Mikhail, the Oscar Wilde of St Petersburg

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

¤0 (Harvard University Press, £30.95)

¤0 (Harvard University Press, £30.95)

Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936) is described on the book's jacket as "Russia's first openly gay writer". Indeed he could claim to be the first in any literature of modern times. The great literary precedents in male same-sex eroticism are, of course, Plato's Symposium, Shakespeare's sonnets and the samurai tales of Japan. More recently, Verlaine and Rimbaud in France and the Pater/Wilde/Beardsley group in England began to confront the post-Renaissance taboo.

With Kuzmin's generation came the great wave of homosexual European writers: Proust, Gide, Lorca, Cavafy, Thomas Mann, Musil, Firbank, Forster, all of whom adopted smokescreens of varying thickness. Only Kuzmin was honest and specific in his approach, writing without guilt, self-loathing or dissimulation.

His openness was partly due to strength of character but also to the nature of pre-revolutionary Russian society. Russians are traditionally generous in matters of the heart, and there was a certain nonchalance attaching to sexual licence. When Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, the Russian press was outraged by the brutality of the sentence. Regarding his own first, youthful homosexual passion, Kuzmin writes in his diary (the basis of this critical biography): "I confessed everything to my mother; she became affectionate and candid." The whole atmosphere is far removed from the ferocious horror that would have made such a revelation impossible in a British household.

Famed in Russia for the silvery lightness of his poems, Kuzmin was first celebrated on the publication of his novel Wings in 1906. In dealing with a sexual affair between men, the novel was controversial but not reviled. There were no problems with censors, printers or publishers, although the biographers say the book would have been impossible to bring out before the liberalising effects of Russia's political crisis in 1905.

Most important, the homosexual characters never consider their feelings to be abnormal; the word "homosexual" does not appear in the text. The biographers (one American, the other Russian) suggest that was because the Russian language "lacked any 'morally neutral' word for same-sex love". The colloquial adjective for it has long been galuboy ("blue"), which is so neutral as to be almost flattering. Kuzmin was not writing a clinical treatise. The whole point of his achievement here is that "love" and its general synonyms and subdivisions are sufficient.

Success transformed Kuzmin into a dandy aesthete "with 365 vests", as the biographers put it. He was among those who made St Petersburg one of the capitals of modernism before the First World War, along with London, Paris and Vienna. In addition to poetry, he wrote plays (all comedies), music, cabarets, reviews and articles, and he was sought out by the directors of the imperial theatres.

He became the centre of a web of gay and bisexual liaisons, stretching from the writer Klyuev (the lover of the poet Yesenin, Isadora Duncan's husband) to that other self-confident homosexual Diaghilev (lover of the bisexual dancer Nijinsky), taking in on the way a large number of soldiers and coachmen. None of the lovers is pictured except the last one, Yurkin. Kuzmin met him in 1913, when Yurkin was 17, and they were together for the rest of Kuzmin's life. The liaisons are all bumpy and full of interest.

As a member of the leftish avant-garde, Kuzmin initially welcomed the 1917 revolution, but within a year he loathed the Bolsheviks. Thereafter he was increasingly marginalised, surviving on translation work, and he is only now re-emerging as a major writer. The present (also the first) biography is a symptom of that, although it lacks personal detail and depends too much on lit crit to fill the gaps.

As with all biographies of those St Petersburg luminaries who stayed in Russia after 1917, this is a story of ever-growing humiliation, cruelty, censorship, imprisonment, sickness and death. In 1934 same-sex relations were criminalised in the Soviet Union.Kuzmin escaped the worst. He was carried off by the flu in 1936, on the eve of Stalin's worst purges. Yurkin was shot by the authorities in 1938.

The reviewer's 'One Hot Summer in St Petersburg' is published in paperback by Vintage