A queer Russian novel set in Ukraine? Still possible in 2022. What’s more: it’s a bestseller and a very timely reading.
By Alexandra Ksenofontova
On the last page of the novel Summer in a Pioneer Tie (Лето в пионерском галстуке), Russian authors Katerina Silvanova and Elena Malisova date their writing back to the years 2016–2017. That was after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but before the overt invasion; after the first laws prohibiting the LGBTQ+ ‘propaganda’ in Russia, but before these laws turned into a full-scale censorship. The action of the novel seems even further removed from the contemporary events, taking place between the 1980s and the 2000s. However, the initially self-published novel first appeared in print only in 2021; its sequel, What the “Swallow” is Silent About (О чем молчит Ласточка), came out last year. These publication dates raise the stakes. The novels’ focus on queer romance and their setting in eastern Ukraine might have passed unnoticed just a few years ago, yet it reads as a radically oppositional literature today. As such, Summer in a Pioneer Tie already sold around 250,000 copies, not counting the e-book sales; the sequel follows suit. What kind of reading do these novels invite in the age of the war in Ukraine and the anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Russia?
The first part of what is rumored to become a trilogy, Summer in a Pioneer Tie takes place in 1986. That is, most of the novel does; the protagonist Yura Konev looks back at the events of that time from his present, the year 2006. Walking through the ruins of the pioneer camp where he met his first love twenty years ago, the thirty-six-year-old Yuri does not merely remember the events of that summer. Those events are more real to him than his immediate surroundings; his present seems a faint and fragile reflection in comparison to the powerful presence and significance of his coming-of-age romance. This contrast manifests itself beautifully in the design of the book cover, where the present appears literally as a rippled mirror image of the past.
In an interview with the authors, literary critic Galina Yuzefovich questions the romanticized and idealized image of the USSR, as it appears on the pages of Summer in a Pioneer Tie. Perhaps rightfully so. Yet, answering this criticism, Silvanova and Malisova articulate clearly: this is not a novel about the Soviet past. Indeed, Summer in a Pioneer Tie is not a historical novel in the traditional sense of the term. Rather, it attempts a type of history reminiscent of what Walter Benjamin has called for: a history in which a moment of the past collides with the present in such a way that both can illuminate each other. What emerges from this mutual illumination is a simple truth: Queer love is as persecuted today as it was in the year when the famous phrase “There is no sex in the USSR” was coined. Behind this continuity, a development that hasn’t taken place becomes palpable. Looking back on the past, we realize together with the protagonist: history could have unfolded differently, and our present hasn’t been inevitable.
While the first novel focuses on exploring the unrelenting presence of the past in the present, the second novel, What the “Swallow” is Silent About, faces an even more serious task. Having been apart for twenty years, the protagonists attempt living and loving in the presence of their past, cognizant of their mistakes, guilt, and traumas. The second novel meticulously examines the possibilities and pitfalls of healing both oneself and the other. In this context, the geography of the novels becomes all the more important. Yura was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine; his beloved Volodya is a native of Moscow, Russia. Reading the novels in the time of war, the temptation to read some kind of symbolism into the queer romance is almost too hard to resist. At the very least, it is notable that the Russian-born authors choose Kharkiv and its surroundings as the main place of action for both novels, while Russia only episodically appears ‘off-stage.’ In this way, the novel sets a clear accent: Ukraine is the place where pain, guilt, and suffering are in the present—both in the present of the novels and in our historical present. At a closer glance though, the novels are even more political in their temporal than in their spatial constellation.
Both Yura and Volodya can fully embrace their sexuality and come to terms with their past only after emigrating, each in his own turn, to Germany. In spite of what one may expect, their journey doesn’t end in Berlin, the city often considered the queer capital of Europe, but leads them further, into the German south. The city where they choose to settle down, Konstanz, is much closer to Dachau than to Berlin—the site of the concentration camp where Yura and Volodya go in search of information about Yura’s grandfather, who died in the Holocaust. This branch of the storyline seems key to the novel’s interest in working through guilt and trauma, both personal and collective. It is precisely Dachau that converts the novels’ geography into a matter of time: what counts is not the place itself, but whether and how the memory it preserves affects the present. Germany becomes a place where the protagonists’ past can not only exist without being denied, but where it can also help them transform their present.
This consistent, almost stubborn focus on the past makes Summer in a Pioneer Tie and What the “Swallow” is Silent About different from other recent queer millennial novels that appeared in Russian language despite the anti-LGBTQ+ laws, such as Springfield (Спрингфилд, 2023) by Sergei Davydov or Mikita Franko’s The Days of Our Life (Дни нашей жизни, 2020; German translation Die Lüge, 2022) andWindow to the Yard (Окно во двор, 2022). There is a sense of millennial doom about these latter novels, a deep mistrust in the future, and a feeling of lostness in the present. This sense of anxiety also appears in the novels by Silvanova and Malisova. To borrow a formulation from another millennial novel, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl (2013), the queer protagonists’ “present is too uncomfortable to be present in and the future, unimaginable.” What’s more, Summer in a Pioneer Tie and What the “Swallow” is Silent About belong to a specific genre: they are romance novels, the former a coming-of-age romance, the latter an adult one. (Incidentally, the 18+ marking on the covers is a consequence of the anti-LGBTQ+ laws rather than an actual content rating.) As queer romance novels, both books feature not only a feeling of a denied futurity but also, paradoxically, a struggle to overcome all obstacles in the hope for a better future. Rita Felski has observed a similar kind of contradictory narratives in the popular novels of the 1980s; just like their genre forerunners, the novels by Silvanova and Malisova are at once modern and postmodern, normative and queer, believing in a better future and full of anxiety about what is to come. However, the two novels are ultimately interested in a queer and/or millennial futurity just as little as they are in criticizing the Soviet past; instead, they ask a question much more pertinent to the present, the question of the future past.
In 1986, Yura and Volodya bury a time capsule in the pioneer camp: a message to themselves in the future, which they were hoping to read ten years later. While preparing the time capsule, the teenage boys contemplate: what should they write to their future selves? What message should the time capsule conserve after everything that will have (not) happened in their future? These are the questions of the future past: an attempt to anticipate the future from a moment, in which it will have already become past, as if looking back on that which hasn’t happened yet. The importance of the time capsule is hard to overestimate, as it propels the action in both novels. More importantly, the novels themselves function as a kind of time capsule, which they prepare together with the readers. Accompanying the protagonists on their journeys through the past, we can try and anticipate what it will be like to look back on today and tomorrow from ten, twenty years in the future. Reading Summer in a Pioneer Tie and What the “Swallow” is Silent About decades from today, will we believe that a peaceful future still seemed possible in 2023? How will we be able to live with what we will have and will not have done in the face of the war in Ukraine and the totalitarian regime in Russia? Will we preserve the memory of the present when it has become past, and will we be able to prevent it from repeating itself? Will free love be possible, and where? It’s never too early to start thinking about these questions; but it’s also never too late, as the novels by Silvanova and Malisova suggest.
Alexandra Ksenofontova is a postdoctoral researcher at the EXC 2020 “Temporal Communities: Doing Literature in a Global Perspective” at the Freie Universität Berlin.