New East Digital Archive

Celebrating the gay Russian celebrities history books tried to erase

Russian officials have been keen to paint the LGBTQ community as a foreign Western export. But the country has a long queer history — and activists are ready to reclaim it.

12 June 2020
Introduction: Anastasiia Fedorova

Russia’s LGBTQ community is long used to being slowly erased from the public eye. Under Russia’s aggreesive “gay propaganda law”, queer culture is effectively barred from both the mainstream media and public spaces. But if the state is quick to claim that the terms “queer” and “Russian” are mutually exclusive, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Russia’s queer creativity has always survived and blossomed in the underground. Now Instagram project Izvestnye Tetki is reclaiming Russia’s male gay history in all its glory.

The account’s founder, 25-year-old Nikita Andriyanov, had always felt that Russia’s history had been stolen from the gay community. After reading Mikhail Zygar’s book The Empire Must Die on the history of Russian revolution, he realised just how many LGBTQ people were on both sides of the barricades.

“The state propaganda machine constantly channels the idea that homosexuality ‘doesn’t belong to our country and traditions’ or that ‘gays came from the US after the collapase of the USSR’. I asked myself why they were so desperate to take away our history and our culture,” Andriyanov recalls.

Originally from Siberia but based in Moscow, Andriyanov volunteered with LGBTQ organisations, where he connected with the new generation of queer and feminist activists. But looking at himself and his peers, he often felt that they lacked connection with their own heritage, a void which needs to be filled.

“Because we’ve constantly been erased [from our own history books], we have had to look for validation in studying the struggle of the North American and European LGBTQ community, rather than remembering our own heroes”, he explains. “We had to perfect our English to get access to books about gay love, instead of being able to turn to Russian literature, such as Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin. I wanted to reclaim history from the state and give it back to gay people, lesbians and queers. I think if LGBTQ people knew that they have a lineage of tradition in their own culture, they’d feel much more confident and safe”.

His response, Izvestnye Tyotki, is an instagram account dedicated to LGBTQ figures in Russia’s history. The title of the project, which translates as “well-known aunties” comes from mid-19th century Russian slang. “Tyotka (from the French ld ward, tante) was a word used for male sex workers. By the end of the 19th century, it started to appear in the press when referring to homosexuals in general. I liked the layering of cultures and eras — and it doesn’t have many negative connotations”, Andriyanov says. “Tyotka sounds light and proud!”

Especially for The Calvert Journal, Andriyanov has picked 10 prominent figures of Russia’s gay history: perfect for anyone embarking on their own journey in queer education for Pride Month 2020.

Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich of Russia

Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, uncle of Nicholas II and brother of Alexander III, is exactly the kind of a royal tyotka to open this series.

His “noble” looks and a childless marriage with a British princess sparked numerous rumours about his sexuality that can be found in the memoirs of his contemporaries.

Alexandra Bogdanovich, patroness of one of the biggest salons of Saint Petersburg, for instance, wrote in her diary about the Grand Duke’s affairs with his aide-de-camps Martynov and Balyasny. The latter often appeared in Sergei Aleksandrovich’s family photos.

When the Grand Duke was appointed Governor of Moscow, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, Vladimir Lamsdorf, noted in his diary, “Moscow used to stand on seven hills, and now it has to stand on one hillock.” The jibe hinged on a word play on the Russian word for “hillock”, which sounds similar to the French “bougre” (“sodomite”).

Modern historians also state that in 1887, Grand Duke Sergei opened a private club for gay men in St Petersburg, which existed for four years before the Grand Prince had to leave the city for his new position in Moscow. There are no reliable accounts on the location of the club, or on what exactly happened there.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky needs no introduction. His music has glorified Russia forever, but Russia failed to glorify his true self as a gay man.

The composer referred to his closeted sexuality in letters and diaries by the letter “Z”. “I am positively exhausted not just by the Z but by its merely being in me,” he wrote to his brother Modest (who, by the way, also was a tyotka). But there were also letters that sound far less sorrowful or reserved, for example, “Just imagine! I even made a trip to Bulatov’s village, whose house is nothing but a pederastic brothel. And I didn’t just go there, but also fell head over heels in love with his coachman!”

In fact, Tchaikovsky had many partners: “Before falling asleep I thought of Eduard a lot, and for a long time. Cried a lot. Can it be that he is not with us anymore?… I can’t believe it,” he wrote one day. The next day, he brought up another name: “Thought and reminisced of Zach. I remember him so incredibly vividly: the sound of his voice, his movements, but especially the extraordinarily wonderful expression on his face…”

Amidst his many turbulent affairs, Tchaikovsky also got married. Wishing to escape himself, he proposed to a student who confessed her love to him. Their marriage was doomed and lasted for no more than nine weeks. Later, the composer wrote, “…after this business with my marriage, I am finally beginning to understand that there is nothing as fruitless as wanting to be something other than I am by nature.”

Sergei Diaghilev

Entrepreneur, chief editor of the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art), and father of modern Russian ballet, Sergei Diaghilev was one of the most influential tyotkas of the early 20th century. He drew the world’s gaze to Russia with his lavish Ballets Russes, becoming friends with Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, and members of the Russian royal family. He even managed to get funding for some of his projects personally from Tsar Nicholas II. According to the composer Nikolay Nabokov, he was “the first great homosexual who made his presence felt and was recognised by the society.”

His most exuberant affair was with his cousin, Dmitri Filosofov. They were together for 10 years in a relationship that spanned both glamourous trips abroad and fighting in public. Then from 1908, Diaghilev dated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, choreographer Léonid Massine, librettist and poet Boris Kochno, artists Anton Dolin and Serge Lifar, as well as the conductor Igor Makarevich — and those are just the relationships confirmed by historic data.

Konstantin Somov

Konstantin Somov was a noble-born artist. His landscape, Rainbow, remains the most expensive painting in the history of Russian art, selling for $7.3 million at Christie’s in 2007. Somov was also an academic and, of course, one hell of a tyotka.

Somov’s homoerotic portraits, depicting young, smooth male bodies, are not the only clues that reveal the painter’s sexuality. The artist’s diaries, where Somov describes scenes of masturbation and sexual relationships alongside parties and trips to the theatre, have also survived until the modern day. To hide “unsuitable” entries from prying eyes, in these entries, Somov often made notes in foreign languages, or used a code. Allegedly, Konstantin had affairs with pianist Walter Nuvel, poet Mikhail Kuzmin, Diaghilev’s onetime lover Dmitri Filosofov, and English novelist Hugh Walpole.

The longest of Somov’s relationships was with Mefody Lukianov, some 23 years his junior. After the 1917 Revolution, the pair moved to France and bought a farm, where they kept cattle and lived as a married couple until Lukianov died of consumption in 1932. They spent 23 years together.

Mikhail Kuzmin

Konstantin Somov’s portrait of Mikhail Kuzmin — Silver Age poet and unrivaled tyotka — hangs in Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Here, he appears with a bright-red tie and (as rumour had it) wearing one of his 365 vests. Kuzmin was a gay legend in early 20th century St Petersburg. His diary entries read of his romantic liaisons on an enviably regular basis: “Seryozha was terribly nice and friendly. It’s a blessing to have such a lover;” “Vsevolod was the charm itself. And the night, the night was so good. It’s passionate tenderness and innocence.”

Kuzmin’s fame reached its peak in 1906 with the publication of Wings, a novel which told the story of student Vanya and his feelings towards his teacher, Larion Shtrup. It is believed that the book was based on the relationship of young Kuzmin with a cavalry officer, “Prince George”, who was also vividly described in the poet’s diaries. Many have since heralded the book as Russia’s first gay novel.

Nikolay Klyuev

Usually pictured with sad eyes and a long beard, Nikolay Klyuev is a forgotten legend of the Silver Age of Russian poetry. He mentored other poets, took part in the 1905 Revolution, and gave his partners sweet pet names, like “birdie”. Today, we could call Klyuev a true Russian national gay poet.

Klyuev described his first homosexual experience in autobiographical notes. During a trip to the Caucasus at a young age, he met eight men. He described the most beautiful of them, Ali: “with his poppy lips and a perfect chiseled neck, wonderfully light in dance and movement, he started competing for his right for me with others… For four days it lasted, these people taking my love, disputing this prize among themselves each time…”

In 1912, his first poetry collection, The Chiming Pines was published, closely followed by Brotherly Songs. In these collections, Klyuev successfully mixed country folklore with the style of contemporary Russian symbolist poets. He became famous for his writing.

At a dinner party in 1915 he met his most famous love, a young Sergei Yesenin, who was soon to become one of the leading poets of his generation. It was a complicated and important relationship for both of them; they even lived together for some time. Klyuev loved Yesenin all his life, but he never loved him back, even though he deeply respected him as a mentor.

In the late 1920s, Klyuev wrote a poem, The Burned Ruins, that openly criticised the October Revolution and the policy of collectivisation. This led to him being accused of “anti-Soviet agitation”, exiled to Siberia and executed in 1937.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky was called “a god of dance” and even “the eighth Wonder of the World.” We’d call this tyotka a true drama queen.

Despite his talent (or perhaps because of it), Vaslav was very poorly adapted to life beyond the stage. Unable and unwilling to take care of managing his household or his budget, he always needed “a patron”—someone strong and industrious to take care of him. His first patron was prince Pavel Lvov, a great ballet enthusiast. Soon, Nijinsky drew the attention of Diaghilev, who was about to conquer Paris with Russian ballet. He invited the dancer to his company, and they started a passionate affair that lasted for five years.

From 1909 to 1913, Nijinsky was the leading dancer of the Ballets Russes, taking part in 16 ballets. In 1913, the company boarded a ship to South America without Diaghilev, and there Nijinsky started an affair with a fan, the Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky. They secretly married in a Buenos Aires port. When Diaghilev learned about it from his servant Vasiliy, who was tasked with keeping an eye on Nijinsky, he was enraged and fired the dancer from the company — which, essentially, put a stop to Nijinsky’s brilliant career.

Georgy Chicherin

Georgy Chicherin was a passionate revolutionary of noble birth who laid the groundwork for Soviet diplomacy. He signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the participation of the newly born Soviet Russia in First World War. He was also an enthusiastic music scholar, author of a book on Mozart, and a very influential tyotka.

“Chicherin is an amazing worker, the most scrupulous, clever, competent. Such people must be appreciated. And as for his weakness — the lack of ‘commandership ’— so what? There are lots of people with reverse weakness in this world!” Lenin said about Chicherin.

From a young age, Chicherin was friends with the poet Mikhail Kuzmin, and helped him in every possible way for a long time. They were tied not only by their childhood memories, but also by their shared links in the gay community. As an intellectual, fluent in the ideas and the aestheticism of the Silver Age, Chicherin introduced Kuzmin to works of high art, especially of Italian Renaissance, and tried to influence his political views. He became a link of sorts between the Silver Age and the 1920s.

Under pressure from the party, Chicherin was forced to recognise his homosexuality as a “deviation” and see doctors to become a “normal” member of society. The memoirs of his cousin Baron Alexander Meyendorff show that he regularly underwent treatment in German psychiatric hospitals from 1925 to 1930.

Chicherin took Trotsky’s place as a Foreign Commissar and was successful in this position until his retirement in 1930. According to official events, he retired due to health problems, but there is also evidence that he was fired due of his sexual orientation, which was well-known to the Bolsheviks.

Sergei Eisenstein

The film director that first immortalised the Russian Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein, put Soviet cinema on the map and left a sea of queer bait for the following generations.

Eisenstein did not like to call himself a homosexual, instead more often talking about himself as asexual. This was likely influenced by official discourse from the Bolshevik party, which disapproved of same-sex relationships. Rumour has it that once Eisenstein confessed to a friend, “Were it not for Marx, Engels, and Lenin, I’d be the second Oscar Wilde.” Perhaps that is why Eisenstein’s most remarkable affairs with men happened during his trips abroad.

There is evidence to support that it was the threat of a gay scandal going public which made the Soviet leadership call Eisenstein back from his trip to Mexico in 1932. The director was shooting his film ¡Que Viva México! with a guide, a married historian called Jorge Palomino y Cañedo.

But you can also find some homoerotic hints in Eisenstein’s films, particularly those featuring Ivan the Terrible. In Ivan the Terrible Part II, the Tsar’s guards, or oprichniks, teasingly perform in front of their leader in drag, alluding to rumours of sexual tension stretching back to Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel, The Silver Knight.

Eisenstein was also fond of graphics and made drawings that are striking in their open homoeroticism: some of them are even openly pornographic. In 1999, a full collection of his homoerotic drawings was published in Paris under a rather straightforward title, Sergei Eisenstein. Secret Drawings.

Nikolai Yezhov

A tyotka presiding over Stalinist purges may sound like a premise for an amateur gay dystopia (or, at the very least, a conspiracy theory video). And yet, Nikolai Yezhov was one of the main organisers of the Great Purge of 1937-1938. In just two years, more than 680,000 people were executed, and more than 1.3 million were arrested on political grounds.

The subject of Yezhov’s homosexuality was first touched upon when his own arrest finally came in 1939. He was fired from his position of People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs and accused of planning a coup against the Soviet power. It was then that Nikolai confessed to his relationships in writing, even naming his partners. Among them were the director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Boyarsky-Shimshelevich, one of the men who organised the murder of the Russian royal family, and others among Yezhov’s colleagues. They all were arrested and executed.

“…In the same year of 1925, the capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Orenburg to Kyzylorda, and I moved there as well due to my work,” Yezhov’s confession read. “Soon, Filipp Goloshchekin arrived there to take the position of the Secretary of the Kazakh Regional Committee of the Communist Party. He was not married when he came there, and I did not have a wife either. Before leaving for Moscow in some 2 months, I practically moved in with him and often spent nights at his apartment. I had a pederastic relationship with him as well, which lasted periodically until my departure. This relationship was mutually active, as were the others.”

It cannot be said for certain that this confession was written voluntarily, or whether the party was hoping to “blemish” the image of its ex-hangman with an act they considered immoral. But it is worth mentioning that, during the trial, Yezhov denied all accusations against him apart from this one. In fact, he didn’t comment on the allegations of homosexual relationships in any way.