Cracks in the Iron Closet: Gays in Russia

David Tuller: Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996; 306 pp., endnotes, biblio., $24.95 clothA dozen men and women held a press conference in Moscow to announce the beginning of Russia's first major gay and lesbian organization. Only two of the people there would reveal their names.It was the Russian equivalent of Stonewall, the riot by drag queens at a bar in Greenwich Village that gained visibility for the gay and lesbian movement here. The American event was nearly thirty years ago; the Russian one was in February 1990.David Tuller's book, Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia, takes an intimate look at lesbian and gay Russia, a world many don't even know exists. By interviewing people he met during several trips to the former Soviet Union, this gay American descendant of Russian lineage provides a rare glimpse at perhaps the most misunderstood people of an often misunderstood country.Tuller grew up as a pretty much typical Jewish boy in New York. Eventually, he moved to San Francisco to pursue a pretty much typical American gay life. "Then I left for Russia," Tuller writes. "Where, to my surprise, I fell for Ksyusha, a sexy dyke of extravagant emotions; and befriended a man who fervently believed he was, inside, a lesbian; and met so many bisexuals that I figured they couldn't all be making it up; and I learned the delicate pleasures of donning pumps and a fabulous dress."Tuller says, "I experienced, in startling and unexpected ways, a different kind of sexual freedom than I had found in the golden enclaves of New York and San Francisco."He records in Cracks in the Iron Closet that he came to an understanding of Russians as a people different than Americans and who won't fit the American model of the gay and lesbian community. They don't fit any model, really. "Ah, yes. For a moment I had been in danger of mistaking this place for a country in which rules of logic and reason tethered experience to some recognizable semblance of reality," Tuller writes. "But despite its thin veneer of Western trappings, despite its gay discos and cafes and new millionaires, this was Russia still."He also found that many of the stereotypes of Russia are often true. He found it a place where people drank more vodka than he had ever seen. He did find, though, a diverse lesbian and gay community -- or at least a collection of lesbian women and gay men who aren't very sure about organizing into a community or about being out."I spend time with people, not with anarchists or Trotskyites or lesbians," Tuller's Russian friend Lena said. "And I don't want to fight for the rights of lesbians -- they never repressed lesbians here because no one knew that they existed You know, I've lived with Sveta all my life, and no one's ever said a word against it. But after all, I don't go into a bakery and say, 'Hi, I'm a lesbian, give me bread.'"Her opinion is a common one, Tuller writes. "Well, Americans think they can save us," Sveta told Tuller. "They think that they're the Messiah. Or Superman. An as for the American gays and lesbianki, maybe you can help then with your book, David, because they think they are the Supergays and the Superlesbianki."Tuller has been a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1988, and he helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Using his skills as a reporter, he records the stories of his experiences in a country that stubbornly declines to conform to the American mold. His experiences in Russia forced him to reexamine what it means to be gay and challenged his views of himself. (He writes honestly about falling in love with a woman while in Russia, something that is unsettling, at the least, for any gay man.)Russia spans eleven time zones and occupies parts of two continents. It is, of course, a diverse place, and Tuller doesn't claim to have seen it all, but his experience provides a unique glimpse into the closet of Russia that only sees small crack of light from the outside.Tuller is careful not to judge the world with which he fell in love and from which he learned a new kind of gay pride -- from these people who value their individualism in a society that still forces conformity.

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