By Little G on Friday, April 16, 2010 - 21:47
Several years ago Helga sent out an appeal to experienced guitarists and other experienced musicians to start a band jam.
I can't remember exactly how that e-mail reached me, but I responded from my crib in Chicago, IL. and soon we were e-mailing back and forth. We talked about music, playing the guitar, genres and techniques, and guitar gods. The rest is, as the saying goes, history.
46-year-old Helga was born and raised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and (apart from a few brief stints) lived there all her life. She's recently moved back to the Netherlands after working as an interpreter in Moscow for the past three years. I thought this was a good opportunity to ask her about her point of view on lesbian life in the Russian capital.
Helga loved learning new languages when she was young. That's how she started a course in Russian, which took her to Russia as well. She told me she first visited Moscow back in 1986, when Russia was known as the Soviet Union, and that's when she got acquainted with very hospitable Russian folks and their rich culture. Helga pointed out that back then Russians had very little exposure to foreigners and tourists, and bent over backwards to accommodate guests. After that first visit she kept going back to Russia regularly - first and foremost to attend Russian courses, and secondly to do some additional travelling.
In 2007 the opportunity arose to work for a Dutch organization as an interpreter, which she seized. Used to being out in her home country, she started the new job (semi) closeted, testing the waters. Helga told me she initially didn't talk about her sexual preference. She suspected her Dutch co-workers (probably) knew from the start, and didn't have any problems with it. As a woman working for the organization she was the only one who didn't wear skirts and dresses, nor had long hair, which Helga thinks is telling, especially when the other female co-workers look more feminine.
She did open up in her last year working for the organization, when she got a (Dutch) girlfriend. She did, however, maintain caution when she was around Russian co-workers. Even though the younger generation is more open minded about the issue, homosexuality is still a taboo in Russia and progress is extremely slow. Helga told me Russian TV just started airing documentaries on homosexuality that aren't completely negative portrayals of queers.
Her sexual preference wasn't a problem outside work, where she mainly hung out with Russian lesbians, but Helga's quick to stress she wasn't out to her Russian acquaintances and co-workers. It was something she had mixed feelings about; to Helga, crawling back into the closet would be inconceivable in the Netherlands.
In 2005 Helga met two Russian ladies at the "Lesbisch Festival" (“Lesbian Festival”) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who introduced her to lesbian (night)life in Moscow. She made some friends, some of whom she accompanied to women's clubs. These women's clubs are frequented by lesbians only and pretty much look like any club in the West. They are tolerated by the local government.
Much of lesbian life in the capital is still an underground thing. Helga remembers how, until about a year ago, their lesbian archives were located at the founder's living room: a Muscovite lesbian started the archives in the living room of her 2-room apartment. She collected books by Russian (contemporary) classics such as poet Maria Tsvetayeva to more modern novels. The collection also contains gay publications and related articles from the 90s on, which were prohibited in the Soviet Union era. The archives were open to the public every Thursday, but it grew bigger, and more and younger people showed up. Eventually, after 15 years, because of its size and attendance the archives were relocated to a gay club called "Three monkeys."
A lady who calls herself Courtney (after Courtney Love) continues organizing evenings for lesbians at "Three monkeys", which for one evening per week is a women-only bar, until midnight.
Helga never asked the founder of the archives why she's started it, but she can imagine they were to chronicle lesbian life and its movement in Moscow (and Russia) and to give women, and younger generations, the opportunity to read about it.
Helga's dear friend, who is nicknamed "Bootsman", organizes weekly evenings for lesbians in the basement of a building. Women are invited to play their guitars and read poetry. Those meetings even allow for women to talk to each other about personal issues.
When I asked her what she thinks of the ban of Moscow Pride, she replied she thinks the ban and the amount of police force on previous Prides are ridiculous. She's seen how police officers arrested people of whom they assumed were gay, including a female friend of hers, who hadn't planned on rallying. Helga told me it also happens with "leftist" rallies; it's virtually impossible to rally against anything. One thing she was glad for was the fact that when a group of skin heads showed up trying to disrupt the last Moscow Pride, they, too, were arrested and taken to the police station.