Today In History: A Russian Gay Icon Is Born
March 21st, 2008
On March 21, 1903, one hundred and five years ago today, the great Russian tenor Vadim Alekseevich Kozin was born in St. Petersburg. In the 1920’s he was celebrated throughout the Soviet Union for his recordings and concerts, specializing in gypsy romances and love songs. It was those love songs that he wrote and sang with such passion and tenderness that garnered him the title of the “Russian Orpheus.” He once gave a concert with American Paul Robeson and is said to have performed for Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Tehran conference in 1943.
But in those precarious days during Stalin’s rule, Kozin’s illustrious career ended all too abruptly. He fell out of favor with the Kremlin and was arrested in 1944. He was sent to a prison camp near Magadan in the Russian Far East for five years for political offenses, “corruption of youth” and homosexuality. From that moment on, his songs disappeared from the radio and his public concerts came to an end.
After his release in 1950, Vadim resumed performing in local theaters in the Russian Far East and Siberia, but he was prohibited from performing in Moscow and Leningrad. It was during this period when Vadim began to keep a diary, portions of which were published in Moscow just last month:
In one of the diary’s few romantic passages, Kozin described a man whose name is not given. “How I would like even just once, even for one instant, to look into the depth of those green eyes,” he wrote in August 1956. “Why does it happen like this? One person appears, and there is nothing else sacred in the world. He has filled it all himself. Who that person is, no one will ever find out.”
While he may have avoided physical details, Kozin often used the diary to express his impatience with the official attitude toward homosexuality. “There is nothing unnatural in the life I want to live. There is real, good friendship and complete mutual trust,” he wrote in one entry. In another, he criticized actors with their “demonstration of fictional family values” and waving of party cards. “Do I have the moral right, with my defects, to see them that way?” he asked himself. “After torturous and long thought, I have realized that I do. They are much more rotten people.”
Nevertheless, Kozin was acutely aware that he risked another sentence. He was unnerved by the open gay affairs of an actor on the same tour. “His behavior will lead him to the camp,” he wrote. “I must tell him that his sexual motives shouldn’t affect me at all. … I don’t want people to think about me like that again. I will try to suffer alone.”
Kozin’s fears were well-founded. He was arrested again in 1959 for homosexuality and was forced to write a humiliatingly detailed confession. Despite a brief revival in the 1980’s when his records were reissued, he was never officially rehabilitated. He died in Madagan in 1994 at the age of 91.
Since his death, Vadim Kozin has become an icon in Russia’s gay community. One of his most famous songs is one called “Friendship” which, he later confided to a friend, was dedicated to another man:
“We are so close that words do not have to be repeated. Our tenderness and our friendship are stronger than passion and greater than love.”
Vadim Kozin with friends in Madagan in 1993: