- The Other Russia:Re-Presenting the Gay Experience
For many gays, lesbians and bisexuals in Russia today, the decades immediately preceding the Revolution are looked on as something of a golden age, and not entirely without reason. It was a time when several prominent members of the royal family were practicing homosexuals;1 a number of Russia's leading cultural figures at the time were also indisputably homosexual; and themes of gender identification and same-sex attraction were taken up by writers and artists in both popular and high-brow venues.2 In the realm of politics, the criminality of homosexuality was discussed in the context of legal reform, with Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov eloquently championing the position that homosexuality may be "repugnant," but it should not be criminal. Although homosexuality would remain a criminal offense throughout the tsarist period, in the words of [End Page 183] Laura Engelstein "[it] never served as a vehicle for symbolic politics, as it did in England and Germany during the same period,"3 or as it would in the Soviet era.
It is in the context of this nostalgia that one must examine K. K. Rotikov's Drugoi Peterburg, a first-of-its-kind gay history of St. Petersburg, for it will help to explain both the cultish popularity of the book – the reviewer for Novyi mir calls it a "cultural phenomenon"4 – and its weaknesses as "gay" history. Drugoi Peterburg is, both in form and in content, an elaborate homage to the decades preceding the revolution, leading the writer Tat'iana Nikitichna Tolstaia to declare that it "does honor to the Silver Age."5 In fact, so much attention is paid to the last two decades of the nineteenth century and to the first two decades of the twentieth, despite the author's claim to cover the entire history of St. Petersburg from its founding in 1703 to the present, that Ol'ga Kushlina names the Silver Age poet Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin "the romantic hero" of the work.6
However, it is the formal connections to the decades preceding the revolution that are most interesting and most problematic. The most obvious one is the book's overall form, that of a guidebook; this Rotikov borrows from Pyliaev's popular work Staryi Peterburg, first published in 1887.7 The organizing principle of both "guides" is the topography of St. Petersburg, with each chapter devoted to a street, square or neighborhood. This format allows information from various historical periods to be juxtaposed in a rather provocative manner, and encourages "lyrical digressions," as, for example, when Rotikov turns from a description of the Nikol'skii Cathedral to a critique of the Russian Orthodox Church's position on homosexuality (104–07).
The idea of writing a gay history in the form of a guidebook8 allows Rotikov, a conservator at the St. Petersburg City Museum of Sculpture, to combine his vast knowledge of the city's architecture and history with his independent research on its notable gays. While Mikhail Zolotonosov is correct in noting in his review for Novyi Mir that most of the information contained in the book has been published elsewhere, it is certainly valuable to have it presented together, [End Page 184] profiling a "gay" presence throughout the history of the tsarist capital. It would have been a great convenience to those working in the fields of Russian history and gay studies, however, to have had the many and varied sources referred to in the work properly referenced. This is one of several reasons Rotikov's book may prove maddening to the scholar. In fact, Rotikov fails to provide any of the scholarly apparatus contained in Pyliaev's book: footnotes, an index of names and an index to the illustrations in the volume. (The last index is, in...