I have to admit that the first time I heard someone from Russia was interested in my book I thought it was a joke. And this uncertainty never really left me until I saw my title appear in the online catalog of the publisher at the beginning of this month.
Bulgarians have a love/hate relationship with Russia. On one side there is the enormous admiration for Russian culture, the linguistic and geographical proximity, the common history. On the other side we have communism, repression, hegemony and… even more common history. People usually discard one at the expense of the other. I can’t. I feel equally fascinated and intimidated.
I remember a journalist from the Izvestiya newspaper calling me in London, days after The Telegraph featured my Mapping Stereotypes project. During the interview she asked me what was my opinion about Russia. This is what I said:
I love Russian culture. When I was a kid I was extremely influenced by Russian literature, in particular the fairy tales of Kashchey the Deathless.
Because, you know, Dostoevsky is so last week. And then of course I had to make things even more awkward, admitting that I am in love with Stalinist architecture.
Of course I shouldn’t feel embarrassed to say what I think and I was completely honest. Kashchey (along with Baba Yaga) was one of the most impressive characters from my childhood and I really find buildings like Hotel Ukraina absolutely poetic.
However, where I’m coming from, none of these things are appreciated for what they really are. There are always a couple of layers of extra meaning. My friends who had lost family members during communism detest them, they project their loss on every symbol from the communist past, from the bubble gum packaging to the space rockets. My other friends who are still dwelling in the past with its Utopian promises are using them as counterarguments for everything they don’t like about the present.
I feel caught in the middle because for me a building, a mythological character, or even the whole bibliography of a literary genius, don’t come packaged with an ideology that I have to accept or reject, regardless of the cost. There’s something incredibly sad about seeing things in black and white, in mixing politics with culture, and banalities with symbols that survived the test of time. It’s true that no artwork is created in a vacuum but dismissing its beauty because of it is just pathetic.
This year for the first time since the beginning of the 90’s I felt the unsettling spirit of the Cold War creeping back on the political scene. Perhaps it is the Syrian crisis, perhaps it’s just historical inertia but the propaganda machines seem back on track in full swing. On one side, American media delights in discussing Russia’s human rights record, conveniently marginalizing US atrocities like Guantanamo and the NSA scandals. On the other, Russian media excels in regurgitating stories about Bradley Manning, skipping the outrageous fact that the country put a dead whistleblower on trial.
And then there are the anti-gay laws in Russia, one of the most shameful things that had happened to this country in the 21st Century. Of course people like John McCain, the anti-equality Arizona conservative, were quick to criticize the Russian politicians because they “codify bigotry against people whose sexual orientation they condemn“.
Things like these make me angry. Because they force me to do one thing that I really hate – talk publicly about my sexuality. I’ve never paraded the fact that I’m gay but I feel disgusted by the people who voted for these laws, by their supporters and by the hypocrisy of bigots like McCain who try to hijack the conversation about my own rights just to suit their simple-minded political bullshit peppered with the worst cliches of American exceptionalism.
Do people really have to take this shit? From both sides? What if we just stand up and leave the room while those idiots are talking? I know how idealistic this sounds. I know it may not even be possible. But a gay man can dream.
So here’s the thing. The Atlas of Prejudice debuted in German, then got published in English this summer (so bigots like McCain can read it). And now it’s available in good old Russia so those opportunistic homophobes around Putin can take a look as well.
Job done. I’m off partying!