‘Change your name and forget where you came from’ In new portraits of the latest Russian émigré wave, a journalist shares his experience coming out to his Dagestani family and remaking his life in Brooklyn
Russian photographer Evgeny Feldman, a regular contributor to Meduza, is working to document the lives of the newest wave of Russian émigrés: those who have left the country within the past fifteen years, forming a distinct group from the migrations of the late 20th century. Feldman edits a self-published samizdat magazine whose next issue will tell nine stories from within that rapidly growing community. Meduza is featuring one of those stories, the memories of a Moscow journalist who was raised in a village in Dagestan, one of Russia’s Northern Caucasian republics. After the journalist came out as gay, he faced threats from family members and ultimately moved to New York City to begin a new life.
I was born in a Dagestani village where I lived until 2005, until I was 10. Up until the fifth grade, I didn’t speak Russian — I only spoke my native language, which only a few thousand people speak. It has a very sparse vocabulary, so you can’t express yourself fully. Later on, we — that is, me, my three older brothers, my dad, and my mom — moved to Makhachkala [the capital of Dagestan]. Suddenly, I was around people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and I got to be fluent in Russian.
I always knew I was different from the people around me, but I thought I’d be able to find my people in the city. That didn’t happen. By eighth grade, I had developed a sense that I had just fundamentally been born in the wrong place. There was a kind of internal navigation system at work.
In Dagestan, there’s a strange melting pot of ideas about the world. On one hand, there are Russian federal laws, and on the other, there’s religion, which is always gaining influence, and Imam Shamil’s muridism (“we’re from the Caucasus, we have a special, separate path to follow”). The thing is that people don’t follow any of the three. I knew that I didn’t want to live there, and I was willing to take advantage of any opportunity that might come up for me to make a break for it.
At the time, I watched state TV, and there were journalists I liked, especially Vyacheslav Dukhin from VGTRK. I was about 15 or 16 when I found his email address. We wrote back and forth for a while, and in the end, he got so sick of me that he wrote, “Come to Moscow, intern with us, and we’ll see what becomes of you.” In the middle of the school year, I told my parents that I’d been offered a job in Moscow. I told them with a straight face, “If you don’t let me go, I’ll never forgive you.” They gave me 25 or 30 thousand rubles [on the order of $900 at the time] and let me go.
I lived in the Pechatniki district and paid 10,000 rubles a month for a room. I had major problems finding a high school because I didn’t have registration papers [for residency in Moscow]. I think I ended up buying some. I remember going to one principal and explaining why my parents couldn’t come to the school with me — because they weren’t even living in the city!
I finished school while working at Rossiya-2. It was the Medvedev era, when everyone was talking about [the Skolkovo Business Park], innovation, the Internet, all that. [For work,] I went around to public lectures and made short video interviews. It was a great way to get to know Moscow: They took me around the whole city to see all kinds of interesting people for free.
When I lived in Dagestan, I thought I was abnormal because I was always objecting to things, disagreeing, arguing. I have very warm memories of the 2011 – 2012 protests [in Moscow], but not so much because of their politics. It was this feeling that was really precious to me of a whole mass of people who thought the same way I did, and they were cool and interesting and fun.
Gradually, my worldview started changing. A lot of my friends who I would never have thought could be part of the queer community gradually started opening up to me. When I was living in Dagestan, the possibility of sleeping with a guy would never have entered my mind — it was too big a risk. But in Moscow, I had a range of sexual experiences. I found a bunch of awesome friends, I became independent — I didn’t take a cent from my parents after I left. But my brothers who had moved to Moscow always wanted to see me. In Dagestan, you’re supposed to obey your older brothers just because you’re younger. But I didn’t understand why the hell I should. We didn’t have anything in common, and they hadn’t done anything to make us really close. I wanted to be done with all that.
In 2015, I came out to my colleagues, to my friends. Earlier that year, I had started a relationship with Felix that unexpectedly became serious, and I thought I might want to come out at home, too. I was almost 100 percent sure that my family wouldn’t accept me, but I still wanted to tell them.
I made up a story about how I was researching Caucasians’ attitudes toward changing social norms and gender roles, and then I tried talking about my ‘project’ to test the waters. Mom didn’t say anything at all — she just turned red. She had a 10th-grade Soviet education, she doesn’t speak Russian very well, she hasn’t seen the world. She’s just raised kids and run the household, and she doesn’t want to know about anything beyond that. My dad had an aggressive reaction, though: “Why did you choose a topic like that for your project? Don’t you have anything better to do? Hand over the phone to your professor! I think people like you should be killed.”
I knew a couple of people who had shown their parents the movie Prayers for Bobby right before they came out. It’s about a religious Christian woman whose son turns out to be gay, and she doesn’t accept him, and it’s not a happy ending. My dad immediately told me to turn the movie off. My mom and my aunt took me out to the courtyard and started telling me off. At some point during the argument, I said, “Mom, come on, what am I supposed to do if I’m one of them?”
Everything went deathly quiet. My mom asked, “What are you trying to say — that you’re a fag?”
I said, “Yes, mom, I’m a fag.”
After that, we sat in the courtyard for a long time, and my mom cried and asked me strange questions. “Is there something about you that doesn’t work? Does anything hurt? Can you drive? Can you change lightbulbs?” She tried to convince me I wasn’t gay. She and my aunt convinced me not to tell my father. I hid a booklet from the Petersburg-based LGBT group Coming Out on one of their bookshelves — it was a collection of FAQs from parents about their LGBT kids. I left for Moscow.
A few days later, when I brought some treats from my parents to my brothers, my dad called me and started asking questions: “What’s this book? Have you lost your fear, forgotten your honor?” and so on. He told me I had to show my phone to my brother and prove I wasn’t gay — either I show him my phone, or I go back to Dagestan. He threatened me — said he would make me herd sheep somewhere high up in the mountains where there’s no contact with the rest of the world.
Anyway, I got in my brother’s car and gave him my dorm address, and when we were on the way there, I told him, “Why don’t I at least stop by work and sign a resignation notice? It’s not right to just disappear like this.” My brother stopped by the offices for [the news outlet] RBC, where I was working at the time. While he was figuring out how to pay for parking, I went into the office, told the guard not to let anybody in, called our HR director, and spent the entire night sitting in her office. I turned off my phone and drank whatever I found in the fridge. It never even occurred to me to call the police. What would the Moscow police do with a bunch of Dagestanis trying to bring their brother home because he had confessed to homosexuality?
Things went on that way for the whole month of July. Once, they lured me back to Dagestan by telling me my mom was having really bad health problems. When I got there and realized she was fine and it was all a trap, I waited until everyone was distracted, climbed the fence, and went to spend the night at a girlfriend’s place. That evening, my mom sent me a video on WhatsApp where she was just looking into the camera and crying.
That’s when I decided to make up another story and tell them I was leaving for America. I sent a fake ticket to my brother — the one who was the most humane at the time — and said, “That’s it, bye.” He started being like, “Come on, let’s meet up, let’s just say goodbye, I won’t try to change your mind!” But when I went to meet up with him and say goodbye, my other brothers and my dad turned up. They pressured me into going back to Dagestan again, and when I got there, my dad even tried to hit me. In the end, I agreed to all of their conditions. I promised to break up with Felix and move in with my brother; I said I’d let my brothers choose my friends for me. But in the airport on the way back, I was able to run away.
That was the end. Since then, I haven’t talked to any of them, and I think my dad has only messaged me once: “Change your name and forget where you came from.” That’s when I became Ezra.
But Felix and I still didn’t feel safe. We had American visas, and we decided we had to make a break for it. In February 2017, we flew into New York and applied for refugee status. We’re still waiting for our immigration interview. We also tied the knot right away, just went to City Hall with our roommate and her boyfriend as witnesses. We moved away, but we made friends with our new neighbors right off the bat, too. We have a shared compartment for our keys, and we trust each other so much that I can just ask them to come in and feed my cat. In Moscow, there wasn’t anything remotely like that.
In my second month in America, a job found me. I’ve worked for various Khodorkovsky projects and for the TV channel RTVI, and now I’m studying UX design on top of that.
Mom and I message each other on WhatsApp sometimes. We end up with these odd little dialogues: “How are you?” “Fine. Just got a haircut.”
The next issue of Feldman’s magazine is available for preorder here.