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Kissing in the Kremlin

How Russian artist Slava Mogutin nearly held the first modern gay marriage

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

On April 12, 1994, Russian-born artist and activist Slava Mogutin celebrated his 20th birthday by attempting to marry his then boyfriend, American artist Robert Filippini. This image of them kissing on the steps of Wedding Palace No. 4 in Moscow (Mogutin is on the right), captured by their friend Laura Ilyina, became an international symbol for gay oppression in the ex-Soviet state. Mogutin was granted political asylum in the US in 1995 and now works as an artist in New York. The image gained a disturbing new context in June this year, when Putin’s government passed a law forbidding pro-homosexual “propaganda”.  

“I met Robert at an art opening. He was a member of Act Up and Queer Nation. We decided to stage this marriage as an art performance to bring awareness to the situation with gay rights within the country – I had this rage against the system, which was unfair and unjust and essentially completely corrupt. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia but a homophobic attitude prevailed because of 70 years of persecution.

We only faxed out a few invitations the day before to our friends and writers and news agencies in Moscow, so it was a huge surprise when we turned up and there was this enormous crowd of reporters trying to get interviews with us. The flowers we’re holding were given to us by supporters, and that was actually the best part of the event – they helped us to get through this whole ordeal, because we didn’t expect such a great reaction and great response. Everyone cheered when we kissed!

Now the situation has gone from bad to worse. It breaks my heart to know that gay people have been tortured for years – marginalised and harassed and prosecuted

The director of the wedding palace was actually very sweet, and she allowed us the forms and told us and the reporters that she had nothing against our intent to get married, but she just couldn’t do it because of the Russian laws. Obviously we weren’t surprised. I don’t remember if the women in the background of the picture were employees of the wedding palace or passersby. 

Shortly after the marriage attempt, we started receiving harassing phone calls and anonymous death threats. They threatened to throw us into jail and psychiatric clinics, and I was charged with hooliganism – the same thing recently used against Pussy Riot. My lawyer advised me to leave the country if I could, so I managed to sneak out when Columbia University invited me for some talks.

Now the situation has gone from bad to worse. It breaks my heart to know that gay people have been tortured for years – marginalised and harassed and prosecuted. I appreciate the message of celebrities speaking out against the situation in Russia, but many of them are just using it as a way to get in the headlines again. I mean, Madonna did something more brave when she performed in Saint Petersburg and spoke about gay rights, and she’s now fighting criminal charges. But I wish celebrities would put more pressure on the American government to boycott the Olympics in winter 2014. It’s against the Olympic charter and a total hypocrisy, and that’s what I hate.

Looking back, I was a kid. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It took me months, if not years, to recover from the shock and trauma and all the harassment. Would I ever do something like this again in today’s Russia? Honestly, I’m not so sure.”