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© Yegveniy Fiks

Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow

by Joy Neumeyer at 12/09/2013 13:38

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

"In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let's get acquainted,'" Klimov later recalled. The man's name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

"He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men's toilet."

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital's most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled "Moscow" and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city's Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks' photos, they stand empty.

"This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays," Fiks said.

Invisible to most Muscovites, cruising grounds composed a silent topography that existed parallel to Soviet life - offering the possibility of same-sex love in a society that did not acknowledge its existence.


A 1955 encounter began in the Lenin Museum

© Yegveniy Fiks

A 1955 encounter began in the Lenin Museum

In Europe, the practice of cruising dates from at least the 17th century. Cruising "comes from city life. People could gather anonymously in cities and meet a partner," said Dan Healey, a professor at the University of Reading.

"There's nothing physically that sets apart a person who's heterosexual, so if you're in the homosexual minority, you're dependent on other factors," said Healey, who has written extensively on the history of Russian gay life. "One of those is location."

The basic features of cruising took shape in Paris and other cosmopolitan capitals. Men looking for sex with other men frequented a certain public place - a park, a statue, a train station, a toilet. Contact usually started with a glance that lingered a second too long. One man struck up a conversation, often asking for a cigarette or the time. If both parties were interested, an encounter either occurred on the spot, or the pair moved to a more private location.

From the beginning, Healey said, cruising was generally a male pursuit. Thanks to their mobility, work outside the home and drinking culture, men could roam freely in a way that was generally denied to women.

Cruising came to Moscow during the country's rapid urbanization process in the late 19th century. As the city became a manufacturing center, it developed extensive transportation networks, and its population boomed. In 1861, there were 350,000 people living in the city; by 1917, there were 1.4 million.

Though some sexual contact between men had long been tolerated in Russian culture - particularly under the influence of alcohol - the Western ideas introduced by Peter the Great gradually led to homosexuality's stigmatization. In 1835, sodomy was declared a crime.

But as Moscow industrialized, public space offered new possibilities for homosexual contact. Beer halls catered to men seeking the company of other men, fostering a new gay subculture.

Cruising first emerged on the Boulevard Ring. Dotted with benches, kiosks and public toilets, the boulevards provided equal amounts of openness and seclusion. They were conveniently located near transportation links, but also shielded by trees.

In 1912, a 17-year-old peasant named Pavel had his first homosexual experience on the Boulevard Ring while walking home from a night class. After his first few encounters, he began cruising Prechistensky and Nikitsky Bulvar every night: "It was boring to stay at home."

Pavel described his experiences in 1927 to a Soviet psychiatrist, who wrote about them in a medical journal. While the article framed Pavel's story as a case study of a psychopathic prostitute, it provided a wealth of information about Russia's flourishing gay male subculture before the Revolution, which Pavel recalled as "a marvelous time."

After becoming the lover of Prince Felix Yusupov, who hired him as a manservant, Pavel began receiving invitations to balls of "woman-haters" where the men dressed in drag.

But cruising was proscribed by class boundaries. Aristocratic gay men such as Yusupov or composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky sought out partners through servants and lower-class contacts, preferring to avoid the risk of public recognition that cruising entailed, as Healey notes in a chapter on Moscow in "Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600."


The two men were later arrested in Sokolniki Park by police officers walking their dog

© Yegveniy Fiks

The two men were later arrested in Sokolniki Park by police officers walking their dog

After decriminalizing homosexuality in 1917, the Bolsheviks were split on the gay question. Some ideologues proclaimed that homosexuals, like women, were an oppressed group in need of liberation. Others, however, thought that same-sex relations were a bourgeois excess that would be cured by socialist medicine.

When sodomy was recriminalized in 1933, cruising grounds didn't disappear; in fact, their numbers exploded.

Many aspects of Soviet life contributed to the cruising boom. Crowded dormitories and communal apartments led people (both gay and straight) to seek out alternative spaces for sex. Social institutions such as banyas and bars were turned over to the state, effectively ending the possibility for private gatherings.

Meanwhile, improved transportation networks made urban space more accessible. Thanks to the new metro system, which opened in 1935, anyone could get to the center in a matter of minutes.

The Bolshoi, Trubnaya Ploshchad and Alexandrovsky Sad became popular, as did farther-flung spots such as the embankment by Moscow State University. Public toilets took on new significance, particularly at Alexandrovsky Sad. Peak cruising time came at the end of the work day.

By the 1960s, a kind of gay circuit had developed near the Kremlin. It was almost identical to the favorite strolling route of most Muscovites, beginning at the Bolshoi, winding past GUM and Lubyanka, and ending at Kitai-Gorod. Moscow's gay world mirrored its straight world - only the former was hidden.

A gay lexicon emerged to describe cruising. The word "pleshka" - which means a bald spot or, literally, an open area - became slang for a pick-up spot. The stony Karl Marx statue across from the Bolshoi was dubbed "director of the pleshka"; in almost every Russian city, Lenin statues became "Tyotenka Lena," or "Auntie Lena." Using such code enabled men to discreetly arrange encounters (as in, "Meet me at Auntie Lena's").

Most city-dwellers remained unaware of the terminology, much less the gay subculture. Of several older Muscovites questioned, none were familiar with the term "pleshka." "I don't even know what you're talking about," said Valentina, 75, who declined to give her last name.

Roman Kalinin, 47, began going to Moscow's pleshkas in 1985. "Finding a place to go was a huge problem," he said. "We couldn't go back to our apartments - gays usually lived with spouses, with parents."

In summer, Kalinin would stand in front of the Bolshoi; in winter, the action moved to Okhotny Ryad metro. After meeting, pairs often decamped to Tsentralniye Bani, near the Bolshoi.

When asked who cruised, he said, "Everyone."

"You have to understand, there was simply nowhere else to go."

Cruising carried serious risks, especially after World War II, when enforcement of the anti-sodomy statute increased. There were informants among the men who frequented pleshki, and KGB entrapment was common.

In 1944, Vadim Kozin, a hugely popular Soviet singer, was arrested and sent to the gulag at Magadan. While Kozin didn't cruise, his sexual orientation was an open secret. The message was clear: Homosexuality would not be tolerated.

Most stories of homosexual encounters in Soviet Moscow come from the court cases of people who were arrested. Klimov and Volodya, the couple who met in the GUM bathroom and proceeded to Sokolniki, were caught in the act by policemen walking their dog. Both were sentenced to three years in prison. Other court cases described men caught in bathrooms, or lying by train tracks.

Nevertheless, cruising may still have been safer in the Soviet Union than in the West. In the 1940s and 1950s, more people were arrested every year for homosexual activity in New York and London than in Moscow, according to Healey. (Accurate figures for the Soviet Union are difficult to obtain, as parts of the FSB archives remain closed.)

Despite the risks, gay people continued finding one another in public places until 1993, when the anti-sodomy law was repealed. By this time, spots had arisen where lesbians gathered as well - most famously, the Yesenin monument on Tverskoi Bulvar.

By the early '90s, Kalinin said, the main fear was not police exposure, but thugs that began hanging around spots such as the Bolshoi. He recalled how a friend once came to a cruising spot, only to encounter a group of men with semi-automatics.

"After that, he was never seen at a pleshka again," he said.


On a blustery autumn day, dozens of tourists, commuters and homeless people were wandering by the Monument to the Heroes of Plevna, the Russo-Turkish War monument at the crest of Kitai-Gorod that was once a public toilet. Some simply strolled past; others lingered, their faces lighting up as friends arrived.

A few, however, remained alone, their eyes scanning the crowd.

"We just call it ‘going to China,'" said Dima, 28, who was sitting by the monument.

Thanks to the availability of gay clubs and Internet sites, cruising has died off in cities around the world. Now, gay men don't need to hang around toilets; they can simply switch on their mobiles.

A popular smartphone app, Grindr, alerts users to nearby gay men looking for intimacy, complete with name, photo and exact proximity. While it doesn't show as many results as in, say, New York, Grindr's Moscow version still produces a bounty of options. On a recent afternoon in an apartment outside the center, the closest potential partner was only 400 meters away.

Today, the people who cruise at Kitai-Gorod generally can't afford a computer or smartphone. Many of them are looking for cash. "It's like going to a brothel," Dima said.

Russian Orthodox activists have occasionally picketed the area, but it seems to have had little effect. Sitting at the base of the statue, Dima indicated the men he thought were on the prowl: a 20-something Central Asian man in a sweatsuit, a grey-haired Russian in a green shirt and suit jacket. Both eventually strolled off, alone.

There are places in Moscow where old-fashioned cruising still occurs, even among people with Internet access: train station toilets, the beach at Serebryanny Bor. Certain saunas also cater to gay men.

Despite their soured reputation, historic spots such as Kitai-Gorod still hold some allure for young people - particularly those in the closet, for whom the idea of picking up a stranger seems an impossible thrill. "When I was 13 or maybe 15, I read about this place," Dima said. "I wanted to come here, but I was afraid."

Dima says he has successfully cruised at Kitai-Gorod twice in the past year, and has been approached many more times.

"One time I came here to stroll around for no reason in particular," he said. "I heard footsteps behind me, and I could feel that someone was undressing me with his eyes. I turned around and saw a middle-aged man in a feminine sort of suit.

"He asked me, ‘Young man, would you like to drink a coffee?' And I said, ‘Thanks, I already drank one.' He said, ‘Okay, sorry.'

"I said, ‘Happy hunting.'"


‘An idiot and a degenerate'

Yevgeniy Fiks' "Moscow" ends with an excerpt from a 1934 letter to Josef Stalin by gay British Communist Harry Whyte, then the 27-year-old head of The Moscow News' editorial staff.

Born in Edinburgh, Whyte worked for Communist newspapers in Britain before joining The Moscow News in 1932. He was singled out as the paper's "best shock worker," and promoted the next year.

The letter, titled "Can a Homosexual Be a Member of the Communist Party?" was a rousing condemnation of the 1933 Soviet law recriminalizing homosexuality. Whyte cited his own promotion at The Moscow News as evidence for why homosexuals should be accepted in Soviet society.

"Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked," he wrote.

Whyte originally addressed the letter to The Moscow News' editor-in-chief, Mikhail Borodin. After Borodin declined to send it, Whyte addressed it to Stalin himself.

Now located in the state archives, the letter's first page bore the instruction: "Archive. An idiot and a degenerate. J. Stalin." There is only one article containing Whyte's byline in The Moscow News archive ("Koltzov - the journalistic artist," April 3, 1933). His fate remains unknown.


‘Different from the Others'

In the 1920s, the first Soviet People's Commissar for Public Health, Nikolai Semashko, proclaimed that homosexuals were fully-fledged members of Soviet society. The speech, however, was made in Berlin.

While Bolshevik ideologists remained divided on the gay question, there was one country that had a true gay rights movement in the 1920s: Germany. German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Community, a gay rights group, and campaigned for the repeal of Article 175, the German law that criminalized homosexuality. He won prominent supporters including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann before the rise of the Third Reich put an end to the movement.

In the '20s, Hirschfeld was respected in the Soviet Union as the world's leading sexologist. The first Soviet People's Commissar for Public Health, Nikolai Semashko, was in contact with Hirschfield, and met him on an official visit to Berlin. Semashko attended a screening of Hirschfeld's 1919 film "Different from the Others," which featured one of the first gay characters on film. The movie starred Conrad Veidt as a blackmailed gay man whose career-ruining decision to come out drives him to suicide.

Semashko's speech after the film praised the repeal of Russia's tsarist anti-homosexuality law and gay people's status in the collective. But such language was never repeated at home, and by 1933, it was entirely verboten.


Gay Soviet singer Vadim Kozin, arrested and sent to Magadan in 1944, singing his 1938 hit "Druzhba":

Did you hear the one about gays at the Bolshoi?

A day after our story "Sex in the Soviet closet" went to print, city magazine Bolshoi Gorod published an article on unofficial sexual culture in the Soviet Union that also discussed Soviet attitudes toward homosexuality.

"People talked about gays calmly. They didn't shock anyone," writes author Anya Aivazyan.

She recalls an old Soviet joke about cruising. A person comes to the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater and sits down on a bench, where someone strokes his knee. He moves to another bench, and someone throws an arm around his shoulder. On the third bench, someone tries to kiss him. He approaches a police officer and says, ‘Comrade Sergeant, the faggots are hitting on me!" The police officer says sweetly, "So why did you come to our garden?"

For more see: http://bg.ru/society/seks_v_sssr-19361/

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #35"
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