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The art of reading Russian obituaries


For the New York Times, Masha Gessen writes an op-ed about what she politely calls “the art of reading Russian obituaries,” or rather, reading Russian obituaries for clues and coded words that would suggest the deceased is gay. Gessen’s poignant piece is in partial below, the full version via New York Times.

There is a fine art to reading obituaries, as anyone who lived through the AIDS epidemic in the West and paid attention knows. Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, if an American newspaper reported that a young man had died and mentioned no cause of death (or attributed the death to “respiratory failure”), it was a safe assumption that the man had died of AIDS. If the obituary also referred to a surviving “longtime companion,” this seemed to provide confirmation.

The equivalent in contemporary Russia is an obituary that says that a man was found slain in his own apartment and there was no sign of forced entry. When this happens to someone well-known enough to warrant numerous written remembrances, the writers usually refer not to a killing but to a “tragic death” — as though it were not a criminal but a personal trait that caused the person’s demise. What they mean is that the deceased was gay and apparently died at the hands of someone he brought home.

No one can say how often this happens, but it happens enough to form a recognizable pattern. Many, if not most, LGBT people in Russia knew someone who died in this manner. When Alexander Smirnov, an official with the Moscow city government, decided to come out in a magazine interview three years ago, he chose to talk about this, too. “Two years ago someone I knew died,” said Mr. Smirnov. “He was found in his apartment, naked, stabbed to death. He was gay. You know how this happens? Gays often meet one another online. And there are whole gangs that come to gay men’s houses, then kill them and rob the apartment. Their families conceal the stories, of course.”

*Image of Moscow via Magnum Photos