It always struck me as odd when I was living in Moscow that, in a city of 12 million people, I had so many occasions to be alone – in metro underpasses late at night, in snow-covered courtyards, in the endless maze of backstreets and alleyways. It never occurred to me that these moments alone in the Russian capital were missed opportunities for sexual encounters but, after seeing ‘Moscow: Gay Cruising Sites of the Soviet Capital, 1920s–1980s’, the new show from Russian-American artist Yevgeniy Fiks, I realize what a failure of imagination I had.
Currently on display at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Fiks’s show is comprised of photographs, taken in 2008, of Soviet-era gay cruising sites (pleshkas, as they’re called in Russian). Fiks, who is Jewish, describes the photos as a ‘kaddish’ for older generations of ‘Soviet gays’, but the tone of the show is more irreverent that funerial. The artist takes unmistakable delight in how queer Muscovites transformed prominent Soviet monuments into cruising spots, appropriating the revolution, as he says, while also asking it to stay true to its promise of liberation for all people. The locations featured in the exhibit include the public toilets at the Lenin Museum, the Karl Marx statue at Sverdlov Square and Gorky Park (named after Maxim Gorky, who once proclaimed in a 1934 Pravda article: ‘Eradicate homosexuals and fascism will disappear’). Queer Russians found pleasure, Fiks reminds us, in these contradictions, jokingly setting up dates at the Lenin statue by saying, ‘Let’s meet at Aunt Lena’s.’
In his research for the project, Fiks drew on the work of Oxford historian Dan Healey, author of Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia (2001). Healey tracks the way queer subculture transformed after the Bolshevik Revolution amid the disappearance of private commercialized interiors (bathhouses, hotels, etc.). There was a turn instead towards the kinds of public, communal spaces the new government encouraged the people to make use of (the metro, public toilets). ‘Sex in public’, Healey writes, ‘was an affirmation of self’ – an affirmation that ‘the people’s palace’ (the nickname for Moscow’s newly introduced metro stations) was for them, too. One of Fiks’s photographs, Okhotny Ryad Metro Station, late 1980s, from the series ‘Moscow’ (2008), shows the metro stop for Red Square, which became a central cruising ground after it opened in 1935.
Before 2008, Fiks’s exhibitions more generally meditated on the post-Soviet experience and the history of communism. But, after taking the pleshka pictures, he embarked on ‘identity projects’ – bodies of work that explore the experiences of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in the USSR. In 2014, he curated a show on representations of Africans and African-Americans in Soviet visual culture. In 2016, he published Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, a study of gay Soviet-Jewish slang. Across these projects, Fiks mapped the disjuncture between Soviet promises of an egalitarian society and the marginalization of minorities within its own borders.
Fiks shot the cruising sites in the early morning hours to make sure there would be no people in his photographs. These absences ‘articulate a kind of invisibility’, he told me. ‘It was a culture that was afraid to be visible.’ Male homosexuality was outlawed in Russia in 1933 under Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code and only decriminalized in 1993. However, post-Soviet Russian society has seen a retrenchment of gay rights. ‘A new wave of state homophobia,’ Fiks told me, referring to the 2013 ‘Gay Propaganda’ law that has severely curtailed gay rights during the past six years. Fiks returned to his photographs that same year, publishing them for the first time in a book titled Moscow (2013), which attracted widespread attention in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Buzzfeed published a listicle that drew from the pictures: ‘10 Soviet-Era Gay Cruising Sites in Moscow You Should See on Your Way to the Sochi Olympics’. Moscow was the first iteration of the current exhibition, but the tenor is different from when Fiks first captured the images. ‘My view of the project has changed,’ he told me: ‘I don’t think of this anymore as the closure of a chapter of repression.’
As part of the exhibition’s opening earlier this month, the actor Chris Dunlop read a 1934 letter written by Harry Whyte, a gay British communist who had been living in Russia when the new ‘anti-sodomy’ law was introduced. The letter, which was addressed to Joseph Stalin, was an attempt to defend gay rights from a Marxist-Leninist perspective; Stalin scribbled in the margin ‘idiot and degenerate’. But Fiks, in his larger body of work, is careful to push audiences back from two-dimensional Cold War views on the subject; homophobia was as much a part of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare as it was of Stalinism. Hate is flexible and has a way of finding room for itself in any ideology, but desire is just as wily. It too, Fiks reminds us, will find a way, or a public bathroom, or a Lenin statue.
Yevgeniy Fiks, ‘Moscow: Gay Cruising Sites of the Soviet Capital, 1920s–1980s’ is on show at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, New York, USA, until 18 October 2019.
Main image: Yevgeniy Fiks, Sapunov Lane, 1970s–1980s, ‘Moscow’, 2008, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Ugly Duckling Presse
Jennifer Wilson is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Russian Literature from Princeton University.