Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Counter Homophobia in Russia - a Look into Soviet Past

Evgeny Fiks, a photograph from the Moscow album

[I published this article as "Cruising Past" Photographer Evgenyi Fiks ressurects the Forgotten Gay History in Calvert Journal. Posting it here in slightly longer version for more political and other (like Fiks's other work) details, as the boycott of the Sochi Olympics spreads wide as a result of the horrific kidnapping and persecuting LGBT people in Russia today. What are the reasons of the recent progression of ever draconian laws from Putin? Why is he scapegoating gays? Is Russian society "inherently" necessarily homophobic? Or Maybe it wasn't always so? Also, this piece was published by New Statesman today]

Homophobia was never in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year old Vladislav Tornovoy on 10th of May in Volgograd shook the public, but not enough, it seems. He was raped with a bottle, castrated and stoned. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which “hurts patriotic feelings”. The official authorities had to admit it was a hate crime. This way, after many years of abuse, Russian authorities had to admit there’s a homophobia problem in Russia.

At the same time, a solidarity demonstration planned for May 25th was banned by the St Petersburg authorities. The protesters were still trying to carry out a “one person protest”, which became famous during the winter 2011-2012 protests, after the authorities banned several demonstrations –one person protesting doesn’t require a permission. Still, the people who tried this were arrested one after another. This didn’t happen to the counter demo, whose religious slogans apparently didn’t offend anyone.

This is only one of many sad events in the story of homophobia in post-Soviet Russia. To this you may add the widespread laws “against propaganda of homosexuality”, which started their life in Novosibirsk, but were most notorious in Petersburg, where, among other things, there were attempts to ban Madonna from performing on that basis. The law has just been passed and accepted in the Duma for the whole Russia. As one Russian MP said: “Russia is not Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Yet Russia wasn’t always a homophobic hell. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, together with establishing equal rights for women. The work of the New York-based Russian artist and photographer Evgeny Fiks documents spaces of social dissent and revolution. His inquiry into the soviet story of homosexuality in his latest series of photographs Moscow is a part of the characteristic research of this self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist”, highly identifying with the post-soviet condition, by which he understands a specific duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding this period, focusing especially on the demise of the Left after the fall of communism, both in Russia and America

In here, he inspects spaces where homosexuals could express their sexuality,claiming the public space back for those past histories in order to reclaim homosexuality both from the horrific contemporary homophobia and stigmatization of other kinds of sexuality, just as he distances himself from Soviet, specifically Stalinist times. At first sight, titled just plainly Moscow, it could be just an ordinary photo album of the public places in the capital of Russia. We can see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid classicist architecture of the capital, its greenery, constructivist-classicist constructions and the care of the Soviet authorities to make even the toilets, like those on Nikitsky Gates, beautiful. What emanates from them is peacefulness and silence. But of course, learning that each and one of the locations of the photos were actually the areas of Soviet cruising instantly changes the way we see them. What we may suddenly perceive in them is in the eye of the viewer. Yes, there’s especially a lot of public toilets, and that may make us also see the public facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults, which normally had to go on in hiding, away from the public eye – but paradoxically, are only possible in public. In addition to this, the author ordered the photos according to the time when they were popular, from 1920s to 1980s, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Soviet cruising, at least in one capital city. But what about the post-transitional years? This is exactly the question Fiks makes us ask.

Moscow is a specific “work of mourning”, where pleshkas – Russian name for spaces of cruising become strange “lieux de memoire”, to use Pierre Nora’s idea, by which he meant repositories of collective memory, which also were inspirational in Holocaust studies to describe places of extermination. What’s  also striking is that the places are completely empty, abandoned, what increases the feeling of disappearance and silencing of the victims. And those spaces were dear to many: they acquired an inner slang, in which statues of Lenin and Marx, present in each Russian city, were called affectionately “Auntie Lena” and “Director of Pleshka” both for its familiarity and in an act of queering them. To use Situationist language, gay men were detourning these areas and symbols of revolution, showing there’s no real discrepancy between ideology and what they’re doing.

The current spread of far right feelings in Russia cannot be overlooked as just another effect of the years of communism, but rather the failed transition to capitalism. If homosexuality was banned in Soviet Russia, its anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument – but it wasn’t. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality, because according to the original idea of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state. It was there to revolutionise the citizen, with love understood as a public good. Homosexuality was banned again in the mid-1930s under Stalin – a letter to whom is included in Fiks’ book, protesting the law, written by out homosexual and British communist Harry Whyte. Yet unlike the restrictions Stalin placed on women’s rights, the ban was not repealed under Khrushchev. Homosexuality wasn’t legalized again until 1993. Though unlike Stalin’s laws, homosexuality is not being banned again, in practice this puts it back in the ghetto, encouraging homophobia and hate crime.

There have been several artistic ways protests so far against these limitations on personal freedoms. Pyotr Pavlensky, a 29-year old performer and activist from Petersburg, did a public intervention under the Legislative Assembly, where he lay naked literally folded in barbed wire, so that the policemen who tried to remove him, couldn’t touch him, despite the wire hurting the artist with each move. Recently the popular Russian magazine “Afisha” published an issue with the rainbow LGBT flag on the cover and even for holding it during a demo somebody was arrested.

Homosexuality as a banned, shameful practice that goes on necessarily in hiding has a long history. And in fact some commentators argue that the current wars aren’t strictly between homosexuals and heterosexuals, but a conflict between two different versions of homosexuality – “Soviet” and “Western.” And in Russia it’s very deeply attached to the Soviet practice on a huge scale in Gulags. There, as the prisoners were on purpose deprived of possibility of expressing their sexuality (men and women were imprisoned separately), the homosexual act was associated with the criminal hierarchy and deeper humiliation of prisoners, where for instance those who were “passive” in the act were considered the lowest. This taboo attached to the homosexual identity prevents it from being seen as something “natural” in Russia. Yet suggesting natural means Western would be in here inaccuracy, given Russia de facto is a part of the West for several hundreds of years.

Yet, the persecution of gays must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free of the typical “eastern barbarism” our part of the world is often still associated with. Yet the supposedly moralistic homophobia somehow hypocritically leaves intact the enormous sex industry post Soviet Europe has, only proving that this has nothing to do with morality, but only hate and prejudice. Soon this will bring even more horrible consequences and spread even more violence – what really has to happen so that the law makers loosened their bigotry? “Political figures have provoked anti-gay sentiment by portraying the gay community as a bunch of freaks,” one of the May 25 protesters have said. “They are accomplices in the killing.”


Putin’s anti-homosexual laws are aimed at bringing him back the crashing popularity, damaged after the protests of the Winter 2011-12, when even his followers are more prone to expect a clear, coherent politics from their president.  Channeling homophobia is here only one, albeit especially nasty way of getting back a now especially illusionary “unity” in Russia and divert teh attention from the real political turmoils in Russia today.

Fiks's work is also a subtle but potent protest. As someone who migrated quite soon after the dissolution of USSR (he left for America in 1994), Fiks clearly saw how the reality which succeeded it was actually worse. His artistic strategy is to make “interventions in history”, treating it indeed in a dialectical way: not as frozen and dead, but as a space of the present, lived experience. Especially the latest activity: the idea for a competition for the Monument to Cold War Victory in the US (sic!) challenges various thinking clich├ęs of history. It’s exercise in “political imagination” within the present, a protest against “the end of history”. At once a reminder of the cold war obsession with monuments and an attempt to stop the current obliteration of the recent history, as the communist monuments are removed everywhere. As ironically as the idea may sound, it’s true the Cold War’s legacy persists, whenever we like it or not, but we are yet to find an appropriate aesthetical form for it. As in Moscow, this project starts from an ironic confirmation of a certain stereotype, in this case certain political melancholia and nostalgia, to in the process change it into a living scene of living history.