In many countries around the world, HIV patient advocacy is an extremely difficult endeavor — political leaders are resistant to change, government bureaucrats don’t want to get into trouble, and the public knows little about HIV and AIDS. It’s a knotty, stressful environment that Denis Godlevskiy, an AIDS Healthcare Foundation advocacy manager, works in daily in Russia and Ukraine.
During my research for Righteous Rebels, Godlevskiy, a tall, broad-shouldered, brainy, gregarious 31-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia, was my guide and translator for a week as we visited Moscow, Kazan, and his home city in October 2014.
As an advocacy manager, Godlevskiy urged government leaders in both Russia and Ukraine — two of the hardest hit AIDS hot spots in Eastern Europe — to give HIV-positive people the opportunity to start antiretroviral drug therapy as soon as possible; to have state-run public health programs use rapid HIV tests rather than tests that take days or weeks to deliver results, and to properly fund HIV/AIDS programs, among many other serious issues that needed attending.
It was an endless, tiring vocation, and Godlevskiy, who stumbled upon AIDS activism and wasn’t HIV-positive himself, worked constantly and forever — even though he was married with a young child. He insisted it was the best job of his life.
I had met numerous AHF staffers all over the world who were just like Godlevskiy — always wanting to do more for people with HIV; always ready to put up a fight — and I often wondered what made them that way. One night, as we sat in a waiting area at the airport in St. Petersburg, I asked Godlevskiy where his passion for HIV advocacy came from.
“I was always called a pain in the ass in school,” he started to explain with a smile. “I was always for justice.”
He continued, “Maybe it comes from my mother and my background. She was the teacher, and I remember when I was a small boy at her lessons — because she couldn’t leave me anywhere, and I was six or seven. I remember one of her classes. She was explaining the importance of elections, and there were these big elections coming, one of the first elections in Russian history. She was talking to the graduate class who would be able to vote soon. I remember she was explaining so passionately about the freedom to choose and to vote. I think this is something that I remember, so maybe it comes from there.”
Godlveskiy paused for a bit.
“I never had problems with someone who would say to me that he was HIV-positive — okay, not a big deal at all. When I started to recognize that people die without treatment because someone doesn’t want to give it to them, or they are being refused to get to the hospital because they are positive, I’m like, ‘No!'”
He continued, “And I have so many friends who are positive, and I was thinking that someone wasn’t going to get treatment. I didn’t like that. That wasn’t going to happen. The treatment should be there.”
Godlevskiy shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know where it is coming from. I think it has always been there in a way.”
I nodded and understood. Passion and natural talents were just there, waiting to be utilized and put to good use. From Russia to Africa to the United States, AHF staffers were intent on using their special gifts to change the world for the better.
Read more about Denis Godlevskiy and AHF in “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World.” Now available as an e-book and paperback.