After losing many friends in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Neil Goldstein Glick thought the deaths were over. Then this year he lost Kolya, an activist who’d become the face of HIV in Russia.
Nikolay Nedzelskiy—Kolya, to his friends—was one of the first Russians I befriended when I lived in Moscow from 1993 to 1997. He had HIV—a fact he did not hide, even in an era when an HIV diagnosis meant almost certain death. Russia, in particular, was a country where treatment opportunities were close to nil.
As the spring thaw hit in 1993, Kolya invited me to his appointment at the only HIV treatment hospital in Moscow, in a dilapidated structure in a forested area of the city. Patients and nurses were smoking indoors. There were housecats wandering the hallways—to keep the mouse population in check. The hospital was home to a few healthy HIV-positive patients who were semi-permanent residents because they had nowhere else to live. The cats would come to the patients to give and get affection, to provide solace and comfort.
Kolya was the 170th person diagnosed with HIV in the USSR, around 1989. Instead of looking at his diagnosis as a death sentence, Kolya gave it meaning. He became a public face of HIV in Russia. He was a Russian delegate at several International AIDS Conferences.
Even though his chances for survival seemed statistically slim, Kolya confided to me that he would hold on and wait for a cure. He lived for 26 years after his diagnosis.
This year, in the early dawn of Aug. 4, I received several messages from Russian friends telling me Kolya died early that morning in Moscow. His passing was the first HIV-related death of a friend of mine since 2007. I had forgotten the pain of hearing about someone’s life being cut short from HIV. It was crushing to feel this gnawing at my heart once again after almost a decade of respite.