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tags: Russia, sexuality, LGBTQ history, Eastern Europe, postcommunist, Post-Soviet, cinema studies
IN THE YEARS AFTER THE FALL OF COMMUNISM, the economies of Eastern Europe floundered, whiplashed by swift conversions to capitalism. While reformists shredded safety nets and GDPs tanked, inflation and unemployment rose to perilous heights, leaving young men from Hungary to Belarus desperate for work. Many of them thus found themselves reluctant laborers in one of the few booming export businesses: gay porn.
The cut-rate films they made—Hungary for Men, Comrades in Arms, Perestroïka—are a strange blend of Communist kitsch with Western characteristics. In one, a soldier in the uniform of the post-Soviet Russian army seduces a comrade under a portrait of Gorbachev while a book by Brezhnev lies on the table. In others, blank-faced boys pleasure themselves in backward baseball caps and T-shirts from Nike and the 1992 U.S. Olympics “Dream Team.” Together they form an odd archive of appetite and exploitation at the end of history.
William E. Jones splices these post-Soviet pornos together in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (on view now through the David Kordansky Gallery) to produce a portrait of gay desire in that moment of epochal flux when Eastern Europe shifted from communism to capitalism, and sex and spectacle became intertwined like never before. As Jones explains at the outset, “Even in an unlikely place, it is possible to find traces of recent history,” and here the focus is on the establishing shots, screen tests, and uncanny lulls—the “boring parts”—of porn. While the camera lingers on the bodies of the actors, they’re never shown in sexual situations or naked. Reassembled by Jones, many of the sequences from these films come to be defined by their anachronisms—artifacts of the recent past that feel ghostly amidst this new free market fantasia of Eastern European porn being produced for export with Western money.
The earliest year covered in The Fall, 1993, was the year that consensual same-sex relationships between men were decriminalized in Russia. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things to come out of this toleration of gay sex was its commodification, a way of selling people back their identities and desires: to be “free” is to pay. Desire has never been something that existed in a vacuum but is instead informed by dominant cultures and packaged for sale—sleazy VHS pornos in this case.