If you want evidence that LGBTQ culture has always been present in eastern Europe, then look no further than its literature. Throughout the 20th century and into the post-socialist period, writers have tackled issues of sexuality and gender identity across genres and styles — often interweaving their LGBTQ narratives with historical events and questions of national identity. From pre-revolutionary Petersburg to the streets of Solidarność-era Warsaw and contemporary Kosovo, here are seven books you need to know.
Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin, 1906 (Russia)
Translated by Hugh Aplin (2017)
Published in a literary magazine in 1906, Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin was the first Russian novel that focused on homosexuality. An entire issue of the journal Vesy (Landmarks) — edited by the major Symbolist writer Valery Bryusov — was dedicated to Kuzmin’s novel, with the publication causing a controversy in Russian literary circles, sparking hostility from some and admiration from others. Kuzmin was described as “socially fearless” and soon became known as the Russian equivalent of Oscar Wilde or André Gide. Wings is a coming of age story of sorts, as it focuses on the young Vanya Smurov, who becomes platonically infatuated with his mentor, Dr Larion Stroop. Initially appalled when he finds out that Stroop is gay, the story follows Smurov on a journey of discovery and acceptance and ends on an optimistic note, as he joins Stroop on a trip to Italy. The Russian LGBTQ charity Wings takes its name from the book.
Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, 1969 (Poland)
Translated by Lillian Vallee (2012)
Witold Gombrowicz is one of the best known Polish writers of the 20th century, and Diary is exactly what it says on the tin — a highly personal account of his life between 1953 and 1969 (the year he died), written specifically for publication. Gombrowicz, known for his surrealist and absurdist writing, stayed true to himself in Diary, which was published in the Paris-based Polish literary journal Kultura. While autobiographical, it still conveys a strong sense of his surreal, absurd and provocative prose. A large chunk of the life that the author describes took place in Argentina, where Gombrowicz travelled as a cultural ambassador to the Polish community; when the Second World War broke out a week after he arrived there, he had no choice but to stay. He wrote with remarkable honesty about his affairs with both men and women and often took time to respond to readers who sent in letters in reaction to his writing, explaining the need for such a personal approach: “It is important for a man speaking publicly — a man of letters — to lead his reader beyond the façade of form, into the boiling cauldron of his private history. Is it ridiculous, even humiliating? Only children or kindhearted aunts can imagine that a writer is a calmly sublime being.” The collection of these journal publications were masterfully translated into English by Lillian Vallee with respect for Gombrowicz’s liberal use of neologisms, and supplemented with a famous intro that the author intended as an ironic foreword to the publication of his diaries as a book:
It’s Me, Eddie by Eduard Limonov, 1979 (Russia)
Translated by S. I. Campbell (1984)
It’s Me, Eddie is the first novel by Russian writer and politician Eduard Limonov, written in New York in 1976, first published in Paris in 1979 and in Russia only in 1991, where it immediately became a bestseller. While not taking on the topic on its own, the novel instead incorporates queerness into the general topic of immigrant alienation in an approach similar to My Cat Yugoslavia, as the main character Eddie, a recent immigrant, wanders the streets of New York searching for understanding and identity, while only managing to connect with homeless hustlers and other marginalised groups. Similar to Wings, It’s Me, Eddie was trailblazing Russian LGBTQ literature; the first explicit piece of writing on the topic, it doesn’t shy away from graphic details of sexual encounters at a time when the Soviet law outlawing male homosexuality had still not been repealed. Most critics agree that Limonov’s writing deteriorated when he moved back to Russia and essentially became a nationalist politician with a taste for provocation, Stalin and, curiously, homophobia. The ironic and desperately alienated emigre admiration for provocation and hyperbole turned into a disturbing, fully-fledged belief, creating a sense of deep unease for anyone who reads It’s Me, Eddie now.
Rudolf by Marian Pankowski, 1980 (Poland)
Translated by Elizabeth and John Maslen (1997)
Rudolf by Marian Pankowski is seen as the most important and provocative in the writer’s career. When it was published it was highly controversial and created a scandal as critics accused Pankowski of pornography and immorality and described the book as a “manifesto of sexual anarchy”. The novel is set in the 1970s and consists of interactions between the autobiographical narrator, a middle-aged Polish-born professor who survived Nazi concentration camps during the war and now lives and works abroad, and a gay man called Rudolf, a former German soldier who the nameless narrator meets accidentally in Brussels. Among other topics, the novel masterfully deals with the theme of European identity after the Second World War, making pointed remarks about how both characters insist on describing themselves as European and not Polish or German. Many researchers of Panikowski’s work connect this rejection of nationalism to a rejection of gender normativity. Originally published in London in 1980, then in Poland in 1984 (to controversy), it was reprinted only in 2005 and gained cult status among Polish LGBTQ literature.
Lovetown by Michał Witkowski, 2004 (Poland)
Translated by W. Martin (2001)
Michał Witkowski’s Lovetown is often described as a contemporary tribute to Gombrowicz. It came out in 2004 to become the first piece of contemporary writing on a queer topic in 21st century Poland. The novel is set earlier, in the 20th century, focusing on the political changes of the 1980s and their effect on gay men. While preparing to write Lovetown, Witkowski, who was only 30 years old at the time, interviewed Polish drag queens, ex-rentboys, disco bunnies and every conceivable gay “type”. The novel itself is also structured around a journalist, also called Michał, who also plans to write a “book of the street” and interviews various characters for it. The voices that he encounters challenge the idea that capitalism brought prosperity to Poland, indulging in illogical but unapologetic sentimental nostalgia for the shame and secrecy of being gay in communist Poland, sighing and remembering of Russian soldiers: “Everything is going to the dogs. Under communism, plucking a recruit off the train was a piece of cake.” Essentially telling a story of outsiders in both communist and contemporary Poland, Witkowski manages to insert humour into a story where the dissident voices of the repressed get a chance to air their provocative opinions.
The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, 2009 (Romania)
Translated by Philip Boehm (2013)
Like Rudolf, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel also talks about queerness in the setting of wartime and post-war Europe. It is set in Romania and a Soviet forced labour camp. Müller, who was the 2009 winner for the Nobel Prize in literature, set the novel in 1945, when the Soviet Union demanded that all Romanian Germans between 17 and 45 years of age be relocated to forced labour camps in order to help rebuild the devastated nation. The story is based on the author’s interviews with Romanian poet Oskar Pastior, who was sent to the camps at the USSR’s demand, as was Müller’s mother. The novel is structured around the memories of Leo Auberg, a gay man who recollects how he was taken from his family home in Romania as a 17-year-old and sent to a Russian gulag just because he was ethnically German. For the young man the time spent in the gulag coincides with his discovery of his own sexuality — something he initially describes as “strange, filthy, shameless and beautiful”. Hunger in the gulag also plays a prominent role in the story, with starvation becoming personified into one of the central characters in the book: the titular hunger angel.
My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, 2017 (Kosovo)
Translated by David Hackston (2017)
Lauded as one of the best New East books of 2017, My Cat Yugoslavia is the debut novel by Kosovo-born writer Pajtim Statovici. It presents a fascinating and personal study of Balkan identity, alienation, belonging and queerness, while featuring a pet boa constrictor and an arrogant talking cat. The main character is the young Kosovar Albanian Bekim, growing up in Finland after his family has fled there in the 1990s; his story is told side by side with that of his mother Emine, who grew up in a village near Pristina. Bekim is lonely and gay in a country that remains foreign to him. The book was originally published in Finnish in 2014 and received the prestigious Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize, before being translated into English in 2017.
Text: Sasha Raspopina