“I love you, boys!”, cries a middle-aged man with plucked eyebrows, raising aloft a plastic cup of vodka. “Let’s have a drink together!” He waves the cup at two heavy-set men in crumpled suits on the other side of the street. They mutter something under their breath, and quicken their step as they walk away. The man with the eyebrows, wearing a blue denim shirt underneath a fuchsia cardigan, and a sequinned baseball cap on backwards, laughs contentedly as he watches the men hurry away, then takes a gulp of the vodka.
The man is Mikhail Koptev. He calls himself Luhansk’s only star — the Luhansk Mick Jagger or Elizabeth Taylor. On a hot day in July we are sitting on a bench at the shabby staff entrance of the local cultural centre, which is still named after Lenin. Here, 20 years ago, Koptev staged his first provocative fashion shows. As we drink his vodka, the 45-year-old Mikhail Mikhailovich gives me his life story. But he doesn’t make a very good job of it — partly because he is already far from sober, partly because he stops every man that walks past to proposition them.
Even drinking on the street in Luhansk is dangerous. At any moment a military patrol could walk past and demand to see your documents. Being seen to be drunk, they say in these parts, is a good way to “end up in the cellar” of the rebel fighters, which at the very least means losing all your money — and perhaps something even worse. Offering blow-jobs to the brusque men of Luhansk, some of whom are dressed in army fatigues, isn’t the safest thing to do either. But fortunately on this particular Saturday those walking past were just a little frightened by Koptev’s come-ons.
The self-taught fashion designer Mikhail Koptev really is the star of Luhansk. They know him in Brazil. He was a star long before the arrival of its other celebrities, the field commanders and the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky. When he was 14, Koptev escaped from a monastery near Rostov in Russia, where he was sent to be educated at the age of seven. He returned to Luhansk, where he went to college to learn to be a shoemaker, throwing his heart and soul into fashion, his first love. When his family used to send him food parcels, he would pore over the pages of the foreign magazines that they used to wrap them in.
No-one who has seen the Orchid’s erotic show, live or online, will ever forget it
Koptev began working as a model at the local fashion house, Nuance. He modelled at army barracks and miners’ headquarters in and around Luhansk. He then became the commercial director of a theatre, before founding the Orchid, where shows thrilled with “absurd clothes, fantastical hairstyles, bizarre body art and hardcore erotica”. Soon the Orchid gained fame outside of Luhansk as well. Before the war, film crews from television channels in Moscow and Kiev often came to interview Koptev. On the Ukrainian version of the talk show Let Them Talk they debated whether his work was fashion or pornography. Vice sent an interviewer to visit him, who, in stunned admiration, declared Koptev to be the world’s finest trash designer.
No-one who has seen the Orchid’s erotic show, live or online, will ever forget it. Photographs from one of the performances have become an internet meme, bouncing from site to site with various sobriquets (one site published it in its “Shock of the day” section). Unattractive men and women – young girls and boys, old men and old women — strut across the room in odd costumes, displaying parts of themselves that usually stay covered. Naked flesh daubed with vulgar body art frolicks in torn negligees made from fur, leather, plastic, old rags, horns, skulls, hub-caps, children’s toys and anything else you might find at a rubbish dump.
Koptev’s creations shun all that is pure, harmonious, polite, peaceful, traditional. It is deranged trash art, which aims to defile the concept of beauty. Koptev believes that “art should provoke”; you want to run away from his creations – just as once in a club Fillip Kirkorov, a well-known Russian pop star, once ran away from him, drunk and naked, and with horns made from tree branches on his head.
“Oi!” Koptev bellows at another passer-by, his big jewelled hands wrapped around his cup of vodka. “Here’s to you! Here’s to you and your cock!” The passer-by hurries away.
“I have known Misha for 15 years”, says Tatyana Litman, who for the last 35 years has managed Luhansk’s largest cultural centre, where Koptev hosted the first performances of the Orchid. “First he asked me for a place to put his clothes. I was imagining suits and dresses, not heaps of garbage. Then he began to put on shows. He told me to come to see them, that there would be a surprise.”
Naked flesh daubed with vulgar body art frolicks in torn negligees made from fur, leather, plastic, old rags, horns, skulls, hub-caps and children’s toys
There was a surprise all right. Litman remembers her first Orchid show. “The hall was full. But as the show started, I was sat on a couch with my head in my hands, praying to God that my bosses wouldn’t come in. It was appalling: painted naked bodies; horns, tails and dead cat skins draped over little girls and boys. The audience went wild.” Despite Litman’s reaction, Koptev brought more erotic shows to her Stalinist-era theatre. She only showed him the door when a Russian TV channel did a feature on him, and she started to fear for her job.
It's hard to imagine a worse place for erotic shows and provocative gay culture than Luhansk today. The town is pock-marked with bullet holes from snipers, and all its windows are shattered. I am talking with Tatyana Litman in a cafe on the street outside Luhansk’s trade union building, which has been taken over by the Federation of Trade Unions of the Luhansk People’s Republic. A list of contacts for the administration of the unrecognised republic hangs on the glass doors of the building, alongside an appeal by its Ministry of Emergency Situations for citizens not to walk on unfamiliar streets, where it is possible to tread on unexploded land mines.
Everyone remaining in Luhansk, whose population is a quarter of what it used to be, has a story to tell about how they have survived. They are all similar to each other: gunfire like clockwork; hiding in basements; anxious, sleepless nights; Chinese whispers about gruesome rumours; long queues for water broken up by gunfire, and hauling heavy water buckets up flights of stairs; food shortages; batteries and candles becoming the most valuable currency; not being able to contact relatives outside Luhansk. Those who endured the blockade talk a lot about the material problems of war, but say nothing of loved ones and neighbours who died or were wounded — their heads try to block out the horrors that they have seen.
Now the town, still trying to recover from the war, is enjoying a poor but relatively peaceful life. The factories have stopped working, and electricity, water and mobile reception is still cut off, but a few cafes and restaurants have opened again. Their clients are predominantly armed men in mismatched camouflage gear. There is almost no shooting in Luhansk at the moment. It gets particularly quiet at 9pm, the start of the curfew, when people are scared to go outside in case they end up in the cellar, and are scared to drive anywhere in case their cars are hijacked.
In the town where LGBT activists once published a magazine and planned to organise a parade, and where there used to be gay discos every week, people can now only find each other on the internet
The separatist fighers have become Luhansk’s wealthiest class – a new military elite, whom people are afraid of. The girls of Luhansk dream of meeting a fighter from abroad, making him fall in love with her, marrying him and escaping with him as far away as possible. In the town’s main park, pensioners in their Sunday best dance the waltz as an orchestra plays, just like on Victory Day. Locals joke that pensioners are the town’s second wealthiest group of people, because since April they have started to receive their pensions again: about 2,000 roubles a month — barely enough to stay alive.
The day after our vodka-fuelled interview at the cultural centre, we are sitting on leather couches in Koptev’s small one-bedroom apartment on Kommunalnaya street. He has lived in this prefab box for the last 10 years. But in comparison with the poverty of the surroundings (the hallway doesn’t have any radiators – alcoholic neighbours sold them as scrap metal), it is an oasis of opulence: renovated, with an air-conditioner, a wardrobe with a sliding door, raspberry-coloured curtains, a brown leather sofa, Swarowski crystals coming unstuck from threadbare cushions, and on a bed-side table a book titled Strategies of Brilliant Men.
Over a glass of dessert wine, Koptev talks about how his good life came to an end as soon as the war started. Just as the cultural centre had battled until the bitter end to make people happy, so did his house of provocative fashion. “It was April 2014. We travelled to a show at a nightclub outside of Luhansk," says Koptev. "We got there through a shower of bullets. In May the TV channel Ukraina invited us to Kiev. For this trip I couldn’t get any models — they had all fled from Luhansk. I had to use my mother-in-law. I say ‘mother-in-law’: she’s my lover Fairycake’s mum. She knows all about us, so I call her my mother-in-law”.
“I still want to live — and to live in style. But when?”
For the last year Koptev has halted his tolerance-testing performances, no longer arranging shows and gay parties. As soon as the Luhansk People’s Republic came into being, it became obvious that those in control were set to persecute the LGBT community. First there were rumours that homosexuals would be shot on sight. Then a strict anti-gay law was discussed, and they even named the date when it would be passed. The gay people in the Luhansk region didn’t wait for the repression to start, they left for wherever they could: Rostov and Voronezh, Kiev and Crimea. Luhansk’s rainbow faded as the skies got darker: in the town where LGBT activists once published a magazine and planned to organise a parade, and where there used to be gay discos every week, people can now only find each other on the internet.
But a new kind of hero has emerged recently: the rebel fighter. “Fighters from Moscow are especially active on our dating sites,” explains Koptev. “They have no fear at all. They write things like, 'I’m the same as you and I want to try it.'"
Joining the rebel fighters in Luhansk is easy; people do it out of desperation, as there are no jobs in the town. “My man gave them a couple of medical certificates and was admitted the same day. They didn’t even do any health checks,” says Koptev. “And the guy has been an unemployed drunk, a junkie and a convict. He fits right in!”
Taking another sip of wine, Koptev starts telling me blood-curdling stories about the ordinary people of Luhansk having to face these armed men in strange uniforms. “Trust me man, everything is really scary here. To you it might look like I’m sat here on a leather sofa, so audacious and beautiful, wearing silk shirts… But anyone here with any money fucked off a long time ago. I keep asking myself: ‘Misha, you’re a girl who will turn 46 in August. How do you see your future? It’s always either been the USSR, the crazy 90s, the war, or the Luhansk People’s Republic.’ And I still want to live, and to live in style. But when?”
Suddenly he changes the subject: “Everyone thinks I’m a monster, but it’s not true. People classed as evil by this evil world may in fact be saints. And those considered to be saints often turn out to be evil.” Luhansk’s devil incarnate, dressed in a teddy-bear jacket, announces: “I think I’ve started talking shit.” He raises his glass again: “Let’s drink to you, mate!”
The original version of this article was published in Russian on Takie Dela.