I was around 12 or 13 years old. A time of big change and excitement. My family had anti-Communist tendencies for years, so when the Soviet Union collapsed we were thrilled and gratified. My classmates stopped wearing their red neck scarves and Lenin pins, which I had ditched long before it became acceptable. People started to profess their religious beliefs, openly embrace 'Western' culture, and dream of earning a better living in the new capitalist society. For a brief time, freedom and hopefulness were in the air.
Then, the darker side of change became apparent.
The Communist leaders who resisted reforms for so long, but who suddenly were eager to embrace them, had the same old agenda in mind - to take for themselves. Using the unsavory practice called 'privatization' they started to grab -- literally, steal -- public property and claim it as their own. These titans of the political elite turned government stores, stadiums, cemeteries, and parks into their own private estates and enterprises. Can you picture Barack Obama suddenly taking the Library of Congress and gifting it to his cousin? How about Sen. Patty Murray building her own private parking lot on top of a World War II memorial? In Russia such things were happening daily.
Regional and municipal administrations were robbing the public of funds until government employees (who included teachers and most doctors) weren't getting paid for months at a time. Teachers in my school complained of not having been paid in a year. Water shortages and electrical blackouts became a normal part of life. I would scramble to finish my homework right after school because the lights would go out every afternoon. In the evenings we'd entertain ourselves looking through a telescope at the building across the street, where one of the residents was a bigwig who had ensured that his apartment never lost power. To have a bath, I had to walk half a mile with two large buckets of water, fill them up at a truck station, walk them back, heat them up on a camping stove, then sit in a tub and pour the water over myself.
BULLIES RUN RAMPANT
At school, I was assaulted on a daily basis. Many students I knew stopped coming to school after being violently attacked several times a day. There was an ambulance by my school every week. School bathrooms were ground zero for adult gang members who made them their permanent headquarters. The world felt increasingly unsafe, unjust, and brutal. I only had to walk three blocks to my school, but every day I would count several carcasses of dogs and cats that had been tortured, murdered, and displayed by boys and girls around my age. I couldn't understand this kind of blind cruelty. My family was one of the poorest, and I knew some who had even less than us, yet my own sense of desperation and misery didn't drive me to hurt others. Some of the most violent kids in my school were some of the least disenfranchised.
It's hard to pinpoint an exact day when I felt a shift in my consciousness -- the realization that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in that country, in that culture. The closest to such event was a history lesson on the Holocaust. When my teacher brought up Nazi camps, students started to heckle her, saying things like, "Hitler should have finished the job." Before I knew it, the entire class was chanting, "Kill kikes!" and pounding their fists on their desks. I stared at them, terrified. Adidas track suits, leather jackets, and gold crosses had replaced the Communist uniforms, but they still had the same glassy look in their eyes, the same frenzied anger, and the same impulse to be a monolithic, unquestioning lynch mob.
The teacher was kind of speechless and sort of amused. She was actually smiling. An innocent, coy kind of smile, as if someone had farted. "You shouldn't be so harsh, just because they're all smart and have lots of money," was her attempt at calming their anti-Semitism.
That day I came home and told Mom what happened. "We have to get out of here," she said, upset but not surprised.
I don't know why I was bullied by my classmates. The spitting, punching, switchblade pulling, death threats, hitting me with chairs lasted a couple years. I'd come to class and everyone refused to sit with me, then all of them would pounce. I wasn't the only victim. Others fell in and out of favor. Mob mentality ruled the day. I started to carry a butcher's knife to school.
ENCOUNTERING THE 'P' WORD
Being gay, likewise, was not something I understood. The word "pedik" was most commonly used. It was an equivalent of "faggot" but also meant "pedophile." Judging by the context of how others used it, I quickly figured out that being a pedik was absolutely the worst thing in the world. I've heard both my peers and adults say that pediks are viler than serial killers and that anyone admitting to be one deserves to die a terrible death. At school and around my friends, pedik was used in every conversation, to demean or dehumanize anyone you didn't like. Yet with all the references to pediks, I also felt like they didn't really exist. I didn't know of a single one.
Occasionally there were rumors of foreign celebrities being homosexual, but these rumors were quickly dismissed. Freddy Mercury was a great example. Being the most popular man in Russia during my childhood (imagine the fan bases of Elvis, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones combined), Mercury was quickly stripped of his gayness by Russian media and public opinion, who claimed that the rumors were either untrue or that his homosexual tendencies were simply the result of his drug abuse (he was a good boy—he couldn't possibly be one of the pediks they hated so much).
Realizing I was gay in Russia felt like a terminal disease diagnosis. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. What did I do to deserve it? I was just a kid. Yet there I was -- a secret pedik, one of the monsters I'd heard about so much yet knew so little about. Convinced that I was the only real gay person in Russia, I felt completely alienated from the human race. I'd look in the mirror and imagine a reptilian creature lurking beneath my skin. If I was so unpopular already, for no apparent reason, what would happen to me if they knew?
I became obsessed about concealing my secret. But having no idea what being gay looked like, I was completely lost. I became so anxious and self-conscious that at times I would forget how to walk. Every step I took seemed like a huge undertaking. Does this step make me look pedik? Will this word sound pedik-like? Better sit still and keep my mouth shut. I had a couple close friends, who were like brothers to me growing up. Yet as they took interest in girls, I stopped hanging out with them. I couldn't let them figure out that girls were not on my mind.
I observe the latest controversy about the lack of gay rights in Russia with surprise. I'm not surprised by Russian homophobia. I'm only surprised by America's sudden interest in brutal, inhuman treatment of sexual minorities in Russia. It's not new. It's been that way for a long time. And to all the condescending liberal apologists: please, don't compare the United States' problems to what's happening around the world. You have not the faintest idea. You are lucky, lucky, lucky to live here.
I want to be optimistic about the possibility of progress in the area of gay rights -- no, human rights -- in Russia. But it's hard.
It's hard because Americans take certain things like freedom, equality, and justice for granted. Certain principles and ideals have always been here to live up to. The American progressives fighting for human rights -- from abolitionists and suffragists to civil rights leaders of the '60s to ACT UP and HRC -- were able to make strides by appealing to the American public to live up to those ideals. Equality is assumed as the standard, while inequality, although common, is constantly debated and scrutinized. American homophobes have had to defend and explain their views for decades. But in Russia, there has never been such thing as equality or human rights.
Backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, the oppressive monarchy condoned and enforced slavery and violent oppression against minorities. This monarchy was replaced with Communism, which was a different form of slavery. Everyone who had the courage to speak out against injustice was systematically murdered or sent to gulags to die. And now under the guise of democracy and the free market, the same old KGB goons are running the country as one large organized crime network, without any pretense of morality or justice. It's hard to speak up about homophobia in such a place. Bigots in Russia don't have to explain themselves. Violence against gay people is not frowned upon, because violence is the way of life.
For example, scores of journalists and opposition leaders questioning Russian corruption have been assassinated since the fall of the Soviet Union. If that happened in the U.S., we'd have a civil war on our hands.
Gay rights in the West did not emerge from a vacuum. They exist in the larger context of humanist movements -- centuries of people striving for a fairer society, whether it was ending segregation or working toward gender equality. Russia doesn't have an equivalent of these movements. Russia's minorities, including Jews, are as despised now as they were during the reign of the Tzars. Feminism, which is such an important precursor for gay rights, is foreign to most in the former Soviet Union. Women don't see themselves as equal and rarely question whether that's a good thing. An average Russian woman works her ass off, and then comes home expected to do every house chore possible while her husband reads the newspaper and drinks. March 8, International Women's Day, which is very popular in Russia, has been appropriated by the sexist culture to mean nothing more than a day to celebrate how pretty women are and give them flowers. Domestic violence is the norm. Misogyny is as Russian as vodka. And without the assumption that women and men are equal, the concept of homosexual rights doesn't stand a chance.
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
So, is there hope for Russia and its gays? If America taught me anything it is that you have to be an optimist. As I try to look for a bright side, my mother comes to mind.
Raised in a very bigoted family and community, she managed to come out unscathed and uncorrupted. She raised me to believe that all people are equal and deserve love and compassion. She educated me about the ridiculous nature of racism and anti-Semitism. She questioned many of the gender roles and expectations which everyone around her took for granted. During our last year in Russia, we watched an episode of a Brazilian soap opera that touched upon the subject of gay rights. It was thrilling to see this topic addressed on TV in a positive light. Yet I was also terrified to watch it with my mom. Will she guess, I wondered to myself? Will she ever guess I'm one of them?
After the episode ended, she told me how baffled she was by people who hated homosexuals. She added that if she ever had a gay child, she wouldn't love them any less and would support them unconditionally. I cried that night. I didn't tell her my secret then because I knew she would be worried for me -- worried about potential danger to my life. But I couldn't be more proud of her for being so different from everyone else I knew in Russia. So as I think about my mom, I think, Yes, there's hope. Human beings are resilient. Love, compassion, and courage will always triumph at the end.
SPEAK OUT, ACT UP
So how can Americans help? So many ways, but they all come down to keeping this issue in the public consciousness. Don't stop talking about gays in Russia. Don't stop thinking about gays in Russia. Talk to your friends, write about it, tweet about it, Facebook-post about it. If you have Russian friends, bring it up to them. Absolutely call your senators and the State Department and tell them you are concerned about the situation in Russia and something needs to be done. One thing about the Russian elite -- even the most backward of bigots -- is their universal aspiration to be considered civilized, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan. They want to be respected and taken seriously. If Russian officials involved in passing the anti-gay laws or spreading homophobic propaganda are banned from entering the U.S. and officially labeled human rights violators, they will be extremely upset (even if they claim otherwise).
And it's not just politicians. For example, people should be aware that Nikita Mikhalkov, whose work is celebrated in the West, is a far-right nationalist fanatic who has actively promoted pro-Putin and anti-gay propaganda for years, even making a homophobic film targeting a popular effeminate performer. Some of the blood of Russian gays is on his hands.
In a perfect world, the Olympics would be moved to another city. Why legitimize this awful proto-fascist regime? Some bring up Jesse Owens's victory in Hitler's Germany as if his athletic triumph made up for the deaths of millions of Jews and others. I don't buy it. I will contact the corporate headquarters of all of the Olympic sponsors and let them know how I feel about them endorsing this event.
Boycott all Russian products and tell everyone why. Russian businesses are all tied to the Russian government; it's in the nature of that system. It's very different from the U.S., where small businesses and corporations are free to openly pursue their own political agenda. Stoli is making excuses that only some of their vodka is manufactured in Russia. Well, let them move all of their production elsewhere. Multinationals like Boeing and Microsoft should be encouraged to stop outsourcing work to Russia and not partner with Russian-based companies in any way.
This may seem like a stretch right now. But so did same-sex marriage, just 10 years ago.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Seattle Gay News.
Wes Hurley is a Seattle-based filmmaker, born and raised in Russia's Far East. His films, including the award-winning documentary 'Waxie Moon,' have screened around the world. His last feature, a queer pop-art comedy musical called 'Fallen Jewel,' enjoys a cult following in Seattle, where it screens monthly. Hurley is currently working on an autobiographical film about growing up gay in the Soviet Union.