Dina is a law graduate. She tries to put things into perspective for me as we walk down Moscow’s Park Pobedy. Our backs to the west, we walk past the ice-cream vendors and drink kiosks, towards the cities very own Arc de Triomphe that straddles the grand and prestigious Kutuzovsky Prospect. It’s an appropriate location for a reflection on Russia’s future.
The boulevard, one of the main arteries running into central Moscow, housed the elite of the Soviet Union such as Brezhnev and the KGB’s Yuri Andropov. It still remains a residential hotspot for today’s big fish. I ask her about the elderly I’ve seen selling everything from socks to plastic bags, begging around every Metro station in the city. “It takes time for a country to adjust to this capitalism.” Dina has a point. The fall of the Soviet Union was followed by a tidal wave of brand names and privatisation. It knocked a lot of people off their feet, particularly the elderly and poor. Obviously some are still trying to get back up.
“Putin is the man that can steer us to better things, as well as fixing the bad in Russia.”
I felt half assured to a certain extent...but still not as sure as Dina. Three months crossing Russia’s many time zones to Siberia had been invigorating but also daunting. Teen prostitution on the banks of the Kazanka River in daytime Kazan, currency-buying on the black market from a cop in Novosibirsk, street children come begging through restaurants in Ulan Ude. A society fragmented. The country has its epidemics of homelessness, HIV and racism, but a youthful optimism and faith in Putin’s power keeps most moving onwards.
That was 2005. Seven years on I’m not so sure things have moved on. And neither do a lot of Russians. Alexander Kargaltsev, one of the many intelligent and progressive young people across the country, attended the prestigious All-Russian State University of Cinematography in Moscow. It has a renowned alumni including such great Russian film makers as Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovsky. Alexander’s short films “The Cell” and “The Well” have already won many awards, establishing him as a mature voice on the international visual arts scene.
But dark grey clouds have a habit of drifting over even the most ambitious in the climate of today’s Russia. Alexander fell victim to another epidemic sweeping the nation in recent years – the crackdown on civil liberties; in this instance over his sexual orientation. Attacked and beaten by police at gay pride parades and harassed by the state ever since, Alexander eventually received asylum in the USA in 2011. “Asylum” is also the name of his most recent visual project, a photographic exhibition, first hosted at New York’s 287 SPRING gallery in late 2012, of nude gay men who have also received asylum due to the violence and homophobia encountered at home. They are among many men and women fleeing persecution and betrayal by their home country. A country that has undermined its own population, in efforts to maintain and increase control on personal freedoms. A country losing its most important asset – its people.
“My university was probably the best school on the earth! I spent five great years of my life there. I was always an activist, even in school.’” As a gay man in Moscow and as an artist, Alexander says he had no opportunities or potential for personal freedom or artistic growth. Now in New York, his “Asylum” exhibition is a striking expose of the dire situation for the LGBT community in Russia.
Moscow has recently banned gay pride parades for 100 years, Madonna is being summoned to court on charges of 'homosexual propaganda' and Lady Gaga is being summoned on similar homophobic laws. Alexander is not surprised that Russian authorities have gone to such extremes against the LGBT community in recent years. “It was expected! They don't want to educate the people; they just want to sell oil and gas.”
When asked if after being persecuted due to his sexual identity if he feels betrayed by Russia, Kargaltsev states: “Yes, but people think it's me who betrayed my own country, showing it in a bad light.”
Alexander Kargaltsev's book “Asylum” will be published later in the 2013. It presents just a few of these tragic but inspiring stories; stories which often never get a chance to be told.
Editor’s note: To read Eamonn Sheehy’s in depth interview with Alexander Kargaltsev, pick up a copy of Kosovo 2.0’s Sex edition at kiosks and bookstores across Kosovo.
The article was originally written in English.
Photo credit: Dominik Tarabanski
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