- Teaching Queer Theory in Russia
Introduction: Feeling Blue?
The founder of Russian “sexology” and the author of many controversial publications on homosexuality, Igor Kon, entitled his 2008 autobiography Eighty Years of Solitude.1 In this book, he expressed his deep feeling of intellectual isolation because of his commitment to the study of sexuality, a topic that was silenced in the USSR. Indeed, there were no conferences or workshops to attend, no colleagues to engage with in fruitful conversations. On the contrary, in Soviet times, Kon expected his work to be repressed and carefully monitored everything he wrote in order not to express something subject to criminal law or other sanctions. According to Kon, the situation hardly changed in the 1990s: “It seemed that the Soviet situation definitely disappeared and turned to the irrelevant past. However, every day our current society reminds me more of that country where I lived sixty years of my life.”2
Kon wrote these words long before Russia became a worldwide symbol of the political repression of homosexuality in 2013, when the notorious law against “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”3 was enacted on the federal level. The repression of sexualities outside of a narrow set of heteronormative practices has since become official policy. It has included governmental propaganda of animosity toward lesbians and gay men, the legitimation of gay bashers [End Page 107] across the country,4 a clamping down on freedom of association,5 and the censorship of any media that does not represent homosexuality in a negative way.6 All these events contribute to the sense of loneliness and solitude that a contemporary Russian scholar of queer sexuality feels because the state makes our studies unspeakable and unimaginable. Yet, as a queer scholar in Russia, I feel exactly the opposite.
Rather queerly, the same year that the law against homosexual propaganda was passed turned out to be a high point of my career. First, together with colleagues from the St. Petersburg LGBT organization Vykhod we organized the Second International Interdisciplinary Conference “On the Crossroads: Methodology, Theory and Practice of LGBT and Queer Studies.”7 Second, journalists became interested in my research. I have been approached by reporters from the UK, Germany, Finland, Sweden, and even Russia to comment on the current situation with LGBT rights and politics.8 Finally, in 2013, the faculty of the European University at St. Petersburg approved my course on queer theory; in the spring semester of 2014, I taught the first queer studies class in Russia to a dozen motivated master’s students. This situation prevents me from speaking of loneliness, though my feelings are ambivalent. On the one hand, it is official in Russia that talking about gays is bad. On the other hand, these same legal prohibitions have also generated a lot of attention to research on homosexuality and created the possibility of a vibrant academic discussion.
In what follows, I will try to describe the field of lesbian, gay, and queer scholarship, which simultaneously is queer activism given the political climate in Russia. I will do so in order to locate my own position there: a position that is characterized by both a feeling of loneliness, as expressed by Professor Kon many years ago, and a feeling of promise that troubles the dark scene I see from my university’s window. After all, rainbows appear after rainclouds.
We Have Always Been Queer
In Russia, the terrains of contestation are quite different from what they are in the United States. As John D’Emilio argued, speaking of university scholars and our attitudes to gay and lesbian lives, “Having been granted the extraordinary privilege of thinking critically as a way of life, we should be astute enough to recognize when a group of people is being systematically mistreated.”9 This privileged position is supposed to bring university faculty to recognize the importance of sustaining a welcoming environment to those who feel oppressed. This is not what the Russian academy looks like. On the contrary, researchers of Russian social science believe that university professors assume the role of the [End Page 108] intellectual police and provide scholarly justifications for the repressive initiatives of the...