Foreword: We Are Worthless


Should introductions be “feel good” pieces of felt, even when they pad sharp objects like poems and prose from our LGBTQ+ folio? Imagine petting a rebel! Think of cozying up next to a dictator! No soft handling is needed when dealing with countries that push their citizens into the iron closet.

In the United States, we want to believe that people are rewarded when they persevere in doing good things. But in the former USSR, truth and dignity are shot in the face.

The post-Soviet states. Let’s say Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus. Are they so bad? Or is Russia so backwards that no LGBTQ+ literature can be created in this country, which has been whipping itself with self-censorship for as long as it’s existed?

When there is half-democracy, there are only half-truths.

When there are half-truths, there are only half­-poems.

To other countries, a regime displays a smiling face. There is still the Hermitage, there are concerts and contemporary theatre performances. To its own citizens, a dictator gives a half-smirk. You can be as free as you want, but don’t overstep the limits and criticize the church, the leader, or the corruption.

A poet needs to measure not only their lines, rhymes, and reason, but also their content.

Not too erotic. Not for people under 18. Not for children. Not criticizing the president. Not so obvious as to lure young generations towards unwanted sexual practices! Don’t mention anything about the annexation of Crimea. Forget about underage marriages in Chechnya. Tread on eggshells! Can’t you say something without exposing others or advertising your flamboyant lifestyle? Put your meaning between the lines. Or better, avoid any meaning.

Make a diluted solution. Only 30% of Walt Whitman. Just 28% of Allen Ginsberg. And perhaps 41% of Gertrude Stein! And you can add vodka. In a crumbling economy it’s more affordable for the average pensioner than healthcare or food.

If it’s a romantic story about two women, in order to publish it, make one of these women a man.

If it’s a story about two men, just make them friends, it shouldn’t be difficult–you don’t want to be cited for homosexual propaganda!

How much LGBTQ+ writing can emerge from the former USSR where girls looking like boys and boys looking like girls routinely get picked on by savage youths under the watchful eyes of police that do nothing except satisfy their curiosity by observing the beating and spitting?

Don’t expect to come to a bookstore in Omsk and see shelves marked “Gay Interest,” something that we take for granted in New York or in San Francisco.

But do expect that at a transgender conference, you’ll be met with far-right protesters who will attack you, while police will just stare.

The atmosphere of intolerance permeates the society. In the post-Soviet bloc, LGBTQ+ pride parades have been routinely jeopardized by authorities. In recent years, Russia has banned several websites, including, a long-standing gay information resource. My own piece “Help Desk BDSM” that depicts a virtual woman-to-woman relationship was banned by the ten-year-old site

Gay Russian parents think twice before writing anything that concerns LGBTQ+ topics, out of fear that their children will be taken away by the authorities, under the existing federal law against homosexual propaganda.

Whereas translated literature, by authors such as Michael Cunningham and James Baldwin, is available in Russian, no well-established Russian publishers would risk printing something controversial that grew on their own soil.

Many Russophone writers have left. Those very few sincere souls who’ve stayed find it hard to combat the Middle-Age witches and Gogolian vourdalaks shouting their hateful curses from Russia’s First Channel (Pervyi Kanal). The famous First Channel where neither poverty nor terminal illness nor dissenting opinion ever sees the light of day, because a positive message should be conveyed. Satisfied citizens are obliged to demonstrate to the world that they happily approve all the decisions of their muscular president, who looks so good posing next to submarines or brown bears.

Therefore, there is not much LGBTQ+ writing that is created in Russian. Our folio aims to somehow fill this gap, to bring to the West something that is often created amidst depression, drinking, and tears.

This collection of poetry and prose translated from Russian includes four women and four men, one of whom is transgender. According to the literary critic Dmitry Kuzmin, Ukraine-based Friedrich Chernyshev is probably the first known, openly transgender person in the history of Russophone poetry. Out of eight people presented in this selection, nearly one half emigrated or live abroad.

Born in Moscow, Stanislav Lvovsky studies in Oxford. Lida Yusupova divides her life between Canada, Russia, and Belize. Dmitry Kuzmin, a publisher and one of Russia’s pioneering gay poets, who once taught at Princeton, moved to Latvia, suffocated by the post-Soviet regime. I spent more than twenty years in California, emigrating to the USA with refugee status in my early twenties. Gila Loran (pen name of Galina Zelenina) spent a semester in Israel and settled in Moscow; Nastya Denisova lives in St. Petersburg. Moscow and St. Petersburg are the two most open Russian cities; the international cultural scene makes the locals more tolerant towards same-sex couples holding hands. But don’t even try to kiss in public–it is unsafe.

Muscovite Ilya Danishevsky, a proud leader of oppositional literature, is an editor of the popular portal Snob and a writer himself. In the past, he managed to publish the Lesbian Diaries of Lolita Agamalova, a twentysomething young radical, but the word “Lesbian” in the title caused an uproar, resulting in hundreds of internet comments shaming the author and her choice of identity and love partners.

It took my co-editor Annie Fisher and me almost three years to find Russophone LGBTQ+ writers and to translate them. And it took me almost a year to write this foreword. Internalized homophobia. Shame. The feelings of futility after so many attempts to choose the presidents we want. To choose the sexuality that suits us and makes us comfortable. To choose words that convey the hidden world of suppressed emotions, of muffled identity, of stiffened libido, of undercover embraces.

I hope that this collection is great. But inside myself, echoing the voice of so many oppressed from the post-Soviet countries–I think: “We are worthless.”


Margarita Meklina

Bilingual essayist and fiction writer Margarita Meklina was born in Leningrad and shares her life between Dublin, Ireland, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Her English-language articles and short stories have been featured in The Cardiff Review’s queer issue, The Chicago Quarterly Review, and Words Without Borders, while her fiction in English translation has appeared in the Norton Flash Fiction International (2015), The Mad Hatters’ Review, The Toad Suck Review, and Eleven Eleven. Meklina has written six books in Russian (two of them in collaboration with Lida Yusupova and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko) and two in English, the YA novel The Little Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote and a collection of short stories entitled A Sauce Stealer. Meklina’s awards include the Andrey Bely Prize (2003), the Yeltsin Center’s Russian Prize (2008), the Mark Aldanov Literary Prize (2018), and The Norton Girault Literary Prize’s Honorable Mention (2019).

Margarita Meklina


Copyright (c) Margarita Meklina, 2019.