Marina and Elena: A Lesbian Love Story From Russia

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
March 20 2014 8:30 AM

Marina and Elena: A Lesbian Love Story From Russia

Lesbians kiss during a 2009 gay rights rally in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Lesbians kiss during a 2009 gay rights rally in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Photo by Elena Palm/AFP/Getty Images

This piece is excerpted from Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories, published by OR Books.

Edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, Gay Propaganda gathers personal testimonies of ordinary LGBT Russians living in Russia and in exile. It is an intentionally provocative riposte to Russia's recently passed and ill-defined ban on "homosexual propaganda." The stories gathered in the book offer an intimate window into the hardships faced by Russians on the receiving end of state-sanctioned homophobia, as well as the humor, passion, and resilience people show in the face of adversity.

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MARINA & ELENA

When they come home from their office jobs to a small two-room apartment in a tiny town outside of Moscow, Marina and Elena change into almost-matching pajamas with cat-and-paw-print patterns. They are both 28, and they have been living together for less than a year.

Their story began in preschool, when Marina was in love with a boy named Kolya. They were so taken with each other that their parents ended up becoming good friends, staying in touch even after Marina and Kolya’s romance faded.

Marina and Kolya grew up and both married different people when they were 20—no younger than most Russians. Marina had a son. Nine months later, Kolya’s wife, Elena, was due to give birth to a daughter. Kolya suggested they go see Marina, whom he hadn’t seen in years. His parents had told him that she had a new baby with her husband, Vitya. They could go see what a real one looked like.

They went to visit, and the next day Elena had her baby.

MARINA
At first we didn’t spend all that much time together. Then, as the kids got bigger, we’d take them to places in town. My husband, Vitya, didn’t like to go anywhere. So, often, it would be just the three of us, Elena, Kolya, me, and the kids. Then we started talking to each other online.

ELENA
We were chatting on Skype, and just talking a lot. Marina has a complicated relationship with her parents and she was having a hard time with it. And things with Vitya weren’t so good. So often she’d come over and cry and just need to talk about it. Do you remember why we started kissing?

MARINA
I think I was hysterical.

ELENA
That’s right, she was hysterical. She’d had a fight with her mother and her mother had said a bunch of mean things to her, so Marina was saying, “I’m worthless, no one wants me.” And I was like, “Don’t worry, you are not worthless, somebody wants you.” And I was also like, “Why don’t you have an affair with some other guy?” And then we just started kissing.

I’d had relationships with girls before. It was never an issue for me. But I was Marina’s first woman. So the next day I decided we should have a talk. You know, because she had kissed a girl for the first time and it must be traumatic for her.

MARINA
So she came over all serious, to have this talk.

ELENA
And we talked, and Marina was like, “Let’s give it a shot.” And I was like, “Alright, but we are not going to sleep together right away. We’ll take it slow.” Marina had only ever been with Vitya before me. We slept together half an hour later.

MARINA
I had no issue with the fact that she was a woman. I’d been thinking of having an affair. And I was actually thinking it should be with a woman. Because … I don’t know.

ELENA
You can’t get pregnant.

MARINA
That’s one consideration. I have a lot of friends who are lesbians—I met most of them through an online Anne Rice community, so it’s never seemed like a big deal to me.

ELENA
And then—the thing is, we had no plans to live together, or to build some sort of relationship.

MARINA
But we told people. You told Kolya almost right away.

Book cover

ELENA
By that time, Kolya already had Olya. Even before anything had happened with Marina, he had come to me and said, “Elena, I have fallen in love with a girl on Twitter.” And I was like, “On Twitter?” And he said, “We started corresponding on Twitter and I fell in love.” And I was like, “Kolya, I understand how you can fall in love. But on Twitter?” And he said, “You just don’t understand.” So I said, “Well, alright, you want to love somebody on Twitter, that’s fine, go ahead.” By that time we were really living together as friends, and I thought, if he’s fallen in love, why should I stand in his way? So we decided we’d keep living together for a while, at least until our daughter started school, and then we’d see how it goes.

Plus, his girlfriend was living in a different city and it wasn’t clear when she’d come here or if she’d come at all. And then I got involved with Marina and I thought, what a good thing that he’s got someone else. For the May Day holidays, he finally went to meet her, and it was hilarious: Marina was ironing his shirts and we were sending him off to see his girlfriend.

MARINA
I took half the clothes out of his suitcase and had to explain to him that these were not the sorts of things he should wear on a date.

ELENA
Yes, she tells him, “This underwear is faded. You don’t want to be wearing this when she undresses you.” And Kolya was like, “Do you think we’ll be taking our clothes off?” And I was like, “I’m sure of it.”

MARINA
We got involved in March. In June, the two of us went to Bulgaria with the kids for a month.

ELENA
Kolya came for a week. He’d take the kids out for walks and then he’d come back and knock for a really long time to make sure he didn’t walk in on anything.

MARINA
After we came back from Bulgaria, I told Vitya. Elena and Kolya both tried to talk me out of it. They were saying, “Don’t do it, he’ll tell your mother!” But I told him, and he said, “I had a suspicion. All right, if you two are not planning on getting divorces, I guess this is all right. Have a good time.”

ELENA
Both our husbands had the same reaction: they suggested giving us sex toys as gifts. And I was like, “What do we need those for?” And they were like, “But how do you do it?” Kolya was always nagging me to tell him the details, because he thought it was very exciting that his wife had a girlfriend. But I told him we hadn’t had sex yet and were still in the hand-holding stage.

MARINA
Vitya would even walk me over to Elena’s house in the evenings.

ELENA
Vitya is very immature. And he quickly found that this is a very convenient set-up for him, because he didn’t have to take care of Marina emotionally anymore: it was my job now. He’d call me up and say, “Marina is not feeling well. Come over.”

MARINA
I started spending the night at Elena’s once in a while. My parents noticed and weren’t happy about it. They told my son that I shouldn’t be sleeping over at a friend’s house.

ELENA
We were trying to take it slow. I mean, we had children and all that and we didn’t plan to live together. Or maybe we did, but abstractly, in some distant future.

MARINA
But it was hard.

ELENA
It ended up that we were both living in two places at the same time.

MARINA
We would do the food shopping for one home, cook together, then go together to the other home and do the same thing. Same thing with the cleaning.

ELENA
And Vitya started pissing me off, just the fact that he was around Marina all the time. Anyway, it got complicated. And then, in March, their lease was up and the landlord wanted them out. And I said, “Why don’t you move in with me? We’ll see if we can make a go of it together. If it doesn’t work out, so be it.” And she decided to tell her parents.

I was saying, “Why do you need to do it?” And she kept saying, “I want to be honest.”

Book cover

MARINA
I thought my mother would take it worse, so I asked my father out to a café and told him, “I’m involved with Elena.” And he was like, “I had a feeling. But you should make a sacrifice for your child. If you don’t like men, you don’t have to sleep with them, but you still should live with your husband for the sake of the child.” Then the mayhem began. First my parents tried to send me to Cyprus to live for a year so I could get my head together. I said I wasn’t going anywhere. Then they said they’d take my son away. They said all anyone had to say was that we were lesbians and we’d lose our children. And Vitya and Kolya should of course take the children away from us.

And then they kidnapped my son for the first time. He was spending the night at their house and they were supposed to take him to preschool in the morning. But they didn’t, saying something about one of them not feeling well. I called in the evening to arrange a time to come pick him up, and my mother said, “We’re going to the dacha and you are not getting him back.” I rushed over, but by the time I got to their apartment, there was nobody home. I went to the police, and the police were like, “But they are his grandparents, what are you so upset about?” But I insisted and they called my parents. My mother immediately explained to them that I am a lesbian and they are saving the child. So the police were like, “Young woman, you know perfectly well why they took your son.”

I told my parents that if my son wasn’t home by Sunday, I would find a way to get the police after them. They did return him on Sunday, but they brought him to Vitya’s house, not to us. And then Vitya brought him here. I didn’t speak to my parents for a month after that. Then they called and suggested a reconciliation. I started visiting them once a week, with my son: we’d come over, sit there, and leave. Then they demanded I see a psychologist. They found one who told me that Elena and I had been unlucky in men and that was the source of our problems. I left. I mean, I’d only gone in the hopes of fixing the relationship with my parents.

ELENA
Marina is always feeling bad for everybody. She felt bad for her parents— because, you know, they’re her parents. And she felt bad for Vitya, because he is Vitya and none of this was his fault. And she was really hoping to fix the relationship and to be understood, at least a little bit.

MARINA
Also, my son loves them. And I thought I should try, because they are family. Then I found a counselor myself and we all started going together. That lasted a month or a month and a half.

ELENA
She would come home from these counseling sessions a total wreck. Because her family would say all these horrible things about how she’s lost and I’m using her and how tragic this is and how she is killing her mother and I am using her.

MARINA
The sessions ended with the counselor saying, “Just leave your daughter alone. Your problem is not that she is a lesbian; your problem is that you’ve realized you can no longer control her and you are trying to regain control. You should not be doing this.” I guess that’s when my parents decided that this was war.

ELENA
That was  also the point  when  we moved  out  of Kolya’s  apartment  into a rental, which is smaller. And they were like, “The  children are going to share a room! That shouldn’t be allowed—they are a boy and a girl!” And we were like, “They are six!” And they were like, “But you sleep in the same bed!” And we were like, “So?”

MARINA
Yes, and the kids climb into bed with us.

The day before both children were supposed to start first grade, Vitya failed to bring Marina’s son home from a visit. It turned out the boy was at Marina’s parents’ house, and this time they had no intention of giving him back. They had even already taken his file from the school he had been scheduled to attend, and enrolled him in a different one, near their house.

Four days later, Marina and two friends forcibly removed the boy from his grandparents’ house; the police would not help them. Marina and Vitya both filed for divorce, and Vitya was now demanding custody. With Marina’s parents in his corner, he came armed with psychologists who were willing to testify that the women’s lesbian relationship would harm the child. Social services were also on Vitya’s side: their position was that while the women’s living situation was physically suitable for the children, being raised by two women would harm the boy.

The day Vitya filed for divorce was the same day a member of the ruling United Russia party filed a bill in parliament mandating the removal of children from parents suspected of being gay or lesbian. Clearly, social services were eager to start enforcing this provision. But until the bill became law, social services couldn’t take the kids; they could only help a father like Vitya fight for custody. And Marina’s parents didn’t have standing to file for custody, which is why they had been working on Vitya all summer, so Marina started negotiating with him. After a nerve-wracking five weeks, Vitya relented. They signed a separation agreement giving Marina physical custody, and the court dismissed the case.

ELENA
We weren’t sure it was going to work out. I’m really difficult to get along with, and Marina is no angel either. When we moved in together, we were like, “Well, we’ll give it a shot but we are not sure.” Plus, the two children. I don’t really like children. And then all this. Of course, they thought I’d bail, that this whole mess would begin and I’d leave her because it’s not like I really need her.

MARINA
And then I’d have nowhere to go.

ELENA
My mother said that if this is a genuine relationship then all their efforts will just make it stronger. She said they’d be smarter to wait and see if we wouldn’t just break up on our own. As it is, they did everything to bring us closer together.

Other than that, we’re not romantic. Not at all. Not like Kolya and Olya, who celebrated the anniversary of their first kiss.

MARINA
And the anniversary of their first almost-kiss! It was very touching. You and I should at least figure out on what date we got involved.

ELENA
I found a notation in my calendar: “Must talk to Marina. This is fucked up.” I think that would be our anniversary. So we’re not romantic and we don’t have much of a love story to tell. Though now, when I look back, I realize I was in love with Marina for a long time. I’d get jealous of Vitya. Whereas that one, she didn’t care.

MARINA
I was looking at her and thinking, She would never be interested in me in that way.

ELENA
We’d see each other and as soon as we parted we would call each other and spend the rest of the day on the phone. And if we weren’t on the phone, we were chatting on Skype. Kolya said to me once, “I have this sense that you have someone else. I even have an idea of who it is.” And I was like, “Who?” And he said, “Marina.”

—As told to Masha Gessen

From Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, published by OR Books.

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