Yevgeniy’s photobook of now desolate cruising sites in Moscow contests Putin’s intolerant neo-nationalism
There’s a passage in Francis Wheen’s biography of MP Tom Driberg describing a trip the latter made to visit Guy Burgess in 1956. Driberg arrived in Moscow to find his exiled comrade starved of male company, so with a practised nose he sniffed out the city’s busiest cottage − a public lav ‘frequented by hundreds of questing Slav homosexuals − standing there in rigid exhibitionist rows, motionless save for the hasty grope and the anxious or beckoning glance over the shoulder’, as Driberg put it. It was here that Burgess met an electrician named Tolya, and years later he wrote to Driberg ‘I continue to be very happy with [Tolya] … I don’t know what saint in your calendar to thank. Perhaps only Greek Church, or Armenian, has such a saint.’
This heartwarming tale came to mind when I was flicking through the pages of Yevgeniy Fiks’ photobook Moscow, a collection of images showing desolate former cruising grounds of the Soviet era − pleshkas in Russian slang. These hauntingly depopulated spots are captured in that numinous idiom of cityscape photography inaugurated in the mid-19th century by Charles Marville, who was likewise documenting a vanishing world. Each shot is subtitled with the location − Kazan station, masterpiece of Alexey Shchusev (AR April 2014), is here, as are leafy parks, public lavatories, riverside embankments, public baths, university dorms, and assorted socialist realist sculptures depicting revolutionary heroes.
Statues of Lenin were known as ‘Aunt Lena’ to Russian homosexuals, who would arrange to meet beneath her benevolent gaze; homosexuality had been decriminalised with the Revolution in 1917, and would remain so until recriminalised under Stalin in 1933. Fiks’ book begins with a brief introduction to this tragic history, and concludes with a plangent letter from a British Communist named Harry Whyte to Stalin, dated May 1934. Whyte fearlessly compares this situation to Hitler’s contemporaneous persecution of the Jews, and sets forth the case for homosexuality’s decriminalisation, in dialectical materialist terms no less: bourgeois society oppresses homosexuals because they threaten its supply of cannon fodder and cheap labour, he says, but in a socialist, anti-imperialist society these needs are eliminated; ‘I believe that this emancipation is inseparable from the general struggle for the emancipation of all humanity from the oppression of private-ownership exploitation.’ His plea fell on deaf ears, and it was only in 1993 that the law was repealed.
Today, of course, Russia is returning to the bad old days, with the introduction of anti-homosexual legislation and a rise in disturbing hate crimes. But the places pictured here are ones which public acts of love had, despite oppressive laws and police spies, repurposed in marvellous ways, making the street corner into a boudoir, the dusty park into a Boucherian bower. Fiks’ work is a means of making these folk memories monumental, of preserving something ephemeral for future generations. It is also a deeply political reassertion of Russia’s queer history against the onslaught of Putin’s ludicrously preening macho neo-nationalism.
From our liberal Western perspective it is easy to condemn Russian intolerance, and quite right too. However, gayness is being drained from our cities too: public lavatories are all but extinct, or redesigned by homophobic councils to defuse their erotic potential, and communal showers in swimming pools are replaced by individual stalls in unisex facilities (Zaha’s aquatic centre in Stratford has a vast unisex ‘changing village’ − the only cottageless village I’ve ever seen). Instead the happy hunting grounds have moved indoors to gay bars and commercial sauna chains, or have been dematerialised by the omnipresent nowhere of Grindr. Not for nothing have queer historians described this as a process of ‘enclosure’: public love, like other proscribed uses of the city, such as political protest, is gradually being squeezed out by neoliberal planners intent on making urban centres as orderly and profitable as possible. Those levelling spots where men could come together in an egalitarian fashion − a socialism of the flesh, you might say − have been replaced by bars in which you’ll meet people only of precisely the same socio-economic background. And how boring that is.
Author: Yevgeniy Fiks
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
Lead Image: a Neoclassical public lavatory in Gorky Park, a popular Soviet-era cruising spot