Slava Mogutin, 2002


I first heard of the writer SLAVA MOGUTIN four years ago from a friend who’d just attended one of his poetry readings in a downtown bar. Slava’s performance had evidently provoked outrage in some members of the audience, one of whom began to heckle him loudly. At some point the poet leapt from the stage, collared the guy, dragged him out the door, and dropped him neatly into the gutter. Slava was back on stage within moments, picking up the interrupted stanza where he’d left off.
Curious about writing that could cause such a hullaballoo, I looked up Slava’s name online and came across a rather spectacular bio. Here was a Russian exile, a gay journalist and poet whose words had so chafed the post-Soviet establishment that at the age of twenty-one he’d fled the country after numerous death threats. After landing in New York in 1995, he applied for political asylum. Thanks in part to a campaign mounted onÍ his behalf by PEN and Amnesty International, Slava became the first Russian to be granted U.S. sanctuary from persecution for sexual orientation. In short order, he also became an underground upstart, notorious downtown for his provocative writings.
It’s the latter that most interests me — wrathful fiction and poetry about sex, disgust, nostalgia, and the dazzlingly foul Russian body politic. Slava’s method is to subvert identity, pushing the reader into normally unconsidered modes of thought. In a story titled “A Curious Family,” a girl and her parents are all boys. Because this hopeless situation makes them ineligible for a nice new government apartment, father and mother regularly beat their daughter to a pulp. In “The Death of Misha Beautiful,” the author recalls fellatio with an ecstasy-addled boy in a string of Moscow alleys and doorways, as sniper bullets whiz past during the ’93 putsch. In the poem “Prague Holiday,” Eastern European political debasement is viciously lampooned as sex tourism. It’s hallucinatory writing, grounded in terrible realities.
In 1999 I met Slava through a mutual acquaintance. As we became friends over that winter, I noticed how unlike his reputation he was. Terse, maybe, but unassuming and funny too. A natural exhibitionist, and not undesirous of fame, he’d accepted a role in Bruce LaBruce’s faux-fascist porn film, Skin Gang. He’d also commenced secondary careers as both photographer and model for porn and fashion magazines. These experiences always found their way into his writing.
As Russia gradually liberalizes, books of Slava’s collected works have begun to appear there, selling out quickly. In 2000, he finally returned to Moscow for an emotional homecoming. In the new Russian media, Slava has become a star, interviewed on national television and chased down the street by MTV cameras. No one is more amazed than him.
These days he divides his time between New York and Moscow. Ryan McGinley photographed him for index in Manhattan this past autumn, but when I reached him by phone in Moscow shortly thereafter, he was watching the snow fall outside his window. It was a lovely scene, he said, even with the Kremlin in the background.

STEVE: You were the first openly gay journalist in Russia. Have others followed suit since you?
There are no openly gay authors here, no. There are some marginal writers in certain circles, but no one with a nationwide reputation.

STEVE: That’s amazing. What about entertainers?
Not that long ago there were TV personalities — game show and talk show hosts — who acted and dressed totally gay. But they were pushed out because they were considered too harsh. It’s still pretty rough here. For example, there’s a strong gay contingent in the Parliament. These are guys who never talk openly about their homosexuality, but still there was a campaign in the media against them. Some were forced to get married in order to keep their positions. The Speaker of the Russian Parliament is gay also. His boyfriend is this enormously popular pop singer who’s known for his folk torch songs.

STEVE: Folk torch?
These Russian-style torch songs all about love and betrayal. “You left me. I’ll kill you!” or “You’ll kill me!” or “We’ll kill each other!” [laughs] But the Russian pop scene is a gay paradise in that musicians generally go unharassed. It was like this in Soviet times, and it’s the same deal now. Again, very few people will talk about it.

STEVE: Your latest book, 30 Interviews, is a whole new animal for post-Soviet publishing too, with its combo of western and Russian personalities. Tell me about it.
They’re interviews I did during the first decade of my journalistic career, some of which were published before in Russian newspapers and magazines in a heavily censored form. In this book they are seen in full for the first time.

STEVE: Is it selling well?
Very well. Next week there’s a release party for its second printing at one of the main Moscow book stores. It’s also being presented at Non-Fiction, the annual Moscow book fair for intellectual literature.

STEVE: Congratulations. The interview with Gus Van Sant mentions that you saw My Own Private Idaho in Moscow when it came out. I didn’t know films like that were shown during the Soviet era.
It was available on the black market, like a lot of other European and American independent movies. That’s one thing that Russians are very good at. You can still find pretty much any movie, sometimes even before its release in the West.

STEVE: What exactly is the black market, an actual place?
Oh yeah. In Moscow it’s in a big park. If you go there on the weekends you can find hundreds of little stands with everything you want — books, CDs, videotapes. The movies are dubbed in really awful, weird voices, so the identity of the dubber won’t be revealed. The translations are usually a bit off too, to say the least, especially when it comes to slang and profanities. And they’ve been copied so many times it’s hard to tell what’s even going on. But that’s how I first saw Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, Bruce LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass, and lots of other cult films.

STEVE: So you were watching western movies from an early age.
Not really, because where I grew up a VCR was hard to find and there were no video stores. But I left home at fourteen to go to school in Moscow and my friends there had one. It was such a source of information about the outside world. I’d grown up in this little village with one movie theater and they only had two or three screenings a week.

STEVE: What made you want to be a journalist?
My father was a writer, the author of over twenty books for children. When I moved to Moscow, I was introduced to a literary critic through him. The guy was the editor of a book review, so when I was seventeen I began writing reviews of the books I read. From there, I became an interviewer, working for major magazines and newspapers. Then I began publishing essays and cultural, art, and literary criticism.

STEVE: What did you write about at seventeen?
Well, my first essay was titled “How I Was Shoplifting in Paris,” which I dedicated to Jean Genet. [laughs] After that I began to get offers from closeted publishers and editors who asked me to work for their publications. I became well known for my articles, but when I became too noticeable, these same editors got scared and turned their backs on me. That’s when the official persecution began.

STEVE: I’ve read various accounts. Can we talk about it?
Well, initially I got into trouble for outing politicians like the ultra-right wing leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — who had once offered me a position as his press secretary, incidentally. I outed a couple of the queeniest queens of Russian show biz, as well. One of them, this popular dancer and pop singer called Boris Moiseyev, got totally drunk during his interview with me. He revealed that in order to advance his career he was forced to perform nude at a private event in front of a group of high-ranking Communist party officials during the 1980 Moscow Olympics — and later, “to suck on those elderly communists’ filthy peckers.”

STEVE: And you printed it.
Sure. It caused a brouhaha. It was actually discussed at the Parliamentary level.

STEVE: Was the guy busted?
No, criminal charges were brought against me. I was accused of “malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence.” I can laugh about it now because it’s a perfect description of my work.

STEVE: This was your first run-in with the police.
Yes, but certainly not my last. My boyfriend at that time, Robert, was an American who had settled in Moscow. We decided to try to get married. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. To us it was more of a performance type of thing, not a political statement. But obviously, since it was me, it was perceived as political.

STEVE: I’ve seen a photo of you two at the Palace of Weddings that day, facing this wall of microphones and news cameras.
SLAVA: And late the next night we were visited by uniformed militia men. They basically trapped us in my apartment and said, “We can do whatever we want. We can put you in the psychiatric clinic. We can deport you. We can even put you in prison.” They interrogated us there for hours, drinking vodka and getting more and more drunk and abusive. They extorted $250 from us before leaving.

STEVE: Were they rogues, or was this sanctioned by the authorities?
SLAVA: Take a guess. They came back three nights later and did the same again, for even longer. At one point they threw a bag of hash on the table and laughed about the prison terms we’d face if found in possession of drugs. They also suggested procuring some eleven- or twelve-year-old girls for an orgy. It was totally animalistic. After this we were constantly stopped and hassled on the street by the militia.

STEVE: In your essay, “Invitation to a Beheading,” you wrote very clinically about that incident and other similar ones. But it must have been terrifying. When was this?
SLAVA: In 1994.

STEVE: But the laws against homosexuality surely had changed by then.
SLAVA: Yes, it was no longer a crime. But we were harassed for going public. In Moscow there are all these gay bars, discos, clubs. All the celebrities go, but if they’re asked about their private lives, they always lie. There’s a prison mentality here that’s really hard to get over.

STEVE: You fled from Russia in 1995. Coming to New York was a difficult experience.
SLAVA: It was. For one thing, I was writing strictly in Russian back then. So I lost my language, I lost my audience, I lost my friends. Plus I had a naive vision of America when I came here. But that kind of exile — especially in the first three years when I didn’t know many people in New York — it helped me to become a real writer.

STEVE: Is that when you began seeking out people like Allen Ginsberg and Dennis Cooper?
SLAVA: Yes. Interviewing them actually helped me to make a transition.

STEVE: When you first returned to Moscow after five years, was there a different attitude toward homosexuality?
SLAVA: For young people it’s not such a big issue. If you go to clubs, you see guys dancing together and this sort of thing now. They don’t necessarily consider themselves one way or the other. Like, I just met a young guy who told me that he traded his only pair of Prada shoes for my new book. I assumed he was gay, but later I found out that he wasn’t.

STEVE: I saw a tape of an interview you did on national TV there when you first went back. The host almost seemed to hate you.
SLAVA: Oh, that guy. No, he wasn’t a fan! He started by saying that if it wasn’t for my homosexuality I wouldn’t have been invited onto the show, and then accused me of using it to build my career. He’s like this huge ... like Howard Stern. The turning point was when he started reading aloud from one of my books, a scene where I am fist-fucking a guy while he tells me about his wife and career. [laughs] Obviously this was really disgusting from the interviewer’s point of view, although he left in some profanities that you would never hear on Russian TV.

STEVE: What did you say when he was through?
SLAVA: I applauded. I told him, “Now I know why I came back home. I can see Russian stars reading my filth on TV. What more can I wish for as a writer? It’s good for people who’ve never been exposed to my work.”

STEVE: Plus you gave him the pleasure of being outraged.
SLAVA: Before the show he wouldn’t even shake my hand. Afterward he was hugging me and shouting how it was one of his best interviews, and that we should do a project together.

STEVE: What’s the media landscape in Russia like these days?
SLAVA: There are clearly two separate markets now. There are the newspapers and TV stations, which have all been bought and sold so many times that it’s hard to even follow. They’re heavily politicized and only serve certain people, etcetera. The other market is glossy magazines.

STEVE: Lifestyle magazines?
SLAVA: Right. We now have GQ, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Jalouse — they just closed Jalouse in the U.S. and started it in Russia. There’s a huge market for these, and they’re actually edgier and more radical than the American versions.

STEVE: It’s hard to imagine you having an essay in GQ here, yes.
SLAVA: But I was at Russian Vogue today, and the editors had all read my books. So obviously they don’t expect me to write anything nice or decent. [laughs]

STEVE: Let’s talk a little about photography. At your New York apartment I used to see photo spreads that you’d shot for various magazines. Everything from American porn to Russian fashion.
SLAVA: That all started when I worked for Honcho, the skin mag, as a photographer. My work was exclusively fetishistic — leather gear or military uniforms or sports outfits. It was based on things that I liked myself, my own fantasies. Most of the time I was working with guys that I was having some sort of relationship with. So when I started to shoot for Russian fashion magazines, I brought the same idea there.

STEVE: The editors don’t mind?
SLAVA: Sometimes I have to fight, but I prefer to do it this way. Right now I’m planning a series of portraits of Russian football hooligans. There are three main clubs in Russia for fans, and they all have beautiful, totally beautiful uniforms. Any of the stuff these guys wear on the streets, if it were published in Visionaire, would look totally appropriate and hip.

STEVE: I know you do modeling yourself, and in the last couple of years you’ve been showing up in porn videos. Is there a connection between all these different pursuits?
SLAVA: They all fit with my exhibitionistic tendencies. [laughs] But video is very different from still photography. It’s kind of traumatizing. You’re totally naked in front of the camera and it’s not just the one right pose. It’s your whole personality.

STEVE: Part of the fascination with pornography is watching people who have the guts to do it.
SLAVA: But to become a professional you must learn how to turn your vulnerability into your power. I don’t think I was very good at first. I’m still uncomfortable watching Skin Gang.

STEVE: Is it always that way for you?
SLAVA: In a way it’s a sado-masochistic experience. Because I’m trying to put myself into an extreme situation that will be totally uncomfortable. I want to prove each time that I can do it. But more than anything, it’s a way to go beyond the idea of what a Russian dissident writer or artist is supposed to be. It’s a weird thing, though, because it changes your whole life, your relationships with your friends and lovers. Even with your own body.

STEVE: It’s odd how mainstream porn has become.
I agree. The actors look like daytime TV stars. American gay porn in particular has turned from being a very experimental and radical genre into the most conservative thing. Look at what James Bidgood, or Kenneth Anger, or Peter Berlin were doing in the late ‘60s. The paradox is that the industry still attracts a lot of creative and rebellious people who are trying to escape the mainstream.

STEVE: You said ”American gay porn” a second ago. As opposed to what — European?
SLAVA: Oh yeah. For example, the stuff from Berlin is dirtier, harder. Czech porn is very sweet, very vanilla. It’s meant to oblige.

STEVE: And when one hears about Russian porn, it usually means kids.
SLAVA: That’s a reflection of all the recent political and ideological changes. When you talk of Eastern Europe in general — and now Russia has unfortunately joined this camp — these are the countries that were raped and used in the years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Sex tourism is big business here now. I think it’s ironic that Russia has turned from being a superpower to just another destination for cheap live entertainment.

STEVE: You have a scene in Skin Gang with Nikki Uberti, the fashion model. You’re fucking her while carrying her around the kitchen as you sing. At the same time, she’s grabbing every plate and glass she can and smashing them on the floor.
SLAVA: [laughs] I love that scene, but it was physically exhausting. We did five or six takes, and I had to carry Nikki around the whole time, her legs around my waist. They gave me Viagra to keep a hard-on, but it had a weird effect on me. It fucks up your blood pressure, and I felt kind of dizzy and got a rash. Terry Richardson, Nikki’s husband at the time, was on the set snapping pictures. And there were five crew members — all waiting for my cum shot. And the bright lights. It was crazy.

STEVE: There’s another interesting scene where you recite something in Russian. What’s it about?
SLAVA: That’s a poem called ”A Story of a Betrayal.” It’s about me being adopted by a military regiment during World War II and getting fucked by all these Russian soldiers, then betraying them by running away to the Nazis. Letting them all be slaughtered because I’m tired of their shit-stained underwear and stinky cigarettes. I want something different. I end up being fed Belgian chocolates, and the Nazis smell of good cologne and know better sex. Ideology meets physiology.

STEVE: Yeah, you looked rather elated in the movie!
SLAVA: It’s funny, because I became a poster boy for a lot of German gay skinheads after that. The poems were even analyzed by the German press, like they were a political statement or something.

STEVE: You’re able to separate the visual and the literary sides of your brain pretty well?
SLAVA: Yeah, but ideally I want to make books of photography that include my writing. When I meet artists who only express themselves visually, I sometimes think their mental health would be better if they could articulate certain obsessions or phobias in writing. Most of the stuff I describe is very violent — sick, essentially. If I didn’t express all that on paper I would more than likely have ended up in prison long ago. I’d have gone nuts.

STEVE: Which of your poems made that guy heckle you at your reading a few years ago? The one you threw out of the bar.
SLAVA: I was reading a poem dedicated to Andrew Cunanan, called “Endless Poem of Disintegration Discord Debauchery.” It was shortly after Versace was shot, and I was inspired by the whole “good fag versus evil fag” melodrama. So I wrote a poem about joining Cunanan on his murder spree. It always pisses off the old-school P.C. gays, and a couple of times that night I had to get physical with them, because they just wouldn’t shut up.

STEVE: I think you enjoy antagonizing your audience, Slava.
SLAVA: I don’t want to please them. I don’t want to entertain them. What I want is to dominate the audience, get control over them. Since they came to see me, I want to let them have it.

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