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A Russian Valentine

A Russian Valentine


Damian Siqueiros's "To Russia with Love" crowd-funding project portrays iconic queer figures from Russia's history, tracing a line from 19th century to the present.

Just in time for Valentine's Day this beautifully produced Kickstarter project landed on our laptops. Damian Siqueiros art-directed and photographed this imaginative series of famous Russian couples and some completely imagined ones as well.

Stephan Rabimov, publisher of DEPESHA, writes on Kickstarter:

"Throughout history some of the greatest Russian artists and influential figures have been homosexual. We set up on a journey to show some of them, their love and their vision for a better world. This project is as much about the past as it is about the future. Many queer artists are being silenced in modern Russia and with your help we can change that!

"The purpose of the campaign is to help cover the costs of the prints, transportation, gallery fees and other exhibition-related expenses. During each exhibition stop (Montreal, New York, Los Angeles) will feature a live-video-link with queer artists residing living in Russia, thus creating a dialogue with the creative forces of this country and their experiences."

(Captions with each photo from "To Russia with Love.")

Piotr Tchaikovsy and Akeksey Sofronov
Tchaikovsky is without a doubt one of the most important composers of all times. His music, including the scores for The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, is embedded in our minds and our culture. The composer was from the beginning a cornerstone of the projects, since even after more than a century of his death his sexuality is controversial. Even by his own account it is clear he was gay, it is well documented in his letter to his brother Modest, who was also gay. Nonetheless, Russian authorities seem to ignore this and deny his sexual orientation.

Russian society during Tchaikovsky's life was not as lenient as its counterparts in the rest of Europe. Homosexuality was a sin and crime punishable by exile and banning from the Czarist court, which in the case of the composer meant the end of his career.

Tchaikovsky's attempts to lead a "morally sound" life made his homosexuality even more evident. He had many male lovers, and his botched marriage lasted no more than a few months. At the end, he seemed to have made peace with his sexuality. His servant, lover, and longtime companion Akeksey Sofronov stayed with him until his death. Even though he died of cholera, it has been suspected that he was bullied into committing suicide by drinking contaminated water. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral; he was both a loved genius and a pariah.

Anna Yereinova and Maria Feodorva
Little information available on this late-19th-century lesbian couple was to be found. Nonetheless, they seemed highly inspirational on several accounts. Anna Yevreinova was the first Russian woman to obtain a law degree (University of Leipzig). She and her lover, Maria Feodorova (an author), founded and ran the journal The Northern Herald. They both fought for the women's rights and they lived together as a couple, an arrangement that defied the customs of the time.

The image is inspired by real lesbian couples of the times, in which is was common to see one of the women using men's garb, in this case Feodorova. Yevreinova is dressed in a way that reminds us of the suffragist movement in England in the beginning of the 20th century.

With these images and the project in general we intended on the intimacy of the couple, from a subtle touch to a kiss. We wanted to minimize the sexual innuendos without effacing it. Since a lot of the homophobic policies are based on the idea of traditional family values and reproduction and fertility, it was important to show that gay couples are like any other, and they as well can be the nucleus from which a family is formed.

Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky
Les Ballets Russes dance company of Paris was unparalleled in its capacity to host so many of the outstanding talented artists that defined the 20th century. The company founded by the visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 hosted artists like Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Fokine, and Coco Chanel.

For dancer Nijinsky it was a turning point to meet Diaghilev, as they became lovers and he became the male star of Les Ballets Russes. With his exceptional talent and the help of his lover he became the most influential ballet dancer of the first half of the 20th century. The love affair was ended by Nijinsky's attempt to lead a traditional life and marry a woman. Though this created a major rift between the two men, Diaghilev never ceased to help Nijinsky on his life and career.

The scene depicted in "To Russia with Love" imagines them as they speak about one of Nijinsky's most famous roles, in L'apres-midi d'un Faune. In the back, on the chest we see Nijinsky's day-to-day clothes as a reminder that this is only a private performance for the man he loves.

The images represent the passionate, sexual, and loving nature of their relationship. It was important to highlight that both Diaghilev and Nijinsky were involved in the performing arts by showing the histrionic and erotic qualities in their personalities.

Police Woman and Olympic Athlete
The figure of the athlete is meant to be symbolic too, even though it makes reference to real events. The most evident is a reminder of the upcoming Olympic games, putting Russia and the problems around human rights center stage. The athlete also echoes the same feeling than Tchaikovsky, both a symbol of pride and shame for her country.

Irony is a powerful tool against oppressive regimes. We had noticed that the signs on the back of the jackets of the police force, when seen trough the reflection of a mirror would say HOMO, a common derogatory colloquialism or slang word to refer to homosexual people. We wanted to make it obvious by spelling it from left to right. It was a happy coincidence that the sign of the policewoman and that of the athlete put together read "Homo 'R' Us," we are the homos, we are the dissenters, and we are taking control of our lives.

Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin
Just before Stalin came into power, the Communist Party, under the leadership of Lenin changed the tight laws of the Russian civil code to accept less traditional family values. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia. Unfortunately that didn't last long, Stalin and his dysfunctional rule reinstated the penalty for homosexual acts, mainly for political reasons. Male homosexuality was regarded as a sign of fascism and dissidence from the regime. Thousands of men were imprisoned under this law.

History seems to repeat itself with the current president, Vladimir Putin. After the end of the Stalinist era, toward the 1970s a period of relative freedom and acceptance seemed to establish in Russia. Under President Boris Yeltsin homosexuality was decriminalized again in the early '90s. Putin seems to have found in persecuting the LGBT community a powerful weapon to validate his power in the eyes of the public opinion, as 90 percent of Russians support the anti-gay propaganda law.

This tableau represents a paradox by representing a loving gay couple in distress under the new laws, portraying the two Russian rulers that have been the most abrasive towards the LGBT community.

Above: Contributors to the project.

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