Gay Pride, Russian-StyleSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The concept of gay pride depends for its vitality on a simple precept: that coming out into a community of like- minded folk and sharing your sexual identity with the greater world is of the utmost importance. That concept may work in the American context, but transporting it to other cultures is a dubious proposition — particularly when those cultures differ in where and how they draw the boundary between the public and private spheres.
My time in Russia upended many of the notions I had developed as a gay man from New York and San Francisco. I first visited Russia in the summer of 1991, two weeks before the putsch against Gorbachev, to attend a gay and lesbian conference in Moscow and Leningrad. I returned for a nine- month stay in the fall of 1991, and from then through 1995 I spent a total of a year-and-a-half in Russia, most of it in Moscow. I became a regular at a dacha [a small country-home] located 50 minutes by train from Kiev Station in Moscow, and owned by an older lesbian couple — Sveta and Lena — and frequented by an exotic selection of other men and women.
The dacha has long played a pivotal role in the extravagant world of the Russian psyche. For many, it has been an essential focus of refuge and privacy; of warmth and nurturing friendships in the bleakest of times; of plates laden with potatoes and beets and fruit from the garden; of rambling debates on literature and life that linger through the edge of a summer dawn; of vodka and toasts and tipsy flirtations that might or might not lead to passion and to bed. For sexual minorities in Russia, the protected zone created by the dacha allowed them to create a private world of liberation — a liberation, in many ways, as profound as any found on Castro Street.
The dacha I frequented possessed the magical charm of a folk tale. It had four cozy rooms: a kitchen off the foyer; a central chamber with two beds, a green couch, and various wardrobes and trunks; a den-like space with a dining table and a television set; and a tiny alcove with another bed and a solid wooden desk. It was not a large place, but it glowed with the intimate care that the occupants so scrupulously lavished on every detail.
I quickly learned that the occupants of the dacha were rather different from many of the gays and lesbians I knew back home. Ksyusha, a young woman who became my best friend in Moscow, clearly loved women best. But when she was younger she had been engaged to a boy she deeply loved, and occasionally she still slept with men — of whatever sexual orientation — she found attractive. I once explained that in the gay world where I lived, such behavior would outrage many lesbians, who would consider it a betrayal of sorts; that, in fact, even the decision by many organizations to add the word bisexual to their names was causing an uproar and sparking anguished debates about the nature of sexual identity and the labels we use to describe it. Ksyusha shook her head in stunned dismay and emitted a loud torrent of commentary on the subject.
"That's just totalitarianism, just like the Communists," she declared flatly. "What business is it of anyone else's who I sleep with? You Americans, you feel like you need to define yourselves always, you are this or you are that. Why? You need to make up rules to follow, you all want to join groups, to feel like you're part of something. But that's such a limitation, because then you don't act how you feel, but how you think you're supposed to act. So if I want to sleep with a man — please, thank you, did you have a good time? Yes? Wonderful, good-bye! What's the problem? Why should that bother anybody?"
At the dacha, I quickly developed a crush on a man named Vitya, a hulking thirty-nine year-old with a double chin and brooding eyes that narrowed to slits when he drank or laughed. Often he seemed distant, but occasionally I caught a flicker of silent torment cross his face; then his reserve would drop back over him like a thick woolen blanket. I knew that he and these women were linked in some deeply intimate manner; but how, exactly, I could not fathom.
I hopefully broached the manner with Ksyusha. "What's Vitya's story? Is he gay?"
She rolled her eyes. "Vitya is... Vitya."
Vitya was obsessed with Ingmar Bergman. The second time I was there, we watched Liv Ullman, young and lovely, in Persona, a story of mental illness and merged identities; the third time it was Cries and Whispers, about three sisters and their maid. I had watched the movie as a fourteen-year-old, and the often spiteful behavior of the characters had baffled me. This time around, Bergman's tone of anguish and quiet despair plucked a melancholy chord in me — and, apparently, in Vitya. "I've had my own cries and whispers, my own secrets, for twenty years now," he confided mysteriously.
I was curious of course, but I didn't want to pry. Actually, I did want to pry, but I wasn't quite sure how to. I rehearsed opening lines ("Vitya, I didn't quite understand what you meant last night...") and monitored the situation for strategic opportunities. One evening, before I had a chance to make my move, Vitya and Ksyusha beckoned me conspiratorially. They wanted, they said, to tell "the whole story."
It was weirder than I had imagined, and went something like this: Vitya had been a lonely child, wracked by feelings he never understood. Other boys bored him, and he preferred playing with girls. As a university student, he formed a close friendship with three young women. "They took me as their own, like a girlfriend," he recalled. "They didn't look on me like they did the other boys, with whom they had romances, who they saw as potential sex objects. They told me their secrets, asked my advice about their affairs. I adored that kind of contact with them. Of course, the boys who came around thought it was very strange and wondered what I was doing with these girls."
Vitya himself did not quite know the answer to that question. Then, at the age of twenty-four, he met Sveta in a class for editors. They began to chat, discovered some common literary interests, and a romance began to develop between them. After a few months, Sveta introduced him to Lena — and they had all been together ever since. Ksyusha had entered their lives a few years later through family connections; her grandmother was a close friend of Lena's mother.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I felt like I was a woman," said Vitya, in the slurred murmur of someone on the tenuous border between lucidity and tipsy incoherence. "And as I got to know Sveta and Lena, it struck me like a bolt of lightning — I am a lesbian inside. I am not attracted to straight women, only to lesbians. ... And if I hadn't found these two, I don't know what my destiny would have been," he added darkly.
He paused; we sat in a boozy haze in a corner of the room, and the dim yellow light cast eerie shadows on his face. His confession unsettled me: this tall sexy man... a lesbian transsexual? I had been vaguely aware that such people existed. But I had never actually met one before, and I pitied him.
"I thought Lena would be jealous of my relationship with Sveta, but at first she wasn't," he continued. "I think it was because she assumed that since I was a man, it wouldn't be a serious relationship. But then she realized it would last, and there was a lot of tension between Lena and me for several years. Until one day the three of us made love together, in this house, and the tension just went away."
"They made love right here, in this house!" Ksyusha added.
"And when you're with them, you feel like a lesbian?" I asked Vitya.
"Yes, of course!" Ksyusha interjected energetically.
I looked over at Vitya. He nodded vigorously and gestured toward his nipples, twitching his tongue back and forth gleefully and rolling his eyes to suggest sexual ecstasy. Then he pointed downward. "I feel it there, too, but not as much."
"I have also been with him and the others, too, and it works down there, of course," asserted Ksyusha delicately. "But... that's not so important to him, he makes love like a lesbian."
The irony did not elude me: in the middle of this horribly repressive country, I had stumbled upon an elaborate web of sexual liaisons. Both Vitya and Lena still maintained primary relationships with Sveta, and a deep and abiding friendship with each other; the addition of Ksyusha to the group had increased the possible permutations. The four of them had sustained this unusual family life, off and on, for more than fifteen years. Somehow, the dacha concept of lesbianism — very different from what I was used to back home — allowed Sveta and the others to overlook the hard- to-overlook detail that Vitya was, in fact, a man. They let him be the lesbian that he believed he was, and he loved them back as only another woman could.
One afternoon, Ksyusha's friend Aleksei arrived with a sweet young thing on his arm. Aleksei was a twenty-seven- year-old teacher and Afghan veteran with a small head and a chalky voice; the tight expression round his mouth appeared to flicker rapidly between a grin and a grimace, as if he were keeping some private terror at bay. Shortly after his arrival, Aleksei pulled Ksyusha aside; he explained that Sergei, the sweet young thing, didn't know what kind of crowd this was, and Aleksei didn't want him to be frightened off, so could we please behave ourselves?
Though Ksyusha complied with this request, she was furious. "How dare Aleksei come here, to this house, and ask us that!" she shouted, flourishing her arms wildly. "That is like a violence to me, to tell me that I can't talk here, in this house, and I will not have that kind of restriction. Because this house is a place of freedom, the city is not here, my mother is not here. We must be able to be ourselves here, and completely open."
The others all shared Ksyusha's fierce protectiveness of their dacha life. For them, the dacha served as a vital haven against the outside world. It was, for all practical purposes, their gay community — that phrase had no other meaning to them. Though Ksyusha's curiosity had led her to attend the gay conference in the summer of 1991, Sveta and Lena simply scoffed at the idea of gathering in large groups. They never disguised their irritation and disgust with the country's gay activists, or their embarrassment when these self-proclaimed leaders declared their sexual orientation in television and newspaper interviews.
"I don't want to hang out with someone just because of their political or sexual beliefs," declared Lena flatly. "I spend time with people, not with anarchists or Trotskyites or lesbians. And I don't want to fight for the rights of lesbians — they never repressed lesbians here because no one ever knew that they existed."
"And it was better that way?" I asked.
"Of course, if it meant that two women could sleep together and no-one would bother them. You know, I've lived with Sveta all my life, and no one's ever said a word. But after all, I don't go into a bakery and say, 'Hi, I'm a lesbian, give me bread.'"
I began to view the dacha, sequestered and secluded, as a concrete metaphor for the small, tight band of confidants around whom my friends' lives revolved. And whenever I strolled up and down the village's dirt roads, on my way to or from the train or during random walks, I inspected with interest the other dachas in the area: sturdy cottages of pastel blue or green, with wooden eaves carved into wondrously intricate shapes. Each house possessed its own distinct character. Some were trim and scrupulously tidy. Paint peeled off others in thick strips. Many were squat, boxy shacks, with rooms jutting off at odd angles, like afterthoughts. As my gaze skipped from one to the next and the next one after that, I speculated on what mysteries these dachas harbored, what lives the neighbors guarded within the delicious secrecy of their homes.
"You know, life is mean, it is hard, it wears people down and they become terrible, terrible," Ksyusha once declared, kneeling in front of me with singular urgency. "This system, it kills everything that is good in people. ... But if I can pluck one person, I can find goodness in him. . . . and that is what we do here, in these walls. The world is like an enemy, and the dacha is a tiny island where everybody understands each other."
The collapse of the old Soviet order did little to reassure my friends; if anything, it only reinforced their determination to cling to what they shared. For if implacable sternness had characterized life under the Communists, by the early 1990s utter unpredictability had become the dominant theme, as anyone who read the newspapers could attest. "It's like a jungle here," said Lena. "Before, we relied on our circle of friends to protect ourselves from the ideology, from the laws. Now, it's to protect ourselves from the chaos."
Given the oppressive environment, my friends perceived my openness about my sexuality as emblematic of a deep naiveté about life in their country; my dogged persistence in viewing the issue from an American perspective was a constant source of amusement to them. Whenever they would mention in passing that some Russian singer or actor was believed to be gay, I would ask if the person was "out." This question invariably elicited a cascade of exasperated laughter. "David, nobody is 'out' here," they would explain with strained patience, as if admonishing a sweet but stupid puppy.
My experiences at the dacha highlighted one of the fascinating ironies of Soviet and Russian life; trapped in a system that sought to destroy every barrier between citizens and the state, between the personal and the political, many people nurtured a highly refined sense of the private — and honored that sense in their relations with others.
Therein lies a paradox. American conservatives have long made much noise about the absence in the Russian language of a direct translation for our word "privacy." They are correct; Russians rely on a couple of different expressions to approximate various shades of the English word's meaning. But the glib conclusion — that people have no innate understanding of the concept — is absolutely wrong. In fact, it often seemed to me that the reverse was true. Perhaps the lack of one specific word has helped to protect the very idea of privacy, for to name it would be to define it, to circumscribe it — and ultimately to debase and destroy it.
That development has certainly been taking place in the United States. The inviolability of private life long ago attained the level of myth, one of the defining characteristics of our self-image as a people and a nation. The Constitution and the courts minimize government intrusions into our lives, and a great many Americans stoically preserve the sanctity of their secrets.
Nevertheless, our talk-show culture seems determined to erode respect for privacy into dust. In the United States, everything personal eventually seems to go public, on "Oprah" or "Jenny Jones" or before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And though we allegedly cherish the freedom to live as privately as we wish, we obsess over the private lives of others.
And everyone seems ever more determined to expose themselves, transforming titillating tales into their fifteen minutes of TV-chatter fame. No topic is too personal or outrageous to reveal to an enraptured television audience, no issue too complicated to be summed up in a snappy catch-phrase flashed on the screen. One of my favorites was a "Sally Jesse Raphael" show broadcast just before Halloween; bobbing her blond coiffure with credulous cheer, the hostess interviewed a man who recalled the night he experienced a penetrating pain in his rectal area. That segment's topic? "Sodomized by ghosts."
It is impossible to imagine many Russians engaging in such discussions among themselves, let alone on TV. I talked about this issue at length with my friend Masha Gessen, who lived around the corner from me during a long stay in Moscow in the fall of 1994. The Russian approach to privacy, she explained, stems from the country's long communal tradition. In earlier centuries, the mir — the village collective — knew virtually everything about its members and controlled most aspects of their existence. Under the Communists, that type of scrutiny continued — and intensified.
"Everything in our countries has been on display," Masha wrote in a poignant unpublished essay. "With whole families living in a single room, entire neighborhoods knew when a couple was having sex because they sent their children and their parents out. Our laundry has always, quite literally, been hung out for the whole country to see. . . . In addition, officials — from residential managers to workplace Communist organizers — dragged our embarrassing secrets into the public domain, calling meetings to discuss the private life of one or another employee or resident, with its messiness, its infidelity, its deviation from the norm.
"We responded by refusing to do that to one another. We refused to name things, to expose their significance in addition to their appearance. . . . We invented privacy out of thin air, and with it a sort of intimacy. It is not an intimacy born of the systematic removal of barriers, of giving voice to things closer and closer to the heart, as it is in the West. It is an intimacy of learning without words, communicating in ways that ignore our eternal nakedness.
"Like many things constructed out of thin air in our difficult countries, this ephemeral privacy is laughable and touching and seems useless, even destructive, to an outside eye. But it is ours. It is transparent and easily breakable, but it might be the only thing protecting our hearts."
It was in that context that I began to understand what "gay pride" meant to my friends. In the United States, those who decline to stake out queer space in the public arena — so the argument goes — must feel ashamed of their sexuality. Some gays have no patience with these "self- loathing homosexuals," a phrase brandished like a club by those who deem themselves capable of interpreting the psychological motives of others.
But "gay pride" had a different twist in Russia. I had little sense that my friends, or many of the others I met who preferred not to discuss their sexual orientation publicly, suffered from unfathomable reserves of "internalized homophobia." I asked most of those I interviewed whether they had ever believed that homosexuality was an illness, something abnormal. Some acknowledged that they had. But a great many insisted that they never did, or that they had entertained the notion but soon dismissed it. Yes, they had been lonely or frightened — and often desperately, suicidally so — until they had managed to meet other men or women like themselves; but they had not accepted society's judgments.
At first it was impossible for me to believe that so many people had somehow escaped the psychological torment that I had suffered in my youth; the self-disgust, the shame. I attributed their responses to faulty memories or wishful thinking or simple reluctance to speak openly to a journalist, and an American one at that. And yes, surely those factors must have played some role in how they answered my questions. But the more men and women I interviewed, the more their insistence on the point forced me to take what they expressed seriously: they had, for the most part, simply refused to internalize the socialist morality that condemned them.
Aleksandr, a portly bisexual man in his 50s, offered a typical response. "I never thought that I wasn't normal," he scoffed when I posed the question to him. "Rather, I thought that the society was not normal, since it wouldn't allow me to realize myself. We had a society of lies, complete duplicity, and any normal person would have recognized from childhood that these moral values were worthless. I spat on society, so if society said something was bad, then I knew that the opposite was true."
The more I digested that, the more sense it made. Russia has been, after all, a country in which huge numbers of people have lived double and triple and quadruple lives. Children learned from the earliest age that there were things they could say publicly and things they could not. Almost every thinking person had a closet — not a sexual one, perhaps, but at least a political one, where unorthodox ideas sprouted forth and gave the lie to the platitudes they were forced to mouth in public. For gays and lesbians, that political closet often served as a crucial model for how they could operate most effectively in the world; it offered them practice in constructing a secret existence that allowed them to breathe.
So my gay and lesbian friends in Russia relished their difference and nurtured their own version of "gay pride." This was a pride that blossomed from a sense of their uniqueness in a society that had always condemned departures from the norm. A pride that reveled in the concealment of a private life rather than its disclosure; a pride that cherished the secret by sharing it with the chosen few rather than the masses.
Now, that may not be the kind of gay pride I was familiar with from my San Francisco queer life. But it is gay pride, nonetheless — with a distinctly Russian flavor.
David Tuller is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. This piece was presented at the Private Life in Russia conference at the University in October, 1996. It is adapted from his book Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia.©; 1996. Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc. All rights reserved. A paperback version, published by the University of Chicago Press, is forthcoming. For more about the book, see David Tuller's website.