Wednesday, 26 February 2014

LGBT Russia

ЛГБТ Россия (LGBT Russia)
by Chris Park

Over the next few pages, I have collated a few snippets about a number of LGBT Russians. Let’s start with:

A Russian LGBT Timeline (1)
  • 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: homosexual relations banned within the military by Peter the Great.
  • 1832: Article 995, outlawing muzhelozhstvo (sodomy) was introduced into civil law, complete with a 5 year sentence in Siberia. However, it 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 criminalise private sexual acts. In 1906, Mikhail Kuzhmin (2) published Wings, the first coming out book printed in Russia (3) and 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)

The Bolsheviks were never comfortable with human sexuality and much of the literature of the time treated homosexuality as a curable illness; however, criminalising 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.
  • 1933-1993: Russian society during Stalin’s rule and throughout the Soviet period tended to understand homosexuality as part of paedophilia and muzhelozhstvo became an easy way to purge undesirables from the government. During Kruschev’s cultural thaw the focus seemed to change somewhat, from protecting children to protecting other men, most commonly in prison. Few records of enforcement of Article 121 from the 1930s through to the 1970s have been found but several thousand men were charged with muzhelozhstvo every year during the 1980s.
Pleshka - toilets under Spasskaya
Tower, Red Square - Yevgeniy Fiks,
"Pleshkas", gay cruising sites common during the Soviet period, were recently painted by artist Yevgeniy Fiks (4); ironically, pleshkas tended to be near Soviet monuments and statuary.

  • 1993-2013: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, laws criminalising 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. Some journalists reported seeing out gay couples on the streets. Following Putin’s rise in 1999, muzhelozhstvo once more found its way into the news cycle; a law banning it was proposed in 2002 (it lost) and then the oblast (region, district) of Ryazan in 2006 passed a law now commonly known as the “anti-gay propaganda” law. Two organisations were founded in response, (5) and the Russian LGBT network (6) 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 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 paedophiles. 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 "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations".

Many readers will be familiar with the well publicised goings on in Russia since the passage of this new law - LGBT people beaten in the streets, outspoken LGBT 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 paedophiles 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.

More information at:

Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow
You might also be interested to read the following on the online paper, The Moscow News, by Joy Neumeyer, posted on 12 September 2013.

1. Adapted (sllightly) from Randy Potts’s timeline on BoxTurtle Bulletin:
3. Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness was not published until 1928 and while EM Forster wrote Maurice in 1913-14, it was not published until 1971, after his death the year before. Wings is still in print and available for purchase.
6. - English language version.

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