New East Digital Archive

PASHA: the anonymous art project on growing up gay in the Soviet Union

10 March 2021

Despite existing in an openly homophobic environment, Russia’s underground queer culture is on the rise. From independent magazines to archives celebrating LGBTQ+ history, more and more Russian creatives are putting their queer identities at the heart of their lives and work. But coming of age as part of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community is not free from difficulties — and art project PASHA is dedicated to facing personal and collective trauma in search of healing and strength.

Working on instagram under the handle @go_pasha_go, the author behind PASHA is anonymous: only sharing that he was “born gay in the Soviet Union, living gay in Russia”. “PASHA is me, my alter ego, or my true essence,” the artist told The Calvert Journal. “At the same time, PASHA is basically anybody — your neighbour, your friend, your brother, or maybe even you yourself — because nobody has seen PASHA’s face.”

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PASHA is a reflection on the parts of Russian LGBTQ+ life that often remain in the shadows: shame, bullying, secrets, and, amidst it all, the tender search for one’s identity and sexuality.

“PASHA is a 100 per cent personal project. The first series of works are based on my memories from childhood and personal archives,” says the artist. “I grew up in the Soviet era, and that’s when I realised my own sexuality. Information about LGBTQ+ people was super-limited in a country where homosexuality was a crime.” Same-sex relationships were initially decriminalised when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, but were later re-criminalised in 1934, under Josef Stalin. Homosexual relationships between men were only legalised in Russia on 27 May 1993.

“In my pre-teenage years, I realised that I was attracted to boys, and that girls were just my friends with whom I could play dolls. It was a time when I experienced a lot of unpleasant bullying and homophobia from my classmates — even though none of us even knew the word “homophobia”. It was just children’s natural reaction to a person who was different from them. PASHA’s first works are about this particular part of his background.”

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PASHA’s work resonates with everyone who has memories of the early 90s. The artefacts and iconography that the artist uses are painfully familiar: cheap school notebooks, exemplar handwriting, plastic cartoon character figurines. These elements are juxtaposed with homophopic slurs, as if they’re once more echoing across school corridors.

“I’ve been developing themes of identity, bullying, and homophobia in my previous works, but with PASHA, I am also involving the idea of stereotypes, insecurity, and physicality. To be honest, I only started this project because I was frightened,” the artist admits. “Now I feel braver, and I’m able to tell my story through my artwork — although anonymously for now. It’s important for me, and I feel that it might be important for other people who went through similar experiences.”

PASHA as a project has significance both for the Russian gay community and global LGBTQ+ movement. It asks a vital question: do we need to preserve and hold on to queer history, which might have been painful? Personal or collective, preserving and reimagining this history is a powerful artistic choice. One of PASHA’s works is a red communist flag adorned with a rainbow stripe,” an attempt to find a connection with the erased queer past.

“The rainbow flag mixed with the USSR flag represents a utopian idea for the visible and lawful existence of LGBTQ+ community in the Soviet Union”, the artist explains. “My country has gone through a lot of changes over the last decades, but many things from the past are still here. I have also gone through countless personal changes — and I’m here with all these memories from the past.”