Yevgeniy Fiks’ exhibition Mother Tongue, currently on display at Pushkin House in London and co-organised with the Grad cultural platform, recreates the environment of a language school. The installation includes a Cyrillic alphabet chart, a blackboard, text books and a video where a woman explains grammar and vocabulary. She is not teaching Russian, however, but argot – the slang used by gay men in the Soviet Union, and especially in Moscow, during the 1970s and ’80s, but which ceased to be widely used after the USSR collapsed in 1991. Fiks’ work aims not just to record and remember argot, but also to rejuvenate it: his accompanying book, also titled Mother Tongue (2019), includes a full dictionary and a volume of conceptual poems written in the language.
‘I’d been working on Soviet LGBT people for ten years,’ Fiks tells me, ‘and my first project on the subject was my ‘Moscow’ photo-series in 2008,’ which shows historical or tourist sites that were used as pleshki or cruising grounds during the Soviet era, and which also features in the Pushkin House exhibition. ‘Then I wanted to explore the language spoken on the pleshka. Just before he emigrated to the US in 1974, Vladimir Koslovsky – a sociologist in his late 20s, who was not gay himself but interested in languages – interviewed gay and lesbian people in Moscow and collected words from the subculture. About 80 percent of the words in Mother Tongue came from Koslovsky’s study.’ Fiks tells me that some of the rest came from his own memory, having grown up in the USSR before emigrating in 1994, in his early 20s, one year after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia. After moving to New York, he met two gay men who had made the same move in the 1970s, who provided further vocabulary. ‘I trust Koslovsky’s work far more than my memory, or others’, because it’s such a clear time capsule,’ says Fiks, ‘but the words are pretty much authentic – I didn’t invent any. A lot of the phrasing in the poetry is my invention, using real sentences in an imaginative, fictional way.’
This secret language formed an intriguing counterpoint to the standardization of Russian across the linguistically diverse Soviet Union during the 1930s; it became necessary after 1934, when Stalin reversed Lenin’s earlier decision to decriminalize homosexuality. The gulag population stood at 2.47 million on Stalin’s death in 1953; there were many gay men and lesbians amongst the prisoners, who took their codified slang back into Soviet society when they were released (but not pardoned). There was another period of suppression during the 1970s, when the great film director Sergei Parajanov was imprisoned for five years for sodomy and the gay Leningrad poet Gennadi Trifonov became internationally noted for his Letter from Prison in 1978. This clampdown continued into the USSR’s final decade: the Gay Laboratory set up in Leningrad by activist Aleksandr Zaremba lasted just one year before the KGB shut it down in 1984 – the use of argot peaked at this point.
There are obvious parallels with Polari – the British gay slang that slowly evolved between the Victorian period and the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967. It became more widely known thanks to its use in the BBC Radio comedy Round the Horne, which was broadcast from 1965 until 1968. The humour of argot is particular to its Soviet context: non-Russian speakers can find amusement in its subversion of notable Communist-era terms. For example, the word Menshevik, which in October 1917 denoted the more liberal faction opposed to the Bolsheviks and translates as ‘minority’, was used in argot to mean sexual minority; Pleshka’s Director signified a popular meeting point for gay men, specifically the Karl Marx monument on Marx Avenue. With all this in mind, I ask, is Mother Tongue a queer-nationalist project?
‘That’s definitely an element,’ says Fiks, ‘but I aim to highlight that, before 1991, there was a sophisticated gay and lesbian culture, that organically connected to pre-revolutionary culture, because people alive before October 1917, and during the 1920s, were still around after World War II, albeit much older. I don’t see my project as a protest against an internationalist queer culture or borrowing of American or English words – I just feel that this Soviet culture, which is almost extinct, should be remembered.’
While Fiks hints at his connection with the late 19th-century Russian gay subculture that found its literary expression in Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings (1906) – one of the world’s first ever coming-out novels – the artist’s work has focused on people such as Harry Whyte, the gay British communist working for Moscow News who wrote to Stalin in 1934 to ask what had happened to his recently-arrested boyfriend. The letter was first published in Russian in 1993; Fiks included it in the book of his ‘Moscow’ photo-series in 2012. He tells me that Whyte’s letter ‘asked Stalin to explain, as a Marxist, what was wrong with being a communist homosexual’ and that Whyte was not being naïve in his question – it suggests that ‘there must have been a level of openness in the Party at the time’ and that the recriminalization of homosexuality had not necessarily been inevitable.
This desire to ensure an accurate memory of Soviet subcultures and noteworthy individuals who formed part of them, has long been Fiks’ animating principle. He completed a parallel project, Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, in 2016, looking at linguistic similarities and differences between the LGBT and Jewish communities – the only openly gay postwar Soviet writer, Yevgeniy Kharitonov, frequently engaged with Jewish themes: ‘Some might say in an anti-Semitic way,’ Fiks says, ‘but it was definitely on his mind.’ However, Fiks was only 18 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and has worked not just on excavating the past, but also on connecting it with the present. As Vladimir Putin’s law against gay ‘propaganda’ went before the Duma in spring 2013, Fiks worked with activists from Moscow’s Rainbow Association on Postcards from the Revolutionary Pleshka, asking them to send messages to the Soviet men who frequented the cruising sites that Fiks had painted on the cards. ‘Some were very positive, saying the law wouldn’t pass,’ recalls Fiks. ‘Others had very dark predictions, saying it would be adopted, and that things would get much worse.’ Sadly, the pessimists were right: there is no sign of Putin’s Russia becoming much more forgiving than Stalin’s USSR at this point, but as Mother Tongue suggests, a community forced underground can still find ways to express itself, and to pass on their survival techniques to their successors.
Main image: Yevgeny Fiks, ‘Mother Tongue’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Grad.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.