Gay in the USSR

The forgotten history of gay cruising in Moscow.  

Yevgeniy Fiks
Yevgeniy Fiks

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."

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