Mother Tongue (Родная речь) is a small exhibition at Pushkin House in Bloomsbury Square, London, mounted in collaboration with GRAD. It consists of panels and photographs by Yevgeniy Fiks, a Moscow-born artist living in New York, exploring Russian gay argot. This is a secret language dating to Soviet times, as can be seen by some of the expressions it contains. The organisers liken it to Polari, a similar underground language in England, though Polari has a longer tradition and was spoken by a broader group than homosexuals.
Such language helps to establish a group identity, particularly important when under attack by the authorities, and provides an element of secrecy when one’s sexual preferences could be severely punished. It is significant that use of Polari began to decline following its ‘outing’ by Julian and Sandy, accelerating after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, whereas the Russian equivalent lasted much longer. That a form of it exists still is an index of continuing adversity for gay people there.
Remarkably, homosexuality was only decriminalised in Russia in 1993. The exhibition information notes how for a couple of decades after legalisation there was slow but steady progress in gay rights, but the introduction of the Gay Propaganda Law in 2013 ushered in a new period of difficulty as the political and social climate once again became overtly homophobic. The slang thus still performs a function, though since the fall of the Soviet Union it has undergone a process of internationalisation, with Anglo-American imports diluting, the Soviet-era lexicon. Fiks’s project is therefore one of nostalgic excavation, showing the language as it was, though in practice it has moved on.
The exhibition falls into three parts: a video, not operational during my visit; sheets of text listing words and phrases; and photographs of cruising spots, ‘pleshki’. The text element includes translations, highlighting the wit and subversiveness of the coinages. They are presented in an academic manner, as if in a classroom, a blackboard reinforcing the feeling of being in a learning environment.
An initial panel is devoted to grammatical constructions, presenting the slang as bearing the same linguistic significance as any other Russian vocabulary. Terms are displayed alphabetically, the initial letter in the sort of oversized style that might be used to help small children remember them. Underneath each in much smaller letters is a Russian slang expression beginning with that letter, with English translation, and what it means, one sheet per letter of the alphabet (i.e. 33 sheets, 33 expressions).
Some terms are amusing (a ‘reader’ is someone who sits in a lavatory cubicle waiting for a partner) but there is bite here as well. An ‘agentess is a gay person who betrays his or her people and, my favourite, sexual minorities are ‘Mensheviks’. The unsnappy in English ‘kgboonchik’ is a ‘young provocateur who is sent to entrap gays.’ Weirdly an orgasm is a ‘grandfather clock’, while a penis is a ‘voice’. Tellingly, homosexuality itself translates as ‘storminess’ and meeting places are ‘zoos’. A gay person who hides his or her sexual orientation is an ‘undergrounder’, suggesting an affinity to others at odds with the regime.
The photographs are labelled with the dates between which the sites were used, often going back to the 1920s – the end dates presumably signifying when the authorities cracked down and meeting places moved elsewhere. Many were also tourist spots, and without the extra information that they were employed as rendezvous points they would simply be record shots of parks, public buildings and lavatories. No people are visible and Fiks chose overcast days, rendering them rather forlorn-looking places. He must have talked to individuals with knowledge of these sites’ gay histories because it was unlikely to have been included in guidebooks, but the weakness of the exhibition is that it omits the first-hand experiences of those who used the language, and frequented the locations.
It is a small show occupying one large room, and really does not justify a long trip, but if in the vicinity of Pushkin House it is well worth taking a look. The exhibition is free, with only donations requested, and runs from 9 March to 11 May. An accompanying bilingual book by Fiks, with the same name as the exhibition, is available.