LGBT literature, under new fire, survives in Russia
In the 1990s, a rich and diverse canon of LGBT-literature found its place in contemporary writing, but much of the gay literary scene today is going underground again.
The law criminalizing homosexuality in the Soviet Union was abolished 20 years ago, but it left behind a dire legacy and homosexuality still remains a stigma in Russian society.
“A bookstore owner is afraid to put up a section of LGBT literature, while a bookstore visitor would be afraid to approach that section,” said Dmitry Kuzmin, the acclaimed poet, critic and literary impresario. In the new law against gay propaganda, the term is vaguely defined, writers said. No bookseller or publishing house now feels safe while dealing with LGBT literature.
Can LGBT writers have a visible and vocal role in contemporary Russian society? “Definitely not,” said poet Nastya Denisova. “With the current government measures against sexual minorities, we are confined to reading gay poetry only from the screens of our laptops. Even organizing a poetic reading, like we did before, can be really dangerous.”
Dmitry Kuzmin also acknowledged that Russian gay literary life faces tougher obstacles. He said the cause of this is not only the law and government policy. Nor is it only the attitude of society, although homosexuality is generally not accepted. The problem, he said, is also in the gay community itself — it’s very loosely organized, and intellectuals do not play a prominent role in the movement, he said.
Yet many gay authors successfully continue their literary careers. Some are winners of the prominent Andrey Bely award: Dmitry Kuzmin won in 2002; Alexander Il’yanen in 2007; and Nikolay Kononov in 2009. Others, like Linor Goralik and Alexey Purin, are regularly published. But the national recognition of these authors is quite distinct from their activity in LGBT circles.
In 19th-century Russia, society was tolerant of same-gender relationships. Yet by the beginning of the 20th century, public opinion in Russia had turned against homosexuals. The famous impresario Sergei Diaghilev and Silver Age poet Mikhail Kuzmin each were compelled to conceal their identity rather than face public scorn.
Mikhail Kuzmin was one of the first Russian authors that openly incorporated gay themes into his works. His novel “Wings” was controversial for its explicit content. Much later, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko would call Kuzmin “the first sexual dissident.”
In the Soviet Union, sodomy was declared criminal in 1934 (clause 121 of the Criminal Code). Authors and artists were charged with sodomy and sent to prison—often for their political activities. Soviet poet Gennadiy Trifonov spent four years in the Gulag camp system.
Other writers and actors fought hard to stay free and maintain a life in the Soviet Union, concealing their sexual preferences—such as Evgeny Kharitonov, an actor and director and leader of Russian gay culture of the 70s. Samizdat, a form of dissident self-publishing, was the only way to distribute uncensored work.
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The first almanacs that published gay prose and poetry, “Mitin Zhurnal” (ed. by Dmitry Volchek) and “Vavilon” (ed. by Dmitry Kuzmin), began in samizdat editions in the 1980s. Both were considered underground almanacs; they did not focus on gay prose and poetry, but included them in the context of the contemporary literary process.
In 1993, the infamous 121st clause was abolished. Alternative sexual orientation was removed from the list of crimes. Gay literature became safer, and in 1993 Dmitry Kuzmin founded the “Argo-Risk” publishing house, under which he would issue his “Vavilon” journal and “Risk,” a gay literary journal. As Kuzmin pointed out in the preface to the first issue of “Risk,” “this is not a journal about gay people or for gay people… Our subject here is the contemporary cultural situation.”
Kuzmin created a community of authors gathered around “Vavilon” and “Risk”–Alexander Il’yanen, Vadim Kalinin, Alexander Anashevich, Yaroslav Mogutin, Kseniya Marennikova and others. In the early 2000s, however, both journals came to an end.
Lesbian literary life flourished with numerous festivals and readings all over the country. In 2007, Petersburg poets Nastya Denisova and Nadya Dyagileva organized the first Festival of Lesbian Love Lyric poetry (FLLL) at a club in St. Petersburg.
As Denisova recalled, “We got a lot of letters, much more than we’d expected, and we chose poets from different cities and even from abroad. We had no budget, so we couldn’t pay travel expenses, and some of our poets couldn’t make it to the festival.”
Following the success of a second festival, an almanac of lesbian love lyric poetry came out in 2008 with “Kvir” publishing house. The book comprised the works of 30 lesbian poets, including Nastya Afanasyeva, Alla Gorbunova (winner of the 2005 Debut prize), Tatyana Moseeva, Faina Grimberg and others. The third and seemingly final festival of lesbian love lyric poetry was held in 2008.
Then the festivals stopped, because, as one organizer put it, “no new interesting authors could be found, so we decided to wait a couple of years.” In the wake of growing hostility towards sexual minorities, Denisova said it has become harder — and even dangerous — to organize such events.