Thursday, 27 February 2014

Some LGBT Russians

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Some LGBT Russians
Compiled by Chris Park from various sources

There are a number of LGBT people from Russia who have not only contributed greatly to both Russian and World Arts and Science. Here are just a few.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) (1) was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally. His works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Later in his career, he made appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. One of these appearances was at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky was honoured in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.

Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera, although there is some debate as to whether it was accidental or self-inflicted.

Tchaikovsky had clear homosexual tendencies; he sought out the company of other same-sex attracted men in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them." Portions of his brother Modest's autobiography, where he tells of Pyotr's sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it. Modest was also homosexual.

While scholars argue about how comfortable he was about his sexual orientation, it is clear that Tchaikovsky was aware of the negative consequences should it become public knowledge.

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) is best known in the West as a ballet impresario, for organising Russian ballets and bringing them to world attention. In Russia he is also known as the mastermind behind the World of Art, a group of artists, a series of regular exhibits, and a journal; he organised and promoted the World of Art group during his liaison with the painter, Dmitry Filosofov. Filosofov eventually left Diaghilev, who then met the dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. In their five year affair, Diaghilev placed Nijinsky at the centre of such masterpieces as The Rite of Spring, Afternoon of a Faun, and Daphnis and Cloe. (2)

His homosexuality unquestionably influenced the artistic mission of the Ballets Russes, which he founded, with its promulgation of the exotic, the sensual, the androgynous, the aesthetic of 'the other'. His glorification of the male dancer and the male body paved the way for the acceptance of male dancing and revolutionised ballet in the 20th century. (3)

Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) (4) was a dancer and choreographer. He is considered the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century, celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterisations. He could perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time and his ability to perform seemingly gravity defying leaps was legendary.

He choreographed ballets which pushed boundaries and stirred controversy: L'aprèsmidi d'un faune (1912); Jeux (1913); and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). In The Rite of Spring, (1913), Nijinsky created choreography that exceeded the limits of traditional ballet and propriety. For the first time, his audiences were experiencing the futuristic, new direction of modern dance - and not everyone liked it.

In the early years on the 20th century, it seems that in Russia there was a heavy sexual trade in ballet dancers. Some dancers accepted fees from interested ballet patrons for making introductions. In 1907 one such dancer introduced Nijinsky to Prince Pavel Lvov, and Nijinsky entered upon what was probably his first sexual relationship, with the blessing of his mother, who discouraged his heterosexual interests - she felt that marriage would impede his career - but was proud to see her son with so fine a figure as Prince Lvov. But Lvov soon tired of Nijinsky and began introducing him to others, including, in 1908, Sergei Diaghilev.

Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) (5) was an American film and theatre actress, a screenwriter, and film producer. She is perhaps best known as simply Nazimova, but also went under the name Alia Nasimoff. She was born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Yalta, Crimea. She emigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire, becoming a naturalised US citizen in 1927.

Nazimova as Marguerite Gautier in Camille, 1921

Between the years of 1917 and 1922 Nazimova wielded considerable influence and power in Hollywood.[3] By all accounts she was extremely generous to young actresses in whom she saw talent and became involved with at least some of them romantically. The list of those Nazimova is confirmed to have been involved with romantically includes actress Eva Le Gallienne, director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly Wilde. Bridget Bate Tichenor, a Magic Realist artist and Surrealist painter, was also rumoured to be one of Nazimova's favoured lovers in Hollywood from 1940 to 1942. Tichenor claimed their intimate relationship angered Nazimova's longtime companion, Glesca Marshall. It is Nazimova who coined the phrase "sewing circle" as code to refer to lesbian or bisexual actresses of her day who concealed their true sexuality. (6)

Nazimova lived with Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1945.

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) (7) was the first major Russian female mathematician and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. She was also one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor. Despite her obvious talent for mathematics, she could not complete her education in Russia; women were not allowed to attend universities at the time. In order to study abroad, she needed written permission from her father (or husband), so she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevsky, a young paleontology student who would later become famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin. They left Russia in 1867.

In 1869, Kovalevskaya began attending the University of Heidelberg, Germany, which allowed her to audit classes as long as the professors gave their approval. After two years, she moved to Berlin, taking private lessons from Karl Weierstrass, as the university would not even allow her to audit classes.

In 1874 she presented three papers - on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings and on elliptic integrals - to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. With Weierstrass's support, she gained a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude. She was the first woman in Europe to hold that degree. Her paper on partial differential equations contains what is now commonly known as the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem.

After some financial ups and downs, Vladimir, who had always suffered severe mood swings, committed suicide in 1883.

That year, with the help of Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom she had known as a student in Berlin, Kovalevskaya was able to secure a position at Stockholm University. The two women had an intimate "romantic friendship" that lasted until Kovalevskaya's death.

In 1889 she was appointed Professor Ordinarius at Stockholm University, the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. After much lobbying on her behalf (and a change in the Academy's rules) she was granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but was never offered a professorship in Russia.

She died of influenza in 1891, aged 41.

Masha Bast, a Russian lawyer (8), is used to facing formidable tasks. As the chairwoman for the Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights, she has worked on some of the most high-profile and politically sensitive cases in the country. She helped defend protesters implicated in violence at a 2012 opposition rally in Moscow; young men accused of taking part in a violent nationalist rally in 2010; and the so-called Primorye partisans, dubbed the "Russian Rambos" by the media after they targeted corrupt policemen in the Far East.

Only recently, with those cases having come to an end and her client in the Bolotnaya case having been released, has she found time to fully embrace another, deeply personal project: living her life as a woman. In September 2013, Bast publicly announced that she would no longer be living her life as Yevgeny Arkhipov, but as Masha Bast. She invited people to follow her progress on Facebook as she undergoes hormone treatment and surgeries, and also said she would answer any questions that they may have about her journey.

Since then, the couple has begun working to raise awareness about her and the transgender community in Russia as a whole.

At a time when LGBT life in Russia is increasingly marginalised and violence toward the LGBT community is on the rise, Bast's public announcement came as quite a shock to some. But she wouldn't have it any other way, saying she's happier now than ever.

1. - includes an audio file made in Moscow in January 1890, by Julius Block on behalf of Thomas Edison, with Tchaikovsky as one of the speakers. He is, of course,
speaking Russian.
3. Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History, ed. Aldrich and Wotherspoon, Routledge 2001, p. 127.
6. - see also Alla Nazimova and the "Sewing Circles", Past2Present 2009,, p49.
8. Taken from a longer article on The Moscow Times website:
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