2014, Moscow, russia
A BED OF FISTS
In 2014, during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, I journeyed to Moscow, Russia to support the Russian LGBT Sport Federation in their Open Games, a multi-sport and -culture event open to everybody (though participants were required to be 18 or older to avoid contravening the so-called "anti-gay propaganda" law). This narrative non-fiction piece was a result of this experience.
A Bed of Fists
Before I’d left for Russia — before I’d even booked my tickets on Aeroflot, the airline with the world’s least buoyant name — my father and I discussed the exact nature of a Soviet-era sofa bed. “It won’t be built for comfort,” he said, to which I replied, “Nor, I hope, for speed.”
I considered the matter then offered, “It will have no springs, maybe, because springs are ostentatious.”
“Or,” he responded darkly, “it will be all springs.”
Ten minutes on Russian soil and I was convinced my dad had been right about “all springs.” The airport was predictably dreary, and dodgy airport nachos or nerves had left me flatulent and nauseated. I found the kiosk selling shuttle tickets, but the agent didn’t look up from her newspaper, preferring instead to tap the back of her manicured fingernail against the window that separated us. I followed her gesture to a brochure taped to the glass. Presumably, it contained ticket prices and a timetable but written in Cyrillic, it was no more use to me than the agent .
“Do you have anything in English?” I asked.
Without looking up, she shook her head. This agent was definitely giving me all the springs. A cramp ripped through my abdomen, and I went to find a toilet.
Mercifully, the bathroom signs at Sheremetyevo were completely familiar. I picked out the lady in her triangle skirt from fifty yards away and scooted toward her without unclenching my ass cheeks. I pushed open the door, but instead of a row of stalls I was faced with another woman behind glass. With wide eyes, she shouted and waved her hands. I fumbled in my jeans to retrieve rubles but no matter how many bills I shoved under the screen, she kept yelling and gesturing.
Finally, she let herself out of the booth, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me back into the hall. With no break in her tirade, she dragged me around the corner and pointed toward another door marked by a stick figure in pants. I jerked my arm loose, unzipped my jacket, and pointed indignantly at my breasts. Without breaking stride, the woman shrugged and tugged at her hair as if to say, “Well, what do you expect looking like that?”
I arrived on Konstantin’s doorstep unsure if I’d shit my pants. The answer — thankfully — was no, but upon being presented with a welcome fish caught fresh from the river, I vomited into my teacup. The activists in Konstantin’s tiny kitchen were either being polite or didn’t notice, having just received the alarming news that the authorities had threatened our host hotel management until they withdrew our reservation. Without a venue, there would be no human rights conference. As the activists smoked and shouted at one another under the buzzing fluorescent lights, I crept into the bedroom looking for refuge.
The sofa bed was open , an unfurled blini. A large photograph on the wall commemorated an event the Russian LGBT Sports Federation had put on the previous year. Local athletes had gathered outside Moscow to ski and snowboard in the anonymity of an unmarked stretch of forest. Smiling activists holding rainbow flags surrounded Konstantin, who wore a prim, close-lipped smile. His hands hung loosely at his sides, and his collar, as always, was buttoned right to his throat.
I lowered myself onto the bed. It was far scratchier than necessary. Macho growls erupted from the kitchen, breathy fricatives of Russian spoken under duress. I pulled the blanket over my legs. Not quite comfortable, I shifted, rolled, and shifted again. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the knobs of stuffing jabbing my ribs. There were a thousand reasons why my paperwork should have been denied — I’m a writer and an LGBT activist, for starters — but despite a comprehensive application form (“Do you have any specialized skills, training or experience related to firearms and explosives, or to nuclear matters, biological or chemical substance?”), somehow I’d been granted my visa.
I made a mental note to tell my dad: A Soviet-era fold-out couch feels like a bed of fists.
From the comfort of my apartment in Toronto, the idea of flying into Putin’s Russia on a tourist visa with a fake hotel reservation and my soccer gear hadn’t seemed utterly daft. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I rolled onto my back and stared into the dark. Cigarette smoke drifted in from the next room. My bowels rumbled. I made a mental note to tell my dad: A Soviet-era fold-out couch feels like a bed of fists.
During the intensity of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, my friends in Canada, the United States, and around the world had signed petitions and poured vodka into the gutters to protest the anti-gay sentiment coming from Putin’s administration. From inside the country, dissenters were much more circumspect. I could see why. Putin was brimming with contempt, and he’d proven to be extravagantly punitive. When Pussy Riot donned brightly colored balaclavas and sang a protest song on the steps of a Moscow cathedral, he’d stripped to the waist and threw the women in jail for two years of hard labor. I really didn’t want to be sent to a Russian work camp.
“‘Oh, gays,’ they say. ‘They are going to nightclubs and they wear pink pants.’” I was standing in a freezing parking lot taking instruction from Elvina, cofounder of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, who was briefing me on how “the homophobes” (as she called them) perceive gay people in Russia. I imagined a thin, fey man — with a purse draped over an arm, perhaps — in tight pants and a floral blouse, wrist as limp as if broken. These were the faggots Putin feared and hated so much. In an effort to replace that caricature with a brawnier, sportier representation — one that fit more easily into a country ruled by a shirtless bully on horseback — the Federation had organized their Open Games and asked international activists to show up.
My father had been amused when I told him I was going to play soccer in Russia, in February. “Let me get this straight,” he’d said. “You’ve decided to winter in . . . Siberia?” At the time, I’d chuckled along with him — nobody is more entertained by my folly than I — but now that I was waiting for the police to complete a bomb sweep of the venue for our opening ceremonies, it was all somewhat less hilarious.
“Give me your phone,” Elvina ordered, releasing a plume of cigarette smoke. “Mine’s blocked.”
I handed her the ancient Nokia loaner I was carrying. She dialed, jabbing angrily, and began shouting into the mouthpiece in Russian, drawing the attention of all assembled. Dressed in black from her high-heeled boots to her turtleneck and wrapped tightly in a short trench coat cinched snugly around her waist, Elvina possessed the air of an operative. I zipped my lumpy down jacket to the chin and looked around the lot. Just outside the entrance, clusters of police stood beside their cars stamping their feet and peering at our group through the gates. We numbered in the low dozens.
I knew from Elvina that I was the only Canadian but that there were also German, Swedish, and French activists joining the Russians. Although some people huddled around the heaters in their cars, most had chosen to wait out the sweep indoors. Of those of us in the lot, everyone was white, and everyone was an adult. The country’s anti-gay propaganda law — which made being out as LGBT an offense against minors — had forced the organizers to exclude anyone under eighteen years old.
Elvina dropped her cigarette and handed back the Nokia. “Are you hungry?” To my surprise, she led me directly into a café in the basement of the same building we’d been waiting to have cleared of explosives.
“Shouldn’t we go somewhere else?” I asked.
“There’s no problem. The homophobes have found a new way to cancel LGBT events. An anonymous call to police about a bomb and the police must react.”
“But how did they even know we’d be here?” The location had been kept secret even from participants until earlier that day.
“A leak,” Elvina said. “Welcome to Russia.”
Frantic disco played softly from two enormous speakers flanking a tiny, incongruent dance floor.
A server scuttled over with menus and hovered while Elvina ordered for us. At the bar, several waiters in vests and dress pants convened, glancing toward the entrance. The other booths were filled with young people — members of our group — in ski jackets and knit caps warming their hands over steaming pots of tea, and old men in shiny suits spooning back soup without taking their eyes off us. Frantic disco played softly from two enormous speakers flanking a tiny, incongruent dance floor.
Our waiter returned with a tray holding two cups, a teapot, and a bowl of soup that he placed rather deliberately on the table. He said something to Elvina in Russian that made her shout at him. He shouted back and produced a credit card terminal. I reached for my cash but Elvina waved me away. She paid and the waiter left.
“What was that?” I asked, “Should we go?”
“No, sit. They just wanted us to pay now in case we are taken by police.”
I considered the soup in its dainty ceramic bowl. There was a fussy pattern around the lip that matched the accompanying crouton urn. I tried to dress my meal using the souvenir-sized serving spoon, but after failing to ferry even a single morsel, I upended the entire pot into my bowl. The soup was unchallenging — mushroom. I guessed that Elvina had seen me defile Konstantin’s teacup after all. While I ate, Elvina smoked and watched the door.
By the time I finished, the police dogs led a cadre of officials into the café. The handsome shepherds were alert, held close by cops in jackets marked in Cyrillic. Everyone except the shiny-suited men rose and filed up the stairs.
The sun was down, and the parking lot damp. Everyone was looking to Elvina for answers, and I trailed her impotently as she paced and parried, fielding an urgent stream of questions. Unable to understand the language, much less the content of the conversation, I simply occupied the space to her left, the top of my head level with her armpit. Then, abruptly, she strode out of the parking lot, a pack of people in her footsteps. They were down the block before I realized I’d been left behind, so I took off after them, calling out Elvina’s name. When I reached her, we stuttered at each other, her embarrassment at forgetting me competing with my discomfort with my own helplessness.
Everything about Roman from his posture to his floppy bangs was easy and relaxed, but I was queer in Moscow and it was dark and there was a bomb, maybe.
“Okay,” she said. “The organizers have to talk. Everyone will wait for us at McDonald’s. Go with Roman.” She pointed at a slouching man, and when I raised my eyebrows, she added, “He’s a cameraman for German television.” Everything about Roman from his posture to his floppy bangs was easy and relaxed, but I was queer in Moscow and it was dark and there was a bomb, maybe. Before I could respond, Elvina was a block away, a smudge animated by puffs of cigarette smoke.
Roman made friendly small talk while we drove, headlights steady and fluid against the demented strobe of Moscow traffic. Outside the McDonald’s, Roman looked for a space. Through the super-sized picture windows under the golden arches I could see that the place — a two-story behemoth with an interior balcony — was packed. Inside, a crowd of hungry people crushed against the counters, and the pong of hot salt and grease on packing paper permeated my clothes. Big Macs and Filet-O-Fishes smell the same everywhere.
Upstairs, all the seats were occupied. People had sussed out spots on the floor and plugged in their phones; some folks had laptops open, and the clacking of keystrokes added to the din. The line to the bathroom ran out into the hall. I exchanged shy smiles with several people whose faces I recognized from the parking lot, and by the time I returned to Roman’s side I felt like I was in friendly territory.
Roman’s English was impeccable and he was easy to talk to. He was the first Russian I’d spoken to about the political situation for LGBT people who was neither an activist nor a homophobe.
It was close to midnight when the call finally came, and the dispatch was kept as short as possible. Someone took the message — nothing more incendiary than the name of a nightclub — and passed it on, lips to ear. In this immediate and untraceable way, our next location was passed from person to person and en masse we left.
Elvina was beside me suddenly. “You are good?” she asked. I nodded. “Good, I will see you there.” Roman and I were back in the car with him trying to negotiate the parking lot when Elvina knocked on my window. “Do you have room for one more?” She opened the door, a woman got in, and we were off. In the rearview mirror, friendly eyes smiled. I introduced myself; she said her name was Katya.
Roman knew the nightclub and got us there quickly. It looked completely ordinary: Glass doors opened to a foyer with a staircase that delivered us into a subterranean pub. It was loud and smokey and the liveliest place I’d seen on my short visit to the city. Roman disappeared into the crowd, and Katya and I joined Elvina at the packed bar where we flapped our rubles at the bartenders.
“Okay, we have the space in the back!” Elvina shouted over the rock music. Her cheeks were ruddy. She pointed to a set of drapes at the foot of the stairs, guarded by a serious-looking guy in a serious-looking suit. I left my rubles and an order for a glass of red with Katya and approached the door. Before I could bother the curtains, the man shot out an arm.
“Nobody goes in here.”
“I’m with the Open Games,” I assured him. “I just want to check out the space.”
“There is nothing in here,” he said.
“We are in here,” I said, smiling. “I just want to see the space.”
“There is nothing in here.”
Just then I noticed Konstantin coming down the stairs and I opened my arms for a hug. He placed a chaste kiss on my cheek. I shot a look at the doorman, but he was obstinately staring into the empty space above me.
“How are you doing?” I asked. Konstantin looked exhausted.
“I am okay . . . there have been more cancellations.” Since the bomb threat, the host venues for badminton, swimming, volleyball, and tennis had withdrawn our reservations. “They cancelled the athletes’ host hotel,” he said, his eyes red-rimmed. “They said we could not stay because there are children there.” He forced a smile and walked through the curtains.
I returned to the bar and slid in next to Katya who had the triumphant look of someone who’s finally procured drinks. In her leather sports jacket and Clark Kent glasses, I thought she looked like Jodie Foster if she were cast in the role of Nancy Drew. I wasn’t that far off. Katya was a fellow writer — a reporter.
“I got you a drink,” she chuckled, and offered me an absurdly small glass. “It looks like they’re worried about you.”
It was after midnight when, for the second time that evening, a message passed person-to-person through the crowd. They were ready for us in the back
The room under the stairs was long and dim and filling with people. As Katya and I found space at a table with the German football team, Elvina and Konstantin mounted a low stage. The club owners didn’t want the other patrons to know we were there, Elvina said, so we were asked to make no noise. She waved her hands above her head, modeling the silent gesture we were asked to use in place of applause. The crowd waved back furiously.
It was approaching three o’clock by the time the ceremony ended. My throat was sore from the cigarette smoke and it was way past my bedtime. Elvina helped me find a ride home — not to Konstanin’s this time but to Natalia’s, another friend who had more space. Neither she nor Konstantin joined me; their night wasn’t over. They had to find alternate venues before the Games began in the morning.
I woke up late the next day, stirred by the frustrated mewling of Frankie the cat, who was perambulating around the room trying to relieve her heat. I stretched out on the firm, modern sofa bed and prepared to rise. The clacking of nails on a keyboard along with the bitter smell of old coffee drew me into the kitchen where Elvina and Natalia were huddled over a laptop.
“More cancellations, more police,” Elvina said.
“Good morning,” I replied, and poured a cup of coffee. Are you fucking kidding me? Though I’d been in Moscow for only a few days, I was already frustrated by the chaos.
Elvina’s phone rang and she left the kitchen, shouting in Russian. “Are any of the sports happening today?” I asked Natalia.
“It depends. We’re working on it. There’s still the party tonight, at Ustritsa,” Natalia said, with a shy smile. “It means ‘oyster,’ the bar. It’s for lesbians.”
Elvina strode back into the kitchen. “The police showed up and pulled everyone off the rink at Konstantin’s skating workshop. They said there was a ‘technical problem’ with the ice.” She rolled her eyes and sat at the laptop. I decided to go out and see Moscow.
Even though this trip wasn’t exactly a vacation, once on the streets I felt the tug of adventure. At Belorusskaya, I pulled open the station doors and fished out the fare card Natalia had loaned me. I fed it into a slot and waited. The machine responded in Cyrillic.
On the one hand, there are the Romance languages. French, Spanish, and Portuguese do a fine job of confounding with their inverse sentence structures and their dizzying selection of tenses. Languages based on different alphabets like Arabic or Tamil, or — even worse — on logograms like Japanese belong to a class I call “Oh, just forget it.” But Cyrillic makes you feel dim. Scattered in with the unfamiliar shapes are enough recognizable letters you think you could read if only you tried a little harder. I stood and squinted. After several moments of trying a little harder, I pushed a fistful of rubles into the coin drop and was gratified to see a tally adding up on the screen. I let myself in through the turnstiles, head held high.
Inside, throngs of people jostled and pressed, a miserable mass moving toward the escalator where the clot divided and reformed as a single line of people standing right, one Russian to a stair. I jockeyed and found a place. It took three minutes to reach the bottom, long enough to wonder at the contrast between the frowning commuters and the backlit posters advertising holidays in places by azure waters. It was also long enough for me to get a gander at a woman who surely has one of the most wretched jobs in all of Moscow. In her severe blue uniform and forage cap, the woman shared a glass box no bigger than a telephone booth with a bank of security monitors and a microphone. The mic was for when someone would break the escalator rules — by standing left, for example. The windows were so she could dole out her imperious stink-eye.
Souvenir shopping in Moscow was a slog. I had just abandoned sifting through the heaps of matryoshka nesting dolls and Lenin shit when I saw it. I brought the Putin fridge magnet to the cash register and called it a day. I grabbed dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Ordering sushi off a menu in Cyrillic takes about as long as you’d expect and I got back to Natalia’s late. The apartment was empty. I sent texts to every number programmed into my Nokia.
“We are at Ustritsa near Mendeleevskaya,” Katya replied. “Come now. I will get you at the Metro.”
“Do you have a number for a taxi?” I wrote.
“Take the Metro,” came the response. “It’s safer.”
Natalia’s neighborhood looked different at night. Storefronts and cafés that had overflowed with music and patrons only a few hours earlier were dark and quiet. Occasional headlights upset long shadows and I frightened a cat feasting from a garbage bin. I was jumpy — and guilty. Amid all the joking between my father and me, he’d extracted a single solemn swear: “Promise me you won’t walk around Moscow alone after dark.” In his face I could see his sincerest worry and pride and respect. Without hesitation, I’d agreed. Now, with a hammering heart, I hurried toward the Metro.
I yanked open the station doors for the second time that day and stood in the shelter of the tiny foyer, pausing to catch my breath. I noticed someone to my left. A man in rags the color of dust with a mess of hair had jammed his arm into an ornate vent on the far wall. He was suspended, his weight borne by that tender fulcrum in the armpit. His eyes were closed and he hung still, but I knew he wasn’t dead. No one would be allowed to sleep on the street in Moscow, I realized. This dusty man in Belorusskaya station had discovered an ingenious way to keep warm.
Ustritsa was on a narrow street hidden somewhere behind the Metro. I was glad for Katya’s company but I wondered why a taxi wouldn’t have been better. “There aren’t really taxis in Moscow,” she said, then allowed that there are taxi companies but no reason to use them. Muscovites needing a ride flag cars on the street and negotiate a price with whoever pulls over. And the drivers?
“Immigrants, those who can’t get work, those wanting to make some extra money,” she said. “It’s not safe if you don’t speak Russian.” I wondered if it was safe if you do.
“Hey, I heard you went out for an adventure today,” Katya said.
“I went shopping. I bought a Putin magnet. It’s one of those that changes depending on how you look at it. From the left, it’s young Putin, and as you turn it he gets old. He’s got the same sour look, though, the whole way through. Which reminds me, what’s the deal with Russians not smiling?”
“Yes, there is even a saying in Russian! It’s that if you smile without a reason, you’re an idiot.” Katya, who I learned was Latvian, beamed at me.
The entrance to the club was unmarked except for two pale men in suits framing the doorway like potted plants. Once past security, we were plunged into darkness. “It’s upstairs,” Katya said. “Watch your step.” I climbed with my hands thrust out in front of me, the faint thump of dance music and reek of cigarette smoke intensifying on each landing. At the top, strobe lights spilled into the hall. A poster on the wall used both Russian and an illustration to get its message across: no photographs.
Inside, the place was packed. People shouted over the dance music and clinking glasses. After a while, the DJ turned the music down and Elvina took the stage. She announced that the skating, volleyball, and badminton had all been shut down by the police. The crowd booed. However, she continued, the table tennis competition went unmolested. The crowd cheered. At her invitation, the participants came to the stage and bent to accept their medals.
Cast in shades of gold, silver, and bronze, each award was a square piece of glass the size of a drink coaster, decorated by a local artist. The words “Russian Open Games” were etched into the back so faintly that they were almost invisible. A person — a police officer, for example, or an airport official — would have to turn them just so to make out what was engraved there. Everybody applauded, the music was turned up, and a couple hundred LGBT people from Russia and beyond drank and danced the night away in a secret club on the third floor of a building on a back street in Moscow.
And so it went in the coming days. We would doggedly rise, gather our equipment, and trek to a location circulated last minute by text. Then we would play for fifteen minutes, or five, or not at all because the police would already be there, waiting. In the evenings, we’d reconvene to commiserate and exchange information. During the nights the organizers worked their contacts, looking for new locations that might allow us in.
By the fourth day of the Games not a single event had been spared a visit by the authorities. The basketball tournament was interrupted by a smoke bomb hurled onto the court. Judging by the speed at which the police showed up, many felt it likely that they’d been behind the attack. That evening, realizing that they’d lost control of the situation, Konstantin and Elvina told us that they could no longer guarantee our safety. If any of us wanted to leave, they said, they would understand. No one fled, but every one of us knew that we were no longer there for the sport.
I was registered to compete in the indoor soccer tournament. I’d signed onto Team Paris along with French activists I’d met the previous summer. It was a bright morning the day of our competition , clear and filled with birdsong. At the venue, Elvina was in a huddle with the other organizers so my team and I hung back. Where the sun broke through the tangles of bare tree branches, it warmed our skin. As we waited, other soccer players began to emerge from behind parked cars. “Has anyone seen police?” someone asked. None of us had, and none of us could believe it.
Suddenly, Elvina broke away from her group. “Hurry!” she urged. “Let’s get started!”
Inside, we dashed into the change rooms and hastily stripped down, shedding parkas and boots and jeans to pull on shorts and tennis shoes.
“Is there a bathroom in here?” someone asked. “Yes, but no toilet paper,” came the reply. A third person called out, “Front pocket!” offering the private stash from her gym bag.
Out on the court, soccer players warmed up by volleying balls off the walls, firing shots at their goalies, and running wind sprints up and down the sides of the gym. Every time the rubber made contact with cement or the floor or flesh, it produced a familiar and satisfying crack. The space filled with shouts and sweat. I watched from the door, but only for a minute before I leapt out into the fray to play with my friends.
Someone had a camera on a tripod. Behind the goalie crease, they were filming a group of people in formal dress. When I approached, Elvina introduced me, a mischievous look on her face. “This is Edith Schippers, the Dutch Minister of Health and Sport. The police won’t visit while she’s here.” I thanked the Minister, shook her hand, and bounded back onto the pitch.
Minister Schippers stayed as long as she could — long enough for two matches to play out — but her duties demanded she be elsewhere. The door to the gym had barely shut behind her before it was flung open again. Burly men in plain clothes followed by uniformed cops flooded in, shouting. Several of the Russian-speakers including Elvina advanced on them, shouting back. Katya held her press identification in front of her like a shield and demanded answers. Several people had pulled out cameras and phones and were recording the altercation. I got close enough to show solidarity, but no closer.
“Okay, come outside everybody,” Elvina said, and everybody groaned. People complained in Swedish and English and French. Cold and grumbling, we filed out into the parking lot. Those with cameras documented the incident, pointing their lenses at the police and the vans in the yard. Some of us gave interviews. The police stood by, studying our faces.
“I’m going back to the Bureau. I’ll text you later,” Katya said. While she was at her desk writing the report — one of the few to appear in the Moscow press during the Games — we walked to a nearby McDonald’s to take advantage of their Wi-Fi and warmth. It was more than an hour before the police declared the gym “safe” and allowed us to return.
After a few improvised changes to the schedule, the tournament resumed, but I was exhausted from standing around in the cold in my soccer shorts. Unable to match the stamina of my younger teammates, I watched from the sidelines. My Games were over, but the truth was, I’d seen enough of Moscow.
This piece first appeared in the 2015 Traveler's Tales anthology, "Wake Up and Smell the Sh*t," and was later republished on Catapult.
Copyright © 2015 by Keph Senett. All rights reserved.