ALEX KARSAVIN and MARA ISKANDER
In seminal gay Russian writer Yevgeny Kharitonov’s “One Is Like This, Another Is Different,” nameless young men play with and are played by a charade of identities, worn and sloughed off in between sentences. A well-off straight man is forcibly evicted by a member of the working class, each assuming the other’s vestments and accompanying material benefits. One of these men, using the network of his new identity, attempts to fulfill a long-held sexual fantasy with a pop idol. The two men who do end up in bed with each other are so unmoored by this game of heterosexual pretense that they’re unable to have sex, their sexuality thwarted both in speech and in action. Featured in Kharitonov’s posthumous Under House Arrest, this story adeptly captures the tone of ’70s Petersburg’s queer underground. Following the misadventures of gay Russian men as they navigate the city’s chaotic cruising scene, Under House Arrest links romantic success to their ability to master an argot of misdirection and double entendre, a conspiratorial language that has its limits.
In the story “How I Became Like This,” the narrator necessarily claims “that of course he prefers it with women,” while sleeping exclusively with men. By not risking a direct reveal, these story protagonists’ mutual recognition as queer hinges on their ability to recognize each other’s performance as performance. Recognition between queer subjects finds itself here deeply rooted in heteronormative mimicry, symptomatizing political reality. Queerness, when denied visibility, presents itself less as an identity and more as a subversive act, contingent on the language of the dominant order. Yet the protagonists in “One Is Like This, Another Is Different” are ultimately unable to fulfill that act. Kharitonov would go on to obliquely lament this shadowy half-life queers experienced, proclaiming, “We are fruitless fatal flowers . . .” Protesting their inability to live visibly and form their own organizations and vernacular, Kharitonov’s book depicts a time in which queer subjection is under house arrest, along with its language.
In more recent times, the Head of the Chechen Republic (a federal subject of Russia), Ramzan Kadyrov, has said, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” while concurrently waging a campaign of abduction and torture against supposedly nonexistent gay or bisexual men. While this may read as a cruel act of erasure by Kadyrov, it is an accurate description of a certain strain of queer subjectivity in the present day. The roots of this invisibility can be found in the Soviet era, where in order to avoid arrest, homosexuality was less an identity than an activity of contingent relation.
The stealthy slang of the time referred to homosexuals as being “one of ours,” “on theme,” or simply “blue.” While “theme” and “one of ours” alluded to identity/performance in a plain way, “blue” referred to an imagined link between blue-blooded nobility and homosexuality in Czarist Russia. Perestroika led to an emergence of queer subjectivity into the public sphere, but to what or whom would these queer subjects answer when hailed? The temporary answer was “sexual minorities,” as queer Russians felt that the Western labels “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” at best ossified the fluid nature of Soviet homosexuality, and at worst represented a sort of importation of Western ideology. Only in the past ten years has the vernacular shifted to “queer,” a term which seems to better match the Russian experience of minority sexuality. However, to turn around in Russia and ecstatically embrace your subjectivity as queer is to sign a virtual death warrant.
How does queer literature adapt to this political situation? Kharitonov argued that for the autocratic Soviet Union, an increase in queer visibility was impermissible because the active presence of gay men and women in day-to-day life would threaten to undermine a state-coiffed vision of a collective Soviet homogeneity.
Today, the administration has realized that visibility is not threatening, that it is useful to have enemies in clear sight, and that this bolsters a nationalist project. How does queer literature navigate itself away from its current neoliberal strivings for passive acceptance toward a more radical goal of a mobilized revolutionary queer subject? If queer literature is to establish itself in Putin’s Russia, it will have to embrace its insurrectionary potential. It cannot hope to do so under the employ of a literary language that hides itself within the dominant order—if it is to survive, it must attempt to transform it.
Part of the antigay message touted by the Kremlin today is a Frankenstein rehash of Soviet origins: that the queer body is one of foreign contaminants. In the 1930s, socialist-realist writer Maxim Gorky pronounced in an open letter, “Destroy the homosexuals — Fascism will disappear,” providing an ideological basis for the recriminalization of marginalized sexualities on the grounds of national security after the early Soviet Union’s decriminalization of homosexuality. Often referred to in Stalin’s times as the “foreign illness,” Soviet medical handbooks routinely pathologized homosexuality as something predominantly exclusive to capitalist societies. This linking of queer identity to foreign incursion continued well into the Cold War, when the United States reprised Germany’s role as ideological bogeyman. Since 2012’s mass protests around Vladimir Putin’s reelection, the state has attempted to consolidate power by embarking on a widespread media campaign that portrays the growing demand for LGBTQ rights as a Western incursion into Russian sovereignty. The state, by linking queerness with the specter of Western invasion and pedophilia in official and unofficial rhetoric, indirectly sparked a wave of targeted violence, labeled as “patriotic reprisals,” against LBGTQ minorities, including Kadyrov’s campaign in the Chechen Republic.
Weathering this history of persecution and repression, queer life engaged in a small but buoyant literary scene revolving around St. Petersburg. In the late 1980s, queerness started to emerge from the underground in the form of small, short-lived journals such as Theme. By 1993, the first queer-aligned publishing house, Argo Risk, had been established by the scene’s forerunner Dmitry Kuzmin, providing important publishing infrastructure. The first exclusively queer periodical, RISK, also edited by Kuzmin, was published in ’95, followed shortly, in ’97, by Kolonna Publications’ “Thematic” series. The writing in these journals was lush and pointedly apolitical, marked by lively formal experimentation and depiction of queer life as the underground quotidian, with features inherited from forebears like Mikhail Kuzmin, Gennady Trifonov, and Yevgeny Kharitonov. Kuzmin describes the work from this period as either veering into stark escapism or contenting itself with lip service to a decadent queer past in the process of being re-excavated. Some writers hoped to reignite a common theme with their queer forebears and chose to “play dainty games with antiquity,” a throwback to the Silver Age of poetry. In doing so, they hoped to create a parallel queer reality away from the mainstream. What they had more importantly created was an alternative to the state-owned presses. Kuzmin’s Argo, RISK, and Vavilon Series quickly established themselves at the forefront of Russia’s alt-literary scene, creating an outlet for Russia’s underserved intelligentsia.
The exception to the obsessive formalism of the scene in the ’90s was the revolutionary subject found in the poems of Yaroslav Mogutin. Politically aggressive, tonally orgiastic, and militantly queer, his corpus stood in stark contrast to the resigned queer poetry coming out of RISK. Where Mogutin differed was in his commitment to opposition, but what he shared with the rest of his contemporaries was a focus on the individual, and what he illustrated in his work was the ease with which the oppositional nature of underground sexual-minority activities could be co-opted into a protofascist nationalist project. By limiting his imagination to the nation, Mogutin recast queerness as just a facet of his ethno-nationalist identity politics (he claims to be ethnically Norwegian in interviews now). We can see similarities to the case of Eduard Limonov, poet turned nationalist opposition leader, who engaged in one well-documented homosexual encounter just to see what it was like, in order to emerge with his masculinity intact. Operating at the level of national identity has its limits, especially when state power can easily determine the winner between competing discourses, since national identity is written by the party with the guns. In this case, the state decided that the limits of Russian identity stop at “sexual minorities,” and it certainly does have more guns than a few exiles.
Wary of his contemporaries’ growing alignment with nationalism and proclaiming that literature no longer has revolutionary potential “in the era of multimedia entertainment,” Kuzmin dedicated himself wholesale to creating a project of Russian literature exorcised of the specter of politics. He passionately advocated for a queer literature that exists mainly for the sake of the queer subject, its main gaze directed towards a more tolerant future audience, one that he reminded us is destined to be “inevitably queer.” Kuzmin subscribed to the old Joseph Brodsky maxim that an author’s only sense of patriotism is to language itself—so-called higher literature exists outside the purview of politics. In our correspondence, he proposed that the goal of queer literature was to “search and witness everything that’s going on and preserve the results for the future,” thus posing the literature he promotes as an archive of queer memory. The question remains, however—a queer memory of what, of where? Ironically, Kuzmin’s elision of explicit nationalism has left his project open to co-optation by nationalist projects.
We can find a similar path with famed Russian postmodernist writer Vladimir Sorokin. Despite structurally and aesthetically breaking with Russian literary tradition, Sorokin’s early works were decidedly apolitical—he referred to literature as “pure aesthetics, like pictures or pottery.” As a writer, he gained awards and other accolades, receiving press as a vibrant example of Russianliterature, eventually being referred to by a contemporary as a “plaything of the mass media,” a tool of the nationalist project, saying, Look, Russian writing is good now, too! His first overtly political work, Day of the Oprichnik—a science-fiction satire of traditionalist Moscow in 2028—was translated into English in 2010, and while a New York Times interviewer suggested that at that time in his career, Sorokin believed political change was possible, his actual quotes were more depressing. “What is happening now is not stagnation, it is destruction, it is collapse. It’s a form of the collapse of a state. And you know—how can you affect that?”
Kuzmin’s detractors argue his stance is symptomatic of the mindset that had enveloped the Russian liberal intelligentsia en masse during the late Soviet era. Seminal poet of the radical Left Kirill Medvedev characterizes this worldview as one in which the subject self-described as “victim and a minority” claims to be “crushed beneath an impersonal ideological mass.” The literature of the ’90s and ’00s, in Medvedev’s view, “inherited from Soviet underground poetry the impulse for subjective self-expression when presented with repressive circumstance.” The poet is stuck “detailing his own emotions and constructing the image of himself in parallel with that of new Russian capitalism.” Creative self-determination might have been the only tool available to a writer in the Soviet era, but continuing to claim the same thing post-1989, Medvedev argues, is a lot more tenuous. Neither mainstream ethno-nationalist fervor nor Kuzmin’s quietism are directions he would like poetry to articulate itself toward.
To leftist poets like Medvedev, and a newer generation of queer poets like Galina Rymbu, Dmitry Gerchikov, Lolita Agamalova, and Oksana Vasyakina, this new direction should also have its roots in Russia’s past. Not the past of an ethno-nationalist heritage mined by both the ruling United Russia party and the Communist Party of Russia, but rather its initial commitment to the Left, to socialism. They wish to put forth political poetry in the active tense through both text and activism, arguing that poetic practice should both embody the class struggle and be accessible to those struggling within the working classes. Sometimes this involves recusing oneself from words entirely. In 2003, Medvedev began a five-year self-imposed exile from producing new work, citing his growing disgust with an opportunist literary establishment he holds responsible “for having devalued and cheapened the word” and insisting that words must become acts. The new generation of political poets found a sympathetic home in the journal Translit, founded in 2005 by the poet Pavel Arseniev, and were active in the now infamous 2011–12 protests at Bolotnaya against Putin’s reelection. Arseniev’s contribution to this was convincingly poetic, a banner reading “ВЫ НАС ДАЖЕ НЕ ПРЕДСТАВЛЯЕТЕ.” This simple pun spread through rallies and demonstrations: “You don’t even imagine/represent us.” Though meant for a legislature betraying its citizenry, this is a potential accusation to the state hailing the invisible queer.
Publishing these poets presents its own set of difficulties. A monopoly of centrally approved mainstream presses has effectively barred small and medium-size publishers from national distribution. Confined to their regions, independent publishers (by Kuzmin’s estimates) routinely limit their circulations to under 500, with a select few going up to 2000, to avoid unwanted governmental attention. For a country the size of Russia, this is akin to a gag order. In 2013, Russia’s legislature passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda,” using the familiar rhetoric of protecting children. Following this, major bookstores refrained from carrying queer literature to avoid facing fallout from the state, further limiting distribution to a shrinking list of sympathetic liberal establishments.
With the combination of the gay-propaganda law and the monopoly of state presses to contend with, poets have again taken up the practice of samizdat, referring to the Soviet activity of self-publishing and self-distribution, to avoid the censor. Lesbian poet Oksana Vasyakina describes how she recently resorted to this practice to release a collection of poems titled Wind Rage, dedicated to women who are survivors of violence: “It was apparent to me that no one would be willing to publish these texts otherwise, or if they did, the circulation would be very limited.” In the pre-glasnost Soviet era, samizdat meant small-scale typewritten or carbon-paper copies of works passed through interlocking circles of friends. Today samizdat refers to self-publishing more generally, in the age of easily transmissible PDFs and the laser printer. To Vasyakina, Wind Rage is part of a political project that encompasses a variety of mediums, something that exceeds poetry as declarative record or witness. She sees herself and her fellow poets, such as Galina Rymbu and Dasha Serenko, as exploring “new medias and mediums, to be employed as cultural and political propaganda.” They publish their traditional poesy alongside their activism on the infinite scrolls of social media, manifesting the medium-agnostic nature of poetic practice.
Part of these poets’ shift to a register of activism is born from a particular consideration of their audiences—in Galina Rymbu’s case, the multifaceted working-class milieu to which she addresses herself in phantasmagoric verse. In a recent interview, she explains that, to her mind, “poetry should be a form of public speech and thought, written as if there is someone else present, someone concrete.” As poetry is a public medium, when Rymbu writes, “there is a community around [her], classes of people, even [her] friends.”
This growing tendency to do away with aesthetic autonomy blurs the line separating the poet from those she addresses, creating a living dialogic body. In straight feminist poet Dasha Serenko’s work, her dialogic body is a one-person protest sign displaying, on different days, a poster about sexism, ableism, homophobia, or another concern, held up while she rides the Moscow metro to and from work. Here the dialogue is directly spoken with inquisitive passersby, or by the audience contextualizing the work using the Internet to search and verify her poster’s claims about domestic violence statistics, for example.
The breadth of dialogic work extends to events and camps, like the feminist summer camp that Vasyakina would have attended this August, which was to bring together feminists to discuss poetry and feminism for autistic women, among other topics. The camp was to be held at Krasnodar, a scenic subtropical city in southern Russia overlooking the Kuban River. It never took place, as the campers were confronted by locals and the police and made to leave the city and region.
Three years ago, prompted by a worsening political climate, Kuzmin entered self-imposed exile in Latvia, reasoning that “Russian culture need[ed] bases beyond Russia’s borders.” Perhaps, because his source material was quotidian, his project of preserving Russian queer identity turned out not to require direct engagement with Russian people. Meanwhile, the queer writers remaining in Russia are of the activist sort, and either conversant with or entrenched within the nonnationalist Left. Meanwhile, Pew polling shows that most Russians are satisfied with the way Putin is handling his office, and that Russians believe Russia has increased in international stature. A poll in 2015 found that 21 percent of Russians wanted LGBT people “liquidated,” and 37 percent wanted them “separated from society.” In contrast, 18 percent of Russians were for liquidation in 1994, and 23 percent for isolation.
However briefly it lasted, visibility was a trap, and with these trends, even the sad consolation prize of neoliberal tolerance has been foreclosed as an option. Yet the new, nonnationalist Left is gaining traction. By aligning with them, by writing for them, queer poets can hope to cast their lots with the fate of an increasingly radical proletariat class. Ever since Bolotnaya, the need for this position has grown increasingly clear. By presenting a more populist message, queerness can hope to find common ground in the voicelessness and political invisibility it shares with Russia’s grossly underrepresented working class.
This essay originally appeared in The New Inquiry. Read it here.