Every Story Deserves a Beautiful Happy Ending: A Review of Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, Edited and Translated by Tatiana Klepikova, by Dante Matero

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 establishedstill 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.

Silence.

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).

Writing and Reviewing Queer Russian Literature: A Conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin

We’re delighted to publish our conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin, an author and literary and film critic who reviews LGBT books and movies, as well as trends in Russian culture. Kropotkin’s novels and collections of short stories centering queer lives are available on Amazon, in Russian. His commentary on queer culture appears daily on his Telegram blog “Sodom i umora,” and he contributes full-form critical essays to top Russian-language publications. Kropotkin lives in Germany and this conversation was conducted in English and Russian over email, and subsequently translated by the interviewer.

Olga Zilberbourg: Much of your fiction has been focused on portraying the lives of gay men, and as a critic you pay particular attention to LGBT literature and film. Your popular Telegram blog “Sodom i umora” is dedicated to queer books and movies in Russian or in translation to Russian. Despite the retrograde homophobic laws that Russia has passed in recent years, and horrific persecution of gay people in Chechnya, you have shown that Russophone queer literature is a vibrant field. In your blog you seem to strive for balance: you write about various forms of homophobia and also about the many creators that are participating in Russophone queer culture. How would you describe your cultural project as a critic? Does this project change in any way when you turn to fiction?

Konstantin Kropotkin: To get through to the mind, you need to pave the way to the heart. I have arrived at this principle in the early 2000s, when I began to write queer prose, and today I continue to uphold this principle. In 2018, I launched my project #содомиумора where I illustrate the idea that queer literature and queer film, on the one hand, follow their own conventions, and on the other, speak to universal values and can be of interest to a very wide audience. I’m trying to squelch the prejudice that LGBTIQ themes are exotic, incomprehensible, far away, alien. Using examples from books and movies, I’m trying to make the case that these themes are socially significant, have artistic value, are entertaining, familiar, and accessible to anyone.

Konstantin Kropotkin

In other words, I’m working on the same problems as the LGBTIQ rights organizations, though unlike them I’m addressing not only queer people, but an audience of potential allies (“Here, mom, if you want to understand me better, read this!”). This is why I welcome opportunities to write for publications that don’t position themselves as queer. These publications allow my essays, book and film criticism to reach people who are not familiar with LGBTIQ issues. These publications are also a means of habituating queer content within the professional communities, in this case, of film and literary critics.

In the same vein, my Telegram channel #содомиумора is deeply valuable to me as it allows me to deliver a service to my subscribers: everyone, no matter whether they are affiliated with the LGBTIQ community or not, can come here to find a movie or a book to enjoy. Then, the fiction itself does the work of enlightenment, providing readers or viewers with role models, stock phrases useful in everyday life, typical situations, vocabulary for articulating experiences that previously had been taboo.

I also showcase foreign books that would be good to have in Russian translation. I know that publishers and editors read my columns, and my recommendations can be of use to them. I should note that, unlike books, foreign queer movies are translated to Russian almost instantly. This is a paradox of a country where it’s difficult to make money on LGBTIQ content. Queer movies are pirated and translated by the pirates, and nobody represents the interests of the copyright holders in Russia. Russian distributors often steer clear of queer movies, especially indie productions: these movies are rarely profitable even in the West, and the distributors prefer to avoid the risk, given the hostile legal environment.

The work of education that I provide in my reviews, as well as the information provided by the books and movies themselves, is particularly crucial in the country whose government backs homophobia. Adopted in 2013, the “gay propaganda” law endangers the lives of queer people and has had a damaging effect on the Russian cultural landscape. The law is vaguely written and has been used selectively—as an instrument of repressions. I set out to illustrate, with examples, why homophobia causes harm in every way: both in people’s lives, and in the sphere of cultural production.

Olga Zilberbourg: I first came across your work in Gorky, and the essay that grabbed my attention, “Waiting for Boring Men,” was dedicated to the vibrancy of LGBT literature from Georgia. Invited as a guest of honor to the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgia made LGBT literature one of the central themes of its program. In this piece, you pointed out that Georgian literature has been able to address the traumas that Russian literature still dismisses as imaginary. I want to pause for a moment on the traumas you allude to: I assume you’re talking about the homophobic policies of the USSR and the near total silencing of the existence of LGBT people during the late Soviet era. What do you think have been some of the difficulties that Russophone writers experience in approaching these traumas? Conversely, do you believe it’s possible to sidestep the Soviet legacy altogether and to focus on contemporary issues without delving into the past?

Konstantin Kropotkin: The example of Georgia, a fellow post-Soviet state, shows the way contemporary Russian literature could develop if Russia’s homophobia wasn’t a government-level enterprise. (I use the word “homophobia” in an old-fashioned way that includes trans- and bi- and queer-phobia.) Both Russia and Georgia share history as republics of the Soviet Union, but today Georgia is pursuing a democratic route, while Russia is set on the reconstruction of the Soviet monstrous form of government. This difference shows up, among other things, in the literary production of the two countries. Notably, Georgia is a much smaller country than Russia, with less than 4 million citizens, and a relatively poor one. Its literary community is correspondingly smaller, and trends within it are more noticeable. It’s also more flexible in its response to the demands of the times, and to social change. What we observe as true for Georgian literature might well become true for Russian literature at a much later date. It’s important to consider how Georgia is addressing prejudices against queer people. There, LGBTIQ books are published with governmental support, which serves the advancement of their national literature overall and increases the visibility of queer experiences. This is crucial knowledge for Russian knowledge makers.

The Soviet Union’s LGBTIQ history demands a comprehensive, expert reflection, and I think, sooner or later, this will become obvious to people in Russia as well. Unfortunately, much of this history has already become inaccessible: most of the people who’d borne the Soviet queer experience have silently passed away, and so many important stories have been buried with them, unrecorded.

Olga Zilberbourg: You have thought deeply and argued for the importance of genre in the world of literary production. You have written about the slowly emerging genre of LGBT literature in Russia—and about the refusal of some writers who do center LGBT characters in their books to accept the label of “LGBT book” as though it were a diminishment of their accomplishment, wishing their books to be treated as literary fiction because it is a more desirable category. Something analogous happens, I think to women writers, who often refuse the label of “woman” writer believing that to be a diminishment. How do you explain the reluctance to use these terms? To what extent, do you think, is this a reflection on the state of literary criticism in Russia today?

Konstantin Kropotkin: Yes, in Russia, there’s still a strong prejudice against the marker “LGBT literature” (the term “queer fiction” is still in its nascent phase); people feel that it’s a marker of second-rate literature, that it signifies something overly sexualized, scandalous. The reason for this, likely, lies with the Soviet tradition of literary studies that treated sexuality as a taboo subject. Another explanation might be in the hierarchical structure of thought—at its heart, an imperial quality. An empire cannot accommodate the world’s multipolarity; the value of an individual, the significance of each unique “point of view,” is outside of its purview.

Sodom i umora, Kropotkin’s first novel.

This state of affairs is slowly changing, thanks, to a great extent, to the escalating prominence of women’s voices (including the voices of queer women). Both within literature written originally in Russian and within literature published in translation to Russian, women writers are gaining more attention and significance. Dismantling the outmoded status quo with the help of “the female gaze” is useful for queer literature—it clarifies the value of diversity in literary spheres. I believe the cumulative effect of incremental cultural change will play its part, too: for queer work to achieve visibility within the professional community, we need to see commercially successful publications of queer books, large print runs, and dynamic, publicly out queer authors. We’re bound to see all of these things in the next few years—provided that the government will not launch a new homophobic campaign.

Olga Zilberbourg: Your own novel Sodom i umora (2007) is a delightful romp about three gay men who share an apartment in the middle of Moscow in the early 2000s, getting into situations that make me think you set out to write a version of the American sitcom “Will and Grace” set in Moscow. Do you agree with this assessment? What I particularly enjoyed about this novel is that you’re both reproducing lovable stereotypes about gay men (i.e. fashion sense and gaydar) and complicating them, including with the specificities of everyday life in Moscow. The guys are for instance not out to their families and neighbors, which creates a number of situations that are funny in a way deep trauma can be sometimes processed as laughter. Did you have a sense of a particular audience you were writing this book for? How did your book resonate with readers in Russia?

Konstantin Kropotkin: My novel Sodom i umora was written spontaneously, without an outline; it didn’t go through a professional revision and editing process. It was a new form for me at the time and, as such, from where I stand now, has a number of shortcomings. (Artistically, my later queer books Dnevnik odnogo g and Zhivut takie parni are far more successful.) Overall, however, Sodom i umora is an original, for Russian literature, attempt to write about “gays with a human face” (in the words of one of my readers). I wanted to show gay men as approachable, likeable, and moving, and to achieve this I relied on certain devices that are rather cinematic in nature. This is a sitcom novel: I wrote it, imagining a TV series. I’ve never seen “Will and Grace,” but I was thinking about situational comedy as a genre, as an idea. (At the time I studied playwriting, and a few of my plays were later published.)

A volume of Kropotkin’s collected short prose, self-published as a result of the homophobic Russian law against “gay propaganda.”

One other source for this book, I should say, was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. It had a great effect on me. This American classic of gay literature is yet to be translated to Russian; I’d read Maupin’s novels in German translation. I was attracted to the idea of home as a safe space, particularly important for a queer person in a hostile environment. Truly, my novel is an embodiment of such a “safe space”—the very book is a place that a reader can inhabit without getting hurt. Later, I used the genre of autofiction in my book Zhivut takie parni to talk about the everyday happiness of a partnership between gay men (I chose selected chapters of that book for the definitive collection Takie parni): this is a story about a German-Russian gay family living in contemporary Germany.

The novel Sodom i umora has had a happy life. Right upon the publication of the first chapters online, the characters immediately found a warm reception from the online audience; later, the book was published in print by the now defunct Kvir Press. Soon afterwards, it was picked up by a German publisher. The German translation, Russen WG, showed good sales numbers. For a German-speaking audience there wasn’t anything particularly new in the plot and the everyday events described in the book, while within the body of Russian-language prose, Sodom i umora remains to this day a unique phenomenon: tragicomic fiction about queer people is yet to materialize as a Russian-language genre.

A German-language translation of Sodom i umora.

At the beginning of 2010s, I wrote a sequel. Sozhiteli, a mystery and a comedy of manners, took up the story of my characters ten years later. As a result of the “gay propaganda” law, the book’s only chance for publication was self-publishing. It’s available on Ridero. Perhaps, in another ten years, I will write the final chapter of this story.

Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve particularly enjoyed your end of the year columns where you summarize not only the important LGBT books that have come out but also devote some time to highlighting the trends in publishing, promotion, and reception of queer literature. You’ve concluded your 2020 post with a very hopeful outlook: LGBT books are coming out, the scandals they cause are few and far between, and the spectrum of LGBT literature in Russian is starting to resemble what’s been happening across Western Europe. It seems that translation is playing a large role in this process: many books on your list are translations of American and West European authors. What role do you think capitalism is playing in this process and in Russia’s ability to participate in this global marketplace—not only of ideas, but of books as physical objects that have certain sales numbers attached to them?

Konstantin Kropotkin: The strictness of Russian laws is matched only by the laxity of their enforcement. Today, the book industry treats the “gay propaganda” law mostly as a fiction. Government representatives pretend that they enforce the law; publishers that they obey it (in fact, both merely fulfill the required formalities). Publishers attach a sticker “18+” on the covers of queer books, and in most cases, that’s all there is to it. Queer books for teenagers do reach their target audience. However, the homophobic “norm” does increase self-censorship, both among the authors and the publishers. Telling the stories of queer people remains challenging, and the themes of homo- trans- and bisexuality are largely absent in print. The very existence of the homophobic law hangs over literary authors as the sword of Damocles, threatening the development of queer voices and movements.

That said, the number of LGBTIQ books is increasing. It’s becoming obvious that queer books can be money-makers. High-profile queer fiction is translated to Russian at an increasing rate (and the quality is improving). Simultaneously, publishers are looking to create their own queer stars. One example of such publishing success is Mikita Franko, who writes as a “trans-guy” (in his own words). He published two novels in 2020: one, a story about a family with two dads, Dni nashei zhizni, and another, about a family where one of the parents is a trans person. The first of these novels has been a great commercial success, and the second was warmly received by the critics. I was happy to have been asked by the publishers to contribute a blurb to Franko’s first book: my praise was displayed on the back cover of Dni nashei zhizni alongside contributions from the representatives of “conventional” literature. I expect that this novel will soon be translated into foreign languages, and I’ve heard that TV-series rights are in negotiations.

As long as the government doesn’t impose homophobic censorship, capitalism performs miracles. In Russia, there are at least two small presses that openly mention the significance of queer literature in their promotional materials—Popcorn Books and No Kidding Press. Large publishing houses are producing queer books ever more readily, though they try not to attract too much attention to the LGBT aspects of these books. I don’t think this is a partisan war against a homophobic government. More likely, they want to turn a profit with minimum risk. One recent example is the novel Moy beliy, a bildungsroman about a heterosexual young woman, a Muscovite, who is growing up with two mothers. This semi-autobiographical novel by Kseniya Burzhskaya was published by Inspiria, an imprint of the giant publishing house Eksmo.

Some books that are emerging today are of exceptional artistic quality. Katya Chistyakova’s novel Tam, na perimetre tells the story of a relationship between a homeless gay man and a volunteer of a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless; it can be compared, in part, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Chistyakova’s novel received a small print run from a large publishing house, and though it’s a superb portrait of a queer person, the book was not marketed as a queer novel. (I see my job as a queer critic to point out the inequity of this approach.)

Notably, most authors don’t like to have the term “queer” attached to their work. Some go quite far in their desire to distance themselves from the LGBTIQ community. To a Westerner, Mikita Franko’s first interviews might appear as straight homophobia (I believe the young author had been insufficiently informed about queer history and theory). Kseniya Burzhskaya, who penned the novel about a lesbian family and had lived in France for a few years, protested in an interview against the usage of the word “queer” to define her book. According to her, queer desire is not differentiated from other forms of desire, it doesn’t have its own specificity. These words, I believe, were dictated by the wish to be perceived as an author conforming to the conventions of Russian-language literature. In both of these cases, the books speak more progressively than their authors. A writer doesn’t need to be a literary scholar, but my task as a queer critic is to point out convincingly the areas where the writer has made a bad call; this method of trial and error is the only way to formulate a new social consensus, appropriate for the contemporary moment.  

Olga Zilberbourg: What role do you think diaspora authors, authors who live outside of Russia, are playing in the Russophone LGBT literary space?

Konstantin Kropotkin: Personally, I have the opportunity to dedicate myself to queer literature as an author and a critic only because I reside outside of Russia. Nobody censures me; I lead an active social life as a gay man, and I can publicize this experience in Russian without fear. I think my experience is an emblematic one. There are other queer authors who write in Russian and live outside of Russia, and they bridge two world views, the Western and the Russian, and among other things, this reveals new opportunities for Russian literature. Lida Yusupova, who lived in Canada and Belize, published lesbian prose and now has become a prominent representative of the new Russian poetry. Evgeny Shtorn, in Ireland, wrote a good autofiction, Khroniki bezhenstva, where he voiced his experiences as a gay refugee. Anatoly Vishevsky, a writer from Ukraine, who has taught at a U.S. university and now lives in Prague, wrote an excellent Russian-language novel, Khrupkie fantazii oberbossierera Loisa, which can be read in the vein of and developing the ideas of English-language canonical queer fiction from Edmund White to Alan Hollinghurst to Michael Cunningham. This novel was published in Russia last year, and I was glad that my support had contributed to making this publication possible.

Olga Zilberbourg: Contemporary Russophone LGBT authors emerge from across Russia — though homophobia is, reportedly, stronger outside of Moscow’s city center, there is plenty of talent outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg and young people are finding creative ways to share their writing. Do you see a trend in LGBT literature coming from Russian regions, or are the books that are becoming visible still important outliers (I’m thinking, for instance, about Mikita Franko)?

Konstantin Kropotkin: I’m confident that there are noteworthy writers in Russia outside of the metropolises. So many unique queer experiences have been left in the darkness, so many stories could become wonderful books. Considering current global literary trends, there might be a lot of interest in the voices of queer people from minority ethnic backgrounds—Chukchi, Evenki, Tatar. Indeed, Russia is a multiethnic state. 

Today, queer authors from the provinces produce exclusively self-published writing, using fanfic websites, often anonymously. The example of Mikita Franko coming from the provinces, however, demonstrates that a queer person is able to become a successful author in Russia. Publishers claim that they are ready to publish homegrown, Russian LGBT literature. The demand for queer voices is growing.     

A display at Eisenherz, the oldest German bookstore specializing in queer literature.

Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve been using the moniker “LGBT” literature in this Q&A, and I want to pause on the fact that terminology remains a hotly debated topic. In your blog and elsewhere you’ve used terms “gay literature” (гей-литература) and “queer literature” (квир-литература). My question at the moment is about the comparative visibility of the books and authors representing the entire spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities in Russia. What identities do you see represented in Russophone literature most vibrantly and what identities do you think still remain underrepresented?

Konstantin Kropotkin: I persistently use the term “queer literature” (квир-литература) because it describes the entire spectrum of identities. This general term sounds better in Russian than “LGBTIQ+” (ЛГБТИК+). I also allow myself to use the shortened term “LGBT prose” (ЛГБТ-проза). The euphonic, pleasing sounds of the terminology are important to me, because I want my work to be received by a wide audience. I need to use language that’s not overly complex and isn’t marked as fundamentally, radically new. This is why I allow myself to use the somewhat old-fashioned synonyms—for instance, “gay prose” (гей-проза), a term that doesn’t describe the rainbow spectrum. I introduce new terms with caution—readers of my blog, my articles, my books must feel that I want to be understood. The measured, unintrusive introduction of the new vocabulary naturalizes these words in everyday parlance.

It’s clear that the Russian language lacks words to describe queer people. The case of agender, nonbinary people is particularly revealing. We are yet to arrive at a consensus about how to mark nonbinary identity in Russian, how to appropriately describe it. The arguments among linguists have been gaining notice. Some translators, including Tatiana Zborovskaya, attempt to translate Western agender books, books free from gender categories. The results of these attempts are quite interesting. It turns out that Russian grammar is capable of representing a gender-neutral character. Zborovskaya is translating the novel by a Swiss author Anna Stern, das alles hier, jetzt, in which the protagonists are not marked as “men” or “women.” According to the first published fragments from this work, Russian language is able to match the capabilities of German in this regard. (The translator has written a scholarly article about this.)

Olga Zilberbourg: Is it even productive to ask a question that centers the Western notion of “identity” in the Russian context? After all, coming out as anything still feels dangerous in Russia, and authors often prefer to obscure their personal identity.

Konstantin Kropotkin: It’s particularly important to manifest one’s queerness in the country where the laws against “gay propaganda” are in force. Though, of course, one ought to do this only when not in danger for one’s life. In the large Russian cities, there are opportunities for this. Things are different in smaller cities and in the regions where patriarchal traditions dominate—in Chechnya, for instance, where people die if their affiliation with the LGBTIQ community is discovered. An author is free to provide as much information about themselves as they consider necessary. I don’t think a single, universal strategy of queer self-representation could exist in such a large country as Russia. My rule is: if you are able to speak out, do so, but take care of yourself first; you only have one life—don’t take unnecessary risks. 

Sozhiteli, a sequel to Sodom i umora, published ten years later. Orange meerkat is Kropotkin’s talisman, Motja.

Olga Zilberbourg: Last but not least, “Sodom i umora” is the title of your current Telegram blog, and your novel from 2007. I’ve also come across a text from 2003, where you used it as a title for a fictional medicine. I’ve been thinking of how to translate it to English, and the best I can come up with is “Sodom and raw humor” — to preserve the similarity with Gomorrah, though Russian “umora” is one of those untranslatable words that I think most closely describe this notion of laughter from deep trauma. Where did the phrase “Sodom i umora” come from and what does it mean to you?

Konstantin Kropotkin: “Sodom i umora” is word play and a callback to that tale about the sad fate of Sodom and Gomorrah that religious moralists love to use as a threat. The protagonists of my debut novel call their house “Sodom i umora.” To explain my method in this novel, I came up with the “safety instructions,” as they do for drugs. I don’t want to “cure” people from homophobia. Using entertainment literature as a placebo, I am asking people to cure themselves. I want them to use their own reason to arrive at the conclusion that homophobia is a hindrance for all of us.

In 2009, as I was arranging my novel for the German publisher, I proposed the title Sodom and Humorrha for it. (The publisher decided that it was too unwieldy and the book was published under the title Russen WG.) The version “Sodom and raw humor” sounds, perhaps, even better, it’s more precise and rhythmically closer to the original. Yes, laughter, even when it’s bitter, tragic laughter, is curative. That first book was a kind of therapy for me. It helped me to heal (or accept) my own psychic traumas—in Russia, I had been a victim of homophobia more than once. My funniest stories come out during the moments of the greatest emotional upheaval, when I feel exceptionally awful. Laughter is a step on the way back up, toward recovery. It’s only the very first step.

Noncommercial project #содомиумора with informational content about queer culture can be accessed on a variety of platforms:

Telegram (new content daily; is particularly important in Russia as a space protected from government censorship): https://t.me/gaybooksfilms

Instagram (a repository of the most vibrant quotes from queer books and movies): https://www.instagram.com/sodom_i_umora/

Medium (long-form content: book and film reviews, short stories): https://medium.com/@konstantinkropotkin

Vkontakte: https://vk.com/public174164424

To support the project financially:

ЯндексДеньги: 4100111508567736

PayPal: kropotkind@googlemail.com

A Virtual Event with Lida Yusupova

Tomorrow, March 12, 2021, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute is hosting a virtual “Zoomposium” and a reading, featuring the poet Lida Yusupova. The event is hosted by Anastasiya Osipova and Mark Lipovetsky as a part of the Institute’s Contemporary Culture Series.

Organizers write: Lida Yusupova is a uniquely important voice in contemporary Russophone poetry and, in particular, a groundbreaking figure for contemporary feminist poetry. Often experimenting with documentary poetics, as in Verdicts, her poetic cycle based on transcripts of Russian court hearings, she unflinchingly investigates cruelty and violence, while, paradoxically, extending intimacy and sympathy to the most alienating situations. We are proud to welcome an international lineup of poets and poetry scholars to discuss Yusupova’s poetics and her new bilingual edition, The Scar We Know (edited by Ainsley Morse, Cicada Press, 2021). The event will conclude with a poetry reading by Yusupova.

I have previously written about this book in a post, dedicated to Lida Yusupova’s poem “The Center for Gender Problems” (Russian text) that appears in the book in Hilah Kohen’s translation. We have also published an interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor of this collection. The significance of Yusupova’s work for contemporary Russian literature is alluded to in this Time Magazine article by Suyin Haynes. Oksana Vasyakina and Galina Rymbu, featured in this article, will be participating in the Zoomposium, wonderful in its ability to unite translators, writers, and scholars from Russia and the diaspora.

I’m honored at the opportunity to deliver and expand my remarks on the poem “The Center for Gender Problems” as a part of the panel on Feminism in Yusupova’s work.

Please preregister for each individual panel as well as for the poet’s reading.

Buying books is the best way to support authors. Lida Yusupova’s book is now available for purchase from Cicada Press.

Lida Yusupova’s Poetry Collection The Scar We Know

In the spring of 2007, in St. Petersburg to visit my parents and to promote my first collection of stories, I decided to attend a graduation party of the Gender Studies program at the European University. I’d been a semi-active participant in the Russian-language feminist blogs, where I learned about this program. I contemplated applying; or, at least, since by then I lived in San Francisco, I dreamed about befriending the students and the faculty and making myself useful to them. I had just graduated from a Master’s program in Comparative Literature in San Francisco, where I learned a few things about feminism. I thought my experience could be useful and interesting to my Russian peers. My ideas were somewhat far-fetched.

European University building until 2017

Established in 1994, European University had the reputation of a progressive institution, focusing on social studies, including history, anthropology, economics, politics. I had never been there before, and I was imagining something akin the American universities that I knew: welcoming signage, flyers everywhere, friendly faces ready to help. I forgot to account for one small thing: my native city’s culture.

The address of European University took me to a grand old palace in the old part of town. The entrance should’ve been obvious, but there were a few young men smoking right outside. Intimidated by the smokers (there was very little smoking on campus in the San Francisco by then) and confused by where one palace ended and another began, I’d walked past the door, before eventually turning around. The smokers–students, presumably there for their exams–stared at me in a way that was evaluative and none too friendly. Once finally inside, I had instructions about where to go, but the instructions simply said “auditorium,” or some such thing; not very descriptive. I remember walking up and down the halls and stairs of this labyrinthine building, feeling very sorry for myself. Did I ask somebody for directions? I can’t remember, but I remember my fear that if I did, the response would be dismissive. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”–something along these lines. I never made it to the auditorium. I was doomed to being an outsider.

Ok, this was a low moment, but I wasn’t really doomed. The next day, I turned to my aunt Maya for help. She, a librarian, helped me find a bookstore where I could buy the books written by the program’s faculty, and later still I was able to meet some of my LiveJournal friends at cafes and conferences in Russia, Ukraine, in the US. These relationships shaped much of my writing.

Many years later, continuing to lurk on the Russian-language feminist sites, I came across Lida Yusupova’s poem “the center for gender problems” (link to the Russian-language version):

i called an organization by the name of the center for gender problems
could i come to your library
it was January of 1999
i had come back to Russia
from Canada
where i had read a whole lot of books
about feminism
in English
i thought i had a lot of useful knowledge i could share

Though it’s not set in European University, the space that the poet describes is socially and geographically very much adjacent to it (the poem includes a physical address!). I felt absolutely seen by this poem; moreover, the poet had managed to capture and deliver lines I’d been too scared to even fully form in my head: Yusupova’s poem is also about the speaker’s realization that she’s a lesbian and the desire to meet other lesbians. Her words gave me courage and opened a few doors in my mind for me. I became a devotee and sought out Yusupova’s Russian-language book Dead Dad and read everything I could find online.

Given the above, you can imagine what an honor it was to be asked to contribute a blurb to Yusupova’s first English-language collection, The Scar We Know, forthcoming from Cicada Press on March 1, 2021. I had to hold myself back from gushing, and nevertheless wrote the three paragraphs below. The editors, advisedly, picked one sentence for the book cover. One benefit of co-editing a feminist blog is that Punctured Lines gives me lots of space to gush…

The “blurb”:

Arriving to the literary scene as the USSR disintegrated into the new Russia, Yusupova gathered her poetic influences both from within and from far outside the mainstream Russian literary tradition. Writing in free verse and relying on line breaks and the blank space of the page for emotional effect, Yusupova anchors her poems in the physical human body. Edited by Ainsley Morse, The Scar We Know is a celebration of Lida Yusupova’s groundbreaking poetry by a community of translators. Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, Stephanie Sandler all contributed to this collection.

The bodies in this book have vaginas and penises, they suffer from dog bites and rape and mental illness and brutal murder, they deliver dead children and alive children that they don’t know what to do with; and they experience occasional bursts of joy, those, too, provoked by the physical bodily sensations: a touch, a look, a good fuck. The poet brings the dead close to us and allows us to grieve for the ways they died, no matter how far away and long ago. Yusupova frequently draws on the language of news reports and court summaries, transforming our relationship with the bureaucratese. In English, her translators juxtapose vocabulary from different registers and patterns of speech and incorporate Russian to insist that the reader looks closely at the subjects of these poems in both their familiarity and uniqueness.

Yusupova has become a leading voice for the new generation of feminist and queer poets in Russia and in the global Russian diaspora, and this translation is a radical gift for the English-language readers, offering us an opportunity to draw deeper connections with the transnational humans who have been marginalized and othered, and to do so while dismantling the accepted patriarchal narratives and systems of value.

Finally, three more links:

In October, Punctured Lines ran a piece about contemporary feminist and queer Russophone poetry, and it included an in-depth interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor and one of the translators of The Scar We Know. Lots more there about Yusupova and the way this book came together.

On January 25, 2021, Globus Books will be holding an online event to celebrate the publication of this book. This event will be held on Zoom at 9.00 am PDT, 12.00 pm EDT and will be streaming on the Globus Books YouTube channel. To register for the Zoom conference, please send a private message to Globus Books Facebook page.

Please preorder and buy the book from Cicada Press or your local bookstore!