Researching Queer Archives from the Former Eastern Bloc

Karol Radziszewski began his art publication DIK Fagazine in 2005, and has since delved into the little-known queer archives of former Soviet Union countries.

In 2005, Karol Radziszewski, a young graduate from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, began DIK Fagazine. In Radziszewski’s words, the fanzine is “the first art magazine from Eastern Europe devoted entirely to the subject of masculinity and homosexuality in the broad context of culture and art, with particular focus on the region.”

DIK Fagazine gradually evolved from a publication addressing current events in Poland to a platform exploring queer archives from former Soviet Union countries. Radziszewski wanted to prove that queer culture already existed in the region during the socialist era.

But Radziszewski’s goal was anything but easy to achieve. Male homosexuality was made a crime in the USSR in the 1930s, and that law only changed after the dissolution of the Union in 1993. Alarming levels of homophobia still persist in numerous countries of the former Soviet Bloc. When DIK’s interviewees talk about their lives and their experiences as gay men, they virtually expose themselves.

Beyond Poland, Radziszewski looked at the different queer scenes in Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, mainly during the 1980s, and traced and compared cruising areas, gay nude beaches, zines portraying the lives of gay men, and the first reactions to the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic.

With few exceptions, many of the dynamics and experiences described proved to be similar, including a lack of organized community, similar cruising areas, and nonexistent or very few clubs and bars that catered exclusively to a homosexual clientele.

Over the years, DIK Fagazine has established itself as an extraordinary source of information about male gay communities in Eastern Europe. Published in an edition of 500 copies for each issue, and designed by Martin Falck, the zine’s aesthetic recalls amateur publications, those very ones that were clandestinely circulating during the Soviet era. Pictures are mainly black and white, and archival images mix with contemporary photographs.

In 2015 Radziszewski also established the Queer Archives Institute (QAI), with the aim of better organizing the material collected during the editing of DIK Fagazine. Over the past two years documents from the QAI have been displayed in Brazil, Belarus, Ukraine, Croatia, the Netherlands, and Poland. A selection from the archives is currently on view at Centrala, in Birmingham, England. I reached out to Radziszewski, who shared his work with DIK Fagazine, QAI, and queer archives.

Francesco Dama: What was the original idea behind DIK?

Karol Radziszewski: The first issues of DIK focused on contemporary Poland. I was responding to the social situation around me, which was also connected to my recent coming out. It was only after a few issues that I became interested in history, archives, and discovering “queer ancestors.” Initially I had no idea how to find them; I was not even sure if they existed at all, because there was very little information available on the subject.

FD: But then you found resources outside your home country.

KR: The fifth issue of DIK, in 2016, was already dedicated to Ukraine, and the following one to Romania (2007), but it was only when I was working on the “BEFORE ’89’” issue that I began to travel a lot, looking for archival sources in various countries from the former Eastern Bloc, comparing and collating materials — the first queer publications, pictures of gay beeches, descriptions of cruising sites, anecdotes.

FD: How do you find your informants?

KR: Usually, after arriving in a new country, I ask acquaintances about older people who can tell me something, who remember places and stories from the past. When I find the first person, they usually recommends me to another one. Oral history is the basis of my work.

FD: In 2009 you got in touch with Ryszard Kisiel, the Polish activist behind the publishing of Filo, a gay zine, semi-illegally distributed in Poland between 1986 and 1990. At the time, you described the zine as your “newly discovered ancestor.” How much did meeting him influence your practice as an artist and the concept behind DIK?

KR: Meeting Ryszard was key to furthering my practice. Among other things, it has led to my ongoing project called Kisieland, which draws on his archive. I was particularly captivated by his directness, the lack of prudishness, and his positive attitude towards sexuality. His photographs and his zine, even though created in the socialist period, are riddled with humor, irony, and self-irony — characteristics that are sometimes sorely lacking among contemporary activists. After I met Kisiel, rich archival materials emerged. However, in the following years I realized that he was an exception, and things did not work so easily with others. Most people, especially from the older generation, hide their sexual orientation out of fear of homophobia. I also realized that with this newly discovered history, DIK could focus more on the “queer before gay” period, which was refreshing.

FD: You often mention the concept of “queer before gay,” where the term “gay” refers to a precisely coded sexuality versus the wider concept of “queer.”

KR: Several pages of Filo discussed the meaning of the term “gay” — its meaning, if it should be adopted in the zine, and whether to employ the English word or its Polish translation, “gej.” The 1980s in Poland, and elsewhere, were a time before the first gay organizations, before activism, even before a LGBT community was built, before the “gay” identity was built. So those years were rather “queer” in the sense that the concept of sexuality was more flexible and those men who would be later defined “gay” were just following their desires rather than fighting for LGBT rights. All of this changed in the 1990s.

FD: Reading DIK I’ve come across quite a few unexpected facts. For instance, the first Czech magazine dedicated to homosexuality was published as early as 1931. In 1932, Poland decriminalized homosexuality, decades before the UK and East and West Germany. Nevertheless, you describe your home country as still pretty homophobic. This made me think about how history, as taught in school, is actually made of many different histories, each moving at a different pace. DIK groups together some of these lesser heard narratives.

KR: Poland is homophobic mainly because of the omnipresent influence of Catholicism, which was also particularly strong during socialist times. DIK rarely addresses politics directly, but even only researching and describing alternative histories is quite subversive, because it fights against the mainstream narrative imposed by politicians: according to them, everything that is considered evil and sinful, including homosexuality, came to our “pure” country from outside. History is literature and I am writing my own.

FD: DIK Fagazine uses geography as a way to organize archival material: each number of the magazine tends to be dedicated to a country of the former Soviet Bloc. Recent facts and events in Europe, such as the migrant crisis, the gruesome resurgence of nationalism, Brexit, or the Catalan independence referendum have put the focus back on borders, geopolitics, and national identity.

KR: At the beginning of my work on DIK I felt the need to recount histories in their concrete context and to put them together, hence the monographic issues devoted to individual countries. I also wanted to clearly show that the former Eastern Bloc is not a monolith, but a group of very different countries, each with its unique history. What I am currently doing within the Queer Archives Institute, however, is much more comparatively driven, oriented towards building new connections and — with the help of the archives — devising a transnational (hi)story.

FD: How do you contribute to this transnational history?

KR: I focus on the so-called “global East” and “global South.” I want to create queer histories of the peripheries, alternatives to the already known history. I am also keen on expanding my network. The exhibition QAI/CO in Bogotá, curated by Juan Betancurth, has just come to an end. We showed a fragment of the Polish archives, but mainly on view there were the results of local research carried out especially for that exhibition, which resulted in an incredible collection of queer Colombian archives.

FD: So should we expect the QAI to shift from its original frame, focused on the former Soviet bloc?

KR: The inaugural exhibition of the QAI was held in 2016 in São Paulo, showcasing research I did in Brazil, juxtaposing it with Eastern European materials. I am interested in comparing underground queer activities in countries with a history of right-wing regimes with analogous activities under socialist rule. And because DIK is now officially published by the QAI, I would like to devote its next issues to South American countries.

QAI/CEE continues at Centrala (Unit 4 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street, Birmingham, UK) through January 6, 2018.

Correction: A previous version of this article was headlined “Researching Queer Archives from the Soviet Union.” Not all of the countries researched were part of the Soviet Union so this has been amended to “the former Eastern Bloc.”

by Francesco Dama
Source – Hyperallergic