Meet the man risking arrest to set up an LGBTIQ museum in Russia
As anti-LGBTIQ laws tighten in Russia, Pyotr Voskresensky hopes that observing the past will offer hope for the future
Russia’s LGBTIQ community faces its biggest challenge since the Soviet Union’s draconian anti-gay laws, with Kremlin propagandists declaring the country is at war not only with Ukraine, but also with the US and the EU – including over ‘values’.
Against this backdrop, Russian LGBTIQ activists and organisations are increasingly being labelled ‘foreign agents’. Some organisations have had to shut down, while others have left the country or gone ‘underground’.
And as the Russian state and Orthodox Church attempt to depict the war against Ukraine as a “clash of civilisations”, there are moves to further restrict freedom of expression.
The Kremlin already has its ‘gay propaganda’ law, which, while rarely used, gives law enforcement a reason to disrupt almost any LGBTIQ event. Now, a new amendment has been proposed to the legislation, which would effectively ban any public expression of, or tolerance for, homosexuality.
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The new proposal introduces a range of excessive fines that can be given to both individuals and media or legal entities for ‘promoting non-traditional relationships’.
In the face of this, Pyotr Voskresensky, a doctor, collector and LGBTIQ activist, has decided to set up a museum of LGBT history in his hometown of St Petersburg.
With open protest almost impossible in Russia, Pyotr told openDemocracy that turning to the past will help preserve the collective identity of Russia’s gay community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
openDemocracy: How did you come up with the idea for your collection and museum?
Pyotr Voskresensky: I am not a professional historian, but I have been interested in history all my life. One day I thought: why not make a historical tour of LGBT places in St Petersburg? For many years now I have been conducting these excursions, studying documents, articles and memoirs.
Then, I came across a mention of a real LGBT museum on one of St Petersburg’s streets back in the 19th century. The owner collected items that were considered artefacts of gay subculture at the time [figurines, paintings, engravings]. Unfortunately, the sources do not specify who the owner of the museum was, nor where it was located.
There were many of these items. Some have collected them. However, later these collections were usually destroyed – either by relatives who were afraid to bring disgrace to the family and memory of the deceased, or by the owners themselves when the era of repressions arrived [primarily in the Stalin years, when many LGBTIQ people became victims of the purges].
Another important episode for me was visiting the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin [a town north of Moscow]. The museum was set up by his brother, Modest, who, like Tchaikovsky himself, was gay. Modest did not allow his other relatives to destroy Tchaikovsky’s archive, which had unambiguous references to his homosexuality, but, of course, he cleaned the estate [of items that could reveal his brother’s sexuality].
However, Modest Tchaikovsky did build a small room for himself. And its ‘homosexual’ interior was preserved, which simply struck me. Modest Tchaikovsky was a lover of trinkets. Among other things, he collected many male images, which clearly speak of the predilections of the owner of the office.
This gave me the idea that such things are on sale. I started looking for them at flea markets, online sites and antique stores. I was lucky: for relatively little money (and sometimes frankly pennies) I managed to buy a number of collectable items that I can be proud of.
oD: What is Russia’s LGBT history and who works on it in the country?
PV: When the processes of emancipation [around the world] began in the 20th century (decolonial, labour, feminist and so on), many new areas of historical science were born. In the 1980s, LGBT history also began to come to light, including Russia’s.
"I’m opening the museum not because the time has come, but because time is running out"
One of the people who revealed this history was Simon Karlinsky, a descendant of White Russian emigres who built an academic career in America. He explored the personal lives of Nikolai Gogol and Marina Tsvetaeva. Another founder of Russian LGBT history was Igor Kon, a sociologist and sexologist – a man of incredible academic knowledge. His book ‘Moonlight at Dawn’ is a canonical work on Russia’s LGBT history.
Since then, a whole galaxy of new historians and collectors has emerged. These include Olga Khoroshilova, who has published two books on LGBT history, and Irina Roldugina, who has published many articles on this topic.
oD: How do you know whether an item is related to LGBT history?
PV: I’ll give you an example. I have a brooch in my collection with an image of Antinous carved on a shell [a kind of cameo].
Antinous was the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He died very young, under tragic circumstances. The Romans declared him a god and created thousands of images. In the 18th century, these portraits began to be reproduced, including (but not only) as homosexual symbols. Antinous became the standard of youthful male beauty.
When you come across an artefact like this, you rarely have an exact history of its existence. One has to speculate about what it could be.
We know that poet Mikhail Kuzmin – one of the pillars of Russian culture and homosexual subculture [in the late 19th and early 20th centuries] – wore a similar cameo on his ring. Some of his poems are dedicated to Antinous.
oD: What do you think these things meant to their owners?
PV: I think these people wanted to grasp their own history, find their roots and the right to exist. Today, we know what each letter of LGBT means. But in the 18th or 19th century, the very concept of ‘homosexuality’ was unknown. Each person had to invent his own life, which gave rise to many interesting concepts.
In particular, there was a myth about antiquity as the golden age of homosexuals. For people who were born this way, even in privileged society, everything around them reminded them that they were freaks. They tried to win space for themselves, including through history.
Therefore, many artefacts in my museum are antique in style. This is a reconstruction of the ancient world, and in many ways – an attempt to reinvent the world anew.
oD: You are about to open your museum to the public. How will it function?
PV: I am aware that all this can end badly, so I take the risk only on myself and I don’t call anyone to get involved.
As a relatively poor Russian doctor, I cannot afford to rent a space for this museum. It will be housed in my apartment. I will arrange evenings where I will show my collection and talk about it.
"We’re at a moment when epochs are changing. In the autumn, Russia will have adopted [the new legislation on ‘gay propaganda’]. This will be a landmark transformation of Russian society"
oD: Don’t you think that now [amid heightening anti-LGBTIQ laws and state repression] is not the safest time for this kind of project?
PV: I’m opening the museum not because the time has come, but because time is running out. Its opening will be a challenge.
We’re at a moment when epochs are changing. In the autumn, Russia will have adopted [the new legislation on ‘gay propaganda’].
This will be a landmark transformation of Russian society, because until now [this kind of law] has been in force in Russia only for a brief historical moment – in the Chechen Republic during independence [during the early 1990s]. We are returning to archaic, medieval ideas.
But the LGBT community has one advantage: it is immortal. In each new generation, there will appear people whom historian Dan Healy called “gender dissidents”. They will form their community on the ruins of what we do now. The fact we can look into our history now gives us some hope that if we have a past, we will have a future.
oD: How do you see the prospects of an LGBT museum or museums in Russia?
PV: If the darkness finally subsides, then, with proper support, it can grow into a very significant collection. And in a hundred years, perhaps it will become meaningless.
In the post-gender world, people simply will not understand what it is about, because who cares who loves whom and lives with whom? A few decades ago, a marriage between a Jew and a Christian woman or between an African-American woman and a white man seemed unthinkable to many. Now it is unthinkable to be surprised at this. And our future, I hope, will be like this, if there is no nuclear war.
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