Russian transcription: Olga Yatsenko
Translation and editing: Sophie Pinkham
Sophie Pinkham: How did you start working in this field?
Vladimir Osin: I was looking for help. And when I had to start [ARV] therapy, I really didn’t want to, I had doubts, I didn’t have information, doctors didn’t tell me anything about what this drug was and how you had to take it. That’s how I met volunteers, social workers, and I liked what they were doing, I started participating. After a few months, half a year, I started working.
I was born in Petersburg and lived there for my whole life…I started using drugs at 15. I used different drugs, everything was connected with parties. It ended, of course, like it does for the majority of people–the last three years I used opiates. I found out I was HIV-positive only when I ended up in rehab. I was 20. It was horrible news. I thought that was it, that life was over. But fortunately rehab was the kind of setting that allowed you to suffer, to live through it, to get support and help. I ended up in the right place at the right time.
SP: And what was the drug culture like when you started using?
VO: Well, I started with all the drugs that make you cheerful, smoked and so on…I started using marijuana, and that was basically a natural psychoactive substance, smoked hashish, weed, acid, mushrooms and so on. But as time went on my dependence developed and I wanted something different, bigger, to try something else. That was how I started using synthetic drugs, going to parties, and there were amphetamines there. And amphetamines make you feel bad. I had to take something in the morning. Alcohol didn’t really help. And that was how I found opiates. I started sniffing heroin, then I started using heroin intravenously, as well as every possible kind of natural opiates—poppy straw. It was lucky there was no methadone around—at that time it still hadn’t appeared [on the illicit market]. At the end of the 90s there was still very little methadone. I mainly used heroin.
SP: And did you have a lot of friends who also started using drugs at this time?
VO: Yes, pretty much everyone I hung out with continued to use drugs, and many of them aren’t here anymore.
SP: As I understand, in Soviet times there were generally very few drugs. And they became much more common after the USSR ended. What do you think was the meaning of drugs in Russia in the 90’s? Did it signify anything to you about the end of communism or about the beginning of a new time, or was it just getting high?
VO: Тhe 90s were a time of freedom. Of course, in many ways it was connected with criminality and a political and economic situation that no one in the country understood; it was possible to make money from nothing and raise yourself up from zero if you just had charisma. If you had a talent for convincing or tricking people, you could make money. In general, in Russia the people in power have a military past, or they worked in some kind of power structure—so police are the highest officials. But at that time the political situation changed, oppression, laws changed, and drugs became an exit, a kind of scream. I remember that I found it funny that you could smoke weed on the street and no one understood what the smell was. “Something stinks. Someone’s burning leaves or something.” It was a protest. It was a protest against oppression.
SP: What’s your family like?
VO: I live with my parents. My mother dealt with problems of chemical dependency in our family. That is, my father used alcohol, I started using drugs. She started trying to educate herself, which is how she came to psychology. In general she’s an economist by training, she graduated from an institute when she was 20, and she worked for more than 20 years at a government office on something related to economics–I don’t remember exactly what her title was. And then she got deeper and deeper into psychology, and now she has a second higher degree in psychology and her own psychological center, where she’s the director. My father worked for a pretty long time as head repairman in a hotel, but he had periodic problems with alcoholism. And at the moment he’s once again in rehab. We have a complicated relationship with him, we don’t live together—I live with my mother.
SP: Do you think that your drug use is connected to his alcoholism?
VO: Yes. I think it’s family influence. It’s not even so much connected with his alcoholism as in general with family relationships—excessive demands on one another, absence of mutual understanding and dialogue, attempts to understand each other, I don’t know. We had very strained relationships in our family. My parents were always fighting. They got divorced when I was 6. But they kept living together, they were always breaking up and getting back together, and it seems to me that my experience with drug use was connected with the fact that I wanted to escape from the house—well, not escape, but to be there less often and find something else, an outlet. I started spending a lot of time on the street, listening to music that wasn’t mainstream, searching for something beyond the norm, and that’s how I came to drugs.
SP: And how long have you been working [at ITPC]?
VO: Well, this winter it will be 3 years. In a month it will be three years that I’ve been working there. The first organization I encountered was the St. Petersburg organization “Svecha” [Candle], then the guys from Svecha left, they had a conflict, again because of drugs. Some people used drugs, some didn’t. And…they thought it was inappropriate for people working in the social field to be using drugs. It’s just that people who are in the active stage of drug use don’t perceive reality that well, so it’s complicated to coopеrate with them, they break their agreements. And they created their own organization, “Ravnovesie” [Balance].
SP: Do you like working in this field?
VO: It was very interesting for me. I got a lot from this field. I studied to be a public relations manager. I had two years left to study, I took correspondence courses, and in the four years from the time I started at the institute I worked in a casino, as the operator of the video surveillance system. My first education was technical. I understood wires in video systems, how to connect them. Then they passed a law closing certain casinos and gambling machine halls in Russia. The casino closed, and I had no job. I looked for work and also for help, met some counselors, and started getting into this. So…if I had worked earlier in a hierarchical system, where I’m just a little cog, just following someone’s orders, I ended up in a structure with a horizontal system of management—we don’t have a boss, we make decisions together, and in the process of discussion we come up with new ideas, plans, projects, and we write them together. For me this was very new and very interesting. And it was very interesting to meet lots of people because lots of people work in this sphere and they’re all completely different, different perspectives on this problem, and I got experience and emerged on a higher level. I think I’ve developed.
SP: Right now, how do you feel as an activist, as someone working on social problems in Russia?
VO: It’s hard to work in Russia on social problems. To be honest, I’m tired, very tired from all of this. Mostly I’m tired of always knocking on closed doors…I work as a regional representative of an international organization, and we run a grant program, we do informational work, disseminating information about new research, trainings, we try to attract new people, to educate them and so on. I run the site, links…and besides this, we try to do advocacy, and this is the most complicated because we are trying to reach a point where state services are sufficient, adequate. And…it’s possible, of course, I try to put myself in the place of an official, right? They have lots of problems, after all, they’re not only occupied with the problems of HIV-positive people—they have to deal with invalids, orphans, and so on. But there aren’t enough hands to fix everything.
All the same, I encounter a lot of callousness. And in private conversations–for example, I had a conversation with a narcologist in one city. He said people are people, and work is work. They give us money, we have to report and…that’s how people are dying, have died, and will die. But we simply work, we need this, we need that. But there’s no relationship without participation….they don’t feel empathy, participation in it. And this is very depressing.
… I don’t believe in fate, I believe in choice. I believe that lots of possibilities exist, and that every person can do everything in their life. And not only in their own life, but in the lives of the people around them. I’ve seen lots of examples showing that life changes depending on what a person wants and what they strive for.
Let’s take our family as an example. The simplest example is the one closest to me. I was using drugs, I was in danger every day, and, in principle, I could die. And my father used alcohol. In principle, it didn’t matter to him at all what happened. But this is an aspect of chemical dependence. A person concentrates only on quashing the feelings that rise inside, with the help of external factors—alcohol, drugs, it’s not important. Because emotions are very strong and cause intense discomfort, a person reacts too sharply to events that happen around him…If my mother hadn’t been there, for example, it could all have ended very badly. She started to find out how to change it …[there was] imbalance in a complicated family system, she brought change through her behavior, with the help of a different perspective on life. And she didn’t throw up her hands. Though lots of people just throw up their hands, give their kids money for drugs and [say], “he’s using, what can you do…” No, she chose a different strategy. It’s very difficult, when a child is using drugs, and you have to be really tough with him…and at the same time love him in order to keep him from harming himself. She created a situation in which I couldn’t use drugs. I had the choice to leave my family, live on the street, sometimes I lived on the street, was a criminal, I had problems with the law…but when I took responsibility for my life, when I left home, my family for a few months, I immediately understood that I won’t continue this way, I can’t live on the street, and I started looking for an exit from this situation. She forced me to think about myself, feel responsible for my own life.
All people who can be honest with themselves and take responsibility are capable of changing something in their lives. I studied many perspectives on life in university. There’s every possible kind of theory, philosophical, scientific, and it seems to me that they’re all about the same thing. Religion, for example, establishes frameworks that you’re supposed to follow so that you’ll be happy, develop and so on. You could say I’m far away from church. Sins and so on—none of that is close to me, I don’t want to live in fear of being punished.
SP: Tell me about your music. When did you start playing, or rapping?
VO: I started spending a lot of time on the street and met a lot of musicians that way. I like hip hop. In the early 90s it was still very hard to get that kind of music. There were a few places in the city where they sold it, and they sold it only because people liked it, asked somebody to send discs over the border—from Europe, from America—copied these discs onto cassettes and pirated them. They printed covers on printers, everything was black and white…(laughs). Horrible quality, but all the same, it was cool…
SP: And which groups did you like?
VO: Public Enemy, that kind of political rap, Ice Cube, DAS, EFX, Onyx. It was a total revolution. I liked that it was a kind of resistance. I was always looking for something to energize me in my desire to resist oppression. I was just looking for music—where you could get it, buy it, copy it. I met new people, the people who were bringing this music, copying it, making music like that here in Russia. I remember very clearly the moment when I came into the Gorkovskaya metro station and they were selling cassettes on trays. Now there are big stalls and stores all over the place, then there was just a table with a tape recorder plugged into the nearest socket, playing something really intense. I was amazed by the guy who sold cassettes. He was dressed in a jacket with big handcuffs on his chest (laughs), over it he was wearing a shirt with ripped sleeves, like a vest (laughs), but hanging on his chest was a leather thong with an alarm clock—that was something really exceptional…(laughs).
SP: Like Flavor Flav?
VO: Yes, but Flavor Flav had a nice one, he had a thick chain, right? He had a nice clock, colored, maintaining a style. And this was absolutely…completely homemade. Some leather thong attached to the kind of alarm clock that you have sitting by your bed. (Laughs.) And I liked all this a lot, I met these people. How old was I—about 15 then. I started going to concerts, then we started our own group. We tried to participate in all the festivals, went to Moscow, performed there…That’s how it all was…
When I started using drugs, of course, I stopped doing creative work. Then, after rehab, I started going to Narcotics Anonymous, and again my life changed…I killed what was inside me, my inner desires, my emotions, everything…I tried to muffle something with the strongest thing there was, opiates. They gave me a feeling of complete serenity, I felt like an absolutely plastic person, I was indifferent to everything that went on around me, but it’s not possible to use drugs constantly and…well, at least, I didn’t manage to…I don’t know, maybe some people can use drugs and remain in society, keep getting money somehow. I was a criminal. And in the end, there were problems with the law and so on. And the rehab center changed my mindset, I looked at the world in a different way, I saw that there are lots of completely different things. And what I’m doing—it’s crazy. It has no meaning, it leads nowhere, gives me nothing. And in NA I met lots of people who had stopped using a long time ago, and I didn’t know that was even possible. I hadn’t been sober for more than 3-5 days in the last 5 years, I was always using something. And after a certain period of time I met people who also made music, we worked together on a project, and it’s continued, developed, and continues to develop.
SP: And now you’re doing your rap—is it generally connected with politics and different social problems?
VO: We have various projects. We have a project about life on the streets, social problems, because I’m not indifferent to that, I want to share it with people who have completely different kinds of lives. It’s necessary to change your outlook on life, it’s not easy, it takes time, but it’s accessible for everyone. People who deal with drug problems, they’re mostly really talented, bright, they have a lot of inner potential. They can open this in themselves, it’s just necessary to get them to that point where it becomes possible. It seems to me that you can do this through creativity. We have another project—just songs about life, love, relationships between people, what you like and so on.
SP: How did it change your relationship to life when you found out you had HIV?
VO: HIV changed my relationship to myself, I started paying more attention to my health, my diet, food. I became more careful…I didn’t think “why,” but “how.” “for what,” I needed something. Though I can’t fix my own life. And I think that there’s a subtle, imperceptible world…I’m far from religion, but I believe that there’s a kind of motivating power…it’s not destructive…just that sometimes tough enough things happen to people that they understand that they’re not going in the right direction. And HIV was the thing that turned me in another direction. On one hand it scared me, on the other hand it was the kind of fear that doesn’t paralyze you but forces you to act, and this helped me change my life.
SP: Last question: what are your plans for the future?
VO: We’ve rented a place where we can rehearse and record. We’ve already started renovating it and one room is done. I want to do more creative work. So I might go to volunteering in the social sphere. But all the same I’ll do something, I want to help, but it might not be my main occupation. The main one will be creative. Because there’s a lot of material, it would be good to release a final product—a disc, an album. But I just have so little time because I work five days a week from 10 to 7. I can only do creative work in the evenings and on weekends.
SP: Would you like to add anything?
VO: I want to say that people shouldn’t look at things in the standard way and that they should try to use creative methods.