Russian Gay Literature


Some of the oldest original writing in the Russian tradition portrays gay love. The 11th century "Legend of Boris and Gleb" tells of George the Hungarian, who was "loved by Boris beyond all reckoning." George's brother, who was canonized as St. Moses the Hungarian, inspired part of the Kievan Paterikon, which dates to the 1220s. Moses refuses the advances of the Polish noblewoman who has bought him as her slave, preferring the company of her other male slaves. Most of the writing in Kievan Rus and Muscovite Russia was done by churchmen, and when they mention homosexuality, it is usually to condemn it as a sin.

Modern Russian literature and the Russian literary language date to the beginning of the 19th century. The undisputed greatest figure of this period is Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), who set the standard for prose, poetry, and drama in Russian. Pushkin himself was not gay, but he was what we would call gay-friendly, confident enough to write to his gay friend Philip Vigel about the relative merits of the latter's potential male bedmates. Pushkin's references to homosexuality are light and humorous, but not disapproving. The second great writer of Russia's Golden Age, Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) also had some familiarity with gay sex. In two bawdy poems written when he was 20, he describes the sexual antics of his fellow classmates in the Cavalry Cadet School.

A third major literary figure of the 19th century, Nikolai Gogol (1809-52) was exclusively gay, but as a religious man he never acted on his desires and spent his life repressing his sexuality. Gogol's stories and plays are full of his fear of marriage and of any kind of sexuality involving women, while his diary describes his strong romantic attachments to men. In his later years, Gogol fell under the spell of a religious fanatic who eventually induced him to fast and pray day and night until he starved himself to death.

Another literary giant, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) also had homosexual attractions, which he describes both in his diary and in his autobiographical Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. He repressed these urges not only because his views on sex were Victorian, but also because he was attracted to men for their physical beauty, but to women because of their spiritual attributes! Descriptions of the physical attraction between men appear in The Cossacks and Anna Karenina. By the time Tolstoy wrote his last novel, Resurrection, he had turned against all sexuality, and he portrayed homosexuality as one more symptom of the moral decay of society.

The reforms and mood that accompanied the Revolution of 1905 prompted Russia's first real flowering of gay literature. The most open and prolific of the gay writers of this period, the Silver Age, was Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936). Kuzmin, shown at right, wrote carefully crafted poetry on gay themes, setting his works sometimes in contemporary Russia, sometimes in the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. In 1906 he published the first Russian coming-out novel, Wings, in which a young man learns to accept his sexuality, which makes him feel as if he has grown wings. Kuzmin's poetry on gay themes was praised by the greatest poets of his day, and he also wrote plays and short stories about gay love.

Other gay or bisexual poets who wrote about gay love include Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), Nikolai Klyuev (1887-1937), Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925), and Ryurik Ivnev (1891-1981). The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 eventually reversed the gains of the previous decade. While gay writers continued writing, gay-positive work was not encouraged under the Soviet regime, and after 1933, when Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, no gay-themed works were published in the Soviet Union. The Soviet regime controlled every aspect of the publishing industry, and persecution of homosexuals in Russia was at an all-time high. This accounts for the half century of silence in Russian gay writing.

There were gay writers among emigres, however, among them the memoirist Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958) and the poet Anatoly Steiger (1907-44). One of the most prolific gay poets, Valery Pereleshin (1913-1992), emigrated to China and eventually to Brazil. Pereleshin's classically formed poems express his multicultural background--he translated from Chinese and wrote poetry in Portuguese. His verse memoirs, "Poem without an Object," describe his gay love affairs, and he warns his readers, "My chronicle will not be to the tastes of uncles and aunts--for half a century we haven't gotten on, the breeders and I." Pereleshin's tour de force, Ariel (1976), contains 169 sonnets, a poetic epistolary romance with a married man in Moscow.

Writers at the same time in the Soviet Union risked persecution and arrest. The Leningrad poet Gennady Trifonov spent four years in jail in the 70s for circulating gay poetry. Yevgeny Kharitonov (1941-81), shown at right, was harassed by the authorities even though he never published his work during his lifetime. Kharitonov, who wrote experimental post-modern prose, was highly respected by his straight writer-colleagues, even as they disapproved of his open treatment of homosexuality. Not only does Kharitonov show a surprising celebration of his sexuality (given the context), he even claims it is a kind of divine gift directly related to his genius as a writer. Kharitonov was the first Russian writer to use gay slang in his work.

The relaxation of censorship and proliferation of gay journals that began with Gorbachev's glasnost and accelerated with the breakup of the Soviet Union meant that emigre and underground writers could be rediscovered and new writers could be published as well. Unexpurgated editions of Kuzmin and the first publication of Kharitonov's work appeared in the early 90s. At the same time, straight writers, who had exhausted the shock value of heterosexual sex, often turned to the topic of homosexuality to titillate their readers and boost their sales. Such writers include Zufar Gareev, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin. A few serious gay writers have appeared on the Russian literary scene as well. Among these the most noteworthy are the poets Dmitry Kuzmin and Yaroslav Mogutin, and Alexei Rybikov ("Werwolf"), who writes fantasy fiction and humorous verse. The poet Gennady Trifonov continues to write and has turned to prose. Thus far little writing has been published chronicling the recent boom in gay life in Russia, but hopefully such work will appear in the coming years.

Most of these works can be found in Out of the Blue.


This text was prepared for The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 2nd Edition, Garland Press.

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