More than 200 thousand copies have been sold — an absolute bestseller. Its authors, Katerina Silvanova and Elena Malisova, did not expect the novel to take off. In 2021, one of the readers of A Summer in a Young Pioneer’s Tie made a TikTok based on the book that went viral. “We had a wild number of views — it was surreal,” recalls Katya. A month after its publication, homophobes drew attention to the book: threats to imprison, rape, kill, burn, and drown the authors along with their novel rained down on social networks. By the end of this summer, the scandal around LVPG [as the novel is known to fans] had ballooned to calls to remove the book from stores, while politicians in the regions went so far as to burn copies of the book. Russia has now adopted the most scandalous law of recent years — a complete ban on LGBT propaganda [see below]. A Summer in a Young Pioneer’s Tie has again been cited by officials as the [negative] “gold standard”: this is what has been target by the state’s hatred.
Who are Katerina Silvanova and Elena Malisova? Where are they from? How did they become writers? How did they manage to write the year’s biggest book? Special to The Village, journalist Anya Kuznetsova traced their real-life stories from childhood to the present day.
In brief: what is the book itself about?
The plot centers around the relationship between two young men — Young Pioneer Yura and camp counselor Volodya. They meet at the Ukrainian summer camp Swallow in 1986, forming a friendship that eventually blossoms into a teenage romance. It is difficult for the characters to accept their homosexuality. Volodya suffers from internal homophobia and worries that he is “seducing” the Young Pioneer, while Yura does not understand what his lover feels and tries to conceal his affection.
The authors of the novel raise topics that are sticky in post-Soviet society: the stigmatization of LGBT people, the inability to openly build relationships, and the need to constantly ensure that they are not disclosed. This is clearly seen in the episode when one of the Young Pioneers, Masha, tries to report Yura and Volodya’s relationship to the authorities, which may threaten the counselor with expulsion from university.
Another feature of this text is a style typical of fan fiction. Using a simple, accessible language, Elena and Katerina have created a text unique in Russophone literature. Yes, the topic of same-sex love has been raised before — for example, by the poets Mikhail Kuzmin and Sofia Parnok — and critics have detected homoerotic motifs even in the fiction of Gogol and Tolstoy. But the authors of LVPG have been, perhaps, the first to succeed in producing a genuinely popular Russian-language text directly describing a romantic relationship between men — so much so that it has been banned.
A year later, in the midst of the hype around LVPG, Popcorn Books published a sequel to the novel, What the Swallow Won’t Say (aka OCHML). The events in the new novel unfold twenty years after Yura and Volodya parted: they never managed to meet again after their time at summer camp.
The characters are now adults, living their own lives. Volodya runs his father’s construction company and is in an abusive relationship with a married man, while Yura has moved to Germany and writes music. They accidentally meet again and try to build a relationship, but it’s not so simple. Yura suffers from writer’s block and alcoholism, while Volodya suffers from self-harm and controlling behavior.
Although OCHML continues the plot line started in LVPG, the book is anything but an easy read: the authors delve deeper into the stigmatization of the LGBT community, while simultaneously exploring addiction, abuse, violence, and conversion therapy. You can read more about the second part in Bolshoi Gorod.
Part 1. Lena Malisova’s story: Childhood at a sawmill, abuse, and the death of her father
Kirov in the 1990s is where the future writer grew up. Lena’s parents owned a sawmill in the village of Suzum (Kirov Region) and took their daughter with them, says Malisova.
“The sawmill was in the forest, and I often walked through this forest at night. A stunning starry sky, snakes hiding in the grass. It seemed to me them that I only had to go outside and I would definitely encounter a goblin or a little mermaid.”
At first, Lena’s parents read to her, but later she read to herself. She read the tales of Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm, and Andersen, Gerhart Hauptmann‘s novels Atlantis and The Whirlwind of Vocation and, later, Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther.
As a teenager, Lena became interested in heavy music, and wore torn jeans and a bandana. Goths, metal heads and bikers emerged in Kirov. Lena listened to black metal, Lacrimosa, and Korol i Shut, and started hanging out with the “informals” who met at the Kalinka store to play guitar and discuss music. It was there that she met Vlad, her future boyfriend.
“He seemed nice and gallant to me, and paid me a lot of attention. He said he couldn’t live without me, and at the time I took those words seriously. Together we listened to music and watched music videos, and he copied magazine pages for me. At the time I believed that I was difficult to fall in love with, and his attentions won me over,” the writer says.
Over time, Vlad’s attitude towards Lena changed. According to her, the young man didn’t like her friends, calling them whores and asking her to stop hanging out with them. Vlad was jealous of Lena and tried to get her to develop complexes, calling her fat, and if she hung out with other guys, he said that she was a whore. It was then that Vlad hit her for the first time.
“When something bad happened to him, he projected his emotions onto me. For example, I wouldn’t ask how his day had been, or I’d talk to another guy, and he would light up, thinking I didn’t love him or was cheating on him. It was the whole circle of abuse: the outburst, the beating, the promise to improve, and the reconciliation, and after a while everything would repeat again. I understood I was in a bad relationship, but I couldn’t explain why. I thought that if I broke up with him, no one would want me. It was painful without him, but it was worse with him. I hid the bruises and deceived my loved ones,” Lena recalls.
Hanging out with peers helped Lena to get out of the relationship. A club was started at her school in which the kids involved organized celebrations and came up with contests. Hanging out with other teenagers, Lena realized that there was a life without humiliation and aggression, that there was friendship, support, and mutual assistance. Vlad noticed that she was moving away, and there were more quarrels and violence. When it had reached a critical point, they broke up.
“I am convinced that my desire to write texts about LGBT people is connected with the abusive relationships in my youth. I understand that victims of violence and LGBT people living in a homophobic environment are oppressed. They are in a terrible situation, they can’t do anything: they can’t help themselves and no one can help them. When I think about it, I remember my personal experience. And I want to support them emotionally, to say that they are not alone, here is my hand of support. I believe that literature can change the world,” the writer explains.
After leaving abusive relationships and going to high school, Lena met her future husband Ilya. They were also connected by music — Ilya played the guitar. When Lena turned eighteen, the couple decided to get married. The wedding was scheduled for December 2006. But a month before that, a tragedy occurred in the young woman’s family: her dad died in a fire at the sawmill.
“That night, during the fire, Dad was at the sawmill, and we did not completely believe that he had been there. A body was found in the morning. I couldn’t believe for a long time that my father was dead. He often went on business trips, so I thought that he had just gone away this time as well. We buried Dad in a closed coffin,” Lena recalls.
She says that she still could not acknowledge his death. When her father-in-law died, she cried for several days. This was her way of mourning her father.
Part 2. Katya Silvanova’s story: Childhood in Kharkiv and acceptance of her bisexuality
Katya is four years younger than Lena. She spent her childhood in Ukraine, in her hometown of Kharkiv. Currently, the Kharkiv region is being shelled by the Russian military. The lights are constantly turned off in the city for several hours at a time, and the metro comes to a standstill.
Remembering her Kharkiv childhood in the late 90s and early 2000s, Katya says that she was outside in the courtyard a lot. She hung out a lot with the neighborhood kids and constantly rescued animals.
“There was a cat Frosya on our street who suddenly began giving birth. My friend and I stole milk from the house, delivered the kittens, and got them on their feet. Then we picked up a dog that someone had thrown out of the car. We raised money and took it to the vet. And I often went to visit my grandmother in Kryvyi Rih, where I played with the chickens and goats.”
Katya was closest to her mother.
“She read a lot and watched auteur cinema. I always wanted to be with her and her friends. My relationship with my father didn’t work out — he drank and cheated on my mother,” says Katya.
Katya also became interested in reading thanks to her mother — she bought the girl Jules Verne’s In Search of the Castaways. It was followed by Tom Sawyer and, later, Harry Potter, Tanya Grotter, Night Watch, and fantasy novels. It was then that the future writer began inventing worlds, generating ideas from what she viewed and read, and developing characters.
Some readers have criticized LVPG for being written by two heterosexual women. It’s not like that: Katya is bisexual. She thought about her sexuality for the first time in the tenth grade.
“A new girl transferred to our school, and we became friends because we were interested in anime and read manga and fan fiction. I can’t say for sure why yaoi and yuri manga didn’t cause me any surprise. At the age of fifteen, I just accepted as a fact that this exists, that these people exist, and they are no different from us. And then my friend kissed me. That’s how I realized I was bisexual.”
It was not easy for Katya to accept her orientation.
“When people in my group of friends found out that I liked girls, they looked at me strange. When I tried to talk to my parents about LGBT people — not specifically about myself, but in general — their reaction was abrupt and negative.”
The reaction of those around her triggered internal homophobia: Katya began to think something was wrong with her.
Literary representations of her experience helped Katya to cope.
“There are now a lot of LGBT books, films and TV series. But back then I found representations in the yaoi and yuri fan fiction based on Naruto, the comedy manga series Gravitation, and the old anime series of Ai no Kusabi.”
Writing LVPG helped Katya reconcile her parents with her sexuality.
“I told my mom that I like women this year. It took me a long time to work up to it. She was influenced by LVPG — when she was reading the novel, she asked me to explain everything, and I worked on destroying her stereotypes for several years. But in the end, when I told her about myself, she wasn’t surprised. She boldly accepted everything.”
“I now relate to the LGBT community positively and even sympathetically. But it wasn’t always like that. My attitude and acceptance of this topic was completely shaped by Katya. When she was writing the book and I was reading it, we talked a lot, arguing and discussing things. It wasn’t easy to read at first: I was constantly tripped up by the idea that we were talking about two guys. But her talent won me over, and I read the second part of the book excitedly,” says Katya’s mother.
Katya’s maternal grandmother also read LVPG and easily accepted the book’s homoerotic relationships.
“So the lads love each other? Then let them love each other. What’s the big deal? It’s basically a wonderful book,” she argues.
When Katya turned twenty-two, the Euromaidan happened. Due to a fall in the value of the dollar, the trading business owned her by mother was threatened, and the family did not have enough money to buy new pants to replace torn ones. At the time, the future writer had been dating a guy from Nizhny Novgorod and decided to go and stay with him. She recalls the move as fraught with anxiety.
“People were condescending when they found out that I was from Ukraine. But it wasn’t sympathy — they considered me a refugee. It was not an equal relationship, in fact: they put themselves above me, saying that I was poor and unhappy, that I had come to seek shelter in Russia, because allegedly Ukraine was bombing us. Of course, not everyone was like that, but I often encountered a dismissively sympathetic attitude.”
Part 3. Ficbook: Meeting and Working on “Summer in a Young Pioneer’s Tie”
The young women met in 2016 thanks to Ficbook — a website where non-professional authors post their fan fiction, that is, new works based on famous works or characters that are not in any way approved by the authors of the originals. Both Katya and Lena found their way to Ficbook by reading LGBT literature: Katya was looking for representations of same-sex relationships, while Lena wanted to learn more about the lives of LGBT people.
“I was then working at a company where I made friends with a gay guy who was HIV positive. I was shocked and worried and wanted to find out how to help him. I was looking for information, for diaries of people with HIV, and eventually came across Ficbook,” says Lena.
Over time, the young women found the website’s “Originals” section, where authors publish works based not on existing works, but involving completely fictional worlds. Katya and Lena began posting their texts, and having stumbled upon each other’s work, they met on Skype call, during which the authors discussed their works.
“Katya won me over. We were in an environment in which everyone would try to offend and criticize each other. Katya is not like that, that’s why I liked her. I was reading her texts and knew her as an author even before I met her, and in her works I had seen a lot of similarities with my own — she focuses on the same details as me. We rang each other up to read our texts to each other,” Lena recalls.
“It was the first time I felt synergy,” Katya adds. “Lena is very smart. All you need to know about her is that we once sat down to watch a three-hour film about Alexander the Great, but the viewing dragged on for almost five hours. Lena was constantly pausing the video and saying things like, ‘That is the phalanx of Alexander the Great: I will now draw a diagram to show how it works.'”
The idea to write something about a Young Pioneer camp came from Lena, who was working a lot at the time and wanted to read a summer novel in her spare time. She asked Katya to write such a work, but in the end they decided to work on it together. They telephoned each other, outlined a plan, and divvied up the responsibilities. Most of the text was written when Katya traveled to Moscow to visit Lena. When the book was finished, the young women decided to publish a small edition for themselves and friends: they chipped in and printed four hundred copies.
The writers began getting. messages, suggesting that they send their manuscript to Popcorn Books.
“Our thought then was, Come on, this is a real publishing house that publishes books by André Aciman and other famous foreign authors. Where do we fit in? Plus, we believed that no one would publish a Russian LGBT book. But when Popcorn Books started soliciting works from Russian-speaking authors, Lena said, ‘Yes, let’s give it a try. They will turn us down in any case, but they promise feedback — let’s treat this as experience,'” recalls Katya.
In response to the submission, the young women received a letter that read: “Hello, we really liked your book, and we want to publish it.”
“I sat stupefied for ten minutes, thinking that I had read it wrong,” Katya says. “I sent it to Lena, and then the screaming started. We couldn’t believe it. Lena said, ‘Do you mean to say that my book will be sold in a bookstore?'”
Part 4. “Of course, I didn’t read the Young Pioneer camp faggotry”: How homophobes have reacted to the book
Reactions to the book have varied. In addition to letters of support, the young women have received a lot of hate mail. They have been criticized by film director Nikita Mikhalkov, writer Zakhar Prilepin, journalist and writer Mikhail Shakhnazarov, and Vostok Battalion blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, among many others. Some of the posts were threatening and offensive. Prilepin said he wanted to burn down Popcorn Books, while Tatarsky called the writers “two broads” who look “as if they had come to a casting of Battle of the Psychics without masking their witchy essence much.”
The Village contacted Tatarsky.
“Of course, I didn’t read the Young Pioneer camp faggotry. There is nothing edifying about hyping the topic of homosexual relations. That’s all. If the book even discusses the pedophile movement neutrally, it clearly puts the topic on the [public] agenda,” he says.
We were unable to contact Prilepin, who hung up the phone when we called him.
Shakhnazarov also refused to be interviewed by The Village.
“I familiarized myself with your publication and with your questions,” he wrote. “Do you understand what’s the matter? Your readers are unlikely to understand and accept my answers, and therefore an interview is pointless. One thing I can say for sure. Summer… is not even a literary composition. It’s neither pulp fiction nor literature. And if it has no artistic value, there is nothing for us to talk about.”
The critics were later joined by the authorities, who proposed a law that would completely ban LGBT literature.
“We were monitoring every hour what appeared in the news. We watched this chimera grow. First there was Prilepin, then the Sevastopol [State Duma] deputy who proposed the law. The trigger was not the book, but the sudden realization by people in power that such literature was being read, that it was popular. They can’t get their heads around it. While I have a strong sense of guilt and blame myself for everything in the world, I don’t blame myself for this law. It is not us who should be blamed, but the people who passed it,” Katya argues.
Tatarsky, who supported the law’s passage, when asked about the connection between the law bill and the novel, argued that everything was complicated.
“Everything in Russia is contradictory,” he said. “We have a law on LGBT propaganda, but they take a gay man [Anton Krasovsky] and make him director of RT, showing that you can be successful while being gay. Everything happens inconsistently in Russia.”
“LVPG has become a litmus test,” Lena replies. “It has highlighted the fact that the authorities were wrong in how they thought about LGBT. For a long time it was hammered into everyone’s heads that the entire Russian society was solidly against LGBT people. But our book has shown that this is not the case, that there are many more humanists and sympathizers than they thought.”
Part 5. War: A grandmother in Kharkiv and leaving Russia
On February 24, Katya woke up to a message from a close friend in Kharkiv: “He [Putin] started bombing.”
“I got onto the news and found out the whole story. I went to call my mom,” Katya says.
“In the morning, I opened my eyes and immediately closed them with the thought, No, I don’t want to wake up, because there is war. I think all Ukrainians felt about the same,” Katya’s mother recalls. “My family and all my friends were in Kharkiv, which was bombed daily. I experienced every attack together with them. Also, my Katya was in the country that had attacked us. Daily Skype conversations with her helped me to stay afloat and not go crazy.”
On the evening of February 24, Katya got more terrible news: her paternal grandmother had died during the bombing.
“When Kharkiv was bombed, my grandmother was scared. She didn’t know what to do. She ran out of the house, thinking about whether to go down to the basement or not. She had a heart attack,” Katya says.
The body was not retrieved for two days — the police, who handle such things, refused to go outside while bombing was underway.
On the second day of the war, Katya traveled to Lena’s house. Together they doomscrolled and watched YouTube. The young women say that mutual support helped them survive this period.
“Lena knows how to take care of others,” says Katya. “She doesn’t ask you how things are going when things are bad. She says, ‘If you want, come over. We’ll pretend that everything is fine and distract ourselves. If you don’t want to pretend everything is fine, we’ll look at the news bulletins from the front and have a beer.’ [To cheer me up] she can write one more time that [Putin] will kick the bucket soon.”
Katya says that since the beginning of the war she had been thinking a lot about leaving for Ukraine.
“Every day I was calling my mother and a friend who wrote to me hysterically from a basement. It was impossible: I would call my mom, and there was a window opening behind her. I kept thinking: what if a rocket hits her now?”
In the summer, in the wake of the hate campaign against LVPG, Katya decided to leave Russia. She has been in Ukraine for more than two months.
“When you can’t help your family and friends, and they write and tell you what’s going on, it’s much worse for you. Maybe I’m in more physical danger now, but mentally I’m much better,” she says.
“I did not pass through hot spots, but I did go through checkpoints. There were military men on the bus with me — whether they were police or AFU, I don’t know. The bus was going to Zaporizhzhia, the closest point to the front. This was the most vivid testament to the fact that the country was at war,” Katya says, adding, “Another vivid impression has been the people. I’m used to the fact that in bureaucratic organizations, in stores, and on the street [in Russia], you’re afraid to say too much, because people might suddenly turn out to be vatniks. Everything is different in Ukraine: I go to the store, and everyone smiles and is helpful. When I was getting my papers sorted, I said that I was from Russia and I thought they would rip me to shreds there and then. But ultimately, they explained everything decently. They told me not to worry and calmed my mother.”
Katya Silvanova is still in Kharkiv.
“When the war began,” she says, “we received many messages from Ukrainians, for whom this text was an outlet in a terrible time. I got a letter from girl from Mariupol who read LVPG during the bombing. We write for the sake of such reactions.”
Source: Anya Kuznetsova, “Who are Lena and Katya, the authors of ‘Summer in a Young Pioneer’s Tie’? Kharkiv, coming out, a sawmill, and haters,” The Village, 1 December 2022. All photos, above, were provided to The Village by Ms. Silvanova and Ms. Malisova. Translated by the Russian Reader
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding the existing ban on the prohibition of “LGBT propaganda” to children to include the entire population on Monday.
People of all ages are now banned from accessing certain content under the new legislation. From now on, LGBT relationships and “lifestyles” cannot be displayed or mentioned, according to activists.
The display of LGBT relationships is also banned from advertising campaigns, films, video games, books and media publications. Outlets that break the new law could be fined or shut down by the government.
Organizations could be fined up to 4 million rubles for spreading information about “non-traditional sexual relations” among minors or exhibiting information that “can make minors want to change their gender.”
Under the new law, foreigners who break the law would be expelled from the country.
As part of the Kremlin’s conservative agenda, Russia banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” toward minors in 2013. A fine or 15 days in prison may be imposed for such “propaganda,” under current laws.
In Russia, homosexuality was a crime until 1993, and until 1999 it was regarded as a mental illness.
Source: “Putin Signs Expanded Law Banning ‘Gay Propaganda,'” Moscow Times, 5 December 2022