Milos Stehlik on Gay themes as taboo in Russian cinema

Produced by Milos Stehlik

April 15, 2011

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"You I Love" is one of the few contemporary Russian films that portrays a gay relationship.

In the history of gay, lesbian, or queer cinema, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the name of legendary filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. Yet, Eisenstein, unquestionably one of the most influential filmmakers who ever lived, and the director of such classics as Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, was indeed, gay.

The powerful Orthodox Church and the moral conformity of the Tsarist regime before the Bolshevik revolution forced 19th century laws which criminalized homosexuality. In practice, these laws were rarely enforced. Prince Felix Yosoupoff, for example, a member of the Imperial Family and future assassin of Rasputin, lived an openly gay lifestyle. The historical paradox is that the Bolsheviks preached openness and the Bolshevik Revolution actually promised a change to sexual openness. But in practice, however, homophobia became rampant. A notorious article, 121.1 — punished gay men with up to five years of imprisonment. Women accused lesbianism could be held in a psychiatric clinic for up to three months, where they were subjected to mind-bending drug treatments. And homosexuals were deported to camps or psychiatric clinics, often never heard from again.

Eisenstein’s homoerotic drawings and sketches are on vivid display in the film I am Brezhnev’s Queen, a cinematic look at gay life under the Soviet regime. The film is directed by Frederic Mitterand — nephew of Francois Mitterand, the late prime minister of France. Frederic Mitterand is a veteran television producer and popular TV show host, as well as a former French Minister of Culture. The documentary, produced in 2001, focuses on the difficulties faced by homosexuals in Russia and the former Soviet Union, but the film also looks at these attitudes historically.

In I am Brezhnev’s Queen, Mitterand points out that communist propaganda depended on the intense eroticization of young proletarians – both men and women. This led to quite sexually ambiguous images that nonetheless represented the Communist ideal, in posters, photographs, statues and films. The emphasis on a young, virile culture of the body – exemplified in athletic exhibitions, a sports and military cult, ran parallel to Stalinist homophobia. In Mitterand’s view, the Soviet Union’s attitude towards homosexuality was – plain and simply – schizophrenic.

I am Brezhnev’s Queen follows some famous Russian and Soviet celebrities – Tchaikovsky, the ballet impresario Diaghilev, the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the poet Sergei Yesenin and two famous Soviet filmmakers –Sergei Paradjanov and the aforementioned Sergei Eisenstein.

The speculation of Eisenstein’s homosexuality – whether latent or practiced – is fostered by his interest in puns with gay inflections, and the graphic eroticism of his drawings which leaned toward the pornographic. His marriage was, by all accounts, Platonic, and his wife didn’t rate even a mention in his memoirs. When Eisenstein’s mother died, he wrote in his memoirs, “A small, ridiculous woman died today.”Eisenstein admired Judy Garland, and could be hypocritical about his own homosexuality, saying “I’ve never felt any such desire,” though he later admitted to bisexual tendencies. At odds with Stalin over his depiction of Ivan in his film, Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein proved to be a survivor and bent to Stalin’s will, though many think the pressure killed him not long after he finished Part two of Ivan.  Far From Sunset Boulevard, a 2006 film directed by Igor Minaev, suggests a love triangle between Eisenstein, his frequent collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov and Aleksanrov’s wife, the star Lyubov Orlovam. The film remains unreleased in Russia.

Contemporary Russian films on gay or lesbian themes are sparse at best and certainly Russia still awaits its equivalent of Brokeback Mountain. A rare exception is You I Love, directed by Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky. The characters Tim and Vera are a successful young couple whose life changes when one night, Tim accidentally hits Uloomji, a young Kalmyk day worker in a car accident. Their torrid affair becomes a bizarre love triangle when Vera gets dragged into the relationship. In spite of this homosexuality is still portrayed as an illness which is also un-Russian and unpatriotic.

Russia’s major gay and lesbian film festival, the Side by Side Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in St. Petersburg, was banned in its first year, and had to be low-key. Last year, the local government apparently put pressure on businesses thought to be Festival sponsors, and soon the support vanished. The Siberian Gay Film Festival in Tomsk was deemed a success in its first year, though attendance was often sparse, and screenings were sometimes cancelled due to low audience. A Christian group calling itself Pillar of Truth picketed nightly with signs that screamed, “Homosexuality is a sin,” and “Confess, sinners!” The Festival, said the organizers, “helped Siberian gay men and lesbians empower their community and educated thousands that homosexuality is not a sickness or “influence of the West,” but an ordinary phenomenon that exists next door to them.”

Worldview film contributor Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia.