Stories from Moscow: How LGBT Couples in Russia Decide Whether to Leave the Country
The New Yorker 09/08/2019
Stories collected by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker.
I left Russia with my family five and a half years ago. The parliament had just voted unanimously to ban what it called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” directed at minors and, on a separate day, adoptions by L.G.B.T. people. [Yelena Mizulina, a parliament member who has proposed a variety of anti-gay bills in the last seven years] publicly pledged to create a mechanism for removing adopted and biological children from the homes of same-sex couples. The country was tumbling into some black hole of homosexual panic, and getting out seemed to be the only sane option.
Even if the decision to leave seemed inevitable to me – even if, like many émigrés, I need to believe that I had no other option but to uproot my family and run – most of my queer friends have stayed. I know many people whose situations are substantially similar to mine but for whom the choice wasn’t nearly so clear-cut. These are people with the resources, financial and otherwise, to enter into the legally complicated and often expensive process of emigration – they would be able to move more easily and smoothly than many of the L.G.B.T. asylum seekers I know in the United States, who have had to start their lives anew with next to nothing. Their relative affluence and social connections both make it possible for them to carve a life for themselves in Moscow and make them feel like they have a lot to lose by leaving.
The decision to emigrate is unlike other life decisions. […] emigration is a bit like death.
Most of the people I interviewed for this article have been talking about emigrating for a long time. There was a point, in 2013-14 – as Putin’s political crackdown intensified, the Kremlin’s anti-gay campaign revved up, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Russian economy crashed – when all of them were looking for ways to at least secure the option of moving abroad: a second passport, a residence permit in another country. But during the past five years or so, they have stayed in a state of fragile equilibrium, ready to leave but not leaving. One couple even returned after four years of living abroad.
“There was one morning in 2014 when Israel announced that same-sex couples could now move there under the Law of Return,” Nina, who is thirty-eight, recalled. Earlier that year, Nina had got married to Katya, now thirty-five, in Argentina. “We called the Embassy that day. We were the first. We filed our application, I submitted proof that my father was Jewish, and we waited.” The wait lasted more than a year. By the time the Embassy called, Nina was seven months pregnant. “They said they had good news and bad news. The good news was, I was eligible under the Law of Return, and the bad news was, as a couple, we couldn’t apply through the Embassy. We had to enter the country and apply there and wait, and the wait could be anywhere from four months to five years.” During that period, Katya wouldn’t have been able to work. With Nina pregnant and planning to stay home with the baby while she breast-fed, the couple decided to stay in Moscow.
Now Nina, Katya, and their three-year-old daughter live on the first floor of an old apartment building in central Moscow. It’s a funky, stylish space, with painted-brick walls, exposed ceiling beams, and rough wooden floors. I asked whether Nina and Katya had renovated the apartment themselves when they bought it, about three years ago. “It was all the old owner,” Nina said. “I just added the pull-up blinds on the windows. It was the first thing I did.” The significance of adding the blinds became clear later in our conversation. “We haven’t kissed in the street since 2013,” when the Duma criminalized “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” Nina said. “And we didn’t kiss in the apartment until I put up the blinds.”
A particular source of concern is the head of the building owners’ association. […] For fear of having him find out that they are a couple, the women have hired a nanny from the Philippines. […] “She doesn’t speak Russian,” Katya explained, “so she is not going to hang out and chat with other nannies on the block. For the same reason, we are not going to send our daughter to the state preschool on the block – we are going to a private preschool farther from the house.”
Both women say that they assume that they will leave the country eventually. “But not until Putin barges into the apartment brandishing a Cossack whip,” Katya said.
“But we have done everything to insure that, if he does, we can keep the door locked and, the next morning, board an airplane,” Nina added.
By “Putin brandishing a whip” the women actually mean social services, which, in some cases, have attempted to remove children from same-sex households, argued in court that following a divorce children should not remain in the custody of an L.G.B.T. parent, and prohibited visitation for L.G.B.T. parents. At the same time, Mizulina’s plan for creating a legal mechanism for removing children from same-sex households has not come to pass. “I watch all cases of child removal very closely,” Katya said. “The most recent one involved a straight woman and her five kids, and I actually thought to myself, Heterosexuals get it, too. There aren’t that many cases where they’ve gone after gay parents. So our fears may be exaggerated. Still, we live in anticipation of the apocalypse.”
That anticipation has pushed the couple back in the closet. This past year, after Katya read that vigilante gangs were tracking down gay people by following them on social media, Katya quit all of her accounts and, she said, “forbade Nina” to be out in publicly available posts. Nina is out at her job as a television executive, but Katya, who is a high-powered tax attorney in the Moscow office of a multinational company, is closeted at work. “The office is full of homophobes,” she said. “It’s like living in Channel One.” She was referring to one of the Russian state’s main propaganda channels, which constantly spews homophobic rhetoric. Being in the closet means, among other things, that no one at work knows that Katya has a child. A few months ago, when their daughter had a medical emergency and Katya had to leave work in the middle of the afternoon, she lied that something had happened to her mother. In her agitation, she forgot about the lie and was caught off-guard when, upon her return, colleagues asked after her mother’s health and which hospital she had been taken to.
One gets used to self-enforced invisibility; it is jarring when the world shows a different side. This past summer, the family spent a month in a Western European country where Katya’s employer has a branch office. When Nina stopped by the office with their daughter, a local colleague of Katya’s asked, “Is this your daughter?” She was addressing both women as though two women raising a child together were the ordinary phenomenon it is in much of the world. “She had no idea what kind of gift she was giving us,” Katya said. “When we leave Russia, we relearn the habit of holding hands in public.” But fear is a habit that lodges itself in one’s brain. “I was watching ‘13 Reasons Why,’ ” Katya said, referring to a television series that features a couple of gay teen-age characters. “I keep thinking that they are about to get beaten up. But nothing happens.”
The more we talked, the starker the women’s statements became. “All you want is for your kid to be able to run around in the courtyard and feel comfortable,” Katya said. “You just want to hold this person’s hand. You have the right to live and breathe. But you are told that you can breathe only through a straw.”
Why haven’t they left yet, then? “It’s hard to be a refugee,” Nina said. “I say this as someone who has been working with refugees since the age of seventeen, as a volunteer.” (As a teen-ager, Nina founded a school for refugee children in Moscow.)
“In my field, I’d have to descend three rungs down the career ladder,” Katya added. “And it’s scary to go into uncertainty. There is really only one reason: it’s scary.”
Yana Mandrykina, who is forty-one, has little patience for talk of how difficult it is to be queer in Russia. She came out publicly in a magazine interview, six years ago – this was her coming out to her family, the staff of her real-estate firm, and her clients. The interview appeared in a special issue of Afisha, a city magazine: twenty-seven L.G.B.T. people came out in that issue, in response to the “propaganda” law then pending in the Duma. Many of those people have since left the country, and, of those who stayed, few agreed to speak to a journalist when another publication, Wonderzine, ran an anniversary update late last year. Mandrykina agreed both to be interviewed and photographed for it.
She is now raising an infant son with her partner, Maria Sokolova, who also has a six-year-old daughter from a previous marriage to a man. The father of the infant is a gay friend. Recently, when the baby had to be hospitalized, Mandrykina said, doctors and nurses were at first taken aback by the presence of three adults, but soon came to accept them as a family; when Mandrykina and Sokolova stayed with their son in shifts, they would say, “Here is the other mom.”
Sokolova, who is thirty-two, had a different view of that experience. She resented being introduced to doctors as a friend while their friend was introduced as the father.
“That’s because, in the eyes of the law, you are not my partner and you are not the other parent,” Mandrykina, who was educated as a lawyer, said.
“That’s just my point,” Sokolova said. “That such is the law in this country.”
Things got more heated after that. Mandrykina argued for realism. Sokolova argued for principles, and for emigrating. I worried that the interview was going to break the couple up, but they later reassured me that passionate argument was their normal mode of communication.
When the women met, a little more than a year ago, Mandrykina cautioned her new girlfriend against telling her toddler daughter too much: “It has to be palatable in the outside world,” Mandrykina said. Sokolova finds such thinking abhorrent. “If this is a country where my ex-husband can take custody away from me because of my sexual orientation, then this probably isn’t a very good country for me to live in,” she said to me. “I’m lucky that he is more talk than action.” Not that he talks much, either: Sokolova said that her ex-husband temporarily cut off communication with their daughter because she is now being raised by two women.
Mandrykina enjoys a peculiar perspective on emigration: she often sells the apartments of people who are leaving, but she also helps those who are staying invest in real estate. “In 2013-14, I was selling a lot of apartments of people who were leaving the country, mostly going to the West,” she said. “Three or four years ago, I was planning to leave myself, because so many people were leaving. I had the sense that everything was going to collapse. Now people are buying more, though I tell them, ‘Buy only if you really see your future here.’” Mandrykina and Sokolova live in a beautiful rental apartment in central Moscow; Mandrykina will not buy in Moscow because she is hardly committed to a future in Russia. Nor will she leave: the money is good, and she feels comfortable enough in the country.
“If I don’t feel threatened, then why should I leave?” she said. “On the other hand, what is a threat? Is it when I’m arrested, or is it when I’m warned that I might be arrested? And will there be a warning? Recently, there has been a spate of arrests of entrepreneurs – was that a warning that I personally should heed?”
Until, as Katya and Nina would say, Putin barges in brandishing a Cossack whip, all threats seem vague and remote. The losses that emigration would impose, on the other hand, are immediate and certain: an émigré sacrifices her social standing, financial well-being, and an all-important and impossible-to-define sense of being at home in the world.
Polina and Kseniya found that they were just too miserable as émigrés. They left Moscow in 2014. At that point, they had known each other for more than ten years and, for most of that time, had had a tortured, undefined relationship: Kseniya identified as a lesbian and Polina didn’t. But when Polina, who worked at the independent television channel TV Rain, felt that she had to flee the country because of the broad political crackdown, Kseniya said that she would go with her. They chose to seek residency in France because Kseniya spoke French. They chose Provence because it was less expensive than Paris. They chose Marseilles because Polina’s teen-age children from her first, heterosexual marriage wanted to live in a city. They hated it. “We left our comfort zone and entered an entirely alien world,” Kseniya said. They didn’t have the right to seek employment in France, so they worked remotely for Russian companies. Their attempts to make friends fizzled out. They had the hardest time navigating the French bureaucracy, from sorting out child care and health care to their legal status.
Last year, though, they got married. “I finally gave myself permission,” Polina said. Their parents, all four of whom live in St. Petersburg, have become close friends and travel buddies. Each of the women has given birth to a baby. This past October, they moved back to Moscow.
Before they returned permanently, Polina flew back to Moscow to undergo a medical procedure. She put down Kseniya as her emergency contact, and the intake person asked her what their relationship was.
“I say, ‘Wife.’ She says, ‘Who?’ I say, ‘Wife.’ She says, ‘I’ll just put down “friend.”’
Polina laughed at the memory. It sounded like now that she had become comfortable with her own sexuality, other people’s discomfort with it rolled off her easily.
[…] My queer Russian friends, reassured that the country was still circling the abyss rather than jumping in, could continue to live in their state of fragile equilibrium. Me, I could wake up in New York and breathe a sigh of relief at never again having to worry that someone saw me kissing a woman or that the state might not think my kids should have two mothers. Is that relief worth more than the sense of home? That’s an impossible question to answer, and an excruciating choice to make.