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Queerness from Prussia in 1812 to Kyrgyzstan in 2019 Meduza summarizes the latest features on LGBTQ issues in and near Russia
The first month of 2019 was a busy and often frightening one for journalists who write about LGBTQ life in the Russian-speaking world. While escalating arrests, torture, and killings of suspected gay and lesbian citizens in Chechnya made headlines, a number of publications also stepped beyond the Caucasus to report on queer and trans history in a variety of times and places. Here, Hilah Kohen summarizes two recent Russian-language stories on LGBTQ life at length and briefly describes four English-language pieces.
Sobaka interviews a nonbinary human rights activist
Jonny Dzhibladze is a human rights expert who has worked for the St. Petersburg group “Vykhod” (Coming Out LGBT Initiative) for the past four years. Jonny coordinates the “Trans*missia” (Trans*mission) program, which supports transgender people and investigates cases of discrimination and violence. In a recent interview for the St. Petersburg news portal Sobaka, Ksenia Morozova asked Jonny to talk about living in Russia as someone who identifies as nonbinary rather than male or female.
Jonny uses the pronouns “they” and “them” in English. Because Russian does not offer such an idiomatic gender-neutral option, Jonny prefers to use masculine grammar in that language, but they nonetheless identify as nonbinary or as a trans nonbinary person. Being nonbinary is even less widely accepted in Russia than other LGBTQ identities, and that means Jonny often encounters uncomfortably probing questions. However, their interview displays an ability to meet those questions with a sense of humor. When asked whether they have had an operation, for example, Jonny typically says they have indeed had their appendix removed.
“In between ‘pure masculinity’ and ‘pure femininity,’ there’s an enormous world, and it’s important for many people to be able to traverse it freely,” Jonny explained to Sobaka. They offered a thorough explanation of what it can mean to be nonbinary, gender-fluid, or gender non-conforming, adding that cisgender people can benefit from flexible gender norms much like trans people can.
While Jonny is thankful for having a relatively open-minded family, it took many years for their relatives to accept their identity fully and stop using their assigned name and gender. For their part, Jonny never saw the sense in conforming to every gendered expectation they encountered. When their friends in preschool would play house, for example, Jonny would always ask to be the family dog or a pet unicorn. Jonny lived in the United States when they were in first and second grade, and after learning English over the course of three months, they made substantial strides in expressing themselves during that time.
Returning to Russia was a struggle for Jonny. Both teachers and fellow students bullied them at school, and they began staying up at night just to stave off the arrival of the next school day. However, Jonny told Sobaka they managed to maintain a mixture of masculinity and femininity while coping in various ways with a world that wanted them to choose. They navigated their first romantic relationship at 15 as their partner realized he was a trans man, found solace for a while in the Catholic Church, and used the passive voice for years to avoid using grammatical gender.
As a college student, Jonny realized they would have to find another way forward. Though they believed God saw them as they really were, the church they attended never came to terms with their trans identity. They also realized that speaking in the passive voice was no solution: Jonny told Sobaka, “It’s simple in English, but it’s very complicated in Russian because every sentence forces you to choose between “he” and “she.” I eventually realized that [this system] had injured my psyche: I had taught myself to talk and think as though I were not a subject, as though I were the eternal victim of my environment. What about my actions, my decisions, my life?”
Gradually, Jonny came to use masculine grammar publicly and ask those around them to do the same. As they finished their undergraduate degree in international relations, they realized that university faculty and staff could occasionally be very accepting. However, a broader social sense of heteronormativity spurred all of Jonny’s supporters to warn them not to speak publicly about their identity. That changed somewhat when Jonny entered a master’s program at the Higher School of Economics. On the hope that the program’s reputation for liberalism would include them too, Jonny told administrators, “Our program is called ‘human rights,’ so respect my rights.” They got their wish, and their name and gender were ultimately changed in university documents to reflect their preferred masculine grammar.
In 2015, Jonny passed the examination process necessary to be diagnosed with “transsexualism” in Russia and began a course of hormone therapy. They also turned to a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist to handle the aftereffects of the harassment and sexual violence they had faced as a child and teenager. Now that they are rarely mistaken for a woman, Jonny says they feel freer to express various combinations of masculinity and femininity. They are determined to maintain the possibility of having biological children, but the thought of how a hospital or a registration office would handle their gender identity as a trans parent remains a legal and emotional obstacle.
For now, that decision is still in the future, and Jonny has continued to enjoy their increasing sense of self-acceptance as someone who explores femininity, masculinity, and everything that lies beyond the limits of those two concepts. Jonny told Sobaka, “For me, denying both the masculine and the feminine in myself means living with a constant sense of protest and pain. I lived like that for a long time, and I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Gorky writes on the gender-crossing cavalier who fought for Russia against Napoleon
Gorky, an online publication devoted to literature and books, asked Maria Nesterenko to review a new biography of Nadezhda Durova. Durova (1783-1866) is known in Russia for taking on a male identity and fighting in the Napoleonic wars as a cavalry officer named Alexander Alexandrov. Moscow State Regional University professor Elena Prikazchikova analyzed Durova’s own writings and delved into her family’s archives to confront the many myths that have surrounded Durova’s life and her gender identity.
Durova’s story first gained widespread attention after her autobiography, The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars, was published in the 1830s. Alexander Pushkin, whose stature in Russian literature is roughly equivalent to that of William Shakespeare in English, personally ensured that Durova’s memoirs would reach the reading public. However, her reputation only reached English speakers in 1989, when the independent scholar Mary Zirin published her translation of The Cavalry Maiden. Various rumors about Durova swirled in the 150 years in between.
According to Prikazchikova, Durova’s biographer, the officer’s writings alone leave room for a range of interpretations. As Nesterenko put it in her review, readers’ perceptions of Durova have ranged from “a patriot who fought in the Napoleonic Wars” to “an opportunist who ran away to join her lover in the army” to “Alexander Alexandrov, a transgender man.” Durova certainly did not confine herself to the gender identities she saw around her. According to Nesterenko, a woman in Durova’s social position had three options: get married and raise a family, willingly become an old maid, or take the “more radical step” of becoming a nun. In Nesterenko’s words, “Durova discovered an alternative script that a woman’s fate could follow.”
That script included explicit references to androgyny. For example, Durova wrote that her mother was always disappointed in her not only because she had wanted a son but because Durova refused to be a feminine daughter from the very beginning. Calling herself a daughter-bogatyr, or Russian male folk warrior, Durova claimed that she was such a loud, large, and hairy infant that her mother nearly tossed her away at first sight.
Prikazchikova’s book tackles the myths surrounding Durova head on. Though the officer was commonly believed to have run away to be with a lover, Prikazchikova found evidence that she was actually running from an abusive husband. Durova did not mention the marriage in her memoirs and claimed to have joined the army as a teenager, but her biographer found documents indicating that she married and gave birth to a son as her husband began to threaten her emotionally and physically. Though Durova “declared war” on him, as Prikazchikova puts it, she ultimately decided her life would be better spent on other pursuits. When a Cossack division passed near her town, Durova faked her own death by leaving her dress near the Kama River and ran off to war.
Though her memoirs met with popular success, Nesterenko writes that they were also notable for inspiring jealous reactions from prominent male figures. Denis Davydov, an officer who appears in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the minor character Vasily Denisov, appeared especially offended that Durova had dared to describe the masculine world of military service from a woman’s point of view.
In a way, Denisov was right: there is no denying the flair and feminist resonances of Durova’s writing style. Prikazchikova’s new biography emphasizes her subject’s tendency to write in a way that feels fantastic or larger than life, and Nesterenko demonstrates that fact by quoting Durova’s prologue to The Cavalry Maiden at length. In it, Durova addresses her female readers:
“You, my young peers, only you can understand my delight! Only you can know the price of my happiness! You who are watched with every step, who cannot move fifteen feet without surveillance and escort! You who find yourselves dependent from the cradle to the grave on ever-present defenders who defend you from God knows what or whom! You alone, I repeat, can understand the delightful sensation that filled my heart when I saw the expansive forests, the endless fields, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, and knew that I could walk through all of those places without reporting to anyone or risking anyone’s censure. I simply jump with joy when I imagine that I will never again in my entire life hear the words, “You, girl, stay here. It is not respectable for a woman to stroll about alone!”
Prikazchikova’s biography of Durova was published in late 2018 by the Ekaterinburg press Kabinetny Uchony.
The latest in English-language coverage
Meduza asks a transgender man to tell the story of his reassignment surgery
Yan is a video producer from Berezniki, a mid-sized city in Russia’s Perm Krai (he asked that his surname not be disclosed). Although he was assigned female at birth and given the name Yana, Yan knew from the time he was a young child that he identified as male. As early as his high school years, Yan also realized that he wanted to pursue sex reassignment surgery. He began preparing for that process in 2015. That same year, the journalist Stanislav Dolzhnitsky began working with him: Dolzhnitsky wanted to depict the experience of sex transition in Russia along with the many obstacles and physical changes that can accompany that journey. Dolzhnitsky asked Yan to tell his story in a Meduza exclusive that can be found in English translation here.
New Eastern Europe paints a picture of LGBTQ activism in Siberia
Dario Planert, a student of Russian Studies at the University of Potsdam, was studying abroad in the Siberian regional capital of Irkutsk when he decided to interview Yevgeniy Glebov. Glebov is the co-founder of “Vremya Deystviy,” or “Time to Act,” a movement for the equality of LGBTQ people in the area whose approach differs from that of Russia’s best-known activists. While the Russian LGBT Network and other nationwide organizations raise funds to defy state homophobia openly and combat the torture of LGBTQ Russians on a wide scale, Glebov’s organization sees itself as something of a bridge-builder with local institutions that also helps individuals who face violence or discrimination. Glebov’s interview ranges from a screening of the film Milk to FSB stings and failed attempts to meet with national opposition politicians. The piece is available in English here.
The Diplomat sums up recent developments in Central Asian LGBTQ activism
The passage of Russia’s 2013 law prohibiting so-called gay propaganda created ripple effects throughout the Russian-speaking world. An analogous bill in Kyrgyzstan was ultimately suspended, but one LGBTQ organization there reported that violent homophobic attacks increased by 300 percent in the capital city of Bishkek nonetheless. In Tajikistan, stereotypes about homosexuality as a curable condition or a mode of contagion for AIDS leave about 30,000 of the country’s citizens to face stigmas and dangerous social pressure. In Kazakhstan, successful legal defenses against homophobic laws have encouraged activists to keep combating continued discrimination. In this English-language overview of LGBTQ issues in Central Asia, Anastassiya Fershtey and Khamza Sharifzoda summarize recent events in all three countries.
Multiple sources publish firsthand accounts of arrests and torture in Chechnya
Shortly after the news broke that authorities in the Russian republic of Chechnya had escalated their efforts to arrest, torture, and sometimes kill those suspected of having LGBTQ identities, The Daily Beast interviewed multiple sources about the crisis. Reporter Anna Nemtsova spoke with activists who said Chechen law enforcement officers threaten the families of those they capture both by demanding ransoms and by asking people to kill their own relatives if they are thought to be gay or lesbian. Nemtsova also interviewed Arsen, a young man who escaped Chechnya after being captured by police in 2017. The atrocities he described correspond to another interview published in Russian by the Caucasian news site Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Hub). There, Oleg Krasnov spoke with Magomed, another young man from Chechnya who fled to Europe. Magomed described the way Chechen families have reacted to recent homophobic persecution and discussed the fact that certain public figures in Chechnya are either sympathetic to LGBTQ people or are gay themselves. Magomed himself managed to avoid torture, though many of his friends did not. He also said he maintains contact with the women in his family, who hide the reason for his move to Europe from their male relatives.
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