In an exclusive extract from his new book Food Chain, artist and writer Slava Mogutin reminisces about life in Nineties Russia: the demi-monde of queers and artists he inhabited, the backdrop of political turmoil and, in particular, the story of one exquisite, tragic acquaintance.
The story is as explicit as it is lyrical, however, and not recommended for anyone likely to be shocked by frank descriptions of sex.
The Death of Misha Beautiful
My old friends from Moscow who recently passed through New York relayed sad and disturbing news: Misha Beautiful had been killed in prison. The story of his short life could provide good material for a book or a movie. His death wasn’t reported in the obituaries. His name didn’t appear in the news. Actually, nobody even knew either his real name or his age (by my account, at the time of his death, he was in his early twenties). Everyone knew him by his English nickname. Not a single drug or rave party could take place without Misha. He was one of those exotic night creatures, androgynous club kids who keep it all going in any one of the world’s capitals.
We met at Michael Jackson’s concert at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. I’d been invited by my good friend Vladik Mamyshev, aka Monroe, who happened to have free tickets. There was an incredible presence of policemen, one of whom displayed a rather aggressive interest in me while catching me taking a leak in an inappropriate place. Only my journalist ID saved me from his insistent pestering. At the stadium entrance, several lines of cops thoroughly searched everyone. This got Monroe very excited, and he went back and forth three or four times to prolong the pleasure.
Vladik was one of the most colorful and extravagant characters of the Russian underground art scene, a conceptual artist and performer who’d become famous for his brilliant campy impersonations of different pop icons, from Marilyn Monroe to Adolf Hitler.
The concert was a flop, the weather was nasty, rain was pouring, and people were standing up to their ankles in water. Misha came up to us and asked for a smoke. It turned out that back in St Petersburg, not so long ago, he’d tried picking up Monroe on different occasions, and claimed to be in love with him. Don’t know whatever happened between those two, but Vladik told me he was now trying to avoid Misha.
Monroe and his entourage left, and I remained standing in the rain with Misha, who was high and seemed to be having some difficulty understanding what was going on around him. Later, I never saw him completely sober, looking normal; his pupils were always dilated. Misha was a clear case of a teenager who grew too quickly — tall, dystrophic-thin, boyishly awkward, with long arms and legs, and shoulders and chest that hadn’t shaped up yet. He truly was beautiful, had an innocent childlike face, wide open green eyes and long eyelashes, a short haircut in a baseball cap turned backwards, and excessive piercings in his ears, nose and one eyebrow. Back then I was very much turned on by that.
He stuttered slightly and slurred when he spoke, and his vocabulary was full of slang and Russianised English words. Later, he became for me a walking dictionary of this simultaneously entertaining and somewhat ridiculous new language that served as a password of sorts for the “in” crowd. His head was an utter mess, he jumped from one thought to another, and his speech frequently resembled a Joycean stream of consciousness. I loved his stories and fantasies; to me, they sounded like perfect material for an absurdist play yet to be written.
After the concert, he had to go back to St Petersburg. In a kiosk by the metro station, I bought a bottle of vodka that we opened and finished right there, chasing it down with some nasty franks. He got drunk instantly and was overflowing with affection toward me. He wrapped himself around me, grabbing and kissing my hands, feeling my cock through my pants, whispering excitedly, “Wow! So big!” We embraced, kissed and rubbed against each other like lusty wild animals, cold and wet from the rain. Old drunkards drinking vodka nearby watched us with both disgust and amusement.
Catching the last metro train, we found ourselves in an empty car and lay down on a bench, still kissing and rubbing against each other. He unbuttoned my fly, got his hand inside, and started squeezing and caressing my cock. The moment when he was about to take it in his mouth, two thugs from the Caucasus, either Chechen or Georgian, walked into the car. By the mad look in their eyes I realized they could’ve easily killed us right there had we not have managed to jump out the car just before the doors closed. When I saw him off at the train station, we parted as if we’d been lovers for a long time. We’d only known each other for about three hours…
Back in St Petersburg, he called me all the time, day and night, often leaving on my answering machine around ten messages a day in his bird language. The messages were about him missing me, thinking about me all the time, feeling lonely and stuff, wanting to kill himself, OD’ing on magic mushrooms and thinking he was about to die, screwing some chick and imagining I was doing to him whatever he was doing to her, and so on...
At the time I was already a well-known journalist and poet, the first openly queer writer in Russia, regularly receiving both fan mail and hate mail, a generous portion of love letters and death threats. But Misha’s messages differed from them in that he didn’t have the slightest idea about the things I did or the origin of my fame and wasn’t at all interested in it. In any case, I’m certain he never read a single word of what I’d written (if he knew how to read at all). But he immediately became the inspiration for my writing. In the poem Seize It! dedicated to him there are the following lines:
And that boy in a baseball cap
With a shelf that sticks out
Sucks and swallows like God
Nobody else could do it like him
As I found out later, the parents of Misha Beautiful are both well known and established people in St Petersburg. Apparently, his father was the director of some big department store. And, as it often happened in well-to-do Soviet families, he grew up “difficult,” a “problem child.” He told me about doing fartsovka [illegal exchange of souvenirs for consumer goods such as jeans, sneakers, watches and gum with foreign tourists and selling those goods on the black market — a crime punishable in the Soviet Union by a severe prison sentence in the '70s and '80s] next to the Intourist Hotel. The fags who picked up foreigners also hung out there. Misha and his buddies periodically conducted remont [Russian slang for gay bashing] — beat up the fags and robbed them. Misha didn’t consider himself a faggot.
From his other stories, I found out that as a child he’d fallen down the stairs and suffered a severe concussion. Apparently, this was the reason for his speech difficulties and arrested development. I was only older than him by some two years, but it seemed to me that a veritable age gap divided us, turning our communication (when his mouth wasn’t busy with something else) into some inarticulate babble. He was street-smart, with only two real passions in life: drugs and parties… and, of course, trendy, expensive clothes. He didn’t like to work and didn’t know how, and when he ran out of his parents’ money he stole or borrowed money from his friends, many of whom used Misha as a prostitute in return. If one were to try to count his regular partners or one-night stands, it’d be a rather long list of names, with some celebrities among them. For Misha, sex was the only way to earn income, and he had all it took to become a successful hustler.
He had neither willpower, nor a strong-enough personality, which is why, like some Son of the Regiment [a term used to describe orphans found and taken care of by Soviet army regiments during World War II; an important element of Soviet propaganda and cultural mythology], he had a need for elder comrades taking charge of his life and destiny. Having found himself in the coterie of Timur Novikov, the godfather of the St Petersburg underground art scene, Beautiful became a student at Novikov’s New Academy of Fine Arts. Timur himself had admitted that face control was one of the main criteria he used for selecting students, thanks to which Misha, like many other young local talents, successfully passed the exams.
Slava Mogutin came to prominence in the 1990s as an outspoken spokesman for gay rights. Now living in New York, he continues to write and to produce books of photographs, intertwining the homoerotic and the elegiac. Released yesterday, Food Chain, his first English-language collection, blends memoir and fiction, eroticism and nostalgia, satire, grit and poetry — a vivd rebuke to Russian authorities that would overlook his artistry and see only “gay propaganda”.
As part of the educational process, Timur’s boys posed naked for one another and had their pictures taken in togas and robes, mimicking the ancient homoerotic statues and scenes. Various rooftops all over the city served as their locations. The Academy itself was located in a large communal apartment, one of the walls of which was covered from floor to ceiling by satin of the symbolic sky blue color [goluboi, “blue” is Russian slang for gay]. Not surprisingly, Timur’s main inspirations were Oscar Wilde, Baron Von Gloeden, and Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria.
Timur, whom Misha and other students referred to respectfully as Timur Petrovich, was for him, at least temporarily, a true idol and figure of authority. But even he, despite his definite talent in, let’s say, “working with the youth,” managed to divert Misha from the lifestyle he had been leading only for a short while. Fine Arts interested Misha far less than drugs and parties. Timur Petrovich sincerely tried to bring him to reason and take him back into the realm of neo-classical beauty, but his efforts had been in vain....
Misha surprised me by showing up in Moscow on one of the days of the October 1993 coup, during the State of Emergency. He must’ve been the only person in the world who knew nothing about it. He had no papers on him when he called me from the train station. He had lots of acquaintances in Moscow, but he called me and no one else since, according to him, he came down to see me. And I felt somewhat responsible for him.
The previous night, Monroe had been arrested while wandering around Moscow past curfew, having had his pictures taken for his self-published magazine ME and exposing himself in front of the tanks. Vladik and a friend of his had to spend a night in jail, too. This probably was the best possible scenario for what could’ve happened to Misha. Dropping everything, I grabbed a pack of my journalist IDs and went to meet, or rather, save him.
Having found out that something scary and incomprehensible was happening in Moscow, Misha got totally excited and begged me to take him to the barricaded building of the Russian Parliament called, ironically enough, the White House. Invisible evil snipers lustily followed us with their eyepieces, stray bullets whizzed by, the level of adrenalin in our blood exceeded all Health Ministry standards, people wandered in the streets, bewildered and dumbfounded — all of this serving as an arousing backdrop.
Like homeless teenagers forced to engage in public sex, we found ourselves in alleys and doorways, and Misha used every opportunity to kneel in front of me, unbutton my pants and blow me. Several times we were caught in the middle of it, but in that situation, our pranks didn’t instigate much of a reaction — queers on barricades! This was our baptism by fire. Thanks to Misha, I will always remember that sharp feeling of sex in the midst of street fighting, shooting, general civil unrest and disobedience…
I am writing about Misha in such detail, trying to recall all that I know and remember about him because he’s no longer in this world. I’m getting excited from cruel, dark necrophiliac fantasies, thinking of whatever happened to his skinny body. De Mortuis Aut Bene, Aut Nihil. I know I could be accused of blasphemy, but I’m describing him the way he was, and he was by no means an angel. Both sexually and mentally, he was so passive, so easy to take advantage of, and I did that, like everyone else. He was a stalker of sorts, and I just couldn’t resist his advances. He was doomed, and it was impossible not to notice it. It was written all over him. I saw that, sensed that, and tried somehow to influence his fate. But I hadn’t fallen for him that badly. I had a life of my own into which he would intrude from time to time; we met periodically for a quick fuck, he was always somewhere nearby, and it seemed things would stay like that forever. As I was moving around Moscow, changing addresses and lovers, Misha somehow managed to find my phone numbers and call me, always giving me more inspiration material and running into troubles with my jealous boyfriends every now and then.
On 12 April 1994, the day of my twentieth birthday, when I tried to officially register the first same-sex marriage in Russia with my American boyfriend Robert, Misha’s ghostly figure suddenly appeared in front of the Moscow Central Palace of Weddings in the crowd of reporters armed with erect cameras and microphones. Sure enough, our marriage wasn’t registered, but we’d managed to make enough noise for the whole world to hear, and we bravely withstood the marathon of interviews that followed, talking about the state of homophobia and gay rights in Russia. As in the case of the coup, Misha was probably the only person unaware of that historic event. He fluttered his eyes and wrinkled his forehead in total oblivion of who was marrying whom and why there was such commotion.
I had neither the opportunity nor desire to explain things to him, but instead introduced Misha to my friend Fedor, the son of a famous female playwright. Fedor was a cute, tall, blond and blue-eyed guy, and an aspiring journalist with good brains and a kind heart. Prior to this, the two of us fooled around somewhat awkwardly a couple times — on his initiative, in spite of Fedor usually portraying himself as a big womanizer and lecturing me about my “corrupt” lifestyle. I knew he wouldn’t mind “doing it” with someone else. Misha was an ideal character for that, and obediently went with Fedor as he’d been told.
After our crowded and loud wedding party at Robert’s studio, Fedor grabbed Misha and brought him to his place. After another clumsy and awkward fuck, Fedor departed either for work or college, letting Beautiful stay at his place, making the noble gesture of leaving him the only key to the apartment. He promised to get Misha a journalist ID so that he could attend any club or concert without a hustle. More than a month passed before the Good Samaritan Fedor managed to track down Misha and retrieve his key. He had to pay for the apartment he couldn’t even access, while Misha turned it into a total drug nest, didn’t answer Fedor’s calls and avoided him at any cost. But an even greater surprise was still awaiting Fedor: his landlord demanded that he pay for Misha’s long distance and international calls to his tricks around the world. “I really tried to help him,” a frustrated Fedor later complained to me. “I wanted to drag him out of this swamp!”
Later on, I ran into Misha at some clubs, and by then he was already so drugged-out he hardly recognized me. He bumped into me and mumbled something nonsensical. Later Misha disappeared somewhere, and different stories about him reached me from time to time — he had hung out with some Scandinavian DJs who kept him on an ecstasy diet and gangbanged him for days; he had to move for good to Moscow since in St Petersburg he had “borrowed” too many valuables from too many friends; and now a lot of people in Moscow were trying to hunt him down for the same reason. Once I got a phone call from someone who was looking for Beautiful in order to retrieve a video camera that had disappeared after his visit. Misha had gone too far. For most people he was no longer “beautiful,” he started losing his looks and appeal, and some serious dark clouds were beginning to gather over his head.
Our last meeting took place when he called me again out of the blue, in his usual manner, and found me in a horny and adventurous mood. We made a date in front of a subway station. It was sunny and warm and we walked around the Garden Ring, looking for a spot to get off. I missed him and his silly stories. One was about his parents cooking some mushrooms and him adding some of his own, and then his parents started seeing things, and his grandma had the most severe hallucinations. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me!” Grandma kept on saying. “I feel like a completely different person!” Another story, completely unreal, was about some rich girl that Misha had apparently been involved with. The girl was into getting fucked up her ass, and Misha proudly revealed that he could satisfy her better than any other guy. Then he confessed he himself grew to like anal sex. And then… he’d been invited by some guy to work as a model either in Italy or Spain, and that he’d go for sure, “as soon as he’s ready.”
Having bought a couple bottles of champagne, we dropped in at the studio of my friend, painter and fashion designer Katya Leonovich. She was being interviewed by a couple of lame tabloid journalists who nearly fainted at seeing the two of us at the door. Drunk on champagne, Misha and I started behaving in a rather frivolous manner, grabbing and kissing each other. Just like the first time, we were all over each other. In the bathroom I pushed him down on his knees and pulled out my cock. His cocksucking skills had significantly improved since our first meeting. I kept on feeding him, he sucked and licked readily and eagerly, stopping from time to time, looking up puppy-like into my eyes, slurping and saying pitifully: “Don’t leave me, please! I want to be with you! Please!” At that moment I just wanted one thing — to come — and could easily promise anything, so I did, as my load was going down his throat. Few minutes later, when it was all over and we came out the bathroom, Misha took off his shirt to show his tattoos. Then Katya had him try on one of the outfits from her new collection. Being the center of everyone’s attention, Misha was shy and at his best: obedient and passive, like a doll or a mannequin. After all, he’d make a great model somewhere in Italy or Spain...
Another few months had passed, and I had to flee from a criminal prosecution because of my queer writings and “corrupt” lifestyle. On the eve of my departure — or rather, escape— from Russia, literally a few hours before our plane, when Robert and I were hurriedly trying to pack at least something, Monroe burst into our place with his artist friends Ivan and Sergei. Monroe and Ivan were then renting an apartment on the Arbat, a two-minute walk from us, and whenever they were totally broke, they’d come to our place for a free meal. We had to put off the packing until the very last moment and feed the straving artists. It was then, at our Last Supper, that I learned from Vladik that Misha Beautiful had been thrown in jail for robbery and drugs. Monroe joked cynically that “now Misha’s having the time of his life” and so on. But since at that point I had a good chance of finding myself behind bars as well, I understood perfectly well the seriousness of what had happened.
For a homosexual prone to sadomasochist fantasies, prison can seem like an enticing sexual paradise, a place where the wildest dreams and fantasies come true. You can sit in the safety of your home and masturbate endlessly imagining dirty, rough and raw sex behind bars. NO CONDOMS, NO LUBE, NO MERCY. Well, after spending a few months investigating the lives of gays in Soviet prisons and detention camps, all I can say is, under any circumstances I wouldn’t want to end up there! I just know too well what happens to those like myself, and especially like Misha Beautiful. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t even consider himself a fag...
The story of his life and death could easily be reworked into a moralizing oration: look what drugs, gay debauchery and crazy nightlife does to a person! He started out with fartsovka and mushrooms, and finished in prison among the criminals! But one can also present it in a completely different way: it’s a pity that there hadn’t appeared a Michael Jackson who could’ve saved him and turned his life into one big Neverland. It’s a pity that neither Monroe nor Timur Petrovich, nor I, nor Fedor, became his Michael Jackson.
Food Chain by Slava Mogutin is published by ITNA Press.