A six-foot cardboard cutout of a Soviet nuclear test explosion named “Joe-1” is the main character in Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, Yevgeniy Fiks’s current exhibition at the Winkleman Gallery in New York. Joe-1 stands forlornly on empty street corners and in green, empty parks, sometimes casting a shadow, sometimes not. He doesn’t seem like much of a threat. He is in Washington D.C., and he seems to be taking in the sights—always alone, always in an empty frame. Sometimes he seems to be waiting for someone; but no one ever comes. According to the titles of the photos, he’s cruising. But how can you cruise in an empty city?
Fiks’s new book Moscow is a collection of simple photos of Moscow’s gay cruising sites of the Soviet period. (The word “gay” is anachronistic, but I’ll follow Fiks in using it anyway.) The pictures show contemporary Moscow—again, empty—and ask us to imagine men cruising there in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and into the ’80s. We see the garden in front of the Bolshoi Theater; Okhotny Rad metro station; Pushkin Square; the dormitories of Moscow University; a couple of bathhouses; a café; the Hermitage Gardens, and their toilets; the Nikitsky Gates, and their toilets; Gogol Boulevard, and its toilets; the Lenin Museum and the central department store, both popular for their toilets. The photographs are unremarkable, but maybe that’s the point: they’re meant to evoke isolation, loss, and an everyday life that was hidden, then erased. In his introduction, Fiks writes that his book “remembers the fates and celebrates the lives of those who, from the 1920s to the 1980s, reconstructed their city as a site of queer desire and subjectivity.” For him, the old cruising grounds are “sites of mourning.”
Soviet city-dwellers of all sexual orientations were accustomed to searching for privacy in public places, as Soviet policies left cities overcrowded and communal apartments overflowing. By 1940, the average number of inhabitants per room in Soviet towns was 3.91. Unless you were into voyeurism or group sex, this meant that you probably had to leave home to fulfill your carnal needs. In 1950, one Moscow man got into the habit of bringing younger men home for sex—in the room he shared with his wife. At first his wife would sit in the room, berating him and his partner, tearing off the sheets, trying to drive out the interloper; eventually she got fed up and called the police.
Informers were a serious threat to anyone who lived in a communal apartment, but especially to someone engaged in an illegal activity. To have homosexual sex in a kommunalka was to take an almost insane risk. But the bars, clubs, cafés, and bathhouses where gay men had socialized before the revolution had been nationalized, and were now controlled by government functionaries unlikely to tolerate gay gatherings. This left few alternatives but the sites documented in Moscow: boulevards, public squares, parks, and public toilets. Cruising spots were selected on the basis of architectural features that afforded some measure of privacy, in a convenient location.