Spring 2017

Artist Project / Pleshka-Birobidzhan

A journey to the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region

Yevgeniy Fiks

“Pleshka-Birobidzhan” engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history through imagining how a number of gay men—some from the Soviet Union and some leftists from abroad—formed a group in 1934 to travel from Moscow to Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR.

Shortly after the 1917 revolution, homosexuality in the Soviet Union was decriminalized, and for the next sixteen years, no criminal punishment for “same-sex offenses” existed. This period, however, cannot be considered an era of true gay liberation. Instead, it was a time of liberalization, a moment that could have become the basis for greater liberation had it not been abruptly terminated in 1934 when Stalin once again made homosexuality (and abortion) illegal as part of a broad conservative turn to strengthen the nuclear family and return to petit bourgeois values.

In that same year, Stalin established the Jewish Autonomous Region, known mostly by the name of its capital city of Birobidzhan on the Trans-Siberian Railroad close to the border with China. Birobidzhan was supposed to become the home for Soviet Jews, where they would develop their own cultural autonomy, with Yiddish as the official language. In the long run, the Birobidzhan project turned out to be unsuccessful because very few Jews moved there of their own volition, and the government neither pressured them nor created incentives for them to do so. Birobidzhan is widely considered a failed Soviet utopian project.

The story told by the collages that constitute “Pleshka-Birobidzhan” begins in Moscow in the summer of 1934. The first group of images depicts an imaginary meeting at a pleshka—a Soviet urban gay cruising site—in front of the Bolshoi Theater. The attendees include historically significant gay figures such as writers Mikhail Kuzmin, Robert Duncan, Yevgeny Kharitonov, and André Gide, and activists Nikolai Alekseev, Bayard Rustin, and Harry Hay. The men meet to discuss the recriminalization of homosexuality as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region, and their dream of a gay Soviet utopia.

The next set of collages depicts the journey of these men, who, disillusioned and fearing persecution, travel from Moscow to Birobidzhan. Upon their arrival, they find themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region, which appears to exist alongside, and at times overlaps with, the Soviet Jewish utopia.

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