Originally published by Rolling Stone, June 22, 2022.
Russian bombs brought Stepan and Maxim together. Now Russian bombs have driven them apart.
The men, now both in their early thirties, were living almost 20 miles apart in the eastern Ukrainian region called the Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists went to war in 2014. They likely would not have met if not for a bomb that exploded in Maxim’s yard, blowing all the windows out of the house he shared with his parents. The family scraped by for a month sheltered in the basement without water or electricity. But they finally decided to leave until peace returned. (Stepan and Maxim requested their real names and other identifying information be withheld for the safety of themselves and their relatives.)
That’s how Maxim wound up close enough to Stepan that they could see each other on Hornet, a gay hookup app.
“He was looking for sex. Like me,” Stepan tells me. But a quick fuck was out of the question because they both lived with their families. They took long walks together, and the two men quickly grew close.
“Instead of sex, we decided to love each other,” Stepan says.
Maxim tried to call things off when the time came for his family to go home. But their feelings were more powerful than logistics. For three months, they would both spend half an hour on the bus to reach a town equidistant from their homes, constantly worried about making it somewhere safe before curfew. When a friend in that town told Stepan she wanted to sublet her apartment, the men leapt at the chance to move in together. They’ve been a couple ever since.
“Without the war, without the situation, we probably [would] never meet each other,” Stepan says. The relationship “is one thing that Putin gifted to me.”
But the specter of Putin has haunted their relationship. Russia has been stoking homophobia in the region ever since Russia enacted its so-called “gay propaganda ban” nine years ago. Stepan and Maxim knew the dangers firsthand: They’d narrowly escaped a run-in with Russian agents in the Donbas after separatists took control of their region, and left to build a new life in a town inside the Ukrainian territory called Kramatorsk.
That life was shattered this February, when bombs fell on the city in the first barrage of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine. They would be safest from Russian bombs — and from Ukraine’s draft — if they left Ukraine. They even had a free place to stay in an EU country, offered by one of Stepan’s programming clients.
They drove to Ukraine’s far-western border with the EU, but they couldn’t simply cross the border. One of Ukraine’s first acts when the war began was to bar men of fighting age from leaving the country. There was an exception to this rule, however: People with serious health conditions could get what’s known as a “white ticket,” a document declaring them “unfit for military service” and allowing them to cross the border. Stepan qualified for a white ticket based solely on his HIV status. But Maxim, who is HIV-negative and has no other major health issues, did not.
Stepan could leave, but Maxim would have to stay.
* * *
Before Putin blew up their life together, the couple were allowed a few years to enjoy life together.
After fighting in 2014, their town was under control of one of the “people’s republics” declared by the separatists, who set up Kremlin-backed governments and engaged in a long standoff with Ukrainian forces. Stepan wanted to leave, perhaps to move to Kyiv. But Maxim didn’t want to be so far from his family and friends. So they lived quietly, always careful about who knew they were gay. Many queer people fled the new regime, and the fear that queer people might be targeted seemed to come true in 2015, when the one gay club in the region was raided by separatists, who beat and robbed the patrons.
Stepan and Maxim had no problems for nearly two years. Trouble arrived on a perfectly ordinary morning in December 2016. A taxi was waiting downstairs to take Maxim to visit his parents, he kissed Stepan goodbye as he opened the apartment door. In the hallway stood four men with guns already drawn. They wore no badges nor did they identify themselves as they barged into the apartment. The whole situation was so surreal they didn’t immediately understand the danger — Stepan remembers asking the men to take off their muddy shoes so he wouldn’t have to clean up after them.
They told him to shut up and began searching the apartment. Two men opened wardrobes and scrolled through their computers. Another man inexplicably busied himself rifling through trinkets on a shelf. The fourth, the unit’s apparent leader, told them they were investigating a tip that someone in the building was selling information to the Ukrainian government. They were suspected because he couldn’t understand why two men from different cities were living together without their families.
He finally got the picture when they found text messages on Stepan and Maxim’s phones filled with heart emojis and “I love you’s”.
“Oh, they’re faggots,” Maxim remembers one of the soldiers saying.
Stepan doesn’t remember them speaking quite so harshly. He remembers one of them said mockingly, “They love each other!” But the leader came to their defense. “Don’t touch them. This isn’t our problem.”
The men were gone as suddenly as they arrived. All Stepan and Maxim’s experience told them the encounter should have ended very differently, and there was no reason to believe they would ever get so lucky again. Now there were at least four men who could come back and blackmail them at any time. They started packing their things immediately, and left the separatist-controlled part of the Donbas within a few days.
They settled in Kramatorsk, a small city a few hours away under the control of the Ukrainian government. They believed they were safer there — “In Ukraine, for sure I have rights,” Stepan says. Ukraine had indeed taken some steps to protect LGBTQ rights — including adopting a rule banning employment discrimination as part of a suite of human-rights protections required for a closer relationship with the EU. But it took a long time to shake the feeling that danger could be waiting just outside their apartment.