‘Don’t Tell Me How to Be Gay’

The work of the Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks – currently on show in London – uncovers the hidden histories of the Soviet LGBT community.

Yevgeniy Fiks' Pleshka-Birobidzhan #8 (2016).

There are many more histories of homosexual desire, love and struggle than the one that begins with the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969. Having once defined his artistic credo as commitment to forming a proper understanding of Soviet homosexual history, Yevgeniy Fiks has been stunningly consistent in pursuing this. Though he himself admits that his life as a young gay in Moscow of the late 1980’s can hardly have been called bright and happy, he does not think that the authentic life of the Soviet homosexual men and women, which was full of trauma, should be forgotten. On the contrary, it deserves to be recorded, studied, understood and remembered as the national legacy of the post-Soviet LGBT community.

In this queer analogy of LGBT community and nation, one can recognize the ideas of Harry Hay, an American communist and founder of the first gay rights organisation, the Mattachine Society. As a Communist Party activist in the 1930s-1940s Hay studied and taught Stalin’s early theoretical work “Marxism and the National Question”, which inspired him to view the American gay community as a nation within the nation, bound by shared territory, culture and language, and therefore to propose the strategy of gay liberation as being akin to the fight for national autonomy as opposed to assimilation. Despite his pioneer role, Hay is almost a forgotten figure in the history of the American LGBT movement. Fiks honors his memory in the project “Towards a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay)” (2013).  The marginalised, the outcasts, the perverts and the queers similar to Hay, the Jews, the gays and the idealist communists – are the main characters of Fiks’ projects. However, Fiks never treats his subjects and their lives as exotic exhibits. It seems that a proper understanding of Soviet history according to Fiks must involve much more than just archaeological excavations of the margins. Fiks brings his freakish characters to the center stage, and invites them to assume the leading role in the unfolding drama of history. 

In one of his early projects, “Communist Party, USA” (2007) Fiks, who studied painting in the Surikov Institute in Moscow, produces the portraits of current members of the American Communist Party. Though these portraits depict the communist activists in regular clothes and their routine environments, the very medium of oil painting, with its connotations of solidness and prestige, is a tribute to their commitment to the Communist idea, which has never fully recovered on American soil from Stalinism and McCarthyism. 

In a similar fashion, with “Postcards from the Revolutionary Pleshka” (2013) Fiks chooses an unlikely medium to preserve the memory of Moscow pleshkas (gay and lesbian cruising grounds) – the Soviet-era postcards depicting important political and cultural locations.  The main tourist attractions and sites of power, including the Marx Monument on Sverdlov Square, the Bolshoi Theater, the Lenin Museum near Red Square and the like were also the Soviet capital’s main sites of homosexual sociality. Did the social lives on these grounds, official and covert, intersect, or were they totally indifferent to each other? In Fiks’ understanding of Soviet history, centrality and marginality, vulnerability and power, hope and repression, are always intrinsically connected.

To challenge official historical narratives by presenting facts that have been previously suppressed is an important political task. However, in his more recent projects Fiks shifts his interest from historical facts to the less tangible, but probably more truthful, matter of historical potentiality. It seems that a proper understanding of history comes not with learning what actually happened, but through an exploration of what could have but failed to happen. In the book “Soviet Moscow Yiddish-Gay Dictionary” (2016) Fiks makes contradictory attempts to (re)construct solidarity between the two marginalized Soviet communities – Jews and gays. In the film “Cruising Birobidzhan” (2016) the artist wonders if the capital of the USSR’s Jewish Autonomous Region could possibly be the Socialist Canaan for the Soviet queer folk as well. 

Fiks remains faithful to this contradictory approach to history. In his most recent project “Mother Tongue” (2018), which includes an exhibition and the book, Tematicheskiy – the Soviet-era slang of homosexual men is presented as a full-fledged language with complex grammar, diverse vocabulary and a developed literary canon. Tema (theme) is the most common self-designation of the post-Soviet LGBT communities. It derives from the Russian expression v teme which loosely translates into English as in the know; and Tematicheskiy is the mother tongue of tema, that is of those in the know. 

One spoken language disappears every fortnight, and scientists predict that as many as 7,000 human languages will go extinct by the end of this century. Tematicheskiy is in this endangered list as well. I have been v teme for a while, but only a few months ago I had a chance to listen to spoken Tematicheskiy for the first time. Two sovetskie zhenshchiny (soviet women – homosexual men who have been in in the know since the Soviet times) were explaining to a twenty year old dochka (daughter – young homosexual) the meaning of the word pleshka. This conversation took place in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a nationally reputed stronghold of religiosity and conservatism. Multiethnic, multigenerational and flamboyant tema in Osh live clandestinely, hiding away from police brutality and blackmail in private parties and rare daytime gatherings. The main languages in the local tema as well as in the city at large are Uzbek and Kyrgyz, or the mixture of both, but the local dialect of Tematicheskiy is also spoken, primarily for the purposes of secrecy. 

Tematicheskiy developed as an argot – a secret language – of Soviet homosexuals, in which they could discuss their social and sexual life without attracting the unwanted attention of police and mobsters alike. Despite the criminal prosecution of male homosexual sex in the USSR, the older gay men from Osh talk about their Soviet-era temnaya (in the know) life with a strong nostalgic sentiment. According to them, two men could publicly hold hands or hug and not be singled out as homosexuals. While today, they complain, even policemen can address them in Tematicheskiy, wondering why two men being lachkas (bottoms in the local dialect of Tematicheskiy) hang out together as a couple.

Today this reads as a sad irony. But probably in fifty years from now this conversation between the gay men and police will be presented as a historical moment at which Tematicheskiy went from being the mother tongue of queer nation to becoming a lingua franca of the universe.