It's evening. The winter is looming. It's cold and dark. The way is long. Trees' skeletons are dashing by in the bus's windows. I feel weary and cold, surrounded by pure uncertainty.
But we've made it at last. A big Ukrainian village is glowing with houses' lit windows. I am greeted.
Slava and Lesha at the exposition of Lesha's paintings.
Lesha is 31. Here's what he's telling of himself: "From as young age as 14 years I've been engaged in conscious seeking of myself and my sexuality. That was an utterly hard period for me, I differed from by peers with my clothing, mild manners and dancing skills. Being a teenager I was already aware that I was different from other guys. Their view of life was strange to me, their values had no meaning to me, but that which was treasured by myself, was a taboo for the people around.
Up to the age of 18 I dated girls, whom I fancied and almost loved - but everything would evaporate each time it came to sexual stuff. Sex with them was a kind of experiment. And then I came to the realization that female gender is alien to me. I loved and go on loving women spiritually, like nice people and friends. But sexually boys and men alone were able of turning me on. When in bed with a guy I feel equality and give myself to him in the way I'd like him to treat me.
Prior to the service in the army I had been making enormous efforts to conceal my sexual preferences, though I was already called "a gay" at school and in the village. At that time I had partners who were willing to engage in intimate relations with me. Now they have families and knowing about us they greet us as everyone else when meeting in the street.
In the army I had a very close friend. When the time came to part we were bidding farewell like brothers, eyes full of grief.
Being as young as that I was dreaming of "one single guy" for the rest of my life. Before going to sleep I often addressed the Lord, with faith and prayer asking Him to send me a beloved, who would love me.
Slava is thirty nine. Formerly he lived in another place, in a town. And his life was quite different, most ordinary one: a wife, a kid, a work, an apartment. He had everything.
But he has also been drawn to a male body since childhood years. And this did happen then, long ago. And this was desirable. And was retained in his memory.
So each of them had been leading a life of his own - until they got to a certain gay party. They both remember that evening in minute details.
A picture by Lesha Shvedov.
"It was for the first time that I got in such a company, Slava cuts in, and I surely felt dizzy because of all the new impressions and new faces. I was invited to the party by the host and for the rest of the company we were supposedly together. But then I saw Lesha, and I felt such an intense desire to be with him that I got nervous. How could I approach him? Then the time came to part. Will we never meet again?
We press each other's hand and I feel something left in mine. I go out, and there on the palm is - like a court's decision of forgiveness after a death sentence - Lesha's phone number!"
(...I notice teardrops in the corners of Slava's eyes...)
And so the two lovers embarked on the path of joint life. Two doves on the wings of happiness.
First they met in cold hotels where chambermaids gave them a puzzled look: two males had been sleeping in the room and just one bed was used.
A whole lot of things have changed since then. The boys started a household of their own. They revamped a little house next to their parents' dwelling and settled in. And they have already marked the 5-year jubilee of their living together - with a lot of hullabaloo, songs, revelry and a bunch of friends at the table. "And the entire village was engaged in the merriment..."
Well, only fairy tales are narrated in a quick way. But one has to cover a long path to gain happiness. There were loads of unpleasant things over this time. The relatives did not accept the young couple with understanding at once; not in one day their countrymen resigned themselves to their love.
A picture by Lesha Shvedov.
And off he went. To the unknown, to a strange village, to strange people. To his love.
First Slava's relatives were freaked out, just shocked. His brother shouted: "I'll cut your gay head off!" His own brother!!
But the time helped heal the soul's wounds. Relatives did eventually put up with their relationship and accepted them as their own kin. The lovers went to visit Slava's former wife. They had a good time, and when the night came she left them alone in the room. Slava's parents came to the village to the match-making party. The guys laid a sumptuous table. Everyone sat down, and Slava's mother, a simple Ukrainian woman, addressed Lesh'a mum: "Well, there's nothing to do, and we are sort of kin now. So let's drink to our boys so that they live together happily". For the mothers they both are like sons.
Slava's son, a grown-up youth now (there are his pictures as a kid on the wardrobe, on the mirror) treats uncle Lesha with respect and asks his advice more often than his own dad's. One summer they were engaged in collecting medicinal herbs and then taking the bunches to the pharmacies, and for the earned money they bought a walkman for the boy. The son preferred to go to the store with uncle Lesha.
After Slava moved in with Lesha, the rumor spread around the village instantaneously. Village folks all know each other at least by sight. People looked at them askance and shouted: "Hey, look, a wife and a husband are going". It felt hard. But love helped them and overcame all barriers of hostility and lack of understanding. Once even fists came handy. For guys are able of standing up for themselves when necessary.
And so they started living happily together. The guys are telling me that when villagers pass by their yard, they can hear women say to each other: "Look, how clean are their chicks. And flowers grow in orderly rows. Two males living together and everything's so clean. And no one has ever seen them drunk!" Or an old woman to the other: "There's such happiness shining in their eyes, no one else has the same".
A picture by Lesha Shvedov.
As is the case with many others, the guys' life leaves much to be desired in the material aspect. It's not easy to land a constant job in a village. Slava went to the farm where predominantly women work, and the team leader said: "Here one is supposed not to work only, but also to ..., and you're...", and so he was turned down.
But man feeds on earth, woods, household and work. It is mostly Slava who is occupied with the livestock and poultry. Lesha serves as an assistant in case of need. Slava in his turn lends Lesha a helping hand in his creative work.
Lesha is an artist (you can see his works here). Sadly, black-and-white print is not able of conveying the colors and this waters down the images). He started drawing back in 1990 and over this time has created about a half thousand pictures. He had a few of his personal exhibitions held in the museum of local lore of the regional center.
Lesha has given a lot of his pictures to his friends over this time. "With pictures I give a piece of my heart, a portion of my energy. I hope that my drawings melt the people's frozen feelings and awaken them to the good".
Lesha devotes a lot of time to reading religious books - one of the bookshelves is filled with them. He collates the teachings, looking for invaluable pearls of wisdom, trying to choose the best from different branches of Christianity, to integrate them and thus attain to the truth.
"From the early childhood thanking to my granny I've been believing that God exists, and I also believe that if I am like this, it is supposed to be this way, and I am needed too. Now I worship Jesus Christ. Our path to God has been far from easy, and this process is going on and will continue in the future.
A picture by Lesha Shvedov.
But we cannot afford just going with the flow, watching our existence from aside and sigh dolefully. We have to fight for happiness, love, faith, to defend our right to life. But there should be a certain measure and a reasonable approach in all of this, we are to be armed with good, not evil".
We sat up late. It was after midnight. We drank some strong homemade wine and the guys stroke up a merry Ukrainian folk song...
I forgot about the headlong running of time, having relaxed in the rays of the simple happiness of the two hearts... Thank you!
It is morning. Lesha's mother looks in. "Here's yogurt for you. Treat yourself".
A while later two guests come - Olya and Lilya. I'm eager to know their opinion, how they feel about socializing with homosexuals.
Olya, a composed and sweet woman, literally seeing through things, answers in full seriousness: "The most important thing in life is to find good friends".
What I revere still greater is their courage - yes, it's courage that I mean - to be friends with gays not being fearful of common talk, of reviling. Lilya recalls some events where, in my view, she behaved honorably. For not many of the defiant stuck-up "men of courage" would take risks of publicly declaring their opinion different from that of the majority.
Some people said to her: "Why do you pay so much attention to these guys? Neighbors will malign and vilify you, they'll mock at you. They are not real males, just refuse". But the girl answered: "And who are the real males? Those winos who lie drunk under the fences?" It's better to be with them, than with you, cads!" - Great! I fancy spunky girls!
We are sitting and examining paintings. We talk about the neighborhood, about how lovely and rich is their woods. Olya asks Slava's advice about knitting some things. We all start laughing: "They have knitting courses here". Two little nieces of Lesha join us, and a somewhat official atmosphere dissolves when we take our places at the table. Slava has cooked a superb mushroom soup, and so we are drinking to friendship and love.
And why not indulge in dancing now? "One always feels joyous here"- Olya says. It's true.
There are flowers on the sills. Music is playing. And the sun is looking into the window.
Some more people came, like a very cute young family: a father, a mother and a smart kid. Lesha and Slava has created a truly kind world of friends, relatives and neighbors around themselves, in which everything got interwoven, as I understood. Make note, a kind world, an entire world.
A picture by Lesha Shvedov.
Often very tearful confessions come, written by people suffering from loneliness, having no close friends and not able of finding love. "You are lucky", express they their envy, "Everything is so well arranged for you". "And who did arrange this for us?", Lesha exclaims, "There was a certain point in my life, when parents did not understand me, but I did not give up. The same applies to other similar situations. To achieve today's free, normal life, sometimes we needed a lot of courage, patience, disregard for gossip, folly, hurtful questions and abusive shouts.
'If you feel like changing your life, achieving something, you have to make a radical step toward your happiness. You have to open up otherwise you'll not be able of living a harmonious life".
He also says: "Why do we get dumped? - we are afraid of sharing our soul's greatness, and if we do share, we give just a small fraction. That's the people's problem. If I'm not loved, it's myself who is to blame. It was I who failed to open up for a person, to give myself fully, so my heart's flame was not bright enough. If you want to be loved, sacrifice yourself on the altar of love".
And more: "Man is very sensitive to falsehood. Be honest in your feelings".
We're walking along the village's street. Lesha is sharing his dream with me: "There are so many deserted houses here, it would be great if gays from different places came and settled here. We'd live as a friendly community. Free from all troubles. The way is already paved, people treat us well".
But, standing at some distance, a bunch of loafing teens whistle at us. Well, guys, you're silly yet. You still had no chance to smell powder. I trust you will come to understand the simple truths of life: love your neighbor, do not judge. First sort out your own feelings - have not you mistaken evil for good?
The clock is showing the morning. It's still dark. I am leaving. Again getting into the cold.
Dear Lesha, Slava, Olya, Lilya and all of your friends! I am so grateful to you for your sincerity, openness of feelings, your joy of life. I wish you happiness! Today and ever!
I am taking along with me not just gifts - knitted slippers from Slava and a picture from Lesha - I am taking with me the main thing, Love.
Love to all of us!