Ruslan. Gay, 19 years old. From the Kherson region. Currently lives under the occupation. The interview took place in August 2022.

My name is Ruslan. I am 19 years old and I am gay. It is hard for me to speak out because the circumstances force me to hide my orientation. I will speak openly when the Kherson region is liberated, but now it is dangerous. I live in the very south of the Kherson region, closer to Skadovsk (the village of the Kherson region, closer to the sea) than to Kherson. This is a small Ukrainian village where everyone knows each other. That’s why I’m hiding. I occasionally come home to replenish supplies, charge my phone, and wash up. But after that, I disappear. This is a forced necessity that gives me a small space for living.

I’ve been hiding for a long time, since May to be precise. After the occupation, we were constantly visited by the Russian soldiers. At first, they only wrote down the information about the people who lived in the village and how many people were left after the so-called “liberation”. They constantly called some meetings to tell us that now everything would be different. They had been chased away by locals at first, but later the cars with the infamous letter “z” instead of license plates arrived.

Several of the most active locals were taken away to an unknown destination. So far, no one knows where they are or whether they are alive at all. It was like a public execution. Others were threatened: if the people did not shut their mouths, Russians would burn down their homes and destroy their gardens. After that, people behaved more quietly. The sheer terror. When people are intimidated, they are easier to manipulate. Probably, every ordinary Russian Federal Security Service officer knows this very well.

But still, everyone is waiting for salvation from the Armed Forces of Ukraine. People are forcibly showing acceptance for the sake of survival. And the Russian soldiers continue to conduct interrogations, after one of which I decided to leave home.

What was the interrogation about?

They conducted lessons of political knowledge, history, and the “Great Patriotic War”, and talked about Nazism. They said that we should go to the army and fight on their side. They said that they knew who I was and that people like me should be hanged because it is a disease. They said that my right to live must be earned. I think they meant that I should be punished for being gay. They somehow knew about me. Maybe the neighbors had told them, the collaborators (they are everywhere), or maybe my relatives. Even before the war, they had treated me badly: they’d say that if God created me as a man, then I should love women, marry, have a son, build a house, and plant a tree… Nonsense. I don’t know where they got this from. And although I had profiles on dating apps, I am a rather closeted person in this regard. But they know.

I didn’t leave the house right away. At first, the Russian soldiers came and forced me either to join their separatist units, allegedly to defend the Kherson region from the “Nazis”, or to do “special labour”. They said that if I didn’t work, I wouldn’t have the right to buy anything. Russian soldiers began to demand the people who work at the store to write down who buys what and with what money. Somehow I’d lived for two months thanks to the help of the Ukrainian LGBT community. But even my neighbors started to tell me that I should run away, and look for a place to hide, otherwise, I would be taken away.

So I’ve been living in forest areas and clearings for four months now.

I have repeatedly asked myself a question: why not risk going to Ukraine? I’d love to. But how? Back in April, my friends tried, but at the entrance to Kherson, they were stopped at roadblocks and immediately sent to a military unit. One friend later told me that they were chased like animals to the front line for Russians to see where Ukrainians were shooting from. I’m cannon fodder to them. They won’t even bury me if anything happens. For being gay, you might think? No. For being Ukrainian. Do you get it? They hate us. They talk about it all the time because in our village people speak mostly Ukrainian. There are not so many Ukrainian speakers in the neighbouring village, but here almost everyone speaks Ukrainian. And the Russians say: “Your speech sounds disgusting”. They can’t understand us.

I ran away, looking for a job in exchange for food. Thought maybe I would chop wood or dig a hole for the fence, and people would give me some food or feed me for this. I made myself a hiding place by the river, and that’s where I live. I tried to fish, but there isn’t much of it right now. I made hare traps, but to no avail. You have to be a hunter to succeed. I’m hungry, but I feel sorry for the living creatures. I caught a hare once, but then I let it go. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it.

Winter is approaching, and I understand more and more: I need to go to Kherson. Maybe I’ll find some work there. There are more people there, I can get lost among them. There are many abandoned houses too. Better than spending the night in the open air in winter. I will wait for the Armed forces of Ukraine – it’s closer there. Maybe I will get some help, there should be underground groups that help the Ukrainian army. I just need to do something and have some kind of plan. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all.