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At the end of June Vladimir Putin signed the law of the prohibition of homosexuality among minors in Russia; at the beginning of July he introduced a ban on adoptions of Russian children by foreign same-sex couples. We visited little Kostya and his two moms to find out how Saint Petersburg same-sex couples with children manage nowadays.
The house. Kostya rapidly ran into the hall and quickly started to squeeze my hand. ‘Hi, I’m Kostya, I’ll show you something, let’s go’, – without realising what’s happening I follow him. Olya, who opened the door to their flat, lets us come in. Kostya leads me to the windowsill and shows me a flytrap – a predator plant. The flytrap is depicted on most of his drawings, which are hung up around the kitchen. There is a small table with markers and paint. Olya says that insects and trains are Kostya’s passions: he normally draws nothing else. He draws not only on paper – all the white walls are covered in marker drawings, though it is difficult to figure out what is depicted there.
If we are discussing the details from a social worker’s perspective, it’s all fine: everything is clean, there are apples and milk on the table, toys are everywhere. There are two big photos on the wall – one of them shows Olya and Katya, the other one – just Kostya. Katya says hi and goes into another room – Olya explains that she has a lot of work. Kostya starts to draw again and sits on Olya’s knees. Their heads look very similar – both have very short hair. The boy starts off with drawing a spider and goes on to draw a train; he keeps talking, saying that his birthday is in a week’s time, that they played cocoons and butterflies, and talks about who will take him to bed tonight.
The child. Kostya has HIV. He is 7 now; he was adopted by Olya and Katya 4 years ago. The child has a biological mother, but she abandoned him after he was born. Kostya wasn’t a healthy child and spend the first months of his life in a hospital, not an orphanage. ‘Nobody touched him unless it was absolutely necessary,’ says Olya. ‘There were too many prejudices about HIV back then. I have a photo with Kostya and a nurse; she is holding his hand whilst wearing gloves’. After that Kostya was transferred to an orphanage – Olya, who was volunteering there, saw him there for the first time.
‘I was communicating with HIV-positive children a lot, and we decided that we want to adopt one of them,’ she recalls.‘Now kids with illnesses are being taken, but that did not happen then. We understood that nobody would take those children any time soon. We wanted a child but did not want to give birth ourselves’.
Katya liked Kostya, and the girls decided to take him. Documents were registered on Olya’s name – the chance of success was higher that way, because she worked as a volunteer, knew what HIV is and had a permanent job which is related to children. The procedure of adoption went smoothly.
‘We didn’t tell Kostya in advance that we wanted to adopt him –we didn’t want to encourage him too much, in case something went wrong, and I don’t think he would have understood anyway. When we took him his medical record stated ‘medium mental backwardness’, he could say only some syllables. Now Kostya is an unusual child, he has some psychological peculiarities. I think some things will never be gotten over, he was traumatised too deeply as a toddler’.
The parents. Olya and Katya met 12 years ago during their first year at uni. They’ve been together ever since. ‘We have been in communication for most of our waking lives, we went through a lot together, for example, through our parents’ rejection. We never made any oaths to each other, never predicted anything – we just were together because it is impossible not to. We have the same views on the same things and the same values. Katya is the person I rely most on in my life. We have responsibilities to each other, we are Kostya’s parents, we have equal responsibility for him regardless of what the documents say’.
Kostya call his moms by their names – this decision was made by Olya and Katya for several reasons. First of all, the boy has a biological mother; secondly, safety concerns are important – if the child says that he has two mothers it might cause unwanted interest.
– How does Kostya regard your relationship? –I ask.
‘He knows that he has two mothers who care about him. He knows that there is a woman who gave him birth. We have both hetero and homosexual friends, but it would be better if there were more films, books and cartoons in which Kostya could recognise himself and his family.’
Olya’s parents would not have agreed to that. ‘Poor child, you broke his life’ was their response to the news of Kostya’s adoption. Katya’s parents took it well, they want to communicate with the boy, though they live in a different city and thus they don’t see him very often.
The life. Kostya has just finished year one at school. At first Katya and Olya took him to a state school, but that didn’t work out – there were 30 children in the class there and it was too difficult for the boy. ‘Kostya is a very well-meaning and open child, but it is difficult for him to communicate with his peers, he is afraid of big groups of people – it might be the memory of the orphanage. Now, he has just finished the first class in a private school. He is excellent at maths, but he has problems with speaking and it is difficult for him to focus if he is surrounded by many people’.
Olya says that the social workers have to check up on them for three years after adoption, any further checks are subject to the particular case. ‘The first time they came around I was on my own; the next Katya was with us. We introduced her as a babysitter. Maybe I am mistaken, but I don’t think they will target and punish same sex families without explicit orders from above – they have too many problems with difficult families as it is. So far we’ve been encountering adequate workers, as well’.
This summer Olya, Katya and Kostya are going on holiday to Bulgaria. Olya says that they go somewhere each summer; it’ll be the first time Kostya sees the sea with them.
The society. The propaganda law was introduced in Saint Petersburg when Kostya was already living in his new family. ‘So it turned out that we are propagandising,’ says Olya. ‘It turns out that if somebody from social services asks Kostya he’ll tell them everything. People often start talking to him on the street, some old ladies who find him cute, for example. They’d say ‘such a sweet boy, where are you going?’ He tells them everything and then adds: ‘I’m Kostya. I have two moms’. Till very recently it amused me, but now I understand that somebody can hear that and inform the authorities.
‘I don’t know how to behave now and what to do. Do we need to teach the child to filter the information he gives about his family? Do we need to teach our child to lie? I don’t think it is the right thing to do, but I don’t understand how else to protect ourselves. I think if they demand to have a show trial of taking an ‘innocent orphan’ away from ‘perverts’ nobody would protect us. They wouldn’t care that we spend day and night with the kid. People from institutions, hospitals, HIV-centres and kindergartens who could provide us with good references will not protect us when the question of taking children away from perverts is raised. Immigration seems to be the only adequate solution.
The escape. ‘After the introduction of the federal version of propaganda law and the words of Mizulina [the member of the State Duma, the chair of the Committee for families, women and children Elena Mizulina mentioned the possibility of introducing a law of taking away adopted children from same sex families – editor] I had a strong panic and we obtained visas to leave the country straight away, so we have the option of immigrating’ remembers Olya. ‘Immigration is difficult. I love Saint Petersburg; it is my home, I am happy to go out to its streets every day. But there are situations when the place you love is occupied by people who make your life unbearable. So we have to take the enforced step, but I hope that it is not for long and we would be able to come back soon. I love my family and it is important for me to keep it safe. The thought of an iron curtain falling down again, of us never being able to go away, is much more frightening than immigration. The regime where there is a system like this one is not my home’.
– Have you ever modelled the situation ‘Kostya is taken away’?
Olya keeps silent for a moment.
‘The fact that he goes to a private school calms me down a bit – there are less ways of the state getting to him. If the social services try to take Kostya away, of course we will sue them and we may even win the process [the interview was taken before a new law, which would take away the custody of both adopted and biological children from same sex couples, was introduced for discussion of the Duma – Olya’s scenario of ‘suing and winning’ seems less and less feasible by the hour – translator]. But it will be such a trauma for the child. Sometimes I feel that this situation in the country is some sort of a joke, this cannot be happening. I don’t want my child to live in such a world. I don’t want any child to live in such a world.
Going forward. ‘I would want Kostya to be able to continue to study what he likes, I want his interests to become the real focus of his life – maybe he will work in an insectarium, helping to look after insects, or maybe he’ll get a degree and will become a serious scientist. It is important for him to have something that would morally support him’.
Kostya knows that he has a virus in his blood – though he doesn’t know its name. ‘Every three months he has a blood test so he knows how the ‘soldiers’ who defend his organism are getting along. Our prime responsibility as parents is to make sure he is used to therapy. We made a little calendar where he marks taking his medicine every morning and every evening, so he understands how important it is’.
For now Katya, Olya and Kostya are staying in Russia – Olya says that the situation is still bearable and it is possible to give it a good fight. That means that Kostya’s birthday will be celebrated in Saint Petersburg. His parents are going to give him a constructor train. Kostya knows that already – the train has been promised to him long ago because it is his dream.
The original can be found here.
The translator’s comment:
Although there are no follow-ups on this story, a new law, threatening to take away the custody of any children in any form of LGBT families (and both adopted and biological children are included in it) has been introduced to the Russian Duma (Parliament). The law is being discussed at the moment and is not in force yet. An interview with the author of the new law, a homophobic MP, can be found here. The text is in English.