Expert on history of homosexuality in Russia
Simon Karlinsky, a professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley who wrote authoritative volumes on Gogol, Nabokov and Chekhov and was an expert on homosexuality in pre-Soviet culture, died July 5 at his home in Kensington, Calif. He was 84.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his husband, Peter Carleton.
Karlinsky, who taught at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1991, was the author, editor or translator of eight books, including “Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary” (1974), which Times critic Robert Kirsch said “may be the best single study of Chekhov ever done.”
Karlinsky also wrote two books on Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, including a 1986 biography in which he wrote frankly about her bisexuality. The Christian Science Monitor praised the book as “a model of cultural and historical interpretation of a major poet.”
In another biography, “Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol” (1976), Karlinsky argued that previous scholars’ reluctance to acknowledge Gogol’s homosexuality resulted in misinterpretations of the great writer’s work and was the “source and the cause of Gogol’s personal and literary tragedy.” Edmund White, writing in the Washington Post, called the book a “brilliant new biography that will long be prized for its illuminating psychological insights into Gogol’s actions, its informative readings of his fiction and drama, and its own stylistic grace and vivacity.”
Karlinsky was born Sept. 22, 1924, in Harbin, Manchuria, which was then a Russian outpost. He immigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles, where he attended Belmont High School and Los Angeles City College.
In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army, and he served as an interpreter in Germany for various agencies through the early 1950s.
He resumed his education at UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Slavic languages and literature in 1960. He received a master’s degree from Harvard in 1961 and a doctorate from Berkeley in 1964.
During his service in Germany in late 1945, Karlinsky met two gay Soviet performers while interpreting for a troupe of Red Army entertainers. Over several hours they told him about the persecution of homosexuals in Stalinist Russia, and he shared his experiences as a gay U.S. serviceman. Decades later, during an interview with the Advocate, Karlinsky recalled the encounter as “the most unforgettable conversation of my entire life.”
In the mid-1970s, after he was well established in his academic career, he began to write about the history of homosexuality in Russia. As noted in the reference book Gay and Lesbian Literature, his scholarship often cut against the grain, arguing, for instance, that Tchaikovsky, the 19th century composer, died of cholera, not of suicide resulting from anti-homosexual bias.
In addition to Carleton, his partner of 25 years whom he married last year, Karlinsky is survived by several cousins.