Yevgeniy Fiks was born in Moscow in 1972 and has been living and working in New York since 1994. His work has been shown internationally, including solo exhibitions in New York at Winkleman Gallery and Common Room 2.
“A prolific artist and performer, his technique is a microhistorical unspooling of often-quirky archival finds that lead to an illuminating shift of perspective about aspects of the Communist past.”
The new Oz movie brought a lot to mind recently — how a corporate approach tends to result in bloat, how James Franco’s con-man character seems to be winking at the audience as his latest dupes, how somehow the other original Oz books weren’t considered good enough for their own movie — yes, these things, but also what hit home was how straight the new movie is, considering the place the 1939 Garland film had in Gay culture. When one couldn’t speak of being homosexual, once could speak of “friends of Dorothy” instead. Garland’s timeless performance of “Over the Rainbow” has been mimed by drag queens for seventy-odd years now, with its wistful expression of a need to escape to a better, more accepting place, where, as the original introduction of the song says, there “isn’t any trouble.” The happy little bluebirds and swallows became code tattoos advertising Gay trade, to the point they made appearances in forensic textbooks of the 50s and 60s as a window to the possible reason for the death of the wearer. That death, back then, was usually violent, as that’s how life in shadow-worlds usually goes.
When I landed in Moscow for my first post-graduation teaching job, Article 121, the statute that made homosexuality in Russia an offense punishable by hard labor, had only just been repealed the previous year. It had been enacted by Stalin in 1933 and was the basis for a reversal in governmental and cultural tolerance of homosexuals, which had a brief thaw that began with the bright-eyed ideals of the revolution of 1917. From the enactment of Article 121 until the 1990s, gay culture, as represented in literature or any of the media, effectively vanished. But the effect of the suppression was to generate a subculture that operated in a figurative — and often literal — underworld. As with the gay scene in the United States during the 1940s through the 1960s, the subculture developed its own non-Oz-related lingo and found public spaces where they could meet. The ubiquitous taxi-hailing-stance statues of Vladimir Lenin were nicknamed “Aunt Lena” and only those in the know understood what it meant to meet someone at Aunt Lena’s at eight. While there is an expanding array of well-researched books on pre-Stonewall gay culture in the United States, the no-less fascinating aspects of Soviet Russian gay subculture is only just beginning to find its way into print. This book is an important, if idiosyncratic, document in that regard.
This is a strange book, fragmentary even with the understanding that aspects of this story are just coming out. It consists of a brief introduction, a series of unpeopled photographs, and a pretty damned gutsy letter to Josef Stalin in 1934 — the year after Article 121 came to be law of the land, three years before the Beloved Leader really got going with putting bullets in people’s skulls. “Given the pervasive sexophobia in Soviet culture,” Kevin Moss states in his 1997 introduction to Out of the Blue, the only Russian gay literature anthology I’m aware of, “it is no wonder gay people and gay literature appeared to be completely absent.” We get an eerie sense of this in these photographs by Yevgeniy Fiks, which are of the various clandestine meeting places for gay men during the time that Article 121 was in effect: leafy parks of the Garden Ring, subway station platforms, and public underground toilets near the Kremlin. The lack of any human presence highlights the sense of isolation; the camera eye, the viewer, is isolated. The overcast skies show no shadows in this documentation of a shadow world.
The book closes with the translation of a letter sent by journalist Harry Whyte to Stalin. Whyte — born in Scotland and Communist party member—moved to Moscow to edit the English-language Moscow News. His argument of tolerance based on the ideals of Communism is interesting and, to our eyes here in the West, novel. He argues for equal footing when gays were first beginning to come out of the shadows and were forced back. “One should recognize that there is such a thing as ineradicable homosexuality,” Whyte writes in his letter. This didn’t stop Stalin from trying. And, from the efforts of those from the United States to Uganda, the attempt continues to this day.