Anastasia, AIDS activist, Russia
Interview and editing by Sophie Pinkham
Sophie Pinkham: How did you first get involved in activism?
Anastasia: Well, I used drugs for many years. And I was in almost every circle of drug use. In commercial sex, drug dealing, I’ve been to prison four times, I’ve attempted suicide three times. So almost everything that can be done by a drug-using woman, I’ve done. I never thought that I would be alive today. And that is a miracle for me, that I still exist and that I do something.
The story was that I once got help from a client, when I did commercial sex. At that time I was so exhausted. I had no place to live, my mother said that she would never help me, that I am not her daughter. I lived on the street, I did commercial sex, and sold drugs, and the police were looking for me, and everything I remember was fear.
I decided to commit suicide—that was my last suicide attempt. I was sitting on the bed and I took this syringe and put oil into it, oil and some other chemical stuff, and I said, God, please, if I have to live, and if I have a chance to live, give me a chance. And if not, please take me away. I can’t be here anymore. So I injected into the vein and you know, I was waiting. I waited to die for five minutes.
But I didn’t die. I stayed alive, and this time I decided that maybe I really have a mission. That’s what helps me now. Because sometimes when I go crazy from this life, I remember that I am alive for a reason. I decided that my mission was to change. And to bring change to these women, these people who are suffering, still there, on the bottom, to help them somehow. Because it’s much easier, you know, to commit suicide and overdose. And it’s very hard, sometimes, to continue living and continue fighting.
I started to build myself, to work on myself, and I had no access to any substitution therapy or anything, I got rehabilitation, so today I live an abstinent life, but for me it’s the only way to manage in my country. I started working at an organization that fights for and lobbies for the interests of people living with HIV and affected by HIV, and also vulnerable groups, especially injection drug users. I understand now, from my experience of life, from fighting with God, from fighting with rules, from fighting with everything, that sometimes fighting doesn’t work. Sometimes we need collaboration between different activist groups, NGOS and sects and stakeholders, because we cannot do the work, accomplish our goals alone.
SP: How do you feel about being an activist in Russia now?
A: Unfortunately, the situation with the development of civil society and HIV activism is sad in Russia. We can see a number of Russians who are ready to speak out honestly about problems, about corruption, about human and patient rights abuse. But it is not beneficial to oneself to highlight the awful problems that exist in the country, to spoil the country’s image. So we are lacking activists. There are a small number of people who continue to fight, but the faces are the same year after year. To be an activist means to be active, honest, brave, to want and demand change, to fight for people’s lives and rights with all your heart and all your life. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, which takes much energy and effort, but also repays you with so many positive emotions after even a very small victory.
Personally, sometimes I feel a bit in danger. Because I understand that if someone considers me useless or dangerous, I can get into trouble. Especially having a background of prison and these experiences. But on the other hand, I think that it’s very exciting. What I want to do in life is to be different. I don’t want to do what other people do. Activism for me is to be different, to change something. Sometimes it’s very hard, because coming from the bottom, socially, I can’t say that I have everything that I need.
My story is not a very happy one. I can’t say I loved my childhood. When I speak about it I become a bit sad. My father was an alcoholic and he used drugs. He smoked marijuana every day. When I was five, my father beat my mother, even when she was pregnant. I think that they were not very happy from the beginning. And my mom tried to survive for five years, but when I was five, because my father did some criminal things–she knew about that and she told the police, and they took him away to the prison for four years, and after that the family separated. Because there was my father’s side and my mother’s side, you know? And my father’s side, when my father went to prison they wanted to take me from my mom, and we went to court. And when they asked me, “Who do you want to live with?”, of course I wanted to go to my grandmother and grandfather, because they were so kind, you know, there were no fights, I had almost everything from them, and they really loved me—but the decision was the opposite. So I stayed with my mom, and she was very upset and angry with me. She couldn’t forgive me. So she left me at her friend’s house for a long period—I think it was half a year. And when she came I was on my knees, you know, Mom, take me away, I need a home. And I think from this time I never trusted her anymore…I never forgot about that. And we lived in this flat till I was 16 or 17. So all my life I lived in one flat with my mom, my little sister, my mother’s husband, it was not easy. Because I never felt part of the family, I never felt like, you know, a loved daughter or whatever. What I felt was that I looked like my father and it’s awful to be like him.
And that’s why, maybe, I started to separate from them. I went to the street, and I found friends, you know, we smoked marijuana and felt so cool. When I snorted heroin for the first time it was a relief. I think I was 16 the first time. Marijuana, I tried it earlier, maybe 14. It was a relief when I first did it, oh my God, I felt so much better. All my problems went away. These friends gave me a sort of acceptance, and I felt much better with them. So I started to go to the street more often. There were so many painful moments during this time that at some point I decided that I don’t need any relatives or anything, I don’t want to have them as a part of me. And it was in my soul, you know, the time alone in this world. Because my father never cared about me, he had his new family, my mother had her own family, but I was still a child, you know, 16, and it was really my childhood trauma, that, you know, is with me till now. So maybe activism helps me to feel more useful. Maybe it’s some kind of disorder. (Laughs.)
I snorted, smoked more and more and more, and after that I started to sell drugs. I had problems with the police, and they started to hunt for me, so I started to change districts of the city, and once the moment came when there was no choice, because I had a very small amount of heroin with me and I had no money, I had no home, nothing, and I injected for the first time. And it was my boyfriend who said, “You see, there’s no choice. We can’t snort it, you have to inject too, I’m injecting—you see how economical it is?” And he was the first one who helped me. And after that I couldn’t stop really. My dose went up very fast. It scared me. And especially when you sell drugs–my dose when I went to detox was more than 5 grams a day of heroin. It was so huge and it never stopped. I had to use more and more not to feel anything inside. I tried different kinds of drugs, you know, I tried to switch off to Ecstasy, to cocaine, to speed, I tried to go to clubs, but I think those are not my drugs of choice. Heroin really gave me relief. Other drugs gave me stress. Because after clubs I needed some rest. To calm myself. So usually I drank a lot, I couldn’t stop drinking, I’d fall down after several liters of vodka. I had drinking competitions with men.
I didn’t know where my place was and what I was living for and who I was, and who needed me. All these questions went without answers for many years. I had philosophical questions—“What are we doing here in this world? What is our mission, who is God, who are people?” Before I came to the AIDS movement, all I did was philosophy. And I didn’t know what to do. Today I know what to do. Today I know why I’m here, what I’m doing, what are my goals, what’s good and bad for me. I really know what that means to change your life. Your whole life. Coming from the bottom, from the street, how to rebuild it. It’s not easy, but compared with 7 or 8 years ago, I’m a different person. Activism and my work in the AIDS movement gave me much more. And it gives me more and more every day.
When I was dealing drugs, I had special people who went to the harm reduction bus and exchanged syringes, and I usually forced clients who bought drugs to take syringes and swabs. So I did some sort of harm reduction even then.
SP: What made you start doing that?
A: I was very afraid. I was paranoid about HIV, hepatitis, everything.
SP: How did you learn about HIV and hepatitis?
A: I can’t say I knew a lot about it. I knew that it exists, and one of my friends got HIV. I lived with him, and sometimes we used the same syringes. He could come into the house and take a syringe from the floor, you know. He never cleaned it. Sometimes we had no water to clean it. And he never cared about someone else’s blood in the needle. I couldn’t do that. I won’t say it’s about gender—women think more about the future or about safety—but I knew that HIV existed, and I was afraid, and I tried to take care of myself. So I never used those syringes, or I tried to clean it with hot water, boiled water, I boiled it, because sometimes, you know, you can’t go to the pharmacy, it’s very dangerous, especially when you look like shit and are using drugs. When you go on the street, everyone understands who you are.
Eventually I was caught for selling drugs and they brought me to the police and I suddenly realized that I had been sentenced to three years in a previous trial, and for selling drugs—then there was new legislation making the sentence from 7-15 years. That makes 10 years. And I went crazy during the three days when I was waiting for the decision about whether I would go to prison. I had withdrawal in jail—I had a minimum dose of 5 grams a day, you know, and it was really clean, good heroin. I was there for 3 days, and then I found out that the dealer who sold me drugs had paid a lawyer who managed to have me released till the judgment.
When I came back to the flat I decided to commit suicide, because I understood I would go to prison for 10 years. And I was a very good girl till I was 16, or 14 maybe. I did my best to learn, I studied. I cared about many things and I did my best to show that I was worthy of love. I know now that I just wanted my mom to see how hard I tried, you know. When I came from prison I realized that I had nothing. Who was I? I could have had a very bright future. Having a good education, knowing English, I could build my career. And my mom told me that—“You’re really crazy, what are you doing, you’re destroying your own life.”
So this dealer gave me about 20 grams and I started to inject. I did it once again, once again, once again. I tried to overdose. But I didn’t succeed. I think it was because of tolerance. And when I came to I saw a long table, and the whole table was covered in syringes. I was so angry that I couldn’t overdose. I tried to kill myself again, by injecting chemicals. And I’ve got these scars because of it. I lay down and for three days I waited to die. I thought that it would go into blood and I would die. Because there were some myths among us injecting drug users, you know, that if you put any chemicals or dirt into your veins you’ll die, your heart will stop. So I really tried to stop my heart several times, but it didn’t work.
I don’t remember how much time passed, because I tried to overdose, so it was maybe one day after that when I realized I had not been successful. Because I sold drugs there, the phone and the doorbell were ringing all day. I didn’t answer. And one morning there was a call. I don’t know why, but I decided to answer. And it was my mom. She said, “I had a very bad dream about you. Are you OK?” And I said, “No, you know, I am not OK.” And after that when I saw my hand, it was swollen to twice its size and I couldn’t move my fingers. And she said, “Well, OK, I’ll come, where are you?”
She came, we took all my things and I just disappeared. I was very afraid of the dealer because he was really powerful. I had an operation, my mother paid for it, and she requested that I leave the flat, leave everything. I signed papers saying that I don’t need anything from her, because she was very afraid that if the police caught me and I went for 10 years to prison, she would be without any flat or without any things, because the laws are really strict about that. So I had the operation and then I understood that I’m in the hospital, I’ve got withdrawal–it was awful. Nothing helped, where could I go? Mother said, no home, nothing.
I found a guy who was in withdrawal too, and we got some drugs. We went to live at his house. His mom went crazy because of us, and everything went back to the way it had been. I think I lived on the street for more than two months, and in winter it’s very cold, and when you’re in withdrawal—I lived in a huge building, about 12 floors, and I had a very warm little area, like a room, right on the stairs, in the place for garbage. I put some paper on the floor and I slept there. Because nobody came to the top floor. When I had drugs with me and I could sell, I could buy a night at some drug user’s flat somewhere. But if I had no drugs, and I was in withdrawal, I had to sleep where I could.
The last step was when I went to the commercial sex flat. It was not an easy decision. When I was 13 I read so many books. I was really a very talented girl. I knew a lot. And I had a really good education. And when you’ve got all this, and you’re lying on the 12th floor on some newspaper, with nothing and nobody–several times I did bad things to my friends, I took money from them, and one of my best friends, my closest ones, I took a gift her father had given her and she said “I’m not going to see you anymore,” and her boyfriend beat me in front of her. After that I decided that the only way to get a flat, to get money, to get drugs, was to go into commercial sex.
So I took a newspaper and sat in some café and found ads for good-looking women. I made gave several calls and met with one guy, and went to his flat first because I had no place to go. And after several months, I went to another guy when I realized that he gave more money, and I went to him. I didn’t use for maybe three months, because I had no access to drugs. I was afraid of the dealer I usually bought from and I was trying to hide from him. I just drank a lot. I couldn’t stop.
It was not easy to sell myself the first time. We came to some awful house with the guy who ran the office. There was one other girl with us. And we went to the house. There were guys from Tajikistan or from somewhere. It was awful. Oh my God. There was no shower, nothing. I don’t know how I survived that first time. I started to cry, I started to drink, because I couldn’t believe it was me. I hated myself for what I’d done. Only chemicals helped me to survive that hate. I just drank and drank, and after that I found a second guy [pimp] who asked me, “Do you know how to sell drugs? I have some cheap drugs, and I’m thinking of buying maybe 2 or 3 kilos,” and I said, “Yeah, OK, why not?” And I started working for him and at first I just worked together with the other girls in the office, but then he realized that when I used, I could work without any breaks. He started to bring clients to me personally, and after that he made a personal office for me. So I had as much heroin as I wanted, and I helped him to sell, and also I was working as a commercial sex worker. (Sighs.)
When I started to live alone I stopped communicating with anyone else. I saw only the people who came to buy drugs from me. They were my previous clients from when I used to sell drugs in different districts. So they came to me and bought these drugs, and I tried to make them think it was just my flat and I wasn’t doing any commercial sex, but I think they understood what happened. And it was a huge source of shame for me. So I used more and more.
But I managed to save some money. I really wanted to buy a washing machine for my mom, you know. Because when I’d first become drug dependent and had trouble with the police, I had sold everything from my mom’s house. It was my revenge on her for my childhood, for everything. I wanted to show her that she never loved me. I really wanted to pay her back. I felt very guilty, and I wanted her to forgive me. So I saved some money and wanted to buy a washing machine for her. I tried to give her some presents.
I never said I’m doing commercial sex of course, and she never knew. I think she thought about it, but she was never brave enough to believe it. She was never brave enough to believe that I’m a drug user. She saw when I was selling drugs in the beginning. She would find a dose on the table, you know, sometimes I would forget it or it could be hidden somewhere. So she saw it, but she never believed it, and she was never so brave as to talk to me about that. She never wanted to hear about that. And I tried to pretend that I was working somewhere and I had money. I bought different things for the house, to pay her back.
I had several regular clients who came twice a week or something like that. And we were like friends, and I didn’t watch the clock, we could have a discussion. I really had a human approach (laughs). I used some psychology, you know, strategies. Because I realized that those people who were coming to me were suffering. Sometimes they didn’t need sex. Mostly what they needed was attention.
But there were some crazy guys, crazy about sex, and some of them were on cocaine, it was crazy. The whole night I was like, Oh my God, I will kill myself. Or kill him. Because he can’t do anything. Once I got a call from a guy with a nice voice. I went shopping, came back, and we agreed on some time, and he came, and he looked like an ordinary client. He had marijuana and said, “Do you want some?” and I said, “Well, yes, OK, why not?” I had just injected, I was relaxed, we smoked marijuana, and I was in a peignoir, almost naked, and we smoked, drank some tea, and when he asked if we were going to start I said yes, and we went to the bedroom, and there were candles around, and suddenly I see that he has a knife, and he just put it against me and said, give me all your money, all your phones, and everything you have.
It was really frightening. Of course I gave him all the money that I had saved for mom. And this owner of the office almost never came to look at the clients. He never gave me any security. So I understood that nobody would help. He took everything and went away. And for a week I couldn’t work. I was so frightened. Because I realized suddenly that each person who comes to the flat could kill me.
And what helped me to stop and to think about another life was that during this week I didn’t work, and at the end of the week there was a call. It was a district policeman. It was about midnight. They said, “We know that you were robbed, we caught the man who robbed you, and you have to come right now to the police office and confirm that it is him. You can’t refuse, you have to come.” And I was really afraid, because I knew that the police were searching for me, because I never went to court for selling drugs. I’d already been hiding from the police for a year.
But it sounded like I had no choice. So I asked a girl who worked in the other office to go with me. I said that I had no passport, but I would bring it tomorrow. I gave another name and they said, “Is it him?” And showed me a photo on the monitor. And I said, “Well, yes, it is him.” And they said, “You know that he killed several girls, and mutilated their faces.” The last one after me was smart enough to suggest that he go buy beer, she understood who he was, I don’t know how, but she understood that he was not a client. She went on the street with him and called the first police car that passed and they took him and caught him and they realized that there was a warrant for his arrest because he had set fire to the house of a drug dealer, who had died. And he started to rob girls. He found it very easy, and it is very easy.
So I stopped doing commercial sex. I called one of my clients who had suggested that we live together, and I said, “Well, OK, do you want to live together? I’m ready. Come and bring me to your house.” He came, it was 6 in the morning. I was hiding again, because I was afraid of the owner of the office. I just disappeared. This guy was a businessman and he had enough money so that I could buy drugs–I just took money from him. But then he found track marks and he started to ask questions. He had never noticed that money disappeared, but when he saw the track marks he started to hide the money from me. Several times I broke into safes–I was fighting for my drugs. The last time I broke the safe and I decided again to commit suicide. And that was the last one, when I talked to God, and when I didn’t die I called the guy I knew who was connected to harm reduction, I said, I’m ready, please help me to go anywhere. I’m ready to do anything. I found a detox myself and called them myself, and he came and brought me there.
I was in detox for about a week, and after that I went to rehabilitation, a 12-step program for 2 months. When I finished I was full of fear again, because of my background. One week after I left the center, I opened my door and I forgot to push the security button, and the police came. I had no documents and I wasn’t registered in the flat, and they said, “you have to go with us.” They brought me to the police, but their computer didn’t work. I was sitting and waiting for an hour. Abstinence is a crazy thing, because your emotions are so sharp. And after that hour had passed I said, “yes, I committed several crimes, put me into prison, do what you want.” I was very aggressive with them. The computer started to work and they said, “Oh, you used drugs, you had several trials in court. OK, we’ll put drugs in your pocket now, so you’ll go to prison.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand, I started my new life, it’s my sixth month”—I lied, it was my third month—“I’m not using, you have no right to do this.” They said, “well, we don’t believe that drug users don’t use drugs.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand, I don’t communicate with my old friends, I really tried to change something,” and they said, “well, OK, go.” I don’t know what happened, but the last line, saying that I was a drug dealer, had disappeared from the record. I don’t know how.
But something happened, because if I didn’t go to prison this time, it was a miracle.
Soon it will be six years that I haven’t used any drugs or alcohol. I quit smoking. The only pleasure I have is sex, now. Sex, love, and activism. And so on. And sometimes when I go through customs and it takes too long, when they’re printing something on the computer, my heart pounds. You can never be sure. Sometimes I’m afraid it will come up from some archive. Because having this background, nobody cares how many years have passed. You can never be sure. If somebody wants to make you disappear, it’s easy. That’s why from now on I try to give everything I can. Because I know that there are so many people, so many girls living this same way. In fear. It’s awful. So that’s it!