Pavel Lobkov: I don’t lie about Donbass, I don’t lie about Syria, why should I lie about HIV?

Journalist Pavel Lobkov revealed on the show 'Hard Day’s Night' on Russia’s Dozhd TV that he’s been living with HIV for over a decade now. Anton Krasovsky asked him why he did it, and what it's like to live with HIV in Russia

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Фото: Дмитрий Смирнов
Фото: Дмитрий Смирнов

СLet’s start from the very beginning. How did you find out that you were HIV-positive?

In 2003, I think, in May, Chanel invited us to film our show 'Vegetable life' about the French perfume industry. We were visiting plantations in Grasse, and as I was doing a standup I tripped and fell on a big rosebush. I never noticed that I had a little thorn stuck in my belly — somewhere between my jeans and my belt.

Three days later I went back to Moscow and it began to swell — it looked like it was some kind of boil. I had a quick surgical procedure in a clinic without doing any tests. In a couple of days I was already in China, where I began to worry.  My tiny scratch didn't seem to start to heal at all. At that time, the NTV channel was attached to the clinic of the Presidential Administration on Grokholsky street. There I had my belly dressed and went through a number of other unpronounceable procedures. I said to them: have me tested for HIV and syphilis! — Why should we? — But I insisted: have me tested! Finally they gave me this little grey paper, meaning: there you go, if you're sure you want to.

СSo, basically, they literally did you a favor?

Actually yes. But I insisted on this test, because I was worried about the slow healing of the cut, I thought there might have been some problems with my immune system. This was the first time this had happened in my experience: before that, any wounds would heal up very quickly. That’s how I came to the idea I had to have my immune status tested. After all, I’m a biologist! I thought there might have been factors other than just a stray rose thorn.

СDid you suspect it could be HIV?

No.

СNot even a thought?

I just wanted to make sure.

СTo exclude the possibility.

Exactly. To exclude the possibility. So, I had myself tested and forgot about it, because it was October 10, 2003, when Vitaly Ginzburg won the Nobel prize. I was invited to his summer house, his dacha. We got very drunk, and he outdid me. He was 87 then… I got back home wasted — you don't refuse a Nobel laureate offering you a glass of vodka. The next morning I got a call from a woman with a robotic voice, you know: “You are summoned for a visit to the infectious diseases specialist”. Ok, maybe there’s some trouble with my enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, let them show me something.

So I went over there, the security guards let me through, I walked along these red carpets, took an elevator to the 6th floor. The door was open. The Infectiinfectious diseases specialist is not the most popular doctor at the presidential clinic. Their patients are mostly afflicted with strokes, heart attacks, diabetes and the like.

The door is open, there’s no nurse. Only an elderly woman with her hair done like a challah bun. My health record is on the table in front of her. You know, some little troubles over the years — the physician, the ear, nose and throat specialist, I lost my voice once. The record book is quite big, and it has a huge red cross in marker on its cover — with the words “HIV +” and also something like “to be eliminated” or “to be disposed of” — well, I don’t remember, some scary words.

“Pavel Albertovich," she tells me in this Soviet voice, "You’ve been diagnosed with HIV. Due to that fact, we have terminated your service contract, goodbye”. And this is in October, the window is open. If I was a girl…

СYou could have leapt through the window.

Well, you know, this is not the way to break this kind of news. It was the most important piece of news for me in 2003. “Goodbye. Your case will be transferred to the Moscow healthcare committee, and your file will be kept at the AIDS center”. It was 7 o’clock. I ran through these scary empty halls trying to find this deputy director who gave up on me by putting this giant red cross across my file. Of course I didn’t find anybody. Some nice security guards, a number of secretaries. There's something called deontological ethics. Deontology is the art of communication with a patient. For the record, I didn't get drunk that day. Since I worked at NTV and we had everyone's telephone numbers, I called Vadim Pokrovsky: this redhead will never disappoint you. The next day I was in his office. He saved my life.

СDid you try to have it out with this clinic?

No.

СWhy?

Because you don’t have it out with Buddha. What could I have done, come to Boris Jordan (the head of NTV) and tell him that they terminated my insurance plan because I'm HIV-positive? In 2003? Are you crazy? No. I knew I wasn't going to do anything about it.

СPokrovsky was the first one who came to your mind when you though about HIV?

Yes.

СAnd you called him.

Immediately.

СWhat did you tell him?

I said: hello, my name is Pavel Lobkov, we’ve met once.

СHe said: hi, Pavel.

“Hello, Pavel, come over immediately”.

СNo, you told him: I’ve been diagnosed with HIV.

Yes.

СOn the phone?

On the phone, yes. “Come over immediately”. The next day at 9 in the morning was in his office.

СWhat did he tell you?

He drew me up a timetable of how I was going to die.

Фото: Дмитрий Смирнов
Фото: Дмитрий Смирнов

СMeaning?

Meaning that at the time my immune status was normal but...

СHow many T-helpers did you have?

1050 cells. Great immune status. I mean mine is even higher than average.

СAnd now you’re OK too.

He said: look, with this status you will live until you have 500 cells.

СHe was already saying 500?

He was already mentioning 500 at the time. This was in 2003, when everyone — you’re right — was waiting until it came down to 350. We give you this therapy, which you live with for 5 years. Then the virus will become immune, and you’ll have your status decreased and HIV RNL level (viral load) increased. And the viral load was pretty high then.

СIn the millions?

Thousands.

СYou don’t remember your first numbers, really?

The status was 1050, I think. Vadim has the numbers. At that time he had this woman, Marina Kholodilova, she’s been observing me all these years. So Vadim was wrong: I lived without therapy not for 5 years, but for 7. In 2010 I started to take medications and the viral load decreased to an undetectable level. Meaning I became less infected than some random guy from Bibirevo (Moscow suburbs — translator’s note), who has never been tested.

СWhat did Pokrovsky promise you then?

Then you have to change therapy, you’ll have your immune status increased. And then again, every 6 years.

СWhat did you feel when you first came to the AIDS center?

First impression: it’s a realm of death. Scuffed halls, secret upper floors, where they say patients die alone, with no one around them. The smell of cabbage soup and horror, the kind of ficus plants you get in a library, linoleum. Pokrovsky's office was the kind you see in old Soviet movies like 'Office Romance'. And at the same time an unbelievable level of hospitality — I know, it sounds weird. They answer all your questions, they find time for everyone.

What did you do after you left Pokrovsky’s office?

I was in a kind of haze.

СWhat happened in this haze and how long did it last?

Nothing. I had this idea I was going to die on 15 August 2008. I had this dream once — on a St. Petersburg-Moscow train. It never happened, you know.

СWhen and how did you realize that everything was going to be fine?

First of all, I’m a biologist.

СAnd secondly, you’re a human being...

No, secondly I’m a biologist, and thirdly, I’m a biologist. I know very well that HIV is the most studied organism on Earth. It has been studied more than fruit flies and E.coli.

My immune stem was fighting, the viral load was decreasing, I had nothing of what they call a primary HIV reaction, which is having flu or diarrhoea for several months. I already knew I was going to live with that.

СHave you tried to find out where you got it from, from whom?

No.

СWhy?

Because I asked Vadim — does it make sense? He said: “In 2003, epidemiological investigations make no sense. Everyone gets it from everyone. It's a waste of time, money and nerves. You have to treat your problem, not play at being a detective”.

СWho did you tell about it after that?

My mom.

СWhat did your mom say?

“We've dealt with a lot of grief in this family, we can deal with some more". Dad didn’t know about it. He was a conservative person. He died, and I think he'd didn’t know about it, all the way up to his death. We hid the fact from him. Next page >>

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