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4 min

Apple cake, LGBT refugees and the war in Ukraine

Russian military paid Donetsk citizens to harass queer people

Vlad and Oleksandra at the Insight LGBT safe house in Kiev, Ukraine, in late August. Credit: Polya Moshenska

I hear Oleksandra before I see her: booming voice and hearty laugh, echoing through the dark hallways of this Soviet-style high-rise on the edge of Kiev.

I’m surprised. This is a safe house for LGBT folk fleeing the war in Donetsk, run by a Ukrainian LGBT organization called Insight. In late August, there are six homeless men and women sharing a three-bedroom apartment. I’d expected grim wariness, perhaps even hostility. Not hilarity.

But it’s only two days into a 10-day film shoot. And even though I’m of Ukrainian descent, it’s only my third visit to this beautiful, complex country. I’m here with my Kiev film crew, directing a documentary about activists in Ukraine during and after the Euromaidan revolution. I’m still learning the cultural ropes.

Our equipment is strewn about the hallway. Oleksandra, who moves constantly, restlessly, climbs over a light kit to get to the tiny kitchen. Maryna, my director of photography, grabs her video camera and follows her. More laughter, as Oleksandra and housemate Vlad grab a smoke on the kitchen’s tiny fire escape.

I sneak a look over Maryna’s shoulder to see what she’s filming. She’s zoomed in on a pot of water boiling on the stove. I cast her an exasperated look. We’re on a tight schedule.

“It’s to show that there is a hot water shortage in Kiev right now, because of the war,” Maryna informs me crisply and pivots to film the blue silhouettes of Oleksandra and Vlad, framed in gold afternoon light.

Maryna is always finding something beautiful to juxtapose against the sad realities of Ukraine in its battle against Russian occupation. She and the crew are as invested as I am in fighting the information war. To put it simply, slick Russian propaganda, funded by the deep pockets of oligarchs, has trickled into almost every media outlet in the West, as far as I can see. It’s often subtle, sometimes merely a figure of speech. “Separatists” instead of “Russian-backed militia.” “Civil war” or “crisis” instead of “invasion.” It’s happening in the left-leaning press as well. As Stephen Velychenko wrote in the journal Krytyka, according to the radical left, “Ukraine must remain Russian so the US does not get stronger.”

I get it. I’ve been anti–US aggression since I was politicized enough to chant “US out of Nicaragua!” I ignored global imperialism, especially that of the Russian variety. That would have turned me into a Reagan-esque Cold War fanatic, and I was too rad for that.

But these are real people, with real stories of oppression at the hands of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. These accounts and others have opened my eyes to what’s really going on.

We manage to herd Vlad and Oleksandra into a small bedroom, light filtering through lace curtains. My sound woman, Katya, checks audio; Maryna adjusts the lights. I glance at the monitor: Oleksandra and Vlad suddenly look so vulnerable.

I always start with the easy questions: How old are you? Where were you born? This launches the voluble Oleksandra into talking about what she loves about her hometown, the city of Donetsk. For some reason she starts raving about how great the Donetsk transit system is, and I think, well, I guess Torontonians aren’t the only ones obsessed with streetcars and subways. 

I gently turn the conversation to why and how they landed in Kiev and this safe house at the top of a suburban high-rise.

Oleksandra laughs as she tells me how, as a loud-and-proud lesbian feminist activist, she inevitably ran into homophobia. How it got worse in the past few months, as payouts started to happen. Donetsk citizens (many of them unemployed, all of them underpaid) would be offered the equivalent of $40 (a rather large amount in those parts) by Russian military to join the “separatist” demonstrations or to harass queer people like Oleksandra. The Russian anti-gay propaganda law makes it illegal to be visible as LGBT in any way. That, combined with the powerful messaging of the Russian Orthodox Church (European Union equals same-sex marriage and naked gay men in Pride parades) created a dangerous situation for Oleksandra in her beloved city.

“It was still funny to me when people started calling me a Banderite lesbian,” she says. She’s referring to the Russian propagandist claim that the entire citizenry of Ukraine, including its government, is in thrall to Hitler and deceased rightwing Ukrainian politico Stephan Bandera. Like all of Europe, Ukraine has a minority rightwing faction in Parliament. But in the recent presidential elections, the Right Sector garnered less than two percent of the vote. To put that in perspective, the average rightwing vote in the EU is currently at eight to 10 percent.

“I stopped laughing when armed militia came to my door with death threats,” she says. Her wide smile is gone. She swallows, holding back tears.

Vlad corroborates Oleksandra’s stories with some of his own. He says that every queer person he knows has left Donetsk.

I think: What if every LGBT person I knew had to leave Toronto? Not just for a brief time, but probably for good? What if we had to say goodbye, not just to the city with its crappy transit, great art scene and funky neighbourhoods, but also to jobs, homes, friends and family, because we were queer?

And what if the world did not believe our story?

Vlad says he hopes to become a veterinarian. He’s searching for a job or an internship in Kiev, but it’s hard because even though he’s a Ukrainian citizen, he’s seen as a foreigner. This country, full of hope and activism since the Maidan revolution, is not perfect.

The interview over, we grab some B-roll footage of Vlad showing us around the apartment. Oleksandra changes into her evening clothes (black T-shirt and jeans) and heads out into the city with a friend. As we’re packing up, Vlad passes around some of his home-baked apple cake and invites us to dinner. I decline, regretfully (we’re at the tail-end of a 12-hour day). There’s a warmth and sweetness to this place — a juxtaposition of the tragic and the beautiful I’m to see time and time again as we travel from Kiev to Kharkiv to Odessa. I don’t want to leave. I don’t ever want to forget.