Feature

Gay in the USSR

The forgotten history of gay cruising in Moscow.  

Russia is not an easy place to be gay. Though homosexuality is no longer outright illegal -- and has not been considered a mental disorder since 1999 -- a stubbornly homophobic strain of nationalism persists, as evidenced most recently by an anti-homosexual "propaganda" bill that is gaining momentum in the State Duma.

Russians are at least talking about homosexuality today in a way that wasn't possible during the Soviet period -- a silence that left a gaping hole in Russia's historical record. Today, however, that history has begun to take shape. Artist Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian-American artist who immigrated to New York in 1994, has pieced some of it together visually for the first time.

In his latest work, Fiks unveils a particularly well-hidden piece of that history: gay cruising under communism. The artist's new book, Moscow, is an evocative but unembellished meditation on gay cruising in the capital city, featuring photographs of the public toilets near the Hermitage Gardens; the stairs to the riverside embankment by Moscow University; the Bolshoi Theater; and many other iconic locations.

Fiks said much of his research comes from historians who wrote about gay life in the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1970s. "About 30 percent came from me knowing the places," Fiks said in a Skype interview. "Some of them were common knowledge in Moscow but photographing them was not something people would do. You would not make them into monuments." But that's essentially what Fiks did with his haunting images.

In Russian, a gay cruising site is called "pleshka," which literally means a "clear area." (It also refers to bald spots on the top of the head.)  Toward the end of the Soviet period, the statue of Karl Marx on Sverdlov Square (now Theater Square) was known as "director of the Pleshka."

"This was typical Soviet humor," said Fiks. Gay men and women were poking fun at Marx by turning him into their own gay icon. Similarly, statues of Lenin in regional city centers were known in gay parlance as "Aunt Lena" and men arranged dates in code by saying, "Let's meet at Aunt Lena's.

Moscow, published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2013, is a mood piece that features the no longer visible, the once furtive. The slim volume showcases lonely streets and empty parks, slick with rain and devoid of people. The result is sad and commemorative.  Released a few weeks ago, the book is just making its way to gay activists in Moscow, Fiks said. "They are accepting this project with interest, but it's still a new concept."

Fiks recalls that many homosexuals were drawn to the promise of Marxism. There was a certain tolerance and even gay liberation in the early years of the Soviet Union, before homosexuality was re-criminalized in 1933 and the community went back underground.

"Gay Soviet history almost doesn't exist," said Fiks, sitting at a desk in New York's Winkleman Gallery on a windy Sunday in February. "The older generation didn't do a lot of talking."

The Brooklyn-based artist, who studied at the College in Memory of the 1905 Revolution and the V.I. Surikov Institute in Moscow, said he researched this project for about two years. "I thought it was important to document the Soviet story. But I left Moscow in 1994. I am a New Yorker already, so it's not organic for me to talk about [gay life] in Russia now. This book is more of a tombstone, mourning those generations who couldn't speak for themselves."

Fiks' third show at New York's Winkleman Gallery, which ran through March 23, showed a more playful and ironic side of the artist cum sociologist, highlighting his roots in the sardonic Sots Art movement.

Fiks plucked the title for his exhibit, "Homosexuality Is Stalin's Atom Bomb to Destroy America," from a 1953 article by Cold War pundit Arthur Guy Matthews. "In the U.S., I really think that the anti-communist and anti-gay crusades coincided and overlapped. The two emerging crusades would reinforce the other," Fiks said. The artist's exhibition took aim at the marriage of anti-communism and homophobia in the United States, finding a wealth of material to work with. In particular, Fiks delved into the "Red" and "Lavender" scares during the McCarthy era, when government officials saw conspiracies everywhere. The federal government and the communist party were both purging homosexuals, fearing security risks. Anti-gay sentiments began to fuse with anti-communist rhetoric.

Two installations focused on one historical figure named Harry Hay, a communist activist who was forced out of the Communist Party and later became one of the founders of the gay rights movement in the United States. In what Fiks calls "a whim of historical irony," Hay appropriated writings of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin; he used Stalin's definition of national minorities to come up with the idea that gay men and women both constitute a minority.

Fiks depicts an era that no longer appears to exist -- at least in the United States. These days, the two countries are going in very different directions when it comes to gay rights. As of 2013, nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C., recognize same-sex marriage. In Russia, lawmakers recently passed a preliminary version of the gay "propaganda" bill, which activists fear could be used to outlaw homosexuality once again, by a vote of 388 to 1.

Fiks's New York show also puts a fresh lens on the Soviet Union's first nuclear test, an event Americans called "Joe 1." Quotes from Cold War-era figures are at the center of the photographic prints, creating ironic connections between the atom bomb and homosexuality. The exhibit includes prints of gay cruising sites in Washington, D.C., with a cardboard-cutout of a "Joe 1" mushroom cloud placed somewhere in each photograph. "I'm definitely trying to create a parody of the anti-Soviet and anti-gay witch-hunt, where a gay person is represented by a nuclear cloud, six feet tall, and equated with an atom bomb. It's supposed to show this person as a dangerous evil that has to be dealt with," Fiks said.

Likewise, the artist's "Security Risk Map of Manhattan" pinpoints the locations of gay cruising sites and communist meeting places in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s. The map is a kind of geographical commentary on gay and communist connections made in the United States during that time.

From the 1930s until the 1980s, persecution of homosexuals "was the only thing the two superpowers agreed on," said Fiks, who has become increasingly interested in what he calls "less convenient" truths. "They agreed they didn't want gay people and each tried to blame their existence on each other....I definitely wanted to show the grotesque nature of this game."

Yevgeniy Fiks

Feature

Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

The Modern King in the Middle East
Jeffrey Goldberg • The Atlantic

An interview with Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is working to bring about democratic reform to a country steeped in traditionalism.

The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader-many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old-made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king's consideration: "In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men."

I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls' education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Legend of Chris Kyle
Michael J. Mooney • D Magazine

A profile of the deadliest sniper in American history, who was murdered last month by a fellow soldier.

He said he didn't enjoy killing, but he did like protecting Americans and allies and civilians. He was the angel of death, sprawled flat atop a roof, his University of Texas Longhorns ball cap turned backward as he picked off enemy targets one by one before they could hurt his boys. He was the guardian, assigned to watch over open-air street markets and elections, the places that might make good marks for insurgent terrorists.

"You don't think of the people you kill as people," he said. "They're just targets. You can't think of them as people with families and jobs. They rule by putting terror in the hearts of innocent people. The things they would do-beheadings, dragging Americans through the streets alive, the things they would do to little boys and women just to keep them terrified and quiet-" He paused for a moment and slowed down. "That part is easy. I definitely don't have any regrets about that.

Wikimedia


The Hostage
Richard Engel • Vanity Fair

The author tells the story of his kidnapping by militants in Syria.

The truck started up and eased out of the grove. We could feel it traveling over bumpy roads. I've reported on Shiite militias butchering Sunnis, and on Sunnis bombing Shiites in Iraq. I still felt like a reporter. I was still on a story. This was sectarian violence. This wasn't happening to me but to them. I was angry with myself for thinking that.

Stay focused. You are here. You need to survive this. The first few hours are the most dangerous.

The truck came to a stop about 20 minutes later. Metal scraped against metal as the rear doors creaked open. Light and cold air rushed in.

"Where is the gunman?," Abu Jaafar asked.

"That's me, sir," said the young man in the green fatigues. Abdelrazaq's bodyguard could not have been more than 20.

Abu Jaafar's men took the bodyguard out of the truck.

"Finish him," Abu Jaafar said.

Photo by NBC/Meet the Press via Getty Images

The Kenyatta Affair
James Verini • Foreign Policy

What Kenya and its allies can learn from Austria's Nazi legacy. 

Kenyans have chosen. Now those consequences have to be defined. What they may entail, beyond making a point of not phoning Kenyatta to congratulate him, no one has said publically, but it's commonly agreed that the situation is unprecedented. The West has had to deal with reprobates already in power, but never has it suffered the anxiety of watching a man accused of crimes against humanity run for and then win the highest office in a friendly nation (and with British counsel). The journalist Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that "Kenyatta might well become the first democratically elected alleged criminal on that scale in history."

That's not entirely true. A quarter-century ago, the United States and Europe faced a similar diplomatic tribulation. This one, closer to home, involved Nazis. Peculiarly Mitteleuropean though it was in tone, it provides an instructive precedent for what might be called "The Kenyatta Affair."

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images


The Miner's Daughter
William Finnegan • The New Yorker

On Gina Rinehart, the richest person in Australia.

"You vs. Gina Rinehart" the banner headline reads on howrichareyou.com.au. The site invites you to enter your annual salary. If you enter sixty thousand dollars, it informs you that Rinehart makes that amount every 1.7 minutes. Below that, a rapidly increasing number calculates how many hundreds of thousands have "landed in Gina's pocket" since you landed on this Web site. Finally, "Guess who made $107,703 sitting on the toilet today?" Not you. Among the things that her estimated 2011 income could buy: three fully armed Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers; "Jamaica."

Paul Kane/Getty Images