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I AM HERE winter2

What is it like to be a teenage lesbian in rural Russia?

Photographer Turkina Faso shoots portraits of girls from her hometown in the North Caucasus and tells their stories in ‘I Am Here’

‘My Russia’ is the Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Russia’s revolutionary youth today. Emboldened by social media, their attitudes towards the state are ever-morphing, their protests growing ever stronger, and they’re breaking new frontiers. Here, young Russians tell their stories on Dazed.

I am from Essentuki, a town in the North Caucasus region of Russia with a population of around 100,000 people. My younger sister, Alice, lives there – these girls are her lesbian friends. Essentuki is a place where nothing really happens, where people are keen on traditions and very few of them are aware of what is going on in the world in terms of freedom, sexuality and self-identification. I am not saying they are not educated and do not know history, I’m saying that they are simply very traditional and conservative in their everyday life and in their family roles. These teenage girls consider themselves free – at least, they try to be.

The reason I wanted to shoot them was to learn more about my hometown and the people there, about their hopes and fears, about Russia today, about a Russian lifestyle different to Moscow’s, where I have lived for the past ten years. In this region of the North Caucasus most of the women are housewives and mothers and the men are hunters and considered true ‘heroes’. Here, if you are not married in your late 20s or (God save your soul!) early 30s then you should probably pray!

These girls’ simple stories really excited me – their resistance to tradition and stereotypical conservative mindsets. It’s significant to say that the girls’ parents are aware of their sexual orientation. As you can imagine, reactions varied. But they face the reality anyway. It was not easy for both sides, the parents and their children, to talk about it. When I lived there, more than 15 years ago, it seemed impossible or even insane to come out or say whatever you wanted to the older generation. I’m trying to imagine this kind of scene, going to my parents and saying, “Hi guys, how are you? I kissed three girls today because I think we like each other as more than just friends.” They would probably have put me into a cold shower and told me not to think like that. My parents are super-young and not prejudiced, by the way.

When I was a teenager we had a secret society of young lesbians, and we were hungry for love. In the end we all had boyfriends. If I met a nice woman today I would not mind getting into a relationship with her but most of the people here in Russia – even in Moscow – have huge issues with a gay lifestyle or any other ‘weird’ behaviour. In this rural area there is literally nothing to do and you have to grow somehow, survive and plan – either by leaving or by becoming part of the society.

This generation is so different to previous ones – they have new rules for their lives, they are always online and are not isolated from the world. I remember waiting for the release of some printed teenage mag in order to dig up some information about what was going on in Moscow, London or wherever else. These girls are everywhere, they are free to choose what to be interested in, how to live and what to believe in.

So why only girls? I tried to approach gay boys from the same region as well, but this community is closed due to the high level of violence against them. Chechnya is very close. These girls are not too strict in their sexual preferences or private life, all they desire is a freedom to choose and the opportunity to freely express themselves in society.

Fil (the girl with bunny ears and a cigarette) has experienced violence and received medical treatment, initiated by her grandmother after coming out as a lesbian. Her grandmother put her into the hospital and after a week Fil left. They have not been in contact since. Fil didn’t give up, and introduced her girlfriend to her parents. Luckily, her parents supported her choice and her individuality – this is so crucial. “The confidence starts from your home environment,” says Fil. Once, her parents decided to interact with Kot’s family (Kot was her girlfriend at that time and is one of my girls in the story). They called Kot’s mom – it was a disaster. Kot’s parents were not ready for this and decided to ‘protect’ their daughter by putting her under house arrest for a few months. Whenever she went out, she had to use special GPS radar to control her movements. Kot ( ‘male cat’ in Russian) experienced aggression from her family and she tried to commit suicide, but real support and love from Fil’s family and friends helped. “Fil’s parents gave me much more understanding and warmth than my own parents, it was a relief,” she says. “They even like her more then me now,” says Fil.

Kosatka, 19, is the oldest of the girls. She smokes a lot, has gothic black hair and used to be an emo. She loves to talk. “I told my mum that I prefer pussies,” she says. “My mum said that I am probably too young and a bit crazy.” But in the end she was OK with it. I am so happy to be myself outside, when I meet friends and at home, when I have dinner with my mum. The other side of being a lesbian is not being taken seriously, especially by men. In a way it is easier and much safer (than being a gay man). They think it’s kind of a sexual game and the guys say that lesbians are sexy, not like gays who are ‘disgusting’.”

Tsylya, 16, is tender and romantic. She says that she is not a proper lesbian, but she is a friend of the girls, part of the community, and actually she loves boys, tries different things and that she loves “people in general”. Her father is a tattoo master, a rare profession in this area. He doesn’t push her to be someone else. Her father said once that when he was a teenager he and his friends fought with gays just for fun, because the strong boys “didn’t see them as humans”. So now he is learning how to be more open-minded, because he knows about his daughter’s friends and their gay or bisexual identity.

Viola says on one of her social media accounts: “Russia is for sad people. Not the right time to die yet.” She is more of a tomboy, behaves like a perfect companion for her younger sister and seems very feminine and masculine at the same time. She told me that her family members are racists and homophobes and she can do nothing about this, she just lives her own life and gets support from her friends. “Our parents just don’t want to realise that violence can’t work for us, we are not going to change just because they say so. We need support and a sense of confidence from our families, but usually all we get is misunderstanding and all kinds of aggression. They make us miserable when they push us to be just like everyone else, like any ‘normal’ person.”

When the girls were telling me these stories, I was really proud of them – they support each other and know everything about each other. We say the environment affects your mentality, but this is the beginning of a different process. These days we are creating our mentality by building the environment.

Of course, we still live in the post-Soviet country where Soviet people with closed and structured minds make laws and rules for us. You can’t avoid this pressure, all you can do is adapt. This younger generation is free to say things via social media or go out on the streets with people like them, people who also want to be free and are ready to say this out loud.

If you are able to change the way people see you and the things around you then our everyday life will be changed. Slightly. Slowly. But it will be.