In the throes of 2016, I decided to take a break from my midterms cram session by watching some clips of a new anime called Yuri!!! on ICE. I had been hearing about the show within the anime community for some time yet had put off watching it, unsure if the anime lived up to the hype. Much to my surprise (and detriment to my ability to concentrate on chemistry), I was immediately hooked. Of all the amazing things about the show, one of the most striking to me was the revolutionary way it portrayed the intersection of queer and Slavic identity.
Victor Nikiforov is a Russian internationally ranked figure-skater, a five-time consecutive Grand Prix champion at the height of his career. His life soon becomes intertwined with the protagonist’s, Japanese figure skater Katsuki Yuri, when he agrees to become Yuri’s coach and mentor. From then on, the two form an enthralling creative relationship, training together for Yuri’s Grand Prix comeback, while also delving into an intense romantic relationship.
The show’s casual, yet revolutionary acceptance of queerness blew me away. In his youth, Victor was gender-nonconforming and often presented androgynously, including growing his hair long, donning a flower crown, and wearing costumes that, in his words “suggested both male and female genders at once.” Yuri dons that costume later himself and, in many ways, inherits that androgyny as he performs his routine using feminized body language. As random strangers in Barcelona applaud Victor and Yuri’s “engagement,” there is a sense that the queerness is non-negotiable.
Early in its run, many viewers stayed wary, hesitant to label a relationship between Victor and Yuri as romantically intimate out of fear that it would not actually become canon. Some suspected queer-baiting. Yet Yuri and Victor’s relationship moves beyond this, becoming increasingly queer with each episode, to the point that one would have to shut their eyes and clap their hands over their ears, yelling “LA LA LA” at the top of their lungs to avoid recognizing its nature.
Yuri and Victor’s story is important to me for so many reasons, not only as one of the most potent love stories I’ve ever seen, but also one involving an openly LGBTQ+ Slavic character.
For context, Russia has made no secret of its disdain and often blatant hatred of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2013, they passed a “gay propaganda” law which heavily censors the distribution of information concerning the LGBTQ+ community. Other countries in the region, such Ukraine and Kazakhstan, are affected by this mentality as well.
I am first-generation Ukranian-American, meaning that while I was not born in the former Soviet Union, my parents and the majority of my family were. When they moved to America, they brought the culture of their birth country with them, including the good, the weird, and the ugly.
Even living in New York City, I didn’t learn about the LGBTQ+ community until late in my teens. Queerness was never discussed in my house, and in the rare instances it did make an appearance, such as a same-sex couple kissing on TV, my parents would quickly change the channel and never mention it or, worse, discussed it in a tone that made me wish the subject had never come up at all.
Discovering that I wasn’t straight meant that I had to be extra vigilant growing up. It meant having to hide the comics and books with obviously queer covers in spaces my family couldn’t find them. It meant having to switch the pronouns of the girl I had a crush on when talking with my mom, while I had no trouble telling her about the crush I’d had on a boy previously. Homophobia takes on new dimensions when it appears in two languages, when there’s the absence of the vocabulary for who you are and when no one wants to talk about it.
Aside from Masha Gessen, a LGBTQ+ Russian-American journalist who had to flee Russia because of its homophobic politics, I didn’t really know many figures (fictional or actual) who shared my twin, seemingly opposing identities of being queer and Slavic. So when I saw Victor Nikiforov, a Slavic character who is so openly queer, portrayed in a such a devoted and beautiful relationship with Yuri, I was nearly moved to tears.
In Western media, Slavic representation is generally characterized by poorly written stereotypes. Rooted in Cold War propaganda that still lingers to this day, Russian characters are often synonymous with villainy, thick (and often terrible) accents signaling their nefarious ways. The Marvel universe is rife with Russian antagonists who are violent, presumably straight, gun-toting criminals with as much emotional depth as a block of ice.
Yet Yuri!!! on ICE defies all this. Dedicated and committed to his craft, yet still silly and playful, and loyal to his friends and family, Victor Nikiforov is a man of many dimensions. When he’s not training on the ice, he’s either playing with his poodle or flirting with his fiancé Yuri, demonstrating an easy tenderness in a Russian character the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
The show also provides the same depth of complexity to its other Slavic characters. Yuri Plisetsky, nicknamed “Yurio” to avoid confusion with Yuri Katsuki, combines tenacious ferocity and grace. An ice skating prodigy who moved up to compete in the senior figure skating championships at only fifteen years old, Yurio is willing to do whatever it takes to win. His fans call him the “Fairy of Russia” for his natural grace and feminine appearance, but no one ever makes fun of him for his androgyny… well, except for JJ, but that was more lighthearted teasing. In fact, his coaches and the judges prize him for these qualities. Nor is he solely defined by his androgyny; his other nicknames, such as the “Russian Punk” and “Ice Tiger,” highlight his fierceness in competition and brashness off the ice.
Even the supporting Russian characters are wonderfully rich and human, as seen in the tenderness and toughness of characters like the gruff Yakov Feltsman or elegant Lilia. Yurio has a close relationship with his grandfather, Nikolai “Kolya” Plisetsky. In one scene, Kolya brings homemade pirozhki for his Yuratchka, and asks if he prefers other foods, particularly katsudon. “Are the pirozhkis not very good?” was so quintessentially Slavic that I burst out laughing, reminded of my own grandmother.
The show has been praised multiple times over for its natural diversity, showcasing characters of Russian, Korean, Thai, Japanese, and Mexican descent, among others, and rightfully so. Simple things like Victor using Russian words such as “davai” and “vkusno,” or Yurio eating native comfort food like pirozhki, or even small cultural quirks like how Russians don’t celebrate their birthdays before the actual date may not seem important, but to someone like me it means seeing that the creators took the time to research these cultures—my culture—and portray them in a way that is both loving and respectful.
What’s more, Victor’s character in itself is something revolutionary when it comes to his occupation. Co-creator of Yuri!!! on ICE, Kubo Mitsuro, stated that when creating this show they intentionally designed a world without the homophobia or other prejudices that exist in our world, tweeting, “No matter what real people think about this anime, within its world no one is ever going to be discriminated against because of what they like. And that is something I will always protect.” In real life, Victor’s career and livelihood in Russia would be threatened by his identity. Here, his status as national treasure has nothing to do with him being queer and in love with a man.
While some have criticized the lack of homophobia as unrealistic, the show’s open and loving acceptance was a breath of fresh air to me. To see a relationship like Victor and Yuri’s, a queer interracial relationship that is celebrated instead of being hated, was like having my heart broken and then put back together.
Even though the show is fiction, and Victor’s reality is not my reality, Yuri!!! on ICE suggests a world where it can be. As television writer and producer Jane Espenson once said “You don’t create a new world to give them all the limits of the old ones.” And when I watch Yuri!!! on ICE, I see a world without limits, and this is a beautiful thing.