A Brief History of Gay Life in Russia
August 27th, 2013
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:
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.
- — 1933 to 1993 — Russian society during Stalin’s rule and throughout the Soviet period tended to understand homosexuality as part of pedophilia and 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.
- 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, Gayrussia.ru 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.