Rudolf Nureyev was one of several world caliber gay and bisexual ballet dancers to come out of the Russia/the Soviet Union in the 20th century. He is credited with establishing an elevated role for male ballet dancers who had previously been used more as a support system for the female leads.In addition to numerous modern dance and ballet pieces, Nureyev had roles in several films, as well as a comedic guest appearance on The Muppet Show. Although he was raised in the Soviet Union he impulsively defected while on tour in France, an incident which led to a decades-long grudge from the KGB that kept him from returning to his home country until he was dying from AIDS and in a poor state to perform.
It is uncertain whether Nureyev would be better described as gay or bisexual. His on and off partner of 25 years was a fellow dancer, a Dane named Erik Bruhn, but he did have heterosexual relationships in his younger years.
Born to an aristocratic family wealthier than the ruling Romanov line, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston, wasted no time in chasing the high life. He grew up embarking on daring crossdressing adventures, then attended school at University College, Oxford, and married the niece of the Tsar. Things took a turn for the awkward when he took part in Rasputin’s murder, and he and his family went into exile – after purloining enough jewelry and Rembrandt paintings to sustain them, naturally. Many of Yusupov’s later exploits revolved around profiting off the Rasputin story. Thanks to his libel lawsuit against MGM, American movies now feature ending disclaimers stating that the preceding film was a work of fiction.
Yusupov succeeded in evading the worst of Rasputin’s famous doom-saying prophecy and lived happily abroad with his wife and child for more than fifty years following his murder. His bisexuality earns him a place on this blog.
Dubbed “Russia’s Sappho” by one of her biographers, Sophia Parnok was – as implied – both a lesbian and a poet. Her first book of verse, Poems, was among the first in Russia to deal with female homosexual relationships. As she moved between lovers she published further volumes, including the libretto and poetry for Armenian composer Alexander Spendiaryan‘s opera Almast. When Soviet censors barred her from further publications she was forced to turn to translation work to pay the bills, though she still composed her poetry in secret. After her death by heart attack she was memorialized in a plaque her hometown erected for her and two other members of her family.
Translations of several of Parnok’s poems are available here.
How much Sofia Kovalevskaya might have accomplished in the field of mathematics if she hadn’t wasted half her time fighting with universities over their male-only policies is an open question, but there’s no dispute that in her short life she made significant strides in several areas, including partial differential equations. Her ascent as an academic was fraught with workarounds like studying abroad (Russian universities forbade women from entering); private tutoring with Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstraß; and earning a doctorate through the submission of her papers as a substitute dissertation without taking the required exams. She also held the distinction of being the first woman to hold a full professorship and to edit a scientific journal.
It is uncertain whether Kovalevskaya was attracted to women, men, or both (she is tentatively tagged ‘lesbian’ here). She married a fellow student so that he could sign papers authorizing her to study in Germany, but the two had a tumultuous relationship that ended in their permanent separation, at which point Kovalevskaya moved in with Swedish writer
Anne Charlotte Leffler; the two maintained a “romantic friendship” for the rest of Kovalevskaya’s life.
Kovalevskaya’s name is currently shared with a lunar crater and several grants.
Tchaikovsky – the brilliant composer of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and dozens of other classic works – occupied (and still occupies) an unusual position as a gay Russian celebrity. His music’s worth is beyond dispute, recognized as it has been on an international scale for the past century and a half; his sexuality, however, has become highly politicized and contentious, caught up in light disputes between musicologists, and his home country’s more serious ingrained homophobia.
During Tchaikovsky’s lifetime Russian music was only beginning to come into its own. Traditional folk tunes were viewed as being at war with Western European conservatory-style teachings, and there was little formal acclaim or recognition to be won as a composure. The limited opportunities offered to musicians convinced Tchaikovsky’s parents that he would be better in the civil service realm, but he abandoned the promise of steady work, and was lucky enough with his timing to enroll in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory’s premiere class. From there, he managed to navigate the turbulent nationalist waters well enough to rise to a fame based on what was viewed as a uniquely Russian style of composition, and one shaped by the discipline of a formal musical education.
The musicologist dispute over the degree to which Tchaikovsky’s sexuality influenced his composition can also be viewed as a debate over 19th century Russia’s sexual permissiveness, a point of historical contention. Some critics maintain that surrounding cultural hostility fostered in him a sense of guilt, while others maintain that a combination of Russia being more open than is popularly realized, the protection from legal hostility his fame brought him, and the close circle of friends, family, and lovers he was able to keep, made his sexuality a relatively small concern in his life. What is known is that he freely confided his love affairs in his sister, Modest, and that he was married and had a few other relationships with women, though those ended poorly. (His marriage, for example, only held for a few months before he fled.)
Nowadays, anti-gay laws in Russia are leading to reported self-censorship on the part of producers of an upcoming Tchaikovsky biopic. Acknowledging that one of their country’s national heroes had same-sex attractions may put the filmmakers at risk for fines under new regulations that prohibit “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” so they have reportedly adopted the spin that Tchaikovsky suffered from rumors about his sexuality.