From Turkmenistan to Tel Aviv

Turkmenistan-born and Chechnya-bred, Sergey Solovyo grew up completely secular – like everyone else in the former Soviet Union circa the 1980s. He only started becoming interested in Judaism, his father’s religion, in his 20s, after attending a cousin’s wedding in Belarus. The music spoke to him, he says. The traditions stirred something within.

Back in medical school in Siberia, Sergey became involved in a Jewish youth movement on campus. In 1992, he went on his first trip to Israel, following, he grins, a girl: A Jewish Agency counselor and his first, and last, girlfriend.

In 1994, two weeks after graduating with a degree in psychiatry, the affable redhead packed up his diploma, and made aliyah. He was 23-years-old and didn’t speak a word of Hebrew.

“Until age 17 I did not even know where Israel was,” he admits.

Soon, he broke up with the girl, who remains his closest friend (and who, long story for another day, married his ex-boyfriend), and began, in the more relaxed and liberal Israeli climate, to finally feel at ease with being gay. Sergey picked up Hebrew with zeal, devouring literature in the new language and making an effort to reach outside cloistered Russian immigrant circles and make Sabra friends.

Michael Ustinov, who is also Jewish through his father, has vague memories of his paternal grandmother in Novosibirsk sending Hanukkah jelly donuts to Samara, Russia, where he grew up. But that was pretty much the extent of his Jewish consciousness. Like Sergey, he went off to medical school in great part to please his mom, a piano teacher (like Sergey's mom) who only wanted (like Sergey’s mom) the best for her son.

But working in the emergency room to help pay his way through school, the lack of medicines and poor hospital conditions depressed him, he says, and he began having doubts about his chosen profession. After graduation, Michael changed course and went into pharmaceuticals, moving to Moscow as the director of a medical supplies business.

One of his employees, a woman named Svetta, had gone to medical school in Siberia with Sergey. Perhaps sensing his sexual orientation, which he kept private, she kept telling Michael she wanted to introduce him to her old university friend. One day, when Michael and Svetta happened to be together, Sergey called to shoot the breeze. She seized the opportunity and put her boss on the phone.

Falling for a distant voice

“I was like, “Hi, how’s the weather in Moscow?’” remembers Sergey. “And he was like, ‘It’s okay. How’s the weather in Israel?’” A scintillating start it was not.

A few days later, when Svetta and Michael were together again, they picked up the phone and called Sergey. “What’s up? We’re eating lunch! What are you eating?” And so it went.

“We were shy,” shrugs Michael.

“It was a little stilted,” laughs Sergey.

When the two next found themselves pushed into a phone chat by Svetta, Michael asked Sergey what he was doing. Sergey, who at this point had started running seminars on personal growth for Russian immigrants, said he was preparing a seminar about setting targets in life.

“What are your life targets?” Michael asked absentmindedly.

Sergey decided to jump in the deep end. “To find a man with whom I can have a relationship built on love, trust and mutual respect,” he responded.

He wondered if Michael might have choked to death on the other end of the line. “In 1995 those were just not the things anyone talked about in Russia. I was like ‘Hello? Hello?’ says Sergey. He then really risked it with a coy: “If you want to hear more about it, call me this evening when you are alone.”

What followed was nine months of nightly and, notes Michael, wildly expensive phone conversations between the two young men, who had never met and wouldn’t have recognized each other on the street.

“I think he spent his whole salary on those phone calls,” smiles Sergey.

Several times they planned to meet, but each time, for one reason or another, the plans fell through. One time, Michael actually made it to Israel for his first visit, arriving exactly as Sergey, who was working part time for the Jewish Agency, flew out to Siberia to oversee a seminar.

“I suppose we were scared,” admits Sergey. “It was like falling in love with a fantasy. We each had our own separate lives, but were also deeply connected through these phone calls. The idea of combining it all was confusing.”

Love

In December 1995, they finally met face to face for the first time. It was at the airport in Moscow. Sergey had flown in, en route to another Jewish Agency seminar he was to oversee in Siberia. And Michael, together with a friend, had come to the airport to welcome him. For security reasons, El Al didn’t announce or post the arriving flight, a detail that added all the more drama to the big moment.

Michael and the friend were having coffees upstairs. Sergey was searching for them in vain near the baggage claim.

“It seemed a terrible sign,’” remembers Sergey.

When they finally found each other, they embraced.

“It was like seeing a phantom,” says Michael.

As it happens, both men are handsome: Sergey, with ginger hair, sparkling eyes and a contagious smile; Michael, with dark hair, piercing blue eyes and a brooding look.

“But I honestly don’t think it would have made a difference what the other looked like,” says Sergey.

“These days, with Internet dating, it’s like, ‘No photo? No way!’ But we got to know each other from the inside out.” says Michael.

They spent that first evening back at Michael’s house with friends. When everyone left, there was an awkward moment.

“Suddenly you are alone together. You know the person so intimately on the one hand, and not at all, on the other,” says Sergey.

The next day, when Sergey returned to the airport to fly to the seminar, Michael cried. That was 17 years ago. The two have been together ever since.

Getting to Eden

A week after their first meeting, Michael arrived in Israel for a visit. A few weeks later, Sergey travelled to Moscow. And so it went: back and forth, back and forth. When Sergey was drafted into the army for a year, Michael did the traveling. When Sergey finished his service, he spent five months in Moscow. Eventually though, two and a half years after meeting, Michael gave in, said his goodbyes, and followed his love to Israel for good.

“I kept saying: ‘Don’t do it for me,’” says Sergey.

“And I didn’t,” retorts Michael. “I mean I did, but I also felt good here. It was like, a shampoo and conditioner all in one,” he smiles. “I got everything I wanted.”

Michael started out as a short order cook, then got a job as a barman and then became a glitzy event planner. He took up Hebrew with as much focus as his partner once had. Today, the two speak more Hebrew than Russian - even, sometimes, between themselves.

“The Russian language is actually richer. There are more words,” says Michael.

“But it often doesn’t suit the conversation and mood here,” adds Sergey.

This February, the couple, now both 41, embarked on a joint project, opening a trendy boutique hotel called Eden House in the old Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv.  

“I like drastic change,” says Michael, sitting in the lobby, with its pink flowery wallpaper, over-the-top chandeliers, faux ancient Greek busts and a massive oil painting of the happy couple posing formally in well tailored tuxedos. Lounge music, lace doilies and the strong whiff of patchouli vanilla fragrance complete the unlikely scene, which feels like a theatrical version of someone’s grandmother’s house – on drugs.

"It's our first project together, but we have other ones in mind," smiles Michael.  

"Like kids," says Sergey.

Michael smiles.

Being both business partners and a couple can be complicated, says Sergey, but it works for them.

“Michael is more impulsive,” says Sergey.

“Sergey is more accommodating,” responds his partner.

Michael is decisive. Sergey is gentle. Michael thinks in broad strokes. Sergey is more detail oriented. If Michael blows up, Sergey is the one to calm things down. Sergey tends to panic about money. Michael has that under control.

“We complete each other. That’s our secret,” says Sergey.

“Like Dolce and Gabbana,” grins Michael.

“Sort of,” laughs Sergey, reminding him that the fashion power couple broke up.

"Like Dolce And Gabbana, but much better," says Michael.