lie. And yet that’s not true: If you say something just to save yourself, is that really true, regardless of the facts? That’s the problem with fascism: It makes truth impossible. Because to the fascist, you’re not saying it because you want to talk about somebody you love but because you’re afraid. The real truth was that I wish I had the courage to be queer in the face of that Cossack. I wish I had the courage of Elena Kostyuchenko, always defiant. I have the excuse of the story — I have to get the story — but the truth is I’d have liked to have told the truth, which is that I don’t whip gays, so yes, I’m gay. But I was afraid of the whip. Anyway, this all came out in conversation with Q — by text! — and then I decided I wasn’t going to go watch some hobbit movie. I turned around and started driving back up Route 10, thinking about Elena, and Peter and Sasha, and just how fucking brave they are. I was pretty upset, and frustrated at the thought that I might not be able to convey that: the courage of Elena, the goodness of Sasha and Peter. Which is when that line popped into my head. I pulled over on a little overlook above a dam and sat there in my car in the dark writing that line, and the last lines of the story.
My last day, in between the pig’s head and the bomb threat, I met Sasha and Peter at the park, where Sasha told me about growing up in a city without a name, one of the Soviet Union’s secret closed military cities, left off the map and known only by a number. Sasha is built like an elf, with freckles and red hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was a shy and dutiful girl until she saw Ksenia on the day of her college exams. They marveled over each other. Neither of them knew what to call this feeling. They had never heard of lesbians. Literally—they did not know the word. When they kissed, Sasha wondered if they were inventing something new and wonderful. They knew they could tell no one.
But Sasha’s mother confronted her one night. “What do you have with this girl?” Sasha, who had never defied her parents, who had never defied anyone, was speechless for a moment. She had no words. Then she found one. “Everything.”
Peter knows his mothers are lesbians. What he does not know is that people hate them. Soon, says Sasha, they will have to tell him. Maybe sooner than they had planned. One law has passed; another is coming. They are thinking about Finland, so they can stay close to Russia. They are thinking about Russia, and about how they don’t want to leave.
Peter is thinking about faraway places. Over dinner, he asks me if I’ll send him a card from America. I can do better than that—how about a present? “Yes!” he says. He knows what he wants. He asks if he can borrow my notebook. He’ll draw it for me.
It’s an airplane. A big one, so there’s room for his whole family. Everyone who loves him, he says happily, drawing the wings. Why did you end the story this way? I could not end it with darkness. I just couldn’t. And I don’t think it does — here or in the real world, either. This is the picture he drew:
For more installments of Annotation Tuesday!, go here.