Critic’s Notebook: Homophobia’s politicization reflects sad state of Russian cultural politics

(Lee Broomfield/ Metropolitan Opera ) - Mariusz Kwiecien, right, and Anna Netrebko star in “Eugene Onegin,” which opens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Sept. 23.

(Lee Broomfield/ Metropolitan Opera ) - Mariusz Kwiecien, right, and Anna Netrebko star in “Eugene Onegin,” which opens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Sept. 23.

Monsieur Triquet, a minor character from Pushkin’s novel in verse “Eugene Onegin,” is a ridiculous figure who fancies himself a poet. He “passes for witty” but is, in fact, a bit of a bore, old-fashioned with a “Gallic” way to him. At a birthday party for Tatiana, the poem’s heroine, Triquet arrives with verses “itching” in his pocket. But his meager paean to Tatiana’s beauty is cribbed from “outmoded airs” in “some old collection.”

We get a fuller and sadder picture of Triquet from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” an opera that is based on the 1825-1832 Pushkin poem but that premiered a half-century later. The operatic Triquet, a harmless provincial French teacher, sings his couplets to a four-square melody that sounds like something Mozart might have discarded as a mindless cliche. The role is often taken by a character tenor with a thin, wheedling voice, so the result is comic and fey. Triquet is a funny little man, queer in a way, with silly pretensions and a fussy, bustling, officious style. Costume designers and directors take the cue, dressing him flamboyantly. He is the gay uncle, loved and mocked in equal measure.

(Alexei Nikolsky/AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Mariinsky Theatre director Valery Gergiev chat during the opening ceremony of the new stage of Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on May 2, 2013.

Russian culture, like any rich and civilized tradition, is full of Triquets, more or less obvious in their unconventional ways and subterranean sexuality. But an ugly and relatively recent development in Russian public life, the politicization of virulent homophobia, is making Triquet seem not a victim of his own pompousness but a vulnerable figure, a martyr to an unnecessary form of old-fashioned bigotry and meanness. Spurred by demagogues, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kirill I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia has embraced a hysterical fear and loathing of gay people, embodied in a now-infamous law that prohibits gay “propaganda,” which seems to encompass any positive or even neutral mention of homosexuality that might be heard by children.

Sexual paranoia

The law has caused international outrage, led to calls (so far ineffectual) for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and is becoming a headache for cultural organizations far from Russia. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which will stage “Eugene Onegin” for its Sept. 23 gala season opening, is caught up in the ridiculous and noisome Russian homophobia mess, with an online petition taking aim at the company because of the participation of two prominent Russian musicians. The petition, hosted by the Web site change.org, argues that because Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and because the conductor of the performance (Valery Gergiev) and the soprano playing Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) are vocal supporters of Putin, that the Met should dedicate the performance “to support of LGTB people.” More than 7000 people have signed as of last week.

The Met has issued a statement saying that it fully supports gay rights but doesn’t want to get involved in politics. According to Met spokesman Peter Clark, although the Met has occasionally dedicated performances to people who have died, usually famous opera stars, “the Met has never dedicated a performance to a political issue or event.” Netrebko used Facebook to issue a statement affirming her commitment to equal treatment for all people. Gergiev, who is particularly close to Putin, had no comment.

Although the petition is badly aimed, it is inspired. If nothing else, it will call attention to the political beliefs and affiliations of Gergiev, one of the most dynamic and hardworking musicians in the world but intimately intertwined with Putin and his government. Gergiev is the head of the Mariinsky Opera in St. Petersburg (where a local gay “propaganda” law passed well before the national one), and the Mariinsky is heavily dependent on public funding.

In May, the legendary company opened an extraordinarily expensive and luxurious expansion house, designed by the same architect who created the Sidney Harman Hall for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. The Mariinsky 2 cost about $700 million and required the destruction of historic buildings, deeply lamented by preservationists in St. Petersburg. It is now not just a temple of opera but a monument to the vulgar dynamics of oligarchy, a nexus of money, power and ostentation that is the defining quality of Russian cultural life under Putin.

Gergiev isn’t an artist chaffing under the yoke of political obligation. He is a stout defender not just of Putin but of Putinism. In October, at a Library of Congress event, Gergiev was asked what he thought of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band that ran afoul of Putin and his allies in the Orthodox Church. After they filmed a scene inside a Moscow church and used the video for an anti-Putin song, some members of Pussy Riot were arrested, tried, convicted of “hooliganism” and sent to prison camps. When asked about this outrage, Gergiev didn’t defend their right to free expression or the importance of separating church, state and art. Unmindful of the fate of artists such as Shostakovich, hounded by Soviet authorities over music deemed insufficiently retrograde for tender proletarian ears, Gergiev has defended the state, the prosecution and the imprisonment. A world-famous, brilliant and successful artist chose sides against a small but courageous punk band, arguing for the stridently illiberal principle that art shouldn’t offend religious sensibilities.

If the petition draws out Gergiev on the subject of art and freedom, it will have served a useful purpose. If nothing else, perhaps someone will ask him a question, on the record: If Tchaikovsky were alive today and spoke in defense of being gay, should he be arrested, fined and imprisoned?

The sad state of Russian cultural politics makes that question more substantial than it first seems. A report last month in the Guardian newspaper says that a biographical film about Tchaikovsky’s life has been edited to remove any discussion of his sexuality and that the screenwriter is advancing the ludicrous theory that the composer was merely “a person without a family who has been stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men.” More recent reports include the seizure of a satirical painting of Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev from a St. Petersburg art gallery, because the artist depicted them wearing women’s undergarments. One Russian commentator has argued (with a good deal of dark irony) that Russia’s sexual paranoia may become a new, self-defeating, isolationist form of international political identity: “Now our foreign policy will be built around the sexual sovereignty of the motherland,” wrote Aleksandr Baunov.

Cultural oppression

Self-censorship isn’t an accidental byproduct of laws meant to limit discourse: It is the direct intent, and an insidious multiplier of their impact. Russian politicians, perhaps embarrassed by calls to boycott Sochi, have argued that the “propaganda” law only limits the spread of information about “non-traditional” sexuality to young people. Being gay isn’t illegal in Russia, they point out. But the law is aimed precisely at the most vulnerable gay people in a deeply homophobic country — adolescents and young people, who are being told that they are not equal, not welcome and have no hope of participating fully in the spectrum of romance and domesticity that straight people enjoy.

Although most of the controversy has swirled around Sochi, the cultural ramifications are perhaps even more extensive. Athletes eager to compete in Sochi argue that boycotts are ineffective and that young people who spend their lives preparing for the Olympics shouldn’t be held hostage to politics. But while sexuality is incidental to athletics, it is deeply a part of cultural expression, so as the controversy over the don’t-say-gay law spreads, Russian artists and cultural figures can expect to be questioned about their views. Participants in the cultural Olympiad, including international artists and performers, will be announced in mid-October, and they may find their motivations open to greater scrutiny. (A representative of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee Press Office declined to say whether the law on gay “propaganda” would apply to the content and performers of the Cultural Olympiad.)

Activists may enjoy making people like Gergiev squirm, but there’s genuine potential for a cultural re-engagement more powerful than just demanding where people stand on the question. Russian culture, after all, is as full of homoeroticism as any other, including Iran’s, whose former president once risibly claimed to a New York audience: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals.” Benighted Russians may believe (or hope) that too, but they’re wrong.

Wander into the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, a holy temple of Russian art, and you find 19th-century painters such as Alexander Ivanov not even bothering to hide his fixation on young males. In Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” there’s a tossed-off scene in which the dashing Vronsky, brooding in his barracks, proves himself not just a rake but a homophobe, rudely dismissing a couple of guardsmen who are clearly in a relationship. “There go the inseparables,” says one of Vronsky’s friends, mockingly. Mikhail Kuzmin’s “Wings,” a 1906 novel recently republished in English, is about homosexual self-discovery (loaded with references to homoerotic icons such as Gabriele D’Annunzio, Hadrian’s lover Antinous, and the Trojan shepherd boy Ganymede), and yet it was published decades before similar novels of equal frankness from English and American writers.

These markers of non-traditional sexuality aren’t universally positive, or even “gay” in the contemporary sense. But they are thoroughly interwoven into the best of the many contradictory veins of Russian cultural expression. Noticing them, following where they lead, is essential to understanding the deeper “queerness” of Russian culture. Consider Triquet. Shortly after he sings his verses, two young men quarrel, which leads to a duel and a tragic unnecessary death. Attend to the musical cues, not the words, and it’s painfully apparent that there is a love passing friendship between the two men. There is indeed hardly one “traditional” sexual relationship to be found in the opera, but a host of alliances and loves between people of different ages, unequal maturity, across the lines of marriage and faithfulness.

Much of the world is finally beginning to notice the cultural and historical abundance of Triquets, the closeted characters, the unmarried aunts and uncles, the flamboyant men who never talked of sex, allowing their voices, warped and corrupted by homophobia, to be heard at last with sympathy. But Triquet is also a model for how advocates of a new, reorganized, homophobia would like gay people to live: Allowed into the party on condition of self-denial, alienated from their nature, singing someone else’s heterosexual verses. What’s old is new, and whether it’s Putin’s Russia or the Catholic Church taking aim at teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, Triquet reminds us that the closet that gay people left over the past half-century is being re-
purposed, refitted to the job of oppression, by laws such as the one being protested so widely today.

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