The death of Mikhail Gorbachev last week—especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—may ultimately mark the moment when all (Western) dreams of a progressive Russia were buried. In retrospect, it seems these dreams had always been short-lived, even directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev helped herald. The event, interpreted by the triumphant West as a promise of a new beginning, was quickly followed by the ascent of the kleptocracy carried to extremes under the Putin regime. It also provided the Russian LGBTQ+ community with only a short moment of reprieve from the repressive Soviet regime. The introduction of the law that banned so-called homosexual propaganda in Russia in 2013 completed this return towards state-sanctioned repression. For Yevgeniy Fiks’ concept art piece Soviet Union, July 1991, which we are releasing today on V/A, and in consultation with the artist, we asked Kent State University Russian professor Brian James Baer to shed further light on the events of that summer and their background. In his essay, he shows how the euphoric mood of that time—not only Russia’s hopes for the emergence of a civil democratic society but also the LGBTQ+ community’s insistence on its freedom—quickly faded and how the latter has become increasingly precarious. Not only in Russia, that is, but also in the West.
The year 1991 looms large in Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s documentary novel Secondhand Time, dedicated to “the last Soviets.” As Alexievich writes in the opening of the novel, “[i]t was 1991… What an incredibly happy time! We believed that tomorrow, the very next day, would usher in freedom. That it would materialize out of nowhere, from the sheer force of our wishing” (6). Many of the others interviewed by Alexievich, however, express different, far more ambivalent takes on that fateful year: “I wouldn’t call it a beautiful time, I’d say it was revolting. People’s minds flipped 180 degrees. Some couldn’t handle it, they went crazy, the psych wards were overflowing” (30).
Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost lifted censorship restrictions, allowing Russians to read previously banned writers and to discuss previously taboo topics, such as the Stalinist purges and whether Lenin had in fact laid the foundations for the violent repression that took place under his successor. I was studying in Moscow in the Spring of 1989 and remember vividly how everyone in the metro had their faces buried in the latest issues of the glossy weekly magazine Ogonyok and the more serious thick journals Novyi Mir and Znamya, featuring works by so-called “returned” émigré authors, such Vladimir Nabokov and Sergei Dovlatov. I also remember contentious debates at the Plekhanov Institute for the People’s Economy, where I was studying, over the future of the Russian economy. One of the professors dismissed the prospect of a new Mattel toy factory opening in Russia with great indignation: “We don’t need toys!”
The ferment of those years of glasnost and perestroika culminated in an attempted coup in August of 1991, when a group of eight conservative communists, who called themselves the State Committee on the State Emergency (GKChP), later known as the “gang of eight,” sought to remove Gorbachev from power and halt his liberalizing reforms. What is remarkable about the putsch was the way it galvanized Soviet citizens who had until then been largely alienated from politics, or who had learned how to survive, with greater or lesser degrees of cynicism, within the Soviet system by opting out or just going along. Waking up to looping videos of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on Soviet state TV, thousands of average Russians converged on Red Square. There, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who addressed the crowd from atop a tank, Russians prevented a return to the Soviet past. For many, this experience of spontaneous “people power” was utterly new, and with it, “the world shattered into dozens of colorful little pieces”. The Soviet semiotician Juri Lotman refers to such moments as explosions, when history can take any number of unpredictable pathways.
For many observers, 1991 marked the potential emergence of a true civil society in Russia, but for many of those participating in the events, the euphoria was short-lived. As journalist-turned-novelist Mikhail Shevelev describes it in his book Not Russian: “We sat around like that for three more days, until the GKChP was gone with the wind. We celebrated. Twice, we made Voronin take the ferries to get us vodka: ‘Go, go, move your ass, collaborator, or we’ll tell everyone where your Party card is hidden.’ Kostya was the first to come to his senses: ‘That’s it, it’s time for me to go, I need to get to Moscow right away.’ ‘Why the hurry all of a sudden?’ ‘They’ll start divvying up state property,’ Kostya explained, as straightforward as ever. ‘You don’t want to be late for that.’ The others followed his lead; they also had business to attend to” (93).
When Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea, where he had been detained by the coup plotters, he initiated the process that would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In fact, it was in December of that year that 90 percent of voters in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, the second largest republic after Russia, opted for independence from the Soviet Union. The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire was quickly followed by an especially ruthless form of capitalism, which deprived huge portions of the population of the security they had known under the Soviet state, where employment and affordable housing were guaranteed. At the same time, a happy few were able to enrich themselves through the privatization of state assets, while others were able to adapt to the lawless capitalism of the time, producing a generation of “new Russians” and an elite group of oligarchs, laying the foundations for what some have branded a kleptocracy (see Dawisha, 2014). In the words of one of Alexievich’s interviewees: “They wanted freedom, and what did they get? Yelstyn’s gangster revolution…” (42).
This is the backdrop to Yevgeniy Fiks’s art piece Soviet Union, July 1991, which stages semi-fictitious encounters between US gay activists and Russian queers, based on the actual International Gay and Lesbian Symposium that took place in Moscow and Leningrad in 1991. Fiks’s project offers a unique perspective on that momentous year. In Secondhand Time, Alexievich includes a section entitled “From Interviews on Red Square in December 1991,” that is, after the putsch, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of dissolution. Fiks’s conversations, on the other hand, take place one month before the putsch, a time of endless possibility and utopian fantasy. (Note, Alexievich does not interview any queer individuals for her documentary novel, and homosexuality is only mentioned three times, in passing.) At the same time, Fiks’s semi-fictitious encounter is marked by cross-purposes and mistranslations. In fact, an exasperated translator appears toward the end, exclaiming: “I cannot translate this into Russian. I don’t know how to translate it into Russian. It’s untranslatable.” This follows a short monologue by Harry Hay, which ends with: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”—one of the most widely translated statements by Karl Marx, as Hay himself points out to the translator.
This cross-cultural encounter is further complicated by the fact that neither the Russians nor the Americans are presented as a homogenous group. The former includes RUSSIAN RADICAL GAY, MODERATE RUSSIAN GOLUBOI, DEPUTY LENSOVETA DROZDOV, MODERATE SOVIET GOLUBOI, EVERYDAY RUSSIAN, RADICAL SOVIET GAY, MODERATE SOVIET GAY, while the latter consists of AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY, AMERICAN LEFTY GAY, and Harry Hay. Each brings their own aspirations and interpretations to this historical moment. Incidentally, the Russian word goluboi, meaning ‘light blue’, has long been slang in Russian for gay. It is believed to be derived from the French phrase “l’amour bleu.” By the late 1990s, however, the term was considered old-fashioned, quaint-sounding, and had been largely replaced by gei, the borrowed English term.
The unresolvable diversity of Fiks’s characters reflects the discursive cacophony of late Soviet and early post-Soviet Russia, when the lifting of censorship restrictions resulted in the publication of works from Russia’s pre-Revolutionary past as well as translations of western works that had could not have been translated during the Soviet period. For example, a facsimile of the 1913 edition of Vasilii Rozanov’s treatise on homosexuality, People of the Moonlight: The Metaphysics of Christianity, was published in 1990 in a circulation of 200,000, but without any commentary that might explain or historicize his concept of “spiritual homosexuals” for a contemporary audience. The Russian translation of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room appeared in 1993, after circulating for two decades in samizdat. And in 1998, the first Russian translation of Love and Orgasm (1965), by US psychiatrist Alexander Lowen, was published in a series titled Classics of Foreign Psychiatry, again, with no introduction that might critically examine Lowen’s view that gays were emotionally and physically crippled. As Lowen writes: “Despite the protestations of some confirmed homosexuals that homosexuality is a ‘normal’ way of life, the average invert is aware that his propensity amounts to an emotional illness’” (Lowen 1965, 61). And so, when in the late 1990s Russian psychologists began to turn their attention to the topic of sex and sexuality, hoping to get a piece of the exploding market in self-help books, virtually all discussions of homosexuality were directed at heterosexuals: how to protect themselves and their children from being seduced. Not surprisingly, then, the first crop of indigenous Russian “gay” literature tended to be tragedies (see Baer 2009).
That being said, the 1990s was also a time of possibility for Russian queers. As one of Alexievich’s interviewees reminisced: “You could be anyone you like: a broker, a hitman, gay… Ah, the nineties!” (341). The social and political chaos of those years allowed for the emergence of a fairly vibrant gay subculture—at least in Russia’s major cities—which included gay clubs and assorted gay publications, among them the first Russian anthology of gay fiction Love without Borders. Edited by V. N. Dumenkov (a pseudonym), this 1997 collection placed Russian writers, such as Mikhail Kuzmin and Evgenii Kharitonov, alongside classic authors of global gay literature: Plato, Michelangelo, Wilde and Proust. While the self-published volume was available for purchase in a few small, independent bookstores in St. Petersburg, it was sold mostly from the trunk of Dumenkov’s car. The following year saw the publication of The Other Petersburg, by Kostya Rotikov (a pseudonym for Iurii Piriutko), which recounted the “gay” history of the imperial capital in a wonderfully campy style, placing urban folklore alongside historical evidence that had been left out of official Soviet histories. Unlike Dumenkov’s anthology, Rotikov’s gay guide to St. Petersburg was published in an attractive hard cover edition and was reviewed by such luminaries of post-Soviet literature as Tatyana Tolstaya. The gay cruising grounds established in the Soviet period, and before, discussed by Rotikov, continued to exist, although they were now periodically policed by groups of vigilantes, leading some older Russian gays to lament the loss of sexual freedom brought about by the unprecedented visibility of gays and lesbians. Indeed, the visibility of homosexuality in the post-Soviet mass media of the nineties made homosexuality into a symbol of the economic, social, and political chaos of the Yelstin years. As another of Alexievich’s interviewees remarks: “I’ve had it up to here with the Jews, the Chekists, and the homosexuals…” (298).
Harry Hay (1912-2002) is the only character in Fiks’s piece with a proper name. This is certainly no coincidence. Hay functions as a kind of queer linchpin between the two groups. Hay was an American communist and labor organizer before becoming a gay activist. He was a founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950. Rejecting an assimilationist approach, Hay left the Mattachine Society in 1953 and founded the separatist Radical Faeries in 1979. Hay’s communist roots certainly informed his gay activism, making him somewhat inscrutable to Fiks’s Russians. Many queers in the Soviet Union of 1991 looked eagerly to the end of communist rule, hoping it would bring about the separation of the public and private spheres, which had been so violently and arbitrarily violated by the Soviets since the 1930s. As anthropologist Lev Klein wrote in the foreword to his monumental study of homosexuality, The Other Love: “Already in my previous book [The Upside Down World], I put forward the view that no self-respecting government should peer through the keyhole into my bedroom or examine the behinds of my guests (which was done). […] The question of my sexual proclivities, even from the point of view of the Soviet state, is my deeply personal business” (2000, 15-16). (In the early 1980s, Klein had been imprisoned on Article 121; in 1991, under the pseudonym L. Samoilov, he published a prison memoir titled Upside Down World about that experience; in the memoir he suggests that his arrest was politically motivated.)
In the preface to the 1997 Russian translation of the memoir of the East German transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Alexander Shatalov insisted that all von Mahlsdorf wanted was to lead “‘an ordinary life, with its everyday cares, and occasional joys. Just an ordinary life,” and that her transvestism was not a quest for attention, but rather “a search for inner harmony” (Shatalov 1997, 6; 5). The subtitle of the English translation, which framed von Mahlsdorf as an outlaw (“The Outlaw Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berlin’s Most Famous Transvestite”), was slightly but significantly adjusted in the Russian edition: “The Secret Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berlin’s Most Famous Transvestite.”
Expectations in 1991 were also running high, if not higher, outside of Russia, where the West was quick to declare victory in the Cold War, a victory that marked nothing less than “the end of history” (Fukayama 1992).
However, when the so-called transition appeared to run aground in the late 1990s, as signaled by the rise of illiberal regimes and struggling economies across Eastern Europe, western politicians and pundits were quick to blame the Russians and Eastern Europeans. For example, in the mid-1990s, von Mahlsdorf’s Stasi file was released, suggesting she had provided information to the secret police; and so, when American playwright Doug Wright produced a play based on von Mahlsdorf’s experience as an out transvestite in communist East Germany, he titled it: I Am My Own Wife, reframing her from a powerful non-conformist (I Am My Own Woman) to a riddle. (The title of the memoir would be changed accordingly in the wake of the success of Wright’s play.) Only a decade before, a generation of western travelers had described late Soviet and early post-Soviet Russia as a queer utopia, a place of sexual fluidity and play, unconstrained by the rigid categories of identitarian politics (see Baer 2004). As Fiks’s AMERICAN LEFTY GAY puts it: “I feel freer in Leningrad and Moscow.” By the end of the nineties, however, many westerners lamented what they saw as the failure of the Russian gay rights movement, which the NY Times journalist Elizabeth Wolfe declared officially dead in 2001 in an article titled “Gays Gather Quietly, Out of the Political Spotlight.” This was also a time when Eastern Europeans were coming to occupy an increasingly prominent place in the international gay pornography trade. That dual interest in the fate of Russian queers is expressed by Fiks’s AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY: “I’m a historian. A queer historian. A gay historian. I’m here to record history. To write history and record history so that people 200 years from now will know what it meant to be a gay person in the late 20th century on planet Earth. But I’m also filming Russian boys’ butts.”
Following mass political demonstrations against the rigged 2011 elections, which gave Putin a third term in office, the Russian president instrumentalized homophobia in a campaign to promote “traditional family values,” casting gays as pedophiles. (Incidentally, homosexuality is often referred to in Russia as netraditsionnaia liubov’, or non-traditional love.) The federal law banning homosexual propaganda was passed in 2013, aimed specifically at protecting Russian children. The tables were now turned, with Russian gays and lesbians confined to the private realm, a place they had once imagined as an escape from state oppression. This liberal dream gone bad was the subject of Alina Rudnitskaya’s 2016 documentary film Victory Day, which features interviews with a series of gay and lesbian couples in their cozy apartments while tanks are lining up on the streets of St. Petersburg in preparation for the massive public celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. In one scene, a woman who has lost her job because of her sexual orientation performs a song she’d written, with the refrain: “Ia molchu,” I am silent. She does so in the confines of her living room to her partner and son, begging the question: Does a song sung in private make a sound? What had been seen as a utopian refuge less than two decades before—a single (as opposed to communal) apartment filled with creature comforts and a same-sex partner—was now a kind of prison, policed by vigilantes. Indeed, one of the interviewees expresses the fear that his partner will be assaulted every time he enters or exits their apartment building. Over the course of the film, the celebratory Victory Day tanks come to symbolize the militarized, nationalistic, and heterosexual public sphere of Putin-era Russia.
A few years later, the liberation of western queers suddenly appeared precarious. The shocking repeal in the US of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed the right to abortion to American women, has left the legality of gay marriage in question—both were grounded in the same legal argument, namely, that the “constitutional right of privacy, which [the Court] found to be implicit in the liberty guarantee of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (‘…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’)” (Britannica 2022, online). Recent bathroom laws, requiring trans students to use the bathroom that aligns with their “biological” birth gender, and “Don’t say gay” laws, restricting discussion of homosexuality in schools, enforce a separation of the public and the private realms in a different way, by erasing queers and queerness from the public square.
While queers in Russia and abroad continue to misrecognize one another, as they do in Fiks’s Soviet Union, July 1991, the opponents of LGBTQ+ rights have in recent years found a common language. US conservatives advised Russian politicians as they were crafting the law banning gay propaganda, and Putin’s instrumentalization of homophobia has become an aspirational ideal for many on the American right, especially those associated with the World Congress of Families, “a project of the former Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (now the International Organization for the Family)”, which serves as an umbrella for a massive network of interconnected organizations, all pushing for restrictions to LGBTQ+ rights under the guise of the defense of the “natural family” — defined as “heterosexual married couples with their biological children.” (SPLC website 2022). The strategy represents a cynical abuse of majoritarian rule, in which the majority—be it Nixon’s silent majority or Reagan’s moral majority—are driven to the polls not in support of economic or social policy but to protect the primacy of heterosexuality (and whiteness). Such majoritarian rule works by conflating the statistical norm with the natural, an extremely simple but effective sleight of hand.
The conservative legal assault on queer people’s rights reflects the global rise of illiberal regimes. And so, when Fiks’s characters, set in 1991, mention the 2013 law banning homosexual propaganda alongside Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code, this anachronism suggests not only that history repeats itself, undercutting any attempt to write a feel-good history of the gay rights movement as one of constant progress, but that no repetition will be the same as the original iteration. The fact that the Russian law banning homosexual propaganda (as well as the US “Don’t say gay” legislation) focuses on public speech rather than on homosexuality itself appears quite deliberate. This serves to distinguish illiberalism from totalitarianism, a distinction lost on many liberals but extremely important for conservatives as it allows them to preserve their version of history as the struggle of freedom against tyranny—illiberalism is often construed as protecting the rights of the majority. In addition, by criminalizing public discourse, not private acts, the illiberal capitalist state can continue to protect the home as a private sanctuary of material accumulation while protecting the public sphere as a site of majoritarian (white, heteronormative) expression. And for those who are perplexed by the very vocal support among US conservatives for Vladimir Putin (not to mention the standing ovation they gave to proudly illiberal Hungarian president Victor Orban at the CPAC convention in Texas this August), it is disarmingly simple: they see Putin as the savior of white heterosexuality. I’m not sure anyone saw that coming in July of 1991.
These contemporary developments lend an air of quaintness to Fiks’s Soviet Union, July 1991 for, although the conversation recorded may be marked by mistranslations and misconstruals, there is queer speech on Red Square. And there are no police officers or vigilantes threatening the queer activists. In fact, Fiks includes DEPUTY LENSOVETA DROZDOV (in the uniform of a Soviet Komsomol apparatchik), who exclaims: “I’m a Peoples’ Deputy of the Lensovet. The new democratic government representatives of the new Russia support gay and lesbian rights. That is why I’m here. This is not a utopia—this is the New Russia.”
- Alexievich, Svetlana. 2017. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, trans. by Bela Shayevich. New York: Random House.
- Baer, Brian James. 2002. “Russian Gays/Western Gaze: Mapping (Homo)Sexual Desire in Post-Soviet Russia.” GLQ 8.4: 499-520.
- Dawisha, Karen. 2014. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Dumenkov, V. N. (ed.). 1997. Liubov’ bez granits. Antologiia shedevrov mirovoi literatury [Love without borders. An anthology of masterpieces of world literature]. St. Petersburg: KET.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Roe v. Wade”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Aug. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Roe-v-Wade. Accessed 3 September 2022.
- Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York and London: Penguin Books.
- Klein, Lev. 2000. Drugaia liubov’ [The Other Love]. Saint Petersburg: Folio Press.
- Lowen, Alexander. 1965. Love and Orgasm. New York and London: Macmillan.
- Shatalov, Aleksandr. 1997. Introduction. In Ia sam sebe zhena. Tainaia zhizn’ Sharlotty fon Mal’sdorf, samogo izvestnogo berlinskogo transvestite [I Am My Own Wife. The Secret Life of Berlin’s Most Famous Tranvestite], by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, 5-6. Moscow: Glagol.
- Shevelev, Mikhail. 2022. Not Russian, trans. by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. New York: Europa Editions.
- Wolfe, Elizabeth. “Gays Gather Quietly, Out of the Political Spotlight.” Moscow Times (27 March 2001): 10.