Places of Tenderness and Heat. The Queer Milieu of Fin-de-Siècle St. Petersburg

Petri, Olga
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 254 S.
$ 48.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Oberländer, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Berlin

This book is a marvelous achievement for many reasons. Firstly, it takes the reader on a stroll through queer St. Petersburg at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, with homosexuality in Imperial Russia being a topic that to this day only received scant scholarly attention.1 The book allows us to visit the capital’s queer places, meet its people, recognize their fears, sneak a peek at male camaraderie among “familiar strangers,” (p. 26) and understand queer lives’ logic. In talking about the “queer” milieu, Petri focuses exclusively on men’s experiences and their movement, encounters, and locations in Fin-de Siècle-Petersburg.2 Central for Petri’s analysis is the attempt by municipal authorities to police and administer queer men’s spatial management within the city. Second, Olga Petri wrote one of the deepest reflections about sources, their use, and their meaning that I have read in a long time. Olga Petri’s approach to sources is careful and bold at the same time – and above all, it is extraordinarily transparent. It seems as if every reflection about the source, every doubt, and every interpretative step along the way is written down. Petri invites the reader to take more than just a glimpse into the potential of sources, into how to interpret sources, how to arrange them so they make sense, how to build a narrative, and eventually to paint an image of a lost world. And mind you, this methodologically beautiful book is not written by a historian but by a (urban) geographer!

Focusing on movements and encounters rather than subjective experiences and identities, Petri writes a history of the city as much as a history of queer (male) lives. The scenery of her book is a relatively small area within St. Petersburg’s city centre, roughly from the river Neva to the canal Fontanka, from the winter palace to the Tauride Garden. Most of her sources allow us to see queerness in public and semi-public spaces, which makes her spatial approach particularly worthwhile and fitting. Petri dedicates a chapter to the bathhouses, a space which one the one hand was perceived as an expression for Russianness while on the other allowed for an intimacy between men which left some contemporaries speechless and fearing for Russia’s future. Petri takes us to the Passazh, a luxurious shopping mall on Nevskii Prospekt serving as a cruising area since the early 1860s; the Anichkov bridge whose moniker “bridge of the eighteen testicles” was a tribute to its homoerotic parade of virile statutes (four bronze horses and their four muscular tamers) plus the one living policeman controlling and surveilling the (queer) traffic from his spot in the middle of the bridge; or the many little parks scattered around the city which provided ample opportunity for “tenderness and heat”.

The timespan covers the years from 1879 until the outbreak of the world war, and while the book claims to be the first study dedicated to the male homosexual milieu exclusively in St. Petersburg, Dan Healey’s research (of course) looms large in every chapter of this book. Sometimes explicitly so, when for instance, Petri delivers explanations for phenomena Healey was very much aware of but could not yet explain and locate properly, like the increasing commercialization of male prostitution in the city’s bathhouses at some point in the late 19th century, something Olga Petri links to the Bathhouse Ordinance from 1879 (Chapter 4). Petri has consulted sources no other historian (or geographer in her case) has consulted before, like e.g. the daily notes of some police precincts. To be sure, these sources are tedious since essentially everything and nothing is noted down chronologically; therefore, it is entirely by chance if one finds something one is looking for. Petri, however, definitely succeeds in detecting queer histories in those police minutes.

She opens her book with the story of 21-year-old Johan and 17-year-old Dmitrii. In June 1910, Johan went to one of Petersburg’s police stations to report his flatmate Dmitrii as missing. Only through careful reading of the seemingly un-connected information in the police report does Olga Petri recover a fascinating story of gay experience in the Russian capital. She points out that the constable drew attention to the fact that those two men lived together, although they did not come from the same region or work at the same factory. In her interpretation, they lived together because they had chosen to do so, something out of the ordinary in Fin-de-Siècle Petersburg. Although Johan came to the police station to report Dmitrii as missing, there is no description of Dmitrii to be found in the file. Instead, the constable “flagged” queer spaces, in this case Konnogvardeiskii Boulevard, where the two flatmates were walking together the evening before Dmitrii disappeared. Through her careful reading, Petri is able to identify hints the constable left throughout his file, which suggest a love relationship between those men. These hints had to be deciphered by other constables then and have to be understood by historians or geographers today, hints which rely on an intimate knowledge of Petersburg spaces and cultural practices: Why are presents from Dmitrii to Johan mentioned in the report if not hinting at a special kind of relationship?

The book has several red threads which accompany every chapter. One topic is the attempt at policing queer culture on a municipal level which oscillates between “suppression and toleration” (p. 31). Petri brilliantly demonstrates moments of explicit non-observance by police officers who e.g. file sexually suspicious behavior of gay men under petty theft and thus shield the men from potential persecution. Another red thread is the many implications of streetlife for the queer milieu, which are put to the forefront in chapters three and five about cruising and socializing and how the public character of cruising shaped both the queer milieu as well as the attempts of policing such milieu.

Not an explicit red thread, but certainly a topic that stands out in the book is the question of class or social background. The discourse about gay men popularized an image of rich (older) men exploiting poor (younger) men for sexual purposes. While Petri cannot dispute the existence of sexual exploitation per se, she nevertheless carefully points to other potential meanings in sexual encounters between classes; solidarity for example: For Petri the “tenderness and heat” among queer men bridged the classes and thus contributed to the character of the “refuge” (p. 155) they succeeded in building. In her reading, it was the public character of the queer milieu that allowed for this diverse company of queer men, of “cultured” and “intelligenty” to meet hooligans and coachmen. This book offers a spatial reading of queerness which will be hopefully taken up by historians in other national or global contexts. Petri's careful reading of primary sources is masterful and provides excellent material for teaching. Her analysis has a lot to offer to both scholars and students. This book is a treat in every respect.

1 Recently on homosexuality see Ira Roldugina, Homosexuality in the Late Imperial Navy. A Microhistory, in: Kritika. Explorations of Russian and Eurasian History 22 (2021) 3, pp. 451-478. The standard history of homosexuality has been written by Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia. The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent, Chicago 2001.
2 She opens her book with a note on terminology and why she opted to use "queer“ as a non-forensic term which captures the amorphous nature of sexualities rather than sex.