Was Tchaikovsky gay? How Russia spent a century hiding the composer’s sexuality

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, often referred to as Peter Tchaikovsky, is among Russia’s greatest cultural exports.

He composed Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, arguably the world’s greatest ballets, which sell-out theatres to this day.

His compositions pack London’s Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms season year in, year out.

Despite being the first Russian composer to find worldwide popularity, the nation of his birth has spent more than 100 years airbrushing the truth about his life.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Tchaikovsky was a gay man.

Historians and classical scholars almost unanimously agree – as letters and diaries, including letters to his brother, Modest, who was also gay, make clear.

According to biographer John Wiley, Tchaikovsky was openly gay all his life, feminising the names of the young men he consorted with, as well as referring to himself as “Petrolina”.

Author Konstantin Rotikov, who has written a gay history of St Petersburg, said: “In the case of Tchaikovsky his homosexuality is so well documented by his own writings and the writings of others that it is simply ludicrous to suggest otherwise.

“It’s a historical fact. History doesn’t change just because we are trying to push a certain agenda today.”

As an adult, Tchaikovsky fell in love with his own nephew, Vladimir Davidov (second son of his sister Alexandra) in the 1880s-1890s, to whom he later dedicated the Symphonie Pathétique (1893), shortly before his sudden death.

His lovers included Vladimir Shilovsky, a wealthy young man whom he met at the Moscow Conservatory, who paid for a number of trips for the two of them; Alexei Sofronov, his valet from 1872 to the end of his life, and his pupil Eduard Zak, who killed himself in 1873 (he inspired the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture).

Many brief same-sex affairs are recorded in his cryptographic diary, too, leaving little to the imagination.

Despite the weight of evidence, Soviet Russia set about suppressing the truth in a re-writing of the composer’s life which lasts to this day.

In 2013, a Russian screenwriter working on a government funded biopic of his life caused furore when he denied that the composer had been gay.

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