Last year, Maksim was a soldier in the Russian army. A picture from that time depicts a young man in a uniform, his short haircut covered by a military beret, as he clutches a rifle. Despite his fearless posture in the photo, Maksim’s time in the Russian Army was marked with anxiety and panic attacks. As a gay man in a country that made anti-gay ideology a foundation of its anti-Ukraine propaganda, he feared for his life every day.
Today, Maksim has a different life. He recently moved into a house in Southern California with his boyfriend Dmitrii. On a recent day, his blonde hair was covered by a black baseball cap, and he fixed his blue eyes on Dmitrii, who was sitting on a couch in a high-ceilinged house the couple shares with other roommates in the Los Angeles area.
“I still can’t believe I can kiss him and hold his hand in public,” Maksim, 22, said in Russian. “I’m excited about our relationship, but I’m still afraid of (physical) attacks.”
Maksim and Dmitrii, who declined to give their last names in fear of retaliation against their families still living in Russia, are among the latest members of the growing Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ community in Los Angeles who are seeking refuge from a country where the rights of LGBTQ+ people are under fire.
They are two of four LGBTQ+ refugees who fled Russia and became friends at the Casa de Luz shelter in Tijuana. Tijuana was the last stop before they immigrated to the Los Angeles area, where the four have been housed at Auntie Mele’s House, a nonprofit homeless shelter in an undisclosed location. Maksim, Dmitrii, Max and Ivan, aged 18 to 26, asked that their last names not be disclosed. The friends hope to live together in a house one day.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of Russian refugees,” said Eugene Maysky, vice president of the board at the Imperial Court of Los Angeles and Hollywood, an LGBTQ+ non-profit that advocates for human rights and equality.
In his seven years as a gay activist, Maysky has never seen Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ immigrants coming to California in such great numbers. “Many people suffer from PTSD and anxiety,” he said, referring to the LGBTQ+ residents at Auntie Mele’s House.
According to the UK Ministry of Defence, more than 1 million people left Russia last year, fleeing mobilization and the country’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights which was put in place following the invasion of Ukraine. And a steady stream of those immigrants are coming to Los Angeles after making their way to Tijuana and other U.S. entry points. There are no exact estimates on how many of them are members of the LGBTQ+ population.
The modest Auntie Mele’s House currently houses 15 residents, nine of whom are Russian-speaking, Maysky said. He is expecting two more Russian immigrants who will cross the U.S.-Mexico border in coming days.
Imperial Court of Los Angeles and Hollywood, an LGBTQ+ non-profit, helps underserved communities through 95 chapters in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and is a partner of APAIT, the Access to Prevention, Advocacy and Treatment project which oversees Auntie Mele’s House. Maysky says that APAIT’s shelter in Tijuana, Casa de Luz, has seen such a big jump in Russian-speaking people that recent arrivals slept in tents in the shelter’s courtyard.
Since October 2022, more than 22,600 Russians have entered the U.S. through its southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. In 2020, that number was only about 300.
Tatyana Rodzinek is West Hollywood’s Russian community programs coordinator, in the small city encircled by Los Angeles, where 11 % of residents hail from the former countries of the Soviet Union. She has seen an increase in the number of calls from Russian-speaking immigrants seeking legal and other assistance available to the LGBTQ+ population.
Rodzinek said the number of calls for help began to grow about a year ago, and some of the immigrants didn’t speak English and hoped to find Russian-speaking lawyers and therapists.
She has done her best to help, but explains, “The main challenge is that they call organizations in the city of West Hollywood, but if they don’t live in West Hollywood, we are not able to offer services to people who live outside of the city.”
Maksim and Dmitrii met online about a year ago, after Maskim returned home from the Russian Army.
Since high school, Maksim has endured bullying for “not being masculine enough.” When he was enlisted in the army, he was terrified that other soldiers would discover his sexual orientation.
“I was constantly afraid for my life,” he said. “You are in the shower with other guys and you’re terrified that you would look at someone the wrong way. They would just kill and bury me in the woods.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many of Maksim’s fellow soldiers were sent across the border, but he had to undergo surgery. That probably saved his life, as thousands of Russian soldiers fell during intense attacks on Ukraine.
“When the ‘special operation’ started, nobody understood what we were fighting for,” Maksim said, referring to what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation,” or defense operation to halt NATO’s eastward expansion. It’s illegal in Russia to call Russian’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine a “war.”
“They were telling us that we were going to defend our country,” Maksim said. “We couldn’t understand why we would defend it on the Ukrainian land.”
When he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, soldiers injured on the frontlines were brought in. They shared stories with Maksim about the horrors of a war in which soldiers from Maksim’s battalion were injured, crippled or killed. One soldier shot himself in the foot just to be discharged and sent home.
“I met a soldier who, for the first time in his life, experienced a panic attack — and he shares with me that his friend was blown up by a mine,” Maksim said. “He went to the funeral and couldn’t sleep for days.”
When Maksim met Dmitrii online last year, Dmitrii said he was willing to leave Russia. Dmitrii, who had recently split from his wife, said he couldn’t bear to live in a country where discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals had become a norm.
A towering guy at 6-foot-4, Dmitrii married his high school sweetheart at 18. He was studying to become a judge in Moscow when his wife became pregnant. But two years ago, the father of two suddenly fell in love with a man.
“I just realized I couldn’t be with a woman anymore,” Dmitrii said in Russian.
After he met Maksim, they became a couple and Dmitrii shared with him his plans to move to the U.S.
In September 2022, the couple made a leap of faith and crossed the Russian border to Georgia. From there they went to Dubai, Mexico City and then Tijuana where they stayed at the Casa de Luz shelter. Unlike its northern neighbor, Mexico doesn’t require Russians to have visas to enter Mexico.
At the Casa de Luz shelter in Tijuana, Maksim and Dimitrii made friends with two other immigrants fleeing Russia, Max, 23, a trans man born in St. Petersburg who left Russia after his parents threatened to sue his therapist who backed him in receiving hormone therapy; and Ivan, 18, who is gay, half Russian and half Ukraine, and “didn’t want to kill people.”
After making it to Los Angeles, Maksim and Dimitrii stayed at Auntie Mele’s House shelter for nearly six months before moving to a house in the Los Angeles area. Just like Auntie Mele’s House, their current house is owned by the Access to Prevention, Advocacy and Treatment project, a service organization that assists immigrants, refugees and the LGBTQ+ population.
On a recent morning, as the couple sat in the living room of the new house they share with several roommates, Dmitrii and Maksim talked about adapting to their life in Los Angeles.
“I look forward to my green card, and Maksim is looking forward to his engagement ring,” Dmitrii said, laughing.
Maksim and Dmitrii are excited about exploring Los Angeles. Dmitrii said L.A. reminds him of Moscow in ways that Angelenos might find humorous.
“You wake up in your PJs, walk to a store, go for a smoke, jump in a car and drive to run errands,” he said. “Nobody cares about how you look. It was the same thing in Moscow.”
Max took a different route to arrive in Southern California, flying from St. Petersburg to Tijuana and staying at the Casa de Luz shelter where he became friends with Maksim and Dmitrii. He crossed the border in February. He said that by living in Los Angeles he finally felt safe and “I can be my authentic self. I love it here.”
Max, who shared a room with Dmitrii and Maksim at Auntie Mele’s House before they moved out, has been on hormone therapy for three months.
“My parents are very conservative and they don’t believe gay people should exist,” said Max, who didn’t disclose his last name for fear of retaliation against his parents who live in St. Petersburg. “I knew that telling them (about my sexual orientation) wouldn’t end well.”
When he told his parents in 2016 about his orientation, they “disregarded it as a joke.” When he finally told his mother that he was about to start hormone therapy, she threatened to sue his therapist.
“Thankfully it didn’t happen,” Max said. “But if she would have done it, there’s a huge possibility that the therapist would have gone to jail.”
After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Max’s life in Russia turned into a nightmare.
“Every time I left my house, I would feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of Nazis,” he said. Max felt stressed seeing the letter ‘Z’, which has become a symbol for Russians who support the war in Ukraine. It is widely seen on cars, T-shirts and buildings in Russia.
Most of his friends are in the closet or fled the country — and many of them, he said, were violently attacked by anti-gay groups before they left.
Max plans to go back to school and continue studying finance. He enjoys writing poetry and visiting museums. “All I dream about is a calm and fulfilling life,” he said.
Ivan shares a room with Max on the second floor at Auntie Mele’s House. The two beds recently vacated by Maksim and Dmitrii are soon going to be occupied by two more Russian immigrants who are expected from Tijuana in the coming days.
“I just didn’t want to kill people,” said Ivan as he sat on his bed next to a barred window, wearing a silver jacket and a pair of pants with the American flag printed on them. “I have a lot of friends in Ukraine and I felt really terrible about this.”
Ivan is from the town of Krasnodar in southern Russia, and from a young age he endured bullying by students and teachers. “Living in a small town was challenging,” he said. “It was my goal to move somewhere where I felt safe.”
Ivan dreams of a quiet life, becoming a musician, and reuniting with his friends by moving in with Max, Dmitrii and Maksim.
Asked who will cook for the group of four friends, they all say in one voice: “Dmitrii!”
A survey published in 2020 by Moscow-based non-governmental research organization the Levada Center, found that about 30% of Russians wanted to isolate gay people from society. Only about 10% were willing to assist them. One of the researchers, Ekaterina Kochegina, told NBC News that many Russians “would not want to see gay people existing. Not necessarily to kill them but to have a society where this doesn’t exist as a phenomenon.”
Although it is not illegal to be an LGBTQ+ person in Russia, a decade ago the Kremlin passed a so-called “gay propaganda law” banning the distribution of information about gay relationships among minors. Human rights activists said the law has sparked a wave of violence against sexual minorities and activists.
Russian leadership remained mum in response to the wave of violence. Some politicians openly encouraged violence against LGBTQ+ individuals. Another study by Russian LGBT Network, the country’s largest organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, recently found that more than 50% of LGBTQ+ individuals experienced violence at least once because of their sexual orientation.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has called the war necessary to defend Russia against Western propaganda and its attack on “traditional values.”
Maksim and Dmitrii say they can’t wait to marry and start a family, something that they, as gay men, wouldn’t be able to experience back home.
“All I want is a happy and quiet life,” Maksim said. “If someone attacks us, I know that at least the police would protect us. That would never happen in Russia.”