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From the shadows into the light – and back again

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Poet and performer Olga Krause traces her life as a lesbian in Russia—from Soviet times, when the word itself was barely known, through increasing acceptance, and back to a newly violent and hostile environment. 

Olga Krause
20 June 2013

I grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 80s, when most homosexual women and girls had never even heard the word ‘lesbian’. I understood I was different, of course, and for a long time I thought I was unique, some freak of nature. As a child I fell in love with other girls and made them fall in love with me (my guitar was the main attraction).

Marriage No 1

After school, I worked in the drawing office of one of Leningrad’s (as it was then) planning institutes. I fell passionately in love with someone and we started a relationship, but then she announced that it had been just a temporary aberration and that she needed to get married. In despair, I signed up for a Komsomol work camp and out of sheer spite married the first guy I met there. I asked my girlfriend to be my witness at my wedding in Leningrad, and when we went back to my flat to celebrate the two of us locked ourselves in the bathroom and snogged, sobbing our hearts out and bawling ‘What a pair of idiots we are! What have we done?’, while my new husband drunkenly yelled ‘where’s my wife?’ through the door.  

'The landlady decided to do my girlfriend a favour and find her a husband among her nephews. They started calling on us, one after another – where do people get so many relatives? We moved, but wherever we went it was the same story all over again.'

There was no point in even thinking about living with him as husband and wife – I left the poor man after three days. But it wasn’t just him I needed to get away from – it was everywhere he might find me. I didn’t even know what to say to him – it wasn’t his fault, after all. So I had to start again from scratch. I got a job as a press operator in a paper mill; it was hard shift work, but the money was good. And my girlfriend and I found a room together. Our landlady was very fond of us – we were ideal tenants: didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. I was officially waiting for my husband to finish his military service, and my beautiful and clever girlfriend, who’d been to university, was working as an engineer. But then the landlady decided to do her a favour and find her a husband among her various nephews. They started calling on us, one after the other – where do people get so many relatives? My girlfriend begged me to move, but wherever we went it was the same story all over again. And we didn’t have the money for a flat of our own, so I decided that the only way out was for me to become a janitor. I couldn’t get work in a residential building – I didn’t have the right kind of residence permit – but I got a job at Gostinny Dvor, Leningrad’s main department store. The job came with a room, eight and a half metres square, so there we were, living in the city centre, almost on Nevsky Prospect itself.

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Olga Krause speaks in front of a poster proclaiming the Communist Party as the 'mind, honour and conscience of [the] epoch'. Of course, there was little room in the Party for openly gay men or women: men faced 5 years in prison, and women risked losing custody of their children. Photo: courtesy of Olga Krause 

I had to work pretty hard, of course, but it was worth it. And now all my friends would drop by, and we would drink wine and pass the guitar around. My girlfriend, however, wasn’t happy: ‘You’d do better being an artist’. ‘Well’, I’d answer, ‘I can paint but it’s not really my thing. Whereas I love making music’. ‘Yes’, she’d say,’ but music is something you have to do in public, and you can’t afford to stick your neck out – they’ll immediately see what you are.’ My girlfriend was ready to love me forever, but on the quiet; we had to tell friends she was my cousin. I didn’t like that at all, if only because men kept trying to come on to us, which of course we weren’t interested in, and we spent our lives pushing them away.

Marriage No 2

One day when I was sweeping up the store and emptying litter bins, I came across a plastic wallet containing an ID document and military service card belonging to a 23-year old man from the Krasnodar Region in the south of Russia. Their owner was presumably the victim of a pickpocket, but I didn’t bother handing it in to the police. In those days ID documents  had very small photos, just stuck in, and they could easily be replaced and the rim of the official stamp in the corner inked in by hand. On the back there would be stamps from the holder’s workplace, and here there was one from a state farm. It was easy to alter a few digits of the ID number and a couple of letters in the name, and low and behold - the document had a new lease of life.

'There was nothing in any official document about lesbian relationships being punishable by law, but they were bundled, along with prostitution and ‘parasitism’, under the heading ‘immoral lifestyles’, the penalty for which was losing your children and the right to live in Moscow or Leningrad.'

Next, with help from friends involved in the flourishing clothing black market, who I allowed to use my janitor’s room as a fitting room, within a day my girlfriend and I were officially married at the local registry office. So now my girlfriend had a stamp in her ID papers and a marriage certificate, and we were both ostensibly waiting for husbands to return – mine from military service and hers from a work trip abroad. So we could respectably look askance at any attempt on our honour.

That summer my girlfriend, as a hardworking and promising young professional, was awarded a free holiday trip to a health resort and went away for a fortnight. She came back quiet and pensive; it turned out she was pregnant. I, like an idiot, was convulsed by jealousy and made a scene, but then calmed down and realised that it was our only chance of having a child, so why not? ‘What?’ she screamed. ‘You don’t really mean you want to be the father of my child? I’ve had enough of this farce!’ She went and had an abortion, spent three days afterwards in bed, staring at the wall, then left and didn’t come back. I didn’t go looking for her, but my heart was empty and my life lost its meaning. The she reappeared and said she had applied for a divorce. I didn’t have to do anything; after two applications, the third time they would do it without any consent from me.

‘One of us’

So that was my life until I was 27, with me thinking I was an exception, a mistake. And then one day I happened to meet Mukhabad on the metro. She came over to me herself and started talking. At first I took her for a guy, and then I realised she was like me. She introduced me to her friends, and I discovered that there were lots of us out there; that I wasn’t the only one; that women like me were called lesbians or ‘pinks’, and men who loved men were called ‘blues’. And that what we shared was called homosexuality. Mukhabad’s friends were a motley bunch: cabbies, bus and tram drivers; factory and shop workers; black market touts and dealers, but also university lecturers, actors, artists, scientific workers, art critics and communist party and trade union apparatchiks. It was a real mafia, a state within a state. We also had links with other cities; we’d visit one another and have intercity affairs. This was a community without bosses and subordinates, without people at the top or the bottom. We were all bound together by our shameful secret, united in a firm and secure ‘family’. We helped one another to find work, to study, to solve the everyday problems of life. All you had to say was that someone was ‘one of us’, and they would be helped in every possible way. Lesbian mothers got help with their children in hospitals and health centres, nurseries and schools. Those of ‘our people’ who worked for local councils or trade unions helped by organising trips for children to resorts or Young Pioneer camps in the school holidays. We also had people in the children’s section of police stations, and in local health and education authorities.

'Mukhabad’s friends were a motley bunch: it was a real mafia, a state within a state. We were all bound by our shameful secret: all you had to say was that someone was ‘one of us’, and they would be helped in every possible way.'

That, of course, only applied to members of our ‘mafia’. They had no problems with either the social services or with finding a job. There was only one employer then – the state, but getting work often depended on whether you had connections in an organisation or factory’s HR department. Which wasn’t a problem for us – we had people everywhere.

But how many of ‘us’ were there on the outside? How many unfortunates who hadn’t been able to ‘sort themselves out’ took to drink or drugs and became outcasts. How many women had their children taken into care, not because they were lesbians (a bourgeois phenomenon  that officially didn’t exist in the USSR), but for having an ‘immoral lifestyle’? There was nothing in any official document about lesbian relationships being punishable by law (although homosexual relationships between men were illegal). The very concept was never mentioned, but it was bundled, along with prostitution and ‘parasitism’, under the heading of ‘immoral lifestyles’, the penalty for which was losing your children and the right to live in Moscow or Leningrad (the closest you could live was 101 kilometres from these cities). How many people in this situation committed suicide? No one knows, because no one was counting. 

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Krause was driven out of her St Petersburg apartment when she came out on television. She now lives with her partner in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Photo: courtesy of Olga Krause 

That was how we lived until August 1991, when an American delegation arrived in Leningrad to hold an anti-Aids conference. I found out about it from women from Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, who asked me to help them attend the conference. It wasn’t difficult to find the organisers; when I phoned around it turned out that they were my personal friends. It was that conference that began our emergence from the ‘underground’. Most of the gay mafia were against it, but those who had talked to the Americans had had a whiff of freedom and left their closets. 

Lesbians in Russia today

That was nearly 22 years ago. What have we achieved since? The law banning homosexual relations between men has been repealed, but men who served time for it have not had their offences cleared and have not been recognized as prisoners of conscience. Women are no longer sent to mental hospitals to be ‘cured’ of lesbianism. Russia has woken up to the fact that there are gay people living here. We have gay clubs, where we can hang out with one another. But outside these clubs people hang out in wait for us, to mug and attack us (our gallant police are particularly fond of this occupation). We still rely enormously on mutual support groups like those that existed then; now there are more of them, but still mostly unregistered, funded by their members and sustained by their selfless enthusiasm.

'In some ways, nothing has changed: lesbians still have the need to meet up and hang out with one another. They finance everything themselves, rent venues and transport, run everything without outside help.'

In St Petersburg, lesbians met up at Tatyana Shunevich (Shunya’s) place even in Soviet times, and when she emigrated to Israel she founded ‘At Shunya’s’, an LGBT club for Russian-speaking Israelis, and ran it until her death in 2006. For a long time there has been a lesbian club in Moscow, run first by Valya Kurskaya and since 2002 by Yelena Botsman. The club has run annual summer trips to lakes and forests, festivals showcasing singer-songwriters, poetry, play and musical performances and launches of poetry collections. It also has sections for horse riding, table tennis and self defence, as well as a parents’ discussion club that runs counseling and confidence building sessions.

In some ways, nothing has changed: lesbians still have the need to meet up and hang out with one another. They finance everything themselves, rent venues and transport, run everything without outside help. They usually have no support for their activities from official LGBT organizations, which also don’t publicise them, for fear of competition. Of course if women like these went official and applied for grants, it would revitalise the whole LGBT movement in Russia, with effective people at the helm rather than pen pushers. But these independent groups are perfectly self-sufficient, financially as well as in other ways. Not a single official LGBT organisation in Moscow has wanted to cooperate with Yelena Botsman’s club, although in 2011 it signed an agreement with ‘Rakurs’, an LGBT support and rights organization in the Archangelsk Region, showing that its fame has spread among lesbians throughout Russia. 

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The Moscow-based Elena Botsman club organises summer retreats for lesbians. In picture: Lake Seliger in Central Russia. Courtesy of Olga Krause 

Moscow also has the only LGBT archive and library in Russia, another unofficial initiative  set up and run by volunteers and financed by donations from ‘our people’. Every Thursday evening, women of all ages and walks of life come there to drink tea, chat and read books. And St Petersburg has its own club, ‘At Alyona’s’, that also meets at its founder’s ordinary flat where people are sometimes packed in like sardines. So that’s how we live in Russia – much as we did in the Soviet Union: there are official groups with lectures, demonstrations, interviews and reports and unofficial ones that do real work and provide real support.   

Back underground

We had all come out of the shadows, hoping that we would now be free, but after I appeared on TV as an open lesbian I had to move house several times and eventually lost my right to live in what is now St Petersburg. There is, after all, still no law against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. And I would have died without the support of gay men and lesbians – not the official feminist and LGBT groups, but ordinary people like me. At the age of 51, after nine years of silence, I started performing again. It was only possible through the support of a large number of friends, and I would never have had so many friends if I hadn’t been a lesbian.

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Olga Krause performing in front of a packed audience 'At Alyona's'. Although a new generation of gay men and women are more open about their sexuality, many feel safer as part of informal organisations and clubs. Photo: courtesy of Olga Krause

And now they want to ban us completely again. But there is now a new LGBT generation who have no idea how to hide or put on an act.

'After I ‘came out’ and appeared on TV as an open lesbian I had to move house several times and eventually lost my right to live in St Petersburg. There is, after all, still no law against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.'

I’ve now been living with my partner in Kharkiv, Ukraine, for three years. I like it here; I am with someone I love and who loves me. But as a citizen of Russia I have to leave Ukraine and come back every three months. It’s not difficult; the border is close by. But now I’m afraid to return to Russia, not because I might be arrested, but because I might be horrifically murdered by Russian fascists, who can act without fear of any consequences. The new anti-gay law has untied their hands. And when the Orthodox leadership openly encourages anti-gay violence, and their banner-flaunting followers receive awards from the hands of the Patriarch himself, then the public sees that God is on the side of the violent.  

This does not bother the government, which itself imprisons completely innocent protesters and turns a blind eye when its citizens are beaten, insulted and humiliated, even though this is taking place in full view of the police, photographers, camera crews and hundreds of witnesses. Under the hypocritical pretext of the moral protection of children, the state encourages children themselves to resort to violence and cruelty. It was children who were let loose on the peaceful LGBT picket at the Parliament building on 11th June, as MPs debated the new legislation. It was children who, under the coldblooded eyes of the police, who refused to intervene, tripped up, kicked and poured urine over young protesters.  And it was children who chanted fascist slogans.  

I believe that the government of my country, by using children as a tool of repression against LGBT people, is destroying its own future. And as for Russia’s present – it is the forward march of fascism and bigotry.   

 

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