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Opinion | In Russia, Gay People Are Routinely Targeted. That’s Why This Ukrainian Soldier Is Fighting.


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In Russia, Gay People Are Routinely Targeted. That’s Why This Ukrainian Soldier Is Fighting.

When Putin invaded, Oleksandr Zhuhan chose to defend a country that hasn’t always defended him.

Thursday, July 7th, 2022

lulu garcia-navarro

From The earliest days of the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen the images of everyday Ukrainians signing up to defend their country against the Russian invasion leaving behind the lives they’d been living just days before. Wars can be uniting in that way with citizens coming together against a shared enemy, putting their differences aside. Oleksandr Zhuhan, Sashko for short, was one of those who joined Ukraine’s volunteer forces. He’s gay, and for him, Putin’s Russia held particular terror. Gay people are routinely targeted their, arrested without cause, even tortured. And among the reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine, he said the country had embraced values, quote, “contrary to human nature.”

But Sashko had also experienced homophobia within Ukraine in the years leading up to the war. So when he started talking to my colleague, Courtney Stein in the early days of the fighting, he was facing dual fears a future under Russia, but also how he might be treated by the soldiers he was serving alongside. From “New York Times Opinion,” this is “First Person.” I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Today, Sashko and the fight for his future in Ukraine.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. Today is calmer than it was yesterday, but still it’s not safe here. Anyway —

courtney stein

When we first started talking, Sashko was too busy to get on the phone.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We hear bumping sounds like every 15 minutes or every half an hour.

He was just a couple of days into his enlistment, and these were the early days of the war when Russia was shelling Kyiv. His unit was stationed in what had been a mall there.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And we are sleeping now next to the window shop. It looks somehow surrealistic because we see that beautiful clothes and we are wearing the same clothes that we came here in.

So I asked him to send me voice memos whenever he had a free minute. And what most came through was just how disorienting this all was for him.

oleksandr zhuhan

I haven’t — I hadn’t held a gun in my life until the 24th of February. I skipped all the lessons of —

courtney stein

In Ukraine, boys learn how to shoot guns in school. But Sashko never wanted any part of that sort of thing. He’d never imagined fighting in a war, even up to the moment he enlisted alongside the partner he calls his husband, though they can’t be legally married.

oleksandr zhuhan

We didn’t think that we would be given guns. We thought that we would do something like, I don’t know, cooking or cleaning or carrying heavy things, something like that. My husband is a director, and I am an actor and a director and a playwright. We are very stereotypically gay, if I can put it this way, like we are a gay couple who are vegans and we are very anti, I don’t know, war.

courtney stein

Or at least they had been, then Russia invaded. Sashko and Antonina spent the night of the invasion hiding in their bathroom, weighing whether to enlist.

oleksandr zhuhan

For both of us, it was a very difficult decision because we used to avoid places where there are lots of manly men, like stereotypically heterosexual men who want to fight. And we have met violence against gay people before and it was difficult.

courtney stein

But the day after Russia invaded when it became clear just how serious the situation was, both Sashko and Antonina signed up. They weren’t telling anyone they were together though.

oleksandr zhuhan

There was a situation when a man from our unit came up to us and asked, so are you brothers or friends? And since he only gave us like two options, I said friends very quickly. But then I was sorry and I kept thinking to myself, what would have happened if I had said we are husband and husband? What would have changed? I’m not sure.

courtney stein

In Ukraine, boys learned how to shoot guns in school. But Sashko never wanted any part of that sort of thing he’d never imagined fighting in a war, even up to the moment he enlisted alongside the partner he calls his husband, though they can’t be legally married.

oleksandr zhuhan

So I grew up in a small town in the Central Ukraine. When I was born, it was still the Soviet Union.

courtney stein

As a kid, Sashko spoke Russian in school. Then in 1991 when he was seven, Ukraine declared its independence. But it wasn’t a big patriotic moment in Sashko’s memory. What he remembers is the economic collapse that followed.

oleksandr zhuhan

People had to survive and they did different things, like some people stole, some people — I don’t the word for that. They did very bad things to survive and to get some food for their children.

courtney stein

Sashko and his parents lived in an apartment block with a shared courtyard.

oleksandr zhuhan

All the kids knew one another from the moment they were born. And I knew that there were some boys that my mom said, you mustn’t be friends with those boys because they smoke and their parents are not a very good family. Some of them smoked cigarettes beginning at the age of five I suppose.

courtney stein

What?

oleksandr zhuhan

Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.

courtney stein

Sashko wasn’t that kind of kid though. He was a rule follower.

oleksandr zhuhan

I was really very out of touch with the reality I think. I mean, I didn’t know much about sexuality, about homosexuality, or anything like this. I really like to draw, and I drew things like every day. I had albums. Do you do you say album or notebooks?

courtney stein

Notebooks.

oleksandr zhuhan

Filled with sketches. Yeah. And I had a secret notebook where I drew all like naked, people naked men. And I was about, I don’t know, 10 or 11 years old. And my mom found it and she said, oh my god, what was that? I was so ashamed. And she said that it was really a bad thing.

courtney stein

That was the message Sashko got from basically everyone growing up.

oleksandr zhuhan

Homosexuality was something that you should be ashamed of. And it was something that people in prison, you know, prisoners used to punish other prisoners. Does it make sense what I’m saying?

courtney stein

So it wasn’t like that people were actually gay. It was just a punishment.

oleksandr zhuhan

Yeah. Yeah. Or whenever you heard the word homosexuality, it was considered some of the world’s biggest threats, you know, like homosexuality atomic war.

courtney stein

And given that, when he left his hometown and went to Kyiv for college, he stayed in the closet. But in his second year, he fell in love with his roommate who was straight.

oleksandr zhuhan

One day I just decided that, oh my god, if he doesn’t love me then I have no more reason to live. I know now that it was very stupid, but I was 16. So I got all the drugs that I had, I mix them with alcohol and I drank them all. And at first, I fainted, but then my friends found me and they called the ambulance.

courtney stein

He ended up in the hospital. They called his mom to take him home.

oleksandr zhuhan

And of course, she started asking questions, and I had to tell her.

courtney stein

How did she respond?

oleksandr zhuhan

She said, it’s OK, I love you. Maybe one day you’ll meet a woman and you’ll have children and I’ll pray for you. Let’s pray together. And I said, oh my god, mom, don’t. Please, I — and that was like second coming out. I said, I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist. Yeah. And then some years later, I’m a vegan. And you know, like it was a bingo, gay vegan atheist. No more hope for mom.

courtney stein

Which one was hardest for her, the atheist, the veganism, or the being gay?

oleksandr zhuhan

I don’t think that she accepted anything, any of these.

courtney stein

When he finished college, Sashko stayed in Kyiv. He met some other gay people, but he said it was still too early to call it a community. He started dating, but it didn’t always go well.

oleksandr zhuhan

One of them was a criminal, so that was that bad. Yeah. And so I embraced that some people find their partners in life and some people don’t. Some people die lonely. And it stopped scaring me because before that, I thought that it was one of my biggest priorities, you know, to find a partner, to make family, and so on.

courtney stein

Then in 2014, Sashko got a message on a dating site.

oleksandr zhuhan

And at that stage, I met Antonina. I looked through his profile and I found out that he was into theater and that he was a refugee from Crimea. And that looked interesting.

courtney stein

Antonina recently began identifying as non-binary and using she and her pronouns. But Sashko still goes back and forth.

oleksandr zhuhan

He or she, yeah, I’m still confusing these things. We arranged a meeting. It wasn’t a date. It was a meeting.

courtney stein

They connected at a big moment in Ukraine, the moment a lot of Ukrainians say was the actual beginning of this war. The Ukrainian president at the time, who Putin supported, had just fled to Russia after months of protests forced him from office. Within days, Russian troops moved in to occupy Crimea. And like a lot of L.G.B.T.Q. people there, Antonina fled and ended up in Kyiv.

oleksandr zhuhan

We met on the bridge which is non-existent now. And we spend the night like talking and drinking coffee, talking about children, about theater and all kinds of things. And it was like, I don’t know how many hours. And that’s how we met. I think that talking to him and spending evenings and nights talking about what’s right and what’s wrong made me the person I am today.

courtney stein

Not long after they met, Sashko says he and Antonina decided to stop speaking Russian. And they helped create a theater group that performed pieces calling out Russian aggression in Crimea and homophobia within Russian culture. Outside the theater, they were also calling on Ukraine to recognize L.G.B.T.Q. rights and taking part in some of the earliest Pride celebrations.

oleksandr zhuhan

I think it was 2015, the biggest slogan of this Pride was that we exist. And there were like less than 50 people and lots and lots and lots of the police.

courtney stein

Since then, Pride in Kyiv has grown. In recent years, the parade has attracted thousands of people, part of a broader liberalization, especially among young people in the cities. But with that liberalization, there’s also been a backlash. Sashko told me about a night last November when he and Antonina were approached by two men in the street.

oleksandr zhuhan

First they came up to us, and Antonina was wearing a tiny —

what’s this thing called that’s not a stripe but ribbon? Oh, I forgot the word.

courtney stein

Rainbow?

oleksandr zhuhan

Rainbow. Yes, rainbow ribbon. Thanks. And I felt this danger right away the way they looked at us. And they were like about 50 meters away, and the street was empty. And one of them started following us. And they started talking to us in a very rude manner like, hey, are you fags? What are you wearing? Do you believe in God? Are you patriots? And they started pushing us and so on. And that was the first time when all I am like anti-violent person. If there is a chance for the words to work it out, I usually use the words.

courtney stein

But then, one of the guys pushed Antonina to the ground.

oleksandr zhuhan

And I was like off. I went bananas. And I was so mad that I felt I could tear those men with my bare hands because I was like, I don’t know where I got the strength. But it was like the first, maybe the second time in my life when I got to hit a person right in the face. And I felt so, I don’t know, empowered. That was the word. Like I hit back, and they didn’t expect it. Like, they thought that they were like no attacking to fags who couldn’t hit back.

courtney stein

The attack was still fresh in Sashko’s mind when Russian forces invaded Ukraine just a few months later. It was all part of what was weighing on him and Antonina that night they spent huddled in their bathroom considering their options.

oleksandr zhuhan

I definitely had doubts like, I was not afraid to go and fight, but I was really — I felt a great anxiety if I would fit in. And being gay was part of things that gave me that anxiety. But on the second day when Russia went full scale and when we understood that it was not a joke, it’s going to be for a long time, we couldn’t make any other choice really. What mattered was to protect our country.

courtney stein

So that’s how Sashko and Antonina came to enlist in this war, fighting to protect a country that hadn’t always protected them alongside soldiers who in peacetime might have been their enemies.

oleksandr zhuhan

I’m not considering the option of losing my freedom, because for an L.G.B.T.Q. person to lose freedom, to get captured by the Russians is worse than death, so I’ll be fighting until I win or I die.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. It’s the eighth of March, Tuesday. So I’m going to go on describing what life has become for me since the war started.

courtney stein

Not long after he enlisted, Sashko sent me this voice memo.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN It’s been 13 days since Russia attacked Ukraine for no reason. I’m sick now, and almost everyone in our unit is either sick or getting better.

And it’s because it’s always cold in here. We’re sleeping on the floor now in sleeping bags. But I’m not complaining, it’s just that you ask me to describe what it is like here. I go patrolling three times a day.

On these patrols, Sashko and Antonina were often together but still keeping their relationship a secret.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN The commander is very loyal. Well, he doesn’t know or he doesn’t want to know that we are a gay couple. We don’t touch or we don’t hold hands, we don’t hug each other. And the riskiest thing that my husband has done since the first day he kissed me on the forehead when I said that I probably had temperature. And he pressed his lips against my forehead like just to check if I had temperature. But it was a kiss, I knew it.

He’s the one person who can —

I don’t know, who can calm me down and ask if I’m OK.

Hello, Sashko? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Courtney, can you hear me now?

I can hear you. Can you hear me?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Oh, that’s perfect. Yeah.

As winter turned into spring, Russia continued to focus a lot of its air power on Kyiv. At this point, the volunteer forces were largely playing a support role away from the fighting. So Sashko and Antonina weren’t seeing active combat, but the war was all around them.

How are you?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Well, it’s been tough time. Tonight, there were like three regions where the bombs fell, and one of them was right next to us, next to our base. But it’s OK. We’re alive and more or less healthy. In 15 minutes, I’ll have to go to unpack the big cars with provisions and ammunition. So that’s our job. That’s the riskiest thing I’ve done so far. We’re just defending the base. And how are you feeling about that being your role right now?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN I’m OK. Well, on the first day when we came here, lots of guys, they were like, wow, I want to go and fight and so on. And I was like, I’m pretty much OK with the things as they are now. And the terrible thing is that we are getting used to this state of things. And I don’t want this to be my usual state.

The day before yesterday, we went to the place where we learn to shoot guns. We have Kalashnikovs, and I was thinking about my old sewing machine because I work in the theater so I can saw costumes for a theater place. And I was thinking about, well, I used to hate to oil my sewing machine, but I would love to do it now instead of oiling my gun. So it was like, you know, those flashbacks about what life used to be.

Hi, Courtney. It’s been a month and two days since the beginning of the war, and I have been thinking a lot about it one hell of a time, which happened not so often because we are either too busy or too exhausted to think.

There are things that depress me, but there are good things though.

For example, some people from our unit, they added us as friends on Facebook. And one of them came up to me the other day and he said, I read your post on Facebook. And he said, I didn’t put a like below this post, but I really want to say that I think it’s a great post and I liked it.

In the post, Sashko talked about the similarities between the fight for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and Ukrainian independence. He said that where Russia was driven by fear and hate, he hoped Ukraine would follow a different path after the war, a path of tolerance and acceptance.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN So it was a good thing, and that really made my day.

For the next few weeks, Sashko’s unit stayed in the same warehouse in Kyiv, protecting ammunition and resupplies for the regular army troops that were pushing the Russians back in other parts of the city. Then in April, Ukrainian forces retook the suburbs, places like Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were tortured and killed. Sashko messaged that he and Antonina had been moved and were now doing a different job but still mainly on guard duty. A few days later, we got on the phone.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney.

antonina ramanova

Hello, Courtney.

courtney stein

And I got to hear Antonina for the first time.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, Courtney, the thing is, Antonina speaks very little English.

antonina ramanova

My English is not very good.

courtney stein

So Antonina just listened while Sashko and I talked. Sashko said that now he assumed people in their unit understood that he and Antonina were a couple, but they still weren’t publicly acknowledging their relationship.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN But sometimes we like, I don’t know, touch fingers or — well, that’s mostly it. We touch fingers. That’s it.

I saw on your Facebook pages that you have decorated your guns with stickers. OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah.

It feels like a small act of resistance.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah. And our guns really stand out from the other guns.

Can you describe them? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yes. So like there’s a rainbow and a unicorn and a pineapple.

Do other people decorate their guns or is it just you guys?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN No, not really. We are the only ones with the stickers. Now, I saw one more person with a sticker, but it was like a sticker of a skull. And we have those optimistic, cute stickers.

And has your commander, anyone ever mentioned it like as a security concern or question you about it? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, yeah, yeah. One person came up to me like two days ago and said, that sticker has lots of white and it’s going to be a problem if we fight in the darkness like it could be seen from afar. And I said, OK, so when we fight in the darkness, I’ll take it off.

At the end of April, Putin declared victory in Mariupol, and Russian troops continued to push into Eastern and Southern Ukraine where hundreds of Ukrainian troops were dying every day. Sashko sent me a text message. Their unit had been given a choice, they could pack up and go volunteer in Kyiv as civilians or they could help bolster the military’s ranks and join another battalion and be sent to the front lines in the south.

This time, the decision wasn’t so clear. Sashko thought that he could be more useful as a volunteer. But for Antonina, returning to Kyiv was out of the question. Sashko wrote me that Antonina was intent on going with or without him. So he decided he was going too. But they weren’t sent right away.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We’re waiting here for the transfer.

Weeks passed. Then at the end of May, Sashko got back in touch.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. Sorry for not responding to you right away.

Things had been busy, he said.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And on Wednesday, that’s tomorrow, we are going to Mykolaiv. Mykolaiv is a city in the south of Ukraine. It’s close to Odessa.

Mykolaiv, Sashko explained, was part of the New frontline in the war. Like in Mariupol to the east, the Russians had managed to cut off water to Mykolaiv, forcing many of the city’s half a million residents to flee.

Before leaving for the south, Sashko and Antonina were sent home to Kyiv for a few days. Their apartment hadn’t been damaged in the shelling. And for the first time in the three months since they signed up for the territorial defense, they were able to sleep in their own bed. And with the Russians no longer anywhere near the city, cafes and shops were open again.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We were walking around the city, and I felt like I was walking next to a fish tank looking at people who are having their lattes. And the war seemed very real, but this life in Kyiv, the peaceful life seemed like something impossible. And I could physically feel it. I felt weak at my knees, and I had a strange feeling in my stomach and everything seemed so unstable.

And I just can’t pull myself together. Everything feels like a very bad, meaningless movie without the end. And the worst thing, the thing that I’m afraid most is that the war is going to be for like two, three, five, eight years more.

Sashko and Antonina met up with a friend from the theater world while in Kyiv. But Sashko could only think about war. He no longer related to his past life, and he was distracted by his upcoming deployment.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And the thing that I’m worried about is that in the new battalion, maybe there will be like real army people with strong hierarchy. I have an idea that in Mykolaiv in that new battalion, I’m going to be more open about my sexuality. Like I’m not going to wait if anyone asks or I’m not going to let them be guessing.

A few days later, I heard from Sashko again. They had made it to Mykolaiv.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hey there, Courtney. Hope you’re hearing me OK.

They’d begun digging trenches in anticipation of a new Russian offensive.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And today when we met our commander, and he was like getting acquainted, speaking to us, giving his speech, he said, I’ve had gay guys in my unit before and it was no problem with them. So if I see or hear any cases of homophobia, this unit is not a place for homophobia. Is that clear? And we are not going to talk about that again.

He said, I don’t care who you are or what you do until you break the rules. So if you’re a good fighter, then I’m OK with you.

Russian troops were sending a near-constant stream of bombs and missiles toward Mykolaiv. Huge swathes of the city had been burned to the ground or completely destroyed. But on one quiet evening, I was able to talk to Sashko by phone. And I asked him to tell me more about what happened with his commander.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN He said, I know that there are guys in our unit who are gay. Like, he just looked at me and I raised my hand like, here I am, hello.

He made the things clear, you see.

And how did the other people in the unit respond?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN They were like, OK. Yeah. They didn’t say much. I mean, the way they talk, they are not like some narrow-minded, homophobic savages. What I expected because I expected the worst. Army is still a world of manly men, but we are not — I mean, I don’t feel threatened physically and I feel much more confident now. I really feel like here I just have to be like a good soldier. And that’s like some guarantee that at least the commanders will protect me if anything happens. But I’m sure that nothing bad will happen.

A few weeks later, I got this message from Sashko. OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hey, Courtney. Sorry for taking so long to respond to your message. Here’s just another piece of information, which I think is important to see a bigger picture of what’s happening here in Ukraine. So yesterday I think, that was yesterday, L.G.B.T.Q. person was beaten.

And that happened when the guy was going to give an interview about his boyfriend who had died in this Russian-Ukrainian war. And at that time, a group of young men came up to him and they attacked him. And they started shouting homophobic things and they beat him.

I don’t know what to add.

Over many months of conversation, Sashko and I had talked a lot about his hopes for the future and for the future of Ukraine. So many of them revolved around his uncertainty of what version of the country would greet him and Antonina if and when the war finally ended. But one time, I’d gotten a different answer.

Do you think about the future?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, I sometimes stop and think about the future. And I’m trying not to make some great plans like, oh, I’m going to write a play about this war or I’m going to, I don’t know, to write a song. Just very, very small things, down to earth things. Like my mom, she lives in the Central Ukraine.

And they bought a house in the village. And they went there yesterday for the first time. And she sent me a video and she said, we’re waiting for you and Antonina to come and live there and repair it because the house is very old. And there’s a garden with fruit trees. And I was, oh my God, yeah. I’d really love to do that, mom.

lulu garcia-navarro

“First Person” is a production of New York Times Opinion. We’ll be back next Thursday with a new episode. Today’s episode was produced by Courtney Stein. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Lisa Tobin with help from Kaari Pitkin. Engineering by Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones, Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud.

Fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker. The rest of the first person team includes Cristal Duhaime, Christina Djossa, Olivia Natt, Derek Arthur and Jason Pagano. Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski, Shannon Busta, Kate Sinclair, Jeffrey Miranda, Paula Szuchman, Irene Noguchi, Patrick Healy and Katie Kingsbury.

transcript

In Russia, Gay People Are Routinely Targeted. That’s Why This Ukrainian Soldier Is Fighting.

When Putin invaded, Oleksandr Zhuhan chose to defend a country that hasn’t always defended him.

Thursday, July 7th, 2022

lulu garcia-navarro

From The earliest days of the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen the images of everyday Ukrainians signing up to defend their country against the Russian invasion leaving behind the lives they’d been living just days before. Wars can be uniting in that way with citizens coming together against a shared enemy, putting their differences aside. Oleksandr Zhuhan, Sashko for short, was one of those who joined Ukraine’s volunteer forces. He’s gay, and for him, Putin’s Russia held particular terror. Gay people are routinely targeted their, arrested without cause, even tortured. And among the reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine, he said the country had embraced values, quote, “contrary to human nature.”

But Sashko had also experienced homophobia within Ukraine in the years leading up to the war. So when he started talking to my colleague, Courtney Stein in the early days of the fighting, he was facing dual fears a future under Russia, but also how he might be treated by the soldiers he was serving alongside. From “New York Times Opinion,” this is “First Person.” I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Today, Sashko and the fight for his future in Ukraine.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. Today is calmer than it was yesterday, but still it’s not safe here. Anyway —

courtney stein

When we first started talking, Sashko was too busy to get on the phone.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We hear bumping sounds like every 15 minutes or every half an hour.

He was just a couple of days into his enlistment, and these were the early days of the war when Russia was shelling Kyiv. His unit was stationed in what had been a mall there.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And we are sleeping now next to the window shop. It looks somehow surrealistic because we see that beautiful clothes and we are wearing the same clothes that we came here in.

So I asked him to send me voice memos whenever he had a free minute. And what most came through was just how disorienting this all was for him.

oleksandr zhuhan

I haven’t — I hadn’t held a gun in my life until the 24th of February. I skipped all the lessons of —

courtney stein

In Ukraine, boys learn how to shoot guns in school. But Sashko never wanted any part of that sort of thing. He’d never imagined fighting in a war, even up to the moment he enlisted alongside the partner he calls his husband, though they can’t be legally married.

oleksandr zhuhan

We didn’t think that we would be given guns. We thought that we would do something like, I don’t know, cooking or cleaning or carrying heavy things, something like that. My husband is a director, and I am an actor and a director and a playwright. We are very stereotypically gay, if I can put it this way, like we are a gay couple who are vegans and we are very anti, I don’t know, war.

courtney stein

Or at least they had been, then Russia invaded. Sashko and Antonina spent the night of the invasion hiding in their bathroom, weighing whether to enlist.

oleksandr zhuhan

For both of us, it was a very difficult decision because we used to avoid places where there are lots of manly men, like stereotypically heterosexual men who want to fight. And we have met violence against gay people before and it was difficult.

courtney stein

But the day after Russia invaded when it became clear just how serious the situation was, both Sashko and Antonina signed up. They weren’t telling anyone they were together though.

oleksandr zhuhan

There was a situation when a man from our unit came up to us and asked, so are you brothers or friends? And since he only gave us like two options, I said friends very quickly. But then I was sorry and I kept thinking to myself, what would have happened if I had said we are husband and husband? What would have changed? I’m not sure.

courtney stein

In Ukraine, boys learned how to shoot guns in school. But Sashko never wanted any part of that sort of thing he’d never imagined fighting in a war, even up to the moment he enlisted alongside the partner he calls his husband, though they can’t be legally married.

oleksandr zhuhan

So I grew up in a small town in the Central Ukraine. When I was born, it was still the Soviet Union.

courtney stein

As a kid, Sashko spoke Russian in school. Then in 1991 when he was seven, Ukraine declared its independence. But it wasn’t a big patriotic moment in Sashko’s memory. What he remembers is the economic collapse that followed.

oleksandr zhuhan

People had to survive and they did different things, like some people stole, some people — I don’t the word for that. They did very bad things to survive and to get some food for their children.

courtney stein

Sashko and his parents lived in an apartment block with a shared courtyard.

oleksandr zhuhan

All the kids knew one another from the moment they were born. And I knew that there were some boys that my mom said, you mustn’t be friends with those boys because they smoke and their parents are not a very good family. Some of them smoked cigarettes beginning at the age of five I suppose.

courtney stein

What?

oleksandr zhuhan

Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.

courtney stein

Sashko wasn’t that kind of kid though. He was a rule follower.

oleksandr zhuhan

I was really very out of touch with the reality I think. I mean, I didn’t know much about sexuality, about homosexuality, or anything like this. I really like to draw, and I drew things like every day. I had albums. Do you do you say album or notebooks?

courtney stein

Notebooks.

oleksandr zhuhan

Filled with sketches. Yeah. And I had a secret notebook where I drew all like naked, people naked men. And I was about, I don’t know, 10 or 11 years old. And my mom found it and she said, oh my god, what was that? I was so ashamed. And she said that it was really a bad thing.

courtney stein

That was the message Sashko got from basically everyone growing up.

oleksandr zhuhan

Homosexuality was something that you should be ashamed of. And it was something that people in prison, you know, prisoners used to punish other prisoners. Does it make sense what I’m saying?

courtney stein

So it wasn’t like that people were actually gay. It was just a punishment.

oleksandr zhuhan

Yeah. Yeah. Or whenever you heard the word homosexuality, it was considered some of the world’s biggest threats, you know, like homosexuality atomic war.

courtney stein

And given that, when he left his hometown and went to Kyiv for college, he stayed in the closet. But in his second year, he fell in love with his roommate who was straight.

oleksandr zhuhan

One day I just decided that, oh my god, if he doesn’t love me then I have no more reason to live. I know now that it was very stupid, but I was 16. So I got all the drugs that I had, I mix them with alcohol and I drank them all. And at first, I fainted, but then my friends found me and they called the ambulance.

courtney stein

He ended up in the hospital. They called his mom to take him home.

oleksandr zhuhan

And of course, she started asking questions, and I had to tell her.

courtney stein

How did she respond?

oleksandr zhuhan

She said, it’s OK, I love you. Maybe one day you’ll meet a woman and you’ll have children and I’ll pray for you. Let’s pray together. And I said, oh my god, mom, don’t. Please, I — and that was like second coming out. I said, I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist. Yeah. And then some years later, I’m a vegan. And you know, like it was a bingo, gay vegan atheist. No more hope for mom.

courtney stein

Which one was hardest for her, the atheist, the veganism, or the being gay?

oleksandr zhuhan

I don’t think that she accepted anything, any of these.

courtney stein

When he finished college, Sashko stayed in Kyiv. He met some other gay people, but he said it was still too early to call it a community. He started dating, but it didn’t always go well.

oleksandr zhuhan

One of them was a criminal, so that was that bad. Yeah. And so I embraced that some people find their partners in life and some people don’t. Some people die lonely. And it stopped scaring me because before that, I thought that it was one of my biggest priorities, you know, to find a partner, to make family, and so on.

courtney stein

Then in 2014, Sashko got a message on a dating site.

oleksandr zhuhan

And at that stage, I met Antonina. I looked through his profile and I found out that he was into theater and that he was a refugee from Crimea. And that looked interesting.

courtney stein

Antonina recently began identifying as non-binary and using she and her pronouns. But Sashko still goes back and forth.

oleksandr zhuhan

He or she, yeah, I’m still confusing these things. We arranged a meeting. It wasn’t a date. It was a meeting.

courtney stein

They connected at a big moment in Ukraine, the moment a lot of Ukrainians say was the actual beginning of this war. The Ukrainian president at the time, who Putin supported, had just fled to Russia after months of protests forced him from office. Within days, Russian troops moved in to occupy Crimea. And like a lot of L.G.B.T.Q. people there, Antonina fled and ended up in Kyiv.

oleksandr zhuhan

We met on the bridge which is non-existent now. And we spend the night like talking and drinking coffee, talking about children, about theater and all kinds of things. And it was like, I don’t know how many hours. And that’s how we met. I think that talking to him and spending evenings and nights talking about what’s right and what’s wrong made me the person I am today.

courtney stein

Not long after they met, Sashko says he and Antonina decided to stop speaking Russian. And they helped create a theater group that performed pieces calling out Russian aggression in Crimea and homophobia within Russian culture. Outside the theater, they were also calling on Ukraine to recognize L.G.B.T.Q. rights and taking part in some of the earliest Pride celebrations.

oleksandr zhuhan

I think it was 2015, the biggest slogan of this Pride was that we exist. And there were like less than 50 people and lots and lots and lots of the police.

courtney stein

Since then, Pride in Kyiv has grown. In recent years, the parade has attracted thousands of people, part of a broader liberalization, especially among young people in the cities. But with that liberalization, there’s also been a backlash. Sashko told me about a night last November when he and Antonina were approached by two men in the street.

oleksandr zhuhan

First they came up to us, and Antonina was wearing a tiny —

what’s this thing called that’s not a stripe but ribbon? Oh, I forgot the word.

courtney stein

Rainbow?

oleksandr zhuhan

Rainbow. Yes, rainbow ribbon. Thanks. And I felt this danger right away the way they looked at us. And they were like about 50 meters away, and the street was empty. And one of them started following us. And they started talking to us in a very rude manner like, hey, are you fags? What are you wearing? Do you believe in God? Are you patriots? And they started pushing us and so on. And that was the first time when all I am like anti-violent person. If there is a chance for the words to work it out, I usually use the words.

courtney stein

But then, one of the guys pushed Antonina to the ground.

oleksandr zhuhan

And I was like off. I went bananas. And I was so mad that I felt I could tear those men with my bare hands because I was like, I don’t know where I got the strength. But it was like the first, maybe the second time in my life when I got to hit a person right in the face. And I felt so, I don’t know, empowered. That was the word. Like I hit back, and they didn’t expect it. Like, they thought that they were like no attacking to fags who couldn’t hit back.

courtney stein

The attack was still fresh in Sashko’s mind when Russian forces invaded Ukraine just a few months later. It was all part of what was weighing on him and Antonina that night they spent huddled in their bathroom considering their options.

oleksandr zhuhan

I definitely had doubts like, I was not afraid to go and fight, but I was really — I felt a great anxiety if I would fit in. And being gay was part of things that gave me that anxiety. But on the second day when Russia went full scale and when we understood that it was not a joke, it’s going to be for a long time, we couldn’t make any other choice really. What mattered was to protect our country.

courtney stein

So that’s how Sashko and Antonina came to enlist in this war, fighting to protect a country that hadn’t always protected them alongside soldiers who in peacetime might have been their enemies.

oleksandr zhuhan

I’m not considering the option of losing my freedom, because for an L.G.B.T.Q. person to lose freedom, to get captured by the Russians is worse than death, so I’ll be fighting until I win or I die.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. It’s the eighth of March, Tuesday. So I’m going to go on describing what life has become for me since the war started.

courtney stein

Not long after he enlisted, Sashko sent me this voice memo.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN It’s been 13 days since Russia attacked Ukraine for no reason. I’m sick now, and almost everyone in our unit is either sick or getting better.

And it’s because it’s always cold in here. We’re sleeping on the floor now in sleeping bags. But I’m not complaining, it’s just that you ask me to describe what it is like here. I go patrolling three times a day.

On these patrols, Sashko and Antonina were often together but still keeping their relationship a secret.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN The commander is very loyal. Well, he doesn’t know or he doesn’t want to know that we are a gay couple. We don’t touch or we don’t hold hands, we don’t hug each other. And the riskiest thing that my husband has done since the first day he kissed me on the forehead when I said that I probably had temperature. And he pressed his lips against my forehead like just to check if I had temperature. But it was a kiss, I knew it.

He’s the one person who can —

I don’t know, who can calm me down and ask if I’m OK.

Hello, Sashko? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Courtney, can you hear me now?

I can hear you. Can you hear me?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Oh, that’s perfect. Yeah.

As winter turned into spring, Russia continued to focus a lot of its air power on Kyiv. At this point, the volunteer forces were largely playing a support role away from the fighting. So Sashko and Antonina weren’t seeing active combat, but the war was all around them.

How are you?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Well, it’s been tough time. Tonight, there were like three regions where the bombs fell, and one of them was right next to us, next to our base. But it’s OK. We’re alive and more or less healthy. In 15 minutes, I’ll have to go to unpack the big cars with provisions and ammunition. So that’s our job. That’s the riskiest thing I’ve done so far. We’re just defending the base. And how are you feeling about that being your role right now?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN I’m OK. Well, on the first day when we came here, lots of guys, they were like, wow, I want to go and fight and so on. And I was like, I’m pretty much OK with the things as they are now. And the terrible thing is that we are getting used to this state of things. And I don’t want this to be my usual state.

The day before yesterday, we went to the place where we learn to shoot guns. We have Kalashnikovs, and I was thinking about my old sewing machine because I work in the theater so I can saw costumes for a theater place. And I was thinking about, well, I used to hate to oil my sewing machine, but I would love to do it now instead of oiling my gun. So it was like, you know, those flashbacks about what life used to be.

Hi, Courtney. It’s been a month and two days since the beginning of the war, and I have been thinking a lot about it one hell of a time, which happened not so often because we are either too busy or too exhausted to think.

There are things that depress me, but there are good things though.

For example, some people from our unit, they added us as friends on Facebook. And one of them came up to me the other day and he said, I read your post on Facebook. And he said, I didn’t put a like below this post, but I really want to say that I think it’s a great post and I liked it.

In the post, Sashko talked about the similarities between the fight for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and Ukrainian independence. He said that where Russia was driven by fear and hate, he hoped Ukraine would follow a different path after the war, a path of tolerance and acceptance.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN So it was a good thing, and that really made my day.

For the next few weeks, Sashko’s unit stayed in the same warehouse in Kyiv, protecting ammunition and resupplies for the regular army troops that were pushing the Russians back in other parts of the city. Then in April, Ukrainian forces retook the suburbs, places like Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were tortured and killed. Sashko messaged that he and Antonina had been moved and were now doing a different job but still mainly on guard duty. A few days later, we got on the phone.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney.

antonina ramanova

Hello, Courtney.

courtney stein

And I got to hear Antonina for the first time.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, Courtney, the thing is, Antonina speaks very little English.

antonina ramanova

My English is not very good.

courtney stein

So Antonina just listened while Sashko and I talked. Sashko said that now he assumed people in their unit understood that he and Antonina were a couple, but they still weren’t publicly acknowledging their relationship.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN But sometimes we like, I don’t know, touch fingers or — well, that’s mostly it. We touch fingers. That’s it.

I saw on your Facebook pages that you have decorated your guns with stickers. OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah.

It feels like a small act of resistance.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah. And our guns really stand out from the other guns.

Can you describe them? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yes. So like there’s a rainbow and a unicorn and a pineapple.

Do other people decorate their guns or is it just you guys?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN No, not really. We are the only ones with the stickers. Now, I saw one more person with a sticker, but it was like a sticker of a skull. And we have those optimistic, cute stickers.

And has your commander, anyone ever mentioned it like as a security concern or question you about it? OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, yeah, yeah. One person came up to me like two days ago and said, that sticker has lots of white and it’s going to be a problem if we fight in the darkness like it could be seen from afar. And I said, OK, so when we fight in the darkness, I’ll take it off.

At the end of April, Putin declared victory in Mariupol, and Russian troops continued to push into Eastern and Southern Ukraine where hundreds of Ukrainian troops were dying every day. Sashko sent me a text message. Their unit had been given a choice, they could pack up and go volunteer in Kyiv as civilians or they could help bolster the military’s ranks and join another battalion and be sent to the front lines in the south.

This time, the decision wasn’t so clear. Sashko thought that he could be more useful as a volunteer. But for Antonina, returning to Kyiv was out of the question. Sashko wrote me that Antonina was intent on going with or without him. So he decided he was going too. But they weren’t sent right away.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We’re waiting here for the transfer.

Weeks passed. Then at the end of May, Sashko got back in touch.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hi, Courtney. Sorry for not responding to you right away.

Things had been busy, he said.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And on Wednesday, that’s tomorrow, we are going to Mykolaiv. Mykolaiv is a city in the south of Ukraine. It’s close to Odessa.

Mykolaiv, Sashko explained, was part of the New frontline in the war. Like in Mariupol to the east, the Russians had managed to cut off water to Mykolaiv, forcing many of the city’s half a million residents to flee.

Before leaving for the south, Sashko and Antonina were sent home to Kyiv for a few days. Their apartment hadn’t been damaged in the shelling. And for the first time in the three months since they signed up for the territorial defense, they were able to sleep in their own bed. And with the Russians no longer anywhere near the city, cafes and shops were open again.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN We were walking around the city, and I felt like I was walking next to a fish tank looking at people who are having their lattes. And the war seemed very real, but this life in Kyiv, the peaceful life seemed like something impossible. And I could physically feel it. I felt weak at my knees, and I had a strange feeling in my stomach and everything seemed so unstable.

And I just can’t pull myself together. Everything feels like a very bad, meaningless movie without the end. And the worst thing, the thing that I’m afraid most is that the war is going to be for like two, three, five, eight years more.

Sashko and Antonina met up with a friend from the theater world while in Kyiv. But Sashko could only think about war. He no longer related to his past life, and he was distracted by his upcoming deployment.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And the thing that I’m worried about is that in the new battalion, maybe there will be like real army people with strong hierarchy. I have an idea that in Mykolaiv in that new battalion, I’m going to be more open about my sexuality. Like I’m not going to wait if anyone asks or I’m not going to let them be guessing.

A few days later, I heard from Sashko again. They had made it to Mykolaiv.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hey there, Courtney. Hope you’re hearing me OK.

They’d begun digging trenches in anticipation of a new Russian offensive.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN And today when we met our commander, and he was like getting acquainted, speaking to us, giving his speech, he said, I’ve had gay guys in my unit before and it was no problem with them. So if I see or hear any cases of homophobia, this unit is not a place for homophobia. Is that clear? And we are not going to talk about that again.

He said, I don’t care who you are or what you do until you break the rules. So if you’re a good fighter, then I’m OK with you.

Russian troops were sending a near-constant stream of bombs and missiles toward Mykolaiv. Huge swathes of the city had been burned to the ground or completely destroyed. But on one quiet evening, I was able to talk to Sashko by phone. And I asked him to tell me more about what happened with his commander.

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN He said, I know that there are guys in our unit who are gay. Like, he just looked at me and I raised my hand like, here I am, hello.

He made the things clear, you see.

And how did the other people in the unit respond?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN They were like, OK. Yeah. They didn’t say much. I mean, the way they talk, they are not like some narrow-minded, homophobic savages. What I expected because I expected the worst. Army is still a world of manly men, but we are not — I mean, I don’t feel threatened physically and I feel much more confident now. I really feel like here I just have to be like a good soldier. And that’s like some guarantee that at least the commanders will protect me if anything happens. But I’m sure that nothing bad will happen.

A few weeks later, I got this message from Sashko. OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Hey, Courtney. Sorry for taking so long to respond to your message. Here’s just another piece of information, which I think is important to see a bigger picture of what’s happening here in Ukraine. So yesterday I think, that was yesterday, L.G.B.T.Q. person was beaten.

And that happened when the guy was going to give an interview about his boyfriend who had died in this Russian-Ukrainian war. And at that time, a group of young men came up to him and they attacked him. And they started shouting homophobic things and they beat him.

I don’t know what to add.

Over many months of conversation, Sashko and I had talked a lot about his hopes for the future and for the future of Ukraine. So many of them revolved around his uncertainty of what version of the country would greet him and Antonina if and when the war finally ended. But one time, I’d gotten a different answer.

Do you think about the future?

OLEKSANDR ZHUHAN Yeah, I sometimes stop and think about the future. And I’m trying not to make some great plans like, oh, I’m going to write a play about this war or I’m going to, I don’t know, to write a song. Just very, very small things, down to earth things. Like my mom, she lives in the Central Ukraine.

And they bought a house in the village. And they went there yesterday for the first time. And she sent me a video and she said, we’re waiting for you and Antonina to come and live there and repair it because the house is very old. And there’s a garden with fruit trees. And I was, oh my God, yeah. I’d really love to do that, mom.

lulu garcia-navarro

“First Person” is a production of New York Times Opinion. We’ll be back next Thursday with a new episode. Today’s episode was produced by Courtney Stein. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Lisa Tobin with help from Kaari Pitkin. Engineering by Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones, Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud.

Fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker. The rest of the first person team includes Cristal Duhaime, Christina Djossa, Olivia Natt, Derek Arthur and Jason Pagano. Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski, Shannon Busta, Kate Sinclair, Jeffrey Miranda, Paula Szuchman, Irene Noguchi, Patrick Healy and Katie Kingsbury.

July 7, 2022

Produced by ‘First Person’

Since the beginning of the war, Ukrainians of all backgrounds have come together to fight their common enemy, Russia. But for some Ukrainians, that enemy holds particular terror. In Russia, gay people are routinely targeted for their identity — arrested without cause and even tortured. That’s what motivated Oleksandr Zhuhan to join the volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, despite experiencing homophobia in Ukraine.

[You can listen to this episode of “First Person” on Apple, Spotify or Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

Before the war, Zhuhan said, he avoided places with “stereotypically heterosexual men.” So when he enlisted in February, he went back into the closet, telling his fellow soldiers that he and the partner he was serving alongside were “friends.” In the months since, Zhuhan has been fighting two battles: one for his country and one for his identity.

Warning: This episode contains explicit language.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

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Credit…Antonina Romanova

“First Person” is produced by Derek Arthur, Christina Djossa, Jason Pagano, Cristal Duhaime, Olivia Natt and Courtney Stein. The show is edited by Kaari Pitkin, Stephanie Joyce and Lisa Tobin. Scoring by Isaac Jones, Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud. Mixing by Isaac Jones. Fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. The executive producer of Opinion audio is Irene Noguchi, and the director of New York Times audio is Paula Szuchman. Special thanks to Jeffrey Miranda, Kate Sinclair, Patrick Healy and Katie Kingsbury.