Yevgeny Kharitonov: “All the Vibrations from the Best Moments of Your Life”

Photographers Unknown, All the Vibrations from the Best Moments of Your Life

I know what happens at the moment of death. Suddenly, after all your illnesses, you feel so improbably, so impossibly much better, that it is more than a man can take. All the vibrations from the best moments of your life, from all your impossible youth, come together in one mind-blowing instant, like the moment of your first love, like the hope of new love, like just before your first trip to Moscow, like all sorts of moments in your life; and it all comes together in a single minute, and it is more than you can bear, and your heart bursts, and you die. And everyone whom you loved and everyone who loved you, they all think of you at that moment, wherever they maybe on earth, or under the earth.

Yevgeny Kharitonov, Under House Arrest, 1997

Born in Novosibirsk in June of 1941, Yevgeny Kharitonov was a Russian poet, writer, playwright and theatrical director. In his literature, he was a chronicler of the LBGTQ culture of the Soviet period in the 1970s. Kharitonov described in his work the feelings that people of non-traditional orientation experienced, a subject that the government saw as taboo. 

Kharitonov graduated from the acting department of Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). After a brief acting career, he earned his graduate degree in filmmaking with the presentation of his thesis on the art of pantomime in the education of an actor. After graduation, Kharitonov wrote and directed the play “The Enchanted Island”, which was performed at Moscow’s Mimics and Gesture Theater with roles performed by deaf-mute actors. 

Yevgeny Kharitonov led the pantomime studio of the Moskovorechye Workers’ Club, a recreation center in Moscow, and did choreography for the rock band “Last Chance”. He also worked at the department of psychology at Moscow State University where he studied the problem of speech defects. In addition to his study and literary work, Kharitonov staged a production of the classical opera “Faust” for the Moscow Conservatory. 

Appearing at the crossroads of several movements in twentieth-century Russian prose, Kharitonov emphasized in his work an aloofness between the author and the literary subject, a characteristic which would appear in the later works by Russian writers Victor Erofeyev, founder of the literary magazine Metropol, and Vladimir Sorokin, author and recipient of the Russian Booker Prize. Kharitonov shared with writers Pavel Ukitin, Marcel Proust and James Joyce an indirect and cryptic approach to the placement of emotion in the descriptions of events. Acquainted with typography, he was well aware of the expressive properties of the typewritten text format and typed all his manuscripts himself. 

Because of the frankness with which he dealt with the theme of homosexuality in his work, Yevgeny Kharitonov had difficulty in getting his work published. The few works that were published in his lifetime were translations of German poetry, those works circulated in dissident Eastern Bloc periodicals such as the Mitin Journal, and a simple monologue entitled “Oven”. In the early 1980s, Kharitonov made an attempt to have his work printed in the “Catalog”, an American publication of unpublished Russian writers; this however  failed due to interference by the KGB.

Kharitonov is today recognized as a founder of modern Russian gay literature; his work can not be separated from his sexuality and the legal and cultural prohibition he worked under. Kharitonov was doubly vulnerable to state repression being both an underground writer and a gay man. In 1979, he was questioned by the KGB as a suspect in the death of his lover. As knowledge of his work spread through the general public, surveillance and harassment by the authorities became increasingly a part of daily life. 

On June 29th of 1981, Yevgeny Kharitonov, who had just finished his manuscript “Under House Arrest”, walked to meet his friend, the poet Tatian Scherbina, to show her his new work. He died on Pushkin Street in Moscow of a heart attack at the age of forty years old; his body is buried in his homeland of Novosibirsk. Following Kharitonov’s  death, his apartment was sealed by the KGB. His friends broke in the apartment to salvage and preserve his writings, however, most of Kharitonov’s written work was later recovered by the KGB during raids on their apartments.

After Russia’s period of perstroika, Kharitonov’s works began to get published in Russia. His play “Tink”, based on an interpretation of Odoevsky’s fairy tale “Town in a Snuffbox”, was published in the late 1980s and later performed in 1989. His “Under House Arrest”, a collection of autobiographical fictions which chronicled the difficult life of a homosexual in the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the Soviet Union, was published in January of 1997.

Note: An interesting article to read is Alex Karsavin and Mara Iskander’s 2017 “Language Under House Arrest”, which discusses queer Russian poets and the adaption of queer literature to the Russian political situation. The article can be found at the literary blog “The New Inquiry” website located at: https://thenewinquiry.com/language-under-house-arrest/