Yevgeny Kharitonov


Evgenii Kharitonov, who was never published by the official Soviet press, is the major figure in gay Russian literature in the 50 years since Kuzmin. Yet his followers and admirers are, for the most part, straight writers, some of whom even find Kharitonov's frank treatment of homosexuality troubling. The list of writers who have paid homage to Kharitonov and acknowledged some debt to him reads like a who's who of contemporary Russian culture: Viktor Erofeev, Nina Sadur, Evgenii Popov, Liudmila Petrushevskaya, Roman Viktiuk. . . Nezavisimaya gazeta calls him "one of the most talented and unique writers, a Russian writer of genius." Kharitonov had his first "literary evening" at the Central Writers' House twelve years after his death; and in an age when television has supplanted literature as the primary medium of culture, the hall was packed to overflowing for the affair. It's hard to imagine such a turnout these days for any living writer.

When Kharitonov died of a heart attack in June of 1981, the pages of his just-completed manuscript blew away down Pushkin St. He had called his volume Pod domashnim arestom--Under House Arrest. As an underground writer and a gay man, Kharitonov was under double pressure from the KGB and the police. In 1979 he was suspected in the murder of a gay friend and interrogated. In 1980, with the attempt to register "Klub belletristov," the experimental writers' group that eventually published Katalog, the surveillance and persecution increased. Given that the first visit by the KGB to Kharitonov caused him to faint, it is not difficult to conjecture that this pressure hastened his death. Kharitonov's writer friends broke into his apartment, which had been sealed by the KGB, to salvage what they could of his writing. Later these materials were seized by the KGB in raids on their own apartments.

The typescript of Under House Arrest was prepared by Kharitonov himself. One version has it that the usual typists couldn't be trusted to recreate Kharitonov's layout--the overstrikes and careful arrangement of the words and letters on the page. Another, more likely version has it that the usual underground typists were squeamish about Kharitonov's graphic description of gay life. This same squeamishness may have prevented Under House Arrest from being published until recently: Kharitonov himself sent one copy to Vasilii Aksenov, who apparently read it and put it on a shelf; a second was brought by Vysotskii to Paris, where a few stories were printed in Literaturnoe A-Ia.

Unlike many dissidents and underground writers, who often held official jobs as night watchmen or elevator operators, Kharitonov had a successful official career--even several. Indeed, he was a modern renaissance man in the world of culture, teaching acting and pantomime at VGIK, the state film institute; directing at the Theater for the Deaf--among other works, his own play, "Enchanted Island;" choreographing the rock group "Last Chance;" and studying speech defects at Moscow State University. Meanwhile he wrote unpublishable prose, poetry, and drama. And, of course, he lived as a gay man in Moscow. There are those who say that Kharitonov's greatest work was himself. The accounts of Kharitonov's life provided by his acquaintances are often mutually contradictory, making it hard to separate truth from legend. Was his anti-Semitism real, or was it a pose to shock his Jewish writer friends? And what of his relation to his sexuality? Some of his heterosexual colleagues want to wish it away, claiming he felt it was a cross to bear, a sin he wanted to redeem--some even claim his homosexuality was a pose in itself. But there is no evidence whatsoever for such an interpretation in his writings, and his gay friends are equally puzzled by such claims.

Kharitonov made a crucial contribution to contemporary prose style through his fluid transitions in tenses and deceptively simple poetic effects. At the same time his thematics also extend the boundaries of what is permissible and not only enrich the fund of what can be talked about in Russian literature, but also have enormous political implications in Russia, because he was an openly gay writer in a society that silenced gay themes and punished homosexual acts with imprisonment.

Several works by Kharitonov, "The Oven," "One Boy's Story: How I Got Like That," "Alyosha-Seryozha," and "The Leaflet" appear in my translation in the anthology Out of the Blue. The text of Kharitonov's gay manifesto, "The Leaflet," is also here.

"The Oven," "Dukhovka" is online in Russian.

Kharitonov on

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