The first of the Mohicans: Revelations of a Heroin Wave Survivor


In the West, people from the first HIV generation who contracted the virus during the terrible epidemic of the 80s but survived, despite the lack of medicines and the severe side effects of the first medicines, are especially called "long-term survivors".  

The major publications devote materials to them, and the “long-livers” themselves, respectable aged gays many of whom are now over sixty, chair conference presidiums and speak at memorial events. 

They have earned their good reputation and respect. In Russia, an analogue of the "survivors" exists, albeit with several peculiarities: here, the big wave happened in the 90s instead of the 80s, and the majority of Russian patients began having access to the therapy that was already available abroad since 1996 only in the early or mid-2000s. Most importantly, the vast majority of the Russians who contracted the virus were at that time not the gays, but heroin users. "Drug addicts." Not at all as respectable and glossy as a considerable number of the residents of the sunny San Francisco who became hostages of the epidemic.

Their stories received way less attention than they deserved. Partly due to the lack of tellers of their story, many of them died while still on the ART waiting list, some died from overdoses, and some died from AIDS. Partly due to double stigma, as the survivors of HIV and addiction are rarely willing or ready to share their stories. 

AIDS.CENTER fills this gap. We managed to organize a major two-part interview with a Russian long-term survivor. Today, we release the first part — "From Black Marketeering to Heroin". Our interviewee asked to remain anonymous, preferring that we simply call him Vlad. In any case, his surname would still be unfamiliar to most of you. And those to whom it would be familiar are able to tell a similar story.

— Tell us how it all began. You were an ordinary Soviet schoolboy. Or something else?

— Everything started out great. Dad in the military, mom a trade worker; I had a relatively happy childhood, so as to speak. Except for the fact that both mom and dad were alcoholics. But from the outside, it seemed a perfect, prosperous Soviet family.

High school. At the end of the 80s, somewhere around 1986, the country went into a mess. As teens, we already felt that the system was breaking. That we were entering a new and unknown phase as a society. Everything was collapsing, falling. Actually, my whole generation fell into a very cruel rumble in which the old system was gone but we were still waiting for the new one to appear. 

There was the concept that everyone was told about: octobrist, pioneer, Komsomol member. Then vocational schools, the army, drunkenness, prison, and death. Or without drunkenness and prison.

The Soviet system said that there is no happiness in money, and there is no sex in the Soviet Union either. And then boom: it turns out that everything is vice versa. Happiness is in sex and money. Everyone rushed there, including myself.

— Please explain.

— From the eighth grade, I was already black marketeering and doing illegal currency deals.

— What does black marketeering mean?

— That's an old term. From "black market", "black marketer". Someone who buys and sells goods. Usually imported items that were simply not available for open sale: jeans, sneakers. Goods in short supply.

— And what did you sell?

— My grandfather was a diplomat within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all his life. Being friends with other diplomats' children, I would go to the MFA's pioneer camps. And there, I paid 3 rubles for a music magazine filled with posters of music groups. They were also in short supply. So I bought the magazine for 3 rubles, and sold each poster for four. Enterprising people made money from thin air at that time.

"Pepsi" generation. Queues to the stalls at the very end of the 80s. Moscow. 

Exchange with a foreigner: give him the October badge, he gives you a lighter. A lighter in the Soviet Union was an absolute novelty, an unattainable product. Sold it for 5 rubles. Such products usually presented a good opportunity to make profit.

From some point, I actually began dealing with foreigners like that. We arrived at the Intourist Hotel. And it is freezing cold, there's slush all over the place, and we are standing with a set of badges, flags with Lenin, that we bought at the store, because all these Soviet attributes were freely sold for a penny. 

We run to the bus: "Change-change". Nobody spoke English. We knew only a couple of words: "yes", "no", "thank you". And then you start trading. You could get a dollar or a chewing gum for a badge. Chewing gum was immediately sold at school. Any rubbish could be monetized.

— And after that?

— Then was the end of the 10th grade. I already knew where I would go. I was not interested in getting an education, I wanted money. You would feel and hear all around you: "Consume-earn-consume-spend". It was really serious. I did not want to slave away at some university for five years, make ends meet somewhere. That is how I walked into Arbat. It was also a hotspot.

At the end of the 80s, Arbat was occupied by street vendors who sold Russian nesting dolls, symbols, watches, overcoats, hats. There was a large flow of foreigners to the new Russia at that time; everyone was interested, the Iron Curtain was falling. The Soviet Union had been a closed country, just like Iran is now. And suddenly, there was freedom: everyone's allowed to enter. Come and watch.

As a percentage, you will never see such crowds of foreigners in the streets of Moscow again. And all of them were our customers. At that time, we made whopping amounts of money trading with tourists.

— And how much was that in rubles? 

— I could earn my parents' salary in one day. My dad got around 300 rubles. My mother was also paid somewhere in that range, and it was considered a very good salary. A lot of money. Considering life then was extremely cheap: the dollar rate was rising, and prices in rubles remained the same. If you had foreign currency, it was your key to everything.

— Did the drugs start then? 

— The drugs started in high school. By the way, you could always find them in the Soviet Union, just not in such amounts. For example, during one of my rehab sessions, I met a man who had been arrested in 1982 by the KGB for running an underground laboratory for the production of synthetic substances. In 1982! He graduated from the MSU, Faculty of Chemistry. There were also drug addicts. But very few of them. Not like today.

— Well, how did you run into them? 

— I have loved reading all my life, and from time to time found articles about this in some teenage magazines like "Rovestnik": about the decaying West. In high school, you could find marijuana. It was considered quite fancy. Almost everyone smoked it. This immediately made you some kind of modern guy who didn't just drink port wine or vodka in a porch like your other backward peers, but actually "smoked".

The Soviet system said that there is no happiness in money and there is no sex in the Soviet Union either. And then boom: it turns out that everything is vice versa. Happiness is in sex and money. Everyone rushed there, myself included.

But that didn't give me pleasure. Then there were the pharmaceutical drugs, barbiturates. Something like sleeping pills. They called it, "Dropping a relanium". It was eaten in handfuls. Well, there was nothing else.

On the Arbat, everything was set on completely different tracks. Arbat was the point that changed all my life. That's a door that should not be opened because I become completely depraved there. At that time, people from all over the Russia brought drugs to Moscow and sold them on the Arbat.

I still remember seeing a man walking with a sports bag filled with marijuana: "Want some? Want some? Want some?". He would pour you some of it somewhere in the backstreet — and that's it, you've bought it. Many firmaches asked other people to get them something, myself included: "Help me buy..." 

— And firmaches — is this what you used to call the foreigners?

– Yes. Firma — with the stress on the last syllable  — that was a very hype word. Now we say “label”, and before, it was called “firmA”. FirmA means something western, foreign, some kind of slang.

 — So, Arbat... 

I was sixteen years old, I earned crazy money and had lots of freedom and lots of sex. Lots of drugs. Lots of power.

 — Why power?

 — Because money gives you power. Those were times of hunger. Quite terrible. Destructive. You come up with a wad of dollars. And that’s it, they are kissing your feet. I mean, you are like the king. 

— Explain how that was.

— Well, I dodged the draft. How did I do that? I went to the university, paid for my one year of studies, asked for a reference, and gave it to the draft board. And never came back to the university. It was like that in everything.

All this propels your pride. Pride is a feeling of your own power, strength and might. All this can be the ruin of you, especially when you are just sixteen or seventeen years old. I matured as a person there, on the Arbat. As a spoiled brat who went on a path that he chose for himself. Like that. 

For some reason, I just remembered Justin Bieber. All of these Biebers, Britney Spears. These people were broken by money. After they got hold of huge sums of money at a very young age, they went the same way: drugs, alcohol, discord. We were like them. Just post-Soviet. 

Arbat. The end of the 80s. To the right of the Hare Krishnas are stalls with Soviet souvenirs..

— What happened after Arbat? 

— Moscow mayor Gavriil Popov, there was such a man, left his post, Luzhkov came in and quickly stopped all the liberties on Arbat.

It was a real disaster for me, because I thought that all this “Klondike” would be forever. Ordeals began. I did not want to work for a salary now. Began to run some buy-and-sell schemes in the same black marketeering format.

At first, I managed to make good money. Without work and a stable income, I rented an apartment.

I started with ecstasy. It had just appeared on the market. We, of course, took it like real morons, let’s just say. Ate it at some boy's apartment and then danced to the Scooter all night long.

— At an apartment? 

— Yes, imagine, that horrible Soviet-style apartment with broken furniture, speaker on full-blast, and a crowd of twenty-year-old thugs.

Then it somehow got boring. We started drinking. I almost drunk myself to death, really: hard drinking sprees, pissed in my pants, could not remember anything. The last stage of alcoholism. And I hadn't even turned twenty!

I was scared, ashamed to talk about it, to ask someone for help. And, of course, I was looking for at least a substitution, an alternative. Which, in fact, I found in heroine.

I had a drinking companion whom I considered to be even worse; I was a binge drinker, and he was hammered every day. And then I met him in the evening in our district. He was sober! I could not put “Ruslan” and “sober” in the same line. I ask him: "How?" And he says: "I found out about such a thing, let's go". We went to his place and he got it out. I still remember it: rolled up balls in a blue film made from polyethylene. We did a line: go on, sniff it!

"I was scared, ashamed to talk about it, to ask someone for help. And, of course, I was looking for at least a substitution, an alternative. Which, in fact, I found in heroine"

I didn't have the courage to shoot. Moreover, sniffing was not regarded as a drug addiction. In that one day, it felt like dying. I was very sick, and said that I would never try it again. But the next time they offered me, I got the hang of it. And off we went.

How did heroin win me over? It was more pleasurable, and I felt it was a controllable pleasure. I woke the next morning with dry pants, my face still intact, without any accusations on what I did or said the previous night. You are not ashamed in front of your neighbors and acquaintances. Everything is civilized.

Around the same time, I started making big money again. On the market in Luzhniki. It was the first major market where people could buy products from all over Russia. I sold exclusive Italian coats. But in truth, they were made in Podolsk. The buyer did not need to know that. Money, freedom and endless debauchery started again. I began clubbing actively.

— And what kind of clubs were there in Moscow at that time? 

— First, "subcultural". But at that time, subcultural parties were interesting. In Britain, punks were children from the working outskirts of Liverpool or Manchester, while here, they were Moscow douchebags. Children of diplomats, state officials. Then the story with dancing began. I still go to the Propaganda, and at that time, it had just opened. I usually spent a lot of time at that club.

— Wow, and how did it look like then?

— Brutal. Wooden tables, as in taverns from movies set in 16th-century Germany. Wooden floor, everything quite ascetic. But people came there not for the interior, not for the Mytishchi Empire fashions. People came for the atmosphere, the good music, the company. That is why it was very interesting and cool at "Probka" then.

— And what kind of music was there?

— They played a little bit of everything. For example, dancing rock or electronic. I did not really understand it then. And I usually came already hammered with heroin. Just sat on the second floor at the table until the morning.

— And you never danced? 

— Never danced.

— When did that end?

— When I started to freak out because of heroine, that is when all that ended.

This is what the first Russian “raves” looked like. Photo from the early 90s. 

— Please explain.

– When I was dopesick for the first time in my life because I did not have drugs. In medical terms, that's called withdrawal.

It does not come right away. There is a number of factors: age, a healthy body, and the frequency of use. For a long time, I did not even know what it was.

And then — boom, it happened to me. I remember waking up and not knowing what was wrong with me. My body hurts, I have snot, chills. It's winter outside, February. I though that I caught something. But it got worse by the hour. I called my friend and described him the symptoms. "Bro, you’re freaking out". I ask him: "What does freaking out mean? "What do you mean?" — "That's it, you are fucked, congrats bro".

I was now really scared. I felt a primal, animal fear. The feeling when someone tells you you got cancer and you are going to die. The same shit. You're on the hook, you're in the loop. This is a real mess. I had no money. But I was so scared that I managed to get it in half an hour. Then I went for a shoot at the Petrovsky-Razumovskaya intersection.

My friend was right, because when I got to Petrovsko-Razumovskaya and took a shot, all the painful symptoms disappeared.


to be continued

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