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We Are More Than the Oppressions We Are Forced to Bear: On Being Queer and Jewish in Moscow

Joseph Heller

INTRODUCTION

When we heard about Yevgeniy Fiks’ new artist book, Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, we knew we wanted to feature it here at In geveb, but a book review didn’t seem quite right for this unusual work. Luckily for us, Anna Elena Torres had been in touch with Fiks and we are excited to share their conversation. Still we were wondering, for whom did Fiks toil? Who needs to translate between Yiddish and Gay in Moscow? So we asked Joseph Heller—illustrator, queer Jew, student of Yiddish and Russian, and briefly a Muscovite himself—for his response to the book. Here is the illustration and artist statement Heller shared with us. The Editors

“I am not seeking equivalencies between these two unique and historically different communities on the margins of Soviet society. What is important is not to equate Soviet Gay and Soviet Jewish culture, language, and experience, but to see them in relation to one another. If the goal of a dictionary is to facilitate understanding between speakers of different languages, then the goal of this particular dictionary is solidarity.”

—Yevgeniy Fiks, from Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary

In this illustration, inspired by Yevgeniy Fiks’ artist’s book Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, I explored my personal experience as a queer Jewish man of color in both the United States and studying in Moscow. The surface message is a simple gay kiss between two men. I attempted to portray a soft atmosphere through warm facial expressions and spring colors. It was important for me to focus on a lighter aspect of the queer experience because while gay and queer communities struggle to breathe across the globe, it’s worth representing in our art that we are more than the oppressions we are forced to bear.

Through composition I tried to reflect the tense relationship between the gay and Jewish communities in Soviet Moscow. In “Cruising by the Bolshoi, Cruising by Moscow’s Khoralnaya,the first chapter of his book, Fiks discusses the dynamic between two marginalized groups and how whenever there is room for solidarity there is also space for mutual prejudice. This theme struck me, personally, as universal. Being queer and of color I am privileged enough to witness some of the radical solidarity that flourishes between these two communities. Unfortunately, I have also seen firsthand the casual, blatant, and widely accepted racism in gay communities as well as the rampant homophobia in certain communities of color.

My illustration attempts to represent the Soviet version of this tension through the composition of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue and the gays’ embrace. It’s worth noting that the synagogue and gay cruising both existed in the heart of the capital, which has interesting implications for the visibility for the two groups. Both in Soviet times and today, Jews have been allowed more visibility and acceptance in Russian society than queers have. I felt that my queer and Jewish identities shared the space but existed separately, as if I was constantly, like Sh. An-ski, “between two worlds.”

This is feeling that was also present for me in the States, but I could not quite describe it until the sensation was exacerbated by my time in Moscow. While studying in the capital, I would attend Friday services at the Choral Synagogue and in the same evening attend a drag show in the basement of a building in a dark alley only a few blocks away. I was even able to study Yiddish at the Russian State University. There was always a sense that exploring my Jewish identity was more formally accepted; I was able to wear my kippah on the metro while en route to High Holiday services without question. However, any exploration of my queer identity was conducted in the dark. Whether I was performing in an electric drag show in a clandestine side alley, or on a somber date in a park by metro Year 1905, my queer identity never enjoyed the same freedom or visibility that my Jewish Identity did. The Choral Synagogue perched in the upper left-hand corner of the painting and the gay embrace mirrored in the opposite corner reflects the movement I felt while transitioning between these two identities. The electric cables try to connect the two scenes but can not quite succeed while reinforcing the feeling of movement and hierarchy—a possible solidarity despite a constant disconnect.

While most of the colors of the piece imply the potential for vibrant coexistence between the two groups, the grey sky, for me, is the most important color of the piece in terms of how viewers are meant to read the environment. The grey is meant to reflect the anxiety both Jews and queers felt during Soviet times and that gays continue to face today. Grey skies often are a sign of a looming storm, snow, or rain. In terms of my Jewish identity, this represents the sleepy, almost indifferent, current attitudes towards Jews I’ve experienced in Moscow today as well as a state of uncertainty for the gays. And finally, I explored the question of race. While my Jewish identity was allowed more visibility, it never felt like a result of acceptance or true tolerance but rather redirected Russian anxieties. The aggressively negative attitudes of Russians toward Central Asians and people from the Caucasus region was undeniable. Again, I recognized a similar pattern of racial hierarchy that is relevant in the States within our own gay communities. And like in our queer communities and communities of color, many people with multiple marginalized identities found themselves caught between worlds lacking support and empowerment from both sides.

Fiks’ exploration of Soviet Yiddish and gay culture was not only fascinating to read but struck me as an important work because of the universal themes it illuminates. Soviet gay Jews may seem like a niche demographic, but the issues Fiks’ book covers cross borders and time periods and are applicable to so many current conversations concerning race, gender, and sexuality. I am excited to continue reading Fiks’ work and examining intersecting and contrasting identities through Yiddish, gay, and Soviet lenses.

Read Anna Elena Torres’ interview with Yevgeniy Fiks about his new book, Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, here.

MLA STYLE
Heller, Joseph. “We Are More Than the Oppressions We Are Forced to Bear: On Being Queer and Jewish in Moscow.” In geveb, April 2017: https://ingeveb.org/blog/we-are-more-than-the-oppressions-we-are-forced-to-bear-on-being-queer-and-jewish-in-moscow.
CHICAGO STYLE
Heller, Joseph. “We Are More Than the Oppressions We Are Forced to Bear: On Being Queer and Jewish in Moscow.” In geveb (April 2017): Accessed Sep 20, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller is a recent graduate from Middlebury College in Vermont. He spent the last six months working in the Museum of Fine Arts in Mexico City before moving to Ukraine for the Peace Corps.