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Jeremy Willard
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The Oscar Wilde of Russia

Mikhail Kuzmin wrote the first Russian gay novel in the early 1900s


Why do I write about gay history? I do it in part because it legitimizes us, shows that queerness wasn’t invented in the 1960s, or even ancient Greece. I also write about it because the lives of our queer forebears are fascinating. They weren’t perfect — their lives were often peppered with scandal, blunder and lust — but often it was their peculiarities that enabled them to contribute meaningfully to the swerve of history. There is something healthy and attractive about understanding somebody, and the world, honestly — queerness, warts and all. And, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting. I imagine novelist Mikhail Kuzmin felt the same way.

Russia has had a tumultuous history with gays and gay writing. During the Kievan period (10th to 13th centuries CE), homosexuality seems to have been written about only in relation to the lives of some saints. The legend of Boris and Gleb tells of a magnificent necklace Prince Boris had made for his squire, George the Hungarian, because George “was loved by Boris beyond all reckoning.” The Muscovite period (14th to 17th centuries CE) is generally considered as tolerant an era as ancient Greece. Writing by foreign travellers to Russia reflected this. English diplomat George Turberville seemed less affected by Ivan the Terrible’s political purges than he was by visible homosexuality, and this inspired his humorous poem “To Dancie.”

It is harder to characterize the attitude toward homosexuality and homosexual writings in the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the whole they became less visible. Writing that touched on homosexual themes usually did so with distaste or confusion. The two 19th-century greats, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, had a Victorian disapproval of sex, even if Tolstoy hinted at bisexuality in his autobiographical novels Childhood and Boyhood.

When Tsar Nicholas II was forced to issue his October Manifesto in 1905, gay writers flourished with the dramatic reduction in censorship, and in 1906, Mikhail Kuzmin published Wings, the first Russian novel centred entirely on a gay relationship. It was a sympathetic tale, as well as a proto-coming-out story. The teenaged Vanya Smurov develops a fascination with the older intellectual Larion Dmitrievich Stroop. Scandal erupts, a woman is dead, and Vanya suspects Stroop of sleeping with a live-in male servant. Vanya refuses to speak to Stroop.

The novel is beautiful and subtle — so subtle, it’s unclear to me why Vanya cuts off contact with Stroop (it wasn’t mere jealousy and it wasn’t the scandal) or how he overcomes this. Through travel, and religious and artistic contemplation, Vanya eventually accepts his own homosexuality and decides he wants to be with Stroop — in a sense, he’s grown wings. After a visit with Stroop, Vanya must leave a note telling him to either go (out of his life) or stay. The tale closes on Vanya making his decision: “Without opening the blind, he went over to the desk, upon which stood a glass of flowers, and slowly traced the word ‘go;’ after a moment’s thought, still with the same sleepy expression, he added, ‘and take me with you.’ Then he threw open the window onto the street flooded with sunlight.” Kuzmin became thought of as the spokesperson for a generation of gay men and was known as “the Oscar Wilde of Russia.”

Unfortunately, many of the rights gained in 1905 were lost when Trotsky and Lenin seized power in the October Revolution of 1917 and homosexuality was criminalized by Stalin in 1934. Underground gay writers appeared in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1993 that homosexuality was decriminalized. Despite this gain, gay rights began losing ground again in 2006 with the beginning of a regional trend of legislating against “homosexual propaganda,” and anti-gay legislation is currently being considered on the federal level. There are regions of Russia where I would not be allowed to publish this column. We should never think that hard-won gains can’t vanish overnight at the stroke of a pen here in Canada, just as they have more than once in Russia. — Jeremy Willard

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