When he was 24 years old, Lyosha Gorshkov had earned his PhD studying LGBTIQ+. At 28 he had become a Deputy Dean at his university. However, due to the persecution of “dissidents” in Russia he had to give up on his career and immigrate to the U.S.
I had come out a long time ago, but professionally studying LGBTIQ+ issues I began in 2005. I was interested in learning how that “phenomenon” came to life, what cultural features it has, and what place it occupies in society. This interested, eventually, have turned in to a profession.
I realized that I could not only study LGBTIQ+ to myself, but shared the knowledge with the students, to educated them on how other social groups operate. If, by the end of the class, at least 15% of students had changed their views on LGBTIQ+, I would consider my job done. At that point, I was pretty naïve convinced that I could transform people’s preconceptions about LGBTIQ+. I was blessed to have a support from my Department, that had remained liberal. I was lucky to defend my PhD thesis that focused on LGBTIQ+ issues as well. And when I was 28, I was appointed Deputy Dean. Yes. I was euphoric – “I can! I am a Superman!” Although all illusions had shattered once I met face-to-face with FSB (Federal Security Services.) If you knew someone who a communist, nationalist, or homosexualist, report
I did not have a plan to immigrate to the U.S. I just did not have another choice. In 2013 Russia had passed its infamous “propaganda of nontraditional values” legislation. At that time, I had been actively engaged in studying LGBTIQ+ at Perm State University. I was actively promoting queer studies that had not been yet introduced to the Political Science in Russia.
My colleagues and I had organized the Center for Gender Studies at the university. Around the same time, I had received a fellowship from the Soros Foundation, travelling to Ukraine three years in the row. During the Euromaidan, I extensively supported protests in Ukraine.
I had endured some attacks, threats and physical violence from the far right before, but all of that was only separate episodes, not a systematic pressure.
In 2013 you could see how things had changed. A lot of universities had begun to employ Federal Security Services agents to oversee the “ideological purity” on campuses. We got such a person, called “Yura.” “Yura” called me to his office. No signs, no furniture, except for two ragged chairs. He invited me to become friends. He started off with the “old song” about internal and external enemies of the State. He pressed me, emphasizing that I held a position that required a collaboration in order to “protect” the university. He appealed to the sense of patriotism. I was not surprised. A year before this meeting, I taught a student, a daughter of the FSB’s colonel, who once told me that she knew “everything about you”; so, did “Yura.”
All of a sudden, “Yura” tells me, “Aleksei, if you learned that someone is a communist, nationalist, homosexualist, would you tell me? Wouldn’t you?” I am steering at him, fully aware that he is well informed about me, and he is aware that I do realize that. It was a cats-mice game. “Yura” gently hinted that I should cooperate to retain my “liberties.”
“I could have adjusted to the system, but I did not go against myself”.
I tried to avoid direct answers, but “Yura” did not back down. He would call constantly, appear out of nowhere, tormenting me if I got any information he needed.
The situation had escalated. I noticed that my apartment had been watched over. I had been followed. I had received multiple threats via phone.
Under pressure, my colleague and I had to clean up the Center for Gender Studies page in “VKontakte” to protect its members. Not to mention that I had to be careful continuing my work with the underground LGBTIQ+ group “Rainbow World.” All of my activities had been considered as actions of the “foreign agent.” In their eyes I was promoting “tolerastia.”
In Spring of 2014 the friend had sent me the article called “Where Does Perm Look At?” about the “propaganda of sodomy” at the Perm State University. The article stated that I was a primary “liberast” on the campus. That article ended up on the rector’s desk. I quickly realized that the wind was blowing from the FSB; the style was unmistakable.
I had to move out of my apartment due to the security concerns. I went to live with my friend as his apartment was well secured. Around the same time the “Occupy Pedophilia” had come to Perm (a group that exposes alleged pedophiles who are invited to meetings by fictious people). Two of my acquaintances got entrapped by the group, one of them worked for a college. He was given an ultimatum, to become “normal” or his life would be ruined.
The article, the people followed me, the threats had an enormous impact on me. It was clear that it would not end in a peaceful way. I was not safe. I waited till my vacation started in July 2014 and then I left for the U.S. Thankfully, I had an open visa. I resigned from my positions at the University via email. I had learned from my friends that my leaving had caused quite a storm on the campus. “Yura” paid a visit to my Department, interviewing my colleagues. I was declared a “national betrayal.”
Persecution of LGBTIQ+ in Russia is a result of the long campaign to enforce “traditional values” on people. It had begun with the “Pedophilia” legislation, as well as “Dima Yakovlev’s” law. Vladimir Putin was losing his popularity. He desperately needed to win back the people’s support by promoting “traditional values.” If you turned on TV, you would see only segments about pedophiles and their “networks.” It was all over the place. The states began to adopt a “propaganda of homosexuality” legislation. The State targeted the most sensitive audience which is parents. We know that parents would do everything to protect their children.
The nation was poisoned by negative myths about “GayRopa” (Gay Europe). And there was only one Savior who could prevent Russia from turning to a “perverted” society – Vladimir Putin, the “guardian angel”, the defender of family values and the protector of children. When “propaganda” legislation got passed, Putin had regained his popularity. This was a smartly conducted scam. As the “propaganda” legislation, first and for most, focused on LGBTIQ+ as it is an easiest target. It would not be the same with ethnic groups due to the economic ties; but who would stand up for LGBTIQ+?
Despite the legislation’s sentiment about protecting children, it has nothing to do with children. The State had discovered a new tool to suppress those who publicly criticized the regime, - the opposition.
The Crimea was a last drop. It proved that the Putin’s Nazi-Stalin like regime would not be compromised. Putin would do anything, would commit any crime to stay in power. The academic community was divided. Some of my peers, historians, claimed that Crimea was lawfully returned to Russia after being “presented” to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev. I was shocked; those people teach student, planting seeds of hate in their minds. There were no doubts; if the nation so easily justified the annexation of Crimea, it would not blink when another crime is committed. Even killings of LGBTIQ+, if it happens.
My first months in the U.S. were filled with ambiguous feelings. On the one hand, I was happy that I had managed to escape. And where – to the U.S.! Another part of the world, “the land of abundance.” I was transfixed and euphoric. On the other hand, I knew I was not a 15-20-year old anymore (Lyosha was 29 at that time). My career was interrupted. My relatives and friends were far away. And nobody was waiting for you here. What to do next? To start over.
The immigrant’s “honeymoon” is too short. I was living in isolation. I did not have anyone to talk to. I would walk up and down New York hours for and hours to escape my own thoughts.
I knew one thing for sure, in order to get adjusted, I had to improve my English. To start over is psychologically difficult, and not everyone is able to go through this. Sometimes people go back to their countries, thinking they could return at any time. This is not exactly how it works. When I was leaving, I was sure I won’t return. I had a great example before my eyes. My family is German. My great-grandparents and my grandmother were repressed and exiled by Stalin. They lost their home, land and identity, and they never have been able to escape. Of course, I miss my relatives, but I am not suffering from nostalgia because of “birches” and “rivers.” I confess, sometimes I have “immigrant dreams.” I dream that I go back on my campus or to my grandmother’s village where I feel carefree.
I am positive that such dreams is a reflection of our immigrant’s uncertainty, you have lost your motherland, but you haven’t become a part of your new one either. Even people who have been living in the U.S. over 30 years, have experiences the same dreams. Living in the U.S.
I should admit that most of the ideas I had about the U.S. before coming here, have proved to be wrong. You imagine the U.S. being a true democracy.
But I see know that the country is deeply divided. You have to fight for yourself. This is a tough competition. Many immigrants are convinced that they are not worthy because they do not speak English. Some of them feel like second-class citizens. Many believe when you get your work authorization you would be welcomed everywhere. This is not the case. I had been looking for a job over a year, applying everywhere. Usually after six months people get frustrated and panicked, “What should I do next? It seems that nobody cares about me.” This is scary, and not everyone is equipped to go through. Solidarity in the LGBTIQ+ community is deceptive Later I had learned that not everything was so simple in the “Danish Kingdom.” The LGBTIQ+ in America still suffer from discrimination, the racism is very strong. Not to mention that the Russian-Speaking diaspora is extremely conservative, sexist, racist and homophobic.
LGBTIQ+ community is divided as well. There is a distinction between those who had been persecuted in Russia, and those who had never experienced a direct violence. I have witnessed these cleavages. Not a pretty picture. For example, a situation with Crime has set people apart; you would be surprised but there are a lot of Russian queers who justified Crimea’s annexation, “Crimes is ours. Period.” From time to time my blood would get cold listening some LGBTIQ+ defending Putin’s regime even though they are victims of that regime. This was a revelation. No solidarity. No compassion. Nothing.
In the beginning, I would get impressed by everything in the U.S. Even such things like a gas account that travels with you when you move out. Americans are used to live in rented apartments while we consider it as something temporary. I was amazed that people would call the police all the time, if a dog is barking, or they hear some noise.
Supermarkets made me nauseous; it has everything in abundance. We were used to save, to reuse, to reutilize; I remember we were washing plastic bags. Now, I do not care much; if something breaks or gets damaged, you can always replace it. Americans still a bit confused why LGBTIQ+ from Russia are coming to the U.S. Russia is not Syria. You have to always explain what the situation with human rights in Russia is. It’s tiresome.
New York is New York, but when you go farther, deeper to the country, the landscape changes. People are afraid that immigrants steal their jobs.
I believe organizing Brighton Beach Pride was a high point of my work at RUSA LGBT (a community of Russian-Speaking LGBTIQ+ in America). I keep engaged with RUSA LGBT, but not on the same level as I used to. No matter how hard you work, how hard you try to help, there always will be someone who is not satisfied. Those who come from the Post-Soviet world, unfortunately, bring along the “give me, give me more…” mentality, a mentality of entitlement. This kills me. As an example, in the lights of Black Lives Matter protests, quite a few Russian-Speaking LGBT cultivate racist attitudes, thinking that they are entitled to express their bigotry even though they have been in the U.S. only for some months, years. This is ridiculous, and I tell them, “How dare you, you who claim being brutalized by the police in your countries, to doubt the police brutality here?” I think it has to do with a mentality of “serfdom”, of “conformity”… this is an opportunistic attempt to “survive.”
Sometimes I get fed up, thinking to distance myself from the Russian community for good.
Currently I live in Western PA, close to Pittsburgh. I work at Slippery Rock University. I had applied for this job last Summer. I did not know anyone here. Surprisingly, I was invited for an interview and offered a position as an Assistant Director for Women’s Center and Pride Center at the Office for Inclusive Excellence. My American dream has begun a journey of being fulfilled.
I believe I can change the campus environment, to make it more LGBTIQ+ friendly. I am working on new programming, new trainings. I have a gazillion of plans. I am optimistic, and, finally, at home. My way back to academia was far too long. I do not see much perspectives for LGBTIQ in Russia, unlike in Ukraine
People blame Putin. They say that he is the only reason why LGBTIQ are persecuted in Russia. This is the fact! But, at the same time, if tomorrow Putin dies, do you think Russians would accept LGBTIQ+ right away? No way! The Russian nation is deeply divided around LGBTIQ+ issues. People hate LGBTIQ+ just because they hate us, without any reasons as they do not have any knowledge. Whoever takes the Government over tomorrow, it would not be possible to overcome homophobia; it would take ten and more years.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had a unique chance to move towards more tolerant and inclusive society, however, it did not happen. People in Russia are not used to fight for their rights. They require a strong leader who would point out a direction where to go, and what to do while they would be sitting in their kitchens, silently criticizing the Government. Unfortunately, a tiny group of activists does not have enough power to change the regime.
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots in the U.S. and still LGBTIQ+ are fighting as we are far away from equality. We still witness horrific incidents of homophobia, transphobia, and racism. What else needs to be said about Russia that is not even close to any democratic horizons.
Now I am remembering my story of persecution in Russia as a nightmare. Some LGBTIQ+ activists who remain in Russia criticize us for immigrating, “You have left. You have given up. And who else should fight?” You know, I had been fighting for almost 15 years. And the moment had come when I had to face a tough dilemma, to live or to perish. I’ve chosen to live and proceed with my dreams. I would advise everyone whose life is in danger, to leave. I do not see another option so far. First time I visited Ukraine in 2011. I went to Uzhgorod in Zakarpattia. I did fall in love with Ukraine, with people there. I was astonished how many LGBTIQ organizations were registered in Ukraine as it was not possible in Russia.
Then I felt the people’s spirit. One of my peers told me that she went to Euromaidan straight from the bus she was riding. She heard the news over the radio and realized she had to be there. This is inspiring! I think that people in Ukraine to a certain extend represent a real power that could be employed in decision-making. I hope Ukraine will become a sort of leader in advocating for LGBTIQ+ people in that region. I certainly see the potential!