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After Coming Out As Gay, A Russian Violinist's New Reality

A 23-year-old, Russian-born violinist named Artem Kolesov is capturing international attention after posting a YouTube video in which he comes out as gay.

The son of two Pentecostal pastors in a small town an hour away from Moscow, Kolesov says that he has struggled for most of his life to reconcile his sexual orientation with his Christian beliefs and his family's views. "In my family," Kolesov says in his video, "I often heard that all gays should be destroyed, that they should be bombed, and that if anyone in our family turns out to be gay, my family should kill them with their bare hands."

In the video, Kolesov also recounts wrenching episodes from throughout his life. At age seven, he prayed that he would die before his mother found out that he liked boys. He also endured physical and sexual abuse from one of his brothers, who threatened to out him to his parents if Kolesov told anyone about the abuse, and later attempted suicide several times.

Growing up, he says, "I never heard anything good about gay people. All I knew was that gays are the people who everyone should hate. I was scared because I knew that I was gay. I didn't know anyone who I could talk to about it. It seemed that I was the only gay person in Russia."

The violinist made his video as part of the Russian "Children-404" project, which invites teenagers to share their stories and discuss LGBT issues in Russia. In most of their photos and videos, participants shield their identities by holding up a "Children-404" sign in front of their faces.

Instead of creating an anonymous contribution, Kolesov chose to share his name and face, to let fellow LGBT youth in Russia feel less isolated. He recorded the video in Russian, but also provided English subtitles. "We don't come out for heterosexual people to know," he says in his video, which he published on March 29. "We don't come out for the ones who hate us to know. We shout and make as much noise as possible just so other people like us who are scared and can't be themselves would know that they are not a mistake and they are not alone."

Formerly based in Canada, Kolesov now lives in Chicago, where he is first violinist in the Yas Quartet, which is in residence at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts. Last summer, his ensemble took third prize in the Chamber Division at the Schoenfeld International String Competition which was held in Harbin, China.

In his video, Kolesov contrasts his family's pleasure in his musical accomplishments with their reaction to his coming out. "They are ashamed to have a gay son and brother," he says. "They wish that this part of my identity didn't exist. Interesting that my family is proud of me for being a violinist, and is so ashamed of me for being gay, though both of these are parts of my identity."

In the aftermath of releasing his video, Kolesov told BuzzFeedthat he's already begun to experience the impact of his decision to come out so publicly. He has received many positive messages from friends and strangers alike, but he said that he is afraid of being arrested if he returns to Russia, under enforcement of a vaguely worded but broad "anti-gay propaganda" law. Earlier this month, there were reports that more than 100 gay men in Chechnya were arrested and tortured, with some of them reportedly killed by police. (Authorities have denied both the arrests and the deaths.)

Kolesov is also not currently on speaking terms with his relatives, and told BuzzFeed, "Even if I go back to Russia, I'm not sure I would be feeling completely safe with my own family."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.