As we’re only too aware today, life for Russian lesbians and gay men has rarely been easy. The brief period of liberalisation that followed the Russian revolution was quickly replaced by a brutal repression once Joseph Stalin came to power.
Article 121 of the Soviet Penal Code – introduced in the 1920’s – was still seeing large numbers of gay men victimised and imprisoned well in to the Glasnost years. One estimate puts this at around 1,000 a year as late as the 1980’s.
And, as we’re seeing again today, not only was the practice brutally suppressed, but so too was merely writing or talking about it. Published references to homosexuality were extremely rare (apart from those occasions when it was being denounced as bourgeois decadence) and any work by a writer known, or suspected to be, homosexual was automatically banned. Such was the extent of the repression that only one Russian writer was ever acknowledged as being gay – Mikhail Kuzmin, a man who had lived from 1871 to 1936.
Yet even this repressive regime failed to stop author Yevgeny Kharitonov writing and distributing his works on the realities of gay life in the Soviet Union. What was even more amazing was that he typed and distributed all his works himself; foregoing the usual dissident distribution network known as ‘samizdat’ because he didn’t trust them to accurately reproduce such challenging material. He was probably right: current events have shown us that Russian anti-Communists are just as homophobic as Communists.
Not that Kharitonov could be described as a sexual revolutionary. Quite the opposite: he was essentially an apologist who argued that homosexuals should be tolerated largely because they brought a bit of decadence and colour to the drab Soviet regime. He was far from being an advocate of gay rights, choosing instead to describe us as “barren fatal flowers” and “…like flowers we should be gathered and put in a vase for our beauty”. But the mere fact that he was writing about life as a gay man was enough to draw him to the attention of the security services.
And as his profile grew, so too did the level of surveillance and harassment by the KGB. One example of this occurred in 1979 when he was arrested and interrogated over the murder of a gay friend. At the beginning of 1980 he was threatened again when he sought official recognition for an experimental writers group. The constant harassment and intimidation was believed to be a major contributor to the heart attack that killed him – at the age of 40 – in 1981.
As if to illustrate just how big a threat the authorities found him, his apartment was sealed by the KGB immediately after his death. His friends were outraged and broke in to retrieve as much of his work as they could find. The authorities merely responded by raiding the apartments of the friends and confiscating the documents.
His work wasn’t published properly until 1993.