13 February 2014



      With the implementation of national laws that have limited the legal rights of the LGBT community and the controversial commencement of the Olympics in Sochi, it is no surprise that Russia is at the centre of international news. Over the course of the last six months, I have observed  — with much anger and anxiety — the authoritarian Putin government instigate an oppressive social climate in which hate and prejudice towards the Russian LGBT community is acceptable. My friend, who is an active member of the LGBT community in Toronto, pointed out the irony of the Sochi Olympic opening ceremonies: their nationalistic video that happened to celebrate six homosexual historic icons!

Play this while you read; 1812 Overture

      One ‘national treasure’, who was featured in the video (which is admittedly very beautiful) was the masterful composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He was born in Votkinsk in the Russian Empire, to a supportive artistic military family. He began piano lessons at five years old and within three years, matched the level of his instructor. His varied educational background in piano and compositional style, fully accounted on Russiapedia, involved several teachers and collaborators. 

      Tchaikovsky was the classic tortured artist whose difficult life experiences informed the expressive qualities of his compositional style. Not only did his mother pass away when he was an adolescent, he also lived in a conservative era and country which would not have likely accepted his homosexuality. With various homosexual relationships and an unsuccessful heterosexual marriage, he realized his inability to live a ‘traditional’ existence in late-Romantic era Russia. His life is well documented in various letters he wrote to a number of individuals, including his brother Modest, in particular.

      What I find very interesting, is the way that history is approached in contemporary society. Over time, objects and even historical figures are appropriated and distanced from their original context. In the case of Tchaikovsky, it is seemingly fitting to utilize his accomplishments and innovations in the construction of nationalistic pride and the identity of Russia. What is most troubling however, is how he is objectified for the sake of a nationalistic agenda despite their opposition to other homosexuals like himself. Perhaps those in power only consider him for his musical innovations or perhaps they completely reject the notion that he was homosexual. I for one believe that he has been misrepresented. What do you think of this controversial situation?

Autograph score of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s piece
“My Genius, My Angel, My Friend” (1858), the earliest known of his autograph scores.


  1. I think it is fascinating to look at a historical figure (let's call him a celebrity :) through contemporary lenses. Because his public identity was constructed primarily in relation to his music, his private identity seems to be removed from the pictures. As you said, Jaime, this is quite convenient for purposes of nation branding. So it is very important to open discussion about how we address history with contemporary eyes in order to reveal stories that might be hidden otherwise. What a great example!

  2. Yes, I completely agree that it's convenient for purposes of nation branding! I also feel that we must not accept certain propaganda at face value, as many others I'm sure do. We must remember that certain images, objects, and people can become distorted through a different context or lens. As emerging museum professionals, we must be hyper aware of how interpretive and curatorial planning can effect or change the meaning of objects and their collective history. Thanks for your input Irina! :)