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."