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A Brief History of Gay Life in Russia

Randy Potts

August 27th, 2013

Tchaikovsky is known to have had several male lovers.

It seems like a good time to take a look back at what life’s been like for gays in Russia historically. Kevin Moss of Middlebury College has a great page documenting the history of being gay in Russia, as does Wikipedia. Here’s a brief outline of what that history looks like:

  • — 16-19th century – there were many reports from Europeans of unabashed same-sex affection in public; Sergei Soloviev wrote that “nowhere, either in the Orient or in the West, was this vile, unnatural sin taken as lightly as in Russia.”
  • — 17th century Russia saw homosexual relations banned within the military, spearheaded by Peter the Great
  • — 1832 sees the first civil law, Article 995, outlawing muzhelozhstvo, or sodomy, complete with a 5 year sentence in Siberia. Article 995, however, was largely ignored, especially among the elite
  • — The Golden Age for gays in Russia was roughly the turn of the century until 1933. During this time, important figures like Vladimir Nabokov’s father, a legislator in the original Russian Duma, argued that the state shouldn’t criminalize private sexual acts. In 1906, Mikhail Kuzhmin published the first coming out book printed in Russia, titled Wings, which became one of the most talked-about books of its day. In the fields of ballet, the arts, and even the Imperial Court there were various accounts of gay men living fairly openly and, in 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power and revamped the entire civil code, Article 995 was abolished and gays, women, and minorities freer than ever before. Even then, however, Kuzhmin’s poetry remained fairly bleak: 

    Mikhail Kuzhmin, author of “Wings

    December frosts the rosy sky,

    Black the rooms of this unheated house;
    And we, . . .
    We read the Bible and we wait
    We wait. And do we know what for?
    Can it be for a redeeming hand? (1920)

    Even without anti-sodomy laws, the Bolsheviks were never very comfortable with human sexuality and much of the literature of the time treated homosexuality as an illness that science could possibly cure; however, criminalizing sodomy was seen by the Bolsheviks as backward and bourgeois and allowed only in “lesser” republics like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Finally Stalin, in 1933, approved Article 121 as part of his (Putin-like) return to “family” values, outlawing muzhelozhstvo coupled with a 5 year sentence, or worse.

    “верните народу” / “Return to the People” — sign outlining Article 121 and its punishment of sodomy and the fight against pederasty.

  • — 1933 to 1993 — Russian society during Stalin’s rule and throughout the Soviet period tended to understand homosexuality as part of pedophilia an muzhelozhstvo became an easy way to purge undesirables from the government. During Kruschev’s cultural thaw the viewpoint seemed to change somewhat, between a focus on protecting children to a focus on protecting other men, most commonly in prison.  Few records of enforcement of Article 121 from the 1930s through the 1970s have been found but several thousand men were charged with muzhelozhstvo every year during the 1980s.  “Pleshkas,” gay cruising sites common during the Soviet period, were recently painted by artist Yevgeniy Fiks — ironically, pleshkas tended to be near Soviet monuments and statuary.

    A “pleshka” near the outer walls of the Kremlin

  • 1993-2013 — With the collapse of the Soviet Union, like with the fall of the Russian monarchy, laws criminalizing muzhelozhstvo were again taken off the books, this time as an outreach to the West.  The ’90s saw a relative thaw in Moscow and the larger cities with a small gay press, dance clubs, etc. and some journalists reported seeing out gay couples on the streets.  Most Russians will tell you that few people in the 90s were focused on social causes but instead on more pressing things like, will there be electricity in my apartment tonight? Putin’s rise in 1999 began to address these Maslowian problems and muzhelozhstvo once more found its way into the news cycle; a law banning it was proposed in 2002 (it lost) and then the oblast of Ryazan in 2006 passed a law now commonly known as the “anti-gay propaganda” law. Two organizations were founded in response, and the Russian LGBT network and a (banned) parade has been held in Moscow every year since May 2006. Steadily since 2006 when Ryazan spearheaded the anti-gay campaign and lgbt rights activists reacted, the more conservative elements of Russian society began to coalesce and leaders from various religions (as well as the mayor of Moscow in 2007) openly condemned the parades.
  • Bans on homosexual propaganda, 2006-2013. What began in Ryazan spread, within 6 years, to 9 other oblasts including that of St. Petersburg. Contrary to recent comparisons made between Nazi Germany and Russia, Putin did not spearhead anti-gay sentiment and did not regularly make public statements against muzhelozhstvo. These efforts have largely been grass roots and led by coalitions of religious and fringe skinhead groups which have focused primarily on pedophiles. Even so, as their popularity has grown, Putin has formally embraced the new laws, especially since anti-Putin protests gained prominence in 2012.
  • June 2013 — the Russian state Duma passed a federal ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

Most of us are fairly familiar with the well-publicized goings on in Russia since the passage of this new law — gays, lesbians, and transgender people beaten in the streets, outspoken gay people fired from their jobs, adoption rights taken away, etc. This new law goes farther than any law before in Russian history and is much savvier than the bans in the past of simple muzhelozhstvo — the new law sets the terms of the conversation determining that any discussion of gays necessarily includes a discussion of pedophiles and the protection of children while, because sodomy is not explicitly banned, the Russian government can maintain that there is no discrimination against gay people per se.





August 27th, 2013 | LINK

This short and no doubt surface recounting of an aspect of Russian history is likely more, and more nearly accurate, than anything Russians will ever learn inside their country.

The Russians have little truthful knowledge of their history because it is not taught to them. Even heads of government (Putin included) lack an accurate grasp of Russian and world history and, most important, and the lessons to be learned from them.

Soviet methods and mind-sets continue to dominate much of Russian behavior because nothing ever came to replace them. Academic inquiry and freedom are not Soviet values; state-dictated and state-serving “fact” is still the dominant currency of Russian education.

August 27th, 2013 | LINK

In 1984, my partner and I, in our twenties, toured Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. In Moscow, we met three young gay guys in the middle of Red Square on a Sunday afternoon. I was still quite naive, so I asked my partner how he knew they were gay. “They are dressed like French boys.” We had a very fun and interesting evening at the apartment of one of them (a story in itself, in one of those foreboding concrete apartment blocks) using our Russian phrase book, drinking vodka and eating awful cheap chocolates.

J.R. Johnson
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

Something else-I am not a religious person but I see something wrong with gay/lesbian conduct-so don’t give me a lecture on how I must be 1 of those Christians. My reasons for being against gay/lesbian behaviors and being against sex changes (transsexuals are worse) are unrelated to any religion. With homosexuality, if 2 knowing and willing adults want to do gay/lesbian conduct but not tell others what to think, then it’s their life, their choice. But gay/lesbian conduct must be marginalized like smoking.

I have again not been to Russia (though would like), but we have no business to be telling Russia or Uganda what laws they can have against gay propaganda.…re-you-on-5760 President Barack H. Obama has no business to be lecturing Russia on what their laws should be. I don’t watch Olympics anyhow, but Russians have these laws to protect children from filthy propaganda.

Also with gay bashings which are happening in Russia, media version can’t be trusted. Though what the Russian men did was assault and battery, the circumstances possibly call for less punishment. The media gave 1/2 truths by saying the Russian men (calling them neo-Nazis with no proof) bashed gays and put the images on Internet, but here’s what most media omitted though some have now raised it. The Russian men who were bashing gays had pretended to be 15 year old boys on Internet by going on gay websites. Gays looking for teenage boys on Internet replied and set up places to meet them, but instead the gays got bashed by men pretending to be 15 year old boys. Yes, what the Russian men did is vigilanteism for which they should do jail time because right thing to do is to report this to cops and let the cops arrest the gays for soliciting minors and then hopefully the legal system will convict the gays and send them to prison.

But these gays who were bashed did commit a crime by looking for teenage boys on Internet and instead got bashed by men who pretended to be the teenage boys, so I have no sympathy for the gays bashed here. If a man were looking for teenage girls on Internet but instead got bashed by a mob, many would say the man was a disgusting pig looking for underage girls. Gays often harass teenage boys. Those gay bashing victims deserve no sympathy because there is something wrong with an adult looking for teenagers. The gay bashers put the images on Internet after they bashed the gays with slogan ‘occupy pedophilia’ because they aren’t going to tolerate gays harassing teenage boys. Yes, it’s the job of police to do this, but again, no sympathy for these gay bashing victims.

Finally on incidental note on what gay/lesbian groups condemn as ‘panic’if a defense lawyer in a gay bashing case wants to raise crimes a gay did before a man bashed the gay-such as if gay committed indecent exposure, assault & battery, harassment (repeated proposition straight or gay after no has been said is criminal harassment), then that must be regarded by jury in deciding verdict-be it justified or excess. There is no need for a man to tolerate a gay’s antisocial conduct described though gay/lesbian groups use eufemisms such as ‘unwanted…’, ‘pass’. Russians are right to fight against gay/lesbian propaganda.

J.R. Johnson
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

Ben-happy Labor Day 2013, so this hater is nice. I have been to San Francisco 5 times-thrice in my adulthood and I have been to Oakland once-Oakland Zoo in 2011. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but the politics of the Bay Area (including Oakland is wrong). People from San Francisco have told me that some1 like Patrick J. Buchanan or Richard J. Santorum, would only get 5% of the vote. I’m guessing that is the same for Oakland. So 5% of the population in Oakland and San Francisco are right politically. But as I said, San Francisco is a beautiful city and the Oakland Zoo is a nice place to visit.

Ben, I have known gay people and my view is this. If a gay person is living their lives but not harassing others, then it’s their lives, their choice. I have found gays to be obnoxious people. Gays often harass & or commit indecent exposure, assault/battery on teenage boys to men in early 20s & the men react by bashing the gay. I would rather have a case where a jury decides if a man’s reaction to bashing or killing a gay after the gay did indecent exposure was justified or excess, vs. the man not doing enough & the gay does something worse.

But Ben, that is getting away from Russia. 86% of Russians (if the news is right) see something wrong with gay/lesbian behaviors and their laws are to stop gay/lesbian propaganda. In the U.S., we have gay/lesbian propaganda being pushed in schools w/o opposing views. Russians don’t want propaganda such as Harvey B. Milk (Milk committed homosexual statutory rape on a 16 year old boy in 1964), Laramie Project or Dan K. Savage being pushed in schools. Russians are right to stop this propaganda. Harvey B. Milk is a statutory rapist but in California they have a Milk day in public schools. This is wrong. More Americans need to do what Russians are doing to stop gay/lesbian propaganda. Have a nice Labor Day 2013.

J.R. Johnson
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

Ben, you know you aren’t going to say much new which I haven’t thought about and your reply is expected when you don’t have rebuttal. President Obama has no business lecturing Russia on their laws against gay/lesbian propaganda. Same thing with Uganda. We have no business lecturing Uganda on their laws against gay/lesbian conduct, especially as we have no vested interest there. Ugandans see gay/lesbian conduct the same way as marijuana smoking (Ugandans are right) and their laws against gay/lesbian behavior is the same as their laws against marijuana.

President Obama needs to focus on topics which impact U.S. interests. Russia and China’s support for Syria impacts U.S. interests though we should stay out of the Middle East. Russia’s laws against gay/lesbian and transsexual propaganda are good laws and U.S. schools should follow Russia’s lead. It’s best to not trust gay/lesbian groups.

& Ben, I have known many gay people and found them to be obnoxious. Heros for homosexuals are cowards such as homosexual stautory rapist coward Harvey B. Milk. With Harvey B. Milk homosexual/lesbian groups such as Laramie Project, Shepard Foundation and Big Island Chronicle Tiffany Camille Edwards Hunt see nothing wrong with Harvey B. Milk committing homosexual statutory rape on a 16 year old boy and there’s a holiday after him in California. Russians don’t want gay/lesbian and transsexual propaganda in schools because among other reasons, they don’t want hero worship for people such as Harvey B. Milk.

J.R. Johnson
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

Russians are right having laws against gay/lesbian propaganda. Gay/lesbian conduct is bad for health and must be seen the same way as smoking. They must abolish sex changes-a surgical mutilation. Russia was Communist until 1989. As I haven’t been to Russia, I don’t know how religious Russians have become. But some of the Russians who support the laws against gay/lesbian and transsexual propaganda are atheists, so there are atheists who are against the gay/lesbian agenda because gay/lesbian conduct is bad for health just as smoking is.

Never have I heard straights blame childhood sex abuse for reasons they do straight sexual behaviors. Yet sometimes, have heard gays and lesbians say childhood sex abuse is reason they do same sex behaviors-it’s about ending same sex conduct even if attractions don’t change. Behavior can be learned. If a boy is homosexually raped repeatedly, it’s more likely he will do gay conduct in adulthood because sex abuse damaged his mind and caused him to behave in ways he wouldn’t. If the boy had not been molested, then it’s less likely he would do gay conduct in adulthood. Only those who are dishonest or deluded deny it.

While they have not conclusively proven same sex behaviors are genes-if that is true, it would be same as alcoholic gene. There are people who become alcoholics because they learn becoming drunkards by seeing this, emulating and getting addicted. Then some people are alcoholics because they have alcoholic gene.

Ben in Oakland
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

All you’ve proved is that you don’t really need to rely on religion to hate people you don’t know and know nothing about.

Stupid works just as well.

Priya Lynn
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

JR keep your lies and your hate to yourself, you’re not going to con anyone here with your B.S.

Ben in Oakland
August 31st, 2013 | LINK

My guess is, you met two gay people in your life, and have decided that your beliefs about them must be true, and so they represent all gay people.

As I said, stupid works just as well.

Richard Rush
September 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Does funinsnow ring a bell?

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