Has anyone been following moves in Russia’s parliament over the summer, passing regressive anti-LGBT legislation? With the Winter Olympics in Sochi approaching in a few months, there’s been greater visibility and push-back regarding these laws from some in the international community and many in the LGBT community. LGBT citizens and activists within Russia have had a difficult if not impossible time recently in a country that has never been welcoming or liberal where LGBT rights were concerned. The reason I mention this is that there’s a new film about one of Russia’s favorite musical sons — Peter Tchaikovsky — being financed, in part, by the government. One of its main goals appears to be to refute or at least deny evidence about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. This weekend, The Guardian [London] ran this story about the effort to straight-wash Tchaikovsky’s biography.
Russia’s culture minister has denied that composer Peter Tchaikovsky was gay, discarding what has long been regarded as historical fact. Vladimir Medinsky claimed that there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry.
Medinsky was asked about the composer’s sexuality after news emerged that a film biopic of Tchaikovsky being made with Russian government funding would ignore the composer’s sexuality. The script was apparently revised to remove references that could have made it vulnerable under Russia’s controversial new “gay propaganda” laws.
The film’s screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, denied that Tchaikovsky was gay, and told the newspaper Izvestiya that the composer of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was “a person without a family who was stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men”.
“Arabov is actually right – there is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,” said Medinsky, when asked by the Interfax news agency if the climate of homophobia in Russia was forcing film-makers to censor the issue.
Historians, however, say there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
“In the case of Tchaikovsky his homosexuality is so well documented by his own writings and the writings of others that it is simply ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” said the author Konstantin Rotikov, who has written a history of gay Saint Petersburg. “It’s a historical fact. History doesn’t change just because we are trying to push a certain agenda today.”
I bring this story to your attention for a few reasons. One, because of the great affection (though no love affair) that existed between Tchaikovsky and Chekhov. Chekhov engraved this portrait of himself to the composer and dedicated a collection, Gloomy Stories, to a man who he regarded second only to Tolstoy in genius, an admiration he described in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother). Chekhov even invokes Tchaikovsky’s music in Act III of Three Sisters, when Veshinin hums the melody from the opera Yevgeny [Eugene] Onegin. They even discussed collaborating on an opera, Bela, with Chekhov serving as librettist, based on Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time (1839-41). Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died from cholera (1893) before that project could begin.
Two, because last night Queer Nation staged a protest inside and outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera where a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin starring two Russian performers opens the season. This choice of action drew this response from the Met’s general manager, from which I thought this quote was particularly telling in any discussion of art and social justice:
But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.
Three, I turn to Tchaikovsky’s often disputed (and not just in Russia) personal life and the required revisions, absences, refusals in the new film as an example of state censorship that Chekhov dealt with (though under different historical circumstances) when writing plays. Before the [Moscow] Art Theatre was created as a private company, Chekhov had to submit his work to the Imperial Theatre Committee, which functioned as a government censor that would evaluate work, submit recommended and required changes, and assign it a state-subsidized public theater/company for performance. (The Lord Chamberlin’s Office served in this capacity in British theatre until 1968 and you can find out more details about other nineteenth-century theater censorship systems in the The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Robert Justin Goldstein, Berghahn Books, 2009.) By the time he had to decide whether or not to “give” Uncle Vanya to MAT or send it through the regular state system, the decision, according to his biographer Donald Rayfield, was made for him by the censor who “took umbrage at the play’s aspersions on a professor and demanded changes.” (Anton Chekhov: A Life 487).
All of this to say that it is easy to see how government imposed control on artists constrains, coerces, and sometimes radically, sometimes incrementally changes the how, what, and why of an artwork (even of an artist’s own history). Commercial interests operate in much the same way though their networks of influence are less visible and, one might argue, more insidious. We usually reserve the cry of “censorship” for government imposition of value(s), for a public entity’s or official’s intrusion on an artist’s process or product; however, the marketplace itself (and all the structural components of that marketplace, which includes people and capital) shapes who makes and the what, how and why that gets made. Certainly we decry the market’s influence when we see sequel and sequel or remake after remake cranked out of Hollywood; however, theater seasons make their programming choices based on similar calculus. Even in the non-profit world, money and patronage drive the production machine. Don’t forget, the MAT was able to offer Chekhov a free(r) space for dramaturgical invention but that freedom was made possible by the wealth of patrons and fellow artists particularly Stanislavski who had significant income from cotton mills, a fact that would later come to constrain his own freedoms after the Russian revolution.