Interviews

An Artist Investigates the Divide Between Russian Jews and Russian Gays

Yevgeniy Fiks and Galina Zelenina discuss the LGBTQ-Jewish dynamics and politics in Russia today and throughout history.

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Pleshka-Birobidzhan #1,” collage on paper, 9 x 12 in. (all images courtesy of the artist and Station Independent Projects)

On the occasion of Yevgeniy Fiks’s new book, Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, and his recent solo exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan, which recreated an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who traveled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 and imagined a Utopian Soviet Gay and Lesbian Republic, Fiks and historian Galina Zelenina discussed contemporary and historical interconnection between Jewishness and queerness in a Russian context.

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Yevgeniy Fiks: Galina, at a conference in Tallinn last month, I learned with much interest about your research and was very happy to learn that I’m not alone and there is another person, a proper researcher, who’s working on the issue of interconnections between LGBTQ history and Jewish history in a Soviet and Russian context. Of course, this issue is not an easy one. On one the hand, all things openly and even not-so-openly LGBTQ seem to be under assault in the Russian Federation. On the other hand, the official Jewish organizations in Russia seem to be in support of the government policies, including the focus on “traditional values.” What are the LGBTQ-Jewish dynamics and politics in Russia these days, and how are they connected to history?

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Pleshka-Birobidzhan #2,” collage on paper, 9 x 12 in.

Galina Zelenina: Speaking of the present, I’ve just finished an article on so-called “symbolic resistance” to Deputy Mizulina’s [Chairwoman of the Russian Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs] legislative activity — her bills and draft bills advancing ultraconservative reforms in family law, including the ban on “nontraditional sexual relations propaganda” among minors enacted in 2013. Symbolic resistance flourishes in a society that is practically denied all means of active and productive resistance, at least meetings of protest, and includes all possible channels of expressing one’s discontent with official politics, anger or critique, from long and sophisticated articles to jokes, parodies, demotivators, and memes. The funny thing is that while the Western public and a small part of the Russian public (first of all, the LGBTQ community) knows Miluzina best for her homophobic efforts and her continuous work at the re-enslavement of women, the most visible part of anti-Mizulina folklore on Russian internet is masculine and has nothing to do with either women’s or LGBTQ rights defense. Mocking Mizulina’s draft bill to prohibit oral sex (seen as a “nontraditional” way of sexual contact) seems to be the most popular thing. When, nonetheless, it comes to “nontraditional sexual relations,” the “Jewish question” appears. LGBTQ (we may call them, for these purposes, “the younger minority”) tend to compare themselves with “the older minority” — that is, with the Jews. Perhaps the most famous example is Yevgeny Kharitonov’s assertion in his Leaflet: “Our question is in some respects like the Jewish question.” But he was far from alone in promoting this idea.

YF: It’s interesting that you mentioned my namesake Yevgeny Kharitonov and his Leaflet, written in the late 1970s, which is perhaps the first openly gay piece in Russian post-WWII literature. It’s interesting that some of his other writings are also openly anti-Semitic, although some critics tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, explaining it by the so-called “literary style” or “postmodernist posturing.” After all, he’s the only openly gay writer in postwar Russian literature and must be saved at all costs. Don’t you think it’s ironic that the only openly gay post-WWII Soviet Russian writer is also openly anti-Semitic? Another icon of Russian gay literature, Mikhail Kuzmin, writes in his post-1917 diary about a “kike-woman with a little kike son” who moved into Kuzmin’s apartment as a result of post-revolutionary housing shortage. As a Russian-Jewish gay man, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with Kuzmin and Kharitonov as icons of Russian gay culture, while sadly realizing that I have to deal with them because they are irreplaceable in the Russian gay canon. Don’t you think that the Russian-Jewish/Russian-gay divide is historical and wide, and before we get to solidarity we need to sort out anti-Semitism within the Russian gay milieu and homophobia in the Jewish community? I think the present-day comparisons by critics of the plight of Russian LGBTQs to the plight of European Jewry or Soviet Jewry is quickly done for political convenience and doesn’t critically address the historical breaks of solidarity between the two communities.

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Pleshka-Birobidzhan #5,” collage on paper, 9 x 12 in.

GZ: Today’s anti-Mizulina texts often mention anti-Semitism. One of the most effective, or, at least, the easiest ways to criticize something you disagree with is to compare it to something unanimously condemned as bad, backward, inhuman, etc. So, when dealing with any of Mizulina’s initiatives, the most popular method to defame them seems to be a comparison with the Middle Ages, while homophobia, anti-Semitism, and particularly the Holocaust appear as additional reference points. The best-known example is Stephen Fry’s open letter calling for a ban on the Winter Olympics in Russia by comparing them with the Berlin Olympics in 1936. He writes there that he is gay and he is a Jew whose mother lost half of her family in the Holocaust, and now, with homophobic law and practice in Russia, he weeps at seeing history repeat itself. On Russian internet there are quite a few similar assertions (for one, that Deputy Mizulina is sending gay people to gas chambers), though they are a bit less authoritative. And so Russian Jewish speakers, including celebrities of Jewish origin like Iosif Kobzon or the leadership of the Federation of Jewish communities of Russia (a Chabad Lubavitch organization that had proclaimed itself the representative of Russia Jewry), had to respond, and they responded with indignation, saying it is an insult to the memory of Holocaust victims. It demonstrates that the older minority, which is now relatively in favor in Russia, as you’ve rightly observed, is not particularly happy about being compared with the younger one.

YF: I can also add to this the deeply disturbing statement by Moscow Chief Rabbi Adolf Shaevich, who said in his interview with journalists Ksenia Sobchak and Anton Krasovsky in 2015 that he, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, wouldn’t hang gays himself but he would have supported those who did.

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Pleshka-Birobidzhan #14,” collage on paper, 9 x 12 in.

GZ: Speaking of queer-Jewish coincidences and parallels in the past, we can go back very far, to the very beginning, which is obviously the Bible, and proceed with Talmudic masculinity profoundly analyzed by pioneering Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin, who has introduced a gender approach to Talmudic studies. Narrowing the field to Russia, or the Soviet Union, we shall begin with the rise and development of hostile rhetoric and oppressive politics toward gay people in Soviet legislature and journalism of the 1930s, including dialectics of the concepts of race or ethnicity, sexuality and class consciousness, or political views. This provides much fodder for a so-called intersectional analysis of social attitudes and state systems of domination and discrimination. It’s well known that it was customary for official Soviet rhetoric to voluntarily label various groups as Fascist or bourgeois, and that later it was used to conflate ethnic categories with social or political ones, as in the infamous cases of “traitor nations” or the campaign against “rootless cosmopolites” predominantly of Jewish origin. Interestingly, this intersectional discourse addressed the subject of sexuality as well. It began with an authoritative statement by Maxim Gorky in his article “Proletarian Humanism,” which appeared in May 1934 and was much approved of by Stalin, or possibly even commissioned by him. Relying on The Brown Book compiled by European communists and translated into Russian, which stigmatized Nazis for their “wretched inclination,” Gorky condemns the destructive and corrosive influence of Fascism on European youth. He is proud to assert that in the country of the triumphant proletariat, “homosexualism” is considered socially illicit and punishable, while in the “cultured” country of great philosophers and musicians — that is, in Germany — it remains free and unchallenged. And next he sees fit to continue the comparison by addressing Jewish question. He says that the outstanding Semitic race that had produced the proletarian messiah Karl Marx is being expelled by the Fascist bourgeoisie of Germany, while the Soviet Union has established a self-governing republic for working Jews. Gorky wrote this article in the wake of the legal transformation of Birobidzhan district into the Jewish Autonomous Region.

In this context, your vision of the JAR as an LGBTQ republic is really controversial and very, very interesting, both if it is based on personal stories, like oral history materials or other sources, and if it is a pure fantasy. Because obviously, in those early Soviet decades, in the interwar period, there was a strong potential for recreating everything anew, and all those changes were supposed to create a new man. In particular, Birobidzhan was an attempt to create a new Jew, a Communist version of a “muscular” Jew, who almost simultaneously appeared in Israeli kibbutzim. And given the liberality of earlier Bolshevik gender policy, some 10 years before that it could have been an attempt at making a new gay man, an ardent Communist and farm-worker. At least as a fantasy, it is quite legitimate. Just imagine that in 1913 Stalin wrote not “Marxism and the National Question” but “Marxism and Queer Theory.”

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish Gay Dictionary”

YF: Yes, precisely. One of the foundations behind my Pleshka-Birobidzhan show is the figure of the founder of the American gay rights movement, Harry Hay, who was a communist activist in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1940s, he left the American Communist Party and founded the first gay right group in the US: the Mattachine Society. In his memoirs and speeches, he always stated that he got the idea for gay liberation from reading Stalin’s “Marxism and the National Question.” Particularly, he was influenced by Stalin’s definition of a national minority (common language, territory, economic relations, psychological makeup/culture), and one day Harry Hay had a revelation that this definition applies to American gays and that they also constitute a minority in the US, just like African Americans or American Jews. It was a revolutionary realization, and the rest is history. And since the support of the Birobidzhan project in the Soviet Union was one of the important activist causes for the American Communist Party in the 1930s, there is no doubt in my mind that Hay knew about Birobidzhan. When I read his visions of a gay autonomy and of the “new gay,” to me it sounds very much like Birobidzhan.

Maybe it’s a controversial statement, but for the context of the Russian Federation, the solution of the LGBTQ question perhaps lays in the acknowledgment that LGBTQ is a nazional’nost (nationality) in its old Soviet definition — as a folk, a nation, an “ethnic” group. And I think the Russian state and society, which is an extremely multiethnic country, can understand this language. I’m not sure if the concept of LGBTQ as nazional’nost will lead to a true liberation, but at least it will lead to a certain level of normalization.

Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary is now available from Cicada Press.

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