BALTIMORE — Nadya, a 31-year-old lesbian from Russia, and her girlfriend of nearly six years were talking at a coffee shop in Northwest Baltimore early in the evening of Feb. 20.
The temperature outside was a bitterly cold 12 degrees as the two women sat along the window that overlooked the parking lot of the Shops at Quarry Lake. Nadya and her girlfriend continued talking about their homeland, their relationship and the life they hope to build in the United States.
“We dream about having a house, children and dogs,” Nadya told the Washington Blade.
Nadya and her girlfriend moved to Baltimore from Moscow in late October. They are among the growing number of LGBT Russians who have fled to the United States to escape what they describe as increased anti-LGBT discrimination and persecution in their homeland.
Nadya declined to be photographed and asked the Blade only to publish her first name.
Her girlfriend declined to take part in the interview, but she agreed to translate Nadya’s answers to the Blade’s questions from Russian into English.
“I’m a little bit afraid actually,” said Nadya.
Nadya grew up outside of Rossoch, a city near the Ukrainian border. She and her girlfriend met 16 years ago when they were in high school.
Nadya told the Blade she realized she was a lesbian when she was 13, even though she “liked girls” since she was a young child.
She said she tried to tell her mom, but it wasn’t “something like ‘Mom, I’m a lesbian.’” Nadya told the Blade that her mother threatened to find a doctor who would “cure her” of her sexual orientation if she were a lesbian after she found letters that a friend had written to her.
“I convinced her that I wasn’t,” she said in English.
Face like ‘jelly’ after attack
Nadya told the Blade she was violently attacked three times because of her sexual orientation.
The first incident took place in October 2001 when she was a member of her college’s volleyball team.
She told the Blade that she had come out to one of her teammates with whom she had become friends. Nadya said the woman proceeded to tell her boyfriend that she was a lesbian.
He attacked her with a baseball bat while she was sitting on a bench.
“It was terrible because I was bleeding and I had injuries on my head,” said Nadya, speaking Russian as her girlfriend interpreted. “She had told him everything about me and he decided just to teach me and show me I’m a freak.”
Nadya said a group of six men attacked her in 2005 as she left an LGBT party in the city of Voronezh.
She told the Blade that her assailants followed her as she walked toward a taxi she had called. Nadya said the men knocked her to the ground and began kicking her in the face and shoulders.
She said her left eye was nearly swollen shut and her face was like “jelly” after the attack.
“I was trying to hide my head with my arms,” said Nadya. “The taxi left because nobody wants to get in trouble.”
Nadya told the Blade she suffered a broken nose during Moscow Pride in May 2012.
Russian police detained more than three-dozen people — Nikolai Alekseev and other LGBT rights advocates and a handful of Orthodox Christians who confronted them during the event that descended into violence. A Moscow court a few weeks later upheld local authorities’ decision to ban the gathering from taking place for 100 years.
“When you go to such prides, you still have hope,” Nadya told the Blade, discussing the attack and the police who arrested those who took part in the event. “The government not only sees it actually, but they pretend that everything’s fine and that nobody is harmed and nobody is assaulted and things are just fine as they are and we are not human beings. We are people who are just second-class (citizens.)”
‘Honor to kill LGBT people’ in Russia
Russia’s LGBT rights record came under increased scrutiny in 2013 when President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that banned the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors.
Putin sought to downplay criticisms over the propaganda law ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that took place last February in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The arrest of more than a dozen LGBT rights advocates who staged protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the same day the games opened sparked further outrage.
A Russian judge last month convicted the founder of a website for LGBT youth of violating the country’s propaganda law. Police a few months earlier detained eight people who staged a National Coming Out Day protest outside Moscow’s Sokolniki Park.
Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.
Nadya told the Blade she feels anti-LGBT attitudes persist, in part, because people remain afraid of the prison sentences that gay men received during the Soviet era. She said Russian politicians and religious officials “provoke people just to be anti-gay.”
“Everybody should be against gay people,” she said in Russian as she spoke about Putin’s LGBT rights record. “It’s some kind of honor to kill LGBT people.”
The Obama administration in March 2014 froze the American assets of Yelena Mizulina, a state Duma deputy who sponsored the propaganda bill, and six other Russian officials over the annexation of Crimea during the ongoing war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Some, including gay journalist Jamie Kirchick and Spectrum Human Rights, a group that advocates on behalf of LGBT Russians, have urged the Obama administration to use a 2012 law — the Magnitsky Act — that freezes the assets of Russian citizens and officials directly responsible for human rights violations and bans them from entering the U.S. to punish those behind the country’s anti-gay crackdown.
Nadya told the Blade the U.S. has not done enough to challenge Russia over its LGBT crackdown. She nevertheless said she feels additional sanctions and travel bans against those who are responsible for LGBT rights violations will not work.
“It’s going to be the same situation,” said Nadya. “Russia will take it for granted and use it for their own advantage.”
‘You finally realize that you’re a human’
Nadya and her girlfriend have begun the process to apply for asylum.
She told the Blade that living Baltimore is “like living in space.”
Nadya and her girlfriend earlier this month attended a fundraiser for Center Global, a D.C. Center program that offers assistance to LGBT asylum seekers, that took place at the Duplex Diner in Adams Morgan. The two women have made several other trips to D.C. since they arrived in the U.S. to visit friends.
“Finally you realize that you’re a human,” Nadya said as she discussed her life here. “I’m just happy because finally you have a future. You have peace. You can have a good job.”