Bookforum talks to Yevgeniy Fiks

Moscow-born and New York City-based conceptual artist and writer Yevgeniy Fiks has explored the various submerged narratives and counter-histories of the Soviet experience of Communism for more then a decade. A prolific artist and performer, his technique is a microhistorical unspooling of often-quirky archival finds that lead to an illuminating shift of perspective about aspects of the Communist past. His books include the Communist Guide to New York City (2008) as well as the hilarious and instructive Lenin for Your Library? (2007), a collection of acceptance and rejection letters sent to him after he attempted to donate one-hundred copies of Lenin's book Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism to one-hundred major corporations. His recent projects interrogate the place of queer desire during the cold war. We spoke with him about Moscow, his latest volume, recently published by the Ugly Duckling Presse in conjunction with an exhibition “Homosexuality Is Stalin's Atom Bomb to Destroy America” at the Winkleman Gallery in New York, a show about the intertwining of the “Red” and “Lavender” scares during the McCarthy-ite ’50s. The book is a collection of spare and uninhabited photographs of pleshkas, or public cruising places frequented by gay people in Moscow from the ’20s to the ’80s. It concludes with a soul searching, poignant and 1934 dialectical jargon appropriate letter written to Stalin by Harry Whyte, a British Communist living in Moscow, in a personal plea to reverse the criminalization of homosexuality in Soviet society.

Bookforum: You write in the preface that this book is a “monument to the queer Moscow of the past,” that it “is a counter-monument to Moscow,” and that it is necessary to mourn those unknown generations of gay people who “reconstructed their city as a site of queer desire and subjectivity.” Why do you think this lack of memory is problematic? What effects do you think it has on modern Russian society?

Yevgeniy Fiks: From a post-Soviet queer perspective, we live without a queer Soviet history. The Soviet-era queer experience is still unresolved, a conceptual lacuna. The presence of queer subjects in the modern Russian narrative begins in the late 1980s, and as the recent homophobic law-making spree in Russia showed, even that fragile historical presence is being disputed by the conservative side. Western queer history is better known in Russia than is Russia’s own. It is ironic that “Stonewall” means more in Russia than the decriminalization of homosexuality during the Russian Revolution in 1917 or Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin, which is included in my book. Even present-day Russian LGBT activists feel uneasy about this history because it’s not something to be proud of, mostly because the people who came to the pleshkas of the Soviet era for the most part didn’t identify themselves as gay—they were simply obedient Soviet subjects with a dirty secret who just couldn't help themselves.

This unwritten history is a result, of course, of the high level of Soviet-era repression. The older generation of Soviet-era gays are just not talking or at least not writing about their experiences. Russia is the quintessential country of belle lettres par excellence, but people were afraid to write about their lives in personal diaries, which is of course the usual source for the composition of queer histories in the West.

So yes, I do think we must mourn the fates of those lost generations of Soviet queer subjects whom the Soviet project betrayed. The promise of universal liberation that the Revolution offered was completely crushed in 1934 and a nightmare had set in for the next sixty years. Only after this metaphorical mourning of the Soviet-era queer subject can we can move on.

Bookforum: What was the historical lineage of the criminalization?

Yevgeniy Fiks: Going back to the legacy of the Soviet era, we should make no mistake that homosexuality was criminalized in the Soviet Union in 1934 as a political action. It was part of a larger right-wing Thermidorian assault on whatever remained by then of the Revolution. There was installed a total control over the working class by the Party bureaucracy, abortion was criminalized, "family values" strengthened. In that vein, homosexuality was viewed as "bourgeois degeneracy"—both as an influence coming from the West but also as remnants of the pre-revolutionary Russian bourgeoisie. In his speech justifying the criminalization, Krylenko, the Prosecutor General of the USSR, stated that there were no working-class homosexuals in the Soviet Union, but only "déclassé punks" or remnants of the old class of exploiters, linking them to counter-Revolutionary circles.

Bookforum: Have attitudes toward homosexuality changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Yevgeniy Fiks: Yes, changes did take place, and the 1990s and 2000s saw the opening of businesses, including bars, clubs, magazines and stores catering to the queer community. So, there has been a process of “normalization through consumerism” during the last two decades. The free market was supposed to “normalize” the post-Soviet queer subject, and to a certain extend it did.

But regarding the changes in attitudes, that is open to dispute. One can argue that in the Soviet era homophobia in the present-day, Western sense didn't exist, as gay people were invisible. They did not exist in the public sphere. There is now a greater visibility, which has in some cases led to more aggressive and vocal homophobia. What has happened is that the post-Soviet queer political subject has been formed, one with a clear consciousness and that is quite different from those who frequented Soviet-era pleshkas. But it’s important to remember that cruising in central Moscow during Soviet times was a fundamentally subversive activity vis-a-vis the totalitarian state, even if it was not consciously so. These activities of Soviet-era gays in political terms were a kind of dissent against the conservative patriarchal society that the Soviet Union became after the 1930s.

Bookforum: How do the works of your show “Homosexuality Is Stalin's Atom Bomb to Destroy America” connect to these insights of yours and to the process evoked by book? As ironic and mirthful as all this is, how can it be that the American right was accusing the Soviets of manifesting queer identity even as they were actually suppressing it?

Yevgeniy Fiks: Yes, it's beyond ironic. When I stumbled upon those anti-Communist and anti-gay quotations from mainstream American politicians of the 1950s I was stunned. It didn't fit my preconception of the Cold War ideological divide. I'm not sure if those American politicians were aware of the fact that in the Soviet Union homosexuality was a criminal offense. They didn't even bother to do the research—they just assumed that their enemy Joe Stalin must be a friend of their other enemy: gays. Homosexuality perfectly fit their idea of "godless communism." In their mind both communists and gays were walking hand in hand as a unified and interchangeable "general evil." This perfectly fits the McCarthyite worldview.

Bookforum: The photographs you reproduce in the book are ghostly architectural reproductions, empty of people: In them Moscow is essentially a ghost-town inhabited by the spirits of the repressed and suppressed. This reminds me of the well known love architects have for Heidegger's Being and Time because it's full of spaces without people.

Yevgeniy Fiks: Yes, I wanted to show Moscow as this empty, deserted space devoid of any subjects. I wanted to depict precisely what was impossible for the photographic lens to see back then—the forced invisibility of the queer Soviet subject. I felt that this emptiness of the city today would visualize this void of memory, from a position of being conscious of that invisibility.

I wanted to show Moscow as this neutral space—a space for everyone, upholding the failed Soviet promise of universality and inclusion. The pictures are of common public spaces. And yet, at the same time I wanted also to reclaim those sites for queer Moscow history. This project is also about the limits or failure of photography.

Bookforum: So how would you define a queer site in Moscow?

Yevgeniy Fiks: Any site in Moscow is potentially a queer site. What I mean is that any street corner, square, metro station, or building can potentially be a site of someone's subjectivity, including queer one, as of anyone who ever lived in that beautiful city and walked its streets. So, I see this project as an open one, beyond just the thirty plus photos that my book presently contains. Anyone can take a camera and point it and shoot—and I bet you the camera will capture a site of someone's queer history or subjectivity.

Bookforum: Finally, how do you think this lost history and it's renewed suppression relates to the ideological stance of the reactionaries in Russia today? The last two years has seen a complete reversal of the situation in terms of gay rights. What do you think the ideological struggle will bring?

Yevgeniy Fiks: It feels like a new Thermidorian reaction to me after twenty years of improvement. The right-wing wants Russian gays back in the closet. They want queerness to be the dirty secret of an otherwise presentable Russian citizen. However, I feel that the formation of the post-Soviet queer political subject at this point is irreversible and I don't think the disciples of Comrades McCarthy and Stalin will get very far this time around.

Vladislav Davidzon is a writer, critic and translator and is currently attending the European Union’s Human Rights Master’s program in Venice.