Famous, Creative, and Gay? Nyet!

In my research and study of media and communication, the topics that most consistently interest me are those that deal with Russia, which was the area of study for my master’s degree and which I picked up again for my dissertation in communication studies [“Countering Foundational Myths and Cultural Beliefs: The Reportage of Anna Politkovskaya” (UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 3508924)]. I am Slavic from my mother’s side (Slovak and Bohemian), so I guess I’ve always felt an affinity for things Eastern European. The Russians have a rich, colorful, and complex history, literature, and culture; although I’m desperately behind in my readings about the region, I never turn down an opportunity to dig into them.

Recently I was researching an article about lack of tolerance of LGBT individuals in Russia for the newsletter “Dis[curse]ive” (vol. 10, issue 2, for the LGBT Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication; should be up soon at https://glbtaejmc.wordpress.com), and in the process, I came across an interesting and amusing (in a sad way) little news piece from August 2013. It’s such a compelling story that I saved it for a discussion of diversity and international topics in my media classes, and as an example of how the mainstream media in some countries must comply with government stances on issues.

First, some quick background facts:

(1) Famed Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker” ballets have charmed audiences for some 125 years, has long been known to have been gay. Many sources have acknowledged it through the years; Alexander Pozhansky dealt with it in his Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 1991), and his Tchaikovsky through Others’ Eyes (Indiana University Press, 1999) relied on sections from the composer’s own brother, who wrote of it.

(2) Current Russian laws and attitudes do not accept homosexual or transsexual individuals or practices. Although equal rights are written into the country’s constitution, “gay propaganda” was banned in the country through a law enacted by the Russian Parliament on June 11, 2013; President Vladimir Putin strongly condemns it, and Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church links gay marriage to a coming of the apocalypse.

With that in mind, a headline in the Aug. 23, 2013, New York Times seemed almost understated: “Screenwriter Questions Whether Tchaikovsky Was Gay, Sparking Furor in Russia” (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/screenwriter-questions-whether-tchaikovsky-was-gay-sparking-furor-in-russia/?ref=arts&_r=1). The article explained the situation in its lead paragraph: “A prominent Russian screenwriter working on a film about Tchaikovsky’s life that has just received state financing set off a firestorm this week by saying that the biopic would not focus on the composer’s sexuality because ‘it is far from a fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual.’”

The quote, the Times reported, came from Izvestia (http://www.nm-g.ru), which is a mainstream newspaper in Russia that supports the government’s word on the issues. The author of the Times article, Sophia Kishkovsky, quoted screenwriter Yuri Arabov as saying, “Only philistines think [he was gay]. . . . What philistines believe should not be shown in films” and that that he would “not sign [his] name to a film that advertises homosexuality.”

Alec Luhn, writing for The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/25/russia-anti-gay-law-tchaikovsky-sexuality), further quoted Arabov in the Izvestia interview as saying Tchaikovsky was “a person without a family who has been stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men” and who suffers over these “rumours.”

“The film’s producer, Sabina Yeremeyeva, said it would not run afoul of the law against gay propaganda,” Luhn’s article added.

The attitudes of these quoted sources accord with the current stance toward homosexuality in Russia, and so they are not themselves surprising. What’s interesting, though, are the quotes in The Guardian from another Russian newspaper: the independent Novaya Gazeta. This paper and its writers have suffered over the years for their contrary stances to the Putin government, and the publication apparently didn’t hold back on this subject, either. According to writer and film columnist Larisa Malyukova, Luhn wrote, she “said that in a version of the script she saw last year, Tchaikovsky suffered over his love for a younger man. Arabov’s comments, however, suggested that the portrayal of the composer as gay had been edited out of the script.”

Further, Luhn wrote, “Malyukova suggested that Arabov’s comments are a public reaction to the political situation and do not reflect the content of the film. ‘You know what kind of ministry of culture we have,’ she said. ‘Everyone is being careful, and he’s being careful, and rightly so.’”

I think these two short articles provide a nice comparison (in English) for students to show them how state-sanctioned versus independent newspapers will report differently on the same subject, depending on the pressure from above. Novaya Gazeta certainly runs a risk with its honesty in a country that ranked #152 out of 180 in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, issued by Reporters Without Borders (en.rsf.org; students might also be interested in noting, for comparison’s sake, that the United States came in #49 in this index, and Canada overwhelmed both countries by coming in #8).

I’ve found factoids like these to be great starting points for discussion of the value of free speech, bias, and of course ethics in our country, along with a quote by Winston Churchill, who is claimed to have said, “History is written by the victors.”

[For those of you interested in the topic of famous Russian LGBT media producers (artists, writers, musicians), Arit John’s article in The Wire (http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/08/sorry-russia-tchaikovsky-was-definitely-gay/68679/) provides a short list of other names.]