Andreas Fux, Im Büro (Moskau), 1992

“The grandsons of World War II victors gaze out at us from the photos: young Russians whom the photographer captured in November 1992 in Moscow,” writes Jürgen Lemke in the forward to The Russians Are Coming (1993), the book accompanying Andreas Fux’s exhibition of the same name at the Janssen gallery in Berlin.

Fux, an East German–born photographer, travelled to Moscow shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and captured these images of young men in very little clothing, posing for the camera in offices, metro cars, and rooftops, sweating in saunas, and rolling around together in bed. The actual sexualities of the models are unknown, but their affects range from pensive or melancholy to playful and positively joyous.

The symbols of the Soviet Union, a country whose ashes were smoldering, are never far. One muscular blond named Nikolas is captured in bed wearing a Soviet military jacket. On the next page, he stands nude on an office desk with a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev looking over his shoulder. Another young man, outside on a snowy rooftop, takes off his winter jacket to reveal he is wearing nothing else except for the pair of jeans lowered around his ankles; the red star on the spire of the Moscow State University building hangs above in the sky, looking over it all.

Andreas is a gay man who grew up in East Berlin and trained as an electrician before developing as a self-taught photographer. His first published photographs were male nudes in the East German lifestyle publication Das Magazin in 1988.

“I was the only photographer who didn't photograph female nudes but male nudes,” he said. “They caused a lot of uproar, albeit in a positive sense. Then suddenly there was a turning point ... It was no longer a question of staging the body aesthetically, but of finding one's own identity and contributing to the political discussion.”

As a record of a gay East German man turning his gaze onto (post-)Soviet boys of unspecified sexualities, these photos document queer desire across two sides of the socialist bloc. This bloc, like the rest of the world, saw a variety of attitudes towards queer people. On one end was Andreas’ home country, consistently a global leader in gay and trans rights, whose decades of legal reforms and activism are largely to thank for modern Germany's contemporary pro-gay turn. On the other side was the USSR, which—despite pioneering gay legislation in the wake of the Russian Revolution—was less queer friendly in comparison.

Though Soviet attitudes towards homosexuality were beginning to liberalise in the 1980s, the tanks would be rolled out not long after to violently dismantle the USSR and, with it, the rest of the socialist bloc. After neoliberalism's “shock therapy” and poverty amplified reactionary sentiment and ushered in right-wing leadership to Russia and other post-socialist states, homophobia came out in full force, the optimism represented by affairs like the “Russian Stonewall” was extinguished, and queer life in the post-Soviet countries has continued, in many ways, to only get worse.

“The faces in the photos do not say, “I know you want me!” The bodies are not yet posed with the smug perfection of Western models,” writes Lemke, somewhat ambiguously. “Not yet.” These words put these generally cheerful photos in dialogue with more somber works like William E. Jones' The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography (1998) or Wiktor Grodecki's Not Angels But Angels (1994), which, somewhat obliquely and with distinct artistic languages, explore the economic realities of sexual imperialism on countries like the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia as Westerners arrived to exploit the the naivety Lemke suggests, through pornography and prostitution, respectively. 

The dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the introduction of the free market saw living standards and life expectancy drop at a rate that had never been seen before in history, and these boys were part of a generation that for the first time had to deal with the dire possibilities of homelessness and unemployment, as well as with porn and prostitution, a world where sex was now connected to money and where selling their bodies could become a real necessity.

“Leningrad is once again St. Petersburg, and in November 1992 a can of beer from the West cost almost as much as one month's rent for a two-room apartment,” writes Lemke. Somewhat inexplicably, in the next sentence, he continues: “The phrase ‘market economy’ sounds like salvation.”

“At long last, a generation with access to passports good ‘for the whole world.’ The Russians will be coming.”

Homocommunist, January 25, 2023