Sometimes being a people-person is an impediment for a writer, particularly a social documentarian like David Tuller, the San Francisco-based journalist and author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."
The task Tuller set before himself -- to write a definitive study of this hitherto little-known segment of Russian society -- was both daunting and wildly promising. Because of the centuries-long influence of repressive institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church and the equally puritanical Communists, there are few references to Russian homosexuality in the nation's history books. And there's not much more in its literature, from Turgenev to Pasternak -- this despite the fame of Russian homosexuals such as Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev. (Tuller offers up new information about Nikolai Gogol that attests to the 19th-century absurdist author's gay leanings.)
Tuller isn't content, however, with historical data gleaned from archives, cultural artifacts and personal documents from unknown individuals -- the kind of research that has ably guided historians such as George Chauncey ("Gay New York") and the late John Boswell, not to mention the brilliant bird's-eye reporting of Frances Fitzgerald ("Cities on a Hill"). Instead, he devotes a large chunk of his book to a limited group of gays and lesbians that he met during his Russian travels, one of whom -- an alcoholic lesbian named Ksyusha -- he makes much of falling in love with.
Tuller offers a good deal of historical research, mostly culled from other published sources. But by writing so extensively about his own personal journey and then burrowing into his community of Russian acquaintances, Tuller seems to lose focus; the result feels more padded than omniscient. Tuller's Russian friends -- volatile, reflexively cynical, sometimes unwittingly bisexual -- symbolize to him some unique outgrowth of a society that until recently never publicly discussed, and therefore, Tuller implies, never strictly categorized, individual homosexual identity. He is surprised that, instead of congregating in political groups and clubs in cities, as their counterparts do in the west, Russian gays and lesbians prefer to hang out in small social networks of friends, drinking vodka on their own and growing vegetables in little dachas in the country.
To this reader, Tuller's friends all seem somewhat predictable (that is, vaguely Eurotrashy and not terribly fascinating), and the story of Russian homosexuality -- with this intimate focus -- loses some of its power to compel. Which is sad, considering the millions of stories that have yet to be told from this vast, often enigmatic nation.