MOSCOW -- When Pavel Lobkov went public with his HIV-positive status on live television, the presenter took the bold step of challenging stigmas commonly attributed to HIV/AIDS in Russia, while being open with himself and his viewers.
In the year since his announcement, the response has been overwhelming and has foisted him into the role of a vocal advocate for changing the way Russians think about people living with HIV.
His personal journey began on December 1, 2015, when Lovkov hosted Vadim Pokrovsky, a top HIV/AIDS expert in Russia, during a segment of his Dozhd television (TV Rain) talk show that was dedicated to World AIDS Day, which is also celebrated on December 1 this year.
"I faced a dilemma," Lobkov recalled during an interview this month at the independent television station's Moscow studios. "Either I was going to play the journalist, or I was going to be honest with myself and with people because this doctor was the same doctor who told me about my diagnosis and who treated me through my first year of infection."
Lobkov is the most prominent figure in Russia to go public with the virus, and his coming out resonated among the population.
The revelation sparked broad discussion on social networks, and he soon found himself engaged in what he calls his "night service" -- counselling fellow HIV carriers who flooded him with private messages and appeals for help and advice. The unexpected response has allowed him to pinpoint and help bring to light the myriad everyday problems HIV/AIDS carriers encounter.
Although more than 1 million people have been officially registered as having HIV since it was first registered in Russia in 1987, social stigmas against carriers endure and public awareness remains low. For example, the virus widely continues to be considered an affliction reserved for intravenous drug users and sex workers.
"One of the aims of my coming out was to fight against this stigma," he says, referring to the scorn often directed toward HIV/AIDS carriers in Russia. "Well, look, I'm sitting here in front of you. What stigma is there? There must be grounds for there to be stigma.... This person is not sitting on his heels, and is thinking entirely lucidly."
"You can only fight against such stigma with action," he said.
Lobkov says he seeks to overturn the common notion in Russia that an HIV-positive person is "emaciated, with blotches on their face -- a kind of half-dead corpse."
"I would even like to lose weight," he says, motioning to his belly. "There are HIV carriers "who do not think of themselves with pity," he adds, emphasizing that he wanted to show "you can live with this."
'Thousands Of Questions'
When Lobkov returned home after his HIV disclosure and checked his social-media accounts, he found them flooded with messages. Among them were "two or three" crude, homophobic comments, but on the whole they were supportive and filled with questions from fellow HIV carriers about how they should tackle problems they had encountered.
"I started to answer them," he says of what became a nightly routine. "I'd come home from work and sit down, turn on my computer, open my WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, and so on."
He said the thousands of messages he has received have come from across the social spectrum -- family types, business professionals, government bureaucrats, and members of the upper middle class and the working class alike.
They have helped him identify the raft of problems and injustices that HIV carriers face -- some of which he has experienced first-hand.
After he learned that he had HIV in 2003, Lobkov says, the diagnosis led his private medical insurance provider to tear up his policy.
"Right in front of me, they slapped down a piece of paper and written across it in red was 'AIDS'," a disease that can be caused by HIV. "They told me: you are dismissed from our clinic that serves under the auspices of the office of the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Our contract with you is terminated because you have been found to have HIV. You may go."
In another case, he says, he once had to search for an entire year to find a dentist who would be willing to carry out a simple tooth-implant procedure. That experience has led Lobkov to call for legislation that would guarantee HIV carriers equal access to medical services.
He also says that Russia's "propiska" system -- under which citizens are registered as living in specific towns or cities, can be used to prevent HIV/AIDS patients from receiving treatment.
Lobkov says many Muscovites writing to him live and work in Moscow, but are unable to receive antiretroviral therapy from state clinics in the capital because they are registered in, say, Oryol, Kursk, or Sakhalin. Worse still, he says, even if the people are able to travel to their registered places of origin for treatment, they often find that the needed medication is not available.
The situation has led him to call for an end to opaque tenders for medical supplies in Russian regions, as well as legislation allowing HIV-positive citizens to receive antiretroviral therapy and monitoring regardless of their location in the Russian Federation.
One Clip, One Fate
One year on, Lobkov has no doubt he did the right thing in disclosing his HIV-positive status. "I think many people went and got themselves tested. The news spread. Thanks to the feedback, we were able to expose problems that were on the periphery. The problems with the propiska system, the inaccessibility to specialized medical help, and so on."
Lobkov and Dozhd are currently working alongside Spid.Center, a group created by journalist Anton Krasovsky that aims to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. In an awareness campaign titled "one clip, one fate," the group is now recording short interviews with prominent HIV carriers.
But Lobkov stresses that he is not calling for others to follow his lead by revealing their HIV status. "There's no need to make a show out of this. What for?" he says. "I don't want people to repeat this. Well, they can, but it's up to them. I'm not calling for it."