I get your letters, telling me
that I’m a poet, which is dazzling,
that this is why my lofty star
is not extinguished in the dark.
GENNADY TRIFONOV, a gay Russian poet and writer, died in March 2011 at age 65. I came to know him after he was released from a four-year term in a Siberian prison where he had been incarcerated for being openly gay, although the Communist authorities had conjured up specious charges and tried him, after two decades of harassment, in a closed courtroom in Leningrad, as it was then called. The late Simon Karlinsky of UC–Berkeley, one of his translators, spearheaded a move to keep Gennady’s name public in the West lest the KGB attempt to punish him again. I read about him in an article by Karlinsky in The New York Review of Books and got his address prior to a trip to the Soviet Union in 1986, not long after his release.
My effort had a disturbing outcome, largely because of my naïveté about the lengths to which the KGB would go to silence gay people as well as others, especially those openly critical of their abuse. I wrote to Gennady in advance of my trip and told him Intourist probably would house us at the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel on the Gulf of Finland, where I had stayed on an earlier visit. The hotel is far removed from the center of the city to minimize contact between Soviet citizens and foreigners who might infect them with democratic ideas.
Upon arrival, with the help of our lovely Intourist guide Anna, I sent Gennady a telegram in Russian to confirm where I was staying, little realizing that telegrams are delivered on slips of paper without an envelop and placed in the recipient’s mailbox for all the world to see. That was a mistake. It was compounded by my ignorance that Intourist guides were employees of the KGB.
Gennady called the hotel on an afternoon when I was away and was told that I was not registered there. He persisted and called again the next day and was given the same line. But through the window in my room I saw someone I thought might be Gennady walking across the plaza, so I went down to the lobby and found him waiting. He was short and compact, with fingers and teeth yellowed by cheap cigarettes.
He joined our group of seven for dinner and afterward I invited him to go walking with me. Anna suggested that she go along, but I told that her he knew enough English and I knew enough tourist Russian that we could communicate without her help. Assuming the bushes along the gulf shore were not bugged, we sat and talked, and he showed me the tattoo on his chest identifying him as a prisoner. While in prison work camp, he had had to work with dangerous chemicals that damaged his eyes and lungs. He was secretly able to write letters and poems, which were smuggled out of prison. A gay newspaper in Chicago asked me to write about him, but he requested that I refrain from doing so, although I was allowed to take his photograph.
Then, fool that I was, I invited him to my room to give him some books. I later realized that the room was bugged—not that we said or did anything compromising. We were to meet the next evening to go to his apartment where he lived with a lover who spoke fluent English. But that was not to be. When he didn’t call, I rang him up. He spoke rapidly and told me it would be impossible to meet because after he left my hotel the previous evening “there was trouble, bad trouble with the police.” “Please do not call me again. Goodbye.” This encounter with Soviet repression was, to say the least, quite unnerving.
Immediately upon my return to Chicago, I wrote to him, saying, “I hope this finds you in as good health as you were when I saw you,” meaning, of course, I hoped he had not been beaten again by the police. Over the next fifteen or twenty years we continued to correspond. At one point he revealed that after one of his gay-themed books had been published, he was fired from teaching in high school and told he was a disgrace. His letters were a chronicle of the privations and repressions endured by most Soviet people, especially gay ones.
Not much of Gennady’s work has been translated into English, although more is available in German. Four of his prison poems do appear in an anthology published by Gay Sunshine Press titled Out of the Blue: Russia’s Hidden Gay Literature, blue (goluboy) being the Russian slang word for gay. Also in the volume is an abridged version of a long letter, translated by Kevin Moss of Middlebury College, who edited the volume, written by Trifonov from prison defending the rights of homosexuals. It was smuggled out and later published in Gay Sunshine Journal. Among his other prose is a novella, Two Ballets by George Balanchine, selections from which appear in the above cited volume.
As they were published, Gennady sent me a few of his books inscribed to me. Alas, I know even less Russian now than I did when I met him.
Charles-Gene McDaniel is a Chicago writer and professor of journalism (emeritus) at Roosevelt University.