How do you approach a stranger on the streets? How do you ask to take a photograph without speaking the language? What seem to be barriers at first make it easier in the end. You just ask. Its easier to speak a few words, but it works just as well without. You show the camera. They gesture to go ahead. There’s only a single exposure. Nobody can see it, because its an analog camera and there’s nothing to talk about, since we don’t share a common language. A handshake. No words needed.
The transsiberian railway follows the lakeshore of Baikal in the south, but to get to the Island of Olkhon, you need to get into a car, and drive for a few hours until the paved road ends, then cross over with a ferry. You’ll find yourself in a wild place, where a lack of infrastructure is meeting ever increasing numbers of tourists. And with the right guide, you’ll get an introduction to shamanism and how to behave in place where going to the wrong place might anger the spirits.
A five hour train ride is kind of long and not exactly a lot of fun. But what about one that last 50? It’s over faster than you would imagine and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Living on a train for multiple days, meeting people and leaving the dining cart asking “Same time tomorrow?” Is unlike any other kind of travel. It never gets boring. And suddenly, a 30 minute stop in a town you’ve never heard of is a highlight in your day. With a little luck you might even score some smoked fish and a beer. That july, we spent 10 nights in trains.
I grew up in Ekaterinburg, I’m transgender. It all started because I thought I liked to dress like a boy. Then I started thinking about it more, and at first I decided that I was agender, something in the middle of both sexes. Then, about a year ago, I realized that I wasn’t happy with how I am. This realization came slowly. I felt like if I were to continue ignoring it, it wouldn’t get any better. It’s when you look in the mirror and you don’t see yourself. It’s me, but something is off. It’s not the same feeling you have when you notice you are overweight. You see that you’re just not the person that you could be. It’s difficult, because it really exhausts you psychologically every single day.
When I met my new friends a year ago, I introduced myself
as Dima for the first time and asked them to use male pronouns. I was 12. Up
until then I wore girls clothes, I didn’t feel like that was wrong because I
was a child. I have a traditional family: mom, dad, brother. My parents are
great. Both my mom and my dad are good people. They’re always ready to help. I
love them. My parents don’t know about this, about my other life. At home and
at school people call me by my official name, Sveta. I have some acquaintances
that I asked to refer to me as masculine. They accepted that. Sometimes they
use the right pronouns, and sometimes I correct them.
I buy clothes from the boy’s department and from time to
time I steal clothes from my dad. He gave me one jacket because he didn’t like
it. Right now I’m wearing his jacket. At school I only feel uncomfortable when
people call me Sveta or use the wrong pronouns. I’m not really friends with any
of my classmates, it’s not like I’m an outcast, I’m more just quiet. I don’t
really want to tell them about this because no one will care. And if everyone
knows still keeps on calling me the wrong name knowing that I don’t like it
– that’s worse than if they just don’t know. I don’t have the strength to
correct them all the time. If I start a new life somewhere, that would make
everything much easier. Soon I will
visit a university fair with my mom to
check out some international colleges with free tuition.
I have two friends who are going through something
similar – one in Ekaterinburg and one in St. Petersburg. I met the friend from
St. Petersburg online, we met on Vkontakte (ed. note: Russian Facebook) in
February. He’s older than me, he’s about 20. We’ve never met in person.
When people call me Sveta, I feel disappointed. I’m not
disappointed in the people, but I just feel like something isn’t right. I don’t
feel like I’m in the right place. With friends, I can be myself. Dima and Sveta
aren’t two different beings. I use Dima, a name that makes me feel comfortable,
with my friends.
Trans people can choose whether they want an operation or
not. It is only up to them to decide. If they feel like they’re not themselves
in their body, just somehow off, you can call them trans even if they have not
had an operation. I don’t feel at home in my body. I’ve thought about the
possibility of having an operation. As far as I know, it starts with hormone
therapy. Then you can do the surgery. I’m sure that my friends would support
me, they know that it’s not an easy process. I don’t know about my parents. I
think at that point I would move out and leave. In Russia you can get
prescriptions for hormones, but I think you can only do the operation somewhere
out of the country.
All the time, I’m thinking about how I look. A big
issue for me is which locker room I should go into. The locker room is assigned
for women, and I don’t assign myself to that category. I can change at home and
just leave my things in the locker room. I’m not happy with either option. The
variant of using the men’s toilets, when I can manage it, that works. In malls,
when I’m not there with my parents, I go to the men’s bathrooms.
I think I bisexual. I was dating a girl, she lives in
Estonia, so we only talked online or with video calls. We stopped dating
because we started talking less. I understand her really well and now I love
her like a best friend.
The Mesto47 team also met Dima’s friends at a
meet up of the group “Twenty One Pilots” in Ekaterinburg. We met at the square
1905, about 10 teenagers from 13-17 were at the meeting. They were immediately
noticeable: they got our attention because of bright yellow tape. The whole
group had tape on them from head to toe. We got to know them, put tape on
ourselves as well, and headed with them to a park, where we spent all day. I discredit myself with the first question.
Marina: What is a meet up?
Alena: (pink hair, 17 years old) A
meet up is a gathering of people who are connected by something. In this case
it’s the group Twenty One Pilots. We have a lot of common interests. When you
come to a meet up, it’s like you’re with friends that you’ve known forever. The
first time it’s strange, but then with each meeting, you feel more at home. You
already know a lot of people. Two years ago I was scared to come, and I ended
up coming to a meet up for the first time a year ago. I’ve been friends with
these guys for a year and they’re like a second family to me. I’ve gotten less
shy, less scared of talking to different people. Before I was really closed and
I was scared of asking people for things, I would be almost hysterical,
completely shaky. Now I can ask people for things with no problems.
Dima: It was music that brought
me to my friends, and I actually started to play music, which helps you to feel
music even more and let out your emotions. They’re different feelings, playing
or listening to music. You can listen to music and understand what the writer
was feeling, or you can play music, and think about what you’re feeling.
We sing a few songs, first in English and
then in Russian. As usual, everyone is very interested in Georg, the foreigner
in our group. Everyone tries to talk to him, but is shy and asks us to
translate. One of the girls takes his arm and gives him a henna tattoo of the
word СЧАСТЬЕ, happiness. We talk about happiness as the fulfillment of dreams.
Marina: What are your
Lyosha, 16 years old: My
dream is to start a band. I already know a bassist and a keyboard player. I
already have the name: the last day of summer. Although it’s up for discussion.
Alena: I don’t know how to
describe it. But after studying, I don’t want to live like my parents. They can
never just go somewhere, have fun, unwind. Most of the time they sit at home
and watch TV. I don’t want to just sit around like that, I can’t stand
monotony, I always need to go somewhere, even if it’s just going to a different
city for two days. I can’t really formulate this into a dream, but not to just
sit in one place, not to have every day be the exact same.
Alina, 15 years old: About
different generations…I wanted to go to Moscow, actually in February, when I
wanted to go to a Twenty One Pilots concert, I’d already bought the tickets,
but my parents said I couldn’t go. They said that they’d heard so many stories
about women who had gone to Moscow for work and they’d been recruited into ISIS
or taken into slavery, or raped and killed. They thought that would also happen
to me, so I couldn’t go.
Dima: My dream is to move out of
the country, because I have some friends there, that’s a plus, and also because
in Russia there are too many stereotypes. There’s a ton of homophobia here,
sexism, and all of that and it’s really hard. There are more possibilities in
different countries. Actually, a dream that I’ve now already fulfilled is to
talk with a native English speaker, because I’m really trying to learn English,
I watch movies. Actually it’s because of Twenty One Pilots that I got
interested in English. But what’s missing is practice. I have no one to talk
The teenagers tell us that right now we’re at
the very place, where the people of Ekaterinburg fought against the Russian
Orthodox Church. It’s this square, and a symbolic place for this interview.
Marina: Do you get along
well with some of your other peers at school?
Lyosha: People separate into
groups. For example, more influential people with money, people who just get
along and have the same interests….
Alena: I hated my class. At
school, no one actually touched each other but in the air there was just an
oppressive atmosphere. At recess I would also run to my friends in other
classes. I was so happy to graduate.
At school we had “notes”
like who drank, who smoked. In the square outside there was even a place where
people would meet up for cigarettes. They didn’t really do anything in particular.
Sometimes there were interesting people there, but they still were living
really boringly. They also were cutting, they
had scars. There wasn’t a single one of them with unscarred hands: they
like to suffer a lot.
Aisu, 14 years old: About peers…I’ve been in
four different schools, and I was bullied in three of them. In the first two it
was just because of my nationality. My classmates were Nazis. In the others, if
someone insults you, and you don’t say anything back, then they just see you as
a perfect target and start making fun of you to raise their own self-esteem.
Right now I’m lucky in my class. I can’t say that they’re friendly, but they’re
tolerant and they just don’t care that much about each other. We can get along
and joke about the same topics. With the other classes it’s not great. You can
stand there and someone will just push you, just because you exist. I tried
complaining, I told my parents. They went to the school and talked to the
teachers, but after that people just made fun of me even more. Saying that I
was a snitch. They think that this is essentially the way to get cool. Like
look at me, I’m awesome, I smoke and I bully people.
Alena: Also about school,
you know, when you see it in American shows, how they bully people…they stick
someone’s head in a toilet. Here, it’s more like that people are talking about
you, that they start rumors, they bully
Aisa: But sometimes they also hit
people. Once a boy took a running start and kicked me in the stomach. I was like….what
did I do to deserve this.
Alena: At my school no one
really hits each other, maybe just the boys. It’s more verbal. Emotional
Interestingly, the entire time at the park,
none of the teenagers took out a beer or a cigarette. When we asked them about
this, they all categorically said that that that type of thing isn’t what
brings them together. They’re brought together by music and talking about the
same things. A conversation topic that kept coming up was parents.
Alena: We try to shake up
our parents. I fight with my mom about homophobia. It’s especially difficult if
the child has a different orientation or does something that goes against their
parents norms or societal norms. At their age I can’t convince them of things,
but I question them, I tell them some facts, and when they don’t have any more
arguments, then for me it’s a victory, I’ve won today.
Aisa: I in general try not to
talk about that kind of stuff with my parents. Or any stuff.
Arina: Three years ago I
started talking to my mom, saying that the way I see it, it’s not necessary to
be homophobic. At the beginning, she almost wanted to kick me out, but now she
already stopped saying insulting things about people. Like for example if a
girl is walking and she comments like “wow, why is that girl dressed like
that.” So I believe that you can change people, because in their soul, they
know that it’s good. I told her, that you can’t hate love, you need to accept
it as their life. She started understanding that I’m right, she had no
arguments left and it got better.
Aisa: Talking about optimism.
When you say that you’re trying to be an optimist, they tell you that you have
to be a realist, or that you don’t understand real life.
Lyosha: And when you saw
that you’re a realist, then they ask you why are you so sad.
Aisa: Or then if you complain
about some problems, they tell you, that you’re exaggerating.
They tell you that other people have it worse, that they have real problems.
They really think that I’m just exaggerating and exaggerating. And now I really
know people who now have serious psychological problems.
leave the group, we take a picture all together and then hug them goodbye. Some
of the kids hide faces with their hands for the photos and Dima goes to the
side to not be in the photo. After the meeting, we walk along the river and we
talk about how it’s great that these teenagers were able to find each other.
How they’re different from other people. How at school and at home people don’t
understand them, but this group accepts each other exactly as they are.
The longest train-ride in the world. The most unique “tv-program” you’ll ever watch. Little villages. Endless taiga. Cities you have never heard of. Sunshine, rain, and sunsets that will blow your mind. You’re off the grid, only online while going through a town. Your phantasy will have to answer most of your questions. What about this enormous array of sattelite dishes? Is that a prison camp? Will I see a bear if I just keep staring at the forrest for another hour?
The transsiberian railway starts in Moscow. Capital of russia and one of the biggest Cities in the world. A bustling metropolis. As you go further east cities get smaller. The skyscrapers disappear and after a while the historical buildings become fewer, the brutalist blocks more. And all the way from west to east, there’s millions of people, living millions of lives.