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literature

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Russian Literature  
 
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The massive, nationwide uprising known as the Revolution of 1905 forced Nicholas II to issue his October Manifesto, which authorized a parliamentary system, legalized all political parties, and virtually abolished preliminary censorship of books and periodicals. From 1906 onward, there appeared in Russia lesbian and gay poets, fiction writers, and artists who saw in the new freedom of expression a chance to describe their lifestyles in an honest and affirmative manner.

Kuzmin

Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), the most outspoken, prolific and well-known of Russia's gay writers, made his literary debut in 1906, when the prestigious art journal Vesy (Libra) serialized his autobiographical novel Wings.

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Published in book form one year later, Wings used the format of Bildungsroman (novel of self-education), following the example of such Western classics as Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Flaubert's Sentimental Education. The young Ivan (Vanya) Smurov's growing attraction to his older friend Larion turns to fear and revulsion when he learns that Larion moves in St. Petersburg's gay circles and patronizes a gay bathhouse.

Vanya learns to accept his own feelings after he stays with an Old Believer family on the Volga who tell him that any form of love is better than repression and hatred. Vanya discovers that he cannot respond sexually to women; then he takes an eye-opening trip to Italy. The novel ends with Vanya accepting Larion's offer to live and travel together, a decision that makes him feel as if he had grown wings.

On its first appearance, Wings was attacked as pornographic by both the conservative and left-wing publications. But the novel's acclaim by the leading poets and critics of the day soon put Kuzmin beyond the reach of journalistic sniping.

It was as a poet that Kuzmin soon acquired the stature of a major figure. Despite the themes of gay love and gay sex that permeated his poetry, it was extolled by the greatest poets of the age, from Alexander Blok to Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Between 1906 and the early 1920s, Kuzmin wrote and published several other novels, many short stories, plays, and a great deal of poetry. His plays on gay themes, such as Dangerous Precaution (1907) and The Venetian Madcaps (1914) were performed at professional theaters and at amateur theatricals. A whole generation of Russian gay men in the decade before the October Revolution saw Kuzmin as their spokesman. His poetry and Wings became their catechism.

Other Writers in the Period 1900-1920

Much gay literature was published in Russia during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The leading Symbolist poet Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1945) brought out in 1911 his much acclaimed book of verse Cor Ardens, which contained a section called "Eros," about the married poet's homosexual experiences.

Ivanov's wife, Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal (1866-1907), specialized in the topic of lesbian love. Her short novel Thirty-Three Freaks and her collection of stories The Tragic Zoo (both 1907) were much discussed in the press and made lesbian love a better-known phenomenon.

Around 1910, there appeared in Russia a group of poets called "peasant," not so much because of their origins, but because the survival of the peasant way of life in the twentieth century and a sort of peasant separatism from the rest of society were their central concerns.

The undisputed leader of this group was Nikolai Kliuev (1887-1937). Born in a peasant family that belonged to the Khlysty sect, Kliuev learned (and taught his followers) how to combine his native village folklore with the modernist style and versification developed by the Russian Symbolist poets. Kliuev's undisguised homosexuality did not prevent most critics and intellectuals of the time from considering him the leading literary spokesman for the whole of Russian peasantry.

Kliuev's poetry, with its crowded imagery and a tone akin to magic spells and incantations, served as a model for a whole school of poets and fiction writers. The most notable of his disciples was Sergei Esenin (1895-1925), much better known in the West because of his brief marriage to the dancer Isadora Duncan. For about two years (1915-1917), Kliuev and Esenin lived together as lovers and wrote about it in their poetry.

Although married during his short life to three women, Esenin could write meaningful love poetry only when it was addressed to other men. His last poem, which was also his suicide note, was addressed to a young Jewish poet who had spent the night with him a few days earlier.

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