An LGBTQ+ Museum Opens in Russia... Likely Not For Long

Wednesday November 30, 2022

LGBTQ+ activist and historian Pyotr Voskresensky
LGBTQ+ activist and historian Pyotr Voskresensky  

St. Petersburg residents are getting to see an unusual museum, at least for today's increasingly repressive Russia: One celebrating LGBTQ+ culture. "Russia's newest museum opened its doors on November 27. It may close them for good before the week is out," reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The museum is the work of LGBTQ+ activist and historian Pyotr Voskresensky, who was inspired to create it after visiting the home of 19th century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and found it scrubbed of any reference to his personal life. The greatest of 19th century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky was said to be gay — some even suggested his death was self-induced for fears his homosexuality was going to be revealed. Social conservatives have long whitewashed the composer's personal life, but Voskresensky placed a portrait of him prominently in his museum.

Why Voskresensky's museum may be closing is due to the "country's newly toughened legislation against so-called lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ+) 'propaganda,' which was passed by the State Duma — the lower house of parliament — in its final reading on November 24, [and] is expected to become law by December 1, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has said," according to RFE/RL.

"Under the law, Russia's first museum of LGBTQ+ culture would become illegal."

But Vosresensky insists his museum offers a vital link to Russia's cultural past that the present government wants to cancel. "The context of the opening of this museum is important," Voskresensky said, "because our country is in a period of its transformation into a total dictatorship, and it is being built on a new ideology in which history plays a key role. Our past is our future, according to the government. And this imaginary past contains only 'traditional values.' There were no LGBTQ+ people."

His collection may be small — about three dozen artifacts including decorative items, jewelry, and books that he collected over many years — but with them he aims to demonstrate that "there have been gays in Russia" for centuries. "Traditional values are more than just large, monogamous families," he said. "Queer people fit in there as well."

Nor, Vosresensky says, is this the first LGBTQ+ museum in the city. He told RFE/RT that there was one in the 19th century. "What became of that collection is unknown," he said. "But we do know it was not unique and that there were several similar ones. People suppose they were destroyed by relatives who were trying to save the reputation of the collector or by the collectors themselves, who feared persecution by the authorities."

Asked about official pushback, Voskresensky expressed confidence. "Of course, we will survive any repression," he told RFE/RL's North.Realities. "The museum itself is a monument to the fact that we have done so before. We survived the communists and [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin. We survived the Nazis. We will survive all of them."

If the law goes into effect, Voskresensky says it will become a "museum in exile," a "refugee" in some more welcoming country until the exhibits can be shown again in Russia.

However, LGBTQ+ themes and figures will continue to be on display in St. Petersburg museums, including the renowned State Hermitage Museum, Voskresensky told RFE/RL. Local activists have created an online guidebook to "queer art" in the Hermitage.

"Let them try to remove and ban it all," Voskresensky said. "They can't do it."