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On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay

In the catalogue of sins in his Divine Comedy, which is as random as it is insanely detailed, Dante found room for the sin that “dared not speak its name” long before Oscar Wilde’s trial—one of which Dante’s beloved guardian and tutor Brunetto Latini was also guilty. (He placed such sinners in the Seventh Circle of Hell, near the suicides and usurers, but above thieves and bribe-takers.) I always wished that Dante had added another sin, one which probably couldn’t have even occurred to the great Florentine. In my opinion, a separate circle, or at least a special place in the very last circle next to the traitors, should be reserved for those who hurt others for sheer pleasure, without deriving any tangible benefit for themselves.

This thought comes to mind every time I take the metro late at night, returning home from a poetry reading. To get to my not-so-distant suburb, I need to make an unusual transfer for Moscow, crossing a platform to the opposite track. There, a short shuttle train awaits arriving passengers. In nine out of ten cases, the doors of the shuttle close the moment my train comes to a stop, cleverly timing the shuttle’s departure to let arriving passengers kick a car as it pulls away. I don’t for a second believe that the shuttle has a schedule so tight that it’s coordinated with ten-second precision. The problem is that nine out of ten conductors rejoice at the thought that they momentarily hold the fate of a few dozen countrymen in their hands. The best way they know to use their power is to make the lives of others more difficult, even if only a little.

It is the same metro station that is mentioned in a ditty by the excellent Russian poet Nina Iskrenko:

The train is moving speedily
To the Kashirshkaya platform
Don’t you dare cling to me
You filthy passenger scum

In contemporary Russian poetry (including my own work) the metro is often featured as a perfect place of communication. How people who accidentally find themselves side by side interact with one another is indicative of the state of human interaction in society at large. As a writer, I tend to focus on strictly private lyrical emotions, and for me it is a place of possibilities of communication. (It stands to reason, then, that twenty-two years ago, having exchanged fleeting glances, I met there the man with whom I have been living happily ever since.) For Iskrenko, on the other hand, since all her poetry is, in one way or another, a social commentary, the metro is a space where no communication is possible. The metro turns human beings into passengers who are engaged in never-ending warfare of all against all.

In its Soviet and post-Soviet form, such warfare doesn’t allow for a winning outcome, at least not a meaningful one. It owes nothing to the relentless competition of capitalism but is patterned instead on the struggle among thugs at a prison camp, based on the notorious principle of the underworld: “You die today if I can live to tomorrow.” The role of prisons and prison camps in shaping the post-Soviet mentality is enormous and not fully understood. For example, for many decades one of the most beloved genres of popular music in Russia has been the so-called “Russian chanson,” cynical or maudlin ballads, always sung in a hoarse guttural voice, relating the lives of thieves or gangsters. It is sad to admit that this half-witted genre has its roots in the work of the honest and talented balladeer Alexander Galich, who wanted to give a voice to the innocent victims of Stalin’s purges. How did this mutation occur? Perhaps it can be explained by calling to mind Varlam Shalamov, the greatest of those who wrote about Stalin’s labor camps, who was always overshadowed by the much flatter and more pompous Solzhenitzyn and who never got the audience he deserved either in Russia or abroad. Shalamov thought that nothing of value could come of the prison camp experience and that everything that comes out of a prison camp is inherently negative.

The social model of a Stalinist and post-Stalinist prison camp is based on a caste system. However, its strictest taboo does not relate to interactions between inmates and guards. On the contrary, in the official Soviet worldview, thieves and gangsters were classified as workers’ allies in the class struggle, whereas the commanding officer at the camp was known in criminal slang as “the cousin.” At male camps, the role of untouchables was reserved for those the slang described as opushchennye, “the low ones,” i.e., those who, because of some character weakness, the type of crime they committed (not necessarily homosexuality, for which convictions were actually rare), or some fatal confluence of events, were reduced to the position of sexual slaves. They were so isolated from the rest of the prison population that anyone who entered into any form of interaction with them that was not sanctioned by the unwritten prison code (for instance, accidentally using the same towel) automatically joined the ranks of their lowly caste. Can there be any doubt that the camps’ administration relished this kind of caste divisions? And not only because it released the convicts’ overpowering sexual energy. More importantly, it was a way to channel hatred and disdain. Those who themselves were treated as nothings by the system of state-sanctioned violence suddenly had an opportunity to treat as nothings others who stood below them on the social ladder.

Today, our current All-Russian “cousin” and his entourage suddenly came to feel that the level of hatred and disdain in society has risen too high and that they are risking a social revolt. Is it any surprise that the small fry of the ruling party, who could never be accused of acting independently, suddenly proposed to find a channel for this hatred and disdain? The seeds fall on fertile ground. A cursory review of readers’ comments to news items describing how some obscure elected official in yet another Russian region has hit upon the original idea of banning “propaganda of homosexuality” reveals a near-unanimous response, namely “our shitty government for once has done something right.” Regardless of how such laws are justified—be it to protect the kids (against the backdrop of the state’s systematic dismantling of the remnants of primary and secondary education), to raise birth rates (even though few young couples can afford to get home mortgages), or to promote the spirit of Orthodox Christianity (even as time and again church officials become embroiled in scandals by erecting country palaces for themselves and kissing the ass of the authorities)—they are really based on a simple sociopsychological principle: citizens are presented with an opportunity to look down upon another person and gratuitously make that person’s life miserable.

The gay rights movement around the world has promoted a basic idea: we want to show society that we are human beings like everyone else. The problem is that the train driver at the Kashirskaya train station doesn’t necessarily think that those few dozen passengers in whose face he closes the doors are a priori inferior and deserve such treatment. He feels that he becomes superior to them by means of using his power over them. This sense of superiority can be trumped only by some higher superiority.

I used to know a wonderful woman, the late Maya Dukarevich. Born into the family of a prominent Soviet military commander several months after her father had been executed by Stalin, she grew up in orphanages and became a psychologist, founding the first support group for attempted suicides in the Soviet Union. She also inspired the early Soviet and post-Soviet movement for the rights of lesbian women. Many of those who stood at its foundation in the early 1990s were her younger friends. She once said something to me which I have been thinking of again and again: Russia lacks the concept of respect for another person simply because he or she is another person, a unique, independent individual. It is therefore useless to say here: “I’m gay and I have rights.” What you can say instead is “I’m a well-known writer and, besides, I’m gay and I have rights.” Or “I’m a prominent scientist, and, besides, I’m gay and I have rights." Or else, “I’m a famous athlete, and, besides, I’m gay and I have rights,” and so on.

During the 1990s, when I was an active participant in Russia’s LGBT movement, as well as in the 2000s, when I began to feel that the forms and methods it had adopted no longer made any sense, I was always surprised by how few people there were who were willing to come out and say something like that—not just inside the movement but in Russian society in general. I remember meeting a highly respected philosopher, who in his old age obtained a transfer for a very good-looking graduate student from a provincial teachers’ college to his department at the Academy of Sciences. (Once his mentor was dead, the graduate student immediately surrounded himself with a bevy of undergraduate female admirers.) A casual lover of mine was once courted by another respected elder, a highly acclaimed St. Petersburg theater actor. And one of my poet friends had a short-lived but splendid love affair with a brilliant composer (before the latter became a worldwide sensation following a controversial staging of his opera at the Bolshoi). I often wonder what keeps those men from ending the charade—since their close associates are all in the know, anyway—and declaring openly: “I’m gay. I’m gay, and every attempt by the authorities, the press, and society to denigrate gays is directed not at some exotic prancing queer, whose image has been drubbed into mass consciousness by the skillful splicing of footage from Western Pride Parades, and not at some browbeaten ‘low one’ at a prison camp, but at me personally.” What are they risking? Would the philosophy professor lose his chair, or the actor his roles? Would the audiences stop going to the composer’s concerts? I do not ask a long-serving member of the Moscow City Council with whom in our student days some twenty years ago I used to chat casually at Moscow’s early gay clubs that so much resembled village Houses of Culture why he doesn’t raise his voice against the law banning the mythical “propaganda of homosexuality” in the capital after similar municipal laws have been passed in St. Petersburg, Archangel, and Ryazan. Because if he ever did, his party, Russia’s program-free ruling party of power, would toss him out like a useless pawn from a chess board. But why do men whose achievements are beyond doubt, and depend, in the final analysis, on them alone continue living the lie?

An excuse or a justification can always be found. In any case, any public action can have private consequences. When I published my first book, my mother, who had long known everything about me, was torn between the desire to brag about me to her friends and fear that they might open the volume at some particularly explicit poem. Finally, one night, after several days of acute torment, she had a revelation. She cut the particularly compromising pages from the book. Then, in the morning, realizing what she had done, she called me to ask for a new copy. I was probably more touched than upset, even though I wasn’t deaf to the special pathos of this scene, either. Nevertheless, preserving the peaceful sleep of one’s elderly mother and her friends must not be the main driving force for the actions or inaction of a Russian intellectual. On the other hand, what would one’s elderly mother find it easier to say: “My son is gay” or “My son has just published a book in the best Russian poetry series and it includes many poems about him being gay?” Who knows, perhaps in a different conversation about some other gay man, a kind elderly friend of my mother might say one day: “Well, you know, Mrs. Kuzmin’s son is also gay, and yet he is a famous author, he has just published a book of poetry.”

Of course the prestige of poetry and the respect for it in today’s Russia is by no means overwhelming, so that my own personal openness means very little in the context of the country. But at least in a certain segment of Russian literary circles, among some readers, anti-gay rhetoric has now become unthinkable—in the public domain, in any event. Everybody understands which specific individuals will become targets of such rhetoric. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. Those who want to attack me always have an additional argument at their disposal. Some time ago, a certain panel comprised of respected literary elders refused to include Air, the poetry journal I founded, in the consolidated electronic library of Russian literary journals. They did not, of course, favor me with any official explanation for their decision, but I have been told in confidence what provoked their indignation: at a poetry reading, I had once dared to allow my lover to read his work. I’m very sorry none of them had the courage to say this to my face. I would have dearly liked to ask them what they thought of Nikolai Klyuev, who was instrumental in attaining recognition for Sergei Yesenin’s poetry; John Cage, who wrote ballets for Merce Cunningham; Benjamin Britten, who wrote operas for Peter Pears; Jean Cocteau, who cast Jean Marais in his films, etc.

I always mention this story, along with several equally awkward ones, when I’m asked what kind of discrimination I have experienced as a gay man. But if among Moscow intellectuals and in bohemian literary circles discrimination is felt mostly in such innocuous forms, it doesn’t mean that outside the capital, or in more traditionalist social groups, or among teenagers or, on the contrary, among older people there is no real, far more damaging mistreatment. For me, the anti-gay hysteria that is being currently revived and fanned in my country has strong personal implications. It forces me to cling to my gay identity. As long as the image of the enemy is being concocted out of gays, I must make all my public statements exclusively as a gay man. My small reputation thus protects a section, however small, of the battlefield in this war that has been imposed upon me against my will. But sooner or later this war will be won—perhaps when today’s boys and girls grow up, get smarter, acquire a reputation and are able to demand their rights from a position of strength. (They have already shown readiness to go to the barricades for their convictions, but they have not yet learned that convictions must be defended by different means.) When this happens, I will gladly set aside the classification system which divides people into gay and straight and will fall in love with a beautiful man (or sometimes, for the sake of variety, with a beautiful woman) not because we are gay (i.e., belong to a certain category of people) but because of what brings two (or three, or four) people personally and immediately together. In our attraction for each other gender shouldn’t matter. I once read in an Edmund White interview, that “in the future . . . maybe it would be a mistake to embrace a gay or straight identity. I think it would be more amusing and mysterious and interesting and coquettish and seductive to leave everything kind of vague.” I hope that this future is not very far. It will surely be followed by some other kind of future, when today’s heated arguments about who can and who can’t sleep with whom will come to seem incomprehensible nonsense, the way we now regard Medieval disputes on how many devils can fit on the tip of a needle. But for now I simply want to live to see the time when I can smile at someone beautiful in a metro car without having to think of the gender of that individual.

© Dmitry Kuzmin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Alexei Bayer. All rights reserved.