New East Digital Archive

Live by night: an evening with Maydana, Ukrainian drag queen and asylum seeker

Kostya Kharlamov, aka Maydana, was forced out of eastern Ukraine by homophobic violence. In his new home in Groningen, the Netherlands, he told us about pride, living in fear and the future

8 February 2018
Text and image Anton Shebetko

“In five years I will be the most famous make-up artist and the drag queen in the Netherlands,” says Kostya Kharlamov, also known as Maydana.

The first time I saw him was in Kiev, when he performed at the gay club Lift. Now Kostya is in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker.

Kostya was born in Avdiivka, a small city located near the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. He took his stage name from Maidan Square, where the Ukrainian revolution began in 2013. For a long time, he lived in the city of Dnipro with his boyfriend. There he worked as a make-up artist, performing at weekends in a local gay club.

While living in Ukraine, he never felt safe. “I’ve been threatened before; mostly I was insulted on social networks,” he says. The serious problems began after Kostya (as Maydana) took part in Kyiv Pride in June 2017 — the biggest in Ukrainian history, with around 4000 participants. Many Ukrainian media outlets published photos showing Maydana, together with other Ukrainian drag queens, standing on a platform waving a rainbow flag. The comments under these articles were often homophobic.

“After that, they didn’t just write to me on Facebook — the neo-Nazis somehow found out my phone number and where I live. I started getting texts with threats, people in balaclavas came to my apartment, someone painted “Here lives the faggot” on my door.” The culmination of all this was an attack near the house where Kostya lived. He was sprayed in his face with gas and hit in the face several times. Kostya went to the police with a statement: “They laughed at me and refused to accept the application, until I told them: ‘Look at me, at my face, I have a physical injury.’ Only after that did they agree to accept my complaints.”

At first, the police failed to register the attack as a hate crime; Kostya insisted that it be recorded. But despite a trip to a medical examiner, his visits to the police produced nothing: no motive was established, and Kostya himself was informed that it was impossible to find the suspects. “They had phone numbers of the people who sent me all these messages, I brought them screenshots, they did not even try to find anyone,” he says.

And the threats did not stop there: neo-Nazis somehow found out that Kostya had gone to the police, and continued to send him messages in which they threatened to punish him and his family. “I just realised that I couldn’t stay here any longer,” Kostya confesses. “Honestly, I was never scared. When I used to live in Kiev, it was okay. I could walk the streets as I wanted, no one attacked me — some people would call me a faggot behind my back, but I am used to such hate speech and did not pay much attention. But after I realised that there was nowhere to go for help, I really began to fear for my life.” He bought the cheapest ticket he could find and a few days later flew to the Netherlands.

Immediately after arriving in Amsterdam, Kostya went to the small village of Ter-Apel, where the largest refugee centre in the country is situated. Here the initial decision is made as to whether a person will be granted refugee status or not. “There is a special house within the camp in which only gay people live — not all of the camp residents are tolerant towards LGBT representatives,” Kostya says. He stayed in the camp for several weeks. Since Ukraine is considered a “safe” country for LGBTQ people by the Netherlands, the percentage of applications refused is high. So it proved with Kostya, whose story was not enough to convince the migration service. He was denied asylum and evicted from the camp. “I was lucky that while I was here I met representatives of charitable organisations that help people like me.” They transported him to Groningen, where he was given temporary housing among other illegal immigrants. They also found him a lawyer who appealed the asylum rejection. The saving grace for Kostya was not that he was the victim of hate crimes, but that he comes from a city located near a war zone.

There are no gay clubs in Groningen, so there is no place for Maydana to perform. Nevertheless, in the Netherlands he can at least freely walk the streets in drag. “I’m thinking of changing the name,” he tells me as he applies his make-up. “When I say that my name is Maydana, people think that I am an Arab. I’ll call myself Slet Lana. “Slet” in Dutch means a prostitute. And Lana is just a beautiful name.”

Kostya says that he decided to leave Ukraine not only because of the constant threats and subsequent beatings, but also in order to feel free — to be able to walk out into the street, not to look back, not to be afraid of retribution. When Maydana walks the streets of Groningen, the reaction is mixed. Women come up to take pictures, shouting “You’re beautiful!” as they pass; in general, men react with whistles, loud laughter and aggressive offers to get acquainted.

Kostya admits that if he wasn’t performing as Maydana back in Ukraine, he would probably still live there. But now he does not see a way back. When he was already in the Netherlands, he learned that his former boyfriend, who had stayed in Ukraine, had been severely beaten and spent more than a month in hospital.

“Activists who have the opportunity run away from Ukraine. I know several people who could not stand the inaction of the authorities and the threats of physical harm on the part of radicals. After the revolution, I hoped that the situation in Ukraine would change for the better, but I do not think this will happen while the country is at war and illegal weapons are being used.”

I ask what he will do if appeal is denied. “I will stay in the Netherlands illegally,” he replies. “True, I cannot work here, or leave the country, or settle down. If they refuse me, then in a year we will apply for asylum once more. And then again after that. But it’s better than in Ukraine.”

Text and images: Anton Shebetko