Penal colonies and mysterious deaths of political opponents are still part of Russia’s political machinations today. Remembrance and documentation are criminalized, as the case of Memorial shows. And yet, there is a lot to explore and memorialize – for instance, the thousands of people slaughtered in Sandarmokh forest, Karelia, during Stalin’s Great Terror.
A different childhood
In an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel, Sergey Khazov draws on his experience of growing up gay in Russia. Extracts.
15 years old. Military service
“Well, look at you taking up the whole fucking bench. Come on, move your ass.”
As sturdy as a brick, the boy plonked himself down next to me and spread his legs wide, straining his grey boxer shorts. He was evidently from our neighbouring school. Where do they get all their beefy guys from? You might as well pack them off to the army right now for all they are going to learn at school anyway. I bet he still doesn’t know Pythagoras’ theorem. What’s the point of keeping him on into the senior grades? Strictly speaking, it was my turn next to see the doctor but I decided against making a fuss and just let Mr Beefy go in ahead of me.
The army conscription office was cold and uncomfortable and the wooden bench had not warmed up even though I’d been sitting on it for several minutes. There were boys from different schools standing, sitting, walking around in only their undershorts. Some were my classmates but they seemed to get lost in the crowd and I felt I was on my own in an unfriendly and even threatening place. I had to fight an urge to look up and stare, because I had never seen such an assortment of bare bodies before. Except at the beach, of course, but that was what you expected there, which somehow made it less tempting to look. Here in the narrow, grimy corridors of the registration office, with doctors and nurses scurrying everywhere, as well as some amazingly fat, red-faced people in army uniform, the undressed boys looked different and out of place. That made me interested, but I was afraid someone might notice, so I just kept looking at the floor. Sometimes I managed a peek, for instance at Beefy Boy’s shorts, but I tried to look away again quickly […]
He got up and swaggered off to see the doctor, grunting as if he had just came out of the bathhouse. I moved up nearer the door so as not to lose my place in the queue again. He had made the bench really warm, warmer than where I had been sitting all that time.
I wondered whether I was the only person who was embarrassed or whether everyone else was feeling the same. I don’t suppose Beefy Boy minded. If you told him to cross Red Square in his underwear he would swagger off and think nothing of parading around in front of strangers for half the day. Anyway, what were they doing in the office?
Then it was my turn. Five boys were standing stark naked in a queue in front of the doctor’s table and he was examining one of them. There was only one boy from our school; I had never seen the others. This line-up was so unexpected it took my breath away, but I was brought back to reality by a nurse at the door who said mechanically, “School, class, name”. I identified myself and then, in the same rasping tone of a rusty robot which was only just still functioning, she said, “Shorts off, get in line, wait”.
The boys were sideways on to me and seemed as unflustered as if they were queueing for potatoes. Beefy Boy even had his hands behind his back and was lounging against the wall. Only the boy from our school, as slight as myself, was modestly shielding his private parts with his hands. I was still doing my best not to look at anyone or anything, but could not help eyeing Big Boy from head to toe. Wow! That body should be on a plinth in a museum. He caught me staring and I blushed crimson. I needed to look away, but wherever I looked there was another naked body. Really, they ought to issue us with blindfolds.
Even more intriguing, though, was what was going on in front of the doctor’s desk. He was about forty, had thin blond hair and a beard like Chekhov’s. He was wearing a white coat and had round glasses which, with a bit of imagination, could be taken for a pince-nez. He was twirling one of the boys in front of himself, asked him to raise his arms, lift his leg, examined his backbone, and then suddenly started groping between his legs. I had had that done to me at school many years earlier, and even then felt it was improperly intimate. The boy went as red as a lobster, and all the others were furtively watching him (at least I was not the only one taking such an interest). “Right, now bare the gland for me”, the doctor said so routinely it sounded odd. Of course, he could hardly have said it any other way. Should “the gland” be spoken of with special reverence? The boy did as he was told, and then the doctor spun him round and asked him to bend over. It was all quite quick, but enough to make something stir in me. I was terrified my reaction would be noticed. That would be a terrible disgrace, especially with someone from our school there. I stared fixedly at the floor again, until it was the turn of Beefy Boy.
He was very near me, and did everything the doctor asked with a rather bored and absent look, as if to say, “Well, what next? Bare my knob? Let’s get this shit over with, shall we? I need a smoke.” I just could not force myself to look away. He was beautiful, his broad face with high cheekbones marred only by that vacant, bored expression. He had a muscled chest and solid biceps, and round white buns contrasted with the tan on the rest of his body. When it was time for all that manipulating of his big, mature, and unexpectedly dark-coloured dick, I lost control and could feel my own starting to swell dangerously. I tried to distract myself by silently rattling off the first poem to come into my head:
With just my dark veil for protection
I must stand here exposed as I think,
At that he turned round, bent down and spread his buttocks.
With my draughts of astringent dejection
I have driven my lover to drink.
It really did not help. I was on the horns of a dilemma: behind were the boys who had come in after me, while in front was Big Boy. I decided one Big Boy was preferable to four witnesses for the prosecution and carried on facing forwards. I could not be sure if he had noticed but, as he walked out he gave me a withering look of contempt, as if I were some unpleasant insect.
From then on was outright torture. I was embarrassed enough by the doctor, but had another five pairs of eyes fixed on me which were far less professionally uninterested. I had hoped my arousal might subside, but no such luck. Despite my best endeavours, or perhaps because of them, my telltale organ stayed obstinately erect. I did not look at any of them in order not to become even more distraught, but I knew they had all seen and knew everything. When finally the execution was over I made swiftly, but with as much dignity as I could muster, to the door, put on my shorts and left.
I do not know whether they were deliberately waiting for me out on the street or whether it was just my unlucky star caused our paths to cross. Big Boy was surrounded by five equally brawny boys in trendy Adidas shell suits: black trousers with elastic waistband, black or dark blue jacket, white vest and well-worn trainers. “Too dark, of course, but stain-resistant,” my mother’s voice remarked inside my head. It was too late to retreat and in any case there was nowhere to retreat to. I needed to pass through their ranks to reach the tram stop. Big Boy cast the first stone:
“And here he is, the fag who was gawping at me. What’s wrong, fag, not had any skirt for too long?”
“He doesn’t need skirt, he’s a shirtlifter!”
The whole gaggle of them hooted with laughter at this exquisite witticism.
“Come on, guy, come here and tell us how you queers do it.”
I was still walking towards them stony faced, as if their jibes were nothing to do with me. It could not last, however, the path was just too narrow. One of the shell suits blocked my way and laid a hand on my shoulder:
“Miserable fucker, why don’t you say hello when people are talking to you?”
I try to shake his hand off but he punched me in the stomach and I folded. From behind someone shoved me on to my knees. They all started kicking me, not hard, but hard enough. As I showed no sign of resistance and none of them intended to beat me up very seriously they soon lost interest, but it would have been disappointing to let me go free too soon. Big Boy grabbed my shoulders, half lifted me up and turned me to face him:
“Hey, queer, you want to suck me off?”
While one of his friends held my shoulders, he unzipped his fly and pulled out that fat black dick. Needless to say there was no sign of an erection, but to a gust of laughter he started waving it in front of my face and saying, “Come on, baby, you know you want it.”
“Okay, Nikitos, let’s get the hell out of here. Some old bags over there are staring at us and any minute now some fucker will call the fuzz,” said the one holding my shoulders, before yelling in their direction, “What the hell are you staring at? Go fuck yourselves!”
Nikitos buttoned himself up, in parting kneed me in the chest, and the whole gang vanished as swiftly as if I had dreamed the whole thing.
I needed to stand up. Passers-by started looking round at me. Which way were they looking when I needed them, I wondered? I felt like shouting something rude at them, like the shell suit had, but didn’t, brushed myself down, and made my way to the tram. Fag! I had not been called that even in the junior grades at school, or if I had only by namecallers who didn’t really mean it because they didn’t know what it meant. Today, though, that label I had been trying to avoid had popped up and been slapped on me. A new phase in my little life was beginning.
17 years old. Mum
One weekend when, in the same old way, I was standing at the sink peeling potatoes, my mother suddenly asked, “Well, have you got a girlfriend yet?”
“At your age it’s about time, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, just tell me, son” – my mother came closer so that I had to stop peeling a potato and face her, “when you look at boys, do you get any ideas like that?”
My mum had caught me with my guard down. I almost dropped the knife. For a moment I panicked, but then I got back, I thought, into my conspiratorial mode and pretended I did not understand.
“Well, that they touch you or you get up to things?”
“No.” I tried to sound as emphatic as I could. “I don’t get any ideas like that.”
“Hmm, well, fine…” my mother responded, obviously not believing a word.
I went back to the potatoes. How had she got this into her head? How did she know? Maternal instinct? No, I did not believe in that sort of nonsense. […]
To avoid further questioning I went to my room as soon as I finished my potato peeling duty.
She came in, as always without knocking, in her apron and with a tea towel in her hand.
“Well, just tell me then, son, who Andrey is?”
My heart sank. She knew. I looked at her the way I did when I was little, when she confronted me with undeniable evidence of some terrible crime and I knew that, no matter what I might say or do, I was doomed. I even thought she might again take a swing and hit me with the towel, and instinctively hunched my shoulders.
“What have you got to say for yourself?” She began raising her voice. “What do you think you are doing leading some kind of double life, lying to me through your teeth as if I were a complete idiot?” Then she repeated to me by memory Andrey’s name and surname and his home telephone number.
“She must have found it in my notebook,” I thought, “but how much else does she know?”
“Tell me why you are doing this. Have I brought up my son to be a homo?”
“Don’t talk like that!” was the best I could do, taking exception to the word.
“Don’t talk like that? How else am I supposed to talk?”
Next thing my mother was not just yelling but crying too. “What am I supposed to do with a son who is a homosexual? Perhaps tomorrow you’ll be on the game earning money with your arse! Don’t talk like that? How the fuck am I supposed to talk? You hide everything, you lie to me! What have I done to deserve this? There’s never been anything like it in our family! Where has it all come from? What do you get from it? And he even writes it all up as if it’s a novel!”
“You’ve been looking in my diary!” I almost choked with resentment.
“How could I not find it when you left it lying around for all to see?” For a moment she was on the defensive, but quickly recovered her self-righteousness. “What business is that of yours? What difference does it make how I know? Do you think I wouldn’t have found out sooner or later that my son is a homo?”
She was shouting and crying and wiping her tears and her mascara with the damp kitchen towel. I had never seen her like this, and had certainly never heard her talk like it. For all I knew, my mum might allow herself to swear when she was with her friends, but she never did at home. The taboo was so strong that I never swore myself, not even at school.
I stood there silent, not knowing how to answer her. Yes, I was guilty on all counts, but was I? When you were a child your excuse could be that you had not meant to break the window, or you could promise never to steal sweets from the sideboard again. But what could I say now? Even if she kicked me out of my home that instant I would not stop seeing Andrey, and could not even make a false promise to, because now there was no hiding our relationship.
I just wanted her to shut up and go away. I had nowhere to turn. I couldn’t even move with her blocking the doorway. I turned red with anger and exasperation. Even on the worst days at school I had never had to listen to quite so much nastiness in such a short time, although everything she had to say had been thrown at me before.
What right did she have to insult me? Why could I not answer her back? Why did I just have to stand there listening to all this bullshit pouring out of her mean-spirited mouth? I wanted to throw myself at her, to punch her, to punch those tear-stained eyes. I wanted to kill, crush, annihilate her. I loathed her from the bottom of my heart, but I did not utter a word because I knew that if I started I would be unable to stop, and I would have gone too far. So I stood there, just looking at her, with fists clenched.
She saw hatred in my eyes and at some point her hatred clashed head-on with mine. She gave a deep sigh, turned on her heel, slammed the door and locked herself in her own room.
We did not talk for a week. There was no official boycott, but each evening Mum would go to her room and not come out till morning. I tried to keep out of her sight too.
I took more care over hiding the diaries I had already written, and decided in future to write in English. Mum would not understand my words, and would find it difficult to use a dictionary because my handwriting is, well, challenging.
That week I saw Andrey only once. I came home late; my mother was still awake, and I was afraid she would throw a fit because she now knew perfectly well what had kept me. However, she did not even come out of her room, as she always did before, to treat me to a reproachful look.
But she had not calmed down. Something was boiling away behind that closed door.
On Sunday she came to my room looking serious and businesslike. “Right”, she said, “I have thought this through and come to a decision. If you really like sleeping with men so much you must have a sex-change operation.”
On Sunday she came to my room looking serious and businesslike, and with an expression which said, “You are going to do whatever I tell you, because I have made my mind up once and for all.” I got ready for a scene, because that look also indicated that my mother knew very well that I was not going to accept what she had decided.
This was one decision I had not been expecting. Mum stood there looking at me and waiting for my reaction. She looked like Field Marshal Kutuzov deciding to surrender Moscow to Napoleon, but only in order to rout the enemy later on. I could not tell whether she was serious or just trying to scare me, like when I was a child: “If you don’t stop cycling on the roadway we may have to throw your bike on the scrapheap”. What would she do if I agreed to this monstrous suggestion? Would she seriously begin making preparations for the operation and our move? Or was she just playing for time, knowing that changing your sex was not as simple as having a tooth extracted?
“There is no need for me to change sex. I don’t want to be a woman. You don’t understand. I like men, but I want to remain a man.”
“But that’s unnatural”, Mum replied, still calm.
“What’s unnatural about it? There are a lot of people like me, and…”
“And in the past they were put in prison or given treatment, and rightly so. They have to be controlled so they can’t spread this evil. One of them got you in his clutches and now what are we to do with you?”
“You think it’s Andrey’s fault?”
“Don’t say that name in my presence,” my mother shrieked, but then went on more calmly, “Well, who else?”
“You are wrong. It is not anybody’s fault. I am just the way I am and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
“Does that mean, then, that you are going to persist in this sick behaviour?”
“I can’t behave any other way; do you really not understand?”
Those were the last words spoken rationally. After that she was back on the attack.
“I simply do not understand why you do not want to behave differently. It is against nature, what you are doing. It is disgusting, and filthy. Can’t you see that? I’ve been thinking about this all week and trying hard to imagine myself in the same situation, with a woman. Every time I just found it disgusting to imagine a women’s hands touching me. It’s revolting.” My mother started crying again and shouted, “Do you think I have no imagination? Don’t you know I keep picturing someone fucking you up your arse?”
“Mum, pack it in…”
“Pack what in?” she raged. “Pack what in? You don’t want to change a thing. It’s all very well for you, but what I am supposed to do? You’ll be screwing everyone you meet and I am supposed to pretend not to notice? I don’t want homos in my apartment, do you understand? You have to decide: either be a normal human being like everyone else, or fuck off to this Andrey of yours, or any other bugger out there, I don’t give a damn. I didn’t raise and feed you all these years for you to turn into a queer! I worked my fingers to the bone; I denied myself new boots so you didn’t go hungry and were properly dressed. And now what do I get in return? My son’s a queer? No, I won’t have it!” she shouted and went out, slamming the door behind her again.
She didn’t mean all that, of course. She couldn’t… or could she? Was she really facing me with the choice of losing Andrey or losing my home? She had no idea that living my life alongside Andrey was the one thing I wanted most in all the world. And she also did not know how impossible that was.
Published 6 September 2013
Original in Russian
Translated by Arch Tait
First published by openDemocracy Russia, "Queer Russia" focus, 21 June 2013
Contributed by openDemocracy © Sergey Khazov / openDemocracy / EurozinePDF/PRINT
Glass breaking and balalaikas: Hollywood has traditionally portrayed the Tsarist and Soviet Empires as ethnically homogenous, culturally uniform and exclusively Russian speaking. This unjust image lives on and reaffirms the imperial narrative behind the invasion of Ukraine.