There's a passage in Tolstoy's War and Peace in which a regiment of Polish soldiers plunges into a fast-flowing river just to impress the Emperor Napoleon who is sitting nearby. Several drown, but the rest cling to each other in ecstasy and gaze adoringly at the man who drove half of Europe mad with love. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the events described by Tolstoy, Russia's Patriotic War of 1812.
In a week when three members of Pussy Riot, Russian President Vladimir Putin's prime party poopers, have been put on trial in Moscow accused of "hooliganism" in an Orthodox church (they sang a "punk" prayer!!!), Russian "queer" politics may have stumbled on its own 1812 moment. It's a show trial, of course, which posits an unnerving coziness between church, state and a supposedly independent judiciary. Witnesses are presented as "victims" of the alleged crime, speaking a sort of mystical lunacy that passes for evidence. One woman -- I think she sold candles or something -- moaned about "devilish twitching" and "committing impudences."
In a country as conservative as Russia, calling protest hooliganism drains it of meaning. It's not unlike recent attacks on LGBT advocacy, now forbidden as "propaganda" by a slew of laws that have dominoed across the country in the last few months. Pussy Riot and LGBT organizations are demonized as foreign agents at the vanguard of a new invasion (Madonna, after all, has come out in support of both causes on her current tour): for Napoleon now read "free speech." Putin has even invoked the heroics of the Napoleonic War: "We are a victorious nation," he said earlier this year. "This is in our genetic code." Self-seeking perhaps, but in many ways he's right: 1812 is worth celebrating for all sorts of reasons. Take a peek at Russia's past and you'll find a remarkably tenacious queer genetic blueprint. It's informed society, it's even defined revolutionary causes, and it once made Russia the most sexually tolerant place in Europe.
There's the story of Nadezhda Durova, a young woman who joined the army disguised as a boy and pursued a dashing career against Napoleon. Her chosen gender identity was fêted: the Tsar rechristened her with a man's name (his own) and she lived out the rest of her life in trousers, insisting her son address her as "dear Parent." There's a spectacular gallery in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in which hang hundreds of portraits of all the major figures from the 1812 campaign. I wished Nadezhda was there, but I wondered whether, with a bit of probing, I mightn't flush out at least one gay hussar. Reader, I found him: Prince Peter Volkonsky, companion and aide to Tsar Alexander I, Chief of Staff, Imperial Minister, one of the most decorated officers in the Russian army, and, according to the pseudonymous K. K. Rotikov, prone to professions of passionate love for men. Even Alexander could be drawn into Volkonsky's enthusiastic slipstream, once tearfully proposing they retire together to a villa on the Black Sea.
Proponents of the new anti-gay laws in Russia claim to be upholding "traditional Russian values," yet there was a time when everyone, it seems, from tsars to tavern singers was at least sexually ambiguous, enough to constitute a tradition. Russia has had its cultural icons who were gay: Tchaikovsky, Gogol, Mussorgsky, Diaghilev, Eisenstein, to name a few. St. Petersburg must be the campest 19th-century capital, with its Hollywood stage-set smirk and tutti-frutti church domes. Nevsky Prospekt, the city's principal drag, offered prime cruising for peacocked boys in fetching hussar stripes and tight, white breeches. Typically, plenty of evidence survives for man-on-man action but precious little about women, although Durova's autobiography offers a glimpse at a marvelous hinterland. In the 1820s, poet Mikhail Lermontov described gay sexual shenanigans in a notorious poem called Ode to the Lavatory, the scene of nightly encounters between fellow military cadets: "... here the shirt is lifted, revealing a silky ass and thighs... 'hold me! I am melting! I'm on fire!'" At about the same time the writer, Philip Vigel, was so "out" Alexander Pushkin once tried to entice him to visit Odessa with the promise of his pick of a trio of handsome young brothers -- "what they get up to really makes the whole place shake."
Vigel's path led him to a diplomatic life abroad and Lermontov was too young to have fought in the 1812 campaign and could not follow the Russian army across Europe; but once they arrived in France, the Empire of Style, with its ideas of liberty, fraternity, and lits bateaux vanquished the vanquisher back. Outside of a little-used military law, Russia had never criminalized sodomy or other same-sex activities, while the French Revolutionary Government had decriminalized homosexual relations in 1791, so when these liberated enemies met, a love affair began that lasted over a century. One young Frenchman, Hippolite Auger, charted in memoirs of remarkable frankness how he followed the Russian army back to St. Petersburg, officer by officer, until he encountered a dashing, reckless 26-year-old guards colonel, prone to Byronic larks involving a brown bear in a lady's salon, who was recovering from a duel shot in the thigh: Mikhail Lunin, "that sweet look, the playful mouth, the fire of animation... offered whatever you were looking for." It was love at first sight. They decided to head west to South America to join Bolivar's Liberadores, but only got as far as Paris where they shared a tiny garret, Lunin writing a novel about "False" Dmitri, a 17th-century gay pretender to the Russian throne, Auger introducing him to an assortment of quivering Jesuits, Saint-Simonians, and theatrical bonbons.
Auger's delight in the sexually curious Russians is joyous, but the bipartite liberating process couldn't last. In December 1825, Lunin's fellow officers marched 3,000 troops onto Senate Square in St. Petersburg to demand a constitution and prevent the accession of Alexander's hated brother Nicholas. They failed, and Lunin, along with the other Decembrists, as the revolutionaries became known, was exiled for life to Siberia. In 1832 Nicholas broke with tradition and criminalized homosexual relations, perhaps in recognition of the role played by same-sex couples in secret societies. After the mass demonstrations of December 2011, Putin's opponents have now been dubbed the New Decembrists. Among them were many LGBT activists who stood bravely to defy rigged Parliamentary elections. They had more to lose than most. Putin's United Russia party is behind the bully-boy tactics to drive LGBT people underground. There's even the familiar claim that homosexuality is a Western plot to undermine Russia's population growth! Yet perhaps the free spirit of Nadezhda Durova and others of the generation of 1812 survives in protests like Pussy Riot.
Putin deserves credit for much: he has brought some semblance of order to the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, but silencing critics and harassing the LGBT community undermines the nobility of 1812 he seeks to invoke. I wonder how many of his supporters would throw themselves into a treacherous river for him. That kind of love is not a matter of propaganda or law or here-today-gone-tomorrow beliefs; it's part of a richer tradition in which nothing is forbidden and everything is immortal.
H. Auger, Mémoire d'Auger (1810 - 1859), Paris 2011
G. Barratt, M. S. Lunin, Catholic Decembrist, The Hague 1976
N. Durova, The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars, M. Fleming Zirin trs., Indiana 1989
Out of the Blue: Russia's Hidden Gay Literature, an Anthology, K. Moss ed., San Francisco 1997
Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600, D. Higgs ed., London 1999
K. K. Rotikov, Drugoi Peterburg, St Petersburg 2012
H. Troyat, Alexander of Russia, New York 2003
M. Zetlin, The Decembrists, New York 1958