Pin It

The Other Side's Other Side 

A surprising look at gay and lesbian life in Russia

Wednesday, Jul 24 1996
Later that evening, we played a cassette tape with an eclectic selection of dacha favorites: French ballads, Sade, Roberta Flack, the Eurythmics. As Ksyusha swayed to the music, Vitya encircled her from behind with his brawny arms. He kissed her neck, ran his hands up over her shoulders and then, lightly, across her breasts; she closed her eyes and leaned back into his gentle caress.

There was something innocent and oddly touching in that gesture; watching them, I realized how much they had learned to accept each other through their years together. My pity for Vitya wrestled with awe and a little jealousy at the obvious devotion they all shared. Somehow, the dacha concept of lesbianism -- very different from what I knew back home -- allowed Sveta and the others to overlook the hard-to-overlook detail that Vitya was, in fact, a man. They let him be the lesbian that he believed he was, and he loved them back as only another woman could.

When San Francisco Chronicle writer David Tuller went to Russia in 1991, he expected, he says, to write about the dreariness and drabness of gay and lesbian life inside the former Soviet Union. But what he found astonished him.

As detailed in Tuller's book, Cracks in the Iron Closet, Russians possess, under the most cruel and adverse circumstances, a fluidity and emotional openness that's very different from our own more rigidly one-or-the-other, gay-or-straight approach to sexuality. Tuller's personal journey -- in which he found himself, as a gay man, falling in love with a woman -- is interwoven with observations about many aspects of post-Soviet Russian life, and makes for a book at once emotionally captivating and intellectually precise.

On July 30, Tuller will be the guest of honor at a reception, hosted at the New Main Library by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, intended to raise awareness about conditions of life for gay and lesbian people overseas. The event, which starts at 6 p.m. in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, is free.

What did you learn about sexuality while you were in Russia?
"There's so many things it's hard to say. I think I learned a certain amount of humility in terms of not assuming that other people, especially people in other cultures, should be like me. There was a sense in which I went over there with all good intentions, assuming I'd bring some ray of light into their bleak lives. I think what was so remarkable to me, and I guess what I wanted to try to capture, was the heroism, the degree to which they created rich and vital and really fascinating lives. It's pretty easy to come to San Francisco and have a very nice life. I think in a lot of ways it's a lot harder to find that in other places."

How is it different over there?
"They reject the whole concept of identity. To them, when I presented that a gay identity means this, a lesbian identity means that, they said, 'That's communism. That's totalitarianism.'

"And here the whole thing about coming out and the axiom of coming out, that you have to come out -- and I'm comfortable with coming out, I've been out for 15 years -- they keep secret the things that are most important to them. I think I came away with a greater appreciation of secrecy, that it's OK to have secrets."

How did the people you wrote about react when they read the book?
"They were really excited. They were just thrilled that I dedicated it to them. I was reading it with them, actually -- I was sitting with them and reading. They just loved it. They were really laughing at some of the parts.

"You could really see their humor and their wisdom. I think they're flattered. I think it really came across to them that it was written with a lot of love and tenderness. It was important to me that they should read it and not feel that I took advantage of them in any way. I did it for them, sort of, too.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed