Pavel_Lobkov_24_april_2012.jpgCoda Story Human Well Being 

The Primetime Bombshell

This article was originally published by Coda Story.

By Anna Nemtsova

Pavel Lobkov never meant to be a hero.

The 48-year-old was one of Rus­si­a’s best-known TV in­ter­view­ers. He was a star an­chor at the most-viewed chan­nel, NTV, for al­most two decades. In 2012 he joined Dozhd (Rain) TV, one of Rus­si­a’s few re­main­ing in­de­pen­dent news out­lets.

Last No­vem­ber, Lobkov was hav­ing a drink with a friend, when a pro­ducer from one of the chan­nel’s pro­grams called, ask­ing him to par­tic­i­pate in the evening talk show Hard Day’s Night.

The show was ex­plor­ing how doc­tors should break the news about a pos­i­tive HIV sta­tus to their pa­tients, the pro­ducer said. The on-air dis­cus­sion would close off an en­tire day of broad­cast de­voted to HIV in honor of World AIDS Day.

The un­prece­dented cov­er­age re­flected a dawn­ing aware­ness that Rus­sia was in the throes of an HIV cri­sis. In Oc­to­ber, Prime Min­is­ter Medvedev ac­knowl­edged for the first time Rus­sia is fac­ing an HIV epi­demic. The num­ber of peo­ple in­fected with HIV in Rus­sia was pre­dicted to reach 1 mil­lion by the end of the year.

The pro­ducer told Lobkov that Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Fed­eral Aids Cen­ter, would be ap­pear­ing on the show. Lobkov agreed to par­tic­i­pate, but for the first time in his ca­reer, he had no idea how he would han­dle the ap­pear­ance. Un­known to the pro­ducer and to most peo­ple in Lobkov’s life, the topic was an in­tensely per­sonal one for him. Twelve years ago he had been di­ag­nosed with HIV, and Pokrovsky had been the first doc­tor to treat him.

Lobkov had never wanted to take a pub­lic po­si­tion on his per­sonal life. “A pub­lic com­ing out for a gay makes sense if there is a con­crete per­sonal, le­gal is­sue, con­cern­ing fam­ily or prop­erty,” he ex­plained to me when we met for cof­fee a few weeks af­ter the show was broad­cast. A sur­pris­ingly low-key per­son­al­ity, he seemed un­com­fort­able talk­ing about the topic even in a Moscow cafe.

On that No­vem­ber night, Lobkov and his friend got through half a liter of vodka as he wres­tled with what he de­scribed as “a hard­core choice.”

In the end, a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to other HIV pos­i­tive peo­ple pre­vailed, as well as a re­luc­tance to be dis­hon­est. “I re­al­ized I could not just sit on the show and pre­tend I did not have any per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, did not know my doc­tor,” he said.

The next day, Lobkov came to Dozhd pre­pared to carry out his de­ci­sion. He avoided any dis­cus­sion about the broad­cast be­fore film­ing started so that “no­body would talk me out of it.”

Com­ing out as HIV pos­i­tive in Rus­sia to­day is com­pa­ra­ble to what it was like in the U.S. in the late 1990s. It is widely per­ceived as a self-in­flicted death sen­tence for drug ad­dicts and pros­ti­tutes. Lobkov’s mother, a re­tired pen­sioner in St. Pe­ters­burg, feared that red crosses or the slo­gan “AIDS lives here” would ap­pear on her door if her son’s sta­tus was made pub­lic.

The prej­u­dice is largely fed by ig­no­rance, a con­se­quence of in­ad­e­quate fund­ing for pub­lic aware­ness cam­paigns and a lack of com­pul­sory school sex ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams that discuss the dis­ease.

In the ab­sence of widely un­der­stood facts, con­spir­acy the­o­ries have shaped the dis­course on AIDS. As re­cently as 2010, prime­time Chan­nel One TV an­chor Alexan­der Gordon claimed that the dis­ease was in­vented by West­ern doc­tors to ex­tract money from pa­tients. Groups deny­ing the ex­is­tence of the dis­ease, some­times call­ing themselves “HIV dis­si­dents,” have a strong pres­ence in on­line chat rooms and par­ent fo­rums. A gov­ern­ment-funded re­search in­sti­tute pub­lished a pa­per in late 2015 ar­gu­ing that West­ern or­ga­ni­za­tions bent on weak­en­ing Rus­sia from the in­side posed as HIV pro­grams.

This was en­vi­ron­ment Lobkov faced when he walked into the stu­dio on Dec. 1, pre­pared to be­come the first pub­lic fig­ure to ever ad­mit to hav­ing the dis­ease on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion.

The dis­cus­sion be­gan, and cam­eras zoomed in on Lobkov when he talked. With­out chang­ing his pro­fes­sional tone, Lobkov turned to Pokrovsky. “Vadim Valenti­novich is not just a guest at our pro­gram, but my first doc­tor,” he said. “You were the one who I came to with my trou­ble in 2003.”

His voice be­came in­creas­ingly emo­tional as he told the story of his di­ag­no­sis. The doc­tor that broke the news to him, be­fore he came to Pokrovsky for treat­ment, had not been tact­ful. In that first con­sul­ta­tion, he no­ticed that the cover page of his med­ical record was struck through with a red marker. There were three red let­ters in the cor­ner of the page: “HIV.” All the doc­tor would say was that he would no longer be ad­mit­ted at the clinic, and would have to use a spe­cial­ized fa­cil­ity for HIV pos­i­tive pa­tients.

“‘All the best. Good­bye.’ That’s what I was told at the clinic,” Lobkov re­called an­grily.

The clinic that treated him like this, he said, was run by the pres­i­den­t’s of­fice. Lobkov force­fully stressed the con­nec­tion with Vladimir Putin’s ad­min­is­tra­tion each time he ref­er­enced the poor care or dis­crim­i­na­tion he faced.

Dis­clos­ing a pa­tien­t’s HIV pos­i­tive sta­tus, Pokrovsky jumped in, is an art form; a key mo­ment. If mis­han­dled, the ap­point­ment may be the last time a HIV pos­i­tive per­son even sees their doc­tor. Less than a quar­ter of reg­is­tered HIV pos­i­tive peo­ple are on med­ica­tion. There are many rea­sons for this, but re­luc­tance to seek treat­ment be­cause of the stigma at­tached to the dis­ease un­doubt­edly plays a role.

Even those who do re­turn to the clinic may not find the right drugs avail­able. While med­ica­tion is paid for by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, peo­ple in smaller towns face un­ex­pected drug short­ages be­cause of the sprawl­ing bu­reau­cracy of the or­der­ing sys­tem.

Af­ter the cam­eras stopped rolling, col­leagues came for­ward to hug Lobkov. None of the at­tacks feared by Lobkov’s mother ma­te­ri­al­ized. Sup­port poured in, some­times from un­ex­pected quar­ters. “I think that Lobkov, a fa­mous pub­lic per­son, com­mit­ted a heroic so­cial act,” pro-Putin po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Sergei Markov told me.

Lobkov is clearly un­com­fort­able with the over­whelm­ing re­sponse to his dis­clo­sure. “More pop­u­lar­ity, pub­lic at­ten­tion was the last thing I was seek­ing,” he said.

His de­ci­sion to speak out rep­re­sents a small but sig­nif­i­cant blow against the forces of prej­u­dice and ig­no­rance. An­ton Krasovsky, a jour­nal­ist and cam­paigner try­ing to get Russ­ian au­thor­i­ties to in­crease the bud­get for fed­eral AIDS cen­ters said that Lobkov’s brave TV per­for­mance “touched” many state of­fi­cials, mak­ing a leg­isla­tive break­through in 2016 more likely. “Pavel’s com­ing out helps tens of thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing with HIV over­come their own fear,” he said.

Dozhd draws a small, ded­i­cated lib­eral au­di­ence, how­ever. On De­c. 1, 2015, most Rus­sians were watch­ing state TV pro­grams which pre­sented the dis­ease to a sound­track of fright­en­ing mu­sic. In­fec­tion rates con­tinue to climb. Ac­cord­ing to Vadim Pokrovsky, they are set to dou­ble in the next two to four years. Two mil­lion Rus­sians will be HIV pos­i­tive.

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Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based independent journalist.

Katerina Patin, an editorial assistant and researcher, contributed reporting.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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