Jan 8, 2013

Fall 1981: Russia: Land of Bulges and Scimitars

When I was a kid in Cold War America, my geography and history teachers skipped over Russia, as if just acknowledging its existence was dangerous. Except for occasional news stories blaming the Kremlin for Woodstock, Watergate, or the Jonestown Massacre, I heard about Russia only through:

1. In a Public Service Announcement on tv about how everyone in Russia was brainwashed and miserable, starring a cute teenage boy.
2. Napoleon Solo's boyfriend, the Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin on The Man from Uncle.
3. Sulu's boyfriend Chekhov on Star Trek
4. In the annual performances of The Nutcracker

Beefcake, bonding, and bulges -- could Russia be a Good Place?

I got my chance to investigate during my senior year at Augustana, when, based on the advice of my friend Mickey the Russian Major,  I took a course in Russian Culture and Civilization.  As the only non-Russian major, I was at a disadvantage, and squeaked by with a B-.  But I found:


1. Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein.  Muscular, half-naked soldiers cuddle in their bunks while cannons spurt.

2. Rasputin, the bisexual monk who controlled the Romanovs.

3. I Killed Rasputin (1967), with Peter McEnery as the gay Prince Yusopov; although closeted for the movie version, he still managed to dance with a man.

4. Gay composer  Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, who scored Swan Lake (1875) and The Nutcracker (1892).


5. Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the Ballet Russes (1909).

6. Vaslav Nijinsky, his protege and lover, who scandalized audiences with his homoerotic dances, such as L'apres-midi d'un faune (1912) and The Rite of Spring (1913). 












7. A tradition of homoerotic male art, such as "Boys Playing," by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkim (1911), and "Bathing Boys" (left), by Pyotr Konchalovsky (1920).

The professor didn't try to hide these homoerotic texts; instead he framed them as emblematic of the decadence of early twentieth century Russia.

He didn't mention:


8. Anna Karenina (1877), by Leo Tolstoy.  Vronsky encounters two officers called "the inseparables" in the mess hall, one older, one younger.

9. Dead Souls (1842), by Nikolai Gogol. Chichikov, who displays no heterosexual interest, hugs Manilov for five minutes (try it at home) and kisses him so hard that he has a tooth ache the next morning.






10. The Medieval Saints Boris and George.  Prince Boris of Kiev had a squire, George of Hungary, whom he "loved beyond all reasoning."  When he was assassinated by the evil Sviatopok , George threw himself on his body and cried "I will not be left behind!  Ere the beauty of thy body begins to wilt, let my life end!"  Both were canonized. Read the rest of the story here.