Hours after the invasion of Ukraine commenced, Kirill Frolov was arrested at an anti-war demonstration one mile away from the Kremlin. After being fined 8,000 rubles ($100) and released, he packed a bag of clothes, a laptop, and some French and German books and flew to neighboring Armenia. “I tried to avoid taking souvenirs that would remind me of my life in Russia because it would have been too heartbreaking,” he tells the Voice.
Two weeks later, after the Russian parliament criminalized dissenting speech about the war, Frolov decided to end his 13-year career as an English teacher at a private school in Moscow, which had been closed for a winter break. “I could have kept silent but I would have felt morally filthy,” he says. “The kids in the fifth grade are 11 years old. They ask questions. I can’t lie to them. Russian troops are marauders. They are killers. They’re criminals. That is the truth.”
At six-foot-six inches, Frolov towers over most everyone he passes. A short, bristly beard frames his jaw, with two gray patches marking either side of his chin. He speaks in fluent, often poetic English, with a fatalistic undertone.
An estimated 200,000 Russian citizens, residents from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, joined Frolov in fleeing the country following the invasion, according to Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist. Many of them left to avoid criminal prosecution for speaking out against the war. Frolov shares this rationale—if arrested again, he’d likely face prison time—but a desire to depart his motherland had been welling up inside him for years. As a closeted gay man, his opposition to the Russian government and discomfort with increasingly illiberal sentiments promulgated by the regime long predate the war in Ukraine. “See, I’m 43, and I’ve lived more than half my life already,” he says. “I’m tired of hiding, of concealing my viewpoints, of concealing my sexuality. I’ve been waiting for this regime to fall for most of my life. I just can’t wait any longer.”
Frolov’s home city of Tver, located on the banks of the Volga River, 100 miles northwest of Moscow, has seen regimes rise and fall over the centuries. Mongol hordes, feudal lords, czars, and Nazis have all laid claim to the ancient city. When Frolov was born, in 1978, the Soviets held the reins of power, and Tver was renamed Kalinin, after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik ally of Joseph Stalin. Frolov was raised on the outskirts of the city, in a family of working-class creatives. His mother worked in the evenings as a cleaner, and later as an art teacher at the local school. His father produced color etchings, monotypes, and the occasional painting. They kept the company of local artists and thespians, and their home was often filled with the sounds of classical Russian music.
Corruption and scarcity were a fact of life for Tver’s half-million residents, many of whom worked in nearby factories and plants where thievery was so ubiquitous that perpetrators were called carriers, not thieves. “My neighbor’s husband worked as a security guard at a meat plant,” recalls Frolov. “So his fridge was always full of meat and sausage.” Not everyone was so lucky. Frolov’s mother frequently traveled three hours by train to Moscow to purchase meat, which was rationed to three kilograms per person; Frolov and his sister, Elena, were often brought along. What little they could purchase at local grocery stores, they made last. They once snacked on a large can of halvah, a confectionery, for several months. Other commodities were in short supply as well. One winter, confronted with a shortage of coats, a necessity in Russia, a local store decided to hold a lottery.
For Frolov, scarcity was not limited to food and clothing. As a child, he had never heard the faintest mention of, let alone encountered, openly gay people. All he knew was that spinsters were pitied by all, and that a family could only exist with a father, a mother, and children. “I couldn’t imagine any other kind of happiness,” he says. He was a teenager in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. As the new Russian Federation heralded an era of liberalization and opened itself up to the West, Frolov discovered his sexuality but walled it off from the world. Vestigial Soviet sodomy laws and negative societal attitudes toward homosexuals dissuaded him from being honest with himself and others.
In 1934, after roughly a decade of tolerance following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet government criminalized sex between men, with up to five years of hard labor as punishment. Convicted individuals, who were mostly from urban areas, were sentenced to gulags, and later, to prisons. Despite attempts to overturn it, the law remained in effect until 1993, when Frolov was 15, though enforcement had been declining. Surveys at the time revealed that large segments of the Russian population disliked or disapproved of homosexuals. Twenty-three percent of respondents in a 1989 poll by the Levada Center (a Russian NGO) felt that they should be “isolated from society,” and 7% responded that they should be “eliminated.” Similar responses were recorded for vagabonds, prostitutes, and people with AIDS.
“My mother once said, ‘If I knew my child was gay it would bring grief to me.’ And I remembered it for a long time,” says Frolov. In 1995, during his first year studying English at Tver State University, he fell in love with a classmate. They frequently drank and smoked cigarettes together after classes, and Frolov suspected that the classmate was gay, but was not sure. “I couldn’t even tell him that I loved him,” he recalls. “I wasn’t like anyone else. I didn’t know anyone who was the same because there was no Internet, no books about it.” In March of that year, unable to voice his feelings, Frolov fell into a depression and attempted suicide. While crossing a bridge, as a train approached below, he began to climb over the railing. But before he could jump, a passerby pulled him back from the ledge.
Frolov didn’t know it then, but Russian intolerance of homosexuality would only creep upward over the ensuing decades. The chaos following the Soviet Union’s collapse allowed for a modicum of sexual liberation in the 1990s that mirrored the fleeting tolerance of the ’20s. Crusading gay and lesbian activists established associations, bars, and magazines in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But on the eve of the new millennium—months after Frolov graduated from university—Vladimir Putin became acting president, marking the beginning of a new, more repressive era.
After his graduation, Frolov worked at a public school in Tver as a translator, where he met his future wife, who was seven years his senior. On July 14, 2002, at the age of 23, he got married. “I really loved her, and still do,” Frolov asserts. “But it was violence over my own nature.” One year later, his wife gave birth to a son. Marriage was common for gay men as well as for lesbians at the time. “If you even just got married and then divorced after six months, then people didn’t look askance at you quite the same way,” Dan Healey, a professor of modern Russian history at Oxford University, tells the Voice.
“I’m 43, and I’ve lived more than half my life already. I’m tired of hiding, of concealing my viewpoints, of concealing my sexuality. I’ve been waiting for this regime to fall for most of my life. I just can’t wait any longer.”
In 2009, Frolov and his wife divorced, and he moved to Moscow to teach English at the New Humanitarian School, one of the first private schools in the country. Clifford Levy, the former New York Times Moscow bureau chief, sent his children there, and described it in the paper as “a pretty remarkable place.” While academic independence was a rarity in neighboring public schools—textbooks were routinely banned by the Ministry of Education—New Humanitarian quietly allowed teachers freedom over their curriculum. “We kept two types of books: the white one and the black one,” Frolov says. “The white one was the one we referred to; the black one was for the inspectors.”
But the school could not be an island unto itself in every aspect. In 2013, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a law that prohibited the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors. The legislation criminalized speaking in favor of gay rights or equating homosexuals with heterosexuals in the presence of children under 18. The Russian Orthodox Church, dependably allegiant to Putin, supported the bill. “Putin took that particular political maneuver from Western playbooks,” says Healey. “Margaret Thatcher adopted a gay propaganda law in 1988, and that was basically to make the Labour Party look too extreme to be trusted with your children. And it’s usually of course about the children.”
“Under that kind of law in Russia, being a [gay] teacher is almost impossible,” David Tuller, author of Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia, tells the Voice. “It’s not impossible, but you have to be completely closeted; you’re completely at risk.” Statistics are not available on the number of people affected, but news reports since 2013 have detailed instances of teachers being fired for expressing views, in person or on social media, sympathetic to homosexuals. While teaching at the New Humanitarian, a name that carries some irony in this context, Frolov hid his sexuality from all of his colleagues except a few whom he trusted, for fear of repercussions. During his tenure there, the Russian government outlawed same-sex marriage and banned LGBTQ couples from adopting children. By 2021, a majority of Russians opposed gays and lesbians having the same rights as other citizens, according to a poll from the Levada Center. By contrast, only 35% were opposed to equal rights for gays and lesbians in 2005.
“For the general population, anti-LGBT+ prejudice is fueled by ignorance and fear of the unknown and unfamiliar,” Peter Tatchell, a British human rights campaigner who has been beaten and arrested at protests in Moscow, tells the Voice via email. In Russia, “There is little or no objective, let alone sympathetic, information about LGBT+ people and issues. It is almost entirely negative and hostile.”
For Frolov, the war in Ukraine was the final straw. “I couldn’t physically do it anymore,” he says. In the early morning hours of February 24, the first day of the invasion, he watched videos on Instagram depicting missile attacks on Kyiv and was shocked by the lack of outrage from Russia’s citizenry. “Regardless of what they think about politics and Putin, nobody wanted a war, because half of Russia has Ukrainian relatives,” he continues. “It’s like New York State attacks New Jersey.”
After being detained at the anti-war demonstration, Frolov made the decision to say goodbye to his home of 43 years, and flew to Armenia. He left behind his hometown, his friends, his students—in whom he takes great pride—and his 72-year-old mother and 18-year-old son. He worries that his son will be conscripted into the Russian army, and is trying to persuade him to flee to the Caucuses. About his mother, Frolov says, “My instinct was to stay with her, but one day I understood that I wouldn’t make her happy because I couldn’t stand it anymore.” He concludes, “It was very hard for me to leave, and I’m not sure that I did the right thing.” From Yerevan, in Armenia, he flew to the United States on a tourist visa, where he applied for asylum on the basis of being persecuted for his political beliefs and sexual orientation. He is currently staying in New York City while he awaits the results of his asylum application.
Frolov’s longtime friend Maria, a translator in St. Petersburg, says, “Kirill is the kindest person I’ve ever met, and I truly believe he deserves a better life in an environment which would take him as he is.” ❖
Brendan Rascius is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Hudson Reporter and The West Side Rag.