Being born and brought up in an unremarkable Russian province by parents who could not be called prosperous at all, I had considered myself, for the major part of my life, an average normal girl with no particular talents and peculiarities. Now I am 32, I live in New Zealand with my beloved woman, work in the biggest university of the country and speak advanced English. Let me explain how this happened.
As a kid, I was quite reserved, shy and nervous. Due to my mum’s permanent restlessness and unease with her own life, I changed 5 schools during my schooling period which contributed to my anxiety level and introversion – I did not have enough time to make friends. This fact along with my innate timidity made me a bit of hedgehog in any community. Books were my best friends, as with them I did not have to make so any effort to seem better than I was as I needed to do with people.
I never had a big dream in my childhood, which now looks a bit odd. I never dreamt to become an astronaut, to get Oscar or eat as much ice cream as I could. I was living my life day by day and it did not seem to be a lot of excitement in it. I was afraid to talk to people. I never knew what to say, and prepared many conversations in my mind in advance. I felt my face getting red, heart rate going up and my whole body opposed the idea to speak when I had to do it.
My grades at school varied from good to excellent, but I was not interested in anything in particular. Only once I fall in love with two subjects when I was taught by Larisa, a young, talented and engaging teacher of the Russian language and literature in one of the schools. That lasted for a couple of years until I had to change a school again. Otherwise, I just learned by heart what was expected of me, passed tests and exams and forgot everything almost next day.
The period of pubescence was terrible. I felt completely awkward, silly and lost. No friends to talk to, no google to ask, no money to explore other lifestyles. My 8th and 9th years were spent in a boarding school for children suffering from scoliosis. The school was located in the regional centre. Scoliosis – a very unpleasant however not critical illness - went badly when I grew up very fast in my 12. During my 8th year at school I was the highest girl in the class.
The cramped atmosphere of the boarding school added to my insecurities – not only did I feel awkward due to my height, but I was also much affected by the lack of private space and the necessity to protect myself from bulling based on other reasons – lack of girlish curves, lack of money, attention from the “ugliest” boy in the class and so on. I never knew how to answer to bullies, how to stand for myself. I was brought to the school each Monday and taken away each Saturday by my mom or sometimes my older brother. I hated Mondays. I was scared. Eventually, the school improved my health but undermined further my self-esteem and added more fears to my mind.
After graduation from school I entered the Institute in the provincial city where I was born. I did not even consider any other option to choose from, as it seemed to be the only realistic plan for me. I picked up the most humanistic degree from the available list – Sociology – as I was (and still is) very bad in exact sciences.
The studying process at the Institute appeared to be woeful – more anxiety and fears in the list. I could not manage the social side of the process. I was bullied by a female groupmate for a reason I have yet to understand. I did not make any friends as it took to be easy-going, quick-witted, brave and convivial which I was not. The majority was interested in smoking, buzz, expensive mobile phones and gossips about who slept with whom. I was not. The classes were either boring or, even worse, not understandable at all – lecturers provided students with heaps of terms, dates, names and theories with no attempt to make them clear and digestible for 17 years old people.
In the summer after finishing my first year at the Institute, I met a guy who was 5 years older and seemed to be mature and trustworthy. He was working in the regional centre selling car electronics and rented a small apartment there. For some reason which is still quite vague for me I decided I had to fight for this guy. He was nice, grown up and positive – what better could I wish for?
I managed to get his proper attention, and in just over one month after our first meeting I found myself in a situation when his sexual needs appeared to be much stronger than my ability to say no. I did not want this sex to happen but equally I cannot call it a rape as I did not react against this thrust. I came in nowhere and felt unable to repel the rush.
I did not enjoy sex with him neither that first time nor thereafter. It was painful for a few months and did not provide me with any pleasant sensations. However, the fact that I slept with him was a reason to continue this relationship, as this ground seemed for me to be significant – he was my first intimate partner. I even almost convinced myself that I was in love with him.
Within the year people around me (from my mum to just acquaintances) gradually started to push me to a marriage. It is, by the way, a very common Russian social practice. Due to my conformity and lack of experience, this public pressure influenced me a lot – I decided I need to get married to him no matter how. It is a shame to admit, but I even cried to get him to make a proposal.
Our wedding was desperately poor – in all senses of this word. It did not change much in our relationship except for my then new husband felt as if I was his asset. I moved to the city where he lived, found an option to continue studying at the Institute from a distance, and lost all the contacts I had before. All aspects of my life were dedicated to my then husband. I supported him with all the ways I was able to – I assisted with the small tasks at the building site (he decided to build a house by himself), dealt with all house chores and made love with him. The last one was neither pleasant nor disgusting – it was nonsensical. Basically, the whole process reposed in his orgasm.
The longer we lived together the more my then husband oppressed me. I was not allowed to spend time with anyone else but him, I did not have a chance to make friends, and I was obliged to wear what he considered as appropriate for a married woman. He did not help with any house duties as they were not “male things”. I assisted him with his life and never consider myself as a person of full value. I played a role of a supporter, a secretary, a cook, a cleaner, an entertainer and many more inferior roles. We never were of the same worth.
I was trying to convince myself that I would get used to this way of living.
In about two years and a half I started to give up. I felt incredibly lonely. By that time my then husband developed his business in something more serious, rented an office and made me work there with him. This idea had never been discussed as it had never occurred to him that I would not want us to work together.
However, a very important thing happened due to the job - I got a stable Internet access during a whole working day. I realized that this was the only chance I had to meet other people. I registered in a few Russian social networks and started looking for friends combining the search with work I did not really like. It was summer 2008.
After a couple of month I met one young woman online, her name was Keira. She lived in the capital, was also married and had a 2 years old son. We realized that we have a lot things in common and both enjoyed our online correspondence and occasional calls. I was so glad to be able to share my thoughts and feelings with somebody who considered me as an interesting person.
It happened that my mum decided to visit our relatives in the capital during the New Year holidays in the start of 2009. I asked her to deliver a letter and a card for Keira. They met each other and my mum came back with a fluffy brown teddy bear as a gift from Keira. This bear turned something on in my mind.
Now I think that the bear symbolized a pure love for me – acceptance, tenderness, care and appreciation. But back then, I just got a bit crazy – I slept with the bear, treated him almost like a pet, took photos with him and did not allow my husband to put him away.
I sent a letter of gratitude to Keira, and our postal correspondence began. As well as two hours phone conversations in the evenings and our personal diaries in which we promised each other to write all the thoughts and feelings we had.
I do not really understand why my then husband did not react to this friendship. Most likely, he was deeply immersed in his business and did not see any threat from it. Anyway, gradually we were getting closer and closer with Keira, and I got an acute feeling that we needed to meet in person. I wished it desperately, and so did she, and we managed to arrange our meeting. She came to see me with her husband for three days in summer 2009.
During these three days we could not talk to each other enough, we absorbed each other’s feelings, ideas, dreams and aspirations. That was such an incredible sense – to be listened and to be heard. We were walking a lot across the city, taking photos and talking, talking, talking. Our husbands had their “males” leisure time, and Keira and I did not even bother to find out how exactly they entertained themselves. It was not important for us.
After Keira left my world changed completely. It would take many pages to describe how I was feeling, how I managed to do impossible – to visit her by myself a couple of months later (my then husband agreed to let me go to her place on my own). My breath-taking meeting with Keira was full of unspeakable emotions.
I did not realize what exactly was happening – I just thought I found a soulmate, a real close friend who understands and appreciates me deeply. I even did not pay any attention to Keira’s statement (one day in the late summer, via phone) that she had become interested in girls. I was blind.
Everything broke out of the blue. Whatever the reason was, I suddenly felt that Keira began new life, exploring herself. She shared with me some pieces of what was happening in her life but at that time I could not put together the whole picture. Now I understand that she had started her LGBT journey back then, and had a lot of love affairs with girls trying to find her true self and getting a clear idea about what she wanted.
I was in despair, and I ended up naked during my last meeting with Keira. Something happened but I do not clearly remember these 4 days for many inappropriate reasons. I’ve never seen Keira again after that and we had only some unremarkable correspondence and seldom calls for about one more year after that incident.
The story torn my soul to pieces. I felt something huge about Keira but the essence of this feeling was totally unfamiliar for me. I was scared by this new identity which started to shape in me. I could not simply believe that I was a lesbian. It was not a way a decent girl should live. All social expectations of the conservative and patriarchal society deeply ingrained in my mind told me that it was not right.
But I could not be the same person as I was before. I felt that the life I had did not suite me anymore. I had no idea what to do. I had no friends to discuss the situation with, no support, and no any proper sources of information about LGBT in Russia. The only available way appeared to be the world wide web – again. I met Rhina there.
The story with her was prompt and heart-breaking. After three weeks of secret dates and a few intimate occasions I found myself left-off and degraded. She barely had any feelings for me, it was just fun for her, an almost open and admired lesbian, to play with me. She once said that I would never be brave enough to be like her as my aspiration to live decently would always win. And back then that was true.
Next two and a half years of my life were dedicated to an attempt to figure out how I should, can and want to live my life. I met some other girls but did not feel anything special about them. In the end of this period my desperate need for a person who I could love with all my soul reached its limits.
I registered at a Russian LGBT online forum, explained my situation and openly stated that I was looking for a lover. I got a few answers and started a private correspondence with one girl, Daria. She seemed to be a stereotypical lesbian – strong, sporty, not wearing makeup, having predominantly males friends, and so on. Her own presence at the forum she explained as just out of curiosity. She had been living with a female partner for quite a few years by that time. I was not particularly attracted by Daria as I got an impression of her to be arrogant and selfish. However, I had to acknowledge that Daria was smart, intelligent and witty. I could not help being curious about the life of a real lesbian, so I kept our correspondence going.
In about three weeks after I posted the message at the forum we decided to meet in person. That decision appeared to be momentous. I was captivated by Daria’s outstanding charisma. She was different from what I expected her to be, much more complicated – strong but tender, egotistic but considerate. Daria was interested in a variety of activities – graphic design, IT, sport, fishing, cooking, repairing, painting, reading and many more. And she was good in all these. She had learnt a lot and she had experienced a lot.
In a few weeks of our secret dates we found ourselves in a situation when we needed each other as much as the air. In two and a half months after Daria and I made the acquaintance, I left my husband and moved to a rented flat. I did it with no hesitation whatsoever, it was the only possible solution for me.
It took a bit longer for Daria to realize that my intentions were completely serious in order to break up with her then partner. Daria felt responsible for her and tried not to hurt her too much. In the end of December 2012, right before the New Year, Daria and I started to live together. I divorce my then husband, who tried to get me back. I was deeply convinced I would never do it, because life with him was simply not my life. He was not a bad person, just not a right one.
It would not be honest of me to say that our life with Daria went smoothly and easily. Each of us has quite a difficult personality, we are stubborn and fiery. She had a pretty tough childhood which hardened her character, whilst my anxiety often drives us both mad. But eventually only love matters.
Daria supported me and made me feel full-fledged and valuable. She encouraged me to get a Master’s degree in Philology which I was interested in for a long time but did not have enough confidence. I did it with her incredible support. At the University I won a prestigious scholarship, received a grant for my research project and got a couple of very good friends. Eventually, I earned my Master’s degree with honour, which I am proud of.
Daria and I had been living together for about three years when I started to realize that outrageous public opinion, aggressive political actions and deprecating media discussions, all reinforced by an intrusive church were making me feel less and less comfortable as a woman living with another woman. The idea of immigration crossed my mind.
The number one thing I really needed to move was English language. Back then, I was studying it with a tutor for just over a year (I started it due to the need to pass the English exam at the University). My level back then was about Pre-intermediate, and I had never spoken with a native speaker. I pushed myself to study harder and harder. I attended a very intensive course to prepare myself for IELTS. I passed it with an overall score 7.0 in two years after I first started to study English.
New Zealand was chosen as a desired point of destination for us due to many reasons, one of the most important among them is, obviously, respect of human rights and the fact that LGBT people are seen as like any other people.
I attended a postgraduate degree at Unitec in Auckland where I studied International Communication. Lecturers, group mates, passers-by, flatmates, all people around, they all helped me in some way and they changed my mentality. Just as Daria opened my eyes for the truth within me, New Zealand let me see the world around with much less biases, fears and hypocrisy.
What lessons have a learnt from my life so far?
There is no such thing as impossible. There are only your fears between you and your dream.
The greatest satisfaction comes after conquering of the greatest challenges.
You never know how much potential you have within yourself.
What advice can I provide you with?
Listen to your heart. Follow it.
Enjoy your life, do not just live it.
Broaden your horizons.
* all visuals have been provided by the author