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Askatla’s military ID and a photograph of her

‘They would prefer that she die’ The first openly trans woman in the Russian army, her Ukrainian boyfriend, and their fight to keep her out of the war

Source: Meduza
Askatla’s military ID and a photograph of her
Askatla’s military ID and a photograph of her
Askatla’s person archive

Story by Lilia Yapparova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Askatla, a 22-year-old transgender woman from Buryatia, is a contract soldier in the Russian army. Her boyfriend, Dmytro, is a 26-year-old IT specialist from Dnipro, Ukraine. Since the couple met in May — two months into Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine — he's been her biggest source of support amid the abuse she's faced from her fellow soldiers. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova tells the story of why Askatla joined the military in the first place, how she fell in love with Dmytro, and what they plan to do to get her out.

It’s early in the morning on November 2 when Askatla, a soldier in the Russian army, calls Meduza’s correspondent. She says she doesn’t have much time to talk.

“I’m currently in the 11th psychiatric ward of the 301st military hospital in the city of Khabarovsk,” she rattles off. “They only give us our phones for a few minutes each week, and I still need to talk to my boyfriend.”

Askatla was sent in for a psychiatric evaluation on October 24; it’s now her third week in the men’s ward. She wasn’t allowed to bring her own clothes for the hospital, she says, and the ones the nurses gave her make her breasts especially noticeable.

“They dressed me in this disgusting robe and put me in with men who came back from Ukraine with bruises and PTSD. [The nurses] told me not to mention my secondary sex characteristics, because there’s a danger the men might, excuse me…” Askatla is silent for a moment. “Do you understand? They might rape me.”

Two patients have already already “warned” her. “I was sleeping with my knees pulled up, and my behind was sticking out a bit [under the blanket],” she said. “Two older guys from the unit were passing our ward, and they asked [the nurses] to tell me when I woke up that I shouldn’t lie like that anymore — ‘otherwise we’ll make a faggot out of her.’”

Askatla is a 22-year-old contract soldier, and because she’s transgender, hospitalization is the only shot she has at legally getting out of the military. She began taking hormones a year and a half before the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, and the psychiatric evaluation she’s currently undergoing is part of the process of “proving” her gender to the Russian Defense Ministry in order to get discharged from the army based on a diagnosis of “transsexualism.”

Askatla's backpack and phone case
Askatla's personal archive

Talking over the nurses’ shouts that phone time will soon be over, Askatla explains to Meduza’s correspondent that her name, which comes from Old Norse, was her own choice.

“My full dead name [Editor’s note: her birth name, which she no longer uses] is Ruslan Sergeyevich Biryuchevsky,” says Askatla. “My birth date is July 16, 2000. My badge number is SU-457548. That’s what they use to identify dead soldiers.”

Askatla is determined to do whatever it takes to avoid being sent to Ukraine — and not only because she opposes the war. Over the last few months, a Ukrainian man has become the most important person in her life. And to make sure she has time to call him before the nurses take her phone, she abruptly ends her call with Meduza’s correspondent: “You could call Dmytro my beloved, my future husband; I infinitely—” and the call cuts off.

A few minutes later, Meduza’ correspondent gets a call from Dmytro himself. He’s currently the only person supporting Askatla, the first ever openly transgender person in the Russian army.

‘She panicked if I didn’t write back after shelling attacks’

“Yes, my girlfriend is serving as a contract soldier,” says Dmytro. “At the beginning, I didn’t know she was a Russian soldier. I got to know her as a person first.”

Dmytro is a 26-year-old IT specialist. In his free time, he writes magical realism stories. “Like [Gabriel García] Márquez,” he says.

On the morning of February 24, the Russian army began shelling cities throughout Ukraine, including Dmytro’s hometown of Dnipro. On the first day of the war, he saw Ukrainian air defense systems intercept a Russian missile, exploding in the sky overhead.

A few weeks into the war, he and his then-girlfriend broke up. By April, when he turned 26, Dmytro’s “depression was at its peak,” he recalls. “Do you know about the bystander effect? When you see everything going on and realize nothing you do will have an impact? People are dying, and you’re not doing anything. You feel like a coward, and it’s basically true.” So on his birthday, he went to the military commissariat to join the army — but they wouldn’t take him.

families separated by the war

‘The TV is winning’ Many Ukrainians now share a common experience: their relatives in Russia refuse to believe their accounts of the war.

families separated by the war

‘The TV is winning’ Many Ukrainians now share a common experience: their relatives in Russia refuse to believe their accounts of the war.

“Askatla and I met on May 5, on a Telegram channel for singles. She just saw my survey responses and wrote, ‘I hope I’m in the right place. Hi, Dmytro.’ She was interested in pen tests [Editor’s note: simulated cyberattacks to strengthen a computer system’s security] and asked him about Linux. Those are things I know about — and so it began.”

For the next few days, the two barely stopped talking. Dmytro learned immediately that Askatla was from Russia, and he didn’t have a problem with it: “I have friends and relatives in Russia. I don’t think [the entire nation] needs to be canceled.”

But she waited longer to tell him she was in the army. “When I asked about her work, she didn’t want to answer for a long time. Then she said, ‘You’re going to hate me.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, right. What, do you kill kittens for a living?’ Then she told me about the Russian army,” Dmytro recalls. “I accepted it. And [we] started thinking about ways for her to get discharged.”

One of Askatla’s military ID cards and the bag she brought to the hospital
Askatla’s personal archive

Dmytro and Askatla started having nightly video calls before they went to sleep. “Maybe that sounds like a stupid thing for adults to do,” Dmytro says. “But we were far away from one another. When she couldn’t sleep, I would tell her stories, making them up as I went along.”

Dmytro was struck by how little accurate information about Ukraine Askatla had access to:

On one hand, she always liked Ukrainian travel bloggers; she wanted to see Kyiv and Odesa. On the other hand, it was like she lived in an information vacuum. “Today at work, they were talking about how Ukraine is getting ready to surrender,” she would say. Or, “Are they already overthrowing Zelensky over there?”

I explained to her that Russian state news outlets were the only ones reporting those things, and she said, ‘Well, that’s all we have.’

On July 15, when the part of Dnipro where Dmytro lived came under heavy Russian shelling, Dmytro wrote Askatla a farewell message. “I scheduled a delayed message in Telegram, took my cat and my dog, and went to hide out in a room with thick walls,” he recalls. “And once I was in the clear, I deleted it, so it never sent. [In the farewell message,] I just wrote that she’s strong and can do anything. And that I hoped she would survive.”

Eventually, Askatla switched the time zone on her watch from Khabarovsk to Kyiv. She also signed up for a Telegram channel that notified Dnipro residents when an air raid siren was in effect. “When there was shelling here, she would always write, ‘Is everything okay? You didn’t get hit?’” says Dmytro. “And if I didn’t write back for a while, she would panic.”

Askatla’s official position in the Russian army is “anti-aircraft missile control unit operator,” though she hasn’t taken part in any combat in Ukraine.

“When she saw that the shells were hitting residential buildings and civilians, she was bewildered,” Dmytro says. “‘How is that even possible?’ [she would say]. ‘They're reporting here that it's military targets being hit.’”

‘A youthful indiscretion’

Askatla was born and raised in Ulan-Ude. She started referring to herself as transgender when she was 15 years old.

“I wanted to be a girl from the time I was 13, but I didn’t even know it was something I could try. The realization came a few years later. I was 17 when the intense gender dysphoria began,” she tells Meduza.

“Her mom heard her out one day, but the reaction wasn’t great: ‘Not a word to your stepdad, or I’ll kick you out,’” Dmytro says.

In 2019, Askatla's mandatory year of military service began. At the end of it, she decided to sign a contract to stay in the army rather than returning home. “You might call it a youthful indiscretion,” she says. “It was the only way to escape my parents, who wouldn’t accept me for who I was.”

The military promised to provide Askatla with a “decent salary” and a place to live. “[She thought,] ‘I’ll move to a different city, and I’ll be able to afford hormones,’” Dmytro tells Meduza. “But it turned out that the salary didn’t even cover the basics.”

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Russia's wartime propaganda

‘Undesirable but likely’ How the Putin administration plans to sell a Russian retreat from Kherson to the public

The army didn’t make Askatla’s gender dysphoria go away, either. In an effort to resolve the dissonance she felt, she began using a different name, speaking in a different voice, and wearing different clothes whenever she wasn’t on the base. “She was leading a double life,” Dmytro says.

Not wanting to live in the barracks with the male soldiers, Askatla started renting an apartment. Even though it cost half her salary, Dmytro says, “she was significantly happier there than in the service — even when she had a high fever from coronavirus. In her own place, she could finally look the way she wanted. It was like her inner conflict just disappeared.”

When she came home from the base, Dmytro recalls, Askatla would wait at least a few minutes before looking at herself in the mirror. “She hates her reflection — until she puts on the clothes and makeup she likes,” he says.

According to Eva-Lilith Tsvetkova, an endocrinologist who's worked with numerous trans people, it's common for the army to exacerbate a person's gender dysphoria. “In normal life, people can deal with dysphoria at least somewhat by doing little things: painting their nails, for example, even if they have to remove the polish soon afterward,” she told Meduza. “But in the barracks, there’s almost no personal space where a person can relax.”

Tsvetkova said she’s never had a patient go on hormones while still serving in the army. Askatla, however, started taking them as soon as she’d saved enough money. “I’ve been on hormones for a year now,” Askatla tells Meduza. “Now I’m being helped by specialists from a Moscow clinic, but I did the first few steps without a doctor’s appointment.”

Despite not having enough money for a doctor to help her find the right dosage, Askatla decided to start taking hormones as soon as she could afford them. “She ended up taking pills that gave her heart and blood pressure problems," Dmytro says. "Her blood pressure went up to 170 and her head started to hurt. But her dysphoria bothered her a lot more than the fact that this could kill her.”

To address the heart problems, Askatla went to a doctor from her military unit. “She did a cardiogram in the military hospital,” Dmytro tells Meduza. “And they immediately made a note: ‘Mammary glands are enlarged. Recommended to see an endocrinologist.’ She told them she would go later, of course.”

‘The sergeants said I didn’t deserve to live’

“The other soldiers were constantly making jokes about her ‘nontraditional orientation,’” Dmytro recalls. Askatla once wrote to him, “People here treat me with such tension and disgust.”

Then one day, a year and a half ago, things got even worse between Askatla and her fellow soldiers. The unit used Telegram for work-related communication, and Askatla didn’t have a personal Telegram account that was separate from her work one. “One day, they saw photographs of me as a woman on my Telegram [account]. The sergeants sent the photos to everyone in the chat. And they gave me an ultimatum: either I could delete the photos and promise ‘never to do that again,’ or they would beat me.”

They then locked Askatla in a room and told her she had 15 minutes to decide, she tells Meduza: “Either you delete them or you leave here a cripple.” She ended up deleting not just her photos but all of her social media accounts as well.

desperate wartime measures

‘His partner won’t be allowed to ID his body’ A Ukrainian woman is marrying a soldier in case he's killed — because his boyfriend of 15 years can't

desperate wartime measures

‘His partner won’t be allowed to ID his body’ A Ukrainian woman is marrying a soldier in case he's killed — because his boyfriend of 15 years can't

But that didn’t bring an end to the abuse. “They bullied me constantly. During our morning exercises, they would harass me and [call me slurs],” Askatla recounts to Meduza. “All of the sergeants said they ‘didn’t want to serve with a faggot like me.’ And that I didn’t deserve to live.”

In September 2022, Vladimir Putin announced mobilization in Russia. When Askatla learned of the news, she became despondent; she even considered suicide.

Dmytro did his best to convince her to focus on surviving until March, when her contract with the Russian military was slated to end. In October, however, the Russian military began preparing to send Askatla and her fellow contract soldiers to Ukraine. “The options were simple: she could either go to Ukraine and get killed, or she could try to find a way to break through it all,” Dmytro says.

Dmytro recalls in detail how Askatla’s commanders “prepared” her and the other soldiers to go to the front:

They started showing them “motivational films” about the “barbaric Nazis” in Ukraine — and about how hard life is for the people living under their rule. They showed people allegedly living in my own city, Dnipro, saying they “need help [from the Russian army].” And pictures of people who had already been “liberated”: “Look how they’re thriving!”

In October, the soldiers had mandatory shooting drills. “She had to shoot an entire magazine,” Dmytro recalls. “She tried to refuse, and when it was her turn, she passed out. They started undressing her, took off her gear, and called in a paramedic.”

While Askatla was recovering, the other soldiers fired the rest of her magazines and destroyed her equipment. “They pierced her helmet just for kicks. They thought it was so hilarious: ‘Look, a holey helmet!’” Dmytro says.


'The only good thing is that they won't grab me off the street' How Russia's mobilization affects women and transgender people


'The only good thing is that they won't grab me off the street' How Russia's mobilization affects women and transgender people

As Askatla’s situation became more desperate, she “dreamed she was participating in the murder of Ukrainians,” Dmytro says. “We had talked about it even before the shooting [practice]: it’s painful for her to think about ending up among people who might potentially harm me.”

That was when Askatla decided to seek a discharge. But during her three years in the army, she had heard from multiple military doctors that “transgenderism doesn’t exist,” and she feared they might require her to undergo “treatment.”

“She was afraid they would prescribe her breast reduction surgery or conversion therapy. And that she wouldn’t be able to refuse without [being prosecuted under Russia’s] law against ‘self-harm’ [to evade military service],” Dmytro says.

On October 21, 2022, Askatla was officially referred to the hospital. “I simply went back to the base psychologist and said that I couldn’t live like this,” she tells Meduza. “And that I would kill myself one way or another if I didn’t get out.”

‘I haven’t met a single trans person who wants to be in the military’

When the first psychiatrist who examined Askatla learned that he was talking to a trans person, he refused to accept any of her existing medical documents, according to Dmytro. “‘You can toss out all of those papers from [civilian] hospitals — they don’t mean anything here,’” the doctor reportedly told her. “'And don’t tell me tall tales.'”

For a long time, the doctor refused to listen to her. Askatla still has pictures of the notes he left in her files: “Complaints about unstable mood, irritability, alleged signs of sexual identification,” he wrote. “[...] He [Askatla] accompanies his statements with theatrical gestures. He tells the doctor, ‘I want to be discharged; the service is unbearable for me; I wanted to slit my veins, but my boyfriend stopped me.’”

The doctor concluded that Askatla’s issue was not “transsexualism,” as civilian doctors had diagnosed, but “adaptation disorder, mixed emotions and behaviors disorder.” Another psychiatrist in the military hospital gave a different diagnosis: “neurosis.”

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Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer working with Askatla and Dmytro, told Meduza’s correspondent that both diagnoses are preliminary: “[Other] psychiatrists will either confirm [the diagnoses] or reject them, and they could give a different diagnosis entirely.”

Konstantin Boikov, a lawyer from the human rights organization OVD-Info and former psychiatrist, told Meduza he found the phrase “neurotic disorder” concerning. “Because that’s a disorder that could be here today and gone tomorrow,” he said. “[They could] treat her and then send her back. I really hope nobody will say, ‘Let’s send her to Kherson; we don’t have enough people at the front.’”

According to Dmytro, he’s noticed that Askatla’s dysphoria has become significantly worse in recent weeks. Alleviating her symptoms wouldn’t take much: letting her shave or wash her hair would go far towards making her feel better. But the hospital confiscated her razor and shampoo.

The last time Dmytro talked to his girlfriend was on November 9, when the hospital patients were briefly allowed to use their phones. “She’d been transferred to a separate ward,” he tells Meduza’s correspondent. “The last time we got to talk, I managed to talk to the hospital director. I asked them to separate Askatla from the men, even if she had to sleep on a folding bed.”

Meduza needs your support. A message from the author of this story, Lilya Yapparova:

In the entire time I’ve been reporting on the war in Ukraine, I haven’t encountered a more incredible love story: despite meeting after February 24, Askatla and Dmytro managed to overcome both distance (she’s in Khabarovsk and he’s in Dnipro) and prejudice (Askatla is officially serving as a “missile operator,” while Russian missiles have repeatedly hit Dmytro’s hometown). I’m glad things have (almost) worked out for them, that I was able to tell their story, and that my colleagues were able to translate it into English. We don’t charge for access to our content, but if you want to support Meduza’s work, you can do so here.

Many transgender people are currently at risk of being conscripted by the Russian army, Maxim Olenichev told Meduza. Since the start of Russia’s mobilization campaign, Olenichev has advised over 500 trans people who don’t want to go to Ukraine. “I get questions about mobilization every week,” he said. “And so far, I haven’t met a single transgender person who wants to end up in the armed forces.”

According to endocrinologist Eva-Lilith Tsvetkova, before February 24, trans women who transitioned were generally removed from the draft registry fairly quickly. “They were just told, ‘We don’t need you,’” she said. But Askatla’s situation is more complicated: rather than evading the draft, she’s trying to leave the military after three years of service.

“[The diagnosis of] ‘transsexualism’ on its own isn’t sufficient grounds to be discharged from contract military service,” Olenichev said. “Transgender people [with an official diagnosis] can’t be drafted into the armed forces [as part of Russia’s semi-annual draft], but they can serve under a contract or be drafted as part of a mobilization campaign.”

Still, according to Olenichev, transgender people can be discharged for other diagnoses, such as certain “personality disorders.”

On the other hand, Tsvetkova knows of trans people who have been deemed unfit for military service on the basis of their “transsexualism” even since the start of mobilization. “It seems to depend on the individual military commissariat,” she told Meduza.

* * *

According to Dmytro, it's far too late for Askatla to return to her unit: “She won’t have a life there anymore.”

Askatla agrees: “The on-base psychologist has already told me that there’s no turning back for me. Because while it used to just be the sergeants and a few other people who knew about me, now it’s the entire unit.”

“We’re just looking for a way to not end up in trenches on opposite sides,” Dmytro says. When Askatla first learned her unit was preparing to go to Ukraine, she messaged her mother.

“[Askatla] said she was trying to get discharged on the basis of her health,” Dmytro says. “To which her mom replied, ‘Just try not to end up on the news, please. We don’t need you embarrassing us in front of the whole country.’ They’re scared that a girl who’s trying to get discharged will be shown on TV. That’s scarier to them than the fact that she could die. And that seems to be the overall position of the commanders, the other soldiers, and the doctors: better for her to just die somewhere.”

The Russian Defense Ministry and the 301st District Military Hospital did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.

Story by Lilia Yapparova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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