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.



Zhenya, Grisha's ex-boyfriend, was jailed for nine days after the murder. (David Hillegas)

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."



Human rights activist Andrey Kuvshinov says Russian gays aren't interested in having a "movement." (David Hillegas)

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.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 13, 2005; 11:15 AM ET
Previous: Becoming Openly Gay in Novosibirsk | Next: Novosibirsk: Odd Contrasts and a New Destination

Comments

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Why gay issue is so important? It is of no interest to ordinary Russian people. Novosibirsk is a city of highly developed scientific culture, a variety of technologically intensive enterprises. Why not give a better overview of the city and its people?

Posted by: Alex | October 13, 2005 05:56 PM

I am pleasantly surprised to see Novosibirsk becoming so gay friendly. I come from Novosibirsk myself. I have to say, while studying at the Novosibirsk State University ( 90s) I remember the city (Akademgorodok) being a very gay friendly place compared to many other Russian cities. We had quite a few couples at the University, unofficial gay clubs/ gatherings. Straight people were more or less tolerant, especially students. Actually we always had a mix of straight/ gay people in the company and hardly anybody cared. A girl from my class lived together with her girlfriend for a couple years at her place with her parents (!) who I know are very conservative people; and it must have been very hard for them to accept it. I have a feeling the case was not unique. As for "the desire for gay men and lesbians is simply to be left alone", I think it reflects the culture of our society and the historical background as you pointed it out. Russians do not like changes; and we do not expect anything good making changes. According to Global Polls, people from Eastern Europe/ Central Asia are the most pessimistic in the world :o Americans, on the other hand, believe in changes for better. I felt the difference myself coming to DC. I could better appreciate all the efforts of the HRC campaign/ being vocal about gay issues much later. As for holding hands on the street, well when you get to Moscow and St. Pt. you'll be surprised how open they are about it:)

Posted by: AK | October 13, 2005 05:58 PM

In response to Alex' posting, I do not think it's of no interest to ordinary people. People even if straight will always have interest to such topics. Besides, no one has ever explored gay/ bi-curious statistics in Russia (I assume). I bet the percentage will be high. But I think you are right talking about Novosibirsk/ Akademgorodok as a city of highly scientific culture, a variety of technologically intensive enterprises. And here I see a big connection of why Novosibirsk is much more open about gay issues than other cities of Russia. People are much more open-minded and less rigid.

Posted by: AK | October 13, 2005 06:10 PM

What happened to Grisha and his partner is horrible! Thank you very much for brining this story to light.

I shudder each time I think what my life would have been like had I remained in Russia. Sure the economy is slightly better and someone with my education and language skills can probably land a fairly comfy life style with comparative ease, given the right connections... but to have to look over my shoulder day after day on account of identity is something that I haven't experience in a long time.

Coming out was difficult here in Canada. I have the deepest respect for those who have been able to come out, to whatever degree, in Russia. Frankly, that takes courage I don't think I would have been able to muster, had I stayed in Irkutsk.

-Artem

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 13, 2005 07:40 PM

As a child of immigrants, I can understand Artem's point. Sometimes an immigrant community or family, trying to preserve customs, can be more conservative than the home country.

It is great to see a nascent human rights network and sex education. I think it took, sadly, the HIV crisis, for gays elsewhere to become more politically active. I wonder if gay Russians are learning from that experience.

Posted by: Arlington | October 13, 2005 08:45 PM

To Alex: You may be right, that the issue of gays in Russia isn't of interest to ordinary Russian people. But that's the point. It's part of a larger question of human rights, which in short means "how do we feel about people who aren't like us", be they darker skinned, lower class, foreign, and/or gay. If Russians don't know or simply ignore the issue, then that's definitely of interest to readers of this Washington Post site, if not the ordinary Russian. Wealthy Western democracies have problems with minority issues, so it's encouraging to see some things change, like Natasha's radio program--and tragic to hear that some things don't, like the police treatment of Zhenya.

Also, gay issues are part of Lisa and David's very successful effort to go beyond guidebook- and headline-reporting. They're not just exploring Russia, but Russians.

To Arlington: HIV is having an impact on the gay community, but it's not the same as in the West. In Russia, HIV is transmitted mostly through shared needles. That's changing, unfortunately.

Posted by: Mark | October 13, 2005 11:09 PM

What a terrific and enlightening piece on gays and lesbians in Russia. It is so sad to hear about Grisha --and I thank God that his lover had the "fortune" of being thrown in a jail cell with the real killer. We're all glad that you're reporting on the ground in Novosibrsk so we can hear the real story of what's going on.

thanks!

Posted by: Karen Friedman | October 13, 2005 11:14 PM

Truly, there is so much happening these days in this bustling city of 1.5 million people, I find it tragic and dull that you wasted 3 whole articles wondering about the degree of openess for lifestyle choices made by this miniscule community. But, when one has an agenda, logic and reason seldom arbitrate such decision making. For whatever reason, I somehow expected more from a piece run in the The Washington Post. Cold and disappointed in Novosibirsk. --Lyosha

Posted by: Lyosha | January 10, 2006 04:21 AM

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