Breaking the Ice


By Justin Torres

What Russia’s queer past has to tell us about the future

Portrait of M. Kuzmin by Konstantin Somov

“Love, whatever its nature, can never be depraved except in the eyes of a cynic.” 

–Mikhail Kuzmin, Wings

Russia’s crackdown on queers is awful. I’m glad that boycotts have attracted such attention, but beyond our purchasing power, let’s not forget the power we’ve always had: to read, shape opinion, and drive culture. Lately I’ve been thinking about Russia’s own queer history, and about one of its forgotten heroes. My hope is that you’ll spend the dollars you’ve saved on vodka to pick up a book by Mikhail Kuzmin.

In 1928, at the invitation of students of the Leningrad literary institute, Kuzmin gave the final public reading of his life. He assumed the event would be poorly attended; the once great writer had been largely silenced and, he worried, forgotten. The reading was not advertised to the public and only students with tickets were allowed entrance. The director of the institute feared any reading by Kuzmin would attract a large contingent of homosexuals and, thusly, the attention of the authorities.

The director was right to fear. On the night of the reading there came a crush at the doors, the ticket system broke down, and gays crowded in among the students. Kuzmin’s reading electrified the audience, and no surprise, as he read his poem, The Trout Breaks the Ice, a staggering work swirling with autobiography and cultural allusions that is also an ode to the triumph of desire—a poem that still maintains its electricity through translation and time. An ovation followed the reading and the gays pushed to the front, showering Kuzmin with flowers, bouquet upon bouquet landing at his feet. The director and student organizers quaked, soon they knew they would be called before authorities to account for the scandal (they narrowly escaped punishment, pleading ignorance), but Kuzmin beamed.  Did he know this would be the last public reading of his life? The times had turned forcefully against him, and in the coming years his friends would be interrogated, and the apartment he shared with his lover, Yury Yurkun, would be searched, their artwork and writing seized—yet that night, he beamed.

Did he know this would be, as one student attendee put it, “the last demonstration of Lennigrad’s homosexuals” for over half a century? (Kuzmin was lucky to die of natural causes in 1936; just two years later Yurkun was rounded up with other gay artists and shot.) Certainly he had a sense of the ice of repression spreading and thickening, of the long winter to come, but here were his people--like the beautiful tail of his trout--lashing, thrusting, against that ice. He beamed.

That you’ve probably never heard Kuzmin’s name is testament to the soviet regime’s success in erasing gay contributions to the arts in Russia. For decades Kuzmin’s archives were strictly off limits to western scholars due to the “intimacy” of his diaries, which include delightful descriptions of St. Petersburg’s gay and literary society in the Silver Age, from musings on poetic influence to bathhouse experience (here’s just a taste, from a bathhouse encounter dated Dec. 23rd, 1905: “I was in that kind of terribly stupid but not unpleasant situation, when you know that both of you know something, but are keeping silent. He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifyingly, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt.”) If literary history were more just, the diaries would be fully translated, published, and widely read, and the name Mikhail Kuzmin would be as familiar to Out readers as Oscar Wilde, Andre Gide, or Gore Vidal.