Novosibirsk: Zhenya's Arrest and Siberian Gay Life
Today's posting was supposed to be about how gay life has changed in Novosibirsk over the last 10 years. All week, we've been talking to people, asking them what's different now, what's better, what's worse. Then, when I talked to Grisha's ex-boyfriend Zhenya last night, he told me something I felt I had to write about. It's not a gay issue per se, but it's an issue of justice.
The day after Grisha was killed in 1999, the police arrested Zhenya. They took him down for questioning, and threw him into a crowded jail cell. As Grisha's ex-boyfriend, he was automatically considered a suspect. Unfortunately for him, he'd left work early the night of the killing -- and he had no way of proving he hadn't been at Grisha's.
Though he and Grisha were no longer a couple, they had remained good friends. A slender, thoughtful man who tends to listen more than he talks, Zhenya was in shock from Grisha's violent death, to say nothing of suddenly finding himself in a cramped, filthy jail cell. The police kept him in jail day after day, questioning him repeatedly, and insisting that he confess. They wouldn't even let him out of the cell to go to Grisha's burial.
"I knew I would be convicted if they took me to trial," Zhenya told me. "I had no alibi." Russia's court system returns guilty verdicts in more than 99% of criminal trials decided by a judge, and more than 84% of those decided by a jury, so it's no stretch to assume Zhenya might have been convicted and still in prison today if it weren't for what happened next.
On the ninth day, another man was brought into the cell. "Whenever someone new comes in, the men start asking, 'So, what are you in for? What'd you do?'" recalled Zhenya. "The guy started saying, 'Well, I killed this gay guy, in his apartment down on Krasniy Prospect.' It was him." Zhenya sat quietly, listening as the man described how he'd killed Grisha.
"Five minutes later," he says, "they came and let me out. They'd found their killer, so there was no need to keep me anymore."
Valera believes Zhenya's arrest and imprisonment was tied to his sexual orientation: "The police just figured, 'Eh, a gay guy's been killed. Here's his ex-boyfriend, he must have done it.' When I went to Grisha's apartment to clean it up after he was found," he says, "it was obvious the police hadn't even looked closely for evidence.
"As I was trying to clean the blood off the carpet, I picked it up and found the knife under it," says Valera, shaking his head. "How could they not have found the murder weapon, if they'd really looked?"
Whether it's a gay issue or not, Zhenya's treatment is a sad commentary on the judicial system. Six years after the fact, he speaks philosophically about it. "Things happen, we can't go back and change them," he says. "Life goes on." It's a refrain I've heard from many of Grisha's friends in the past few days.
In addition to spending time with Grisha's friends, we also talked with a couple of people who work on human rights issues for gay men and lesbians in Novosibirsk. Andrey Kuvshinov is the chair of the non-profit human rights network "Right Society," and Ivan Dyukarev is the director of a student club for HIV prevention at Novosibirsk Pedagogical University. We met them at "Café Mocha," one of Novosibirsk's numerous coffee shops.
"We have at this moment gay businesses, but no gay movement," said Kuvshinov, who speaks excellent English, complete with an uppercrust British accent. "When we talk about the voice of the community, at least in the language of people in the West or in America, it's different. We don't have any organizations which articulate it."
According to Kuvshinov, the gay community "doesn't want to have a voice... People have gotten some degree of freedom -- at least freedom to associate within the community. It's enough to fulfill their day-to-day wishes and desires; for many people that's enough."
This was not the first time I'd been told that Russian gays are less interested than their Western counterparts in having an organized gay "movement." The twin themes of gay life here seem to be (1) don't ask, don't tell, and (2) don't make things any worse by trying to make them better. If pushing for greater freedom for homosexuals could result in a backlash, goes the thinking, it's better not to risk it.
I've been asked people all week if their colleagues and families know they're gay, and the most common response I've heard is, "They know, but we don't ever talk about it." People seem to regard their right to privacy as far more valuable than their right to live openly as homosexuals.
As Dyukarev told me, "If I'm out at work, it's no problem for me career and relationships -- but there's no need to do it. There are no pluses for me. And maybe there are some minuses."
As in 1995, gay men and lesbians tend to gather at each other's houses for dinners and social events. There are, however, two new bars in Novosibirsk that cater to mostly gay clientele, whereas in 1995 there were none. There's also a "gay beach" on the Ob Sea just outside the city. Yet neither of the clubs identifies itself officially as "gay," for fear that would create problems with local officials.
"If you try to do things officially" -- meaning, specifically referring to your organization or business as gay -- "officials will use various methods to stop you," said Kuvshinov. "You can organize a 'youth organization' and still do [gay] work." Considering the history of oppression in 20th-century Russia, perhaps it's not surprising that the overarching desire for gay men and lesbians is simply to be left alone.
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