‘I never wanted to be with a man’: escaping Russia for Canada

(Elena in the North Pacific)

The remarkable story of a woman from Russia who escaped to Canada in a sailboat to be with the woman she loves

It was March when an e-mail arrived in my inbox with the subject line ‘Escaping Russia’. It was just two paragraphs long: the sender, Elena, asked me whether I would be interested in a story about a young woman who had to flee her family and her country in order to be with the woman she loved. She talks about a daring escape on a sailboat across two oceans. The woman in question is Elena herself. Here is her story.

Two days after we have our first call, I’m sitting in my apartment in St Petersburg. On the other side of my computer screen is Elena, who is calling from her sailboat, where she now lives with Meg.

Her voice is deep, clear, and with a strong acquired Canadian accent. Her Russian past is only noticeable when she occasionally drops her articles in front of certain words.

Elena is a young Russian woman from Ivanovo, 250 km east of Moscow. The town is known as “the city of brides” for once being a major textile centre, attracting many women seeking work. Not much is left of the textile industry in the town, but gender disparity continues to be one of its main features. Her life resembled that of many others, or at least it used to, until February 2006.

(Elena)

Having chosen the path set for her, Elena successfully finished her studies, got a job, and reached her mid-twenties—when her biological clock started ticking and she was told that it was time for her to get married and have children.

Society can often disregard individual goals and wishes as most people seem to accommodate to the accepted life-plan, often regarded as the only available path for a woman.

“I never wanted to be with a man; I knew that from the very beginning. And, of course, I didn’t want to get married, but the problem was that my family and pretty much everyone around me was forcing me to date men and eventually set me up with one of them.”

Being a lesbian at the time was not a matter of law; the gay propaganda law in Russia appeared much later. Hiding her sexuality seemed to be the only way for Elena to lead a normal life and be surrounded by friends. Her mother played a major role in her life; she would worry that Elena was falling off of the standard track and would try to put her back on it, pushing her to wear high heels, makeup, polish her nails, and look like a “proper woman.”

She wanted me to look good for a potential partner, and, of course, that partner had to be a man.

After much pressure, Elena eventually started dating a colleague whose name was Dima. Her mother had noticed him and told her to “catch him” before another woman would.

“He made the first move and I let him go further, to please my mother and also because there was no other path for me in life but to date the guy and have a family with him. I didn’t have the guts to do things any other way.”

Her days went by between home and work and her daily life with her new boyfriend, until one day she started chatting online with a Canadian woman named Meg. Communicating with foreigners was Elena’s strategy to escape her small world and feel free to be herself, without the fear of being judged. Meg soon became her most trusted confidant and her role model.

“Meg can do everything, she is a musician, she plays the piano, flies planes, sails boats … To me she was this incredible woman, she simply stunned me with what she could do, and, of course, I pretty much instantly fell in love with her.”

As her correspondence with Meg continued, Elena started to drift away from her life in Ivanovo. On the surface, her life was going as usual, with work, her family life, and her boyfriend, but back home, behind the screen of her computer, Meg started giving her the strength to rebel and to walk away from her life.

The escape

After six months of chatting, they finally decided to meet up in Ukraine, in Kiev. In order not to raise any suspicion, Elena told her parents she would leave for a weekend to go to the opera with a Canadian friend, but her plans were very different. She packed a small bag, conscious that this was to be her escape and that she’d probably never see her hometown again.

Her escape did not only come as a surprise to her family but even to Meg.

She didn’t know that I was going to leave forever. She thought we were going to Kiev to find out whether we truly loved each other, and that if we did, I could eventually immigrate to Canada if I wanted to. We had no idea that we had to literally run to Canada from Russia.

Elena and Meg met for the first time at Boryspil Airport in Kiev. More than 10 years after that day, Elena still can’t hold back the tears when recalling the moment.

“When I landed at the airport and I realised that there are only meters left to Meg … only a few meters, you see, we had been waiting for that moment for so long, and then I saw her, I saw she was standing in the crowd of people. I don’t know how to explain how I felt, but I think I was so excited that I could hardly understand what was going on around me.”

(Meg and Elena in Kiev, March 2006)

The happiness and excitement of finally being together wouldn’t last long. After just a couple of days in Kiev, Elena started to receive the first calls, first from her mum, then from her boyfriend. Her life back in Ivanovo seemed to be claiming her back, but this time Elena wasn’t willing to hide the truth anymore. “My mother was telling me to go back to Ivanovo and I was saying that I wouldn’t because then I would never see Meg again.”

After many discussions over the phone, an agreement was reached: her mother would let her live her life, but not before having checked on her one last time in Kiev.

“She lured us into one of the train stations in Kiev, I had no idea that my father would be there too. Meg and I just thought that we were going to see my mother to talk and that that would be it, but she brought my dad with her and they attacked us.”

They grabbed me, held both my arms tight and brought me to a McDonalds near the train station. My father slapped three tickets on the table and said ‘you’re coming with us to Ivanovo.’ That was their ultimatum for me, and it was the first time that I ever disagreed with them in my life.

The initial hostile encounter with Meg quickly transformed into a real fight between Elena’s parents and the young couple. The four of them were then led to the nearest police station to clarify the matter. Quite unexpectedly, the police chose her side and protected them from Elena’s parents who, defeated, left Ukraine to go back to Russia.

Once her parents were gone, Elena suddenly realised that her passport was missing. It had been surreptitiously grabbed by her mother before she left back to Russia. With no documents, and in a foreign country, the only option available for Elena seemed to be going back home, but Meg wasn’t going to give up so easily.

“After we realised that my passport was missing she started planning on how I could escape and ask for protection in Canada. We went to the consulate in Kiev but the consul recommended Meg to go back home saying that she couldn’t do anything for me unless we could manage to get me onto Canadian soil. Only then could I ask for protection and refugee status.”

Thanks to one of the few allies she had left in Ivanovo, a colleague from the company she was working at, Elena eventually managed to get her passport back. “She was the only one who told me she was happy for me, she managed to get my passport and brought it to Odessa so that I had a passport that I could travel with.”

Once she got hold of her passport, the two headed for Turkey, where Meg had found an ingenious way to reach Canada. Meg put a mortgage on her house in Canada and bought a sailing boat. During the two-month-stay allowed by their visa, Elena took sailing lessons and Meg prepared the boat for offshore sailing. Two months later, they were sailing in the open sea.

(Meg in the Mediterranean Sea)

Meg had meticulously planned the journey with the necessary food and water supply during the previous year. She prepared for the worst possibility—that they wouldn’t be granted passage through the Panama Canal. “Because Russians are not allowed to enter many countries without a permit, we planned the trip without stops,” says Elena.

They crossed the Mediterranean sea from east to west, survived a hurricane in the Atlantic, and crossed the Caribbean Sea before slipping into the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal.

“The North Pacific was the toughest part of our trip. Before that, I had never seen nature being that dismal and threatening. In the open ocean, hundreds of miles off the coast of North America, we found ourselves in the worst sea conditions that we had ever experienced. Many times we thought we wouldn’t make it, and once we had to run south for good, but eventually we got to the longitude where the wind wasn’t north-west anymore and then again headed to Vancouver island—for Canada.”

After ten months, two seas, and two oceans, the couple arrived to Canada in April 2007. “When we arrived, it was all very quiet, it was 2am, we simply parked the boat at the yacht club and there was nobody there. And that was the irony of it. We had completed such a huge journey for love but there was nobody to meet us. It was pretty silent. We didn’t actually need anything, we just wanted to sleep, to rest, and to start living our life on land.”

From that day in April, more than ten years have passed, in which Meg and Elena have made the ocean their home. Today, Meg and Elena live on the very same sailing boat they bought in Turkey. Meg had to sell her house in Victoria because of the expenses caused by the trip, and she currently works as a computer programmer over the internet, providing financially for the both of them. Elena wrote a book in Russian titled Говорящая с Луной (Talking to the Moon) about their love story and her escape from Russia and is determined to tell her story to as many people as possible, hoping to give other women the strength needed to change their lives, the way Meg helped her. The couple spends most of their time travelling, enjoying nature and discovering new places and people.

“She is sailing with me, we are travelling the world, you see what happened…how does one explain life in a few words? Let me take a look at her, I don’t know, she is an amazing person. As long as I am with her, I am happy,” says Elena, looking at Meg in the other room.

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