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Why I Left Russia Forever

Why I Left Russia Forever

Milena Chernyavskaya
Milena Chernyavskaya at San Francisco International Airport in 2014

The editor of one of Russia's few lesbian publication tells us why she left everything behind to start a new life in America.

I never imagined myself being a political activist. Since my childhood I was surrounded by music and technology, and I definitely wanted to make my living out of it. But as I was growing up in Moscow, I'd seen a lot of poverty, bullying, racism, and sexism. And by the age of 15, I was very hungry for justice. I wanted to make the world a better place.

So I started writing. First just in my diary, then for local newspapers, then for a national information agency. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been published in one of the biggest Russian newspapers.

I was accepted at the School of Journalism at Lomonosov Moscow State University, a Russian version of an American Ivy League university. Jourfac, as we called it, was filled with tomboyish girls with short hair. There was even a saying that everybody who enters this school graduates with a lesbian experience. Soon I would realize that I'd fallen in love with my best female friend and classmate.

I was excited to find out the truth about myself, but at the same time I felt ashamed. Russians don't tolerate gays and lesbians, don't want them to publicly acknowledge their feelings, get married or have kids. And while Russian LGBT people kept their sexuality "behind closed doors," after the first gay parade in 2006, students started going public about their rights. Every single conservative in the country went crazy and demanded a law that would forbid LGBT people to "spread the propaganda of homosexuality."

To deal with it, I started working for Kvir, a magazine for gay men, and I would drag my longtime friend Anna Roslyakova with me. I handled the news, while Anna created illustrations. Times were tough, but no one actually believed that the antigay law would someday pass. And at some point we both realized that we wanted to tell women's stories too, and maybe if we tell them in a mainstream way, we could make a difference and change the public's opinion about LGBT people. We created Agens, the only lesbian print magazine that existed at that time in Russia. I became the editor in chief, Anna took the position of art director, and my friend Max Karpukhin invested the start-up money necessary to launch the pilot issue.

Six month later, we published the first issue. Overnight, Agens -- a mainstream magazine for women who loved women -- became a worldwide sensation. Media outlets like The Huffington Post, Daily Mail, and The Times printed stories about us. The attention Agens received during this tough political time was overwhelming, and since we were publishing under our real names and photos, contributors soon felt so stressed and scared that they started leaving the magazine. Anna left too. The advertisers who had initially thought that it would be great to get a new loyal audience and whom we were about to sign contracts with, decided to withdraw their funds. They claimed it would be a bad move to involve themselves in something "radical."

Two weeks after we published the pilot issue, a man followed me after a visit to a gay bar, but I didn't pay much attention. As soon as we entered a dark area on my way home, he confronted me and hit me in the jaw. I got really mad, and could tell from the look on his face that he was scared. I yelled at him, "What for?!" All he said was, "I remembered you," and then he ran away. I went to the hospital, where the doctors told me I had a concussion. I developed a post-traumatic stress disorder and couldn't go on the streets for days. My family would eventually get me electroshock device. Police never talked to me after I filed a report, and they never found the guy.

We published the second issue online, and the Russian government passed the antigay law the same week. From that moment nobody could say anything positive about gay people among minors. What did it mean for us? We couldn't publish the magazine anymore, as they can take a 5-year-old girl, give her our magazine, make a picture, put it in the Internet, and then accuse us of propaganda among minors. I didn't have money to pay the fine, which at the time was around $28,500 for media outlets. And I didn't have the content either, as everyone we had interviewed asked to pull their stories from the upcoming issue, including the majority of lesbian families with kids who earlier gave us their full permission. I made a decision to shut down the magazine.

I started paying attention to sharp objects and belts and finally went to a therapist who diagnosed me with major depression. One day my mom started asking me about Los Angeles, where I had gone in January to represent my lesbian short film at a festival. She suggested that I leave the country as soon as possible. "Things would be tough for you here," she said. I passed TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and enrolled in a music business program at the University of California, Los Angeles. I found a nice apartment on the westside of L.A. and bought a one-way ticket from Russia. It was the first one-way ticket I had ever bought. Telling almost no one besides my close friends, my sister and my parents, I jumped on the plane to LAX on December 16, 2013.

While I was studying and learning more and more about America, I also wanted to be involved in something meaningful. I became a volunteer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where I met a few very good people, including Rebekah Trachsel. Rebekah would become one of my biggest supporters, and she put me in touch with an immigration project at the center. Their resources were limited, but they still took my case.

Twice a week for two months, I met with Jason Ortega, the leader of this project, to put together a declaration for asylum. Jason also got me a lawyer from O'Melveny & Meyers, one of the biggest law firms in the country, who took my case pro bono. It was the most important document of my application -- basically a story of my life. While writing this, all the memories of bullying came back to me, like the one when I was surrounded by a group of Azerbaijani men in Moscow after I kissed my ex-girlfriend. They had interrogated me, asking, "What was that all about? Are you a munchy licker?" I still don't know how I managed to escape.

As I was going through my declaration and reading the stories of this Russian girl being bullied for being gay, being different, having a voice, something hit me really hard: This was not OK. LGBT people should not have to suffer like that. And something bigger was lighting up in front of my eyes, a huge sign with seven words: "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE HEARD."

I probably won't have an immigration interview until four years from now. Four years is the average waiting time for Los Angeles-based asylum-seekers, and during these four years I cannot leave the country. After I get asylum, I won't be able to go to Russia until I get my citizenship, which will take another few years. And even then it is uncertain whether I would be able to obtain a visa to go to Russia. When I found this out, I called my parents and my sister and told them everything. They said, "If we die, don't come. We understand that you wouldn't be able to return to the U.S. I want you to be happy, and that's why we sent you to the U.S. in a first place. I told them I needed to go, said "Goodbye," and disconnected the call, but the truth is that I didn't want them to hear me crying.

After we submit my asylum application, I started talking to my Russian friends, which I assumed wanted to do the same. But it turned out most of them didn't want to follow in my steps. First, because of the money. It can take six-plus months to get a work permit after applying for asylum. So you have to save money while still in Russia. And by 2015, everybody had been hit hard by the ruble's dropping value. In addition, many of my friends had sick parents or were unwilling to start a career from scratch in a new country. I had to accept this and move on with my own life, no matter how hard it was leaving all the people I love at the other end of the world.

This December it will be two years since I moved from Moscow to L.A. In that time I got a job at a big record label, became a cofounder at a tech startup, got a few creative clients whom I help with social media, made a few really good friends, and fell in love. I'm finally starting to talk about what happened within the last few years. It wasn't easy, and it's still not. I can't leave the country, can't see my family and friends, and I have no idea whether my asylum application will be approved. But I am grateful for everything that happened because now I can wake up in a country where my voice is being heard.

MILENA CHERNYAVSKAYA is the creator of Agens, one of Russia's few lesbian publications. She now lives in Los Angeles.

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