The Teen Romance Novel That Russia’s Politicians Just Can’t Bear
In the summer of 1986, Yury, a shy 16-year-old, arrives at a Young Pioneer camp in Crimea, dreading the many dull weeks ahead of him. There’s only one thing that cheers him up: his group leader Volodya, a 19-year-old undergraduate. Slowly, the two boys fall in love. Against a backdrop of danger — if their clandestine relationship is found out, they could face a five-year prison sentence — they tentatively discover their sexuality. After the summer, their lives drift apart. They don’t see each other for 20 years until Yury, spurred on by the discovery of a hidden cache of love letters, goes on a search to find Volodya.
That’s the plot of “Summer in a Pioneer Tie,” the debut young adult novel by Elena Malisova and Katerina Silvanova. Initially published on a fan-fiction site, the novel was discovered by Popcorn Books, an imprint focusing on queer fiction. (Popcorn is one of two imprints at an independent publisher; one of us, Mr. Sandalov, runs the other, which is editorially separate.) Since its release in late 2021, the book has been a sensation: It sold over 200,000 copies in the first six months and generated exceptional hype. On TikTok, where teenage fans have organized flash mobs and designed all manner of merchandise, novel-related posts have attracted more than 250 million views.
The book is more than a breakout hit. It is also the catalyst for the latest legislative assault on L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Russia. Last week, the country’s parliament endorsed a draconian law banning “L.G.B.T. propaganda” among all adults — criminalizing the promotion of homosexuality in public and online, or in books, films and advertising. Behind it, as one author of the bill made clear, was a desire to bridle “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” and books like it. Remarkably, in the midst of a disastrous war, Russia’s legislators are focusing their ire on a lyrical coming-of-age novel.
The novel itself is straightforward. Simply, even plainly, written, the book sensitively charts the process of falling in love for the first time. The relationship between Yury and Vladimir, blossoming in difficult circumstances, is tenderly described. It is, at heart, a classic story of young love triumphing, however briefly, against the odds.
The innocent depiction of first love between young men, however, threatens the Kremlin’s yearslong efforts to vilify everything gay. The result has been panic. Zakhar Prilepin, a militant nationalist writer, suggested that the publishing house’s Moscow office should be burned down. Nikita Mikhalkov, a major film director and actor, lambasted the book as a conspiracy directed by a degenerate West. Vitaly Milonov, a member of parliament, thought it best to hand over Popcorn’s staff to the Ukrainian Army where, he said, they would be at home among fellow degenerates.
Aleksandr Khinshtein, a parliamentary deputy and hard-line member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, took matters into his own hands. Believing portrayals of L.G.B.T.Q. people to be “a weapon of hybrid warfare” and that “Russia’s civilization is a bulwark of traditional values,” Mr. Khinshtein composed a bill to cover all age groups and a wide variety of supposed offenses, such as the depiction of “nontraditional sexual relationships,” undermining “traditional family values” and even the inducement of pedophilic urges.
His efforts met with great enthusiasm: The bill was passed unanimously, without a single abstention, and is likely to become law in a few days. For the generation now ruling Russia, which grew up in the Soviet Union, it’s personal: Many remember their summer Pioneer camps with warm nostalgia and see the book as an attempt to drag their past through the mud.
This crackdown comes in an atmosphere of increased repression, as the Kremlin clamps down on dissent. In July, the “foreign-agent” bill — first passed in 2012 and, since early 2021, systematically used to muzzle independent media and journalists — was amended to include anybody “under foreign influence.” Book publishers have already got a taste of what to expect. In late October, the Kremlin added two names from the publishing world to their list: Alexey Dokuchaev and Andrey Baev, the founders of Popcorn Books. (To continue functioning, Popcorn had to part with them to avoid being declared a foreign agent by association.)
Taken together, the bills amount to a wholesale crackdown on the few L.G.B.T.Q. and free speech rights left in the country. Organizations deemed to be in breach of the new rules must cease operations for 90 days, which would force most bookstores and movie theaters out of business, while individual editors — or even whole publishing houses — can be labeled foreign agents. The effect is chilling and, critics say, obliterates one of the last forms of queer visibility in Russia.
What’s more, the bills’ sweeping nature and opaque formulations make it unclear precisely what publishers are meant to censor. When publishers asked whether the “anti-gay propaganda” bill’s stipulations would not eliminate about 50 percent of all fiction and nonfiction currently in circulation, they were assured that nobody would ever touch Russian classics. Even the biographies of the openly gay Tchaikovsky were safe, apparently. Such assurances don’t count for much, and pre-emptive and zealous self-policing is already taking hold. One of Russia’s largest book publishers is redacting potentially risky sentences in new releases and bookshops have started to remove “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” from their shelves.
But even if literary production is forced underground, the Kremlin will have a hard time stamping it out. After all, this is the land of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, where censorship has invested literature with authority. The authors of “Summer in a Pioneer Tie,” for their part, are quietly confident. Even if the authorities ban books, Ms. Silvanova said, “the demand isn’t going anywhere.” The bill, Ms. Malisova agreed, might lead to “even greater interest.” Readers will find loopholes and keep reading what they want to read. Who knows, perhaps the TikTok frenzies of today might turn out to be the beginning of a 21st-century Samizdat.
As for Yury and Volodya, their story continues. A sequel is out, and a third book is in the works. Somehow, surely, they will find their way to the light.
Elisabeth Schimpfössl (@ElisabethSchimp) is an associate professor at Aston University, England, and the author of “Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie.” Felix Sandalov is the editor in chief of Individuum Publishing, which is part of the same publishing house as Popcorn Books.
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