Gay Propaganda: Sergei
As part of our Sochi Campaign feature, we set out to find the voices of the very people most affected by the recent laws enacted in Russia. What follows is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Gay Propaganda (OR Books), a collection of stories and testimonials, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, that offer a glimpse into the lives, loves, and politics of LGBT Russians.
Sergei, 40, has gone from working at an armaments factory to hustling in front of the Bolshoi Theater, from unrequited love at vocational school to a living arrangement with a wife and boyfriend, from checking himself into a psychiatric hospital for observation under false pretexts to a very real battle with HIV. Six months after this interview, Sergei moved to a village outside of Moscow where he lives like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina. He’s building a house with his own hands, baking cabbage pies using only the cabbage he grows, and raising chickens, geese, and ducks. He’s not a great farmer: he gave his baby chickens away to a neighboring family with lots of children, and he couldn’t bear to kill his geese because “they turned out to be very intellectual birds.”
This September, he started a new phase of his antiretroviral therapy and created a group on the popular Russian social network VKontakte called “I’m HIV+ and Gay, I have nothing to hide.” He considers leaving Russia.
Sometimes I think I’d like to get out of here, and close my eyes and ears to everything that’s going on here. Not even watch the news. Just quietly live my life. Right now, I prefer the country life. I’m sick of fighting for my place in the sun, especially since in Moscow, that could just be a free parking spot. A house in the woods one hundred and twenty kilometers from the city might sound grim, but there’s a pond here with red and white carp. They’re clever fish, never hungry. You can’t catch them with your bare hands. I have to put out traps. The river feeds me, too, with pike and chubs. The house is my wife’s. I call her Auntie. She’s this classic Faina Ranevskaya [a beloved Soviet actress] type. She’s retired, quick-witted, always has a cigarette in her mouth. She used to be a camera woman. Egor and I met her when we got an apartment in the center of town ten years ago. Egor and I have been together for seventeen years now. We met through a mutual friend. Egor courted me for a whole year, taking me out to dinners with fine wine and salmon.
We would go to clubs with his friends, who were always successful, young, and beautiful. We’ve been living together ever since.
Auntie had a husband, and we struck up a neighborly friendship with him. We’d go to the dacha together, go fishing. At first we told them we were brothers, and then they weren’t idiots and they figured it out. Her husband got cancer and a year after he died, she asked me whether I wanted to marry her. I said, “Alright.” She wanted a man around the house. I’ve never slept with a woman, but family is another matter entirely. On Friday we have a doctor’s appointment, and I’m taking her there. How could it be otherwise? She’s my wife.
I know how to do practically everything. I’m a good cook, I can do plumbing, electrical work, I can fix cars. I installed a “smart house” system at my country house myself. If you want, right now, I can turn on the lights or the aerator for the fish tank via text message. My cat has a collar with a signal and there’s a cat door that can read it. It’s built so that she is the only cat who can get into the house. Meanwhile, Egor can’t even drive or hammer in a nail. He’s a respectable man, a scientist. Sometimes I get scared that if something happens to me, him and Auntie won’t even be able to go to the dacha on their own. These fears are justified: for a year and a half now, I have known that I’ve got HIV. It makes you look at things differently.
So many things have happened to me. I started out as an engineer for communications devices. There was an armament factory on Borisovskie Prudy Street in Moscow where my job was assembling heterodyne receivers for satelites. I was earning my first salary when I was still in high school. I’d waste my money on clothes, fashionable sneakers. I’ve had every kind of job you can imagine. My employment record book ran out of room. At my last job, I got sixty thousand rubles [just under $2,000] a month. A good, honest salary. I was a physical plant manager, responsible for transparency in acquisitions, and fighting kickbacks at our company. There’s even an article about me in a business magazine; the headline says, “The Plant Manager Who Doesn’t Steal.” When I was young and very poor, I would put up fliers: “Husband for an Hour.” [a common Russian expression for a handyman]. I would go to people’s apartments to fix things. That was during the day. At night I was a party boy, a cute little white bunny hopping around Moscow.
I grew up in Biryulevo [a Moscow suburb with a reputation as a rough neighborhood]. My grandmother was a real sea mistress [a reference to a Pushkin fable about a woman whose ambition was to be all-powerful]: she carried the whole family on her back. My mother was a little dormouse, a hard worker and smart cookie. My older sister and I hardly talk. I had to come out to my family when I was dodging military service, using my homosexuality as the reason. I would have gladly served, but I couldn’t bear to think about what my family would do without me. I checked myself into the Bekhterev Psychiatric Clinic for two weeks for observation. I prepared: I’d borrowed my sister’s “Ballet” brand foundation and put on some bike shorts. Everyone in my ward was faking.
There wasn’t a single gay man among them. There were grown men next to me, who’d come down with delirium tremens, schizophrenia. That’s when I learned that madness is very contagious. On top of that, the doctors weren’t quite right in the head themselves, not to mention the nurses. They were a mess, they’d swallow a bunch of pills and laugh all night, ha ha ha! After your third night in this environment, your mind starts to go a little bit.
Everything else was good there. They fed me well, I slept well. Work therapy helped with sleep. They put out tea pots with wheat paste and kraft paper. We had to make envelopes for syringes. They didn’t have disposable syringes back then: they would disinfect glass ones. We also had to package bay leaves. After that, there were enough bay leaves in the house to last three years. I came back well rested, as though I’d gone to a resort.
At vocational school, I fell in love with the head of my laboratory. He was insanely beautiful, one in a million. I gave everything to working in that lab just to make him happy. I fixed it up, I soldered the metal for the hardware, I lay the parquet flooring, I put in the glass for the windows. He’d come and hug me and say: “Bunny, great work!” He had a wife—I liked her—plus a mistress, a model. He caught on to me, and sometimes he’d act like a total monster. He’d build me up until I was white hot. Once, I was staying at his place, and he came out of the shower naked. Another time he kissed me. He would set off these hysterical fits in me. He saw what he was doing to me and apparently he got off on it. But I’m good at forgetting bad things.
Every night after school, there was nothing I could do about it, I just couldn’t help myself. I had to go downtown. I would get on the train, get off and wander around. I’d look for weeks, and then I’d find where the gay men hung out, with all of the inevitable consequences. I made money on that, but not very often.
There was one little guy from Krasnoyarsk who would always find me. It was amazing. He’d get a hotel room and in the morning, he’d tell me: “There’s a briefcase over there, open it, take whatever you need.” This thing was stuffed with bricks of cash tied together with twine. He had some kind of business here. The star of this group was this totally cruel guy. His nickname was Katka or something. Now he’s in soap operas, he plays cops. I won’t say who it is. I met the famous Shlep-noga [“slap-leg”], the grandmother of Soviet prostitution. She was an old lady, but she still hung out. Taxi drivers respected her; they’d just give her money for nothing. Tough guys would come by on a regular basis, but I was a good runner, a candidate for a master of sport in track and field. They start harassing us, they’d eat my dust. Where would I run to? To the Mausoleum, of course. There are always cops there. I sit down on the curb and stay there protected by the guard of honor until morning.
We had our own criminals around, the mafia-controlled scalpers working the Bolshoi Theater. Those guys were scary. It wasn’t like they were going to invite you to the premiere of La Sylphide. It was more like: “Today you’re coming to my house.” There was no point in putting up a fight or arguing. It was better to work things out with them peacefully.
Later, the cruising spot outgrew its usefulness because of the Internet. The first time I turned on a computer was in 1996. Egor bought an extremely expensive Texas Instruments laptop. I still keep it in my garage as an antique. When I was young, my avatar name was Tornado. Now I have another one, more appropriate for my age.
Are we in an open relationship? Well, you couldn’t say that either of us can do anything we want. Egor is a pretty jealous guy, and I only recently learned to forgive. As recently as three years ago, I would lose my mind, install spyware on his computer, and look at all the screenshots. I knew he was cheating on me and it drove me crazy. Then I told myself: “No, your own hands are dirty, you have to forgive,” and I deleted all the spyware. But situations come up. Like I’m going to the dacha and, just in case, I toss a dictaphone under the bed. Then, when I get back, it’s like: “So you just had coffee with him?!”
Now, because of the disease, I take better care of him. I say things like, “I’m going out of town for a week, you should meet someone, just be careful.” The situation is horrible. There’s a terrible epidemic. The official numbers lie. You could catch it even if you protect yourself. That’s my experience. I never had unprotected sex. When I was 14, I got syphilis and learned my lesson. I know a ton of people who also have HIV, even though their online profiles claim they’re clean. These people spread the disease. It’s scary. I’m not that young anymore. I no longer want to run around. I just want peace and quiet. I read. I recently read everything by Ulitskaya [a popular contemporary Russian author], both her plays and her novels. I like her prosody, plus, she’s for democracy.
I had a good friend, a straight guy from Birulievo. Then I went and told him I had HIV and I haven’t heard from him since. I said this to spite my enemies but it turned out it was to spite myself.
I did something very bad to someone once. We were friends, and lovers. He’d come visit me in the country. One day he called and said, “I’m positive.” And I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” After that, I deleted him from my phone and never got in touch with him again. Six months later, I was diagnosed and decided to tell him. Why had I done that? It was probably the fear of death as an unknown. People want to distance themselves from what they fear.
I came to terms with my diagnosis pretty quickly. You can live with it. It’s not the ’90s when people would literally burn up from this disease. The most important thing is constant monitoring. For ten to fifteen years it should be fine. Sometimes I regret not having gone to Europe when I had the chance. Especially since Russia has been nothing but upsetting recently. On the other hand, you can’t beat fate. When I was 17, I thought that 22 was old age. Now I’m almost 40, but I still feel like a kid. My favorite saying is: “Don’t rush to live.” The older you get, the faster the days go by. When you’re young, a day is as long as a year. Now, I desperately want to run for a little longer.
—As told to Ekaterina Dementieva
A version of this interview was originally published in Afisha magazine Issue 339 (February 25, 2013). It was updated by the author and reproduced here by permission of Afisha