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‘We Are Here’: Queer Comics in Russia

By José Alaniz

For Angela Likina (1982-2016)

What does the appearance of all these peripheral sexualities signify? Is the fact that they could appear in broad daylight a sign that the code had become more lax? Or does the fact that they were given so much more attention testify to a stricter regime and to its concern to bring them under close supervision? (Foucault, History: 40)

With the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ discourses in the Putin era came unequal treatment and increased discrimination against queer and transgender people in Russia. In particular, Putin’s third presidential term (2012-2018) saw a frightening retreat, through laws enacted and violence inflicted, from the tentative civil and social gains achieved by this population in the first post-Soviet decade.

The foregoing makes the appearance of the first comics work devoted to the transgender experience, produced by an artist from the Siberian city of Omsk, all the more notable. Herman Alius’ Trans*Siberia (2017) follows the 20-something Sasha in his female-to-male transition, straining family and friendship ties and encountering resistance and new allies along the way. In this essay, I examine Alius’ graphic novella within the context of both a transphobic contemporary Russian culture and a supportive international human rights environment (as the project was partly funded by the Prague Civil Society foundation). I will also discuss, more generally, comics by queer people in Russia, as well as what makes graphic narrative an attractive format for sexual minorities to share their stories in this part of the world.

Queer in Russia

As noted by Brian James Baer, since at least the turn of the 20th century observers and scholars of alternative sexualities in Russia have regarded such phenomena as barometers of modernity, though often in ways which strikingly challenge Western notions of queer identity (“Russian Gays” 500). The Soviet government repealed laws against sodomy shortly after the 1917 revolution, though new ones were crafted under Stalin in the 1930s. Sexual relations between women, however, were not criminalized, but treated as mental illness (Mole, “Introduction”: 2; Kon, “Sexuality”: 23).1 By the late Soviet era, Russia’s leading sexologist Igor Kon wrote, “the position of sexual minorities in Russia is particularly dire” (“Sexuality”: 34).2 As he lamented:

[T]he public has no objective information on homosexuality. The AIDS epidemic has reinforced suspicion and fear even more. The erstwhile Soviet health service officials attached the threat of the spread of AIDS primarily to homosexuality; even today this ‘risk group’ is depicted by doctors and journalists alike in the blackest of tones. (Kon, “Sexuality”: 34)3

Bright spots emerged in the Perestroika era with the serialized publication, in the journal Neva, of anthropologist Lev Samuilovich Klein’s memoirs in 1989-1991 (later collected in the book Overturned World (Perevernutiy Mir, 1993).4 In 1989, activist Roman Kalinin launched Tema, an important gay journal and, with Yevgeniya Debryanskaya, co-founded the Union of Sexual Minorities (later the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Union) in February of 1990. Other gay rights organizations of the late Soviet period included the Tchaikovsky Foundation for Cultural Initiatives and the Defense of Sexual Minorities in St. Petersburg, headed by Olga Zhuk, and Wings, led by Alexander Khuharsky. Many of these groups made it a primary goal to repeal part one of the Soviet penal code’s Article 121, which outlawed male homosexual relations.

The dawning of the post-Soviet 1990s saw an explosion of activity (though significantly, little expansion) of Russia’s newly open gay community. Article 121 was repealed in 1993.5  Yaroslav Mogutin, a notorious poet, tried to marry his US partner Robert Filippini in Moscow in 1994, and was refused—an event covered breathlessly in the media (see Beaudoin, “Raising”: 225). The new visibility of homosexuality came to be associated with the economic values and freedoms of the post-communist era; the public eventually soured on those reforms and came to consider much of the new thinking as “immoral” and “foreign.”6 Also, to the extent that they pondered the matter of non-heteronormative people at all, most Russians in the 1990s largely presumed them to be men. Writing in 1995, Slavist Beth Holmgren observed: “lesbians and bisexuals are not even ‘seen’ in Russian society” (“Bugs”: 23).7

With the eyes of the world on a (purportedly) democratizing Russia, internationally funded gay rights non-governmental organizations set up shop, including An Effective Shield of Protection (AESOP), focused on the AIDS crisis, and Triangle, an LGBT rights group. The crucial internet portal allowed for easier access to resources and the global history of homosexuals (Beaudoin, “Raising”: 230). A flowering of gay-themed art comprised works such as K.K. Rotikov’s historical travel guidebook The Other Petersburg (Drugoi Petersburg, 2000); the literary journal Gay Slavs (1994-1997); the poetry of Mogutin; two remarkable films, Yury Pavlov’s Creation of Adam (1994) and Sergei Livnev’s Hammer and Sickle (1994); Valery Mikhailov’s Male Ballet in St. Petersburg; and the republication of works by gay authors, such as Mikhail Kuzmin’s landmark 1906 novel Wings and those of the late Soviet poet/playwright Yevgeny Kharitonov. To greater and lesser degrees, these all capitalized on Russian culture’s linkage of homosexuality with the turn-of-the-20th-century Silver Age.8 Other artists took inspiration from more recognizably Western sources, such as Georgy Gurianov, who designed the 1998 Amsterdam Gay Games poster, and the cult drag performer Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, whose ironic impersonations of famous figures like Lenin, Jesus Christ, Hitler and his US starlet namesake captured a sense of the “anything goes” fluidity of identity in the Yeltsin 90s.9

Sexologists, anthropologists, and other scholars noted a related aspect of the country’s queer population at this time: its near-universal rejection of labels and hence the identity politics which in the West had led to consciousness-raising, community-building and organized demands for state recognition. Some unexamined romanticization, even orientalism, by outsiders was the perhaps predictable result, argued Baer:

Some Western scholars in gay and lesbian studies hoped that Russia and the other countries of Eastern Europe might provide local alternatives to the hegemonic model of gay and lesbian community that had been produced and institutionalized in America …
[W]hen Russia was situated in the East, where sexuality was imagined as premodern and had not yet been institutionalized as gay or straight, (homo)sexual desire there appeared to be radically different, polymorphous, a potential erotic alternative to the Western model of desire.” (“Russian Gays”: 501-502)10

The notion of Russia as “queer avant la lettre” (Baer, “Russian Gays”: 508) was emblematized in passages like this, from anthropologist David Tuller’s 1996 book Cracks in the Iron Closet:

Ksyusha … loved women, no doubt about it. But when she was younger she had been engaged to a boy she deeply loved, and occasionally she still slept with men—of whatever sexual orientation—she found attractive.
I explained that in the gay world where I lived (San Francisco), such behavior would outrage many lesbians, who would consider it a betrayal of sorts; that, in fact, even the decision by many organizations to add the word “bisexual” to their names was causing an uproar and sparking anguished debates about the nature of sexual identity and the labels we used to describe it. Ksyusha shook her head in stunned dismay and emitted a torrent of commentary on the subject.

“That’s just totalitarianism, just like Communists,” she snapped. “What business is it of anyone else’s who I sleep with? You Americans, you feel like you need to define yourselves always, you are this or you are that. Why? You need to make up rules to follow, you all want to join in groups, to feel like you’re part of something.

“But that’s such a limitation, because you don’t act how you feel, but how you think you’re supposed to act. So if I want to sleep with a man—please, thank you, did we have a good time? Yes? Wonderful, good-bye! What’s the problem? Why should that bother anybody?” (44-45, emphasis in original)11

Other scholars12 have subsequently refined and updated the anti-identarian “Russian queer subjectivity” thesis. In any case, by the end of the 1990s the country had descended into a deep economic tailspin and a second Chechen war, with a corresponding rise in anti-democratic and anti-foreigner sentiment. Many LGBTQ+ organizations closed due to increasing homophobic expressions, violence, and withdrawal of international funding. Much of the movement withered away; over the next decade many of those out went back into the closet. As in so many aspects of Russian life, the deciding factor was the 21st century rise of Putinism.

Luc Beaudoin somewhat acerbically characterized the situation in the second post-Soviet decade thus:

The gay community appears unable to incorporate itself into the current consumerist, gendered, nationalistic structure of the Russian Federation, other than as entertainment venues for the heterosexual noveaux riches … The gendered construction of Russian gay identity is a paradoxical fusion of Russian literary history, American pornography and sexual mass-marketing, and the current growth of Russian consumer capitalism. (235-236)13

If so, this “paradoxical fusion” registered in the Russian imagination as, among other things, the perhaps unintentionally homoerotic sequences in media such as Alexander Sokurov’s art film Father and Son (2003, see Alaniz, “Vision”); You I Love directed by Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky (2004), billed as Russia’s first gay film (ignoring the previous decade’s Creation of Adam); the lesbian-themed film Inhale-Exhale directed by Ivan Dykhovichny (2006; see Schuckman, “Doubly”); and Felix Mikhailov’s Jolly Fellows (2010), set in Russia’s drag queen subculture. As Beaudoin noted, the cultural expressions of this era “occasionally used homosexuality as a type of male masochistic extreme to titillate readers” (“Raising”: 235); novelist Vladimir Sorokin weaponized that tactic in his anti-Putin satire Day of the Oprichnik (2006), which depicts the tsar’s secret police engaging in all-male orgies—a pointed mockery of hypermasculine power in Russia.14

Popular music seemed the most open to a gay sensibility, even if not always seriously: examples include the pretend-lesbian girl group t.A.T.u.15; the 2002 music video for He Kisses You by Ruki Vverkh (“Hands Up”), featuring a “scandalous” same-sex assignation; and popular singer Zemfira, “a fierce tomboy rumored to be having an affair with an actress” (Khazan, “Why Homophobic”). In fact, as Olga Khazan and other observers have shown, a subversive gay sensibility often appeared quite openly on Russian music stages, in the person of Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka; the flamboyant veteran singer Boris Moiseyev (among the few openly gay); 2008 Eurovision song contest winner Dima Bilan; singer Alla Pugacheva’s fop ex-husband Philip Kirkorov; and Valery Leontiev, many of whom exhibit an exuberant, age-old dandyism in performance, winkingly flirting with you-know-what without embracing it toute court. In the words of Khazan, “Though few are formally out, their gender-bending mannerisms, as well as gossip about their true sexual identities, only seem to fuel their popularity” (“Why Homophobic”).

We see the dangers of taking things “too far” in the case of Anton Krasovsky, a broadcast journalist who came out as gay on the air in 2013,and was promptly fired, as well as in the controversy over two film productions: a biopic of 19th century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, for which the state withheld funds on the grounds that director Kirill Serebrennikov intended a facts-based portrayal of his subject’s homosexuality (Serebrennikov would later suffer house arrest); and Ksenia Ratushnaya’s Outlaw (2019), the first Russian film to deal with a transgender theme.16

These problems were largely owed to what scholar Richard Mole called the state’s heightened “politicization of homophobia”17 in Putin’s third term, namely through a notorious 2013 law aimed at “protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values” (HRW, “License” 14-15). It forbids “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, ostensibly keeping them from information that can bring harm to their health and well-being (14-15). The law bans “spreading information aimed at instilling in minors nontraditional sexual arrangements” or the “attractiveness” thereof, or any intimation that “society places an equal value on traditional and nontraditional sexual relations” (14-15). Under this and similar ordinances, “holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in fines of up to $31,000” (Khazan, “Why Homophobic”). As sexologist Alexander Kondakov explained,

[T]he “propaganda of homosexuality” bill framed homosexuality as a menace to the whole nation brought from the outside and that threatened to ruin Russian national sexual traditions. Homosexuality was marked as foreign, belonging to a hostile outside world, simultaneously with a number of other legal initiatives that followed the same nationalistic logic. Most important, the anti-homosexual propaganda law was quickly followed by the passage of the “foreign agents law,” which obliged all NGOs working with the help of international foundations to register as “foreign agents” and prepare for a massive bureaucratic review. (“Teaching”: 112-113)

Under Putin, what Baer called a “fundamental incompatibility between national pride and gay pride” (“Now”: 47) found ready expression in, for example, the 2015 Levada Center report “The Invisible Minority: Towards the Problem of Homophobia in Russia,” in which those surveyed indicated that they reacted to gay people “apprehensively” (19%), “with annoyance” (22%) or “with disgust and fear” (24%) (“Nevidimoe”); the so-called “LGBT Hunters,” a vigilante subset of the “People’s Cathedral” movement; and the popular anti-Western slur Gayropa, a pun on Evropa (i.e., Western Europe and its “perverse” sexual morals). In short, the law and cultural climate Putinism legitimatized made life for many LGBTQ+ people in Russia even more difficult,18 with full-blown torture and killings not uncommon in ultra-conservative regions such as Chechnya (see Gessen, “Forbidden”; Ripa, “Istoriia”).19

For all that, the legislation to some degree proved counterproductive. The state’s top-down repression provoked a new grassroots wave of redoubled resistance to the culture’s patriarchal fundaments. As noted by Kondakov:

Some of the effects of the propaganda law have been harmful to particular individuals. However, in general they opened up an official and very public discussion of homosexuality. The anti-propaganda law perversely queered the public sphere, including academia. Secrecy and silence wither away in order to make way for political debates on homosexuality. Before queer scholars had to find subtle tactics to avoid trouble or teach queer theory secretly or in just a handful of elite institutions. The Russian government created Russian queer studies: by prohibiting, it generated the phenomena it sought to prohibit. (114, my emphasis)

Mole concurs, adding:

While for many years gays and lesbians in Russia were criticized by activists for their political apathy, the anti-gay laws have lit a fire under many sexual dissidents. In addition, the law has brought LGBT rights in Russia – a topic which the state sought to suppress – to national and international attention. The visibility the legislation has inadvertently produced should thus be seen [as] an important component of resistance to the state-sponsored attempts to render homosexuality invisible. (“Introduction”: 5)

In a remarkable resurgence from the moribund latter days of the Yeltsin era, today a host of LGBTQ+ rights groups operate in the country, including Vykhod (Exit), the Alliance of Heterosexuals and LGBT People for Equal Rights, the Russian LGBT Network, and Children-404, an online youth project and support group. Along with the new activism has come a further contrast with the late Soviet and early post-Soviet periods: an embrace of the identarian labels once derided as an “import from the West” (Beaudoin, “Raising”: 231). The 21st-century Runet runneth over with endless articles parsing the different ways to identify as a “non-traditional” sexual minority, while online platforms such as Nebo: Nonbinary People in Society teach visitors about the lives, identities, and experiences of same. In 2018, Kondakov even wrote a “Gender for Dummies” article for the mainstream press (see “Gender”). More and more young people openly identify as kvir, while debates raged over proper pronoun use and reforms of the “sexist” Russian language.20 These Putin-era trends figure as, among other things, a dramatic example of Foucault’s contention that identities are fashioned through discourse.21

Still more promisingly, especially among the young, is that gender issues are increasingly viewed in intersectional terms; LGBTQ+ activists often make common cause and overlap with disability, race, feminist, and other rights movements. Anti-Putin rallies of the 2010s and after routinely featured pro-LGBTQ+ signs and slogans. From 2016 to 2017, poet and performance artist Daria Serenko conducted “Quiet Pickets” (tikhie pikety) on her trips throughout Moscow, which she documented on her blog. One of the messages she held protested Russia’s outlawing of same-sex marriage (Kukulin, “Cultural Shifts”: 240). By 2019, public opinion as measured by the Levada Center had improved: 47 percent of those surveyed said that, despite whatever misgivings they might have about them, LGBTQ+ people should be treated equally under the law (only 39 percent had said so in 2013) (The Moscow Times, “Russian Support”). The state’s attempts at international economic and cultural integration sometimes run afoul of its own homophobic domestic policies, as when Russia hosted the World Cup in 2018; Putin had to personally reassure FIFA, the sporting event’s organizers, that foreign gay fans would not suffer violence or discrimination (Kunichoff, “Temporary”).22

Others point to grassroots manifestations of gay-friendly sentiment, such as the viral phenomenon of homoerotic parody videos, as signs that the culture is evolving on the question. As Masha Gessen puts it, these expressions “serve as the best proof yet that Russia is not nearly as conservative as the Kremlin has claimed in recent years” (“How Russia’s”).

Still, this community continues to face stiff cultural headwinds. In 2018, Roskomnadzor (the state media regulator) added to its list of banned sites for “[dissemination of] information that promotes non-traditional sexual relations” (The Moscow Times, “Russia Bans”). In 2020, as part of a series of constitutional amendments, Russian voters confirmed and reinforced the state’s ban on same-sex marriage (Venkatraman, “Russia”). And very real dangers still abound, lest anyone should doubt it. July of 2019 saw the brutal slaying of pro-democracy, anti-war and pro-LGBTQ+ rights activist Yelena Grigoryeva in St. Petersburg, days after her name had appeared on an “LGBT Hunters” website (Fitzsimmons, “Russian”; Meduza, “LGBTQ Activist”).

In the opening to Cruising Utopia, his seminal work of queer theory, José Muñoz suggested that queerness fundamentally belongs to the future: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality” (1). Given the arduous struggle for LGBTQ+ rights in Russia, Muñoz’s famous formulation might, for those of an older generation, bring to mind a Soviet-era joke about how communism is that thing which always lies just on the horizon. And what is the horizon? The horizon is an imaginary line which recedes farther away each time you move up to it.

Trans Lives

Transgender people in Russia have, if anything, suffered even more discrimination and at least as much violence as other LGBTQ+ groups. Discourses by and about this population exploded during the third Putin administration and after; these discussions revealed that the trans community faces unique challenges and dangers. For one thing, the Levada Center’s 2015 survey on homophobia showed that 66 percent of respondents reacted to “transsexuals” either “irritably” or “indignantly” (Levada, “Nevidimoe”).

Throughout the 2010s, LGBTQ+ rights organizations such as Vykhod reported extensively on the difficulties trans people had with changing their names on documents; the outright hatred and contempt directed at them by service clerks, bureaucrats, police, and passersby; the refusals to hire them; the forced removals from public transportation; to say nothing of the enormous legal, medical and financial challenges of transitioning itself (Turovsky, “We Should”).23 Many, especially those ostracized by family, turned to prostitution to survive; in at least one case, a parent had to surrender their children after getting a mastectomy (Sinelschikova, “My Parents”).

The case of psychiatrist Dmitry Isaev typifies the obstacles in the way of the trans community and its allies. In 2015, Isaev was compelled to resign from his directorship of St. Petersburg’s State Pediatric Medical University’s Transgender Commission, which vetted requests for hormone replacement therapy and sex-change operations—and approved them at a higher rate than other institutions. This prompted a public outcry, including from the aforementioned “People’s Cathedral” movement, which led to Isaev’s removal. The commission itself shut down soon after his departure (Turovsky, “We Should”; The Village, “Psikhiatr”).

In 2014, a dashcam video of trans woman Anzhela Likina stopped by traffic police in Ufa went viral in Russia (with over a million views that year). In the video, the cop examines Likina’s documents (which identified her as male, the gender assigned at birth), realizes he is talking to what he considers a man in a dress, and lets her go. Another cop soon joins him in the car, and the two have a big laugh about the “would-be real broad” (baba nastoyaschaya budto). The popular video took on an added—and tragic—significance when Likina was stabbed to death in 2016 (Alimguzina, “Kto”).24

The extreme animosity and violence towards trans people in Russia led author Alexei Lukyanov to pen the sci-fi short story “Entwives” (2014), about a future hyper-masculine society in which “biological” women have gone extinct, leaving trans women to serve as sex slaves to men.25

Queer Comics in Russia

In her 2017 book Why Comics?, in a chapter entitled “Why Queer?”, Hillary Chute writes, “the fastest-growing area in comics right now may be, broadly speaking, queer comics—comics that feature in some way the lives, whether real or imagined, of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer) characters” (349). In support, she discusses such publications as Justin Hall’s anthology No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics (2012) and the works of (among others) Diane DiMassa, Ariel Schrag, Vaughn Bode, A.K. Summers, Howard Cruse, and—the most celebrated US queer comics artist of the last 20 years—Alison Bechdel.

Other scholars have, in the last decade, devoted increased attention to comics by and/or about the LGBTQ+ community, a trend crowned by a 2018 special issue of American Literature, “Queer About Comics,” co-edited by Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz (whose own 2016 book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics analyzed through a queer studies lens the genre popularly seen as synonymous with the US industry). The authors assembled for this collection not only celebrate comics as cultural expressions well-suited to depicting queer lives—they argue there’s something inherently “queer” about the comics medium itself. As Scott and Fawaz put it in their introduction:

The unpredictability of serial narrative and narration and the visual structure of comics as a set of sequential panels that repeat, but always with a difference, suggest that comics are formally queer. Just as the underlying premise in comics that anything that can be drawn can be believed taps into the productivity of human capacities for fantasy, the formal character of comics – the idea that you can have indefinite iterations of a given story that never reproduce a single trajectory – helps clarify the ways that fabulation underwrites our realities, in decidedly queer ways. (202; emphasis in original)

The authors pose an exciting and generative question to their readers: “How do the comics medium’s formal properties provide material analogies for or creatively materialize and literalize seemingly formless experiences of nonnormative erotic desire, pleasure, and intimacy?” (Scott & Fawaz, “Introduction”: 199). That query seems particularly apt for Russian queer comics, which, like the population they represent, exist at the very margins of the culture—and as targets of societal contempt and hatred. Yet still they persist.

Though relatively rare, such graphic narratives began to appear more often by the mid-2010s.26 As in other areas of Russian komiks culture, a debt is owed to Japanese manga, in particular the legal and illegal translations of such which proliferated online starting in the 1990s. Many of these imported comics featured yaoi (male romance), yuri (female romance), shounen-ai (boy’s love) and other genres devoted to “non-traditional” sexual relations.27 Their influence would feed into such contemporary works as the web-based Immortal (2019) by Koriandr, a yaoi series with elements of Slavic myth and folklore.

In 2011, the social activist project Respect, which sought to distribute free comic booklets promoting themes of tolerance, published The Interview by Finnish artist Tiitu Takalo. Bearing an “18+” stamp on its cover, it dealt with homoerotic subject matter—albeit presented through highly allegorical means: in a binary reversal, Takalo depicts an alternate world where homosexuality is the “normal” orientation, with heterosexuals as the persecuted minority. When the protagonist came out as straight to his mother, he tells a reporter, “she crie[d] for days.” The closeted man insists, “There have always been heterosexuals and there always will be, even if some people are against it. Why can’t they just leave us alone?” (n.p.).

While rather mild fare, The Interview’s troubled production reflects the political minefield which initiatives like Respect had to negotiate in Russia if they wanted to explore LGBTQ+ themes. In the early 2010s I had heard from some within the Respect team that, to publish the booklet, they had asked Takalo to “tone down” (read: censor) what at first had been a much more straightforward piece about homophobia. Takalo later confirmed this account to me in personal conversation.

Akeema’s “Vasya’s Not Gay!” (2012), a 60-page manga story set in the author’s “Hospital” universe and originally posted on the internet, represents a different approach. It serves as compelling evidence for how the sorts of identarian labels long resisted by at least some elements of Russia’s queer community were seeping into the language of young people as well as the mainstream.28 Akeema, in a brief introduction to the piece upon its republication in Izotext, described it as “a response to the stranglehold which yaoi manga has on the internet, and to a discussion on questions of gender identity raised by representatives of sexual minorities in the creative sphere” (“Vasia” 116). The plot involves the stylish Lyosha, whom Katya suspects of being gay. When he tells her he is not, she sets up a meeting between him and Vasya, a boy she adores but fears could “turn gay” without an intervention from another straight man. The reluctant Lyosha agrees, but when the androgynous, beautiful Vasya sits down at a café with him, he is smitten. A long discussion ensues about Vasya’s gender identity—with Vasya growing progressively more incensed; he insists he really is gay. Akeema’s comedy of manners turns on stereotypes and presumptions about various body types, fashions, hairstyles—at one point, a staff member at the café tells Vasya, “Young lady! Get off the table!” (160)—and the purported influence of media consumption on sexual orientation (Lyosha shows Vasya a suggestive drawing [158] and even some yaoi manga to prove his point; Vasya throws up on it [166]).

To settle the matter once and for all, Vasya kisses Lyosha on the mouth—horrifying Katya, who’s spying on them (159). But in response, Lyosha renders his verdict: “You’re genderqueer: a lezzy [lesbi] in a male body! These are your genes, and it’s useless to fight them!” (163) (see figure 1). The mesmerized café crowd treats the entire exchange as a spectacle (one customer takes pictures, another asks for popcorn [165]); Lyosha even gets his coffee on the house (170).

Two young androgynous young people rendered in manga style converse in a café.
Figure 1. Lyosha renders his verdict to Vasya: “You’re genderqueer: a lezzy in a male body!” from “Vasya’s not Gay!” by Akeema (2012).

It’s safe to say “Vasya’s Not Gay!” could not have existed in Russian comics in the 1990s, or even a few years before it appeared on the internet—to say nothing of its publication in an academic journal funded by Moscow taxpayer funds29 in the year of the “anti-gay propaganda” law. It presumes a level of matter-of-fact sophistication and comfort with queer identities (“You can’t become gay. You have to be born that way” [122]) and terminology (e.g., orientatsiya [161], genderkvir) which belies the painful realities for many queer people in Russia. It goes without saying that at most the story represents a sliver of the community—deep-pocketed, Western-leaning, urban—not the flesh-and-blood Angela Likinas struggling to survive.

LGBT: Comics from Around the World (2015), an anthology published by St. Petersburg’s LGBT Side-by-Side Festival, embraces (virtually without precedent in Russian comics) the sort of politicized approach to queer life which “Vasya’s Not Gay!” largely sidesteps. As the organizers put it in their introduction: “By means of this unique and nuanced artistic genre we wish to not only illuminate our readers, but also to inspire and instill in them the courage and strength to become superheroines and superheroes, and get through those difficulties which exist today in our country” (Bok: 3). The collection included work by, among others, Viktoria Lomasko and Lena Khek (Russia); Jennifer Camper, Howard Cruse and Ariel Schrag (USA); and Helena Janečić (Croatia). Lomasko’s graphic reportage of the 2014 festival, “Side by Side: Homosexuals and Homophobes,” captures the tension and the solidarity of the moment: the event was marred by a bomb threat and lurking skinheads; not long before LGBTQ+ activist Dmitry Chizhevsky had been shot in the eye with a pneumatic pistol. Still, they persisted (Lomasko, “Bok”: 38).

Sasha Mccai’s autobiographical minicomix Confusion (2019, from the Tyumen micropress Space Cow) splits the difference between the privileged milieu of “Vasya’s Not Gay!” and the Side by Side collection’s somewhat didactic approach by grounding its story in the universal setting of high school (see figure 2). The narrator Sasha recounts his same-sex attraction for Yaroslav, a tender-hearted, long-haired classmate, and the tremendous teen angst, masculine turmoil, and unexpected emotions it unleashes. “A noble feeling just lived in me,” he confesses, “And it was beautiful.” (n.p.).

A young man has an arrow sticking out of his chest, a symbol of infatuation.
Figure 2. The narrator Sasha realizes he is smitten, from Sasha Mccai’s autobiographical minicomix Confusion (2019).

Notably, nothing actually “happens”; our hero eventually overcomes his crush. All the same: “Although I subsequently did not confess my feelings to him, and continued to communicate with Yaroslav just as a good friend, / I confessed to myself. Isn’t that the main thing?” The panel accompanying this text shows a silhouette of Sasha, with a joyful mini-me inside of him in a party hat, who exclaims “I’m a fagot” [sic], with the last two words crossed out and replaced with “in love.” Funny and self-deprecating, Confusion’s most radical assertion, given the homophobic Russian context, is that this story is commonplace, no big deal. “I think everyone had such a friend [as Yaroslav] at school,” Sasha avers. Queer desire is everywhere.

On the mainstream side of the spectrum, LGBTQ+ representation took a giant stride with Anna Rud’’s The Club, originally a yuri manga web series which industry leader Bubble picked up for print publication in 2016, as part of its auteur-driven Bubble Visions imprint.30 Even Rud’ was shocked; upon hearing from Bubble, she scoffed, “What? Can we really publish something like this in Russia?” The heightened exposure cut both ways, however: Rud’ had to reformat and color the series, and some editorial changes were made to “smooth over” the lesbian romance.31 Rud’ also said she set the story in Canada because “in Russia [it] would have been too complicated, [the heroines] would not be able to act so freely” (Spidermedia, “Comic Con”).

But if The Club managed to dance around the “anti-gay propaganda” law’s proscriptions, a foreign comics work’s more straightforward queer depiction fell afoul of it. In December 2016, the Russian version of the US gaming site Overwatch announced that it could not make accessible a digital comics story in which one of its characters comes out as a lesbian:32 “In accordance with Russian legislation we cannot share this comic with our players in the territory of the Russian Federation,” proclaimed the announcement from parent company Blizzard Entertainment (Grayson, “Overwatch”).33 This and similar incidents (such as an LGBTQ+-related contretemps at the 2019 Comics Arts Tyumen festival) point to the considerable hurdles still facing LGBTQ+ representation in comics (foreign and domestic) in Russia.34

Turning to trans depictions35—or at least what one might interpret as a thinly veiled allegory of trans identity—I want to discuss Sasha Baranovskaya’s startling 2016 short story “The Secret” (Taina). Similar to Confusion, this 18-pager deals with incipient adolescent infatuation/repulsion for a sexual/ethnic other, this time in a middle school setting. Bullied by male frenemies who brutally punish any expressions of tenderness (even for a dead bird), the narrator Slava develops a tenuous bond with a tall female classmate, whom the boys deride as a “beanpole” (dydla). The dark-haired girl, after numerous acts of kindness to him, grows into a fixation for the hero; she opens up emotions and facets of his personality that he did not know existed, and which cause him great struggle to understand. (n.p.) Then, he says, “That night I had a weird dream”: shirtless, he is brushing his teeth when the girl’s head sprouts from his shoulder, like a mushroom, quickly growing until the two look like conjoined twins, staring at each other (see figure 3). When he tries to deny her by pushing her head away, her growth explodes such that within three panels it is the boy who is the tiny head, protruding from her shoulder. She laughs—along with the narrator’s male friends. Notably, we see the girl’s head on Slava’s body (still shirtless, in the same underpants he wore before), with no nipples, breasts, or sexual characteristics. 

A boy dreams a girl’s head is growing out of his shoulder.
Figure 3. Slava’s dream, from “The Secret” by Sasha Baranovskaya (2016).

Throughout the story, the “beanpole” remains a mystery, and not just because she is a girl encroaching on the boys’ homosocial club. She claims, sullenly, that “Where I was born, my height is totally normal”, she tells a lot of obvious lies (“I was a fashion model,” “A queen shook my hand”), and she insists that she is only passing through and will leave this town soon. In a splash, Baranovskaya depicts the girl in many guises, outfits, activities, and expressions as she tells these fibs—read: selves to try on then discard—and in all these versions of her, she looks stereotypically “girly.” 

Further, the story’s borderless panels lend an additional mood of uncertainty and unsure footing, just as the artist’s gray wash technique conveys a sense of monotony and dullness to the narrator’s life. This makes the final page’s eruption of watercolor so significant: in a splash, we see Slava before his bathroom mirror (the same place where he was brushing his teeth in the dream); he stares at himself wearing a jewel-encrusted hairpin which used to belong to the girl. (He knew she had been looking for it, yet after he finds it in the grass, he never returns it to her.) The pin glistens in his hair, and, somehow, he seems to admire it despite his vacant expression. The hairpin is the “secret” of the title—but so is this strongly hinted act of mirror-stage (mis)recognition and cross-identification. 

Is this the grown-up narrator’s recollected image of himself (themself?) at the dawn of awareness? (We are told these events happened many years in the past.) Is he coming out as queer, or trans? Several clues (verbal and visual) point in this direction. Firstly, throughout the story, Baranovskaya’s narrator uses male grammatical gender in the past tense, e.g., “ya podobral zakolku” (“I took the hairpin”). But by the last three pages, he has dropped it; the author resorts to reflexive constructions like “popadalos’ mne na glaza” (“popped out at me”) to avoid further declaring the narrator’s gender. Meanwhile, Slava’s friends continue to use male grammatical constructions, like the adjectival form in “Ya—bessmertniy, ponyatno?” (“I’m immortal, get it?”). This subtly suggests a shift within Slava.   

Moreover, death and rebirth play important symbolic roles at key points. The boy is playing a game of cops and robbers with his friends when one of them knocks him down. This moment coincides with our final glimpse of the girl, who happens to be passing by just then with her mother. Distracted, Slava loses his gun and ends up on the ground with the other boy on top of him, in what we could dismiss as childish roughhousing, but which also stands out as a rather suggestive pose. The upshot: Slava has tried to kill something which refuses to stay dead (“I’m immortal, get it?” is what his opponent says as he wrestles our hero to the pavement). Similarly, we next see Slava at home, losing at a video game (a “game over” screen shows a bear-like face with x’s for eyes) —another death which can be “restarted,” another version shed like an old skin. And in a scene strongly recalling the “water of life” (zhivaya voda) of Russian folk tales, the girl uses a drink of water to “revive” Slava (rendered as a minimalist cartoon) after another humiliating betrayal by his “friends.” 

Finally, an ambience of hybridity (in various senses) suffuses “The Secret.” This is most blatant in the “conjoined twins” dream, but we see it in many other places. Let’s restrict ourselves to the ending. In the penultimate panel (before turning the page for the big color splash before the mirror), our narrator appears as an adult young man—yet in the same pose and, bizarrely, the same pajamas as in the previous panel where he’s still middle-school age.  

Returning to that closing splash, we see this “magical” hybridity theme reinforced through numerous items in the bathroom and on Slava’s person. On the sink shelf before the boy, we see various gendered items: blue and pink toothbrushes, a bottle of liquid soap with a smiling woman on it, and a container of shaving cream with a man’s portrait. Reflected in the mirror is a set of shelves holding various other objects, including what looks like a bar of soap. On the top shelf lies a plastic bag, upon which we can clearly read the English word “cotton” – yet that, of course, is an impossibility: in a mirror-image, the word would be reversed. Most striking of all is the boy’s red and green shirt: it depicts the head of a scaly, fanged reptilian-looking creature with a mane, puffing furiously from its nostrils, and the inscription “Lizard Pony” (though, of course, those words should be reversed in the mirror too). The chimaera-like being conjures up “hermaphroditic” associations. And lastly, the gender-bending hairpin itself, its pinkish jewel glimmering just over Slava’s36 eyebrow. The mirror image also looks slightly, unnaturally larger than the “real” world it supposedly reflects; we are not just peering into the looking glass, we have traversed it.    

“The Secret’s” closing splash does more than recall Phoebe Gloeckner’s “hybrid” portraits of girl-women in her collection A Child’s Life and Other Stories (1998); it enacts a “trans gaze” of gender fluidity and queer desire through graphic narrative, engaging Scott/Fawaz’s claim that “The expansive representational capacity of the medium queers it” (“Introduction”: 201).

As they further argue, and as Baranovskaya’s remarkable tale substantiates:

The fantasy aspects of the medium have historically lent themselves to the depiction of a vast array of nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality – from the most metaphoric (in hyperbolic camp visuality or the metamorphosing of human bodies into forms that call into question traditional gender norms, etc.) to the most literal (the actual depiction of queer bodies and erotic attachments). (“Introduction”: 201) 

The latter part of that passage finds especial validation in Russia’s first long-form comics work explicitly devoted to a transgender subject.

Herman Alius and Trans*Siberia

I believe that comics is a very effective mode of communication in which narrative connects with art. When I first came up with the idea of ​​creating a comic book about trans people living in Siberia today, it was my goal to touch [zasáhnout] the audience in its heart and soul. 

The comic gives me the opportunity to draw attention to the problems of trans people, who are usually silenced by Russia’s discriminatory laws. But I see it as one of the most important things in my life to share my personal experiences and stories from the trans community.

When you represent the LGBTQIA+ community in Russia through comics, you are not just telling a story – you are creating history and letting everyone know that these people exist in your country. Comics culture is a young branch of a giant tree called the Russian literary heritage. I believe that I am among those who are today helping to grow this tree and have a real impact. (Drahoňovská, “When Society”)

Thus spoke 23-year-old trans Siberian artist Herman Alius in a 2017 interview with Laydeez Do Comics Praha. Originally from Omsk, Alius had worked there at the trans rights organization Laverna, among the first of its kind in that part of the Russian Federation. Founded in September 2015, it served the transgender community with a focus on trans youth.37 In 2016, Alius undertook an artist residency with the Prague Civil Society Center, during which he worked on the graphic novel Trans*Siberia (Vargol’skaia, “Art”).38 It appeared online in Russian and English in 2017. As he explained in the interview,

One of my main goals for the creation of Trans*Siberia is to describe the actual current situation for trans people in Siberia. I decided to base the main character on several real stories, since trans people go through very similar stages and phases. By combining many people’s lives and experiences into one story, it will heighten even more the impact on the reader. (Drahoňovská, “When Society”) 

In the 35-page story, Sasha struggles through his life as a “mannish” woman with long black hair. Family and friends—especially his mother—encourage him to act and dress more “girly,” but this makes things worse. It only casts him deep into depression. A chance meeting at a café leads to his fateful decision to transition, setting up traumatic repercussions when some in his social circle reject his choice—and, subsequently, him. Alius unfurls this plot with black and white drawings embellished primarily with tints of light blue—a meaningful choice, since light blue (goluboe) is Russian slang for gay/queer. At key moments, he switches to other color schemes, chiefly light red/pink or solid black backgrounds. 

The art bears the imprint of manga, without fully committing to that style as Akeema’s in “Vasya’s Not Gay” does. Trans*Siberia, given its educative mainstream aspirations, looks streamlined, reader-friendly, and “generic” —certainly more so than the offerings in the LGBT: Comics from Around the World collection or Baranovskaya’s “The Secret.” (Though it does not eschew formal experimentation, as we will see.) In what follows I highlight the graphic novel’s didactic approach to its subject; its bid for high-culture “legitimacy,” chiefly through citing the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, and its representation of gender transition through the “queer” medium of comics. 

When Alius started uploading the English-language version of his work piecemeal to Facebook on May 1, 2017, he introduced it thus:  

Dear Human!
This is the first trans feminist comics from Siberia.
The main character is a transgender man who is in the beginning of the path to self-understanding and gender identity acceptance.
Through the events of his life and his environment I intend to describe the most important aspects of transgender people’s lives who live in Siberia: from gender identity acceptance to the full transition.
The story is based on real experience of those, who live in one of the most transfobic [sic] regions of Russia and have to struggle everyday for the right to be themselves. (Trans*Siberia)39

That stance, taking on the burden to edify those who likely do not know much about trans lives and their unique challenges, as well as to hold up a mirror to trans people, for trans people—who may never have seen themselves represented in a positive light before—pervades Alius’ work. While it would be wrong to call Trans*Siberia socialist realist, it takes its mission very seriously, steering clear of humor almost completely and sticking primarily to broad character types (kind stranger, meddling mother, supportive dad, sexist male catcallers).40

Apart from the hero himself, Sasha’s friend Rita seems the most complex figure, in that she wavers between accepting Sasha’s non-conformity to gender norms and trying to shoehorn him into them like almost everyone else. Early on, hearing of the endless harping from Sasha’s mother, Rita convinces him to try on a dress. His reaction: “I feel like … I’m a transvestite” (6). Alius “poisons the well” by having Sasha deliver this line in an extreme close-up shot of his irritated face before we actually see him in the dress on the next page. “Just give this look a week trial,” Rita pleads (8). The mother’s delight at Sasha’s makeover, meant to be supportive, instead comes off as chilling: “Now I do recognize my daughter” (9). 

Yet the seeds of change have already been sown. Near the novel’s opening, the hero makes a new male friend due to a mix-up when a barista calls out an order. The stranger is also called Sasha (in Russia, both men and women can go by Sasha; at this point our Sasha is still presenting as a woman, albeit a very “tom-boyish” one). That rom-com premise leads to a series of conversations with the “metrosexual” Alex (as he rechristens himself, to avoid confusion) in the café, over the course of which Sasha switches from cocoa to cappuccino (presumably a more “masculine” drink). But unlike in “Vasya’s Not Gay!”, these amicable talks bear fruit: after listening to Sasha’s lamentations, Alex recommends that he talk to a friend “who’s been through the same stuff you’re going through now” (22). In a splash page immediately afterwards, we see Sasha in a man’s shirt and sweater, at a table with a stack of books, writing. Above him thought balloons all but brim over with new terms and concepts he’s learning: “Transgender”; “FtM”; “Queer” (kvir); Transphobia,” etc. (23). The next page shows what he has written, a manifesto of the liberated self. It reads, in part: 

Today I heard the word “transgender” for the first time.
I received an answer to a question which I never dared to ask out loud. …
I am here. That means that there are others.
And that means, that I am not alone in my city.
I never thought that I could feel like a different person. (24)

Sasha’s emancipation comes with some severe social and family repercussions. When he tells Rita about his decision to transition, it does not go well. “I’m finally getting close to understanding myself,” he tries to explain. “I know why I always felt uncomfortable being in this body … / … Because I’ve always been a man inside” (28). Arms crossed, frowning, Rita responds with anger and confusion:.

R: So now what?! Are you gonna change [your] sex?
S: I don’t know, Rita. I haven’t thought about it yet.
R: This is some weird bullshit, Sasha. I know we might have [overdone] the experiment thing … But identifying as a manSo do I have to call you any different now?
S: Call me as you always do … / … But from now on I’m using the male pronouns. (28-29) 

At this point, Sasha removes his knit cap to reveal his newly shaved head. The panel shows him with a shimmering bluish “aura,” as if he were radiating energy (see Figure 4). The conversation ends with Rita pulling away from him, in tears, saying, “I have to go” (29).

A trans man and cis woman converse in a café. The trans man takes off a knitted cap, revealing his shaved head. He seems to glow.
Figure 4. Sasha’s “trans crackle,” from Herman Alius’ Trans*Siberia (2019).

Alius uses uniquely comics formal devices like Sasha’s “trans crackle” to heighten the drama of these true-to-life scenes, as well as to signal interior states and/or strong emotions. We see another example when Sasha is despondently sitting in front of a mirror after the “dress experiment” fiasco (see figure 5). Looking at his reflection, makeup removed from half his face, tears well up as he asks, “Who are you?” For the only time in Trans*Siberia, Sasha appears in flesh tone—or at any rate, the half of his face that still has makeup, fake lashes, and mascara does. That “womanly” half is an illusion, of course, though one which would secure Sasha societal approval were he to embrace it. It looks “real,” while the other half is sketched in, minimalist by comparison, and unfinished, its only color the light blue sheen of the mirror. This is a heartbreaking portrait of an incomplete human being, suffering. To reinforce that message, the bottom half of this page has an abstract background of “empty” rectangles, which resemble a cascade of blank comics panels (15). Sasha remains unfulfilled potential, a life unlived.

Sasha before the mirror.
Figure 5. Sasha before the mirror.

Those same blank rectangles/panels appear behind Sasha in his last conversation with Alex, as he struggles to articulate how alienated he feels from his assigned gender. Alius also renders much of that talk with “power lines” emanating from the pair—and from Alex’s climactic word balloon, “Do you feel like you are in the wrong body?” (22). Finally, when Sasha is leaving the salon, his “feminine” black tresses strewn on the floor (“Freedom …” he mutters), what look like tiny fireworks erupt about his head (26). 

But Trans*Siberia’s most front-facing, diegetic instance of formal invention occurs during a nightmare in which Sasha confronts head-on his terror of isolation and social oppression (see figure 6). Head shaved (before actually shearing his locks in real life), shirtless and in long underpants, he resembles a concentration camp inmate. Panels floating against a solid black background, Sasha is pursued by a nebulous, menacing crowd. Through white-on-black word balloons, they tell him, “‘Put on this dress, Sasha …’ / ‘Girls wear skirts!’” They quickly grow more insistent, shouting, “‘Be a nice girl!’ / ‘No one will love you for looking like a boy!’ / ‘Listen to your Mom!’ / ‘You’re a girl!’” They back a petrified Sasha up against a black wall. Somehow, he steps through it, into a sort of hall of mirrors against a dark abyss, where—after a few tries—at last he finds his own true reflection, glowing (18-19). 

A trans man runs from an amorphous crowd in a black void.
Figure 6. Sasha’s nightmare.

The sequence, as Kate McCullough puts it in her discussion of graphic memoir, “[employs] form to enact a queer hermeneutics centrally concerned with issues of memory” and identity building. Furthermore, it activates comics’ tension between text and image to foreground a war between split selves, for in her words “the multiple moments in time and the multiple ‘I’s who inhabit them are represented both by the split between the verbal and visual narratives and, simultaneously, within the visual narrative” (“Complexity”: 380). That crowd demanding that Sasha “Be a nice girl!” stands in both for the socius that presses upon his individual desires and for his own internalized self-loathing as a “defective” freak. Alius’ break from realism and conventional page design conveys that painful paradox—devastatingly so.       

Bringing the subject of form to a close, I want to focus on Trans*Siberia’s final story page41 (see figure 7). Here we witness a montage sequence of sorts, in which Sasha comes out to his parents; sadly watches his old friend Rita walking away because she now “always [has] somewhere to go”; and awkwardly examines his new male-presenting body in the mirror, touching his chest. He narrates:   

Identifying myself as a transgender person set me free on the inside, but at the same time it isolated me from the outside world.

Siberia refused to accept me.

They say only the strongest can survive here.

I guess I’m gonna have to find this out for myself. (32) 

This series of panels appears against a pink background; pink also predominates within the panels themselves—except in the final panel, which is shaped like the transgender symbol (a combination of the male, female and queer symbols).42 Inside this round shape we see Sasha from a high angle, looking up at the reader as if through light blue glass. The bluish sheen of the previous mirror portrait has now grown to encompass the whole of his body. He smiles timidly, taking his first steps into a larger world. 

A trans man talks to family members, gazes in a mirror and looks out from inside a transgender symbol.
Figure 7. Sasha comes out to the world near the end of Trans*Siberia.

Trans*Siberia deserves praise as nothing short of a revolutionary work for Russian comics (albeit one largely unread in Russia). As noted, Alius successfully crafts a positive, uplifting representation which—while frank about some of the obstacles facing transgender people in his country—shows that a happy outcome is possible. Like many coming out narratives, the graphic novella ultimately seeks to educate mainstream readers and celebrate the lives of those who will most relate to its hero’s journey, i.e. to fulfill its opening line/epigraph: “We’re here” (n.p.). However, that triumphalist stance cannot veil—and, perhaps, even exacerbates—the comic’s drawbacks. 

For one thing, apart from his gender identity issues, Sasha does not seem to have much of anything else happening in his life. We never see what exactly he does to earn money to pay for those cappuccinos and hair salon trips; early on we learn that he and Rita have classes which they are skipping, and later he sits at an empty desk, until Rita comes along to ask how the “experiment” is going (13). We never get a real sense of his talents as a well-rounded human being. Still more problematically, Sasha’s middle class setting glosses over the violence, poverty, and severe discrimination with which most out transgender people in Russia have to contend; like Angela Likina, many do not survive it. Trans*Siberia at most only hints at those horrors (such as in the nightmare).

Where Alius does best is in how he depicts the reflexive, unexamined nature of Russian structural transphobia—how it is largely about unquestioned conformity. In journalist Daniil Turovsky’s 2016 account “‘We Should Be Throwing Grenades at People Like You’: Life As a Transgender Person in Russia,” a trans woman interviewee refers not to individuals making her life hell, but instead “blames her state on ‘the system’—a word she uses often: ‘the system is a steamroller that crushes people like us,’ ‘people in the system don’t stop to help us, even when we’re being killed,’ and ‘the system convinces everyone that we’re enemies.’” While the newly bald-headed Sasha is not physically attacked, in another “montage sequence” he does take note of “the system”: curious gazes on the street and dirty looks on public transport (“Is it a boy or a girl?”); having to choose between male and female bathrooms with a sigh; chafing against a society which tells him incessantly how he “should” behave, dress, think, love (31).

For all its innovations and breaking of ground, though, Trans*Siberia falls back on one previously mentioned, tried-and-true strategy of LGBTQ+ representation in Russia: the association with Modernist art and culture. “Finding gayness in something so ‘typically Russian’ as poetry, art, and dance,” writes Beaudoin, “was ultimately a way of claiming a just place in the mainstream Russian society” (“Raising”: 230). Alius cements that linkage through a two-page prologue of mostly abstract imagery accompanied by Joseph Brodsky’s early poem “Recollections” (Vospiminaniya, 1962). The poem’s possibly homoerotic imagery of crossing over (“Guys [rebyata] plodding—waist-high—in rivers”) echoes Sasha’s story, while its concluding lines (“I am searching. I am making a person of myself”) our hero keeps as a hand-written note taped onto his wall. (Here we also see sketches that vaguely resemble the prologue compositions; though never explicitly said, Sasha might be an art student.)

Conclusion: ‘To Be Continued’

According to political scientist Conor O’Dwyer, contemporary Russia “exemplifies a state in which the [political opportunity structure] is largely unaffected by international pressures. If, after all, Russia can withstand an international embargo for annexing Crimea, it is too much to expect pressure from the [European Parliament] to shield domestic LGBT activists” (Coming Out 228). That reality, and the obstacles put in the path of international NGOs in Putin’s Russia, have meant that LGBTQ+ citizens and activists have largely operated on their own in the face of much public contempt. In places like Chechnya, the reality of life for LGBTQ+ citizens even includes death camps. Yet O’Dwyer also argues that the harsh 2013 law has actually softened public opinion somewhat, heightened the visibility of queer people, and even sparked a new rights movement (229). Levada polls, scholars such as Kondakov, a thriving internet subculture, new queer-friendly publishers such as Popcorn Books and No Kidding Press43, the activism and art of Julia Tsvetkova44 all validate that thesis. 

On July 26, 2017, after he had finished uploading all the pages to Trans*Siberia, Alius posted to Facebook this missive in his non-native English:

Dear Human,

First step is the hardest one.
First step to accepting yourself is the most important.
I want for this comics to become “that friend” whom you met when you most needed it.
And I want everyone who reads this to know that I’m here with you.
Through every word.
Through every line.
We are here (Trans*Siberia). 

“We are here”: in a real sense the most radical utterance of all for a community long despised, ill-treated, and made invisible. Among many other things, Herman Alius’ Trans*Siberia serves as a milestone for the distance traveled by Russian queer people since the 1990s—as well as an example of the double-edged power of identity politics. If in Sasha McCai’s “Confusion” and Slava Baranovskaya’s “The Secret” no definition of queer is definitively and explicitly stated (nor rejected), and if in “Vasya’s Not Gay” the queer person is satirically pigeonholed into a “rigid” category by someone else (“You’re genderqueer: a lezzy in a male body!”), in Trans*Siberia it is the trans Sasha himself who must convince a mostly hostile society of who he insists he is; likewise, the burden today falls on queer people themselves to take up that once-flouted but now all-important identarian label—and risk, perhaps, a different sort of conformity. 

Yet the lines Sasha writes at his desk after his course of study indeed “crackle” with the will to freedom, to the innate human dignity of LGBTQ+ lives—indeed of anyone breaking out of a prison:

I am a transgender guy.
I was born not in my own body.
And I want to become that person that I feel myself to be inside.
This is just the beginning of the journey.
And my new life starts tomorrow.
It’s started. (24)

On another level still, Sasha’s declaration of independence would seem to encompass the whole of queer graphic narrative in Russia itself: the most troubled, most radical, and—potentially—the most life-changing komiks of all.   

As Alius puts it at the end of Trans*Siberia: “To Be Continued” (34).


1. On early Soviet attitudes and policies towards sexuality, see Naiman, Sex in Public. 

2. Highlights of the mostly problematic LGBTQ+ representation in this era include the notorious émigré Eduard Limonov’s novel It’s Me Eddie (1979) and the films of the Necrorealist movement in Leningrad, which limned homosexuals as “rapist zombies” in such films as The Cruel Masculine Disease (Zhestokaya bolezn’ muzhchin, 1982) and Papa, Father Frost is Dead (Papa, umer ded moroz, 1991). 

3. The myth of homosexuals as pedophiles and perverts on public transport endured long after the collapse of socialism. I encountered it quite often enough while living in Russia in the 1990s. On the popular association of homosexuality with the concentration camp experience, see Baer, “Now”: 38. 

4. Klein had served time in prison for an Article 121 violation, though that charge was later overturned.  

5. The Yeltsin Administration supported the repeal in order to allow Russia to enter the Council of Europe (see Mole, “Introduction”:  3). I covered a press conference devoted to the repeal at the time. Kalinin spoke in hopeful but ominous tones about Russians’ reception of the change: “In the cities, it’s good; in the provinces, we’ll see.” 

6. For some Russians, the association was literally “foreign.” The mid-1990s late-night TV talk show About That (Pro Eto), the country’s first devoted to sexuality (including homosexuality), was hosted by a black woman, Elena Khanga. See Borenstein’s discussion of it in Overkill: Chapter 2. For LGBTQ+ people, the 1990s were a very mixed bag: “Enthusiastic headlines proclaiming the liberation of Russian gays were often followed by reports of the continued intolerance of Russian society and the reluctance of Russian gays and lesbians to engage in activism” (Beaudoin, “Raising”: 503). 

7. See also Nartova, “‘Russian Love’”.

8. Beaudoin elaborates: “[Q]ueers in Russia have sought a uniquely Russian (as opposed to American, for example) definitions of gayness in precedents supplied by the Silver Age – the last open flowering of queerdom before the Soviet era” (“Raising”: 229-230). 

9.  In a telling scene from the 1998 film Land of the Deaf (directed by Valery Todorovsky), one of the heroines turns to the other on a Moscow bridge with the realization: “That means you and I are …?” (Tak shto my s toboi …?). The other answers, “How horrible!” (Kakoi uzhas!) – then both collapse in laughter and keep walking. On homosexuality in this film, see Schuckman, “Doubly.” 

10. Sociologist Laurie Essig argued, “[T]his subjectivity without identity is exactly the part of Russian queerdom that is thriving, just as surely as Western models of identity politics have stagnated” (quoted in Beaudoin, “Raising”: 231).  

11. Kyusha’s attitudes seemed to obtain beyond the queer underground. As a journalist in Moscow in the 1990s, I covered a concert at an enormous nightlife venue inside the Olympiysky Sports Complex. As rather rough-looking types spent freely on libations, a strip act was in full swing on a rotating stage. At least one of the strippers presented as a man, yet none of the very “macho”-looking male audience members (who openly groped the female strippers) seemed to mind; they gave the male performer the same level of attention as they did anyone else on stage. The co-ed ecdysiast ethic struck me as something we likely would not see in an analogue “mainstream” adult entertainment venue in the states. 

12. These include Laurie Essig, Dan Healey, Igor Kon, Nadia Nartova, Elena Omel’chenko, Alexander Kondakov and Yevgeny Berstein. 

13. Important milestones of the 2000s: the founding of (2005) and the nationwide Russian LGBT Network (2006). Pride and gay-related parades in Moscow and other cities were routinely disrupted by protesters and police from 2006 onwards. 

14. Sorokin had previously stoked controversy with his novel Blue Lard (Goluboe salo, 1999), which featured clones of Krushchev and Stalin having sex. 

15. The name meant, roughly, “She does her.”

16. Though – to the surprise of some – the film received a distribution certificate from the state, it had to censor some scenes for its fall, 2020 domestic release. 

17. “Introduction”: 5. 

18. Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, most of them murders, doubled over five years after passage of the law, according to the Center for Independent Social Research (Kunichoff, “Temporary”). 

19. In the same wide-ranging Levada Center survey, to the question, “In Your Opinion, Are People Of Non-Traditional Sexual Orientation Subjected To Physical Violence (Assault, Murder, Etc.) In Russia Or Not?”, 29 percent of respondents answered yes. Thirty-four percent said they “weren’t sure” (Levada, “Nevidimoe”).  

20. See Friedlander, “Lost.”

21. Ian Hacking’s related “semantic contagion” concept would also seem relevant (Rewriting the Soul: 238). As Baer rather flippantly puts its, the 21st-century adoption of identarian labels by Russian LGBTQ+ people “appears to replicate Freud’s vision of growing up,” from “polymorphous sexuality to a sexuality constrained by social conventions and the work imperative” (“Russian Gays”: 518fn).  

22. Some were attacked anyway (Ring, “Report”).

23. In one of the few “success stories,” a trans couple, Reid Lynn and Sophia Grozovsky, managed to legally marry in 2016 because according to their birth certificates one was a man, the other a woman. Still, the marriage office insisted they dress according to their assigned gender (Turovsky, “We Should”).  

24. Likina, who had trouble renting an apartment due to transphobia, had been preparing for a sex change operation for several years, and may have been killed over money for the procedure (Turnovsky, “We Should”). 

25. I co-translated this story into English in 2017. As Lukyanov explained to me, “[I] started thinking: why do I feel that way about gays? What bothers me about them? By then I had a transgender friend, and I always sympathized with him and supported him as much as I could (now he’s preparing for his operation, though this is a long process). I had good gay and lesbian friends, and nobody ever tried to ‘convert’ me … The idea for the story came about during one of my arguments on Facebook, today I don’t remember when or where. I suddenly thought: what if there were no women? Where would all that aggression that accumulates in men spill over to?” (Lukyanov, Personal Correspondence). 

26. Notably, gay French comics diarist Fabrice Neaud was a guest at Moscow’s International Comics Festival KomMissia in 2005.

27. In 2011, the Ekaterinburg publishing house “Comics Factory” released the first Japanese yuri manga in Russia, a volume of Satoshi Urushihara’s Chirality (2003). On manga and anime’s influence on Russian LGBT fanfic, see Nekrasova, “Gomoseksual’nost’”.

28. “Leave Them Alone,” a 2013 op-ed by Nikolai Klimenyuk strikes me as a rear-guard action: “I called my friends ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ – and I feel like a traitor, both in relation to them and to myself. Because – and I’m convinced of this – in actuality no ‘gays’ exist at all. Not until a defined group of people are forced to define themselves and stick a label on … Indifference and neutrality matter no less than do compassion and solidarity to those we – in politically correct fashion – call ‘homosexuals’” (“Ostav’te”: 4). 

29. Izotext was published by the Center for Comics and Visual Culture (TsKVK), housed in the Russian State Library for Youth (RGBM).

30. Rud’’s The Club, a 2013 yuri web series, originally appeared on the site Mint-manga.    

31. Comics scholar Alexei Pavlovsky, for one, saw such representations as counter-productive. “If you are publishing comics about LGBT,” he asked, “why do you make them mediocre fanservice like Bubble Visions’ The Club, instead of a graphic novel about Tsvetaeva and Parnok?” – referring to Soviet-era poet Marina Tsvetaeva and her lover Sophia Parnok (Bondareva, “Chto”).  

32. The story, “Reflections” by Michael Chu and Miki Montllo, showed the queer character Tracer kissing her partner, Emily. 

33. On the more indie side of the spectrum, in 2018 the Moscow micropress Sputnikat released Housewife: What A Poor Lesbian Does When Her Girl Goes Away For The Weekend by Sári Szántó, a Hungarian based in Russia.

34. Translations into Russian of non-manga comics works with an LGBTQ+ theme include Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2018) and Tilley Walden’s Spinning (2020), both from Boomkniga.

35. Notable Western trans-related comics include the Sandman story arc A Game of You (1993) by Neil Gaiman, et al.; the works of ET Russian, including Ring of Fire (2014);  and Jessica U.’s web series Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls (2013). See also the discussion of transphobia and Batgirl #37 by Gail Simone, Cameron Stewart et al. in Scott/Kirkpatrick, “Trans.”  

36. In a significant pun, we should note that the name Slava, a nickname for Vladislav, also means “fame” or “glory.”

37. In 2017, it received a grant from the PlanetRomeo Foundation to train 20 Russian activists, all 30 or under, to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

38. The Prague Civil Society Center has as its mission to assist members of under-represented and marginalized groups in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Alius’ residency abroad underscores political scientist Conor O’Dwyer’s observation that a paucity of domestic allies has forced Russian LGBTQ+ activists to seek out international partners and support (Coming Out: 229). 

39. In this chapter I am referencing the English-language version of Trans*Siberia, the only one which remains posted on Facebook. The Russian-language version of Alius’ introduction, since removed along with the work itself, read like this in my translation: “Dear Person! This is the first trans-feminist comics in Siberia. The main character is a transgender guy at the beginning of his journey to knowing himself. Through the events of his life and the lives of those close to him, I intend to depict the most important aspects of the life of a transgender person living in Siberia: from his awakening and acceptance of himself to the complete transition to his new gender. This story is based on the real experiences of those who live in one of the most transphobic regions of the Russian Federation and who are compelled to fight every day for the right to be who they are.” 

40. In what seems a marker of 21st-century urban culture, the kindest and most unswerving support comes from service workers (a barista, a hair salon cosmetologist). 

41. Following which Alius adds a textual coda and a “To Be Continued” graphic. 

42. The transgender symbol appears throughout the work; for example, the “manifesto” and the “to be continued” both appear inside a transgender symbol.  

43. Both founded in 2018. See Kushnir, “Why.” 

44. Tsvetkova, a young activist from the Russian Far East, was prosecuted in 2020 under the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” law for her posted drawings in support of LGBTQ+ people.


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