Putin’s War Changes Lives of Ukraine’s Gay Couple

Russian bombs brought Maxim and Stepan together. Russian bombs have now driven them apart.

They were both in their early 30s and lived about 20 miles apart in an eastern Ukrainian region called Donbas. There, Russian-backed separatists waged war in 2014. They likely would not have met if not for a bomb that exploded in Maxim’s yard, blowing all the windows out of the house he shared with his parents. The family survived for over a month in the basement, without electricity or water. They finally made the decision to leave when peace was restored. Maxim and Stepan requested that their names and other identifying information not be revealed to protect their safety and those of their families.

That’s how Maxim wound up close enough to Stepan that they could see each other on Hornet, a gay hookup app. 

“He was looking for sex. Like me,”Stepan told me. They lived with their families so a quick fuck was not possible. They went on long walks together and quickly became close friends. 

“Instead of sex, we decided to love each other,”Stepan: 

Maxim tried to put things on hold until his family was ready to leave. They felt more than the logistics. They would spend three months riding the bus for half an hour to get to a town that was close by their homes. They were always anxious about getting there before curfew. Stepan accepted the offer to live in her apartment from a friend. They’ve been a couple ever since. 

“Without the war, without the situation, we probably [would] never meet each other,”Stepan says. The relationship “is one thing that Putin gifted to me.”

However, the specter Putin haunts their relationship. Since Russia’s so-called “Homophobia” legislation, Russia has been inflaming homophobia in the region. “gay propaganda ban”Nine years ago. Stepan and Maxim knew the dangers firsthand: They’d narrowly escaped a run-in with Russian agents in the Donbas after separatists took control of their region, and left to build a new life in a town inside the Ukrainian territory called Kramatorsk. 

That life was shattered this February, when bombs fell on the city in the first barrage of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine. They would be safest from Russian bombs — and from Ukraine’s draft — if they left Ukraine. They even had a free place to stay in an EU country, offered by one of Stepan’s programming clients. 

They drove to Ukraine’s far-western border with the EU, but they couldn’t simply cross the border. One of Ukraine’s first acts when the war began was to bar men of fighting age from leaving the country. There was an exception to this rule, however: People with serious health conditions could get what’s known as a “white ticket,”A document declaring them “unfit for military service”they are allowed to cross the border. Stepan was granted a white ticket solely based on his HIV status. Maxim, a HIV-negative individual with no other health issues, didn’t qualify for a white ticket. 

Maxim could go, but Stepan would need to stay.

The couple had a few years before Putin ended their lives together.  

After fighting in 2014 their town was taken under control by one of the “people’s republics”The separatists who established Kremlin-backed governments, and then engaged in a long standoff against Ukrainian forces, declared their independence. Stepan wanted out, possibly to move to Kyiv. But Maxim didn’t want to be so far from his family and friends. They lived in silence, being careful to keep their identities secret. Many queer people fled from the new regime. The fear of being targeted in 2015 when the only gay club in the area was closed, seemed to have been confirmed by many. Separatists raidHe beat and robbed patrons. 

Maxim and Stepan had almost no problems for nearly two decades. It was a typical December 2016 morning when trouble arrived. Stepan was left behind by a taxi that was waiting downstairs to transport Maxim to his parents. He said good-bye to Stepan as he opened his apartment door. Four men sat in the hallway with their guns drawn. They entered the apartment without any identification and wore no badges. The whole situation was so surreal they didn’t immediately understand the danger — Stepan remembers asking the men to take off their muddy shoes so he wouldn’t have to clean up after them. 

They ordered him to stop and started searching the apartment. Two men opened their wardrobes and scanned through their computers. Unbeknownst to the men, another man was busy looking through trinkets from a shelf. The fourth, the unit’s apparent leader, told them they were investigating a tip that someone in the building was selling information to the Ukrainian government. They were suspected because he couldn’t understand why two men from different cities were living together without their families.

He finally got the picture when they found text messages on Stepan and Maxim’s phones filled with heart emojis and “I love you’s”. 

“Oh, they’re faggots,”Maxim recalls one soldier saying. 

Stepan doesn’t remember them speaking quite so harshly. He can recall one of them mockingly saying it. “They love each other!”However, the leader came to their rescue. “Don’t touch them. This isn’t our problem.” 

They were gone just as quickly as they arrived. All Stepan and Maxim’s experience told them the encounter should have ended very differently, and there was no reason to believe they would ever get so lucky again. There were four men who could return to them and threaten them with blackmail at any moment. They started packing their things immediately, and left the separatist-controlled part of the Donbas within a few days.

They settled in Kramatorsk (a small Ukrainian city located only a few minutes away from the Ukrainian government). They believed they were safer there — “In Ukraine, for sure I have rights,”Stepan states. Ukraine had indeed taken some steps to protect LGBTQ rights — including adopting a rule banning employment discrimination as part of a suite of human-rights protections required for a closer relationship with the EU. It took them a while to get over the fear that danger was just outside their door. 

“It made me crazy,”Stepan says this to me. Stepan said that he checked his front door every day for one year to make sure there was no one waiting to get him. It stopped eventually. Maxim was an IT worker, while Stepan worked as a freelance programmer for clients in other countries. They were still careful about who they told they were gay — Stepan didn’t even feel comfortable telling the doctor at the clinic where he got his HIV treatment. (The doctor laughed at Stepan’s remark that Maxim was his brother. They had close friends.

“It was a happy life,”Maxim adds that they were also talking about purchasing an apartment this winter. “Good thing we didn’t.”

Kramatorsk was the scene of the first explosions, which occurred at 5 a.m. on February 24, the beginning of the war. Putin spoke that night to justify the war, partly to defend Russia from LGBTQ rights. He was fighting to defend Russia’s “traditional values”Forbidden attitudes “contrary to human nature”He said that he was pushed by the West. 

Stepan wanted to go again, but Maxim held back. First, the trip to western Ukraine seemed too long, then he worried it wouldn’t be safe for two men to travel alone. Volodymyr Zilensky, Ukraine’s President, ordered that all men between 18 and 60 register for military duty. Many were afraid they would be stopped at military checkpoints and then mobilized to serve. While many LGBTQ people enthusiastically enlisted, many other queer people, like Stepan and Maxim, didn’t believe the military would be a safe place for them because of widespread homophobia. If Russian-aligned soldiers took their town, they feared that they would be treated as gays. Stepan and Maxim also didn’t want to take up arms for another reason: Maxim’s parents supported the Russian side, so did Stepan’s brother. It was difficult to face their loved ones on the front lines.

They were informed that a caravan was leaving eastern Ukraine for the more secure regions of the west on March 5. Their willingness to drive a mother-daughter made it less likely that their car would be stopped at the checkpoint. They traveled for four days until they made it to a city on Ukraine’s western border with the EU. 

That’s when I meet them, at a shelter for displaced LGBTQ people when I visited in mid-March, where they were wrestling with an impossible decision: stay together in precarious hiding, or separate so Stepan, at least, could have some stability and continue to earn a living. 

They shared a small room with seven other gay men — and five cats — everyone sleeping side by side on mattresses on the floor. It was never meant to be a home for people. Now there are more than 20 people in the building with only one shower and toilet. The unfinished basement serves double duty as a bomb shelter, kitchen, and bathroom. The entire building was filled with gay men or trans people with male documents. They were constantly negotiating with volunteer case workers to figure out how to get white tickets so they could leave the country. Residents couldn’t even go for a walk to clear their heads or get some privacy. Police were looking for draft dodgers. 

(Full disclosure: The international LGBTIQ rights group OutRight Action International, where I’m a senior research fellow, is providing support for this shelter.) 

Stepan was having trouble keeping up with his work. Stepan’s newfound normality gave him some relief and helped him earn a decent income. Stepan was watching his roommates transform their bedroom into a hair salon. I watched him huddle over his computer. His job was made impossible by the chaos. And he couldn’t figure out a way to explain to his client why he couldn’t just come to the apartment he’d offered in Europe.

“I don’t know how to say that I can’t go without Maxim,”Stepan: “If I said something [like], ‘I can’t go without [my] wife,’ he [would] say, ‘It’s OK, Stepan. Let’s stay [in Ukraine].’” But Stepan doesn’t want to tell his client that he’s gay, or HIV-positive, or get into any of the other personal details such a conversation would require.

The decision felt so impossible that Stepan and Maxim couldn’t even discuss it when I met them. I was certain they would wrestle with the question for many weeks, if not months. Stepan told me later that they came to a decision just a few days after I left. 

“I didn’t know what to do. I want to be with Maxim; I wanted to leave this stupid shelter,”Stepan: “I have to save my work.”

Maxim then told Maxim to go. “There is no reason to stay in the shelter because of me,”He stated. 

Stepan left their two cats behind and took them with him. 

Maxim stayed at the shelter for as long as he could. He is one of few people who have been there for several months. Others gave up, and moved to Kyiv where the fighting had stopped for a while. But that’s not an option for Maxim. Russia bombed Kramatorsk’s main train station during its April campaign to target eastern Ukraine. It is too dangerous to return. He’s rented an apartment and dreams of crossing the border.

“I’m holding on,”He says.

Stepan has a certain envy of Maxim because he at least has other people to distract him. 

“I am alone, here — I’m totally alone,”Stepan speaks during one of our Zooms. While he is safe in the EU he doesn’t have any contact with anyone except the clerks at the store. He’s in a small city where he doesn’t speak the language, so making local friends is hard. He avoids other Ukrainian refugees because he doesn’t want to explain that he is HIV-positive and that’s why he isn’t in the army. He has no direct contact even with the client who gave him the apartment — they communicate only online. 

He is filling up the table in the apartment with gifts he buys for Maxim — a Harry PotterBag Friends mug — and imagines that “one day [Maxim] writes me that he crossed the border and I [can] give him these things.” They’re making plans to get married; Stepan learned of a Utah county that will perform Zoom Weddings. They are making plans to have a proper wedding in Denmark, like another couple they met at the shelter — some day.

Stepan says he’s under no illusion that it will be soon. 

“I hope that one day Maxim will come here. Of course, I’m waiting for him,”Stepan: “But … now I understand that it’s possible that he [will] never come here, and probably this war will [last] some time, and after that I will come to Ukraine to him.”

Stepan said that for now “I really miss him every day, every hour — every moment.”

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