Couple to flee Russia still seeking to build life, contribute in Estonia

Inna Podolskaya and Christiana Zalevskaya at the Pühtista Dormition Convent, or Kuremäe Monastery, in Northeastern Estonia.
Inna Podolskaya and Christiana Zalevskaya at the Pühtista Dormition Convent, or Kuremäe Monastery, in Northeastern Estonia. Source: Private library

Exactly half a century after the Stonewall Uprising in New York, many communities worldwide are celebrating LGBT Pride in June, whether with a day, a weekend, a week or a month of events. Baltic Pride, which is hosted in the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a rotating basis, is taking place in Vilnius this year. A writer and an artist in one Northeastern Estonian town, however, are keeping busy as always just trying to eke out a living — and to live in peace together.

While Estonia does not allow same-sex marriages, its gender-neutral Registered Partnership Act was passed nearly five years ago, on Oct. 9. 2014, and entered into force over three years ago, on Jan. 1, 2016.

A bill initiated by the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), currently a member of the government coalition but then yet a member of the opposition, calling for the repeal of the Registered Partnership Act was rejected 47-19 with 20 abstentions in the Riigikogu on Oct. 17, 2017. Regardless, three governments and two Riigikogus after the act itself was passed, as of June 2019, its implementing provisions have yet to follow.

This did not deter Christiana Zalevskaya and Inna Podolskaya from coming to Estonia to escape over two decades of persecution. Estonia, after all, was a free and civilized country.

"I don't simply believe that; I am convinced of that," Zalevskaya stressed in an interview with ETV's "Ringvaade" earlier this spring.

The two women arrived in Estonia in July 2018, where they bought an apartment in bad shape in the Ida-Viru County town of Kohtla-Järve, population 40,000, because apartments there are cheap and a home of their own was necessary to the visa process. Thereafter they sunk their savings into renovating the place.

"We didn't have money for anything more civilized," she recalled.

The plumbers and other workers that came by to work on the apartment were by their account not fussed either way about who their clients were, but when other older women in their building began half-jokingly offering them potential husbands, Zalevskaya and Podolskaya finally came out for the second time in their lives — they were a couple.

Previously friendly relations with their neighbors cooled off shortly thereafter.

"We certainly hoped that — although this is a Russian-speaking area, I was very certain that this is Estonia; that Estonian law is in force everywhere," the writer said. "But to our unpleasant surprise, that unfortunately isn't the case. People have their own laws here."

Coming out in Russia

In June 2013, the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, unanimously adopted a law banning the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relationships"; President Vladimir Putin thereafter signed it into law.

By this time, Zalevskaya and Podolskaya, natives of Primorsky Krai in Russia's Far Eastern Federal District, had been together for over 15 years already.

"I'm likely pansexual, as gender and everything related to it is unimportant to me," Zalevskaya wrote in an article published by Feministeerium (link in Estonian) last November. "I am interested first and foremost in a person, and I want others to understand me the same way. But Inna and I are physically of the same sex, which means a homosexual family (without mincing words), and which defines my entire life, whether I want it to or not."

After getting together again for good following a rocky period and several breakups and make-ups, the couple decided to come out, and in a big way — with an article in Novosti, Primorsky Krai's most popular newspaper, in December 1998. The two women ended up facing serious backlash from family, friends and colleagues alike afterward, ranging from serious threats to manipulation of Podolskaya's son Genja, who was seven years old at the time.

In 2000, Zalevskaya and Podolskaya moved across the country together to Moscow, where they hoped a clean slate and the sheer size of the city with its more than 10 million residents would offer them a chance to live in peace as a family, together with Genja, with whom they were reunited after being separated for a time. But even Russia's most populous city could not ensure them that.

During the period to follow, the couple worked, moved around the country more than 30 times, swung from losing faith to regaining it and even going so far as to considering joining a monastery, and faced numerous other challenges, including losing acceptance from more family along the way. But they had already considered emigrating and seeking asylum elsewhere in the long term.

Keeping busy

Since arriving in Estonia and moving into their Kohtla-Järve home, both women have been keeping very busy. They founded MTÜ Imemaa together, a creative nonprofit aimed at promoting man-made and natural art and beauty, the development of democracy and human rights via publishing and educational products, and have a photo project in the works about Estonia, their new adoptive home.

Zalevskaya has written more material in her time living here than at any other point in her life, and Podolskaya is making copper jewelry and producing other artwork under the name Suur Vesi, or "Big Water"; her page describes her as an artist "falling in love with Estonia."

The couple themselves have stressed the importance of coming across not as victims, but rather as active, creative and useful members of society interested in contributing to it.

Between them, they offer a broad range of services, from journalism, writing and copywriting in Russian, Ukrainian and English to interior design, furniture restoration, tutoring in art history and literature, and seamstress work. "Capable of any 'hellish' work!" their site promotes in Estonian and English alike.

Zalevskaya and Podolskaya want to sell their apartment and move to Tallinn, partly in hopes of finding more customers and opportunities to work, but at least one additional other factor appears to be behind their interest in moving on from their latest home.

According to the former, despite their move to Estonia to escape such persecution, they have been subject to negative attention, described as "psychological terror," by locals during the past nearly year of living in Kohtla-Järve as well, and local law enforcement has been of little help.

"I do not want to stress this; these people are not worth such attention," she wrote. "However, we still need help."

The couple hopes their plea for help will reach lawyers and human rights organizations.

In the meantime, however, they continue to communicate actively with local people, groups and communities online in Russian, English and Estonian, and have written for, appeared on or been interviewed by several Estonian media outlets.

Podolskaya prefers to express herself through her work, Zalevskaya said, describing her partner of more than two decades. She herself would actually prefer to do the same, but the two also acknowledge the importance of telling their story to possible acceptance and integration in Estonia.

The important thing, the latter stressed, however, was the support they have already received and the many positive experiences they have had since their arrival 11 months ago.

Despite the rocky start, it seems, Estonia still shows promise as a place to possibly even permanently call home — and Zalevskaya and Podolskaya have demonstrated that they are ready to work for it.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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