Stolen Histories: Anatoly and Queer Narratives in Russia

This paper was written for WRI 101: Undesirables, Otherness & Belonging, and was the final paper for that class in which we were encouraged to synthesize a variety of source material and themes that we had discussed throughout the semester.

In June of 2013, The Russian legislature passed the now infamous “gay propaganda law,” which banned the expression of non-traditional (non-heterosexual) identities to minors and has resulted in significant oppression of the queer population in Russia.1 The law, passed under the guise of protecting youth, was enacted shortly before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, drawing international attention and outrage. But it is only the most recent manifestation of a long history of queer oppression in Russia. In this paper, I seek to explore how persistent, systematic otherness has buried queer Russian histories and examine the steps some queer Russians are taking to reclaim these histories as their own. I will be using the word “queer” as a blanket term to refer to individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and any combination thereof. Yevgeniy Fiks’s film Anatoly, a fictionalized oral history project, will serve as my primary text for analysis, and I will discuss additional critical texts to broaden the implications of my inquiry.

The othering of queer people in Russia began in the tsarist period when homosexuality was viewed as a medical condition and the laws included harsh bans on sodomy.2 These laws remained in place until after the Bolshevik Revolution when the reformers rewrote the law codes and decriminalized sodomy. The decriminalization lasted from 1922 to 1933, and during this revolutionary period, Russian citizens—particularly queer Russian citizens—experienced more publicly accepted fluidity with gender roles and sexual liberation.3 However, when Stalin came to power in 1933, he immediately recriminalized male sodomy and enacted strict “traditional” social policies that terminated the freedoms of the prior decade. 4 For the remainder of the Soviet regime, these policies remained more-or-less the same with some anti-Soviet groups pushing for more sexual freedom in the later years.5 The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the removal of the anti-sodomy laws brought excitement, newfound liberation—both sexual and otherwise—and hopes for a more equitable future. But less than a decade later, social attitudes had not shifted as drastically as expected, even though some queer people were coming out and forging their own public spaces. 6 And soon after, President Vladimir Putin began promoting “traditional” family ideals, and the criminalization of queerness became a reality once again.

Situated in this contentious narrative is the unusual story of Anatoly, a blue-collar queer man who lived during the mid-Soviet period and had a public homosexual relationship with a famous British-Soviet spy, Guy Burgess. His story is unusual for two of reasons: the first being that he was in a cross-class relationship during a time of significant social stratification and the latter being that he was an openly gay man in the height of the Soviet Union. Very little conclusive historical documentation exists—as is true for almost all queer histories in Soviet Russia—regarding Anatoly and Guy’s relationship and why it was tacitly permitted by the government, so scholars and common people alike have speculated about it for decades.7 Contemporary art filmmaker Yevgeniy Fiks explores different imaginings of Anatoly’s story in his film Anatoly, allowing a variety of queer post-Soviet U.S. immigrants to tell their versions of this tale and providing insight into the minds of people who were systematically othered for almost all of their lives.

The first fictional narrative in the film is told by a woman named Bella, who offers a romantic, personal view of Anatoly’s story. According to her, Anatoly may have grown up in the Russian countryside, completely unaware of the existence of queerness, but as he matured, recognized that he was set apart from the other boys because of his attraction to men. She says, “It’s possible he had his first sexual contact in that village somewhere in a haystack on the Russian fields and meadows” and that “it was probably a strange experience, yet everything came naturally for him.”8 These images are idyllic and fairly uncomplicated—Anatoly as a young boy having his sexual awakening in a peaceful meadow—and are distant from the brutal rhetoric of the state regarding homosexuality at the time. Bella goes on the imagine Anatoly more fully accepting his sexuality in the army and later being approached by the KGB and recruited to spy on Guy Burgess. After they met, he and Guy began living together, and Bella thinks that “Anatoly certainly had an affection for Burgess,” and though he had “internalized and accepted his sexual relations with men,…the idea of living together as a family was very strange for him.”9

The disconnect between Anatoly’s accepted queer sexual nature and the more personal queer identity that arose when the pair began living together and fostering a romantic relationship could have resulted from the fact that, as Laurie Essig describes in Queer in Russia, “under the Soviet regime, identity was not a major organizer of social or political actions.”10 Essentially, sexual desire and romantic relationships were seen as entirely separate entities for the queer population in Soviet Russia and did not come together to form a cohesive social identity because such an identity was not useful under the Soviet state. Soviet-era queer people were able to conceive ways to circumvent the laws about banned sexual activity by going to cruising sites or by writing graffiti personal ads in designated locations, but queer romance was unthinkable and unspeakable to the Soviet government and to the queer population itself.11 Their otherness was so internalized that they could not allow themselves to imagine being able to identify and pursue meaningful emotional relationships as a queer individual, and Bella recognizes and gives voice to this conflict in her telling of Anatoly’s story.

A man named Oleg provides a more cynical view through his imagining of the story in the film. He does not mention Anatoly’s life prior to meeting Guy, as Bella does, and he believes that the two met at a party where Anatoly was a servant, musician, or other subservient role. Rather than imagining Anatoly and Guy having a romantic, familial relationship, Oleg believes that Anatoly saw Guy, a famous Soviet spy, as an extension of the state and a champion of the Communist Party and himself “as some type of concubine.”12 Oleg thinks that their relationship was indicative of “the Soviet mentality, this servitude to either man or mission,” postulating that Anatoly’s relations with Burgess merely represented his service to the state and that his sexuality was merely “a secondary matter to all of those high-order issues.”13

In Oleg’s telling there is no romance, only subservience to overarching power of the Communist state, illustrating the ability of the government to control and deny the most fundamental human longings. In this imagined state of brainwashing, Anatoly was unable to fathom “the transformation from object to subject, from ‘identified’ to ‘identity’” about which Bella’s Anatoly is conflicted.14 He could not even recognize his desires or potential queer identity as a part of himself in any way; he merely saw these traits, although technically illegal, as tools with which to serve the regime. Oleg crafts a much darker version of Anatoly’s story that reveals potential for an otherness so ingrained in queer individuals that they were unable to see themselves as anything more than pawns of the Soviet state.15

Beyond the implications of the content of these stories are the implications of queer individuals telling them at all. As post-Soviet immigrants to the U.S. Bella, Oleg, and others are now experiencing significantly more freedom than in their home country, though the othering of queer individuals undeniably still occurs in America, and they are better able to embrace and reflect upon their queer identities. A part of this reflection can involve identifying key historical moments and figures with which they can identify. In the case of queerness in Russia, however, this history has been stolen and silenced for centuries by those in power, except for a few uncertain tales like that of Anatoly. According to Fiks, “Anatoly represents a rare Soviet gay story and legitimizes Russian LGBT history” if only by existing as a kind of folklore.16  He goes on to say, “My goal was not to tell an accurate story; it was to empower myself and other LGBT people to tell this story, to tell our own story, even if we had to make it up.”17  The act of these individuals telling their versions of Anatoly’s story both legitimizes the histories of Russian and Soviet queer people and empowers them to reclaim these histories from the anonymity of otherness.

In many cases, the measurement of legitimacy of a historical film or project is its accuracy, but if measured against this rubric, Anatoly fails. Fiks is not interested in the accuracy of these stories, but in the act of telling them, and by disregarding fact and pursuing fiction, he abandons what would be the traditional measures of success of his project. He likely recognizes, like Judith Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure, that the queer narratives he is relaying cannot be subjected to these accepted norms because often “success is the outcome of the tilted scales of race, class, and gender,” which cannot be applied to marginalized, othered groups.18  Queer histories, particularly in Russia, have been denounced and intentionally obscured, making it impossible for them to be as straightforward and factual as the “accepted” histories promoted by the government. By embracing the imperfection of the queer narrative, one can recognize that sometimes “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, [and] not knowing may in fact offer more creative…more surprising ways of being in the world.”19

Legitimizing and reclaiming stolen histories of othered communities is never clear-cut or easy, and those of the Russian queer community are no exception. Yevgeniy Fiks strives towards this goal with his film Anatoly, which empowers queer post-Soviet immigrants to imagine their own histories through the story of Anatoly. And even though much of this process necessitates fiction and guesswork, it is not any less significant or valid. As queerness is gaining more visibility and acceptance around the world, more “official” queer histories are being written, documenting social movements, public discourses, and individual dreams. In contemporary Russia, queerness remains a punishable offense and a source of intense otherness, but international agencies and internal social organizations are seeking to change that. Perhaps one day soon, queer individuals in Russia will have the opportunity to finally step out of the shadows and take control of their histories, their identities, and their futures.

 

Bibliography

Essig, Laurie. Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Anatoly. Directed by Yevgeniy Fiks. Vimeo. December 27, 2014. https://vimeo.com/115486567.

Fiks, Yevgeniy. “A Discussion of Anatoly.” Lecture, A Skype Conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks in WRI 101 Class, Davidson, NC, March 15, 2016.

Halberstam, Judith. Introduction to The Queer Art of Failure, 1-24. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Healey, Dan. Introduction to Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, 1-18. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

The Council for Global Equality. “The Facts on LGBT Rights in Russia.” GlobalEquality.org. August 7, 2013. Accessed May 8, 2016. http://www.globalequality.org/newsroom/latest-news/1-in-the-news/186-the-facts-on-lgbt-rights-in-russia.

  1. “The Facts on LGBT Rights in Russia,” The Council for Global Equality, accessed on May 8, 2016, http://www.globalequality.org/newsroom/latest-news/1-in-the-news/186-the-facts-on-lgbt-rights-in-russia.
  2. Dan Healey, Introduction to Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 4.
  3. Healey, Introduction, 3.
  4. Healey, Introduction, 4.
  5. Healey, Introduction, 5.
  6. Laurie Essig, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), xi-xii.
  7. Yevgeniy Fiks, “A Discussion of Anatoly,” (presented during a Skype conversation in WRI 101 class, Davidson, NC, March 15, 2016).
  8. Anatoly, directed by Yevgeniy Fiks, (2014, New York, Vimeo), https://vimeo.com/115486567.
  9. Anatoly, directed by Yevgeniy Fiks, (2014, New York, Vimeo), https://vimeo.com/115486567.
  10. Essig, Queer in Russia, 56.
  11. Essig, Queer in Russia, 89.
  12. Anatoly, dir. by Yevgeniy Fiks.
  13. Anatoly, dir. by Yevgeniy Fiks.
  14. Essig, Queer in Russia, xxii.
  15. Note – There are far more interviews in the film than those that I chose to discuss here due to space limitations, but the film in its entirety is absolutely worth viewing and can be found at the Vimeo link in an earlier footnote and in the Bibliography.
  16. Fiks, “A Discussion of Anatoly.” Note – LBGT is an acronym meaning “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender’—an umbrella I have chosen to represent by the use of the word “queer.”
  17. Fiks, “A Discussion of Anatoly.”
  18. Judith Halberstam, Introduction to The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
  19. Judith Halberstam, Introduction to The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2-3.

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