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literature

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Russian Literature  
 
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Homosexual and lesbian contacts were thus sinful, the sin being of the same magnitude as the reversal of positions in heterosexual intercourse. It was of no concern to civil authorities and it could be expiated by going to confession, doing an assigned number of prostrations, and abstaining from meat and milk products for several months.

Summing up the testimony of foreign and native observers of Muscovite Russia, the authoritative nineteenth-century historian Sergei Soloviov wrote: "Nowhere, either in the Orient or in the West, was [homosexuality] taken as lightly as in Russia."

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Russian Reactions to Western Homophobia

Only after the increase in travel of Russians abroad during the reign of Peter the Great was it understood that the practices the Russians had taken for granted for almost a millennium were regarded with horror or with fury by those who lived in the supposedly more civilized countries in the West.

In the eighteenth century, the open homosexuality of the Muscovite period had to go underground. Yet, at the same time, it made a renewed appearance in the religious dissenter sects that split from the Old Believers during that same century. Two of these sects, Khlysty (a distorted plural form of Christ) and Skoptsy (Castrates) had recognizable homosexual and bisexual strains in their culture, folklore, and religious rituals. The major gay poet of the early twentieth century, Nikolai Kliuev, incorporated much of these sects' lore into his visionary poetry.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Russian literature caught up with the current West European literary forms. The end of that century was in Russia, as elsewhere, the Age of Sentimentalism. The leading Russian Sentimentalist poet was Ivan Dmitriev (1760-1837). He wrote clever satires, saccharine love songs, and didactic fables.

Dmitriev was a government official who eventually rose to the position of Minister of Justice in the reign of Alexander I. In his government career, he was nepotistic, surrounding himself with handsome young assistants, some of whom owed their advancement to the fact that they were Dmitriev's lovers.

In his poetry, however, he wore a heterosexual mask, pretending to pine for some neoclassical Chloe or Phyllis. The exceptions are his adaptations of La Fontaine's fables "The Two Pidgeons" and "The Two Friends," which he turned into unequivocal depictions of love affairs between males.

Pushkin and Homosexuality

With Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russian literature acquired its first major figure of international significance. A happily adjusted heterosexual, Pushkin viewed alternative forms of sexuality with an amused tolerance that was not otherwise typical of Russian nineteenth-century writers.

In the fall of 1823, while Pushkin was in exile in the south of Russia, he addressed a remarkable letter to the memoirist Philip Vigel (who subsequently published memoirs describing his orientation and the homosexual circles of his time).

In this letter and an attached witty poem, Pushkin commiserated with Vigel for having to live in Kishinev (now the capital of Moldova) rather than in the civilized city of Sodom, "that Paris of the Old Testament." He mentioned three handsome brothers in Kishinev who might be receptive to Vigel's advances, and invited him for a visit in Odessa, but with the proviso: "To serve you I'll be all too happy / With all my soul, my verse, my prose, / But Vigel, you must spare my rear!"

In his poems that imitated the Greek Anthology or Muslim poets, Pushkin assumed the persona of a man attracted to adolescent boys, a literary strategem that had no correlates in his life.

Pushkin's younger contemporary Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) wrote of homosexual love in the cycle of poems known as his "Hussar" or "Cadet" poems. Written when he was twenty and a student at a military academy, two of the five poems of this cycle depict the sexual encounters between other cadets. Though the theme is treated with clear distaste, the details are so concrete that Lermontov must have personally witnessed the incidents he described.

Gogol and Sexual Self-Repression

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), only ten years younger than Pushkin, was one of the most harrowing cases of sexual self-repression to be found in the annals of literature. Totally and exclusively gay, Gogol spent his life denying this fact to himself and to others, mainly for religious reasons. His stories and plays are permeated with fear of marriage and other forms of sexual contact with women, but Gogol enveloped this theme in such a cloud of symbols and surrealistic fantasies that his contemporary readers failed to discern its presence.

A sketch for his second play, Marriage (a headlong attack on the entire institution of matrimony), mentioned an official who so loved his subordinate that he slept in the same bed with him, a passage that was removed from the finished version of the play.

This brilliant writer committed suicide at the age of forty-three, after confessing his true sexuality to a bigoted priest, who ordered him to fast and pray day and night if he wanted to escape hellfire and brimstone.

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