Out of the Blue is a welcome anthology. It makes available in English, in many cases for the first time, writings that were produced in Russia during the last 180 or so years. It contains poetry, short stories, excerpts from longer prose works, personal letters, journal entries, a play and a lengthy selection of letters to the editors of two gay journals that began publication in the post-glasnost era.
There is also an introduction that places this collection in the context of Russian literature and history since its very beginnings in the 800s with the ascendancy of Kiev. If one wants to get a feel for what it has been like to be a gay man in this century in Russia, this would be an excellent book to consult. If one is looking for insight into the Russian lesbian experience, it is not to be found here. Out of the Blue (the title refers to the fact that the Russian word for "gay" is "blue") is arranged chronologically into four sections. They correspond to the customary division of Russian literary and artistic production into its various periods.
This division is sensible because in Russia both literary activity and sexual expression have been very much dependent on the attitude of the government at any one time. Periods of relative freedom (the early part of this century and the 1990s) have shown freedom in both the spheres, and periods of repression (the 19th century and the 1920s to the late 1980s) have similarly been repressive of both sexuality and literary expression.
The first section looks at the Golden Age of Russian literature: the middle to late 19th century. There are excerpts from Tolstoy (He was not well disposed to homosexuality.), Gogol (There is evidence that he was a repressed homosexual.) and Pushkin, among others. Pushkin comes off quite well; he, most probably not homosexual, exhibited that most attractive trait in heterosexual men who are secure in their orientation: he was not threatened homosexuality in other men.
The second section covers the literary production during the time between the 1905 revolution and 1920. This period is often called the Silver Period of Russian literature. This period produced Russia's great gay novelist, Mikhail Kuzmin. He is best known for his novel, Wings, which is not excerpted in the collection. That is unfortunate. Still, there are two of his short stories and generous selection of poems.
The second of the two stories, "Virginal Victor: A Byzantine Tale," is an atmospheric gem that does justice both to its exotic medieval setting and to the vagaries of homoerotic desire. Also included in this section are four poems by Sergei Esenin, whose poems have the virtue of bridging the gap between high and low culture through their simplicity and clarity.
Since Esenin was something of a celebrity in his time (one of his wives was Isadora Duncan), his attraction to men has not been acknowledged in his official biographies until recently. Here are some lines from a poem he wrote to one of his lovers, Anatoly Mariegof:
There's crazy happiness in friendship
And the convulsion of wild passions-
The fire melts the body down
As if it were a stearine candle.
Oh my beloved! Give me your hands-
I'm not used to doing it any other way-
I want to wash them at this time of parting
With the yellow foam of my hair.
Ah, Tolya, Tolya, it is you, it is you,
For one more moment, one more time-
The circles of unmoving eyes
Have grown still again like milk. (156)
There is a great deal of physicality and passion here. It seems too that there is a reference to man to man lovemaking in the third stanza.
The third section, "Hidden from View under the Soviets: Underground and Emigre Literature (1920-1980)", documents the repression that gay men endured during this period. An event of signal importance in this era was Stalin's criminalization of homosexuality in 1933 with article 121. Article 121, which was not repealed until 1993, made male homosexual contact punishable with a prison sentence and made all mention of homosexuality taboo for 70 years.
This meant that many gay men spent time in prison. Administration of this law was homophobic in the extreme. If, for example, a gay man were gang-raped in the army (all Soviet men served in the army at some point), it would often be the victim who went to prison. During this period in Russia, there was a poisonous conjunction between the model of homosexuality that designates only the passive partner as homosexual AND a very unforgiving institutionalized homophobia. The net effect of this conjunction was extremes of legal and sexual victimization.
The literature of course shows this. There are many stories of gang rape, betrayal and self- loathing. All too often, when lovers would break up during this period, one would let thuggish men, about town or in the army company, know that the other was homosexual and beatings, gang rape and perhaps even a prison sentence would follow. Relationships between men were rare and short-lived when they did manage to come into existence. Not surprisingly, there is very little gay literature produced within Russia during this period. Instead, we have diaries from within the country and literary production from the emigre population. Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944), though he wrote the following poem in Paris, suggests how melancholy a time it must have been:
Where is he now, I wonder?
And what's his life like?
Don't let me sit by the door
Expecting a sudden knock:
He will never come back.
Was it to hurt me, or himself?
(Or maybe he was lucky.)(171)
The fourth and final section of Out of the Blue, "Gay Life Reborn in the New Russia," documents the birth of a modern gay culture. But it is a culture that is still finding its way. It has had barely any time to put distance between itself and the extreme oppression it was under until very recently. This means, then, that many of the selections handle themes of betrayal and self-loathing.
The army and prison loom large. Rape and intimidation are common. In a selection of letters to the editor from two recently established gay journals, "Tema" and "1/10," there are a number of heartbreaking stories. But there are also some funny letters that show a Russia waking up to sex. Here is one example:
Please explain to me what is the name of the kind of homosexuality I practice-I really love to lick my wife's clitoris. Please respond. I am 50 years old. Nizhny Novgorod. (245)
Clearly we have evidence in this letter that homosexuality is the term that designates all perversion. While that is an index of how far the gay movement has to go in Russia, nevertheless it is a hopeful sign that verbalization is replacing what used to be complete silence.
The conclusion of another letter sounds a modern sex affirmative note. In this letter, a young man named Mystschi is rejecting another young man (a prostitute) who seems stuck in the older model of homosexual self-loathing and alienation from the body (the other man speaks first):
"In general I have done it...but I don't get any pleasure out of it."
I sit down next to him, "And how often?" "10 or 15 times a day, but that's for money, and when men fuck me, I don't get a hard on."
"When you do, then come back." And with a clear conscience I set off for the passageway. From this encounter I've made the following remarkable conclusion: if you're being fucked and don't get a hard-on it means you're not gay. (237) In summation, Out of the Blue is of great interest because it really suggests what the experience of gay men in Russia has been, and shows the reader the beginnings of the new gay culture.
By Mark Anthony Masterson
Mark Anthony Masterson is Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California. He is conducting research on the construction of masculinity and sexuality in the fourth century CE Roman Empire. He also is a member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators' Network.
This review is published with permission of Gay Today where it originally appeared.