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Yaroslav Mogutin
Yaroslav Mogutin
photo: Reed Massengill

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When I was a kid, I wished I were the son of rich slavemasters in ancient Rome and that my parents would...

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November 1999 Email this to a friend
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Fuck The Elite
Facing jail in Russia for his queer writing, Yaroslav Mogutin won political asylum in America. Is he happy to be here?
By Bill Andriette

In Moscow in March 1995, Yaroslav Mogutin, 21, was facing death threats and criminal charges of "malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence." With the help of PEN and Amnesty International, he became the first Russian granted asylum in the US for anti-gay persecution.

Born in Siberia, Mogutin had become a prominent literary and cultural figure in Russia, with his journalism, queer poetry, and translations of American writers such as James Baldwin, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. His writings scandalized the Russian establishment. In one interview he published, Russian pop singer Boris Moiseyev told Mogutin about the blow-jobs he had given to Communist parliamentarians in order to jump-start his musical career. In 1994, Mogutin and boyfriend took vows outside Moscow's Wedding Palace Number 4 after officials refused to marry them. Combined with Mogutin's public opposition to Yeltsin's war against Chechnya-- now raging once again-- Russian officials found plenty of ingredients to cook up a prosecution.

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Now 25 and living in New York City, Mogutin counts among the very last Soviet dissidents, who came of age during Perestroika and Glasnost and hotted up that cultural and political thaw to temperatures gradualists like Gorbachev never had never written in their recipe books.

While the Soviet Empire still melts messily away, Mogutin now finds himself at ground zero in the American Empire, and none too happy about it. Continuing to write, Mogutin is producing a body of work that connects with that of such figures as Gus Van Sant, Bruce La Bruce, and Dennis Cooper. All are anti-gay queers, who hold that mainstream homosexualdom is ho-hum, and who denounce its selling out a critical tradition of public-sexers, boy-lovers, and anyone whose eroticism falls beyond the straightaways of propriety, healthy living, and a corporate career.

Mogutin's writings are angry but droll. Like Oscar Wilde's, their outrageousness never seems flip. When he talks of admiring Andrew Cunanan's celebrity slaughter, one senses Mogutin is not purely posturing. His book America in My Pants, is to be published soon in Moscow. SS: Superhuman Supertexts, a book of poems and images, will be published next month in the US. Recently, Mogutin has branched into photography-- mostly self-portraits charged with sex and mortality. He has also modeled for such photographers and artists as Terry Richardson, Rainer Fetting, and Reed Massengill. In Bruce La Bruce's new porn movie, Skin Flick, Mogutin plays a skinhead. The Guide spoke with Yaroslav Mogutin in New York.

The Guide: You came out as a youth into queer writing. Who were your mentors?

Yaroslav Mogutin: I published my first article when I was 16. I was an aggressive and evil teenager, dismissive of many moral and literary authorities. That's what I became famous for. The position of enfant terrible of the so-called "new Russian journalism" was available, so I took it. I guess you can say I was a nihilist, and that made my writing especially popular among the young. But I can't recall having any mentors. For better or worse. There were some closeted gay editors and writers who were supporting me in the beginning of my career but when I became too visible with all my gay stories, reviews, and interviews, most of them turned their backs on me. They didn't want to risk their reputations and careers. Most of my writing was way over the top, and it wasn't easy to get it published no matter how popular I was.

But I really liked what I was doing, I was writing nonstop, developing my own style, working in different genres, for different publications and publishers, for the radio and TV, organizing some cultural events, and I earned my reputation. I knew a lot of interesting artists in Moscow and Leningrad who were gay in their private lives but had to hide it in public in order to succeed. I broke that rule. I wanted to be accepted the way I am. And that caused all these troubles with prosecution, censorship, anonymous death threats. I had to escape.

G: What was the first image you associate with America?

YM: As a teen I dreamed of having a pair of Levi's. They cost 100 rubles so there were very few people in the USSR who could afford it, considering that average monthly salary was 120 rubles. Finally when I managed to get a pair of secondhand Levi's they didn't fit because I was too skinny. It was a total disappointment.

G: You've translated James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Dennis Cooper. Was American-style culture and gayness a beacon for you growing up?

YM: Let's put it this way: back then I didn't know any better. It took me almost five years of living in America to come to the sad conclusion that the whole Western idea of a gay movement is totally bankrupt at this point. My idea of being queer is totally different from singing in the gay chorus or marching down Fifth Avenue in a crowd of thousands topless cartoon-like clones with totally manufactured, waxed bodies. If I grew up in today's Chelsea, I would probably end up being a hardcore gay-basher in order to protest and attack this scary world of the unified look, unified morality, and lifestyle. We need more Andrew Cunanans, more queer terrorists, more "faggot-individualists" like Ginsberg, queer literary outlaws like Burroughs, more bad-ass fags to prove that the pioneering gay spirit of rebellion isn't yet entirely smothered by the Great American Consumerism. Or is it?

I was always inspired by the American alternative culture. When I came to New York, I was lucky to meet and interview people who I always admired: Allen Ginsberg, Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark, Quentin Crisp, John Waters. But I could never find common language with American gay activists, especially the ones who were trying to import all this gay ideology to Russia. They are so quick to judge people who don't fit in their narrow stereotypes, and they truly believe that they can make people of a totally different culture happy by lecturing them on how to live and fuck their way! Russians are fed up by all sort of ideological bullshit; they don't need any new dosages.

The homophile tradition in Russian culture is much older than it is here. The Russian Orthodox Church is probably the most tolerant confession towards homosexuality. I don't think that Russians in general are as puritanical and conservative as Americans, so they'll be fine without all these American smart asses.

G: Describe your family. Where did they fit into Soviet society?

YM: When I say I was born in Siberia, the typical American reaction is usually, "Were your parents dissidents?" No, they weren't sent there, but went out of romanticism, pursuing some Great Soviet dream in the middle of nowhere in the minus-40-degree centigrade freezing cold. This kind of escapism was popular in the 60s-- a Soviet equivalent of the hippie movement. In the summer my father would spend weeks at the time fishing and hunting in the taiga (the forests just south of the tundra) until once he got bit by a tick and caught encephalitis.

He was quite a character: covered with tattoos, constantly getting into fights. He had Soviet stars tattooed on his shoulders and Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" on his knee. One of the best tattoos I ever saw in my life. He had them done while serving in the Navy. When he was young he was an exact copy of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Breathless-- a totally wild and cocky playboy-womanizer. He was a boxer until he got his nose broken, a motorcyclist until he got his leg broken, and a big drunk until he got his spine broken, after being caught by the militia beating me on the street. In the typical Soviet manner, the cops beat the shit out of him.

At the same time, my father was an intellectual, a children's writer, though not very successful. A real tyrant, relieving his frustration on my mother, my older sister and me. All three of us were subject to his evil moods and alcoholism. And my poor mother was totally devoted to him, serving as a housewife-slash-personal secretary. We left Siberia when I was six. My father couldn't live in one place for too long, so we had to move somewhere all the time, like gypsies. My family was really fucked up and poor. Sometimes we didn't have enough money to buy canned food. We didn't celebrate any holidays, even birthdays. When I was 14, my father left the family. My mother was really depressed. I couldn't stand that drama any more. I went to Moscow and since then have lived on my own. Now I have very little connections with my family.

G: What was your first sexual experience?

YM: It was in kindergarten, when I was four or five. I was seduced by one of my classmates. We were sitting in the class in front of our teacher, bored, and suddenly he turned to me and suggested that we "take each other's weenies in the mouth." I was intrigued, but told him that I would do it only if he showed me how. So he got up, kneeled in front of me, took my little penis out of my shorts and put it in his mouth. It felt weird, and I wasn't sure if I liked it. It took the teacher just a few moments to realize what was going on. She rudely grabbed him from the floor and yelled: "I never wanna see such ugliness again! Never!" She got totally hysterical and I couldn't understand why. The punishment was severe and humiliating: we were ordered to take off our clothes and stand nude for an hour in front of all those stupid kids who were laughing at us. So my first sex led me right to my first persecution. I didn't feel guilty, I felt violated. I definitely got fixated on that and wanted to try it again. So, as you can see, I always had dissident, indecent tendencies, even at the age of four or five.

G: Most of your photos are of yourself. What do you make of narcissism and its relation to homophile desire and to art, the artist's tool being ultimately himself.

YM: I like the word "tool" in this context. When it comes to my modeling experiences or self-portraits, I do think of my body as a tool. A tool which helped me become who I am. Certainly narcissism has been one of the main driving forces of homoerotic art since ancient times. But in my case it's not all about that. I have this love-hate relationship with my body. I'm working on it as much as I'm working on my literary style and image. I'm twisting it, torturing it, dismissing and reinventing it by using different masks and devices. This way I'm amusing myself first of all, but my audience seems to be amused too.

G: How do you think your aesthetic or artistic relationship to your body will change as you age, fall apart in ways little or big? Can an artist put the body's crumbling to work?

YM: You're asking me something which I'm afraid to ask myself. It's obvious that aging for gay folks is much more dramatic experience than it is for the straight. So maybe I should rebel against this gay cult of beauty and youth and turn into a gerontophile or, more radically, a necrophile-- that's a joke.

One of my porn star friends told me that one reason he does porn is to capture himself young in action so that he can watch his own tapes when he'll be old and rusty. For me it's hard to imagine myself old. Hard to imagine losing control over my muscles and machinery. If I can't control my body, what's the point in trying to control anything else?

I'm not one of those supermen who you see trying to keep mastery over their lives while being totally physically dysfunctional. I want to end my life when I'm still in decent shape and condition. And there are plenty of ways to do it. For me Mishima's example is very inspiring. I think I will turn into a samurai-kamikaze or a queer terrorist of the Andrew Cunanan sort, shooting all these rich fat-skinned cocksuckers until someone will get me. It will be my last performance.

G: If you could spend half an hour with your 15-year-old self, what would you tell him?

YM: I don't think we would limit ourselves to a plain conversation, speaking of narcissism! "Don't go there, boy!" I would whisper myself in the ear. "There's this really scary fucked up world out there! Don't fuck with it!" I would try to warn myself to be more reasonable, more fearful. Back then I was totally mindless punk kid, just basically trying different ways to die: drinking heavily until my eyelashes started turning gray, getting into fights on the street and at rock concerts, being totally antisocial and self-destructive. I was arrested for drunken brawls, dismissed from everywhere, and never finished high school. I was writing really dark suicidal poems and was desperately trying to find myself and put myself together.

G: What aspect of Soviet culture do you remember as the most erotic?

YM: Looking back I realize that I grew up surrounded by homoerotic images in Soviet propaganda, art, and cinema. There were many great Soviet artists, totally underrated in the West, whose art is charged with pure homoeroticism.

As a kid I used to jerk off to a painting by Alexander Deineka "Future Pilots": two naked boys sitting on a pier looking up as their older comrade points to the airplane flying high in the skies. The boys' asses and backs are so beautifully painted, and they are so focused on the plane. Deineka wasn't the only one good at painting naked Soviet boys and young men. There was also Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who was obviously into young boys. His "Bathing of the Red Stallion" is one of my favorites. Totally iconographic in the traditional Russian style, it would make a perfect cover for some NAMBLA publication: lean blond naked boy riding a hot-red stallion; the boy has an absent look on his face while the stallion is staring at the boy. Soviet art is full of that kind of stuff: all those naked or half-naked solders, bathing boys with stallions. One of my American gay friends in Moscow told me that he had a constant hard-on in the Moscow subway: it's so full of homoerotic statues, murals, and mosaics. It's the most beautiful and homosexual subway in the world.

G: You just made a porn film by Bruce La Bruce about skinheads in which you play a neo-Nazi. Does totalitarianism turn you on?

YM: Skin Flick is not an ordinary porn film. There are two versions: the hardcore, made for video distribution, and the softcore, for general release. In the softcore, I'm reading my poems "My Life as a Living Toilet" and "A Story of a Betrayal" and signing the former Soviet anthem.

I play Reinhold, this butch character who is a member of a skinhead gang terrorizing London and fucking each other occasionally. Reinhold is supposedly straight-- there is a scene in the movie where I'm fucking my girlfriend Cameltoe, played by a model, Nikki Uberti. I'm fucking her in the kitchen while singing the "Internationale" in Russian. I think it's the hottest scene in the movie, although it was obviously made for a queer audience. Then I get into fight with Cameltoe, kick her out of house and, for a change, get plugged from both ends by two fellow skinheads. That's how straight Reinhold is. So, obviously, it's a satire on the whole idea of all these paramilitary right-wing groups.

And I'm not the only queer fascinated by it. After shooting the movie in London, Bruce and I went to Berlin where we attended a sex party with a couple of thousands of half-naked skinheads in a huge bunker on the border of East and West Berlin. There was a lot of hot and kinky stuff going on there, I'm telling you. I never saw anything like that before. Berlin and London are full of gay skinheads.

The truth is, the whole gay mythology is based on totalitarian aesthetics, with its cult of naked male body and "true male camaraderie" or whatever you want to call it. Tom of Finland used Nazi symbolism and uniform to help create the grotesque carnival of SM subculture. The examples of homoerotic totalitarian and fascist art are countless, and so are the examples of queer art fetishizing fascism.

G: What makes you write?

YM: First of all, writing for me is a form of therapy. I'm such an obsessive freak, with all these violent fantasies and antisocial tendencies, that I would probably end up in prison or dead if I didn't relieve all this shit on paper. It's a curse: writing for me is almost physiological need, just like food, sex, sleep. If I don't do it I get totally frustrated. People who've lived with me know that. I wish one day I can make my living with writing, but at the same time I think it's so boring: I don't want to live a writer's life and certainly don't want to die a writer's death. For me there would be nothing to write about.

G: Does part of your disappointment in America stem from the fact that political repression in the Soviet Union gave the poet a vital popular role. In the West, the writer either goes mass-market, or, at best, serves a little niche. Did you think that you would matter culturally in America as you did in Russia?

YM: You have to realize that when I was forced to leave Russia I didn't just lose my celebrity status, my literary and social influence, or, as you put it, my "cultural mattering"-- I lost my audience. Certainly I was a product of Perestroika and Glasnost-- all that explosion of previously prohibited literature, art, cinema. It was an amazing, euphoric experience for me as a teenager. I remember people going nuts, spending nights debating over some 30-year-old books and movies. It was a very exciting and naive period in the Soviet history, the last days of the Soviet Empire. And I was right in the middle of it, getting published in the mainstream papers with hundreds of thousands of readers, writing on controversial subjects, getting fan mail and hate mail, being constantly trashed and glorified, and prosecuted, all because of my writing! So when I came to the US it was hard for me to readjust to my new non-status. It was hard to realize how chauvinistic the American mainstream is, how limited American interest for anything alien, foreign is. Essentially nobody here gives a fuck about anybody unless you have a powerful publicity machine behind you which can help you to sell virtually anything. That's how American consumerism and mass culture operate. And that's my disappointment.

G: Having lived under both, which is more perfidious-- the Russian elite, or America's?

YM: It's almost like comparing apples to oranges. What is elite anyway? People who consider themselves elite because of their financial or social status? I equally hate them there and here. Or people who earned to be elite with their own hard work and talents? Or people who want to be elite just for the sake of being elite? I could never associate myself with any of these categories. I think that any true artist should stay away from all that crap. Fuck the elite! Fuck the perfidious! **

Author Profile:  Bill Andriette
Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide
Email: theguide@guidemag.com

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