Today’s review gives me special pleasure to feature on Punctured Lines, as Dante Matero was my student several years ago at UCLA. As he discusses below, Putin’s Russia is virulently homophobic, while as he also notes, the U.S. has its own share of highly regressive elements. In a heart-breaking and maddening coincidence, this review is coming out just after Russia has enacted its most far-reaching anti-LGBTQ law and in the aftermath in the U.S. of another mass shooting targeting LGBTQ members. Words cannot prevent homophobic laws or stop bullets. What they can do is offer a space of community and solidarity and to amplify marginalized voices. We at Punctured Lines stand with the LGBTQ communities in our old and new homes and are grateful to Dante for highlighting this unique and necessary collection. To support LGBTQ organizations, you can donate to RusaLGBTQ, which helps former Soviet immigrants in the U.S., and which, because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, has started a GoFundMe for Ukrainian refugees in the U.S.
Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, Edited and Translated by Tatiana Klepikova, Review by Dante Matero
Although the number of LGBTQ books in the U.S. has risen sharply in recent years, the genre’s offerings—no longer “emerging” or “burgeoning,” but established—still fail to meet the demands of its (mostly) young, multilingual, global audience. Censorship of the genre has likewise expanded. Right-wing legislators are proving eager to fall in line with the anti-LGBTQ agenda of their constituents, and recent book banning campaigns are singling out books by queer-identifying authors and on LGBTQ topics. To those of us following Russian news, these tactics are eerily familiar.
In 2013, when the now-infamous “gay propaganda laws” were introduced in regional, then national, Russian government, Russian state media was rife with hateful caricatures of the LGBTQ community. Bolstered by laugh tracks, these “news” programs publicly shamed anyone skirting sexual or gender norms and often insinuated that they were pedophiles. Since then, the Russian population’s exposure to LGBTQ literature, media, and online spaces has been closely monitored and curtailed. In contrast to the Soviet-era strategy of penalizing gay sex acts, the Putin regime represses queer culture in an effort to stop the generational transmission of queer identity. Their tactic implies that non-heterosexuality is infectious, and their efforts have been incredibly successful. As a result of the ensuing stigma, Russian LGBTQ people have been subjected to immeasurable persecution and violence; they are the victims of taboos that differentiate “wrong” from “right,” always being pushed towards conformity. The emergence of a post-Soviet LGBTQ literary scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 90’s and early aughts was unprecedented. Today, however, after more than a decade of targeted repression, LGBTQ authors, publishers, readers, and their allies have been systemically dislocated from each other. Although a society may progress, its taboos maintain dividing lines, ready to separate us one from the other. They scar societies, leaving marks as irrevocable as borderlines drawn on geographical maps.
Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights (Methuen Drama, 2021), edited and translated by Tatiana Klepikova, is a literary key to reading this map. Out of the shared queer experience reflected in the collection’s seven plays, Klepikova has rendered a topography of Russian society under Putin, carefully marking its safe passages, pitfalls, and borders. She has invited Russian theater’s most politically vulnerable LGBTQ playwrights to contribute: Valery Pecheykin, Natalya Milanteva, Olzhas Zhanaydarov, Vladimir Zaytsev, Roman Kozyrchikov, the duo Andrey Rodionov and Ekaterina Troepolskaya, and Elizaveta Letter. Furthermore, standing alone in its sub-sub-genre of queer Russian drama in translation, the book itself is a call for publishers to expand their queer offerings. It’s the kind of collection an undergrad Russian Lit major fresh out of the closet—I can confirm—would devour.
Klepikova’s collection arrives as relations between Russia and the U.S. have become mired in intractable conflict. Simultaneously, far-right politicians in both countries, from Governor DeSantis to President Putin, have been stirring up domestic culture wars in a time-honored tradition of political diversion, and in both places, newly-won civil rights are at risk or already lost, fallen victim to the old taboos. For refusing to omit LGBTQ issues from their social studies lessons, teachers in Florida face censure and termination, along with accusations of pedophilia. Meanwhile, in Russia, LGBTQ parents face the removal of adopted children from their custody. Recently, a lesbian couple and their two children were featured in a high-end supermarket chain’s online ad campaign, attempting to signal progressive values. The campaign backfired terribly and the family was forced to flee Russia, sparking international condemnation. Circulated on social media at the end of Pride 2021, the ad showed the couple—a feminine, dread-headed hippie and a butch lesbian with a blond buzzcut—looking at ease in the kitchen with their two teen daughters, one sporting dreads and the other looking tough. It drew a lot of hate online, where it attracted the attention of the Russian state’s political machine. While the company faced minor fines in Russia for what the authorities considered distributing pro-LGBTQ propaganda amongst minors, the two women and their daughters faced threats of violence online and in real life.
I was reminded of this regular queer family’s experience while reading A Child for Olya by Natalya Milanteva, who spent eighteen years in an Orthodox convent before finding a new life in the theatre. The anthology’s only play to feature lesbian characters, A Child for Olya centers on the end of a long-term relationship between two ordinary women in Moscow. Olya is riddled with anxiety, her maternal longing for a child mixing perversely with the fear of being outed and labelled a monster, while Zhenya is content with their life as it is, despite her nosy mother’s meddling. The couple, like so many LGBTQ partners in homophobic societies, has to tell their parents and colleagues that they live as roommates. Eventually, the lies turn Olya restless and bitter, leading her to pressure Zhenya for a child. The ensuing fight precipitates the end of their relationship, a casualty of a society that aims to drive lesbians to extinction. (If you have to guess which one of them actually gets pregnant, you haven’t seen enough Russian theater!) Despite the play’s classically Russian unhappy ending, the playwright uses her “Author’s address” to warn that the play is not about “the plight of LGBTQ persons in Russian society.” Rather, Milanteva wishes to convey the message “that love is a precious gift that is rare to get and hard to keep.” This wish is quickly broken as the play refuses to stay in Milanteva’s sealed box. Precious and rare as it may be, Olya and Zhenya’s love is traumatizingly fragile under these social conditions. They are left half-broken and starving for love by their relationship’s end. Indeed, every character in this collection is searching, or at least hungry, for connection, but Milanteva’s narrative locates that loneliness inside a queer relationship, where one would not expect to find it at all. Her play left me wondering not if queer people in Russia could find love, but how they could ever manage to hold onto it.
In Olzhas Zhanaydarov’s The Pillow’s Soul, set in a preschool at recess, the main character does not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, but as a pillow named Bucky. On Bucky’s first day at preschool, the other naptime pillows—Fuzzy, Cushy, Smarty, etc.— spot some grain spilling from a tear in his seam and, alarmed, ask why he is missing his feathers. It is in this moment that Bucky learns for the first time he is filled with buckwheat—different to the core—and he begins to spiral, looking to the others for answers. However, all they offer him are ominous warnings of an underground place called the “Mentbase” (“basement” inverted), where humans stick old and damaged pillows. Even as the other pillows lose interest and go back to sleep, Bucky keeps obsessing over his perceived flaw:
Bucky prods himself, buckwheat rustles inside him.
Bucky Why is there buckwheat in me? I’m not a pot, for pillow’s sake!
He tries to shake out the buckwheat—jumps, twists, stands on his head, gives himself a few good shakes, rustling loudly all the while. Fuzzy wakes up.
Fuzzy Bucky, what are you doing there? Stop it. You’ll lose all your filling and die, you know.
Bucky stops and tries to catch his breath. He sighs. Stumbles away slowly—buckwheat keeps trickling out of the hole.
Bucky (sad) Why live like this? Nobody needs buckwheat…
Subtitled “A Play for Children,” The Pillow’s Soul may be written for a younger audience, but it grapples with weighty themes like social isolation, shame, and even body dysmorphia. Instead of offering to help patch the hole in Bucky’s seam, some pillows advise him to replace the buckwheat with feathers. As Fuzzy says, “No down, no feathers—no pillow!” Others question if his condition is contagious, harkening back to the panic of the early AIDS era that stigmatized a generation of queer people. Out of the often deeply emotional plays collected in Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, the one written for children, about pillows, was not the one I expected to make me cry. However, it was hard not to identify with Bucky; I was a closeted kid in a Baptist school, and bullies always used my insecurities against me, too. In the end, Bucky learns that his differences are what make him valuable, as his owner, Kostya, turns out to have severe allergies and cannot tolerate most pillows. He becomes proud of his buckwheat, learns to love himself, and steps out of his shame. Skirting LGBTQ characters and terminology but concealing a message of tolerance for the queer community, the play represents one slice of a genre “that many lawmakers are trying to legislate out of existence” (Jessica Winter, “What Should a Queer Children’s Book Do?”).
Interestingly, although The Pillow’s Soul is the only play out of the seven that is explicitly created for kids, most of the collected plays grapple with the fraught relationship between queer people and children in Russia. The subject is most provocatively addressed in the collection’s standout play, A Little Hero, by Valery Pecheykin. A master of the craft, Pecheykin weaves a dark fable featuring a young, self-hating gay dictator’s rise to power and the ensuing genocidal homophobia, bit of romance, and chorus of clear-eyed victims. Early in the play, Vovochka’s desire to kiss his best friend is unexpectedly realized. Instead of happiness, however, he is overcome with rage, paranoid that his friend might expose his secret. His ensuing rant is a brilliant foreshadowing of his tyranny:
Vovochka I had my suspicions about these perversions in you. I saw them in the way you look at me [… I]f you betray me … I don’t know what I’d do to you, but whatever I’d do, they won’t put me in jail, ‘cause I’m still a child, like you. It’s adults that aren’t allowed to do anything to us, but children to children—that’s another story.
Pecheykin’s cutting dialogue, impeccably translated here, often appears in interviews and recollections that allow Vovochka and his victims to tell their own stories. The result is breathtaking, frightening, and one of the best plays to come out of Russia in a decade.
Roman Kozyrchikov’s Satellites and Comets is a pensive, dramatic memoir in which a gay Muscovite’s visit to his ailing, nostalgic mother takes him back to the small village where he grew up and first fell in love:
Mom I’m ready to retire. I’d play with my grandson. Or with my granddaughter. I had a dream that you’d have two daughters. (Knocks on wood.) I saw it very clearly. So, I’m waiting now.
Me People must love children because they miss themselves.
This play sets a moody tone that is quickly broken by Andrey Rodionov and Ekaterina Troepolskaya’s Summer Lightning, a whimsical play in verse about ancient forest spirits working queer, pagan magic on unsuspecting children in a dystopian Russia of the future. Finally, the collection is rounded out by Vladimir Zaytsev’s Every Shade of Blue, an emotionally wrought, classically Russian family drama about a gay teen’s coming out, and Elizaveta Letter’s A City Flower, the soul-searching, full-throated monologue of a young Russian woman in the midst of transitioning. Though Letter’s writing is at times clunky, it’s also engaging and honest. She closes her play—and the collection—with a contemplative and hopeful “P.S.”:
Erika, in a gown. She stands in the spotlight.
—Every life is a challenge. Every story deserves a beautiful happy ending. An ending which marks not the end of life, but the beginning of a new, wonderful, long-awaited life.
The most important thing. I am not alone anymore. On my birthday. It’s a present I’ve earned. Like a blessing, a talented, smart, and loving man entered my life. It is in his hands that a City Flower will blossom.
Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights is an ambitious and painstaking feat of heterodoxy, showcasing Russian theater’s most politically vulnerable playwrights whose work is nearly impossible to find in English. For this mammoth project, Klepikova’s translations needed to remain cohesive despite the various playwrights’ idiosyncratic styles, while conveying political and cultural context. Somehow, she accomplishes this feat. She avoids the jarring reading experience that often results from multiple translators’ efforts. In the book’s foreword, Klepikova’s comes out as an ally, but these days, that label gets used by everyone from Donald Trump to the bachelorette-party arrivistes getting bounced from the gay bar. Honestly, I hate the word “ally.” I’d rather have an accomplice. But Klepikova liberates banned lit through translation as if she were a mouthpiece facilitating a conversation, not just between LGBTQ readers but between all readers—using her position as an ally to let us tell our own stories to each other with fluidity.
Dante Matero lives in New York City, where he earned an M.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Columbia University. His writing has been published by The Institute of Modern Russia, Office Magazine, Prism, PEN America, Rip Rap, and others. With Susan Kresin and Susie Bauckus, he co-wrote an essay on Russian language use in modern-day Los Angeles, which was published in the anthology Multilingual La La Land (Routledge, 2021).