#1: the right to desire

23 april, 2021
Illustration: Mariia Volchonok.

«Somebody loves someone, and loves, and loves even more, like this»
March 1913, Helwan, Egypt. Lesya Ukrainka. Postcard for Olga Kobylianska

This article is an introduction to a series of reviews. In the following essays, I’ll make an effort to examine the history of Ukrainian queer art of the XX-XXI centuries. Making “an effort” relates on a larger scale to the Soviet Ukrainian culture. Talking about queer art of this era, we are bounded by the need to expose the study of impossible identities. Queer theory in the Ukrainian context is now a necessary tool to restore the identities, repressed by the Soviet regime. Over the past years, we are finally discovering ways to tell queer stories. 

It is clueless to mention any human rights — mine or yours — unless you’re ready to accept the other’s right to love. Creation of a society with equal rights for queer people is the practice that reforms states and restructures governments. To discuss queerness means to make a revision of "normality" and "abnormality", reconsidering the notions which form the basis of all social processes. That’s why this essay addresses quite well-known plots from different periods of Ukrainian history. Art — per se — frequently does not correspond to our “established order” of things. Therefore, talking about queer art of different epoques is the way to rethink the present. 

In fact, queer as a term to describe the variety of LGBTQ+ identities is used by mass culture overall. While queer theory addresses the duality of worldview and notions of “normality”, researching also the aspects of gender identity and the performance of gender, that do not fit into the historically dominant binary system. Queer theory unites many practices of critical reading and has at least three different meanings: 1) queer theory as the theory of queer, strange, ugly, abnormal, odd 2) queer theory as the atypical approach to knowledge 3) as the tool to make the other theory queer or to overturn a theory, analyzing its conclusions¹. Following the first meaning of the term, theorists consider queerness as a basis of all structures, starting from the human personality. That’s not only the case of homoeroticism or the ways we choose to inhabit our own gender and sexuality. But also of everything strange, ambivalent, and perverse that goes before the “normal”. 

Our bodies are not born with the pe-existent gender role models. A role model is defined by a certain number of discourses, circulating in society. That’s why queer theory addresses the productive role of the body and its — queer — desires². Also, queer theory examines the notions of identity and its value for political practices. Doing so, queer theory in art questions the functioning of social and governmental normative structures. 

The history of Ukrainian art proceeds from the precondition of the heteronormativity of male and female artists. To be fair, art historians, museum workers, and curators from around the world have made the process of researching queer culture and queer identities complicated. Almost every male&female union — partnership, friendship, creative collaboration — was labeled as “lovers''. Whereas, depictions of same-sex intimacy were hidden beneath titles as “Friends”, “Sisters”, “Comrades” ³. 

Seventh-century icon of Saints Serge and Bacchus, wearing gold torques traditionally associated with them and joined by Christ. John Boswell suggests that the saints are depicted in the traditional Roman position of pronuba/-us ("matron» or "best man," often a deity) overseeing the wedding of a husband and wife [John Boswell. Same-sex unions in premodern Europe. Vintage Books, 1995, p.195]. Originally from the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai; now housed in The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that sexual orientation became a major determinant in the construction of personal identity in the late nineteenth century. As well as gender and national identities⁴. Up to the XIX century, the expressions of desire tended to be manifested within the framework of a binary gender system. Furthermore, the dominant — masculine — system assumed that most of the desires are apriori male. Lacking the evidence of female desire — with a few exceptions, though — we can retrack queerness only by displays of male homoerotic desire. 

Before Ukraine declared independence in 1991, male homosexuality had been regulated by Criminal Codes for centuries. The laws of the Russian Empire — unlike the laws of the USSR — imposed the ban not exactly on homosexual identities but created a taboo of certain sexual actions. Whereas, the medical notion of “sexual deviation” in the Russian Empire was formed by European literature⁴. 

There’s a quite popular myth that homosexual relations were legalized by bolsheviks from 1917 to 1922. In fact, after the bolsheviks had seized the power, they annulated the Criminal Code of the Russian Empire, according to which homosexual relations were treated as a crime. Thus, until the first edition of the USSR Crime Code was released, sexual relations hadn’t been regulated by the government. These few years gave an opportunity to spread for many practical experiments and intellectual processes, rethinking the social structures. Yet, just for a while. 

Male homosexuality was criminalized in Soviet Ukraine in 1934: Grigory Petrovsky signed the Resolution on criminal liability for “sodomy” in Kharkiv. The article No 165(1) defined that voluntary male homosexual relations had to be punished with a 5-year period of imprisonment, and those, committed forcibly, caused up to 8 years of imprisonment. In 1961, the new version of the Criminal Code of the USSR came into force. Article No 122 included imprisonment up to 1 year or exile for a period of 3 years for homosexual relationships. 

In the USSR, the notion of homosexual identities was formed by the Soviet systems of punitive psychiatry, medicine, and criminal law. Female homosexuality was most often considered a psychiatric disorder. Lesbians were forced to undergo medical drug therapy. "Sodomy" was made a label, which defined not sexual orientation, but betrayal, abomination, and degradation. The consequences of these mechanisms are still being healed by modern Ukrainian society.

Many people, who didn't feel attraction to the opposite sex, were deprived of their rights and opportunities for self-identification. Without information about the other people, with whose experience they could relate their feelings and desires, queers had to lead their lives hiding or traumatizing themselves and their partners by an effort to change their sexuality in a heterosexual relationship. 
Miniature «Killers attack Saint Boris». The young Hungarian protects Boris from spears. Sylvester’s Codex, the XIV century.

From the end of the 1930-s, every mention of same-sex love was tabooed, except special medical and forensic literature, which was published with restricted access. Mentions of the personal lives of famous queer historical figures were forbidden, literature, covering the topic of same-sex desire, was not translated or published. Classical poetry addressed to young men — Arabic-Persian poems, William Shakespeare sonnets — in Ukrainian or Russian translation became messages to girls⁵. 

The first evidence of queer narrative in Ukrainian Christian culture may be present in “Legend, passion, and praise to the holy martyrs St. Boris and St. Gleb”. Boris and Gleb — the sons of Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv — are among the first saints, canonized by the Ukrainian orthodox church. Vasily Rozanov was the first who suggested to read the legend as a story with a queer narrative in his book "People of the Moonlight" (1911). Rosanov’s treatise was focused on the studies of homosexual culture, gender roles and criticized the religious canons. First among the known narrations of the Legend of St. Borys and St. Gleb is a “Сhronicle Story”, included in the “Tale of Bygone Years” (“The Letopis of Nestor”) and corresponds to a chronicle to 1015. The most comprehensive is the anonymous text of “Legend, passion, and praise to the holy martyrs St. Boris and St. Gleb”, from which all copies are made, including the oldest known Assumption Corpus of the XII century.

After Prince Volodymyr’s death in 1015, his stepson Svyatopolk seized the throne in Kyiv. Prince Boris, returning from a campaign, set up camp on the river Alta. Svyatopolk sent assassins to kill Borys, and he somehow let them into his tent, allegedly not willing to start a war with his brother. Borys was accompanied by his (sic.) young man Georgy, “who was a Hungarian by origin”. “Borys gifted him a golden Hryvnia and loved him more than life”. Awarding with hryvnia (a golden necklace) signified the princes’ special affection. During the attack, George tried to shield Boris with his own body from swords and spears. But that didn’t help: the assassins killed Boris and all his people. To take the necklace off from Georgiy’s neck, the assassins had to cut off his head. There is a version, that a symbolic detail concerning a special gift from the prince was added to a legend by someone a few centuries later⁶, to emphasize the special affection between Borys and Georgy. In the miniature of Sylvester’s Codex, dated from XIV century, Georgy is depicted without a jewel.

In four years, Svyatopolk was defeated by Yaroslav, who became the Kyiv Prince. Clearly, Yaroslav began to develop the cult of Saints Boris and Gleb, starting the practice of honoring them from Vyshgorod, where both princes are buried. The martyrdom of Saint Borys and Gleb, who refused to rise against their brother, have made the idea of the hierarchy in the family especially sacred. Alongside the canonization of princes, the cult of Saint George The Hungarian began to form from the XI century. Although George was canonized as a "passion-bearer", his images are rare. He remained a character in the hagiographic life cycles of princes. Contemporary orthodox retellings mention Georgy a “servant” of Boris. 

Reading the iconographically divided pair of Boris and George as lovers correlates with the language of the early Medieval Christian painting. According to John Boswell, saint couples — especially the military pairs — continued to fascinate and inspire the Christian public in the early Middle Ages. At least, the males, who left the artistic evidence. Such pairs as Saint Serge and Bacchus (their cult was formed in the IV century), provided the Christian interpretation of the Roman phenomena of sexual or institutional “brotherhood”. Boswell proves that the understanding of brotherhood in the Ancient and Roman world implied the erotical and sexual attraction and the relationship that could be so strong that lasted all life⁷. Many Christians may have understood such couplings simply as expressions of devoted friendship, while those, whose own romantic interests were chiefly directed to their own gender doubtless understood them in a more personal way. There’s a space for both optics here. Considering a pair of apostles Peter and Paul as romantic partners will be unfair, while the story of Saints Serge and Bacchus, researched by Boswell in detail, most likely meant actually a romantic partnership⁷. 

Before the beginning of the XVIII century, namely the release of “Article Military" in 1716 (according to which the homosexual relations were punished by a death penalty among the rest of the measures), male homosexual relations were relatively widespread practice.
1. Gold plaque from the Scythian tomb, depicting the brotherhood rite. The IV century bc, Kul-Oba Tomb, near Kerch, Crimea. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. 2. Still from the video “The Main Fortress Of Sich” (2020) by Eugene Korshunov. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yet, intending to illustrate queer manifestations of this epoque with certain artworks, it’s more important to emphasize that our contemporary understanding of queerness can make an interpretation of visual images tricky. A phenomenon, described by Laura Malvi as a “male gaze” may turn into a “homoerotic gaze”, therefore trying to locate ‘theirs alike’, a researcher risks to give out desirable for valid. Sophisticated robes and feminine body language which matched to male standards of the XVI, XVII, and XVII centuries can often serve as false queer markers. Art historian Ladislav Zikmund-Lender emphasizes that an artwork can often be read as queer without an author’s original intention⁸. 

The short movie “The Main Fortress Of Sich” (2020), directed by the artist Eugene Korshunov, has given rise to a debate about homoeroticism in the Zaporozhian Sich community (proto-state of cossacks). Dmytro Yavornitsky mentioned that homosexual love was regarded — since the foundation of Sich in the mid-XVI century and by the moment of liquidation by the Russian Empire in 1775 — as one of the most severe crimes. Yavornitsky also described a phenomenon of ‘brotherhood’. Cossacks could become ‘brothers’ to share the property liability and to look after each other. As a matter of fact, Sich identified itself as an actual brotherhood. But this notion of brotherhood was no longer similar to the ancient one, reproducing rather the understanding of brotherhood in the Orthodox sense: we’re all ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Christ.

Still, the heteronormativity as a compulsory strand of cossack's identity stays unchanged. Korshunov’s movie addresses an accident in Zaporizhya which took place in 2013. Cossacks attacked the local gay community because they had used the word “Sich” to title the gay forum. During the debates on the movie, many topics were discussed, but the main question — of the traditional masculinity model, established in Sich by the system of martial punishments and religious taboos — was the least mentioned. Though, fighting the wave of homophobic comments, the artist had a chance to pose the question: Why should heteronormativity be treated as a golden standard? 

Taras Shevchenko «Model in St Sebastian’s pose», 1840-41. National State Museum, St Petersburg. Taras Shevchenko, “Saint Sebastian”, 1856. Sepia, paper. National Taras Shevchenko Museum, Kyiv.

Due to the necessity to maintain discipline and hierarchy in conditions where there were no time-tested sets of laws (apart from Orthodox dogmas), the main moral value generally turned out to “be a Cossack”. The Cossacks' understanding of masculinity was radical indeed. In general, masculinity implies institutional practices, attitudes and personal qualities of men — such as aggression and competitiveness, which support male dominance. In addition to this, hegemonic masculinity destroys the idea of a single masculinity and builds hierarchies within the very construct of masculinity. This desired, dominant form of masculinity is performed by excluding the other forms — the other by race, gender, with the bodies which are weaker. Also, it manifests itself by dominating over everything that is considered feminine or woman-like. One of the foundational distinguishers of the Sich community was that only those bodies were admitted, which were identified as male ones. 

Now the word "Cossack" in Ukraine means a strong man, a hero. And serves to praise someone for “manly” deeds and actions. The Zaporozhian Sich, which gave this meaning of the word to Ukrainian culture, was a model of community, that excluded everything considered different in relation to the ideal masculinity. How many other exclusions and oppositions, including national and ethnic, were required to form the notion of ‘Cossack’ in Ukrainian culture? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests rethinking current language determinants through a perception of homophobia. This is not particularly a question of intolerance towards homosexuality, but also a structuring dynamics inside the patriarchial and disciplinal structures. 

For instance, one of the main Taras Schevtchenko’s characters — Cossack colonel Gonta — wasn't able to accept any transitional and borderline states. Hence, this mindset structure led him to the slaughter of his own sons. Gonta’s sons existed between two worlds — Polish, Catholic, and Cossack, Orthodox — and were considered unclean, like all borderline figures. Their purification for Gonta started only from the slaughter⁹. In the poem, therefore, their bodies were identified as “Cossacks'' only after they had been buried¹⁰.
Ukrainians are treating the figure of Taras Shevchenko in a similar manner. Ambivalent. seeking, controversial Shevchenko’s nature after his death has been reduced to an absurd minimum in order to construct the father’s figure, acceptable for the majority of Ukrainians. 

Layering the ideologies, cultural institutes have thrown back all the sides of Shevchenko's personality that are difficult to interpret. Consequently, taken out of context, thrown away facts that manifest his queer desires, are circulating through the thematic forums to create the alternative myth about “Gay Shvetchenko”. Shevchenko couldn’t be gay, merely because he hadn’t an opportunity — and obviously an inclination — to identify himself as gay. The ultimate irony is that both concepts have a hint of truth. Understanding the poet’s personality as queer lets us address all differences and contradictions. 

Shevchenko constructed a self-portrait image of Kobzar in his poetry — of a martyr, abandoned, the last hope of his people. Though, Shevchenko became “the product and the hero of his own myth”¹¹. But his poetry reveals only one side of his personality, while the other one is Taras Shevchenko who led a life of a free man, an artist, an intellectual. This Shevchenko inspired Russian artistic milieus, was mixing with the high society, his advice was valuable and he was a dear guest in many noble Saint Petersburg houses.

All attempts to identify Shevchenko as the father’s figure become particularly paradoxical regarding his own attitude to a patriarchal family. George Grabovych points that most of Shevchenko's poems describe a traditional family as a dysfunctional social unit. Sometimes, the poet uses an intellectual travesty method, identifying his (her) own body as female¹². Male and female Shevchenko’s characters’ fates almost inevitably affirm an impossibility of a harmonic marriage¹¹. Family structure, as the poet sees it, reflects the condition of an abnormal, ill society. 

Ivan Myasoedov. From the series “Garden of Gods”, 1900-1910

I do not agree with those who intend to see only homoerotic motives in Shevchenko’s drawings and paintings. But it’s obvious that the male body in Shevchenko's artworks flourishes over the years, develops sensuality, struggles with pain and transformations, while the female body stays illusive, estranged — scarcely explored. 

Since his academy scholarship years, Shevchenko was attracted by an image of Saint Sebastian. Developing Sebastian’s image, European artists traditionally worked out their affection for male sensuality. Whereas in Russian academic painting of the XVIII-XIX centuries, this topic is exceedingly rare. Shevchenko after all addressed this image in different periods of his life. One of his academic settings explores the provocative, masochistic openness of the bounded body. There are no arrows towards which the torso usually unfolds. Sebastian’s body is exposed only to a gaze. Sepia from 1856, made by Shevchenko during the exile in Novopetrivsk fortification is far more complicated. Sebastian's posture resembles the crucifixion. His pain turns to a cry but also releases into a sweet martyr’s exhaustion. An unknown soldier, or officer Lukyan Alekseev, was posing for this work. But, looking at the features of Saint's face, we may suggest that this may be an allegorical self-portrait of the artist. None of Shevchenko's female characters has such a powerful body language expression as this image of St. Sebastian from 1856. 

The nature of the complicated romantic — and most likely, platonic — relationship between Shevchenko and Ira Aldridge is described in the memoirs of Kateryna Yunge, the daughter of sculptor Fedor Tolstoy¹³, researcher Mikail Chaly¹⁴, and Mikhail Mikeshyn¹⁵. 

The tone of the memoirs of the imperial sculptor Mikeshin, first published in 1876, suggests that he recalls the romance between Shevchenko and Aldridge mainly because the coverage of their relationship in publication had to facilitate the marginalization of Shevchenko’s heritage. Shevchenko’s political views became more and more popular.

The famous British tragedian of African-American descent, Ira Aldridge, was performing a tour in Russian Empire in 1858. He was сelebrated for his roles in Shakespeare's tragedies, especially for Othello. Shevchenko was fond of theater. He returned to St. Petersburg from exile in the spring of 1858 and soon became acquainted with the actor through friends. They bonded quickly. Aldridge came to pose for a portrait in Shevchenko's studio at the Academy of Arts or hosted the poet behind the scenes after performances. It was acclaimed by St. Petersburg liberal intellectuals that Aldridge and Shevchenko were bonded by Shevchenko’s experience of enserfment and exile and the trauma of racial discrimination — the reason which made Aldrige leave his native New York. But they communicated with the help of translators only and spent more time singing and dancing than debating. The connection between the artist and the poet established in the sensuous specter. Yet, the portrait of Aldridge, kept by Katerina Junge, is reserved and formal. 

The work of Polish artist Karol Radziszewski “Was Taras Shevchenko gay?”, created as a part of his project Queer Archives Institute became the statement that introduced queer optics to this issue. Alex Fisher made an explicit review of this project for ArtsLooker. Radziszewski started to work with both myths on Shevchenko’s homosexuality and heterosexuality, by including the poet in his pantheon of queer heroes. Karol Radziszewski uses via epigraph Douglas Crimp’s idea that “homo is preceded by queer”. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Otto Weininger’s book "Sex and Character. Fundamental research” (1903) gained popularity. Readers researched it secretly, considering its access to secret knowledge. Weininger assumed all people to be bisexual by nature. In addition to this, he addressed femininity as a degenerative nature, depriving women of a right to personality. From this idea, Weininger managed to develop a further (auto)antisemitic line. According to Weininger, the Jewish men were feminine, therefore, greatness and the creation of society were inaccessible to them¹⁶.

From Weininger’s xenophobic writings Russian intellectuals borrowed the notion of total bisexuality. One of the reactions to “Sex and Character” was the abovementioned book “The People of Moonlight. Metaphysics of Christianity» (1911) by Vassily Rosanov. Paul Florensky developed a theory of the naturalness of same-sex desire and deepen the dialogue with the tradition of classical antiquity. Florensky’s central figures — Plato, Socrates, and Florensky himself — were gifted by excessive masculinity, hence their sexuality actualizes itself in homosexual love¹⁶.

In 1906, artists and philosophers were gathering in the circle “Friends of Gazif”, (located at the “Tower” flat of Vyacheslav Ivanov). The community dedicated their pastime to practical studies of corporeality and sexuality. Among the participants were bisexual and homosexual founders of the group Vyacheslav Ivanov, Lydia Zynovieva-Annibal, Mikhail Kuzmin, Konstantin Somov, Walter Nouvel. Participants dressed up, flirted, planned orgies, read their own poems and diaries. The same year “Wings” by Michail Kuzmin was published, and it has still remained one of the most popular among extra-rare Russian homoerotic novels. Also, in 1907 was made public the novel “33 Ugly Creatures” by Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal, dedicated to lesbian relationships. In a year the compilation “People of the Third Gender” — the first research in Russian, analyzing homosexuality beyond the medical context (and even attempting to rethink the binary gender system) was released. The compilation contained an essay on the trials of Oscar Wilde from 1895. Oscar Wilde since has become a mythological hero for Russian and Ukrainian Art Nouveau — the one who suffers for a forbidden love. 

On this wave of freedom, artist Ivan Myasoedov brought to Poltava a body cult, accompanied by the Silver Age queer discourse. Graduated from St Petersburg Royal Academy of Arts, Myasoedov came back to his family dwelling Pavlenki around 1911. The artist was spending those years in Poltava, Moscow, and Petersburg and also often traveled throughout Europe. In Poltava, Myasoedov founded a circle “The Garden of Gods'', dedicated to the renaissance of pagan beauty and exploration of corporal desires. Myasoedov himself looked like a Classical Greek deity and treated his appearance as an art project. 

Vsevolod Maksymovych, “Banquet”, 1914. Oil on canvas. National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.

Athletics was his second occupation, apart from painting. In Poltava, the local community was filled with legends about body practices, integrated into local life by Myasoedov: nudity, orgiastic gatherings, theatre, and circus arts. In 1912 the artist married the Italian dancer. His beloved Malvina Vernici moved to Pavlenki. Alongside the philosophy of decadents, the artist brought to Poltava an interest in photography. Myasoedov’s post-impressionist paintings may seem rather typical for international Secession, while his photos have captured the special, narcissistic infatuation with the body. Titled by his favorite brand ‘The Garden of Gods', the series reveals his autoeroticism. The artist identifies himself with the ancient gods — Bacchus and Apollo. 

The young Ukrainian artist Vsevolod Maksymovych had been participating actively in the Poltavian “Garden of Gods'' before he moved to Moscow in 1912. It seems that his fate embodied everything, which may be associated with the Art Nouveau lifestyle. Beauty, artistry, unfortunate love, drugs, suicide. Tragically, the decorative ornamentality of Maksymovych’s paintings and his dandyism, both inspired by Aubrey Beardsley seemed dated next to the Moscow Cubo-Futurism. His first personal exhibition failed in 1914, and the 21-year-old artist committed suicide. 

Backstage photos from the shooting of the “Drama in Futurists’ Cabaret No13»’(the original film is lost) captured elegant, slim Vsevolod with wild dark hair, wearing contrast stage makeup. The muscular male face, framed by whiskers, observing us from Maksymovich self-portrait (1914), has more common features with the photos of Myasoedov, than with the tender author himself. Actually, most of the male Maksymovych’ characters, as well as his own style, seem to be copied from Ivan Myasoedov. Does the “Banquet” (1914) show us a reminiscence of the “Garden of Gods'' gatherings? Its pompously-erotical camp aesthetics might suit these parties perfectly. Also, these assemblies definitely were an important experience for the young artist. Overall, visual representations of male characters evidence that Vsevolod Maksimovich was inspired — if not haunted — by the image of Ivan Myasoyedov, whose features break out in almost every picture.

All in all — «Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer» — according to Michael Warner. His phrase is here to finish this small — and by no means complete — review. 

Support us on Patreon to read more articles about Ukrainian contemporary art.