I’m Dying Here, Tell the Prime Minister | Sasha Panichkin | The Hypocrite Reader

Sasha Panichkin

I’m Dying Here, Tell the Prime Minister

ISSUE 100 | HOLES | JUL 2022
Almagul Menlibayeva, The Aral Beach II, 2011
I grew up in Palestine, a land where it seemed to be eternally sunny. My childhood was so secure that I remember wishing one of my parents would die so I could feel some emotion, even misery. I was twelve years old when my wish came true.
—Barbara Hulanicki, From A to Biba

I’ve been thinking about the hole in my grandpa’s throat that he had for a while before he died. (Did he have cancer?) I remember there was a tube coming out of his neck and he couldn’t talk, he only kind of wheezed. He wrote swear words on little pieces of paper and everybody at the table laughed. Then when he died, nobody talked about it, my father just went alone to the funeral. I’ve also been thinking about holes in family histories. Like, did he have cancer, though? Nobody told me. Why did my mom start wearing a silver Orthodox cross in her bra one day? When I go to the doctor and they ask me, “Do you have diabetes in your family? Has someone in your family ever had a heart attack?” I genuinely have no clue. Nobody knows who my mom’s biological father was, Grandma refuses to talk about it (was she raped?). I learned that mom was a stepchild from a local newspaper.

My great grandma (from my father’s side), one time they said about her, “She was Mordovian or something.” But was she? What was she? And what am I? How do I find out? And do I really need to know? I’ve thought about it before, but now there seems to be an extra urgency to it. Ever since the war started many indigenous peoples of Russia have spoken up more openly about the oppression they’ve experienced in their own country. Some people seem to rediscover their ethnic identity and expression, others seem to struggle to make peace with their Russianness. “What language would you rather know instead of Russian?” I see people ask each other on Twitter. I secretly ask myself that too, but the answer often is “I’d rather not exist.” And right now I am just lost and trans and alone in a foreign country, not knowing what kind of Russian I am, my whole life seems like a plot hole and it unfolds both backwards and forwards, queerly, at different paces.

I haven’t contacted my family in more than half a year now. When I tell the locals that I moved to Armenia on my own and that my family has no idea where I am, they seem surprised, or they get pitiful and offer me help. One guy said, “It’s so cool.” Random old men start asking me for a blow job. I feel like I have this urge to find a hole in the world in the shape of me, but it’s like I’m not in the shape of me yet, (so I keep falling into the wrong holes?). The only two pairs of shoes I own have holes in them.

There are holes in the roof of my new home. Why did I decide to move into this rundown place that (now that I think of it) reminds me so much of my grandma’s place, the one she lived in with her alcoholic hoarder husband, my mom’s stepdad? It was impossible to make that house clean. It was dusty and dark and flimsy. No matter how hard you scrubbed something, just more and more dirt would come off. It was made out of concrete and some woody shit, sawdust and glue or something. The soil in vegetable patches in the backyard was infiltrated with glass shards, broken ceramics, brick crumbs, stones, and some other garbage. When I was a child the backyard was drowning in black and red currant bushes, raspberry bushes, gooseberry, sea buckthorn, rhubarb, hop, various flowers and weeds, nettle, apple trees and blackthorn. It was hard to walk through that tangle and even though the garden was tiny, it seemed huge. But then they cut and tore down everything and it just became bold and empty and sad, and you could see the neighbors walking back and forth in their gardens, identical to this one in shape and square footage, see them in their houses through the windows, and it made the space feel even more penetrable, naked, empty, unsafe.

Now all the things in this house in Yerevan—salty funky taste of homemade cheese, slices of fresh cucumber, and tea, light breeze in the window, squeaky floor, bread, sounds of construction work across the street, the buzz of an old refrigerator in the kitchen turning on and off again and again—send me back in memory to my grandma’s house. The tree outside, its young sprouts hitting me softly on my ankles as I climb up and down the stairs to go pee, as I open and close the bathroom door. The ear-splitting rattle of a scooter on the bumpy concrete path by my windows. My stomach is cool and sweaty, it slowly gets covered with dark hair that is still soft but visible and a soft shirt that’s probably too thick and makes me sweat but I like the sweat it gives. I moved in hoping to make collages out of old magazines with a guy next door I had a crush on. Will I also get asthma here, like my grandma did (does she have asthma?).

“Traumatic areas are the ones that give the most pleasure when we play them. They have great erotic power,” Constant wrote about his installation at the queer art exhibition in Vanadzor. The piece was about incest and it consisted of one and the same image replicated again and again—a picture of a child alongside his abuser—torn and rearranged, surrounding you. An audio track composed out of the distorted soundscape of the childhood house where trauma had originated was played over and over in the background. “Trauma is repeating itself endlessly until it appeases with time,” Constant wrote.

I remember one time when this “grandpa” was drunk and he almost sat on me. He was slowly lowering his ass over the tiny me in an armchair and no one, NO ONE, in the room thought of stopping him. I was shocked and started yelling “He’s gonna sit on me!” and they said “You should’ve kicked him in the ass.” I felt betrayed. Several times a year (mostly in the summertime, or maybe I just remember those times better, because I had to stay at their house during my summer break every year) he would go on several-weeks-long drinking bouts. Everybody in the family would get annoyed, but they would go around their daily lives as usual, pretending (?) not to notice shouting and mumbling and gurgling and smashing. They would invite guests and make them pretend, too. He also died, in February. It was after I had already stopped talking to my family. I guess I ran away because I tried to leave uncanny homes behind. But trauma is a sweet spot where it hurts, so you keep coming back and it feels comfy to build your brand new home broken.

My house is in the oldest part of Yerevan and almost every day there are tour guides under my windows. “They used stones and straw.” “The walls are so thick because it’s the only way you could deal with heat in our climate.” Today I took a nap in the early afternoon as I barely slept last night because of the heat, or my anxiety, or bedbugs (I hope there are no bedbugs) and woke up to a tour guide telling the group, “There was this Spanish guy who said it looked exactly like his village in Spain” and something about an angry lady who told that guy to tell the prime minister that they were dying there. Were they dying in Spain or here, where I live? I feel like I’m dying too. I don’t know if I want the prime minister to know, but it’s literally what I think about every day.

So far it feels like I’m not undoing the damage but only deepening and intensifying it. Is there a way to let your trauma be healed? Is there a way to undo hundreds of years of colonial oppression you’ve been a part of? By never making enough money and renting a house infested with bed bugs. By feeling like shit all the time. By never speaking your mother tongue. By never speaking at all. My old therapist from St. Petersburg, who’s been letting me text her free of charge for a while as I couldn’t afford real sessions with her, said I should adopt a cat to release that feeling of guilt, because a cat is supposed to drive me mad, but I’m supposed to love it. I never did.

I receive the news about protests in Russia. People go out to protest and immediately get caught by the police. They switch price tags in supermarkets with tiny anti-war stickers and get sentenced to ten years of prison. But these desperate cries of “нет войне” and “no war,” absurd “*** *****”1 and plainly empty banners, are so detached—detached from reality? life? even the mere physicality of things—it’s like a collective dissociation. There seems to be a painful paralysis, inability to act or to imagine action, to imagine palpable togetherness. I remember being very impressed by the garbage protests in Harlem, New York, that Avi talked about at an online “underprepared presentations party” for New Years in the middle of COVID lockdown. He talked about protests organized by the Young Lords when they just blocked the streets with trash that hadn’t been cleaned by sanitation workers for weeks (months?) to make city officials deal with the problem. That seemed so simple, direct, smart, and powerful. And it got the job done. Russian protest is elusive. It doesn’t have an addressee. It’s designed to be seen by God, like the post-Soviet postmodern architecture of grand plans, megalite buildings that are supposed to be looked at from above, from the sky, but are hazardous for people—that form spaces that are liminal and uncanny by default. It’s like the protest analyzes itself while being performed, which blocks the creation. So nothing is created. A meta statement with no statement.

One time while my parents and I were camping with a group of their friends, my father told everyone around the fire about a girl who was drowning in the river when he was on a beach. He said he pulled her out of the water and tried to give her CPR, but he couldn’t save her and she died in his lap. He was a teenager when that happened. My mom said, “You never told me about this before” (I don’t know if she would’ve listened) and he had his small tears in his eyes.

When I had just gotten this house, I told my new therapist I was assigned here in Yerevan that I was very excited to start living in it, to make it up, repair it, clean it, and fill it with special things. I said I thought that houses are extensions of people, that they say a lot about a person. But right now it feels like brokenness and dirtiness won. Like the bedbugs are under my skin. I was terrified to invite anyone over and let them see and smell and touch my house, the house I was living in. I found a dead swallow on the kitchen floor of my kommunalka back in St. Petersburg when the war started.

I used to tell people, “I’m looking for a rundown place, because brokenness gives you freedom.” I had a friend in St. Petersburg I used to go dumpster diving with. He lived on the first floor by the Obvodny canal and the railway in an artsy commune with about 10 other people. He had the tiniest room in the apartment, about six square meters. The air there was always damp, because a shower was right by his room in a two by two hall, and there was no bathroom in the apartment. When he ripped off the old wallpaper to renovate the room, a piece of concrete wall that was covered with different kinds of mold was revealed. He said it was beautiful and decided not to cover it. He said, “Why are you so scared, that’s how we all live.” We painted the rest deep forest green. I wanted to live like them. I thought the brokenness of my place would lift me up somehow. But I feel like I got it all wrong. It’s like creating an image instead of creating life. Building a memorial before the tragedy happened.

I also had an uncle, my dad’s brother. For as long as I can remember, he was blind. So when my grandpa had a hole in his throat, they were sitting at the table at a family reunion and he couldn’t see my grandpa’s little notes and grandpa couldn’t say anything to him. People were laughing at it, but I found it too painful to watch. I guess I was around nine or so. I was tremendously scared of my uncle when I was little. Partly because I was scared of all strangers, and at that point I only saw that part of my family once every few years. Partly because I couldn’t understand him and didn’t know how to approach him, and because of some unpredictability I somehow sensed from him. Nobody ever talked to me about how he came to be blind. Maybe I overheard somewhere that he was blinded by a bright flash, an explosion, when he was digging up some scattered weapons left behind from WWII.

When I was in high school I went back all by myself and spent about a week at his place. I mostly sat alone on the terrace listening to the radio and feeling miserable, but we also spent a lot of time together. I was eager to listen, I was hungry really for any kind of impression or meaning, but nothing could fill a weird hole in me. He told me how to cut the barrel of a rifle with water, how to climb a tree if you meet a boar in the forest, how to make a potato gun, how to make a tiny bomb out of matches and sugar (?) to scare and seduce girls at the discotheque. I don’t remember what else he taught me. And I don’t even remember how to make a potato gun anymore. I’m not sure when he became blind—in his 30s or 40s?—but after becoming blind, he rarely left his house. He lived with his wife in the tiny village where he and my father were born. I actually came to the funeral when he died. I was a sophomore in college. I have a vague early childhood memory of us running around the village and then racing towards the bed in a summer house. He was super young with long wavy hair and energetic and I was tiny. But my parents say that never happened.

At my work they call me “Sasha-jan” and “he,” even though my documents say a different thing. I told them at the job interview that my biggest failure in life was that I failed to be a girl, but I still got a job. I got diagnosed with “transexualism,” received my T prescription, and stacked up on half a year’s supply of Androgel in Russia the day before my flight to Yerevan, and I started T two days after I arrived. I had a pack of estradiol pills to bring for one Russian trans girl who was struggling to find her meds in Armenia, and on the morning of my flight, when I was still unsure whether I should go, that pack of pills was what ultimately made my decision. I feel so very guilty every time I fuck up something new. That time I didn’t get a social card number in time, so they had to sign some fake contract with me for the first month of work. Going to the police office to apply for the card seemed so overwhelming that I had to attempt it several times. They’ve been sending my money to my friend’s account because the bank wouldn’t let me open my own (I’ve been renting my house without a proper contract and the bank needed proof I was actually living in Armenia). I’m very scared one day they’ll have enough of my nonsense and fire me. Without a residency card I can only resort to paying out of pocket in pricy private clinics. And I know that my teeth grow holes ever so slightly day after day. I shed more and more of my belongings with every move. Make worse and worse impressions as I switch shelters and hosts. I can’t face seeing another part of the very little stuff I still have go to waste as I throw it away so as not to bring any bedbugs to a new place, if I’d get any. I wonder if my T turned bad in that heat. I just feel like this tiny mess of a person.

I don’t know what people see me as. I’m not even sure what I look like. Every time I find myself looking at a brightly lit mirror at some store or the LGBT community center I can’t believe how much my mustache has grown. It’s a giant fucking mustache. I tell people I’m 28, and they drop their jaws and say “no way,” “you look 18,” “you look 20.” I sometimes wonder if it means “you look like a girl.” I feel like my new voice is not a boy’s voice but an old lady’s voice. I’m sitting alone at home day after day, unseen by anyone, fantasizing about how one night someone will come over and we’ll hang out. Then when it gets dark I go out for a desperate walk hoping to meet someone friendly, looking anxiously into people’s faces, one after another, hoping to see, to find something, someone. Praying, “Please, God, send someone friendly my way,” but no one comes and I go back to my empty house. And when I actually happen to meet someone—Karo, who lives in the same district, an interviewer from a job I didn’t get who for some reason saved my number, this other gay dude from St. Petersburg who is now on the wanted list in Russia for putting some anti-war stickers around the city—I feel numb and empty and exhausted.

Back in the fall, back in Russia, I read in Barbara Hulanicki’s autobiography, From A to Biba: “My father was also president of the Polish YMCA. He spent much of his free time helping the poor parentless cadets who had been separated from their families. Our school in Jerusalem had been full of children of Poles who had been through the Holocaust. They had been to Siberia, and had survived the Russian winter eating dogs and cats and even digging up dead animals that had been soaked in petrol to prevent them from being eaten. They had seen real horrors. I felt ashamed that my life had been so happy and so full of security and I felt left out. I wanted to be one of them.” When I was little I used to love pretending I was a sad princess dying from tuberculosis while scooping my drinks with a teaspoon little by little. Or I’d entertain myself with a thought that I was a secret orphan and imagined I was inside Pink’s “Family Portrait” music video. My friend Polina said, “To me, if you weren’t kicked out of the house or beaten up by your parents, you are privileged.”

Maybe I am. Karo asked me one time when we bumped into each other in the city if I liked rainy days. I said that yes, I did, but that also rain’s been stressing me out recently, as there are holes in the roof of my bathroom and when it rains heavily the water runs down the walls in dangerous proximity to electric wires and slots. He said calmly, without so much as blinking, that he had the same problem in the kitchen. Nane from work asked me if I liked rainy days and I answered the same thing. She asked if I could move to a better house. But the truth was—not really, as the rent was already taking up almost half of my salary.

The other night Maria said to me, “But you’re not Russian anymore, you’re Armenian now.” She was pissed off with Russians coming to the nightclub she works at as face control. “They don’t speak English, they don’t speak Armenian, why should I know Russian?” she said. She was also pissed off, I guess, because Armenians kept thinking she was a tourist, with her pink hair and bright clothes. I’m not sure what she meant when she said that to me, but I felt exposed. I’ve been deliberately avoiding speaking Russian. I pretend to know Armenian where I can—text Armenian guys on Grindr “չգիտեմ”2 to their “axper inch es pntrum”3—or switch to English at every opportunity. But mostly I just never open my mouth and feel like a mute.

I often avoid leaving the house altogether. I don’t know how to face my neighbors. Karo said it’s hard for him to go out without being asked how much money he makes. Sometimes local artists and film students hang out on my stoop for hours—they probably think the house is abandoned. Sometimes I just pee in the kitchen sink so that I don’t have to pass anyone on my way across the street to the toilet.

I stopped T more than a week ago. I guess because I couldn’t stand how horny it made me feel and because I couldn’t cry, and because neither I nor anyone around me could figure out what I was turning into. There are no gender specific pronouns in Armenian, it’s just նա, “that one over there.” But somehow it’s not helping. My old therapist from St. Petersburg said maybe I couldn’t cry because there was still no way to cry over all the loss I experienced and no way to express the grief I had in me. I don’t know. She said that crying is silent and lonely and that maybe I should try writing about feelings instead. But it’s not the same as crying.

1 A censored version of “нет войне” (“no war”) with every letter replaced with a “*”.

2 “I don’t know”

3 “Bro, what are you looking for?”