Russian violinist Artem Kolesov has published a powerful video statement on what it’s like to be gay in Russia to protest the Russian government’s so called “gay propaganda law” – which came into effect in 2013, prohibiting the distribution of information to minors that suggests homosexuality could be considered normal. The young violinist, who is now living in the USA, published the coming out video in Russian with English subtitles, shortly after his 23rd birthday.
“When I was five, I realised that I liked boys,” Kolesov explains in the video. “During my entire childhood I heard from my parents and the church, that homosexuality is a huge sin, so I started praying in secret to God so He would make me ‘normal’.”
Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian family in rural Russia, Kolesov faced the threat of persecution from his family and the wider community if he were to come out as gay. “In my family I often heard that all gays should be destroyed,” he explains, “that they should be bombed, and that if anyone in our family turns out to be gay, my family should kill them with their bare hands. I never heard anything good about gay people – all I knew was that gays are the people who everyone should hate. I was scared because I knew that I was gay. I didn’t know anyone who I could talk to about it. It seemed that I was the only gay person in Russia.”
He was also subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his brother, who threatened to out him to his family if he tried to tell anyone. It wasn’t until Kolesov received a scholarship to attend a music school in Canada at age 16 that a new world began to open up. “I met people who openly lived a full life despite being LGBT,” he says. “The first time I met an openly gay person I started shaking, because I know that I am just like him. But the obedient Christian in me was telling me that people like him and me are an abomination before God. I loathed myself and every LGBT person around me. There was a battle happening inside me – how could I be Christian and be gay at the same time?”
The self-hatred he felt fuelled a deepening depression. “Unfortunately, my family doesn’t believe in depression,” he says. “Everyone thinks that if you’re depressed you simply have too much free time.”
So Kolesov aimed to completely fill his schedule, volunteering at a mission with the homeless and as an interpreter at a refugee clinic, practising the violin and filling up the rest of his time with university courses and church involvement. But his depression was getting worse and multiple suicide attempts followed. “Every night I cried and prayed that God would deliver me,” he says. “I never thought I would live to be 23.”
Violinist Artem Kolesov
“Every Sunday I played violin during worship at church, and looking at the smiling faces around me, my heart was aching when I thought that all they need to know to hate me is that I’m gay,” he explains. “How terrible is it that one word can make people forget everything good and kind I have ever done.” Kolesov came out to his mother a month before he recorded the video. “One of the requests she had for me was to not tell anyone about it,” he says.
The violinist now lives in Chicago where he studies at the Chicago College of Performing Arts and performs with the Yas Quartet, but doesn’t intend on returning to Russia because of the risk of arrest. “Even if I go back to Russia I’m not sure I would be feeling completely safe with my own family,” he told Buzzfeed News, explaining that his mother loves him but doesn’t understand. “She thinks there’s something wrong with me; she said it’s not natural, that God doesn’t want it”.
The video refers to a Russian LGBT project called Children-404 (the name a reference to the “Page Not Found” error message on the Internet), in which Russians can share their stories, often with their faces concealed. “In Russia it is against the law to tell children under 18 that being gay is normal,” Kolesov explains. “I would like to say to the Russian Lawmakers, that if what I’m doing right now is considered ‘Same-Sex Propaganda’, then what you are doing can be considered ‘Encouragement of Suicide’.”
Kolesov’s video has come alongside increasing reports of the violent persecution of gay people are emerging from Chechnya and he hopes that his video will show other gay and lesbian young people in Russia and around the world that they are not alone. He deliberately recorded the message in Russian to connect with young people in his homeland. “I hope that maybe some day we will be able to show our faces without fear,” he says, “without the need to hide our identity.”
After posting the video, Kolesov has received encouragement and support from friends in Canada, the USA and in Russia. And while not everyone was supportive, for Kolesov, the ones who were made it worthwhile. “I feel more connected to them,” he said. “Hiding a part of my identity for so long people didn’t know the real me and I feel like people are finally starting to know me. It’s very liberating.”
In the end, despite the harrowing experiences, Kolesov’s message is positive. “For a long time I thought that everything I went through was a curse, but now I know that it’s the biggest blessing I’ve ever received,” he says.
“I’d like to say that LGBT people don’t want to yell about themselves on every corner. We don’t come out for heterosexual people to know. We don’t come out for religious people to know. We don’t come out of the ones who hate us to know. We shout and make as much noise as possible, just so the other people like us, who are scared and can’t be themselves, would know that they are not a mistake and they are not alone. We come out because we want to show other LGBT people that we too can live normal life and we too can be loved and accepted. And also, we come out because we want to show others that we are people just like them – we’re engineers, doctors, teachers, violinists, sons and daughters, and most of all, we’re humans.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636