Invitation to a Beheading
"Bastard Mogutin! For a long time I had a suspicion that you were a nasty shit and a greasy, hidden Jew. Your writings are disgusting! Who gave you, reptile, the right to write this stuff? All kinds of faggots like you want to destroy our Orthodox country and corrupt our children. It will never happen! Our power is still strong! And tell this to your employers (or fuck buddies?) in Washington and Tel-Aviv! You have signed your own death warrant. Watch out now! If you are so courageous and principled, why do you hide under an idiot's pseudonym and why don't you disclose your real (Jewish) name? I can answer: you are afraid of the revenge of the Russian people who have been offended and mocked by you! But remember: we are sick of your rotten provocations! Enough is enough! Death! Death! Death!"
I received this letter shortly before I was forced to leave Russia this past March  after a series of criminal charges brought against me for my writing, but even more so, my position as a gay rights advocate and the only openly gay journalist in Russia. I got used to this kind of homophobic and xenophobic messages, as I had received them regularly through the mail and over the phone, but this one arrived via fax machine, in a country where faxes are still rare. These anonymous threats were not the most frightening compared with to threats from the state authorities and the militia for what I wrote or said.
Writing poetry since my teenage years, in 1990, shortly after I moved to Moscow, I began working as a freelance journalist. Most of my articles were on cultural and literary criticism and gay issues. I was widely published in new, independent papers like Yeschyo and Novyi Vzglyad, as well as mainstream publications like Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Stolitsa and The Moscow News. I published interviews with a number of famous cultural and pop personalities, most of whom were gay and for the first time spoke openly about their homosexuality.
I worked at Glagol, the first publishing house in Russia to publish international and Russian gay literature, including James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and the two-volume collected works by Evgeny Kharitonov, Under House Arrest.
When I first came out and began to publish my interviews and articles, homosexuality was still taboo in the Russian media, culture, and public life. Perestroika and Glasnost had scarcely changed this situation. Although in 1993 Yeltsin repealed Stalin's law punishing homosexuality with up to five years in prison, gay men in Russia still feared harassment and imprisonment from the militia. Homophobic persecution is a tacit state policy, with homosexuality considered criminal and morally abhorrent by most Russians. As recent polls have shown, almost half feel that homosexuals should be killed or isolated from the society. Only a couple of years ago, the few first gay bars and discos were opened in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
There is no gay community per se in Russia. There is no gay civil rights movement, nor there are any influential political, social, or cultural gay groups. Needless to say, there are very few openly gay Russians. Most gays and lesbians, especially in the provinces, are deeply closeted and married with children. The foreign journalists who interviewed me in Moscow told me that it was difficult for them to find any Russian gays or lesbians who would agree to show their faces or give their real names even for Western audiences. My open gayness was shocking for the closeted journalists and editors in the Russian press, who supported me in the beginning of my career, but then decided that it was too dangerous for them to have any contact with me. "Don't push gay issues," one editor advised me privately. "I don't want to lose my job for publishing your articles, and my wife will think I'm a queer."
FROM RECOGNITION TO SURVEILLANCE
In 1993 my writing began to be widely published and received critical recognition. In 1994 I was called the best critic of contemporary culture by Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Although increasingly popular, most of my articles and interviews were partly censored by editors for their gay references and content. For example, "Homosexuality in the Soviet Camps and Prisons" (Novoye Vremya, No. 35-36, 1993) was censored before publication by the editor, Leonid Mlyechin. What he excluded concerned homophobia among anti-Soviet dissidents. "Even if it's true that these dissidents were homophobic, it's still not a good reason to kick them!" said Mlyechin.
"Who cares about homosexuals, their rights and their problems? Only Mogutin does," Sergei Chuprinin, editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Znamya, wrote in his article in The Moscow News. These kinds of homophobic declarations and remarks are still common for the so-called democratic and liberal Russian press.
After I published an interview with Simon Karlinsky, Professor of Russian Literature at Berkeley University and the key authority on homosexuality in Russian history and culture, the critic Nina Agisheva wrote in The Moscow News: "Mogutin and Karlinsky try to present all Russian classics as homosexuals! Even Gogol!" According to the old Soviet propaganda, which is still pervasive, there are no homosexuals in Russian/Soviet history; homosexuality is a "foreign disease," and, as the conservative writer Valentin Rasputin put it, "it was imported into Russia from abroad."
In July 1993, I published an interview with a famous entertainer Boris Moiseyev, one of the few openly gay personalities in Russian showbiz. In an interview entitled 'Filthy Peckers of the Komsomol Leaders,' Moiseyev revealed that at the outset of his career he was the victim of "sexual terror" by certain high-ranking Komsomol and Communist Party officials, who were "fans of the beautiful bodies of young guys." He described graphically how during the Moscow Olympics festivities in 1980, he was forced to strip-dance in front of a group of the Komsomol leaders and later performed oral sex on "the filthy peckers of those old bastards... all of whom are still in power."
The interview with Moiseyev created a huge scandal. It was first published in the independent Latvian newspaper Yeschyo, and later reprinted in several other newspapers, including the mainstream daily Moskovsky Komsomolets and independent weekly Novyi Vzglayd. I saw Xeroxed copies of my interview being distributed in samizdat, like anti-Soviet literature in the USSR before Perestroika.
When the scandal reached the Parliamentary level, the criminal charges were brought against me under Article 206.2 of the Criminal Code ("malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence"). The Regional Prosecutor accused me of using "profane language and obscene expressions, graphic descriptions of sexual perversions, illustrated with a photo of a homosexual nature." The notorious Article 206.2, with a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment, was typically used against dissidents by the Soviet authorities. Following the Soviet prosecution system, the same charge of ''hooliganism'' has been used against homosexuals in China and Cuba. I only found out about the Prosecutor's Office decision through accounts I read in the press.
In October 1993, right after the attempted coup, the Yeltsin government shut down those newspapers it proclaimed "oppositional." Surprisingly enough, Yeschyo, which had initially published my interview with Moiseyev, was on that black list.
On October 6, a group of militiamen headed by detective Matveyev showed up at the door of Aleksei Kostin, the paper's publisher. Without official warrant they searched the apartment and arrested Kostin. For three days he was held in custody without any formal charges. "We should have got rid off you perverts a long time ago!" detective Matveyev exclaimed referring to the newspaper's explicit content.
Yeschyo was singled out from the rest of the free press, because it was the only paper in Russia to regularly publish positive and serious material on homosexual issues. In fact, Yeschyo was shut down after the publication of my interview with Boris Moiseyev and the opening of the criminal case against me. The prosecutors' and militia's repressive actions against Yeschyo, Novvi Vzglyad, and me were part of a new backlash of homophobia, and a broader campaign against the freedom of speech in the independent media. This campaign was enthusiastically supported by the conservative and governmental papers such as Rossyiskaya Gazeta, Rossyiskiye Vesty, as well as the more liberal Solidarnost, and Vechernyaya Moskva. A series of homophobic articles against me and other journalists from Yeschyo and Novyi Vzglyad appeared during the next few weeks. One author proclaimed all of us "agents of the Israeli secret service MASSAD, who have received instructions to corrupt Russia."
On October 28,1993, three militiamen came to the office of Glagol Publishing and shouted through the door to Alexander Shatalov, its editor-in-chief, inquiring as to my whereabouts. He answered that I was not in. They threatened to break the door down and check it themselves. They obviously had been informed that I was at the office at the moment. When the door was opened, they came in and showed me their documents. I was arrested by lieutenant Andrei Kuptsov, handcuffed, and driven into the Regional Militia station. On the way there all of them used far more "profane language and obscene expressions" than the ones I had allegedly used.
At the station I was interrogated by Kuptsov three times during five hours without break or the presence of a lawyer: first as a witness to the crime (i.e. the writing and publishing of my own article); as the prime suspect in the crime; and, finally, as the one charged with committing the crime. He asked if I understood that the content of "Filthy Peckers" was illegal and that by writing it I had broken the law. I answered that this whole case seemed absolutely absurd. At the end of the interrogation I was forced to sign a document prohibiting me from leaving Moscow. "You're lucky we don't put you in custody like Kostin!" Kuptsov said to me. I did not have the right of travel and was, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest until the end of 1994. I was also banned from receiving my foreign-travel passport.
Later, I found out that on the same day Kostin was also arrested. He was charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code: "promotion, production, and distribution of pornography," subject to up to three years in prison. In the old Soviet times this article was also regularly used against dissidents. Three months later Kostin was arrested again and placed in a general holding cell in the most notorious prison in Moscow, Butyrki. Despite the considerable press attention given to the case of Yeschyo and Kostin, along with numerous letters of protest from Russian and international human rights organizations, Kostin was held in prison for thirteen months without trial.
The day after my arrest, Genrikh Padva, Russia's most famous human rights lawyer, took on my case pro bono. His authority is based on the role he played in several high-profile political trials during the Soviet era. Padva was the founding father of the first professional lawyers' union in the USSR, and the first lawyer to petition the Ministry of Justice to end the anti-homosexual Article 121.1 of the Criminal Code.
OUT COMES ZHIRINOVSKY
At around this time, at an art opening in Moscow, I was introduced to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party. He ran for president in 1991 in Russia's first free elections and became one of the most popular politicians with his nationalistic slogans. His eccentric image and populist speeches made him an idol for many teenagers, and he was often invited to the openings of rock clubs and art galleries.
Zhirinovsky was with his bodyguard who, as he proudly announced, used to be the bodyguard of Babrak Karmal, the head of the Soviet regime in Afghanistan. Zhirinovsky was surprisingly interested in me. He told me that he had heard about me and read some of my articles. "So why didn't you come to me before?" he asked upfront. "You could have come to me and said: I want to work for you and your party! Why didn't you do it, like so many other young Russian guys have?"
It was hard to determine whether he was joking or not. Zhirinovsky invited me to join him at the restaurant of the Central House of Architects. There he pursued two teenage boys, fifteen or sixteen years old, and asked me to invite them to our table: "They can be good party members! I bet they will look great in military uniforms!" His manners, toasts, and speech seemed totally bizarre. He felt comfortable in my company, as he knew I was gay. He offered vodka to the boys, but they declined. He openly flirted with them, but succeeded only in frightening them off. Disappointed, Zhirinovsky shot down another glass of vodka and went off to the dance floor into a clutch of young female admirers.
Zhirinovsky's interest in young guys is not a secret to his inner circle, but it cannot be a subject for discussions among them. The issue of his sexuality is seemingly taboo for the Russian press as well. Although a number of major papers published a Reuters photo of Zhirinovsky kissing a Serbian soldier on the mouth, both naked in the sauna, during his visit to Yugoslavia, none made any comment on it. He's often escorted by handsome young men, the members of the youth division of his party, or so-called Sokoly Zhirinovskogo ('Zhirinovsky's Falcons'). He lives separately from his wife and spends almost every weekend at his private dacha outside Moscow. One young reporter, who was invited to interview Zhirinovsky, told me that he was instead propositioned by Zhirinovsky to pose naked for his camera in the shower.
I received a different proposal from Zhirinovsky: he wanted me to be his press secretary. My reputation as an openly gay journalist obviously didn't embarrass him. I suppose he had more sexual than political interest in me. On the other hand, I was already a known writer, and he may have wanted to use my name in order to score more votes from my readers as well as from gay people. I realized that collaboration with Zhirinovsky could put an end to my persecution and protect me from other possible troubles with the authorities. I was an easy target for them, as I had no political backing or protection. One telephone call from Zhirinovsky to the Prosecutor's Office, and the criminal case against me would be closed. But I declined his proposal as I wanted to remain independent from all political parties, groups, or organizations. In retrospect I would say that it is almost impossible to be politically independent in today's Russia.
Two months later, in December 1993, after an incredibly successful political campaign in the nation's parliamentary elections, Zhirinovsky became the leader of the largest faction in the new Parliament. With his promises of cheap vodka for every man, a boyfriend and flowers for every woman, and legalized drugs for all, he was the only politician in Russian history to use slogans in support of private life for all citizens, including homosexuals. As a result, a significant part of his 12.3 million voters were gay.
"We are against any interference in the private lives of our citizens," Zhirinovsky said in an interview. "One person might be fascinated by Eastern religions, another spends all day standing on his head doing yoga, and someone else has particular sexual preferences. Why do we have to interfere in their private lives? We don't want to! The American president had the same slogan. And I was the first Russian politician who did the same, wasn't I? That's good! And note my, let's say, progressive ideology." When he was asked about me, what he thought of my reputation, he answered diplomatically, "We have a lot of work now, and we need people. It's why I proposed to work with him.... You can find some discriminative characteristic on everyone: one-dirty; another-poor; the third one-stupid; the fourth one has a different religion; the fifth one has a different ideology... And who's left?"
On March 22, 1994, the Presidential Legal Commission on Informational Disputes held a hearing regarding my articles published in Novyi Vzglyad. The Commission was founded by a special Yeltsin decree in order to monitor the media. Its chairman, Anatolyi Vengerov, is an ex-Communist bureaucrat in his late fifties. The Commission consists of ten "experts," all of whom are former Soviet apparatchiks. The legal status of the Commission is not clear, as its position is outside the Constitution, but its decisions, in effect, have the same power as presidential decrees. The work and the existence of the Commission have been criticized in the Russian independent press and by the Parliament, although most of the press tries to placate the Commission, which tacitly controls all legal issues affecting the mass media.
I was not invited to my own hearing, and found out about the Commission's verdict in Rossyiskaya Gazeta, one of the government's papers. I was proclaimed "a corrupter of public morals, a propagandist of pathological behavior, sexual perversions, and brutal violence," etc. My writing "produces especial danger for children and teenagers." From that time on, only the few most liberal papers continued to publish me.
During this period I had been living with the American artist Robert Filippini. On my twentieth birthday we attempted to officially register our relationship as the first same-sex marriage in Russia. The marriage action was announced in the press, and we expected that the authorities would try to stop it. In the press release we wrote that the act was a "protest against the policy of homophobia and sexism, puritan public opinion and hypocritical morality," and "the primary objective for us was to draw public attention to the problems of gays and lesbians in Russia."
On the eve of the marriage action we went to the United States Embassy to register Robert's intention to marry me, as per the rules regarding marriage of foreigners and Russian nationals. Surprisingly, even telling the consul to take note of the genders involved, we received the certificate with the signature and stamp of the Embassy consul Paul Davis-Jones.
On April 12, we arrived at Wedding Palace No. 4, the office for registering international marriages in Moscow. Over a hundred reporters and friends were waiting for us there. Karmen Bruyeva, the head of the Palace for over twenty-five years, was informed about our visit through friends. Surprisingly for us, she was polite and sympathetic. Bruyeva said that personally she understood our desire to get married, but "marriage is a voluntary union between a man and a woman," according to a Soviet law that has remained unchanged since 1969. "I'm really sorry, but I cannot register your union. If I accepted an application from two men I would be reprimanded and the marriage would be declared invalid," Bruyeva said. "Why don't you apply to Parliament and ask to amend the law? By the way, raise your hands, those of you, journalists, who favor amending the law?" And all of them raised their hands.
The action drew a huge public response. The event was widely covered in the Russian and Western press. Most of the Russian press was sympathetic, except for an article in the Communist Pravda, where we were proclaimed "agents of Western drug trafficking and the porn industry," and a couple of other homophobic articles in government papers.
The trial concerning the criminal case against me under Article 206.2 was set for April 14th. Starting on April 13, Robert and I became the targets of militia harassment. That evening, two uniformed militiamen came to our apartment on Arbat and explained the reason for their visit: They had received letters of complaint from our neighbors claiming that we "had corrupted our neighborhood." After looking around the apartment they left.
A few hours later, two plainclothes detectives came to our apartment. The lead man, stout and with a prominent scar on his face, demanded to see our documents. When we asked to see their identification, "Scarface" responded, "Fuck off! " He and his partner, "Pretty Brute," wearing long black leather jackets, walked us into our kitchen and began an hour-and-a-half interrogation on every aspect of our lives. Again, they told us that they received a letter from a neighbor, accusing us of holding "orgies with young boys", and then ranted on about their loathing of homosexuals and what they perceived to be the farce of our marriage attempt. "We can do anything with you two, put you in a psychiatric clinic, send you to jail, deport you from Russia! And neither PEN Center nor the American Embassy will be able to help you!" Scarface boasted.
They stated that they were members of Zhirinovsky's party. Their belligerence was unrestrained until I told them that I knew Zhirinovsky personally and that I could call him immediately to have him order them to stop their actions against us. "Don't give us this shit!" Scarface yelled. "How can you, queer, know Zhirinovsky personally?" I showed them his business card and his private number in my telephone book. After they drank nearly a liter of our vodka, they extorted $250 from us, promising that it would be the end of our "troubles with the neighbors," and left the apartment laughing. The visit was utterly animalistic. We were absolutely demoralized and in shock, to the point that we were afraid to tell even our friends about the incident.
On April 14, 1994, the Presnenskyi Interregional Court held a hearing concerning the criminal charges brought against me under Article 206.2. Against code, I received no official notification for the date of my trial. I was not even familiar with the documents of the case against me, or with the indictment as it was written. When I protested this to the presiding judge, Elena Fillipova, she was completely indifferent. My lawyer argued that I was targeted for prosecution because of my homosexuality. He said that this was the only case in the history of Soviet or Russian jurisprudence when a journalist had been charged with "hooliganism" for his use of language. Use of so-called profane language has a long tradition in Russian letters and classical literature, and it has become increasingly common in the media, including in large newspapers and on the government TV channel. Padva mentioned a number of examples when profane language was used by President Gorbachev, Vice President Rutskoi, President Yeltsin, and other Russian officials. Padva said that the case should be closed because of a series of violations of the Criminal Code on the part of the Prosecutor's Office. He stated that this was not just "a minor point, but . . . a flagrant violation of human rights."
After the lawyer's speech, Judge Filippova took a break for "consultation," which was odd, as she was alone in her chambers. Evidently, she "consulted" with the Prosecutor's Office and other initiators of the case against me. Even though the new Russian constitution states that the judicial system is to be independent of the Prosecutor's Office, in Soviet and present-day Russia judges still represent the Prosecutor's Office. After about forty minutes the judge returned and read her resolution. She found me guilty of all charges, but sent the case back to the Prosecutor's Office for a new investigation, on technical grounds.
On the night of April 16, the two detectives returned. For the next two hours a vodka-drinking Scarface - whose profanity-filled speech was a curious mix of foul Russian, English, and German - told graphic sexual stories, and spoke of politics, religion, the philosophy of Hegel, Zhirinovsky's glory, the Motherland, his poor old mother, the dangers of militia work, the Orthodox Power, family life, and the general moral disorder of the world. Throughout, he emphasized his hatred of homosexuals and the corrupting influence of the West. Thus did I discover the sophisticated spiritual and intellectual world of a militiaman. Midway through this monologue a large cellophane bag of hashish was laid on our table. The detectives laughed and proceeded to warn us of the prison terms dished out to those found in possession of drugs. They then offered to find some young girls to bring up to our apartment for group sex. Pretty Brute asked if we preferred eleven- or twelve-year-old-girls. Repeatedly during their visit, both of them demanded money from us. Again, they left the apartment drunk to the point where they could hardly walk.
A couple of nights later Scarface returned alone. He showed us a handwritten letter full of homophobic scribblings, describing graphically orgies with young boys that supposedly took place in our apartment. He asked if we wanted him to kill our "motherfucking" neighbor, the purported writer of this letter. He raised his full glass of vodka, swilled it and said that he would now do us a favor, at which point he burned the letter in front of us, filling the room with smoke and yipping as he singed his fingers.
After the extensive press coverage our attempted marriage received, we were frequently recognized and regularly stopped on the street by the militia. This was especially true in our neighborhood, where we couldn't pass by the roving militia without being harassed. Though the anti-homosexual law has now been abolished in Russia, the militia continue to keep and collect files on known homosexuals. "I control all of them in my district," the Moscow local militia chief said in a TV interview. "I have to do it, because homosexuals are physically and psychically abnormal people. Every one of them at any time could pick up an ax and just kill somebody. Easily! They have to be isolated. They are sick!"
FLIGHT FROM RUSSIA
On September 20, 1994, under pressure from the liberal press, Russian and international human rights organizations, and legal efforts, the criminal case against me was dropped by the Prosecutor's Office, because "due to the changed circumstances, Mogutin has ceased to pose a danger to society." I learnt of the decision only on October 10, when I was invited to the Prosecutor's Office and had a three-hour conversation with Igor Konyushkin, First Deputy Prosecutor of the Office. Tall and thin, he chain-smoked nervously throughout our conversation. He seemed too young, too intelligent, and too gentle for his job. He spoke with me very frankly and seemed outwardly friendly. I realized that he was being provocative. Konyushkin introduced himself as a "big fan of my writing." "Because of my job, I had to read all your articles," he said. "We have a huge file on you. You might be a good writer but the content of most of your articles is criminal. We could open a new case against you concerning anything from these articles as easily as we did with the "Filthy Peckers" case. I just want to let you know that, although we dropped this case, we can always open another one. We're giving you a chance to rehabilitate your mind: you must stop your writing or change your subject matter! You know what I mean? That's my advice as your big fan!"
My conversation with Konyushkin reminded me of Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. There was something sadomasochistic about it. He seemed to be obsessed with me, my criminal prosecution being an extension of this obsession. Konyushkin told me that he was most outraged by an article in which I wrote that homophobes in the Prosecutor's Office were just repressed queers. After my conversation with him, I was all the more convinced that what I had written was true.
A few weeks later the State Prosecutor's Office issued a statement proclaiming their disagreement with the Regional Office's decision to close my case, and they brought it into their jurisdiction for future prosecution.
In February, the Presidential Legal Commission on Informational Disputes held two hearings concerning an article called "Chechen Knot" that I had written on the war in Chechnya. The article was highly critical of Yeltsin's government, the Parliament, the military complex, as well as of the Chechen separatists and the Russian press and intelligentsia. "Chechen Knot" was not the only article of this kind in the Russian press. I was again being singled out because of my open homosexuality. Like my earlier case, this one had a strong political motivation.
Both hearings of the Commission were closed to the press and public, only reporters from the government press were allowed. The trial was in typical Soviet style: when I tried to say something in my defense, the microphone was turned off. The Commission’s members and the reporters just laughed at my protests. The chairman, Anatoly Vengerov, was screaming at me: “It’s scandalous! Stop this ugliness immediately or we shall call the militia! Where is security? Somebody, call security right now!”
The members of the Commission accused me of violating the Constitution by “inflaming national, social, and religious division” and recommended to the Prosecutor’s Office that new criminal charges should be brought against me, and to the Committee on Press and Information that it shut down Novyi Vzglyad and rescind its publishing license. The official government TV channel Ostankino broadcasted on it’s prime time news program, Vremya (Time), the Commission’s decision, which was also published in Rossyiskaya Gazeta and other government papers.
I was almost unanimously vilified in press coverage of the new trial, in over a dozen aggressively homophobic articles. One of the authors called me a “hysterical mama’s boy” and appealed to the authorities to put me in a psychiatric clinic. Another reporter, the head of the Moscow Union of Journalists, suggested that it was too bad that the earring-wearing Mogutin hadn’t been killed instead of Dmitry Kholodov (the journalist of Moskovskyi Komsomolets killed by a letter bomb in the editorial offices in October 1994 while working on a report on corruption in the Russian military).
This 3-year-long prosecution and intimidation campaign had its toll on me: I felt like a trapped animal. I was afraid of staying home just as much as being on the street, waiting to be arrested again and harassed by the militia at any moment. On the advice of my lawyer, I decided to flee the country, using the invitation from Columbia University for a series of lectures as an excuse. Expecting the situation to settle down in my absence, I fled Russia in the hope of returning in a few months. But shortly thereafter I found out that a new criminal case against me had in fact been opened under Article 74 of the Criminal Code, with a possible prison sentence of up to seven years. With that, going back home was no longer an option. I had no choice but to seek political asylum in the United States.
I left behind in Russia not just my political and criminal troubles but also my language, audience, family, circle of friends, and my celebrity status. I had to start my whole life again from ground zero. However, when people ask me how I find my present life, I tell them that being an anonymous political exile in New York is much better than being a famous gay writer in a Russian prison.