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Ice queens, sex machines
Fiona Bell
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

Insofar as erotica can ever be about something, what is Russia-themed erotica about?

How do we find language for what turns us on? Maybe all erotica is a kind of translation, simply for having found expression in the first place. Translating that expression, from Russian to French to English, would then be merely a secondary act. Then again, maybe arousal and language aren’t separate at all. For some writers, some lovers, some readers, the physical and the verbal are the same. With erotica, I’ve found, there’s no way to lose. Best case scenario: you get turned on. Second best: you laugh. Worst case: you wonder why you didn’t get turned on or laugh, and you have a good think.

At first, I’d intended only to think. About all those femme fatales in Bond movies, the Georgian girls on the Beatles’ mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind, the internet ads for « Russian women in your area ». Where did all this come from? I set out to discover the history of Russia-themed porn, back to the nineteenth century at least, all those western writers fetishizing women from the Russian empire. Whether ice queens or sex machines, Russian women are touted as eastern philosophers of sexuality. To sleep with them is to unite East and West, to dissolve the mind-body divide, to extinguish the flame of the Enlightenment. In bed with them, you’ll either become a masochist like a Dostoevsky character, or a sadist, like… a Dostoevsky character. Maybe you’ll have the hottest sex of your life, or maybe you’ll get frostbite on your dick. Russia is a sexual bog without a foothold, and few can resist jumping in. Audre Lorde, for one, had a dream about sex in the Moscow central department store.

And so I thought, strange to say, that if I looked hard enough at the butts of white women in erotica, I could learn something important about global whiteness. I still think so. But as I read about Russian girls — which, it turns out, is how many Western writers refer to women from the Caucasus, Poland or Ukraine (itself disconcerting, two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) — I was surprised by how often my critical frown fell away. Words for « penis » proliferate, each sillier than the last: eggplant, dart, pintle. The men I’m reading love the word « poke » (noun and verb). I realized that a totally serious reading of erotica cannot sustain itself for long: the question is not whether you’ll feel pleasure, but what sort of pleasure you’ll feel.

Some of the pleasure of Claude Anet’s Ariane, a Young Russian Girl, published in 1920 and newly translated from the French into English by Mitchell Abidor, is its fawning descriptions of Ariane’s beauty. Clearly, the author is hot for his heroine. And isn’t that what makes a good novel? Although I hate adventure novels and, incidentally, the ocean, I love Moby-Dick for its monomaniacal whale-on-the-brain (sometimes whalebrain- on-the-brain) narrator. Most authors are aroused by their subjects, in the broadest sense of that term. And, as with Moby-Dick, some of the pleasure in Ariane comes from laughing at the absurdities of the author’s arousal. His Russian-manic-pixie-dream-girl fetish is less lewd than ludicrous. After dismissing one of her admirers, Anet writes, « the young girl shrugged and did a pirouette ».

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William H. Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (D.R. Godine, 1976).

This unattributed quote comes from the archives of Sheremetev’s theater (Nauchni arkhiv, Moskovskii muzei-usad’ba Ostankino).

The Erotic Life of Racism (Duke University Press, 2020).