- Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities by Francesca Stella
Scholarship on Russian queer sexuality is a limited and scattered field, which is why every contribution deserves particular attention. Based on seventy-four interviews the author collected in the early 2000s in Moscow and Ul’ianovsk, Francesca Stella’s monograph provides insights into lives of nonheterosexual women in late Soviet and post-Soviet space and time. One might argue that in 2015 discourses on (homo)sexuality in Russia differ drastically from the time Stella did her fieldwork, because in 2006 Russia entered the times of institutionalized heterosexism with regional and then federal anti-homosexual propaganda laws. However, Stella’s work does not focus on this political dimension and instead discusses day-to-day negotiations of women’s queer sexuality, with this making a substantial contribution to the field. The major revelation that Lesbian Lives brings is that Stella’s discussion exceeds the limits of metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg and brings attention to experiences of women in nonmetropolitan spaces. This book is the first text that focuses attention on queer sexuality within a peripheral location, and provides a new insight into the enigma of post-Soviet sexuality.
The first part of the book tackles the issue of time. A review of Soviet state policies and discourses on motherhood and compulsory heterosexuality is followed by a discussion of queer women’s personal experiences in late socialism. Stella highlights the way her informants negotiated their sexualities and commonly engaged in heterosexual marriages despite having same-sex desire, elucidating how formal and informal mechanisms of surveillance and control (co)produced female queer subjects. Space, being the second part of the book, guides the reader through peripheral Ul’ianovsk and metropolitan Moscow. It follows the negotiations of public and private spaces for young nonheterosexual women, focusing on the way queer spaces are being carved out and negotiated. Stella highlights how parental relationships and housing regimes of post-Soviet Russia shaped nonheterosexual women’s understanding of home, safety, and privacy. Even though she provides very interesting ethnographic insights, Stella [End Page 201] spends a lot of time reviewing existing literature on queer theory, therefore at times it is hard to follow her argument.
One thing that a reader might note is that Stella continuously argues with existing scholarship on Russian nonheterosexualities. Even though critical engagement can be beneficial for the research, Stella seems to overdo it slightly. On multiple occasions throughout the text she accuses certain authors of providing an “essentialising polarisation between ‘east’ and ‘west’” (19) as a result of narrating post-Soviet sexualities as queer. Thus, she argues with usage of the word “queer” and talks about her informants as lesbians “to collectively refer to the women who took part in the research, in order to emphasise gender as a key aspect of their experience” (5). However, “lesbian” as an identity category has a certain political history behind it, similar to the word “queer” that, as Stella suggests, other scholars used to reify the East–West divide. Stella’s discussion is focused on nonheterosexual experiences of women that sometimes fall into the concept of lesbian, and sometimes don’t; some of her informants seem to focus on their desire, rather than on identification. She narrates women’s stories, which, in fact, are much more queer that she suggests they are.
When reading Lesbian Lives in a broader scholarly debate on Russian sexualities, one would understand that Stella’s work actually aligns with the researchers she argues with. Queer in Russia1 (one of the texts that Stella extensively critiques) discussed how the identity politics (brought to Russia by mainstream Western activism) that entered the post-socialist discourse in the early 1990s faced backlash from practices—but not politics—of disidentification. I suggest that this is not anywhere close to positioning Russian queers as essentially different. “Queer” was used to show how state politics and discursive regimes of Soviet and post-Soviet sexuality (co)created...