A six-foot cardboard cutout of a Soviet nuclear test explosion named “Joe-1” is the main character in Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, Yevgeniy Fiks’s current exhibition at the Winkleman Gallery in New York. Joe-1 stands forlornly on empty street corners and in green, empty parks, sometimes casting a shadow, sometimes not. He doesn’t seem like much of a threat. He is in Washington D.C., and he seems to be taking in the sights—always alone, always in an empty frame. Sometimes he seems to be waiting for someone; but no one ever comes. According to the titles of the photos, he’s cruising. But how can you cruise in an empty city?
Fiks’s new book Moscow is a collection of simple photos of Moscow’s gay cruising sites of the Soviet period. (The word “gay” is anachronistic, but I’ll follow Fiks in using it anyway.) The pictures show contemporary Moscow—again, empty—and ask us to imagine men cruising there in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and into the ’80s. We see the garden in front of the Bolshoi Theater; Okhotny Rad metro station; Pushkin Square; the dormitories of Moscow University; a couple of bathhouses; a café; the Hermitage Gardens, and their toilets; the Nikitsky Gates, and their toilets; Gogol Boulevard, and its toilets; the Lenin Museum and the central department store, both popular for their toilets. The photographs are unremarkable, but maybe that’s the point: they’re meant to evoke isolation, loss, and an everyday life that was hidden, then erased. In his introduction, Fiks writes that his book “remembers the fates and celebrates the lives of those who, from the 1920s to the 1980s, reconstructed their city as a site of queer desire and subjectivity.” For him, the old cruising grounds are “sites of mourning.”
Soviet city-dwellers of all sexual orientations were accustomed to searching for privacy in public places, as Soviet policies left cities overcrowded and communal apartments overflowing. By 1940, the average number of inhabitants per room in Soviet towns was 3.91. Unless you were into voyeurism or group sex, this meant that you probably had to leave home to fulfill your carnal needs. In 1950, one Moscow man got into the habit of bringing younger men home for sex—in the room he shared with his wife. At first his wife would sit in the room, berating him and his partner, tearing off the sheets, trying to drive out the interloper; eventually she got fed up and called the police.
Informers were a serious threat to anyone who lived in a communal apartment, but especially to someone engaged in an illegal activity. To have homosexual sex in a kommunalka was to take an almost insane risk. But the bars, clubs, cafés, and bathhouses where gay men had socialized before the revolution had been nationalized, and were now controlled by government functionaries unlikely to tolerate gay gatherings. This left few alternatives but the sites documented in Moscow: boulevards, public squares, parks, and public toilets. Cruising spots were selected on the basis of architectural features that afforded some measure of privacy, in a convenient location.
Fiks suggests that the choice of certain cruising sites was also an act of political rebellion. He writes in his introduction:
Throughout the Soviet experience, queer Muscovite subjects were reclaiming sites of the Revolution—a revolution that had betrayed its promise of a dignified existence for them. In the atmosphere of six decades of silence and repression, this was a gesture of resistance and revenge for that betrayal. Homosexual activity in front of the monument to Karl Marx on Sverdlov Square, or in the public toilets of the nearby Lenin Museum, violently tore the fabric of a stagnant political culture. These expressions of queer sexuality effectively subverted the USSR’s claims of having achieved socialism.
This strikes me as an overstatement, especially in the absence of historical evidence that people understood their own behavior in this way. Did gay men really pick Lenin Square in an act of “political subversion,” or was it simply a convenient open place where you could stand and wait, meet new people, and come and go without attracting too much attention? When, in 1955, two men attempted to have sex in the bathroom of the Lenin Museum, after meeting in a department store nearby, were they really planning to “subvert the USSR’s claims of having achieved socialism,” or did they just want to fulfill a basic human need, in the nearest semi-private location? And when something is done in secret, in hope of never being discovered, can it really be interpreted as a political statement? Fiks is more convincing when he writes about how gay men appropriated not only public space, but also Communist symbols. In many provincial Russian cities, men cruising on their local Lenin Squares referred to Lenin statues as “Aunt Lena.” In the 70s and 80s, the statue of Karl Marx at a Moscow cruising site was referred to as “Director of the Pleshka.” (Pleshka is slang for cruising).
Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America explores how players on both sides of the cold war did their own appropriating, using the idea of homosexuality as a political weapon. The exhibition includes photos of atomic explosions printed with quotations from US politicians, for instance: “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives. Mind you, I don’t say every homosexual is a subversive, and I don’t say every subversive is a homosexual. But a man of low morality is a menace in the government, whatever he is, and they are all tied up together.” Such absurd equations show how homosexuality became a floating signifier, associated with whatever political tendency one most disliked. Rather than representing a certain group of people, it represented everything that was wrong—whatever that meant. America’s Red Scare bled into its Lavender Scare; the Soviets associated homosexuality with capitalism and fascism. But empty as it was, the political use of the trope of homosexuality had a devastating effect on real people from both countries.
Following the lead of the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks purged the Russian criminal code of all non-secular statutes, including the law against sodomy. But sodomy was banned again in 1934, with a three- to eight-year sentence. From then on, it was virtually impossible to discuss homosexuality in public; when it was discussed, it was as a disease and a crime. Sodomy was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved; as late as 1991, a man received a three-year sentence for sodomy. (Fourteen US states still had sodomy laws in 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.)
In 1986, a former Russian Deputy Health Minister said that Soviet people had no reason to fear AIDS, since homosexuality and drug addiction were criminal offenses in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities believed that AIDS was a foreign problem that would never afflict the Soviet Union, and they did not take public health measures, such as syringe exchange, that were already helping to curb HIV transmission abroad. In the 1990s, many of the former Soviet states, including Russia, experienced explosive epidemics of HIV spread through contaminated syringes. The intense stigma of homosexuality, along with poor surveillance, makes it difficult to know exactly how HIV has affected gay men in Russia, but it is certain that repression has worsened the situation. In Russia, homosexuality may be even more stigmatized than injection drug use. In 2004, the staff at a Siberian AIDS organization that worked with drug users told me that they didn’t have any programs for gay men, because “we wouldn’t know where to find them.” Gay men were so hidden, they said, that they were impossible even to locate.
The situation has not improved much for gay Russians; today, it seems to be getting worse. A 2010 survey found that 74 percent of respondents said gays and lesbians were “amoral” and “mentally defective,” while only 45 percent said that gays and lesbians should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. Gay pride parades have been banned in Moscow for the next century, and attacks on gays are widespread. Perhaps most appalling is a law, still in process, that would make the dissemination of information on homosexuality to minors punishable by fines of up to $16,000. (Gay couples have been staging “kiss-ins” in front of the Russian parliament; when the couples were attacked by Orthodox activists, the police did not hurry to intervene.) A similar statute against “propaganda for narcotics” has been a major obstacle in efforts to provide health information about drugs or discuss drug policy reform. In recent years, prosecutors have brought charges against a doctor who ran a website on methadone treatment (which is illegal in Russia), and have blocked the website of a Russian drug policy reform organization. The drug propaganda law can be applied to anything that contains the word “drug,” and is therefore a perfect tool for suppressing any speech that the government considers undesirable. It is to be expected that a law on “propaganda for homosexuality” would be used in a similar way.
Moscow ends with a long letter to Stalin. (You can read the letter here.) It is the work of Harry Whyte, a gay British journalist and devout Communist living in Moscow. Alarmed by the passage of the new law against sodomy, Whyte wrote to Stalin directly, offering a case for why homosexuality should not be outlawed in a Communist society. In the letter, Whyte relies on a combination of Marxist-Leninist theory and scientific theories of “constitutional homosexuality”; he uses himself as an example of a homosexual who is also a good Communist. Stalin read Whyte’s letter, marked it with the words “an idiot and a degenerate,” and had it archived. When it was finally published by a Russian journal in 1993, it was with the sub-heading “Humor from the Secret Archives.” We do not know what happened to Harry Whyte, but it is unlikely that he met a happy fate. He was one of many who believed that it was all just a big misunderstanding, that Comrade Stalin wanted the best for his people, that a well-written, earnest letter could set things straight. I was reminded of Yevgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of her time in the Gulag, in which she writes about her firm belief that if only Stalin knew about the injustice of her arrest, he would put things right.
Harry Whyte’s letter is the only part of Moscow that deals with the experience of an individual. In his introduction, Fiks explains that there are no “queer subjects” in his work because he rejects “the commodification of desire and the practice of making a spectacle out of human sexuality.” I take his point, but I wish his project had incorporated more about real people and their lives—and not necessarily their sex lives. The empty photos are powerful, but they would have been even more so if the viewer could have imagined some of the specific people who haunted these places. Because of the illegal, invisible status of homosexuality in the USSR, there are very few relevant historical sources, especially primary ones; but as the historian Dan Healey’s work attests, there is some material. (Fiks thanks Healey in his acknowledgements.) What about Mikhail Kuzmin, author of what Healey calls “the world’s first homosexual coming-out narrative with a happy ending,” published in 1906? What about the poet Nikolai Kliuev, who refused to stop writing love poems to young men, denounced collectivization, and was shot in 1937? Driven outdoors, gay men appropriated and transformed public spaces, even as society tried to pretend that they didn’t exist. Fiks’s attempt to “restore the dignity of their connection to the city and add their histories to its collective history” is a noble one, but the places he depicts were never really empty; they were full of people and their lives.