What if most of what you thought you knew about everyday life and culture in the former Soviet Union was upended by stories of a provocative, coded language, a utopian, autonomous region and an émigré actor whose life story defies convention? Yevgeniy Fiks’s first solo exhibition in Estonia, entitled Pas de Trois, plans to do just that. The title, which refers to a ballet dance for three people, is actually an expression from an encrypted gay language dating back to Soviet times, indicating a tryst between three people. Playfully staging the exhibition space as an encounter between three different projects by the artist, the viewer is invited to discover a fresh version of this region’s history that resists the oversimplification of the Soviet experience and the Soviet person.
As an artist who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, Fiks has a personal connection to these histories of the recent past. He considers his practice as a response to the forgotten histories of the Cold War within the post-Soviet space today, and especially the lesser-studied micro-historical narratives that have the potential of revealing complex relationships between the West and the Soviet Union.
The exhibition consists of distinct, yet interconnected installations created by the artist in the past decade which approach Soviet history by uncovering those repressed micro-histories that go against the commonly accepted historical narratives we have come to take for granted in the post-1991 liberal status quo.
Fiks’s projects on Soviet-era Russian gay defence language, the representation of Africans and African Americans in Soviet art and the story of the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region create a version of history that resists the oversimplification of the Soviet experience and the Soviet subject. The exhibition questions the assumptions about the totality and universality of the Soviet experience and proposes a notion of “progressive revisionism” as a way to address contemporary issues, such as selective memory and nationalism of exclusion, without resorting to uncritical restorative nostalgia on the Left.
Mother Tongue (2019) explores historical gay Russian slang. This coded language can be compared to Britain’s “Polari”, the jargon used in the past by gay and other subcultures. Homosexuality was outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1933, and only decriminalised in 1993. At the same time, gay communities have been repressed in post-Soviet Russian society.
Through this project, Fiks elevates this language into a poetic code, celebrating its wit and nuance. Mother Tongue reclaims Soviet-era Russian gay slang as a unique cultural phenomenon and gives a historical context to today’s post-Soviet LGBTQ community whose language partially evolved from it. The installation recreates the environment of a classroom, equipped with a blackboard, alphabet charts, a book of essays and poetry, and a language instructional video, designed as a formal introduction to the vocabulary and usage of this distinct language that is separate from standard Russian.
Landscapes of the Jewish Autonomous Region (2012–2016) features several works that reflect on the (dis)connections between identity, land, and landscape, informed by notions of belonging, (inter)nationalism and Utopia.
Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region within the Russian Federation, sits close to the border with the People’s Republic of China. In 1934, under the Soviet nationalities policy, specific ethnic groups such as Jews were encouraged to create autonomous regions in Russia and develop a culture that was “national in form and Socialist in content.” Birobidzhan was supposed to become a home for the majority of Soviet Jews, solving the “Jewish question” in the Soviet Union.
Initially, the autonomous region attracted a number of Soviet Jews as well as non-Soviet Jewish nationals from Argentina, the United States, Palestine and other countries – all of whom came to help build a secular Socialist Jewish homeland. At its peak, the Jewish population of the region was around 20,000 people. However, later on many Jewish expats left the region after the purges of 1937. The Jewish Autonomous Region still exists today as the only autonomous region in the Russian Federation.
The Wayland Rudd Collection (2014) is an art project that maps the complicated and often contradictory intersection of race and emancipation in the Soviet context, exposing the interweaving of internationalism, solidarity, humanism and progressive ideals with practices of othering, exoticisation and racist stereotyping.
Wayland Rudd (1900–1952) was an African American actor who moved to the Soviet Union in 1932 and lived there until 1952. He appeared in numerous Soviet films and theatrical performances and served as a model for paintings, drawings and propaganda posters.
According to Fiks, the Rudd Collection is not an archive or collection in the traditional sense. Rudd did not collect these images himself; rather the artist named the project after him as a conceptual gesture of acknowledgement and commemoration.
Using Rudd’s personal story as a springboard, The Wayland Rudd Collection presents a collection of over 200 Soviet images (paintings, movie stills, posters, graphics) of Africans and African-Americans produced between 1920 and 1980. Instituting policies of internationalism, the Soviet Union promoted equality, anti-colonialism and anti-racism. However, the reality did not always mirror these ideals, as xenophobia, conflict and anti-Semitism remained widespread during this period.
All in all, this exhibition focuses on the history and legacies of the Soviet space in the present-day, during a time when our lives are permeated by political conservative forces. In the age of a new Cold War, coupled with a resurgence of nationalism(s) and right wing extremism, we witness the collapse of the neo-liberal globalisation project in the age of global pandemics. While Yevgeniy Fiks’s projects deal with a political and provocative retelling of the recent past, they hold relevance for the culture of new generations, which have been affected by a politics of demonising the Soviet period and an amnesia of its progressive developments. In this context, revising the Soviet past can become a political gesture.