It was late afternoon on a glorious day in October. My friend Natasha and I were picking our way down a country lane, toward the train station in a village about an hour from Moscow’s Kievsky train station. Our close friends, a lesbian couple, owned a dacha in the village, a cozy cottage where a group of us gathered often to escape the city.
This was the 1990s, not the 1890s, but we still did all the Chekhovian things: talked, drank, ruminated, fell into unhappy love affairs, danced, prepared tea, ate, talked, fell into more unhappy love affairs, spoke of returning to Moscow, drank, yelled, ate, yearned, philosophized, argued, prepared more tea, cried, drank, and most of all, talked and talked. Sometimes, long-held secrets emerged.
As daylight receded, Natasha and I strolIed past large and small homes, well-tended garden plots, and open fields. Natasha, in her mid-thirties, had short blond hair and a frank, open expression. An only child, she spent much of her time with her parents. I was always trying to gather more information about my friends’ lives. I asked Natasha if she had wished for siblings.
Actually, she told me, she enjoyed having her parents all to herself, not having to share them. But her parents had lost a son before she was born, she added. That was all she knew about her brother—no further details. She’d learned about it as a small child, when she was sick. As she lay in bed, she overheard the doctor ask her mother whether there were other children.
“And she said, ‘Yes, a boy, but he died right after birth,’” Natasha said softly. “Then once, after that, I found some letters that had been sent to my mother in the hospital after I was born. They congratulated her on having a daughter, and said how sorry they were that her other child had died.”
But her mother had never spoken to her about it, Natasha said. And she herself had never asked. “Never,” she repeated.
“But weren’t you curious?” I asked, surprised to be hearing this detail for the first time.
“Yes, I was curious. But I knew that Mama would rather I didn’t know about it. And I thought if she wanted to tell me, that was her right, but I didn’t have the right to ask.”
I’d spent a lot of time in Russia by then, mostly working as a reporter, but this level of self-restraint in the realm of domestic relations startled me. It was so … un-American, for one thing. Or more precisely, so unlike our cultural assumptions about how families should operate, at least in the America I inhabited. Certainly, for me, it would have been impossible to learn of a dead brother and not ask—demand, really—information from my parents about the event. After all, wouldn’t I have a natural right to know about it? And wouldn’t it have been wrong for them to keep it from me?
It would, wouldn’t it?
Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. In talking with Natasha, I experienced that welcome sensation of cultural dislocation, one of those rare moments in life (though more common in travel) when you’re forced to reexamine your beliefs and question what you thought you knew.
A similar situation played out when I met an older cousin-in-law for tea one afternoon during another Moscow visit. We rendezvoused at a café at the edge of Moscow’s historic center, just inside the massive Sadovoye Koltso, the “Garden Ring” road that encircles the city core. A couple of blocks away were the Patriarch’s Ponds, a well-known and beloved Moscow landmark that features in the opening section of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s absurdist masterpiece of Soviet life under Stalin.
Katya was probably close to 70 at that point—toughened by loss, she still projected elegance and enthusiasm for life and love. Her third husband, Kolya, had died more than a year before. She was now spending time with a new gentleman friend, she told me. Then she acknowledged, with a sheepish grin, that she had not yet informed her mother about Kolya’s death. Her mother was in her 90s and lived across town.
This confession surprised me. I tried not to show it. “Why not?” I asked.
I knew that Katya’s mother, who was homebound, and Kolya had despised each other. Katya would visit her mother two or three times a week to bring over food and provide some company, but Kolya stayed away. When the mother called and Kolya answered, he always handed the phone to his wife as soon as he realized who it was. So although they never exchanged words, Katya’s mother at least knew that Kolya was, well, alive.
As Katya explained the situation, she smiled. “My mother is very egotistical. I know it’s wrong, I suppose I should tell her. But if I did, she would insist that I come live with her, that I spend more time with her. And I don’t want to. I have my own life.”
Did her mother wonder why Kolya no longer answered the phone, I wondered? Hadn’t she figured out yet that something had happened?
“She’s asked where he is, but I just tell her Kolya’s at the theater or somewhere,” Katya said, still smiling.
We moved on to other topics, but Katya’s deception intrigued me. Just as it was hard to imagine not asking your mother about your long-dead brother, it was hard to imagine not telling her about the death of your mate. I looked forward to meeting up with my friends later. I assumed we’d down some shots of vodka and share a good laugh over it.
Right. When I reported back to my friend Lena, she fixed her sardonic gaze on me. She clearly pitied my stupidity. “David, of course she didn’t tell her mother!” Lena shrugged. “Why should she tell her mother her husband died? It’s her private life.”
Our friend Oksana echoed that view. “Of course she didn’t tell her!” she declared. The idea that anyone could feel otherwise seemed to amuse her.
Over time, I came to understand—and respect—this delicacy, the resistance to the assumption that everyone should reveal all. This reticence was a necessary tool for getting by. After all, in the Soviet Union, public honesty could lead to disgrace and ruin. People protected themselves zealously by keeping their hidden selves hidden. And they honored the right of others to do the same. (Except of course for those who didn’t honor that right, and informed on each other instead.) Better to keep quiet about the most important and intimate truths—even, it seemed, among family and friends.
This ability to compartmentalize seemed entirely natural to my Russian friends.
The notion that things should be otherwise struck them as peculiar. This impacted their perspective on the classic American concept of “coming out.”
When I mentioned the subject, Lena mocked me. “What do you think I should do, David? Go to the bakery and say, ‘Hi, I’m a lesbian, sell me some bread!’” This statement elicited nods of agreement. I protested that her example really wasn’t what I had in mind when I talked about “coming out,” but my eloquent reasoning did little to persuade them.
I despaired that we’d ever see eye to eye.
In fact, Americans like me were flocking over to Russia to press these very issues. I first arrived in July 1991, for the Soviet Union’s first national gay and lesbian conference—ten days of workshops, movies, concerts, sex, speeches, boat rides, banquets, and sex. It was a time of great tumult—the empire’s last summer, as it turned out. One month later, a group of Kremlin drunks and goons toppled Gorbachev in a brief, doomed coup. By December, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had disappeared for good, replaced by 15 sovereign nations.
At the conference itself, the surprises started early. I interviewed a woman, perhaps 40, with a plain, round face. She lived in Siberia and worked in a library. She had waited years, she told me, to meet someone else like her. I asked, with evident concern, whether she had felt ashamed about her sexual orientation, about being a lesbian. I prepared myself for her confession, for an outpouring of relief and gratitude at finally being able to share her innermost thoughts.
“Of course not!” she responded dismissively, as if I’d asked whether she’d had sex with Gorbachev. I felt put in my place, but I wasn’t sure why. How could she not have felt ashamed, when I’d felt that way for so long before coming out? If she didn’t disclose it to anyone, didn’t that mean it was too shameful to disclose?
I gradually learned that discretion and openness held different meanings in Russia. Because of their history, Russians of that generation held secrets closely, as if to protect what they cherished from exposure to the world. In contrast, Americans in the Oprah age believed that secrets were toxic, that revelation and acknowledgment eased a sense of shame. For those with alternative sexual and gender identities, “coming out” was an imperative not only to let others know who you were, but to liberate yourself from the dungeon of your own self-loathing.
But like the Siberian woman, many of those I met insisted they did not experience shame or self-loathing. And I believed them. They were unhappy, yes, because they were lonely and wanted to meet others like themselves, and until recently that had been very hard. But ashamed of who they were? For the most part, no. When the state told them something was bad, after all, they often knew not to believe it—in fact, that the opposite was likely true.
These divergent psychological perspectives became clearer to me when, in the early 1990s, three self-styled “lesbigay activists” from the U.S. arrived in Moscow, with much fanfare, to introduce local “lesbigays” to some American-style “community-building” activities. Forcing dozens of Russians who did not know each other to spend days talking about their fears and feelings did not strike me as a promising idea. I went anyway, interested in the free food and also what might transpire.
At the “community-building” workshop, Adam, George, and Alma spent lots of time admonishing the Russians to be prompt. Then rounds of introductions, role-playing exercises, trust games, and opportunities to make deep confessions to the others. By Sunday, attendance dwindled to a bitter handful of survivors—eager for more trust games or perhaps more free food.
My friend Oksana had braved the Friday evening start of the event. A few days later, she described the experience to another friend, Sveta, as a waste of time. And more than a waste of time, it was patronizing, insulting. “Like kindergarten, just like kindergarten,” she said. “Imagine telling a Russian that he has to be in some stuffy basement room at 10 a.m. and stay for ten hours, when he could be at the beach!”
And more: “David, we were always in collectives, in groups, at work we’d have to gather for ideology lectures. Russians hate that. What do we need it for? We need places to meet, to see each other—bars, cafes. Maybe when we have these places for a while, then we’ll want to gather in groups and talk about ourselves.”
Sveta, of course, added her perspective. “Well, Americans think they can save us, they think they are all the messiah, or Superman. And as for the American gays and lesbianki,” she added, “they think they are the Super-gays and the Super-lesbianki!”
She cackled at her own joke. I laughed along with her, to deflect suspicions that I too harbored messianic delusions. In fact, I did harbor them—I was American, after all, and my friends understood that. And I would never fully grasp how the struggles of Soviet and Russian life shaped their notions of groups, of public and private selves—anymore than they could understand how the American experience had shaped mine. But I had learned enough to share their amusement at these Western lesbigays seeking to transpose their own reality onto a world they knew nothing about.
We’re in a different era now, of course. I arrived in Moscow in the pre-Internet age, and learned to appreciate the value of secrets, of self-restraint, of keeping private things private. But these days, even my Russian friends update their status on Facebook, displaying vacation photos and commenting on news of the day. When I “like” their posts and they “like” mine, it’s an amazing form of trans-global communication and connection.
But these exchanges also leave me feeling wistful, as if something I can’t name has been lost.
David Tuller, Dr.P.H., is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and the School of Public Health. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Health Affairs, and other publications.