Queer Exile: A Lecture On Those Once Forgotten

Blakely Dishman

Features Editor


This past Wednesday Oct. 27, Dr. Roman Utkin came to campus to discuss his research in a presentation titled “Queer Exile: Russian Émigrés in Interwar Paris and Berlin.” Dr. Utkin’s presentation was sponsored by the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) IIF Grant, the Cultural Events Committee, the Department of German and Russian Studies and the Department of History. The event was held both in person at Kauke lecture hall and virtually on Zoom. The virtual option was used by members of the Wooster community, as well as faculty and students from other GLCA institutions, such as Kenyon College and Oberlin College. During this event Dr. Utkin, of Wesleyan University, examined the impact of being a queer refugee, or “an exile within exile.” As a professor of Eastern European studies, Dr. Utkin focused on the Russian exiles living in Berlin and Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution. Professor Filimonova of the Russian studies department said that “This talk shed light on the attitudes toward homosexuality among some of Russia’s most prominent émigré figures, contributing to our understanding of the double alienation that queer émigrés felt in exile in interwar Europe, at a time when homosexuality was criminally prosecuted in many countries.”

The presentation began with an informational portion about the minimal representation of queer people in art and literature documenting the exiles living in Berlin and Paris. When asked about her thoughts on the lack of representation of queer Russian exiles in the historical record, Nina Anderson ’24 said “It was heartening to see that things are being done to combat queer erasure among Russian émigrés. When I first started reading Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, I did not know that she was queer, but after learning about her relationship with Sophia Pastok in the lecture, I was able to get a new, maybe truer perspective on who she was and how she felt while she was writing.” 

Following the brief historical context, the audience in the lecture hall was immersed in the case study of Sergey Vladimirovich Nabokov. Nabokov was the younger brother of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, the prolific author of Lolita. Sergey Nabokov was a gay man who traveled between Berlin and Paris during his time of exile. When asked about her thoughts on this specific case study, Katherin Yordy ’22 said, “Dr. Utkin’s use of the Nabokov brothers as a case study was fascinating because Vladimir Nabokov is such a prominent figure in both Russian and English literary canon, but I never knew he had a brother who was openly gay during a time where it was so dangerous to be so.” Dr. Utkin detailed the tumultuous history of Sergey Nabokov’s relatively short life using a variety of images, which included everything from pictures from his childhood to pictures of him and his husband. Attendees were also shown images of his letters to various friends and family members. 

Dr.Utkin used software to revive part of a letter that had been crossed out as a form of censorship. Nikolai Kowalchuk ’23 said, “it was pretty cool how he used that software to figure out what the redacted letter was saying.” By retrieving this once lost segment of the letter, Dr. Utkin has made a significant contribution to the historical record. Further, a different letter written by Sergey is the first written documentation of a gay man coming out that historians have found. 

Unfortunately, Sergey Nabokov was killed in the Nazi concentration camp of Neuengamme in 1945. However, the narrative that Dr. Utkin has created surrounding Sergey’s life gives a valuable glimpse into the concept of queer exile. 

Erik Livingston ’22 said “this talk was fantastic and I hope we can have similar lectures in the future. The work of queer Russian academics and works regarding the queer Russian and Eurasian experiences are so important to showcase.” Stay tuned to learn more about lectures put on by various departments.