Yevgeniy Fiks Born in Moscow in 1972. Artist. Currently lives in New York.
A pleshka—a term of Soviet gay argot designating homosexual cruising spots in the public space of Moscow and other cities in the Soviet Union. Today, the Moscow pleshkas from Soviet times (with few exceptions), no longer function. In the last ten years, the Internet had largely virtualized the geography of Moscow’s same-sex desire, and the physical pleshkas have relocated to cyberspace. Pleshkas of the past could now be conceptualized as spaces of memory and mourning over the fate of homosexuals of the Soviet epoch—as places of absence of Soviet gay history, subjectivity, and self-identification. Oh, if only Grindr could pinpoint the location of the lost souls of gays and lesbians of the past! The memory of homosexuals of Soviet times is not registered in the space of the history and geography of Moscow. Their (under-)subjectivity has forever dissolved in the city itself. However, as the current representatives of the LGBT community, we must reclaim the spaces of collective memory of our city, Moscow, as one big pleshka—that also belong to us. This demand is necessary for the formation of our own subjectivity, self-awareness and the sensation of history here and now.
In January 2013, the Russian State Duma adopted a law “on the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” In March 2013, Vladik Mamishev, an artist who largely personified perestroika and post-Soviet queer aesthetic, perished. In June 2013, president Putin signs the law “on the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” In July 2013, Georgiy Gurianov, another famous Russian artist of the homosexual aestheticism, died. An epoch of the first two decades of the post-Soviet project comes to an end.
But beginning in the ‘90s and until very recently, Vladik Mamishev and Georgiy Gurianov’s candid homo-aesthetics, in combination with their vivacious personalities seemed like a spectacle, quite acceptable to the post-Soviet bourgeoisie ready to “forgive them everything because of their talent.” The post-Soviet queer artist of the ‘90s and ‘00s is an enfant terrible, a jester in the court of post-Soviet capitalism who “decorated” the regime, legitimizing it. Only by accepting the new consumerist order and dissolving in it, the post-Soviet queer artist received the right to exist. They became a compromiser, hoping that the free market and the neoliberal “right to individualism” will “normalize” them. However, the events of 2013 showed that the post-Soviet version of capitalism is not capable of defending “individualism” of a post-Soviet queer subject.
In the ‘90s and ‘00s, a post-Soviet queer artist was expected to reproduce signs of Western queer-aesthetics. Russian queer artists had to conform to the notions of the Russian elite who took Mapplethorpe, Pierre et Gilles, etc., as their example. The post-Soviet queer artist was assigned to the same line of work as his Western colleagues. Overnight, the pleshka had to learn to speak the “global gay argot” and turn into a Western cruising site. The post-Soviet queer artist legitimized themselves only by conforming to the Russian art scene’s notions about Western gay culture. However, this was implicitly homophobic: the artistic community awaited easily readable signs of Western gay culture (for example, overt sexuality, provocation, decorativism, kitsch) from the post-Soviet queer artist, so that at the moment of “recognition,” it could shrug off such an artist for their superficiality and secondariness.
Contemporary art as a part of life of Russian society reflects many of its problems, including homophobia. With rare exceptions in the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Russian art community looked down upon their own queer artists. The right wing referred to the post-Soviet queer artist as a kind of court jester. However, the left wing, until recently, saw an “irresponsible decorator” and a lackey of the new neoliberal order. This snobbery, both from the right and the left, had pushed the queer artist towards formal aesthetics, which should have given them autonomy within the space of neoliberal individualism. However, in the last few years, the situation has changed, and there now appear seedlings of collaboration between the left intellectual-artistic wing, and queer artists and activists. Russian queer artists have begun to distance themselves from the right wing. The reemergence of state homophobia in Russia in 2013 had shown that the hopes placed on post-Soviet capitalism as an emancipating trajectory for the LGBT were futile in 2013, and the “new” neoliberal Russia, had, without a second thought, betrayed its “decorators.”
Museums, Galleries, Pleshkas (queer nationalization)
What about the absence of a Soviet queer aesthetic? Where are the pleshkas of Soviet art? After homosexuality was criminalized in the USSR in 1934, it dissolved into theatre, film, art, etc. Queer energy could not have simply disappeared—it was sublimated. We are talking about works where it is impossible to notice homosexuality at the level of visual representation. In talking about the “presence” or “absence” of gay aesthetics in Soviet visual culture, it is primarily necessary for us to state its sublimation and dissolution. Hidden homosexuality is present in the artworks of every period of Soviet art: from the historical avant-garde to Moscow conceptualism. It is in every hall of the Russian Museum and Tretyakov Gallery. Homo-aesthetics never left Soviet art, just as there had not been a day in the history of the Soviet Union since 1934 that someone’s “non-traditional” life was not lived. Homosexuality only relocated into the field of the invisible.
The concept of dissolution and sublimation of gay aesthetics in Soviet culture means that we must recognize its presence in invisible/unknowable forms. Since we will never find out in which specific works of Soviet art queer subjectivity did or did not dissolve, the post-Soviet LGBT subject must reclaim all art of the Soviet period as belonging to them. This means that a present-day post-Soviet LGBT cultural producer does not find themselves in a situation of “rootless cosmopolitanism” at all, but conversely, becomes an inheritor of a queer imagination sublimated in Soviet visual culture. This means that we can conceptually condense this dissolved queer subjectivity and return it to ourselves. This does not at all mean a retrospective “outing” of some Soviet artists as homosexuals. It is about a mental de-sublimation of the gay culture, dissolved in Soviet art, as a strategy of formation of today’s LGBT-consciousness. The post-Soviet queer subject must declare their rights to Soviet history and return to their historic pleshkas.
I propose to conceptualize the museums of Soviet art as gay spaces—as pleshkas of Soviet art. In the absence of historiography of overt Soviet queer-aesthetics, we must nationalize all Soviet art as also belonging to LGBT people. Instead of establishing one museum of LGBT art as a ghetto, I urge to conceptualize all art museums as museums of LGBT people, since their dissolution is a historically-constituted form of Soviet queer-(non)representation. We must recognize this invisibility and undergo the process of sublimation in reverse.
The Theory of Pleshka
Judith Butler never frequented Soviet pleshkas. Queer theory arrived into post-Soviet space as part of the process of globalization, and unfortunately, along with intellectual liberation on the territory of post-Soviet space, had simultaneously become an instrument of neoliberal expansion and repression. I would like to summon the Soviet pleshka, which determined how same-sex desire functioned in the Soviet experience “before queer theory.” I would like to turn to pleshka as “bare life” of local history, which forces us to resist the dictates of a seemingly progressive cultural imperialism of the ‘90s and the ‘00s. We, the present-day representatives of the post-Soviet LGBT-people, must accept and recognize Soviet gays and lesbians as historical subjects, existing before the globalized construct of “LGBT” and queer theory. I plead for theory that would absorb the specifics of “bare life” of sexual and gender margins of the Soviet experience into itself.
The theory of pleshka must not get bogged down with the common places of global gay discourse. It must not drive itself into patterns, which hide under assertions about the universality of corresponding experiences. Until we meet Judith Butler in the “Sadko” café, or at the “Prospect Marksa” Metro station, queer theory will not become post-Soviet theory. Globalization exerts pressure on those who are located in the post-Soviet sexual/gender margins, forcing us to accept globalized (and in reality, specifically Western) forms of identity. It is worth seeking out local, and consequently, more organic, forms of identification in the living narrative of Soviet gays and lesbians. Only accepting this narrative, and not the volumes of Anglo-American theory, we could be sure that liberation activism in post-Soviet space will have a future.
The theory of pleshka is queer theory with the subtraction of cultural imperialism. The theory of pleshka must not only become a post-Soviet response to globalized queer theory—which is contaminated by the connection with neoliberalism—but a theory of a wider discourse of otherwise-thinking [“inakomisliye” a term analogous to “dissent,” used henceforward], including, but not limited to, sexual dissent. The theory of pleshka must combine the history of Soviet gays and lesbians with Soviet history overall, integrating their narrative into the grand narrative of Soviet history. Pleshka is a space of simultaneous presence and absence, hidden and visible, impossible and possible. The liberation of pleshka must happen through the exertion of pleshka itself, with the memory of the pleshka past.
The formulas of global gay discourse marginalize and estrange entire generations of Soviet homosexuals—still our contemporaries—those real subjects of Soviet sexual and gender dissent, and not ones concocted by critical theory. These people know about what it meant to be “queer” in the Soviet Union better than international LGBT apparatchiks. They do not need bureaucratic templates to describe their oppression, as much as they do not need English slang to describe their sexual practices. We had our own language and our own feelings before the ‘90s had brought us globalization. Our historical memory and sexuality does not need to be “normalized” through the practices of neoliberalism. This lost generation of Soviet gays and lesbians, people of an older or middle generation, is not of interest to scholars who continue to move forward, invent new theories, and leave behind those who really lived and continue to live their “non-traditional” lives.
I urge all of us to take to the pleshkas of Soviet cities, to collectively articulate a new theory of pleshka as a discourse of historical memory, locality, liberation and democracy. The theory of pleshka is a theory of the tangible, the political, and the everyday. The word “pleshka,” simultaneously demonstrates our marginality, oppression, invisibility, and at the same time, the feeling of our self-esteem and self-irony. “Pleshka” could and must provide a reference point for the genuinely liberating theory in the present.
New York, 2014
- ^ [Translator’s note: the third person singular pronoun is used throughout the article to remain consistent with LGBT views on gender. This convention is not common in Russian, and is not present in the original text, which defaults to male pronouns]