In July 1991, a group of over sixty Western gay rights activists, the majority of whom came from the US, arrived in Moscow and Leningrad for the first-ever International Gay and Lesbian Symposium and Film Festival in the history of Russia. Among the activists was the 79-year-old Harry Hay, who had left the Communist Party USA in the 1950s to fund the Mattachine Society, one of the first Gay and Lesbian rights groups in the USA. The symposium coincided with President George Bush’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow just a few months before the fall of the Soviet Union. Article 121 of Soviet Criminal Code that criminalized male homosexuality for up to five years in prison remained law at the time. This event was branded as “Russian Stonewall” and the “July Revolution.”
The world of Moscow and Leningrad of July 1991, including its gay and lesbian world, present a dreamy utopia of openness and endless possibilities. It includes peaceful gay rights protests in front of the Bolshoi Theater and State Duma in Moscow for the repeal of Article 121 and speeches by then-Soviet politicians to its gay and lesbian audience. July 1991 is the testimony of the hope the LGBT community carried as a class represented in the imagined future of Russia and manifests an uncertain yet truly revolutionary moment of liberation, which seems to have been completely lost by now, 30 years later.
The following is a conceptual art piece based on the actual speeches that were given during that event in 1991. The author, painter Yevgeniy Fiks, changed, extended, exaggerated, and reimagined the speeches of 1991 in this text-based piece that combines fact and fiction. Yevgeniy Fiks’s “Soviet Union, July 1991” is a contemplation of the final days of the Soviet Union, the dawn of gay activism in late-Soviet space, and the historical (dis)junctions between Communism and gay rights.
The piece is accompanied by paintings from Fiks’ series with the same title. Brian Baer, Professor of Russian and Translations Studies at Kent State University in Ohio, has written an accompanying essay on the historical events that provide the background for Fiks’ script, which we are publishing alongside Fiks’ text at V/A. You can read it here.
REPEAL ARTICLE 121… AND PRIVATIZE!
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY I’m Tom. I’m not filming this video for commercial purposes. It’s just for me and history. 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. Oh, documenting history is rough! We didn’t come here as tourists—we came as emissaries. We are going to show Russian gays who we are. We are American imperialists and exceptionalists, and we are not ashamed. There is gay activism even in Africa and in Liberia now. I’m telling you this so that you understand how global our struggle is. Every time a gay or a lesbian suffers, we all suffer. While President Bush is signing a treaty with General Secretary Gorbachev, we are signing a treaty with Russian Gays and Lesbians. Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LEFTY LESBIAN (in a Georgiy Pobedonosetz T-shirt) I met with the first openly gay Soviet person, Roman Kalinin, who is with us here now, in 1990 while I was organizing a press conference for him in the US. Also with us now is Arkadiy, a Russian political prisoner under Article 121, who was only recently released from prison, and the pioneer of American gay activism comrade Harry Hay. (applauds) We are here during Gorbachev’s meetings with Bush. But does Gorbachev need the gay problem? Does Russia need more problems? Don’t they have enough problems already? The Russians are very poor. A typical Russian earns $20 a month. My fellow countrymen, don’t show your wealth here, don’t flash 100-dollar bills around in front of Russians. Don’t be ugly Americans. (On the screen/props show the exchange rate of rubles to dollars for July 1991). Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY I love that taxis are so cheap here. And you can use your credit card in any store that accepts dollars. In the 1960s, when our movement started, it was a time of great upheavals in the US. You Russians are experiencing the same thing now. You have a historical opportunity now. We had Stonewall. Maybe the same thing is happening here in Leningrad today. Repeal Article 121!
RUSSIAN RADICAL GAY Yes, we will have more success here because we have a theoretical basis in Marxism and national/ethnic minorities discourse. We must make a new Revolution in Leningrad to win our peoples’ rights. We Russians are in a better position now than you Americans were in the 1960s. Because we can ask you for help now, and you didn’t have anybody when you had the Stonewall rebellion. I think this process in our country will develop much quicker than it did in your country. Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY What about sexual behavior in Russia—I see two construction workers hugging on the street all the time, all of them do—are they openly gay or is this a country of fearless idiots who haven’t gotten the homophobia memo yet? And what about gay basher thugs? Is there a way to tell if some guy is sexually interested in you without being misled? Also, I noticed that average Russians don’t react badly at all to pink triangle signs and rainbow flags—is this because they simply don’t know what it is or because they are so open minded? Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LEFTY LESBIAN This country and economy is in chaos. We Americans are easy targets here. I’m more concerned about economic crime such as mugging than I am about gay bashing. Also, stop exoticizing Russian gays, you’re not here for sex tourism. Be on your best behavior. You’re supposed to represent the best of America here, the best of gay and lesbian America. Also, don’t drink water from the faucet directly, boil it first. Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY They say that there are US and Soviet government representatives among us here, undercover—from the CIA, KGB—there are informants among us, I’m sure. So be mindful of that. Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LEFTY LESBIAN Signs are different here. If someone stares at you it doesn’t mean you’re being cruised. The American sexual/gender norms aren’t applicable here. There is no such thing as gay and lesbian identity, no one in the whole country except for Roman Kalinin self-identifies publicly as gay, and this is already 1991. Don’t look down on Russian gays and lesbians who are all in the closet. Those of us who are out in the US risk our lives every day. For Soviets it’s 100 times more dangerous. We have no right to tell them what to do and how to live their lives. How Soviet gays will construct their identity is only for them to know. There are things that are culturally appropriate and things that are culturally inappropriate. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Russians will invite you to their home for dinner and will spend their last penny on food and drinks. Force yourself to eat if you’re at someone’s home, even if you aren’t hungry. They’ll be offended if you don’t. Let’s be culturally sensitive and still do the Gay thing. When you’re in Roman Kalinin’s city, Moscow, do as Roman does, so to say, ha ha! Repeal Article 121!
HARRY HAY But there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong. Are gays in Russia more tolerant? Is there racism and anti-Semitism among Russian gays? Repeal Article 121! And workers of the world, unite!
AMERICAN LEFTY LESBIAN Russian gays and lesbians still don’t see similarities in forms of oppression; only the most sophisticated ones do. If you hear racism and antisemitism, stop it. If you hear homophobia, stop it. Solidarity with the oppressed! Repeal Article 121!
MODERATE RUSSIAN GOLUBOI We should accept the traditional values of Russia, but we must repeal Article 121 and the Gay Propaganda Law!
AMERICAN LEFTY GAY Why do we tell Russian activists that capitalism is the answer? (Quick slide show of images or logos of all gay companies/bars/clubs/magazines that opened in Russia post-1991). This is American imperialism pure and simple, taking advantage of the impoverished segment of our community here in Russia. We are diverse. American gay and lesbian activists are diverse even among ourselves. Some are left wing, some are right wing. We are scared for the Russians after we leave, but social change doesn’t happen without risks. I don’t think it’s that dangerous to be gay here. We can’t be responsible for what happens after we leave. We are guests at a critical juncture in the life of this country. Let’s not be patronizing Americans and tell Russians what they should do—if they want to come out, fine. If not, that’s fine too. We must support their decision. If you see Capitalism approaching to mug you, blow this whistle! (Everyone blows the self-defense whistle). Repeal Article 121!
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY Yes, we are agents of American Imperialism, but we still share a common struggle with the Russians! However, we Americans have the right to talk about our problems and struggles. Politics is something very stigmatized in Russia now, associated with the Communist regime. People resist political organizing. People are not interested in demonstrating and creating a political agenda. Even Soviet homosexualists in high positions are against gay liberation. Russia is a backward country. What’s happening to Russian gays now and what people say about gays is the same as in the US before the 1950s – that’s what my mother would have thought and said in the 1950s. There’s a 40-year gap. The issue is a developmental delay in Russia. Repeal Article 121! Repeal the Gay Propaganda Law!
DEPUTY LENSOVETA DROZDOV (in the uniform of a Soviet Komsomol apparatchik) I’m a Peoples’ Deputy of the Lensovet. I’m not the only one representing the Leningrad Soviet here—there are other representatives of the Lensovet in this very hall. 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. Repeal Article 121!
RADICAL RUSSIAN GAY Ladies and Gentlemen, and those comrades who may have ended up here by accident! Our country has only recently extracted itself from the stinking swamp of dictatorship. 70 years ago, communist dictators illegally seized power in our country and continue to hold it without elections. The blood of heterosexuals and homosexuals are on the hands of the communists. These Americans came here to help us. They’re the mothers and fathers of the Russian gay movement. The plight of Russian gays and lesbians is akin to the plight of Russia’s ethnic minorities. Give the right of self-expression to the ethnic and sexual minorities of the New Russia! Also, we must make money because if you don’t have money, you don’t have power. (Quick slide show of images or logos of all gay companies/bars/clubs/magazines/businesses that opened in Russia post-1991). We have communist and pro-democratic movements in our country. Gay men and lesbians must find their place in that world. Even communist politicians begin to flirt with us. You Americans have infected us with a desire to be free. People remember the October Revolution. We will remember our July Revolution. Our message to Mikhail Gorbachev “Repeal article 121 now! Our message to Vladimir Putin!” “Repeal the Gay Propaganda Law now!”
MODERATE SOVIET GOLUBOI Thanks to forward-thinking Soviet lawyers, scientists, artists, and our friends from abroad, there is already a governmental plan in place to repeal Article 121 in the Soviet Union. It’s not publicly announced yet, but it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon. It’s going to happen because of them, not because of us Soviet gays. Sadly, we Soviet gays weren’t instrumental in that process; our fate is not being decided by us. The tradition of Soviet gays that goes back as far as 1933 is simple—all we want is to meet other gays quietly and not to attract too much attention, and if caught, not to go to prison. That’s our tradition. That’s why I’m categorically against Roman Kalinin’s slogan “Let’s turn the Red Square into a Pink Triangle.” The Red Square is not a communist symbol, it’s not a symbol of repression against gays or the Soviet people in general. It’s the symbol of Russia, of our great history. Let’s not weaponize Gay rights as an instrument of Russophobia. That’s why I’m speaking categorically against a gay rights demonstration on Red Square. What’s helpful in California is not necessarily helpful in Moscow or Teheran. What we moderate Soviet golubye are asking for is a moratorium on the application of Article 121 until the adoption of the new Criminal Code of the New Russia! And we ask the State to grant immediate amnesty to all those convicted and currently incarcerated under Article 121! There is a criminal case for sodomy that is being decided twenty minutes away from here, as we speak! A moratorium on Article 121 now! A moratorium on the Gay Propaganda Law now!
HIV AIDS IN RUSSIA
AMERICAN LEFTY GAY I’m an American. My grandparents came to America from Russia because of the pogroms. If my grandparents had not left Russia, I would not be alive now. I’m an HIV positive American now. I choose to tell you here in Moscow that I’m HIV positive because I feel freer to come out as HIV positive here as opposed to back home in the US, where it is still a taboo. I feel freer in Leningrad and Moscow. I’m also very disappointed that many of my fellow American gay activists present here, including HIV positive ones, are having unprotected sex with Soviets, without revealing their status to their Russian partners. Shame on you, you are not here for sex tourism.
RADICAL AMERICAN GAY This is Harry Hay, the founder of the gay movement in the Soviet Union. Oh, I’m sorry I meant in the United States! (Freudian slip)
HARRY HAY First of all, let me say that I’m hopelessly sad when I look at this workers’ state and realize what a shoddy piece of work it is. It’s not a workers’ paradise. It’s even less a gays’ paradise. I’m just shocked at what I see and shocked to think of people having to live in such intellectual and mental shambles for 70 years. However, the gay movement in the US came from the Left and from the working class because the middle and the upper classes haven’t created or discovered anything. I was a Marxist teacher in Los Angeles and a member of the American Communist Party in the 1940s. One day I had a revelation that American gays are a repressed minority culture, just like African Americans or Jews. That’s how the gay movement was born in the US. We gays must be careful now when we align ourselves with any political parties, because parties have always sold out gays when they no longer need our support. Also, traditional Marxists weren’t interested in private lives, only in production, but this is changing now. My statement on gay and lesbian rights today is simple: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
TRANSLATOR I cannot translate this into Russian. I don’t know how to translate it into Russian. It’s untranslatable.
HARRY HAY What do you mean? I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to translate this—it comes from your Soviet books—it was a direct translation into English!
PRISON & YURIY DOLGORUKIY & THE BOLSHOY THEATER
EVERYDAY RUSSIAN WOMAN This conference is “A Feast in a Time of Plague” for you Americans. This is exotica for you. Eto khoroshaya ekzotika.
AMERICAN LIBERAL GAY Where should we have a demonstration in the city? In front of the City Council or Red Square or in front of the Bolshoi where gays cruise to reclaim the space? Should we do it openly or clandestinely?
RADICAL SOVIET GAY Let’s dress the Karl Marx monument on Revolution Square in drag!
MODERATE SOVIET GAY I’m not comfortable with that. I think it’s too offensive. It’s culturally inappropriate. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
AMERICAN LEFTY GAY Maybe there’s no homophobia here yet, but Russian gays are in prison for being gay. This is a Soviet prison. I’m about to see gays and lesbians. Here’s the building where the gays are kept. Paragraph 121. Sexual deviation. The first floor of this building. We are here to tell President Michael Gorbachev (and Vladimir Putin) today. We take our message to Presidents Gorbachev and Putin: Repeal Article 121, repeal the Gay Propaganda Law. 10% of Russian children will be gay and lesbian, and they are NOT going to live under Paragraph 121 or the Gay Propaganda Law.