As the city of Halifax celebrates Pride, just over a decade ago Elena Ivanova was doing anything but. Dating a man, even though she liked women, and living a life she felt wasn’t her own. It took a Canadian voice for her to make a journey across the ocean to “freedom.”
Ivanova was born in Ivanovo, almost 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow. Known once as the “City of Brides” due to its then large-scale textile industry, the business has since diminished after the fall of the USSR. Ivanova went to school in the city to learn architecture and started working at a big architectural and design services firm alongside her mother at the age of 24.
Though it was years before Russia’s ban on gay “propaganda”, Ivanova said her dating a woman was something she still couldn’t pursue primarily due to family pressure.
“It absolutely works, I mean I was ready to ruin my life to do whatever my relatives wanted me to do simply to satisfy them,” she said in an interview with Global News.
At the time her mother and other family members were asking her why she wasn’t dating and expected her to instead become a “housewife,” she said.
Her mother pushed her into wearing heels and dresses and changing who she was. She said at one point her mother noticed a man, named Dima, who came to work and told Ivanova she should start dating him before another woman did.
She did for eight months, but it was “the worst time in my life I would say.”
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Around this time, Ivanova started talking with a woman named Meg Stone from Canada on an online dating site. She says they weren’t on there looking for dates, Stone wanted to learn Russian while Ivanova was wanting an escape from her life.
Meeting Stone, she said, was a chance for her to be herself and she, in turn, learned more about the woman who she says was “so big.”
“To me, she’s the world.”
And Ivanova found Stone, now just over 50, passed her strength onto her prompting her to fly to Ukraine and meet her Canadian friend at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv, the capital city.
When they met, she says that’s when she thinks her life began.
“I think almost I can count my real life from that point on. Before that it almost seems like I was asleep.”
But the start of her new life, she says, almost ended as soon as it began. After meeting Stone, she let her mother know there was a letter in her desk explaining her relationship with Stone, coming out to her parents in that note, and it prompted her mother, her friends and her boyfriend to call her numerous times urging her to return. She didn’t.
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Her escape to Canada, however, came to a realization after an encounter with her family in Kyiv. Her mother had spoken with Ivanova, telling her she was coming to meet Stone in Kyiv but what was supposed to be a meeting turned into both her parents trying to get her to return to Russia.
“The idea was to kidnap me and drag me back to Ivanovo,” Ivanova said.
The now 38-year-old told Stone to return to their apartment in an attempt “to save her” as she was brought to a McDonald’s.
“They barricaded me with the tables, they would not allow me to go anywhere,” she explained.
She then phoned Stone and explained what happened, leading Stone to arrive at the restaurant and after “fighting” the four of them were taken out of the restaurant by security and brought to the police station. Following questioning by police, Ivanova said police released them and Ivanova was not forced to return with her parents to Russia though she says her parents left Ukraine with her passport.
The pair realized they needed to get to Canada, but without a passport, visited the Canadian consulate in Kyiv. She said the consul offered to help but could only offer a safe place. They told her she could ask for protection if on Canadian soil, but to get there she would need her passport in order to get a visa.
Through efforts of a friend in Russia, Ivanova was able to regain her passport and the couple left for Turkey in hopes of buying a boat and making their way across the ocean. During their two-month stay in the country, she learned to sail so they both could make their way across the seas.
“Otherwise we would hugely be endangering our lives,” she said.
Ivanova and Stone bought a 14-metre yacht, and set out on the water in June 2006.
The journey was not easy, they trekked across the Mediterranean Sea, made their way through a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, journeyed into the Pacific through the Caribbean Sea and Panama Canal, before coming to land in Victoria in April 2007.
Since then, the pair have been using their boat to travel the seas. Stone’s home had to be sold due to the cost of the trip to Canada from Turkey, and she currently works as a programmer. Ivanova says she tried to find work as an architect but was unable to do so, and instead wrote a book in Russian to tell the story of their journey called “Talking to the Moon”, and hopes their story will help other people, especially women.
“I want to empower women to take back their lives. I want them to be happy, truly happy, I want them to smile, to do crazy things, to be strong,” she said.
The couple came to Halifax this past weekend and attended Halifax Pride, which she said they actually came upon by accident on noticing Pride flags and were told by some people that the events were taking place.
Asked how she feels since moving to Canada, Ivanova said she’s happy.
“I’m completely different person right now. I’m happy. I feel great. I feel liberated in so many ways that I can’t count them all. There is no back for me. I have become finally where I always wanted to be.”