My mother’s death left me with a small flat in Almaty full of old furniture and kitchenware, clothes and jewellery, documents and a handful of photographs. Most of the photographs were not signed and in a state of chaos. One particularly big pile of black and white photographs of all sizes and textures, shoved in a big brown Soviet envelope, was dedicated to my mother’s youth, which she spent in Pavlodar in the late 1960s. Here is a birthday celebration, here she and her friends have a snowball fight, at this one they pose during their trip to Charyn Canyon. No names, no dates and no one left to tell me the stories behind those photographs. I’ve ended up sorting them according to my mother’s haircut and the shape of the rim of the glasses she was wearing, a rather peculiar periodization with no substantial context. Except, of course, I knew some names. This beautiful brown-haired woman with big eyes is L., my mother’s best friend whose smiling face dominate the pile. This one is V., who died from cancer at the young age. And this slender young man is H. of whom I knew two things: that my mother smoked some weed with him once (“it was very relaxing, like flying”) and that he was gay (“I called him моя подружка/my girlfriend”).
Being a homosexual in 1960s Soviet Pavlodar meant to be criminalized. The Great October Socialist Revolution was in part a gender and sexual revolution that brought a temporary hope for freedom with it, as homosexual relations were decriminalized in 1922 in the RSFSR and partially in some Central Asian Soviet Republics. However, in 1933 the Soviet regime under Stalin re-criminalised sex between men, and this law was used as a political tool to oppress religious leaders, “counterrevolutionary elements”, “fascists” and even as a part of colonial politics in “backward regions,” that needed to be civilized. Homosexuality remained a serious criminal offense for sixty years until 1993. During this period, according to various sources, a total of 25,000 to 250,000 homosexuals were convicted, the average figure being 60,000. The Khrushchev era (between 1960 and 1970) was the harshest one, the number of convictions under the anti-homosexual article increased by 40 percent in comparison to previous periods. As a result, we know very little of the true private lives of those who did not conform to heteronormativity in the Soviet Central Asia. How did they love? How did they manifest their desires? How did they fuck? What kind of families did they build? How did they survive?
My mother kept a letter H. sent her during his army service. In the letter, he tells her about his new duties as a sergeant and a head of the radio station, about the beauties of the Kamchatka Peninsula, about classical music that she recommended and books that he had read (Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Barto). At some point, he expresses his anxiety towards my mother’s romanticization of the army and constructed masculinity associated with it:
You wrote a lot about my possibilities, what I could become: brave, masculine. Don't set your mind too hard on that, or I'll come back and you'll be disappointed. You've written rather exaggeratedly about it; the life is harder. (Ты много писала о моих возможностях, каким я стану: смелым, мужественным. Слишком на это не настраивайся, а то я приеду, и ты разочаруешься. Уж больно возвышенно ты писала об этом, в жизни все труднее).
The envelope contained two photos. The first photo, made in a professional studio, depicts H. is in his uniform conforming to the masculinity imposed on him by society. His gaze from under the brows is aloof and directed into the distance. In the second photo, he is sitting half-turned on the dim lit couch. His pose is gentle and vulnerable, his gaze directed straight at the camera, creating an intimate, even erotic tension between him and the viewer.
In Camera Lucida philosopher Roland Barthes, reflecting on his mother’s death, investigates the essence of photography and the effect it has on the viewer. The object or the person within the photograph jumps onto the viewer; “pricks”, “bruises” and “wounds” their subjectivity like an “arrow” and creates something that Barthes calls punctum. Punctum is juxtaposed to studium, a cultural, historical understanding of a photograph that awakes only an interest, a mere liking of the subject, but not love. A punctum is about love, hence he writes: “to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up.” The second photograph does it for me. The punctum of it hides not even in the gaze or the vulnerability, but in the angle created by the witness of the hand in relation to the darkness of the couch. His pose feels unsettling, as if he was caught in motion wanting to either turn away, or come closer.
The friendship between my mother and H. did not last beyond their youth, they lost connection after she moved to Almaty. The finding of H’s photographs and the letter kept by my mother for more than thirty years gifted me two important things: visibility and acceptance. The struggles with my own queerness became less painful thank to this young man. His existence justifies the existence of Kazakh queer history despite the illegality and demonization imposed by the state. Moreover, his existence is evidence of the acceptance and love my mother had towards people like him, like me. This letter is my mother’s blessing on my queerness, that I never had a chance to get.
PS: A thorough google search did not help me to figure out if H. is still alive. While I could not get a permission from him to publish his letter and photographs, I’ve decided to submit the collage I’ve made out of them. I’ve tried to honour his anonymity, while keeping the essence of it for the story.
Translation from Russian by Saltanat Shoshanova.
Mitrofanova, A. (2018) Gendernaja revoljucija 1917 goda/ The 1917 Revolution in Gender. In: NLO, Nr. 149, 1/2018.
Healey, D. (2001) Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Trifonov, G. N. (1991) Sovetskie gomoseksualisty: vchera, segodnja, zavtra. In: Gej, slavjane — Nojabr' (№ 1).
Saltanat Shoshanova is an independent researcher, Berlin/Almaty.