The journalist and debut novelist talks about why hope for change in nineties Russia never came to pass.
“My novel is set in a time of great change and upheaval for Russia,” says Paul David Gould, talking about Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants, set to be published by Unbound in June.
“The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over, political prisoners were being set free, and there was an advance in gay rights. It’s in this sort of atmosphere that my young main character, Kostya, ventures timidly out of the closet hoping that he will be able to pursue his two loves, which are to work in the theatre, and to find love in a way that his great idol, the composter Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual, never could. But my main character… spoiler alert… comes to a tragic end.”
Worry not. Gould hasn’t just given away the finale to his brilliant debut novel, a thriller and a love story set in Moscow in the early 1990s. The story opens with the death of Kostya, but then goes on to explore why and how this sad event occurs.
“He is let down by the two young men he’s been in love with, and by his mother, and the book explores how this came about and how he was betrayed by them,” explains Gould, speaking over zoom from his home in Brighton.
The story is structured in such a way that one narrative takes place in 1993 after Kostya is found dead, while a series of flashbacks, which start three years earlier and move forward in time, tell the story of the young man and his search for love and acceptance in Moscow. It’s more than just a story of one person’s life (and death) however, but an examination of a fascinating period of history when Russia was in the middle of some seismic changes.
“It was a time of great contrast to now,” explains Gould. “Now we’ve got the war in Ukraine, which is of course absolutely vicious and sickening, but 30 years ago Russia was seen as a country that was coming into the Western fold. They had multi party democratic elections for the first time and of course capitalism, everyone’s heard about McDonald’s coming to Moscow. But it was also a time when everyone thought there were going to be more human rights, and that includes gay rights.”
It’s a period in Russia’s history that Gould knows well, since he was in Moscow himself at the time.
“You might think why on earth would a gay man who’s just come out of the closet go to Russia of all places?” he laughs. Indeed, why on earth would he?
“At the time there was a real spirit of hope for peace and understanding, that might sound naive and idealistic, but there was talk of nuclear disarmament, cultural exchanges and embracing democracy. There was a time in the 90s when there was even talk of Russia joining NATO or the European Union, which is of course unthinkable now.”
Indeed, for anyone not around at the time, it is perhaps hard to imagine how important events such as the Berlin Wall coming down was to a generation of people (myself included) who had grown up with the threat of a Third World War and nuclear annihilation hanging over them.
“Swept along by this tide of optimism” as Gould puts it and fascinated by the rich cultural history of the country, the writer studied Russian at Birmingham University and then started looking for work, but struggled to get his career going in the UK.
“I really wanted to use my Russian and I wanted to be in journalism or the diplomatic service, but the diplomatic service was a no good because they wouldn’t take openly gay people. A couple of other friends were going to base themselves in Moscow, so I got a one-way plane ticket and went and looked for a job there.”
The streets of Moscow were a long way from home for Gould, who grew up on a council estate in Huddersfield. He’s keen “not to overdo the whole tough upbringing thing” but it’s clear life wasn’t easy there. Gould father was black, although he didn’t know him.
“I was brought up by two decent loving parents who were both white,” he says. “[My childhood] was tough in the sense that my mum was hospitalised with depression for long periods and I spent a lot of my childhood thinking why is my skin the wrong colour? And also like a lot of gay men, even from the age of seven or something, I was thinking I’m not like these other boys who like football and fighting, and what’s this about chasing girls?”
Gould “looked for escape in books” and was both a big reader at a young age and already starting to write as well. Inspired by a Ladybird Book about Charles Dickens, he bought a pen and ink pot, and then an exercise book from Woolworths, and started writing when he was 10 years old. He wrote another longer story when he was 14.
Those early attempts set a foundation for his writing, but it was a long time before his fiction was to be published: “I found it very hard to write fiction because I thought I needed to get my A levels, I needed to go to university and then I need to get a job.”
After his return from Moscow, and working as an established journalist, Gould started work on the book. It took him two years to write the first draft of Last Dance, and this was followed by multiple re-writes over many years, with lots of rejections in between. Now, finally, Unbound is set to publish the now 58 year old’s novel, the first in their new Unbound Firsts imprint, set up to champion debut writers of colour.
Back to Moscow in the early 90s, and it was a wise move for Gould to go to the city professionally speaking, since all the British newspapers and many British companies had offices there, so he quickly found work. But personally, it was a risk. Gould had come out as gay during his time at university and going to a country like Russia felt like a backward step.
“I thought… I’m not going to be able to have that ‘out of the closet’ lifestyle that I wanted. I even thought at one point, this is the kind of place where there can’t be a gay scene. And then I started spotting where the cruising grounds were and I got together with, through a small ad, a group of expatriate gay men – mostly Americans but some Brits… and we would get together for coffee mornings.” He laughs at the memory.
“Then about six months after I arrived there started to be these discotheques, discotheques for sexual minorities they called them. I honestly don’t know who organised them, but word would get around and there was a phone number and an answering machine that would tell you where you had to go… and like in the novel it would be out the way, quite well hidden and it wouldn’t be in the same place twice.”
Gould describes these monthly discos in his novel in wonderful detail and it’s clear they were an important part of his time in Russia. “They were great fun, they were like a school disco, not very sophisticated but everyone was there because there was nowhere else to go.”
At that time in Russia, sex between men, or “muzhelozhstvo” (men lying with men) as Gould explains, was illegal, although because penetration had to be proven, there were few prosecutions. The dangers to LGBTQ people came not necessarily from the law, but from gangs who would sometimes find out where the discos were.
“I nearly got beaten up once and one of my friends was beaten up…” Gould pauses as he reflects on this and the fact that one of his “disco-going Moscow buddies” was later murdered in Kazakhstan.
While the legal position for gay men in Russia is better now, Gould points out, because of the law changes which took place under Yeltsin’s presidency, an “atmosphere that’s very homophobic” persists and is indeed, getting worse.
“The forward advance or retreat of gay rights in Russia isn’t a one-dimensional thing,” explains Gould. “Five years ago, before the war in Ukraine, I spoke to one LGBT activist in Saint Petersburg, and he said that despite Putin’s crackdown on what the government calls ‘gay propaganda’ things were improving. A generation of gay people have grown up being able to travel to the West and had access to the internet so there was more choice, freedom and information than there was in the 1980s. So it’s not as simple as now and before, but I think since the war in Ukraine it’s got worse. Now people live in a country where they can’t even call a war a war.”
Throughout our conversation Gould has been side tracked by what’s going on in Ukraine and the devastating assault that Putin is heaping upon the county. As he speaks about Russia you can see the anguish on his face and hear it in his words.
“Russia is a fascinating country and one of the things that’s tragic about Putin’s war is that it’s swept aside the richness of Russian culture,” he says at one point.
“They have some of the finest classical music and some of the greatest literature, and it is a beautiful language, and I’m afraid that Putin has trashed their brand for generations to come.” It’s clear he’s deeply affected, even heartbroken, by the events taking place in Ukraine and Russia today.
“I am,” he admits. “I’m heartbroken for the Ukrainian people and heartbroken in terms of what it means for the world. Just half a generation ago I thought we would have this peaceful, friendly Russia where you could go on holiday and they could come here. [Now] Russia is becoming a fascist state… Like in Nazi Germany where LGBT people were at the sharp end of the repression, they were scapegoated even though they had absolutely nothing to do with militarism or whatever.
“Recently I tried to contact an LGBT organisation in Russia. I went on their website and there’s now a web banner across the top saying ‘LGBT network Russia has been declared a foreign agent’. Anything that is sort of democratic and tries to make Russia more open is called a foreign agent now. So yes I am heartbroken. And I’m angry. I will never go there again.”
He points out how, in the opening chapter of his novel, a character called Jamie expresses “despair” at the Russian people. How have things gone so wrong recently in Russia and how has Putin managed to maintain such a grip on the country?
“Russia has a very short history of democracy, extremely short,” Gould explains.
“There was a parliament around Yeltsin’s time for maybe 10 years, and there were elections where all the parties had a chance. But it has a long history of brutal dictators. Stalin of course, Lenin, but the last Tsar was also a brutal autocrat, so was Ivan the Terrible, so was Catherine the Great. Russians have a hankering for what they call ‘a strong leader’, so they regard Yeltsin as a hopeless drunk, which he was, and they regard Gorbachev as a weakling. And when I say ‘they’ it’s hard to gauge political opinion in the country.”
He goes on to point out that perhaps half the country are neither for or against Putin, but rather keep their heads down and just do their best to survive under the current regime.
“I think another reason we’ve come to this in Russia,” adds Gould, “is because under Yeltsin it was the time of absolute chaos. In my book there are scenes of destitution… old women having to flog knitted scarves and socks on the streets… and one of my characters ends up on the streets while there are other people getting rich. I think for a lot of people at that time in Russia, they thought if this is capitalism, if this is democracy, then it’s not working.”
Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants by Paul David Gould is published 8 June (Unbound Firsts).