Mikhail Kuzmin: A Life in
by John E. Malmstad and Nikolay Bogomolov
Reviewed by Ian Young
uring the turmoil and carnage that followed the Russian
Revolution, a young gay poet called Leonid Kannegiser had a lover who was an
army officer. With the bolsheviks controlling Petrograd (formerly St.
Petersburg, the center of Russia's lively literary scene), many perceived
"enemies of the revolution" were being targeted for elimination, and one night,
Kannegiser's soldier lover was taken out and shot.
Mikhail Kuzmin, by K. Ssomow
Kannegiser avenged his lover's death by assassinating Uritsky, the head
of the Petrograd secret police and a leading bolshevik. The poet was tracked
down, tortured and killed, and everyone listed in his address book was seized
and imprisoned. Among those herded into the cells was the Lithuanian-born Yuri
Yurkun, a goodlooking young bisexual poet sometimes known as Dorian. For
several months, while Yurkun in his cell wondered whether he would meet the
same fate as his friend Kannegiser, his mother and his lover agonized together
over his fate. Eventually, literary friends with some influence in high places
were able to get him released (a power they would not have for long).
Yurkun's lover was Mikhail Kuzmin, a small, dark man with large,
expressive eyes and long lashes, well known in the salons and cabarets for
performing his poems and songs on the piano, a Russian version of Noel Coward,
John Betjeman or Eric Bentley. Kuzmin's account of his enormous relief the
night Yurkun was finally released into his arms is one of many riveting
passages in this engrossing new study of one of Russia's greatest poets.
For Kuzmin the campy cabaret performer was also Kuzmin the poet,
novelist, dramatist and composer, one of the greatest talents of Russia's
"Silver Age," that protracted flowering of the arts that was brutally crushed
by the regime of Lenin and Stalin.
During this extraordinary time, from the end of the 19th Century into
the 1920's, all sorts of new ideas and attitudes were "in the air" - including
a new acceptance of homosexuality among many of the Russian intelligentsia. The
authors of this first full biography of Kuzmin show that it was he who did most
to bring the subject into the open and "give it a modernist cachet."
A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Kuzmin had begun as a pianist and composer
(one would like to hear his "March of the Monkeys"!). But his talents could not
be contained in one medium; he wrote plays, several books of poems, a novel
about Cagliostro, translations of many foreign writers including Shakespeare
and Apuleius, a study of the great Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, and the
controversial novel Wings, the story of a young gay man who tries to
steer a course between hedonism and asceticism, and to soar into a free,
Kuzmin's lighter verses came as welcome relief from the plodding
seriousness of much of the Russian literature of the previous era; he included
chronicles of life's minutiae in his poems, rather like Frank O'Hara half a
century later; Mayakovsky found his conflation of the miraculous and the
everyday "revolutionary." He wrote the preface to Anna Akhmatova's first book,
Evening, and was an early champion of Pasternak, who dedicated one of
his best stories to him.
As a young man, Kuzmin was part of Diaghilev's glittering "World of
Art" group. Later, in Soviet times, he worked with the famed director
Meyerhold. His verse is "among the most formally perfect in Russian literature"
and his poems frequently have gay themes which fuse the erotic and the
spiritual. He was open about his sexuality and seems to have had few qualms
about it: "Has not the Lord created all this - the water and the trees and the
body?" he wrote. "The sin lies in resisting the Lord's will...When someone is
marked out for something and longs for it with all his might and it isn't
permitted, now there's sin for you!"
As a poet, Kuzmin was fascinated by the figure of Antinoüs,
favorite of the Emperor Hadrian, whose profile in wax he used to seal his
letters. His wide interests included Rosicrucianism and other esoteric
writings, and he had close family ties to the Christian religious group known
as the Old Believers. He was never well off and often poor. For a few years he
was able to maintain a collection of fancy waistcoats and "reeked like a
scented icon"; later he often had to pawn belongings and books, unable at one
point even to answer a lover's letters because he couldn't afford stamps.
During the Soviet regime, he, Yuri Yurkun and Yurkun's mother lived in part of
a communal flat: Kuzmin's crowded room was used as a corridor by the other
In 1913, the 41-year old author met the teenaged Yurkun, who would
become his lifelong partner; the book includes two photos of the couple taken
at different periods. Before meeting the young poet he seems to have had a
varied love life - affairs, crushes on young straight men, visits to the
bathhouses (unfortunately, neither the visits nor the bathhouses are
described), and "sexual encounters with the typical male pin-ups" of the day
including guardsmen and coachmen.
Love and companionship were central to Kuzmin's worldview. His ideal
was to travel through Italy with a lover who shared his artistic interests,
"laughing like children, bathing in beauty," going to concerts and driving
around the countryside. In an era when the most popular actor in Petersburg
kept "a veritable male harem at his apartment," Kuzmin was initially among
those who hoped the bolshevik coup of 1917 would further liberalize society.
His hopes were soon dashed, and he quickly came to despise the bolsheviks,
prophesying that their "vile" example would "serve others as a kind of emetic."
Under communism, Kuzmin was able to publish less and less. He was
restricted to minor operetta reviews - and then condemned for the decline of
his talent: a ploy by no means restricted to communists, or to the past! This
state of affairs lasted for about ten years. Contacts with the outside world
diminished, though he was able to meet the great German sexologist and advocate
of homosexual rights Magnus Hirschfeld, whom he found pompous and politically
Kuzmin's last public reading and the "last public demonstration" of the
homosexuals of Petrograd (now renamed Leningrad) came in 1928, and the authors
provide an all too brief description of this surprising event. After that came
the excommunication of Bukharin, the exile of Trotsky, and the intensifying
repression leading to the Great Purges of the late Thirties when millions were
executed or sent to Siberian concentration camps. As Stalin tightened the
screws further, surveillance and harassment by the secret police increased,
manuscripts were confiscated and Yurkun was detained again, bullied, threatened
and intimidated. In 1934, homosexuality was recriminalized; a wave of arrests
and suicides followed. Maxim Gorky, leading the charge in an article published
simultaneously in Pravda and Izvestia, barked, "Destroy
homosexuality and fascism will disappear!" At the same time, the Nazis were
attacking gays as "sexual bolsheviks".
Two years later, Kuzmin, ill with heart disease and pneumonia, was
hospitalized and placed in a draughty corridor to die. Had he survived, he
would certainly have been arrested soon afterwards when Yuri Yurkun and many
literary acquaintances were rounded up, accused of planning to assassinate
Stalin, tortured and shot. By the end of the Thirties, Mayakovsky, Esenin,
Mandelstam, Klyuev, Pilnyak and a host of other writers had committed suicide
or been killed in the Gulag. It is estimated that over 1,500 important writers
lost their lives. Many others were silenced or forbidden to publish.
The cross over Kuzmin's grave was used for firewood during the grim
wartime siege of Leningrad. It was replaced with a simple headstone which
remains there today. "The writer's existence," he had once written,
"is wretched, carefree, and sacred... Whom Love has once welcomed will not die
Fortunately, most of Kuzmin's diaries have survived, and their account
forms the backbone of Malmstad and Bogomolov's fascinating book. The authors
employ a considerable amount of newly available material, and offer tantalizing
glimpses into Russian artistic and gay-bisexual life in the early 20th Century.
Since the Glasnost era, official Russian archives have begun to open (though
much remains inaccessible). Details of the lives, works and deaths of numerous
writers are now being unearthed, including some enormously important finds like
the text, long thought irretrievably lost, of the 4,000-line masterwork The
Song of the Great Mother by another major poet (also gay) Nikolay Klyuev.
Some readers will regret that Kuzmin's works, so little known in the
West, are not more fully described here. Nor are any of his book covers
depicted. Such colorful characters as the novelist Andrey Bely are introduced
depicted. Such colorful characters as the novelist Andrey Bely are introduced
on the assumption that the reader already knows about them. The book could have
used a little more color commentary, or a glossary of dramatis personae like
the one in Nadezhda Mandelstam's classic memoir of the nightmare years Hope
Against Hope. A selective list of Kuzmin's writings, especially those
available in English, would also have been useful. (A translation of Wings
was published by Ardis in 1972, and Kevin Moss' 1997 Gay Sunshine
anthology Out of the Blue includes 58 pages by and about Kuzmin.)
Doggedly, meticulously researched and thoroughly readable, Kuzmin:
A Life in Art is an impressive achievement. It deserves to stand beside
Roberta Reeder's Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet as an essential
English biography of a major Russian writer.
This review first appeared in
The Gay & Lesbian
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