2012 in Review: To Remember Everything

To my shame, I’ve really got lazy in writing these blog posts. Partially because, perhaps, it’s difficult for me to see the point and imagine my audience — other than future me, of course.

Back in the day, moving to DW was a clean break from my past. My primary target audience, for any post I wrote in my old blog, was my future self. It gave me material for introspection and tracing changes in my personality over the years — which are shocking to me, still. While most of my core beliefs are still intact, many of my former beliefs and actions make me uncomfortable.

Now, perhaps, it is time to give my past a rest. Not “burn the evidence” — this is not my intent, especially not in this day and age, when caches remember everything. But close that chapter in my life.

The journey from Matvey to Maia, which started in late 2008 and continues to this day, has been slow and often rocky. 2009 was marked by apathy and depression, stemming from unemployment and the need to hide everything from everyone. After that, things have been consistently getting better. 2010 saw me getting my second and current job, 2011 a home of my own, away from my parents, though that year was scarred by two failed relationships; and 2012 may just have been the best year of my life so far.

Looking back, I can now, with certainty, name the event that dragged me out of my apartment and onto the streets: the sham “elections” of December 2011 and the political fallout that followed. The explosion of political activity from ordinary citizens that followed was unprecedented by Russian standards, and I, too, without prompting, got engaged in the rallies. I felt I had no moral right to stand aside anymore.

Inspired, I decided to get engaged in political activity relevant specifically to me — and thus, I applied as a volunteer to the Russian LGBT Network, something that, in hindsight, I should have done at least a year before that. A reply followed soon; I was invited to the local LGBT social club, Pulsar, for a two-day brainstorming seminar on political activities in 2012. This was the turning point. It changed everything.

For the first visit, I didn’t really have any women’s clothes to wear to speak of, other than T-shirts, so I showed up in a women’s T-shirt and men’s jeans. It was a relief for me, nevertheless, to be able to call myself Maia in a company of like-minded people and feel accepted as a girl, even without passing. For the second visit, the following day, I bought a dress, which made me feel less awkward — and more appropriate.

After that, weekly visits to the club every Sunday became a routine, although a highly welcome one; usually I spent the week waiting for Sunday, when I could go downtown and meet my LGBT friends in a safe space, that basement insulated from the homophobic streets. It was just a social club, where politics only occasionally intruded, usually in discussions of news about new stupid homophobic laws.

It felt good.

I made new friends — replacing those I lost years ago. Some of the revelations were surprising: it turned out that two transwomen from the club lived very close to me on the outskirts of the city, far away from the club, and they were a couple! I did more for my new life in mere months than I did in three preceding years, assembling a wardrobe, skills, connections, advice — though the others were puzzled by my habit of changing clothes when arriving and leaving. At that point, I thought, I couldn’t risk being detected. What if someone who knew my parents would see me on the street? What would they think?

Even more than that, I was afraid of being recognized as trans by passers-by. It took me a while to overcome that worry.

There is a definite pattern here. For the first half of the year, I have been breaking myself — deliberately moving myself outside my zone of comfort and adjusting to this new, unfamiliar life, and overcoming self-doubt. As a friend of mine said: “What really gives you away is your nervous search for things that give you away.”

This turned out to be more right than I thought. The secret to passing was, banal as it sounds, that there was no secret.

Sure, fellow transpeople recognized me — but that was because they knew where to look. Otherwise, once I started going en femme in public — first cautiously and in a few select environments, then openly — I learned that “normal”, ordinary people have no reason to suspect anything in the first place. What surprised me were times when I was called “girl” by passers-by when not actively trying to pass — for example, when I wasn’t perfectly shaved, or wasn’t wearing a padded bra to hide my flat chest. The most awkward experiences have been the looks on the faces of shopkeepers and security guards when I handed them my male identity documents. “Whose are these? What? Yours?!”

So much for those depressed “I’ll never pass!” fears from three to four years ago.

I re-established my contacts with the local Linux User Group, which I previously avoided out of reluctance to come to them in male capacity. I discovered, together with my new friends, many interesting places in the city center, while I previously was reluctant to show myself in public. Gone were the days when I hadn’t cared about my body, to the point of not washing for weeks.

Yet it has all come at the cost of having to lie to my family, and I still do. Even though we no longer live together, they live close by and are suspicious of my every step. During summer, it got especially unbearable. Every time I headed downtown, I had to wear men’s clothes when walking out of home and bring a bag with women’s clothes to change into once I arrived — all out of fear of being recognized in my neighborhood.

The culmination to these efforts came in August, when, after several delays, I went on a trip to the country of my dreams — the Netherlands. Both to see the country itself, and to see someone dear to me. It was the first time in my life when I traveled somewhere alone, without my family, and my first trip to Europe. It felt relieving and empowering. I took off male clothes immediately after checking into the hotel and almost never put them back on before arriving back in the airport for departure.

It was a medium-sized hotel in the center of The Hague, right next to the Centraal Station. The Hague was, in many ways, the opposite of the stereotypes about Amsterdam (and the real Amsterdam, as I found out after visiting it): quiet, clean, almost idyllic with its parks and forests, often right next to busy city streets. The more time I spent there, the more fond I grew of this small, yet proud country.

The last two days of my vacation were spent in Cologne, around Gamescom in the city center, staying in a hotel in a suburb. In comparison to the Netherlands, Germany didn’t have such an effect, though it may be because I visited it second. It felt too ordinary, too familiar — like Russia, but better; what Russia should have been.

My companion went to Gamescom — the very reason of our arrival there — while I quickly realized that I had nothing to do there. Not really being a gamer, and unable to socialize there, I wandered aimlessly for about an hour, depressed, before walking out. I settled for seeing the city itself instead before it was my time to leave the next morning, specifically the Cathedral and a boat trip along the Rhine.

I didn’t want to go back to Russia.

I really didn’t.

My stay in Europe was the high point of the whole year. I would have stayed there forever, if I could. The trip only confirmed the preconceptions I heard before leaving: that I had more in common with the European mindset than Russian, that Russia did everything backwards, mindlessly borrowing pieces of European culture in letter only, without understanding the spirit, the history and reason behind them.

I don’t really hate Russia, but I don’t consider myself Russian anymore. And after coming back, I sank back into apathy, even submerging myself in WoW and isolating myself from the life outside. Only in the last month I recovered somewhat, partially thanks to my friends from the club.

I enter 2013 with mixed thoughts.

On one hand, I feel more alive and confident in myself than I ever was in my whole life.

On the other hand, I’m full of doubt in everything else. Doubt in my ability to successfully complete my transition, to fully embrace my new identity, legally. Doubt in my ability to completely break away from my parents. To find a new life outside Russia, as it is falling down its pit of insanity, before life here gets completely unbearable for everyone with a shred of rational thought.

Can I do that? I don’t know. These things ahead of me lie so far outside my comfort zone I don’t even know where to begin, or in what order to approach them. And this is how I enter the new year: with fear, uncertainty and doubt… but also hope. If not for the country (I almost don’t care about it anymore), then at least for myself…

The Soviet STTOS Jr.

Mostly writing this to coherently sum up my thoughts.

For better or for worse, I was born in the Soviet Union. It’s an unfortunate reality that people don’t get to choose where they’re born. Maybe someone out there is working on fixing that. :)

In particular, Soviet fiction has influenced my own writing. My pet project in progress, a time travel thingy called Insight (it sucks, so I wouldn’t dare call it a novel), has throwbacks to Soviet science fiction of all timeframes, from We to Alice, Girl from the Future. Soviet SF from about the 1960s onwards, especially aimed at children, has an air of optimism about it; it has this spirit of benevolent exploration, broadening the horizons of knowledge, eternal moral values.

One of the unconscious influences — ones I didn’t realize until I rewatched a bit of it — was an old children’s movie dilogy that rubbed into my own childhood: Moscow — Cassiopeia. Of course, back then I was too young to realize its main fault: that it was a work of socialist realism, which was less about showing reality as it was and more about how it “should be”, from the perspective of Soviet ideology. Everyone, both child and adult, acts “too perfect”. The positive characters are ideological embodiments of qualities, not reading like real people, and the negative are likewise symbolic embodiments of flaws. The end result is that it ends up feeling wooden, unrealistic (and I don’t mean unrealistic in the sense that it has an FTL starship and an alien planet).

And the plot itself? Well, it’s nothing surprising to anyone who has seen any Star Trek series ever. Again, I only know that now. You don’t particularly expect a 1973 movie to be original by modern standards, so it follows the usual route: robot creations blah blah turned against their masters blah blah emotional suppression blah blah mind control rays blah blah blah. The resolution was narmy even by STTOS standards: the deus ex machina came in the form of an iron nail stuck in a power socket! Ah well, it’s for kids, you don’t expect them to appreciate clever writing, right?

Still, it has the kind of innocent charm in it that I like in Soviet movies in general, so it would be watchable for me now if not for one factor that utterly kills my enjoyment.

It’s this guy.


I hate him so much. He’s basically the antithesis of everything emphasized in Soviet SF.

He has no name, he is referred to by the unwieldy acronym “IOO” (in Russian, “one assigned to special responsibilities”) and he never directly interacts with any of the adults, only with the children. And with the audience, who are, again, assumed to be children.

The movie starts with him directly addressing the audience and claiming that the events of the movie really happened “next spring”. He speaks in a somewhat playful, pointedly polite, almost patronizing manner. And he fulfills the role of a deus ex machina, nudging the events to get the story going. He’s apparently omnipotent — he can teleport, even across planets, contact an FTL starship from an ordinary rotary phone, etc.

Who is he? An interdimensional bureaucrat?


Nah, that would be too generous an interpretation. (Incidentally, although I don’t exclude the possibility that Valve was influenced by the IOO, the chances of this are slim.) Although he drops hints that he works for some kind of superiors, he is human and benevolent in his emotions, very much unlike the G-Man, despite fulfilling a similar handy deus ex machina role. The IOO is Gandalf assembling the company together on an adventure — in this case, the space expedition.

Ahem! This movie is otherwise very serious. Imagine the most straight-faced moments in Star Trek without all the character-based humor, where every character is Picard and can do no wrong. Perhaps the IOO was an attempt at injecting humor? But I’m sorry, it’s supposed to be SF as in “science fiction”, not “space fantasy”. It’s not about space princesses, space emperors and space dashing swordsmen. A Gandalf figure, or even an Obi-Wan figure, is utterly out of place in a movie that spends about a fourth of its run spitting out relatively realistic scientific jargon.

Another version is that he’s an author stand-in. Based, of course, on the assumption that children are such morons that they can’t tell reality from fiction unless they’re constantly pointed out that it’s fiction (in this case by drawing attention to the IOO’s outlandish antics). Is it the same kind of logic that has prompted Soviet writers to constantly put fantastic elements in framing stories, for example, by making Ivan Vasilievich revealed to be a dream in the end? (Just in case, you know, the audience thinks time machines are actually possible?)

There is, however, a certain point at which the character appears too often, turning from a “necessary plot device” into an “author’s pet character”. The IOO not just gets the plot going, but he also appears several times later, randomly teleporting around, acting as a mysterious advisor living outside time, showing knowledge of the future, switching between acting playful and patronizing…

River Song

Why, hello, sweetie.

Like River Song, the IOO ultimately suffers from overexposure, to the point that he stops being that interesting quirky enigma and simply steals too much of the spotlight for himself. But the absolute nadir is the finale, in which, after the kids resolve the conflict on an alien planet, he simply teleports them back home. Just like that. Leaving the expensive starship behind.

Even if it’s not an “all just a dream” cop-out, it has the effect of saying: “Hah! You thought you were watching a space exploration story! But what you were actually watching was an imaginary fairy tale about space exploration! None of this was real!” And it cheapens the moral and emotional impact of the story.

In an interview to a Soviet newspaper back in those days, director Richard Viktorov had this to say about the concept of the IOO: “To make it easier for kids to understand the film, we have added a familiar archetype of the kind wizard.”

In other words, the director’s stance was that kids are morons and won’t understand a plot without an archetype that is completely inappropriate for the genre.

Goshdang it to heck.

Ah, Valve, How Charming

Valve has consistently been remaining the voice of reason in the PC game industry.

In a situation where Activision has been systematically crippling Blizzard games with DRM, Ubisoft caused a drop of their PC sales with their own folly (with pirates as a scapegoat, of course), and EA is pressing on BioWare to turn their RPGs into shooters (to say nothing of the spyware vomit that is Origin), Valve’s Gabe Newell isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

He’s fundamentally right. Digital distribution is a competition between publishers and… people who can offer the same services cheaper. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I’ll say it again: DRM, ultimately, does nothing but complicate life for legitimate customers.

In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.

I can see why.

Back in 2004, when Steam was introduced as a distribution platform with the release of Half-Life 2, the situation seemed hopeless. Russia was still covered with a network of semi-legal stores selling pirated games in heaps. Piracy was second nature for Russian software users through the nineties and early 2000s. Most people couldn’t afford licensed software or thought the prices were outrageous. It was not competitive. A lot of it still is. How many Russians do you know who have bought a retail copy of Windows? Or bought music in an online store? As long as there is no practical reason to prefer licensed versions, piracy will continue.

Meanwhile, back in those years, the prevalent forms of Internet access in Russia were dial-up and per-traffic billing plans for Ethernet ISPs. My ISP charged $0.05 per megabyte downloaded. Steam has an offline mode, sure, but Steam games, even those bought in retail, insist on downloading all available updates at first activation.

Under these conditions, introducing Steam in Russia seemed like tactical suicide.

And indeed, back then, Steam was widely unpopular around the world, and especially in Russia. Howeve, it has proven to be the right solution in the long term. Today, however, in the age of cheap and reliable Internet access, Steam has shown its true appeal.

Traditional DRM only makes users’ lives worse. With region locks, requirements for a CD in the drive, for perpetual Internet access (Ubisoft really shot itself in the foot with this one), registration forms, rootkits in the system, and so on. Under these conditions, pirated versions start looking more appealing — at least for purely single-player games. World of Warcraft, for example, has little to fear because you pay for an online service, one that private servers simply cannot hope to match.

Steam is a service, first and foremost. The convenience of having your games bound to your account, now and forever, on any computer you access. Automatic updates. No annoying third party DRM… usually (yes, I’m looking at you, Ubisoft). No tying to physical media.

Today’s Steam, a far cry from the messy state it was released in, found acceptance first and foremost in games where pirates couldn’t hope to compete with it. This includes, first and foremost, multiplayer games, where Steam provides instant tools for building communities. Even for single player games, now it is often more convenient to find a game on Steam than run around the city looking for a retail copy, or searching Google for a torrent.

I’m not saying Steam is perfect. A lot of its UI decisions are counterintuitive even now. Localization is often an issue: sometimes, for odd reasons, a Steam release is missing either the English version or the Russian version. (Steam has often allowed me to play English versions of foreign games, which I generally prefer, when only Russian versions are available in retail.) And now, since September, Valve has forced publishers to cut their prices in Russia. Not everyone likes this. Some publishers have decided not to release their games in Steam for CIS countries for this reason. I personally find it ridiculous. If the lowered price isn’t acceptable for you, let me pay the European price, just as long as I get worldwide access to the game. Why should I be treated as a second-class customer just because I have a Russian IP?

Nevertheless. Thank you, Valve. For not being evil.