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The Case of Gennady Trifonov

Gennady Trifonov, the Soviet Union’s only openly homosexual poet, is in trouble with the KGB again. By now, he has been harassed by that organization for almost two decades. When he was doing his military service at the age of twenty, the KGB learned that he was a homosexual. Their ceaseless efforts to force Trifonov to report on other homosexual soldiers drove him to attempt suicide. After that he was left alone for a few years.

In the early 1970s, Trifonov wrote a number of remarkable poems and essays on gay topics. Though these writings were all personal in nature and did not touch on any political or social themes, they again attracted to Trifonov the attention of state security agents. Trifonov never made any attempt to publish his work in the Soviet Union. He circulated it among his close friends and showed his poems to visiting foreigners. In the spring of 1976, he was seized by three plainclothes security policemen on a Leningrad street, and brutally beaten and kicked in the face. This was their way of compelling him to cease his literary activities.

In August 1976, Gennady Trifonov was arrested and kept incommunicado at the notorious Kresty Prison until November, when he was sentenced to four years of hard labor under Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code, the article that prohibits homosexuality. The main evidence used to obtain his conviction was apparently the texts of his poems and letters. In 1977, through the efforts of Trifonov’s friends in the USSR and abroad, his case was reported in a number of publications in England, Canada, and the US. To forestall the possibility of protest by humanitarian organizations in other countries, an article in the mass-circulated Soviet illustrated magazine Ogonyok (Number 27, July 1977) pointed out that Trifonov was convicted not only for violating Article 121, but also for a series of petty crimes, such as serving liquor to a minor, theft, and hooliganism—charges that were added after Trifonov was already serving his labor camp sentence.

In 1980 Trifonov was released upon the expiration of his four-year sentence. He had offers of fellowships and teaching positions from universities in the United States and Western Europe, but his requests for an exit visa were repeatedly denied. He lived at his mother’s apartment in Leningrad and supported himself by working as a furniture mover and stevedore. Trifonov is short and slight, but manual labor is usually the only kind of work available to convicted homosexuals in the Soviet Union. A number of Soviet gay men have gone abroad in recent years by arranging a fictitious marriage with a foreign woman to be followed by a divorce by mutual consent later. But Trifonov was warned by the Soviet security agents not to try this stratagem because he would be denounced to the consulate of the country in question.

During the years that followed his release from camp, Trifonov continued the activities for which he was tried in 1976: writing poetry, associating with visiting foreign tourists, and sending some of his poems to friends abroad (all these activities are legal and permitted under the constitution of the USSR). But because his writings still express a homosexual sensibility, the KGB decided to go after him one more time. The charges now being lodged have ostensibly nothing to do with the poet’s sexual orientation or his literary activities. On January 20, 1986, Trifonov was officially informed that a complaint against him had been filed under Article 206 of the second criminal code of the Russian Socialist Federated Republic (central Russia, as opposed to the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and other republics of the Soviet Union). This is the article that forbids “aggravated hooliganism.”

The situation, as reconstructed by Trifonov’s friends, is as follows. Two women who live in the same apartment house as Trifonov and his mother have long coveted the Trifonovs’ apartment. Because of this they have made Mrs. Trifonov’s life as uncomfortable as they could. On one occasion, witnessed by an American visitor, they attacked her physically, leading the poet to come to his mother’s aid. Now the KGB got these two hostile neighbors to make a sworn statement to the effect that Gennady Trifonov had “on November 13 and December 2, 1985, brutally beaten his neighbors, two weak, defenseless, and lonely women.” The plaintiffs are ready to produce numerous witnesses to this attack, people who will swear that it actually happened in their presence. The entire case is being fabricated in such a manner that Trifonov would be deprived of all possibilities of being defended by Amnesty International, visiting foreign legislators, or gay publications or organizations in the West. The man is being framed for being a homosexual poet, but the mechanism of the frame-up is constructed to show him as a brutal bully, something that anyone who knows him will recognize as a patent impossibility.

A good friend of the poet who lives in the US received from him a letter full of rage and despair, dated January 23, 1986. Trifonov’s mother, who valiantly stood by him and did everything she could to secure his release during his years at the hard labor camp (1976–1980), has suffered a stroke since the recent developments and is now unable to leave her bed. In the letter of January 23, Trifonov wrote that he was still free, but had been warned by the authorities that the complaint against him was being investigated and that he could expect to be arrested any day. A portion of this letter reads:

If you think that I’m scared you are wrong. What I feel is shame! I am ashamed that, as I near the age of forty, my country which I love has permitted me one career only, that of a convict. Here I am NOBODY and NOTHING. I live in dire poverty, my social profile arouses disgust, my political unreliability (who could have thought!) alarms the people around me, it is dangerous to associate with me, no one here needs my writings. But they won’t allow me to depart, they won’t allow me to live here, nor do they propose that I die. I AM INFINITELY TIRED OF LIVING THIS LIFE AND SEE NO SENSE IN CONTINUING IT, because I no longer have the strength or the means to resist all this calumny, lies and hatred.

The poet’s last wish, should he not be able to survive the long period of incarceration that is now threatening him, is to have his body shipped to Lawrence, Kansas, where he has several close friends:

BURY ME IN LAWRENCE, PUT ON MY GRAVE ANY KIND OF STONE YOU WISH, PROVIDED THAT IT BEARS THE INSCRIPTION “FREE AT LAST.”

Konstantin Kuzminsky, the Russian poet and anthologist, who now lives in New York, considers that Trifonov’s most recent poetry places him on a level comparable to that of the other great Russian literary artists who were homosexuals, such as Mikhail Kuzmin (1875–1936) and Nikolai Kliuev (1887–1937). But while these predecessors were honored in pre-Revolutionary times as the major poets they were, Trifonov has to endure literary obscurity and brutal persecution. Like Trifonov’s other friends, Kuzminsky believes that the best way of helping him now is to give his situation the greatest possible publicity in the West. Letters to Soviet embassies and consulates would be of value. Letters of encouragement to Gennady Trifonov himself (in any language) can be addressed to:

Gennady Trifonov

191065 Leningrad

Poste restante

USSR.*

(Additional information provided by Konstantin Kuzminsky and Michael Biggins.)

  1. *

    For additional information about Gennady Trifonov and for translations of his poetry into English, see the following books: Michael Denneny, Charles Ortleb, and Thomas Steele, eds., The Christopher Street Reader (Putnam/Coward-McCann, 1983); Stephen Coote, ed., The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (Penguin, 1983); and Winston Leyland, ed., Orgasms of Light (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1977). Also, the following periodicals: Christopher Street (March 1977 and January 1979); The Advocate (November 29, 1978); Gay Sunshine, No. 32 (Spring 1977); Gay News (London: May 19–June 1, 1977).

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