Pickwick Tea and Biscuits

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Portrait of Yuri Ratnek in Khabarovsk

April, 1993

KHABAROVSK – Yuri Ratnek is lecturing at the Khabarovsk Foreign Language Library about the life and works of Oscar Wilde. About 15 people, mostly middle-aged women, sit quietly while Yuri describes the suffering the British writer endured while imprisoned for two years.

But Yuri never tells his audience the reason Wilde was imprisoned. He only hints at it — reading the speech Wilde gave at the trial, in which Wilde describes the affection of an elder for a younger man as the “love that dare not speak its name.” After the lecture, Yuri tells me, “I watched the people’s reaction to see if they understood what happened to Oscar Wilde — what kind of love it was. But it seemed they didn’t understand what he meant. For years we had no information about such things; it’s beyond many people’s understanding.”

Wilde was convicted in 1895 of having homosexual relations. The Victorian-era judge gave him the maximum penalty — two years of hard labor. If Wilde had been convicted at this time in Russia for the same offense, he would have received five to seven years.

While statute #121, Russia’s anti-sodomy law, is rarely enforced today, the prejudice against homosexuals is so strong in Russia — especially in provincial cities like Khabarovsk — that few people ever admit to being gay, except perhaps to their gay friends. With his Oscar Wilde lectures, his colorful wardrobe and long hair, his theatrical, hush-voiced manner of speaking, Yuri probably comes closer to publicly revealing his homosexuality than anybody else in Khabarovsk.

Even though we’ve been friends since November, he didn’t tell me he was gay until last week. He has to be careful who knows, he says. If word gets out, the library would never allow him to lecture again, and his career as a classical guitar performer and guitar teacher might be ruined.

In this conformist society – where marrying young and having children appears to be the only lifestyle option — Yuri is a strange man. He’s 43 and lives with his 76-year-old mother. When everyone else is at work, he practices yoga on his bedroom floor or swims laps at the heated outdoor pool at Lenin Stadium. In summer months, he’s a beach bum, spending most of the day sunbathing on the banks of the Amur River or playing volleyball at the Central Beach. He’s one of the few people I know here who has the time and energy to play games He earns his income giving a handful of classical guitar lessons a week. He’s always made his money this way, even when it was illegal. In the old Soviet Union, people were supposed to only work for state organizations. Ten years ago, police arrested Yuri on the charge he was a “parasite of the state.” He was put jail for several days while prosecutors prepared his case. Fortunately, one of the prosecutors took a liking to Yuri and got the charges dropped.

In his free time, Yuri has made himself into one of Russia’s greatest authorities on Oscar Wilde. He’s obsessed with Wilde. And in true Oscar Wilde style, he amuses his friends with quips like, “I don’t like Gorbachev, and, of course, I would never sleep with him.” Explaining his attraction to his 19-year-old lover, he says, “I like cats and teenagers.” He speaks English with an accent fit for Oxford, and every day, at five o’clock, sits down for tea – Pickwick English blend.

In both work and sex, Yuri has always been an outlaw. Now everything is changing, of course. While drinking five o’clock tea, Yuri shows me a Russian gay magazine, “The Boys Party,” which features advice columns and personal ads, along with the photos of nude muscle men. The magazines first appeared a year ago. “It was a gift to us gays,” he says. And more positive news: A Moscow ballet dancer recently said in a television interview he’s gay. He’s one of the first Russian celebrities to have made such a public announcement so far. Also, a gay club has recently opened up in St. Petersburg.

But I can’t get too optimistic here, for there’s some history that must be told to help explain why Yuri is now planning to leave Russia forever. Yuri’s grandfather was a rich man, a colonel in the Czar’s army, who was tortured and executed in 1938 during one of Stalin’s purges. Yuri’s mother, Lidia, became so disturbed after her father’s death she spent much of her adult life in psychiatric wards.

“You Americans are patriotic,” Yuri says. “I am not a patriot. Frankly, I don’t like this country at all.”

Last summer, Yuri was invited to England to give several lectures on Oscar Wilde. He traveled to Moscow for the flight, but was robbed there and was unable to board the plane without any money. He says he’ll try again, maybe this summer. If he makes it this time, he won’t return to Russia. When I tell him he’ll never see his mother again, he shrugs his shoulders. “I cannot realize myself here,” he says. “I believe I will live in London society.” With that, he takes a sip of Pickwick English blend and offers me a biscuit.

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