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“That's Not the Only Reason We Love Him”: Tchaikovskii Reception in Post-Soviet Russia

  • Philip Ross Bullock


This article examines the writing and reception of Tchaikovskii's biography in Russia since 1991, arguing that there has been a constant tension between documentary approaches to the composer's life on the one hand, and popular responses that have frequently resisted scholarly narratives on the other. After the Soviet collapse, a number of former taboos relating to Tchaikovskii's life were lifted, including his homosexuality. Documentary sources began to appear in print, including unexpurgated editions of his letters and diaries. Yet this process has not been without its detractors. Alongside a general tendency to decry the publication and citation of intimate personal correspondence, there have been a number of attempts in the popular press to “disprove” that Tchaikovskii was a homosexual. Social media have proved to be a further site for the discussion of these issues, disseminating the findings of scholarly literature to a readership far wider than originally anticipated. By way of conclusion, it will be suggested that one of the fundamental reasons for the frequent denial of Tchaikovskii's sexuality is that the cause of equal rights is in tension with current trends in Russian politics and society.

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1. “Putin: govoriat, Tchaikovskii byl gomoseksualistom, no my liubim ego ne za eto,” Ria Novosti, September 4, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

2. “Serebrennikov i Arabov napisali stsenarii o Tchaikovskom,” KinoPoisk, August 21, 2012, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

3. “Fil΄m ‘Tchaikovskii’ Serebrennikova vyidet v 2015 godu,” Ria Novosti, July 26, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

4. “Ia ne podpishus΄ pod fil΄mom, kotoryi reklamiruet gomoseksualizm,” Izvestiia, August 20, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

5. Ibid.

6. “Net nikakikh dokazatel΄stv gomoseksual΄nosti Tchaikovskogo,” September 17, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

7. Kirill Serebrennikov, Facebook post, September 18, 2013, (last accessed December 19, 2017).

8. Ibid.

9. “Minkul΄tury ne poluchalo ot Serebrennikova otkaz ot gospodderzhki fil΄ma,” Ria Novosti, September 19, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

10. “Medinskii: Fond kino ne prinial reshenie o podderzhke fil΄ma ‘Tchaikovskii,’” Ria Novosti, September 19, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

11. “Fil΄m ‘Tchaikovskii’ ne byl odobren ekspertnym sovetom ‘Fonda kino,’” Ria Novosti, September 19, 2013, at (last accessed December 19, 2017).

12. See also Taruskin's, Richard account in “Introduction: My Wonderful World; or, Dismembering the Triad,” in Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Oakland, 2016), 129 (especially 4–9).

13. See, for instance, Borenstein, Eliot, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture (Ithaca, 2008), and Sperling, Valerie, Sex, Politics and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia (New York, 2015).

14. Amico, Stephen, Roll Over, Tchaikovsky! Russian Popular Music and Post-Soviet Homosexuality (Urbana, 2014), 186.

15. See Baer, Brian James, Other Russias: Homosexuality and the Crisis of Post-Soviet Identity (New York, 2009), especially Chapter 4, “Resurrecting the Spiritual Homosexual: Homosexuality and Russia Cultural Citizenship,” 91–119.

16. Amico, Roll Over, Tchaikovsky!, 186.

17. Stella, Francesca, Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities (Basingstoke, 2015), 1. Compare too Brian James Baer's observation that “the traditional opposition of east and west may continue to structure the western gaze, producing by-now-familiar patterns of blindness and insight, whether we employ the original developmental model (an enlightened west as the goal for a backward east) or invert it (a premodern east as an erotic alternative to a modern west).” See Baer, Other Russias, 34.

18. The acronym LGBTQQIAAP—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, and pansexual—is preferred by some activists on the grounds that it suggests a maximally inclusive spectrum of non-heteronormative identities.

19. In her influential Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, 2007), Jasbir K. Puar has argued that a number of recent developments in the capitalist west—including “the changing demographics of HIV transmission, prevention funding, and pharmaceutical industry exploitation; the decriminalization of sodomy in the United States; the global (albeit uneven) incorporation of various versions of legalized gay marriage and domestic partnership; the rise of a global gay right wing anchored in Europe and attaining credibility very pointedly through Islamophobia; flourishing gay and lesbian representation … ; normativizing gay and lesbian human rights frames, which produce (in tandem with gay tourism) gay-friendly and not-gay-friendly nations” (xiii-xiv)—have produced a modern gay identity that draws on the discourse of human rights to produce categories of citizenship that are embedded in the interests of the nation. Although Puar's emphasis is on the consequences of this particular construction of a modern queer identity for “the articulation of Muslin, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian sexualities” (xiii), as well as on the link between homosexuality and western narratives of terrorism and counterterrorism, many of her arguments can apply, albeit with a number of substantial modifications and equivocations, to relations between Russia and the west. In particular, the interaction between western “homonationalism” and local Russian politics becomes a topical issue when Russia has sought to capitalize on its involvement with international events, such as Eurovision Song Contest and the Olympic Games (in this case, the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi). For a study of how Dima Bilan's 2008 Eurovision victory was predicated on an astute accommodation with the contest's queer appeal, see Cassiday, Julie A., “Post-Soviet Pop Goes Gay: Russia's Trajectory to Eurovision Victory,” Russian Review 73, no. 1 (2014): 123. See also Baker, Catherine, “The ‘Gay Olympics’? The Eurovision Song Contest and the Politics of LGBT/European Belonging,” European Journal of International Relations 23, no. 1 (2017): 97121.

20. For analyses of how, in parts of East-Central Europe, homophobia has been deployed as a marker of nationalism, see Moss, Kevin, “Split Europe: Homonationalism and Homophobia in Croatia,” in Ayoub, Phillip M. and Paternotte, David, eds., LGBT Activism and the Making of Europe: A Rainbow Europe? (Basingstoke, 2014), 212–32, and Moss, Kevin, “Split Pride/Split Identities,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 3, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 5675.

21. Brown, Malcolm Hamrick, “Tchaikovsky and His Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s-1950s,” in Mihailovic, Alexandar, ed., Tchaikovsky and his Contemporaries: A Centennial Symposium (Westport, 1999), 6174, reprinted in Fuller, Sophie and Whitesell, Lloyd, eds., Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity (Urbana, 2002), 134–49; Taruskin, Richard, “Pathetic Symphonist: Chaikovsky, Russia, Sexuality, and the Study of Music,” in On Russian Music (Berkeley, 2009), 76104.

22. For a survey of how this story came to be spread, and a detailed rebuttal of its claims, see Poznansky, Alexander, Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study (Oxford, 1996). Timothy L. Jackson's impressionistic interpretation of the supposed program of the Pathétique as “a rich tapestry of interrelated narratives all of which contribute to the idea of homosexuality as an incurable ‘disease’ culminating in the destruction of the protagonists” can be found in Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) (Cambridge, 1999), 39.

23. Poznansky, Alexander, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York, 1991).

24. People call in to ask Armenian radio: “Is it true that Tchaikovskii was a homosexual?” Armenian radio replies: “Yes, it's true, but that's not the only reason we love him.” On the genre of Armenian Radio jokes (including this one), see E. Shmeleva, “Anekdoty ob armianskom radio: struktura i iazykovye osobennosti,” at (last accessed December 19, 2017). A variant of this joke is also included in Olin, Nikolai, Govorit “Radio Erevan”: Izbrannye voprosy i otvety, 3rd ed. (Munich, 1970), 67. Here, the more colloquial “pederast” is preferred to “gomoseksualist,” and an additional phrase (“Some people like his music too”) is included at the end. On the generic conventions of Putin's interactions with the media, see Maslennikova, Anna, “Putin and the Tradition of the Interview in Russian Discourse,” in Beumers, Birgit, Hutchings, Stephen and Rulyova, Natalia, eds., The Post-Soviet Russian Media: Conflicting Signals (London, 2009), 89104.

25. Poznansky, Alexander, “Tchaikovsky as Communist Icon,” in Flier, Michael S. and Hughes, Robert P., eds., For SK: In Celebration of the Life and Career of Simon Karlinsky (Oakland, 1994), 233.

26. Cited in ibid., 234.

27. Tchaikovskii, Ippolit I., ed., Dnevniki P. I. Tchaikovskogo, 1873–1891 (Moscow, 1923).

28. Primechaniia,” in Tchaikovskii, P. I., Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk, ed. Zhdanov, V. A. and Zhegin, N. T., 3 vols. (Moscow, 1934–6), 1: 567–608 (570), partially cited in Taruskin, “Pathetic Symphonist,” 83.

29. Tchaikovskii, P. I., Pis΄ma k rodnym (Moscow, 1940).

30. Tchaikovskii, Modest, Zhizn΄ Petra Il΄icha Tchaikovskogo: po dokumentam, khraniashchimsia v arkhive imeni pokoinogo kompozitora v Klinu, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1900–02).

31. Raku, Marina, Muzykal΄naia klassika v mifotvorchestve sovetskoi epokhi (Moscow, 2014), especially chapter 5, “Perekovka Tchaikovskogo,” 564–659, and Fairclough, Pauline, Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven, 2016).

32. Tchaikovskii, P. I., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii: Literaturnye proizvedeniia i perepiska, 18 vols. (Moscow, 1959–83).

33. Poznanksy, “Tchaikovsky as Communist Icon,” 241.

34. Seifert, Marsha, “Russian Lives, Soviet Films: Tchaikovsky, the Biopic and the Cold War,” in Karl, Lars, ed., Leinwand zwischen Tauwetter und Frost: Der osteuropäische Spiel- und Dokumentarfilm im Kalten Krieg (Berlin, 2007), 133–70.

35. Poznanksy, “Tchaikovsky as Communist Icon,” 241.

36. Bullock, Philip Ross, “Not One of Us? The Paradoxes of Translating Oscar Wilde in the Soviet Union,” in Burnett, Leon and Lygo, Emily, eds., The Art of Accommodation: Literary Translation in Russia (Oxford, 2013), 235–64.

37. Poznanksy, “Tchaikovsky as Communist Icon,” 243. Here, Poznansky cites Iurii Nagibin's belletristic “Tchaikovskii: Final tragedii,” published in Megapolis-ekspress in 1990, and “Taina zhizni i smerti Tchaikovskogo,” published in Niva in 1991 by the émigré scholar Aleksandra Orlova, who had first aired her theories about the composer's suicide in the west in the early 1980s.

38. Kuznetsov, Anatolii, “Korotko o knigakh,” Novyi mir 5 (1994): 246. For the republication of Tchaikovskii's diaries, see Tchaikovskii, Ip. I., ed., Dnevniki P. I. Tchaikovskogo, 1873–1891 (St. Petersburg, 1993). These were also reissued in 2000 as Tchaikovskii, P. I., Dnevniki (Moscow, 2000).

39. The original publication is Berberova, Nina N., Tchaikovskii: Istoriia odinokoi zhizni (Berlin, 1936). For the first of several editions published in post-Soviet Russia, see Berberova, , Tchaikovskii: Istoriia odinokoi zhizni (St. Petersburg, 1993).

40. Poznansky, Aleksandr, Samoubiistvo Tchaikovskogo: Mif i real΄nost΄ (Moscow, 1993).

41. Sokolov, Valerii, “Pis΄ma P. I. Tchaikovskogo bez kupiur: Neiztvestnye stranitsy epistoliarii,” in Vaidman, P. E. et al. , eds., P. I. Tchaikovskii. Zabytoe i novoe: Vospominaniia sovremennikov: novye materialy i dokumenty (Moscow, 1995), 118–34.

42. They also undoubtedly shaped the storyline and characterization behind Boris Eifman's ballet, Tchaikovskii, first performed in 1993 and restaged as Tchaikovskii: Pro et contra in 2016. See Baer, Other Russias, 101–2.

43. Rotikov, K. K., Drugoi Peterburg (St. Petersburg, 1998), 5; an updated version was released later as Drugoi Peterburg: Kniga dlia chteniia v kresle (St Petersburg, 2012).

44. Klein, L. S., Drugaia storona svetila: Neobychnaia liubov΄ vydaiushchikhsia liudei: Rossiiskoe sozvezdie (St Petersburg, 2002), 215–44.

45. If the 1990s attested to a new wave of Tchaikovskii scholarship, then that tradition continues up to the present day. Three volumes of the composer's complete correspondence with fon Mekk have appeared in a thoroughly-annotated version edited by the late Polina Vaidman of the Tchaikovsky State House Museum at Klin (the concluding volumes are still forthcoming), and although these have contained few, if any, startling biographical disclosures, they still constitute an immeasurable improvement on Soviet-era editions (Vaidman, P. E., ed., P. I. Tchaikovskii—N. F. fon Mekk: Perepiska, 4 vols. [Cheliabinsk, 2007]). It is, however, Vaidman's publication of the complete correspondence between Tchaikovskii and his publisher, Petr Iurgenson, which has proved to be the real revelation of early twenty-first-century scholarship (Vaidman, P. E., ed., P. I. Tchaikovskii—P. I. Iurgenson: Perepiska v dvukh tomakh, 2 vols. [Moscow, 2011–13]). Although a substantial number of their letters were published in two volumes in the Soviet era, these were heavily censored, not least because Iurgenson's in particular contained a number of anti-Semitic comments (Tchaikovskii, P. I., Perepiska s P. I. Iurgenson, eds. Zhdanov, V. A. and Zhegin, N. T., 2 vols. [Moscow, 1938–52]). In their unexpurgated form, Tchaikovskii's letters reveal him to have been far more humorous and quick-witted than has often been appreciated (as well as far more in control of his finances than his reputation suggests). Moreover, his frequent use of profanity would almost certainly have put him on the wrong side of the 2014 law banning the use of a number of Russian swear words in public and in print.

46. Poznansky, Aleksandr, Petr Tchaikovskii: Biografiia, 2 vols. (St Petersburg, 2009). A number of other works by Poznansky also appeared in Russia around this time. See his Tchaikovskii v Peterburge (St Petersburg, 2011) and Smert΄ Tchaikovskogo: Legendy i fakty (St. Petersburg, 2007).

47. Poznansky, Aleksandr, Tchaikovskii (Moscow, 2010).

48. On the ZhZL series (with a particular focus on Pushkin, Dostoevskii, and Tolstoi), see the various contributions to Ueland, Carol R. and Trigos, Ludmilla, eds., “Forum: Literary Biographies in the Lives of Remarkable People Series (Zhizn΄ zamechatel΄nykh liudei),” Slavic and East European Journal 60, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 205–83.

49. Jānis Zālītis, “Tchaikovskii ne byl gomoseksualistom!,” Komsomol΄skaia pravda, February 12, 2001, (last accessed December 20, 2017.)

50. Ibid.

51. Sergei Osipov, “Byl li Tchaikovskii gomoseksualistom?,” Argumenty i fakty, December 3, 2003, 25, (available at (last accessed December 20, 2017). In his “Waist-Deep: In the Mire of Russian and Western Debates about Tchaikovsky,” Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 2015, 14–15, Simon Morrison cites Buianov's article as it appears on a Russian website in late 2010 (Eva Merkachevo, “Rossiiskie psikhiatry dokazali, chto Tchaikovskii ne byl geem,” November 5, 2010, at (last accessed December 20, 2017), rather than on the basis of its original publication some seven years earlier.

52. Ibid.

53. Dar΄ia Efremova, “Tchaikovskii: Kto prevratil geniia v geia?,” Kul΄tura, November 5, 2014, at (last accessed December 20, 2017.)

54. Stella, Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, 1.

55. Baer, Brian James, Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature (New York, 2015), 137.

56. Baer, Other Russias, 36.

57. Amico, Roll Over, Tchaikovsky!, 69.

58. “Tchaikovskii ne byl gomoseksualistom!”

59. Efremova, “Tchaikovskii: Kto prevratil geniia v geia?”

60. Ibid. Here, “genderless parents” renders the admittedly ambiguous Russian phrase pronumerovannykh roditelei, which in a number of online sources is typically juxtaposed with more traditional conceptions of maternity and paternity. Taruskin (“Introduction: My Wonderful World; or, Dismembering the Triad,” 26) prefers “multiple parenthood,” and Morrison (“Waist-Deep: In the Mire of Russian and Western Debates about Tchaikovsky”) opts for “numbered parenting.”

61. Robert A. Saunders, “New Media, New Russians, New Abroad: The Evolution of Minority Russian Identity in Cyberspace,” in Beumers, Hutchings, and Rulyova, eds., The Post-Soviet Media: Conflicting Signals, 203.

62. Oates, Sarah, Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere (New York, 2013), 10.

63. Ibid., 28.

64. Ibid., 11 (emphasis original).

65. Konradova, Natalya and Schmidt, Henrike, “From the Utopia of Autonomy to a Political Battlefield: Towards a History of the ‘Russian Internet,’” in Gorham, Michael S., Lunde, Ingunn and Paulsen, Martin, eds., Digital Russia: The Language, Culture and Politics of New Media Communication (London, 2014), 49.

66. (last accessed December 20, 2017).

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Poznansky, Alexander, ed., Tchaikovsky through Others’ Eyes, trans. Burr, Ralph C. Jr. and Bird, Robert (Bloomington, 1999), 23.

70. (last accessed December 20, 2017).

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. (last accessed December 20, 2017)

77. Ibid.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. (last accessed December 20, 2017).

81. Ibid.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. Ibid.

85. Ibid. There is an untranslatable homonym here, in that the Russian phrase “iz-za bugra” can also be rendered as “from the other side of the bugger.”

86. (last accessed December 20, 2017). Glazunov's views are continued at (last accessed December 20, 2017).

88. (last accessed December 20, 2017).

89. “Byl li Tchaikovskii gomoseksualistom?” Moskovskii komsomolets, September 19, 2013, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

90. “Glavnyi spetsialist po Tchaikovskomu oprovergla Medinskogo: kompozitor byl gomoseksualistm,” Moskovskii komsomolets, September 19, 2013, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

92. “Kirill Serebrennikov: ‘Eto dazhe khorosho, chto seichas nam plokho,’” GQ Russia, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

93. “Serebrennikov ne otkazalsia ot gosdeneg dlia s΄΄emok ‘Tchaikovskogo,’” Izvestiia, May 13, 2015, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

94. The recording is discussed in Vaidman, P. E., “My uslyshali golos Tchaikovskogo,” in Vaidman, P. E. and Belonovich, G. I., eds., P. I. Tchaikovskii: Al΄manakh. Vyp. 2: Zabytoe i novoe (Klin, 2003), 393–97; Denisov, V. N., “O fonograficheskoi zapisi golosa P. I. Tchaikovskogo iz kollektsii sobiratelia Iuliusa Bloka,” Vestnik udmurtskogo universiteta: Seriia istoriia i filologiia 26, no. 4 (2016): 135–40; and—from the perspective of Rubinshtein's involvement—István Horváth-Thomas and Flamm, Christoph, “Es gibt keine Schallaufnahmen von Anton Rubinštejn. Oder doch?,” Mitteilungen der Tschaikowsky-Gesellschaft 23 (2016): 133–39.

95. “Serebrennikov rasskazal o svoei postanovke ‘Nureyev’ v Bol΄shom teatre,” Interfax, February 4, 2017, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

96. “Balet Serebrennikov ‘Nureyev’ v Bol΄shom mogli zapretit΄ iz-za gomoseksualizma,” Moskovskii komsomolets, July 8, 2017, at (last accessed December 22, 2017); and “Medinskii podderzhal reshenie rukovodstva Bol΄shogo teatra otlozhit΄ prem΄eru ‘Nureyeva,’” TASS, July 10, 2017, at (last accessed December 22, 2017).

97. Peraino, Judith A., Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig (University of California Press, 2006), 7792.

98. On the genre of queer biography and other forms of cultural and historical memory, see Healey, Dan, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (London, 2018), especially Chapter 8, “Shame, Pride, and ‘Non-traditional’ Lives: The Dilemmas of Queering Russian Biography,” 177–94.

99. Klein, Drugaia storona svetila, 11.

100. Baer, Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature, 159.

101. Ibid., 161.

102. and (last accessed December 22, 2017); Elena Baraban, “Obyknovennaia gomofobiia,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas 5, no. 19 (2001), cited in Baer, Other Russias, 15.


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