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Maya Shkolnik ’21 Explores Queer Resistance in Russia Through Art Forms

 

Courtesy of Maya Shkonik

Queerness hurts the Russian Image of Masculinity, and is thus, is treated like a Western invention in Russia, according to Brace Center Student Fellow Maya Shkolnik ’21. After months of research, Shkolnik shared and expanded upon these ideas in her presentation entitled, “Queer Oppression, Resistance, and Art under the Gaze of Post-Soviet Russia,” during her virtual presentation on Friday, April 16. 

“They believe that queerness is a simple phenomenon that can be removed from society, or that’s what they hope for, rather than having it being about identity. So just to reiterate, the common sentiment is that queerness is an invention of America and Western Europe. Queerness is not considered Russian and it’s not considered real. And this exclusion and denial is violence. And there are laws in place to make this belief a reality in Russia,” said Shkolnik. 

An interdisciplinary lens focused much of Shkolnik’s presentation as she discussed queer resistance and what it means to be queer in Russia. According to Shkolnik, she particularly wished to explore more about her personal identity, being a queer individual from a family of Russian background.

“This has really been a looking glass into two identities that I have felt pretty disconnected from. The first being my Russian identity. My parents both moved—immigrated from Russia when they were about my age— and they don’t talk too much about what Russia was like, and I don’t blame them. But their attempts to shield me from what Russia is kind of makes me feel really disconnected from it… The second is my queer identity. Queer people know you’re raised and socialized to be straight and considered very much othered. So I’m still learning to fully embrace my queerness, and this is why I am so thankful again to have the opportunity to present two parts of my identity in different contexts,” said Shkolnik. 

According to student attendee Leverett Wilson ’23, Schkolnik not only succeeded in conveying her research, but also established a sense of eager curiosity through her interaction with the audience. Wilson ’23 reflected on Shkolnik’s use of the chat function, where Shkolnik’s mother—an active participant—shared aspects of her own experience in Russia. 

“[Shkolnik’s research] really seemed like it came out of pure curiosity and intrigue. She talked about how she had a disconnect with her identities and this presentation was sort of a way of uncovering it, and it was really interesting. Her mother was in the Zoom chat and giving some little excerpts of certain historical facts, because she had lived in Russia… it didn’t feel artificial at all. It felt like she was really speaking to us about something that she was really interested in and something she was sort of intrigued to create change,” said Wilson.

Shkolnik’s international lens prompted students to consider queerness in other international communities, according to Kassie Archambault, the chair of the Russian department and Shkolnik’s faculty advisor. 

“A main takeaway from [Shkolnik’s] presentation is that queer resistance will look different in other parts of the world based on a country’s historical and political context. I hope that [Shkolnik’s] presentation has inspired students not only to research further what [the LGBTQIA+ community] experiences in Russia (and she provided some great activists to follow on social media), but that she has also inspired students to look into queer resistance and activism in other countries,” Archambault wrote in an email to The Phillipian

According to Shkolnik, the ongoing homophobia within Russia can be attributed to Western capital imperialism, one that is characterized by its social and political atmosphere. Shkolnik believes that further conversation of queerness with a local focus may lead to more acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Shkolnik said, “A take away is queer space in Russia proves to be contradictory in its foes, intentions, and even, the circumstances of how it came to be. It may be pretty hard to contextualize that a country so much like us, might take as long as we did or longer to wrestle with social, political homophobia. Homophobia is about a manifestation of Western capital superialism. And local context is really important, conversations of queerness and its revolutionary aspects depending very much on where you are in the world and what has been going on.” 

Shkolnik concluded her presentation by encouraging her audience to perform their own research about Russia, the LGBTQIA+ community, or anything that might interest them. Shkolnik’s emphasis on the power of conversations specifically resonated with her friend and fellow Women’s Forum board member, Ingrid Appen ’22.

“ [It’s a] very important message that I hadn’t seen in other CaMD and Brace presentations, but I think it’s definitely important to tell students to learn about what they’re passionate about, and take research into your own hands rather than just kind of listening. It’s important to go out and try to learn something,” said Appen.