In a 2013 Pew Research Poll, 74% of Russians said that homosexuality should not be accepted by a society. In the West homosexuality was vastly accepted, with 88% in Spain, 87% in Germany, and 74% in Italy.
This post will try to come to terms the principle that queerness is not an act but rather an element of ones identity, that is one that cannot be separate from the self. For it is precisely this philosophical concept which brews at the heart of the issue of LGBTQ rights in the Russian Federation.
From the time the gay community began to publicly step out of the closet and the Gary Rights movements took hold in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a long-forgotten battle was bitterly fought by queer Americans and their Western European counterparts with the identification of homosexuality with the self; that is an intricate part of ones identity, despite acts themselves.
To this day the battle is being fought in America, where certain far-right religious organizations still maintain that homosexuality is an act and not a component to a persons identity, and therefore no one is actually a queer person, it is rather that intentional, sinful and perverted sexual acts that are deemed immoral. Members of this “ex-gay movement,” claim that through certain methods the urge to act upon homosexual acts can be eliminated, and that nobody is actually gay. This was how the majority of the West perceived homosexuals for most of its history – it did not recognize homosexuals, but only homosexual acts which were illegal.
The West, however, has come – for the most part – to the conclusion that being gay is a natural part of ones identity, and has decriminalized many of the sexual acts. The West and America had to fight for over forty-years for this understanding, this public admission that homosexuals exist and that their sexuality is inherently a part of their self, their identities, and their community needed to be publicly assimilated, accepted, and given equal standing in the broader legal society. While most of Europe and North America has decriminalized homosexual acts (many of which can also be performed by heterosexuals), the right for same-sex marriage is still not recognized by all states, countries, and same-sex marriage/civil union laws are under constant threat of repeal.
In Russia and the former Soviet republics, nations that did not undergo the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s or experience the Gay Rights movement, the issue of homosexuality and the self is still raw, undefined, and is — as much in Russia — tied to a larger quasi-religious Russian identity garnered in nationalist pride and a loathsome distrust of the neoliberal Western worldview and agenda. The Russians never fully constructed a broad understanding of the homosexual as a person, and though one may engage in homosexual acts, those acts alone did not define the person, rather it spoke to their moral and health-related issues. It would be as if the homosexual person never existed in Russia, while a healthy amount of Russians, mostly men (as early laws applied only to men), engaged in many homosexual acts.
The first codification of anti-sodomy laws took affect in 1716 under what was known as Peter’s Code. The law prohibited consensual sex between male members of the military, and in that sense sodomy laws were only geared towards members of the nobility and the military, largely ignoring the mass Russian civilian population. The code was adjusted some 100 years alter, and Article 955 of Nicholas I’s legal code made it illegal for all men to have anal intercourse with one another – yet other acts of homosexual expression were not criminalized.
Though I do not have the research to see how many people were necessarily imprisoned for such acts of muzhelovstso (that is, “men lying with men,”) it is clear that members of high society were able to live open homosexual lives during much of the Imperial era. Notable Russians such as Diaghliev, Mechersky, Tchaikovsky, and Apukhtin were open with their close friends and were never charged with homosexual acts. Nevertheless, there was almost no public acceptance or attention given to the idea of the homosexual person, and that homosexuality may be an inseparable element of the self. There was no organized public or underground movements or associations of self-identified queer men or women. Queerness was hard to spot in Russian society, its only real expression being found in literature, which was slightly veiled in nuances and often published on a limited scale and available to only a small percentage of the Russian-reading public.
We will most likely never know the level to which Russians expressed their queerness in the private sphere, i.e., behind closed doors. The public sphere remained a hostile space for all queer expressions, and perhaps were only visible semi-public spheres such as prostitution, illicit quasi-open affairs, the military, and prison. Under certain conditions men could hold hands, as it could be seen as an asexual gesture of friendship, under other conditions women could dress as men, for it was seen as a harmless fashion trend. Surely beneath those gestures, which now have clear affinities with queer expression today, there lived an honest individual expression of queer desire and love.
After the socialist Revolution in 1917 homosexual acts were decriminalized in Russia under Lenin’s leadership; though the issue of the homosexual person was not addressed, not much was given to even its study. Queerness was seen as a bourgeois expression of decadence – the proletariat was not gay, gay liberation was not included in the Marxist world as interpreted by the producers of the new world order. Maksim Gorky, one of the fathers of Soviet literature, socialist-realism, and an ardent advocate for a law banning homosexuality in Russia, urged in a 1934 article to the Soviet public that homosexuality should be punished. The law had come into existence in 1933, and it made consensual sex between men illegal, and punishable with a five-year sentence of hard labor.
From the 1930s to the late 1980s, homosexuality was seen largely as a Western issue. It was criminalized, forbidden, and punished, over 1,500 men jailed for having consensual sex with other men each year throughout the 1960s. The homosexual act was what became punishable, and it was understood in such a way that men were not sinful before the state for who they were, but for what they did and what they believed.
In a socialist society one choose to help build communism, or one chose to help hinder it, one was not simply born anti-communist, one came around to be an anti-communist through Western propaganda and a crooked self-interested selling out of the working class. All laws that the Communist society passed through were seen through the prism of what supposedly helped or aided that struggle towards the building of a communist future; and the acts of laying with men were seen as detrimental, decadent, lewd, and bourgeois. Therefore, men who chose to sleep with one another were not choosing to do so because they were both homosexual, but they were heterosexual men choosing to engage in a serious act; they were being punished not because they wee homosexual individuals, that homosexuality was a part of their make-up, but because they chose to engage in an act that subverted the lives of the workers, and the vision of the party.
The homosexual as an individual was not considered at this time. The homosexual, after all, was not an illegal entity, and perhaps s/he might be, if that concept had been around. But it was sexual acts — most notably sodomy — that seemed Western, alien, bizarrely cosmopolitan and vulgar to the socialist framers. As I have stated before, over 1,500 men were jailed for consensual homosexual sex in the 1960s, and I do not have the numbers for the 30s-50s, yet we can imagine that the numbers may have been similar or far lager, as we have some disgusting anecdotes from the 1930s of how men who were sent to the prisons for homosexual offenses were basically meat to be killed for sport.
For women queer expressions of love were seen as sickness. For a woman to love another woman in the same sense as a men was a foreign occurrence for the culture, which was dominated by heterosexual (or fervently repressed) men. When women exhibited queer tendencies, such as dressing as men, longing for women, having women lovers, or raising a family with a woman as a heterosexual couple may do, for the most part, it was seen as a mental disorder, a disease, that could be quelled through institutionalization, shock therapy, medication, or even medical procedures.
For women, their acts of queer expression may not have been illegal, but they might come under the same state-sanctioned scrutiny as their male counterparts, in that they may become subjects of state experimentation, systemic harassment, and simply become detained for long periods of time from their partners and families. Their queerness was mental, they were inherently sick.
And perhaps it is from the female perspective where we can see the origin of the homosexual as part of the self, of queerness and self not being separate. For even in the Soviet Union, it was understood that there was something inner driving these women to lead queer lives. And some may have questioned weather this inherent sickness, may just be a natural part of their identity, one that they could not live without?
In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin decriminalized consensual homosexual sex between members of the same sex. Initiatives from the right and religious sectors of society unsuccessfully attempted to overturn this 1993 decision, and heavily lobbied to ban expressions of queerness from the public sphere.
In order to comprehend the psychological state of the Russian people and its leadership in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we must look at the portrayals and social views on queer Russians and the West. Following the collapse of the USSR, which Putin and many Russians would argue, was by far one of the worst socio-economic disasters of the twentieth-century.
Historically, over the course of the Soviet Russia’s history, the Russians had been wildly respected. The Russians themselves were incredibly proud of their tremendous achievements from backward tsarism to a literate nuclear superpower that dominated and influenced the whole of their vast region. Russians traveled the world, defeated fascism, spread socialism and communism, built university, educated half the world in their own schools, and provided shelter, work, and education for everyone in their empire.
The Russians, historically, attributed this success to a messianic worldview that Russia, the last bastion of Christendom – the Third Rome, as Moscow is often referred to – and that Russia was the world’s last hope for justice and survival. In their cultural comprehension, this Russian superiority and destiny became known as the Russian Idea. The Russian Idea is difficult to pin-down, it was loosely articulated by philosopher Nicholas Berdayev, who attempted to define the “individuality of the people.”
The Russian Idea holds that there is something characteristically different that sets the Russians apart from all the other peoples of the world. The Russians are not Western nor Eastern, not European or Asian; their character is inherently different from the rest of the peoples of the world; they are natives to a vague and broad land, whose soul lives as one with the wild vastness that is Russia, and that the Russian soul is as immense as the land which give birth to this strange and spiritual people; the Russians are Christians, they are the soldiers of God, and Russia — a Christ-like-nation, wearing a crown thorns, the savior of the world, fiercely battling the forces of evil and saving Europe and Asia not once, but eternally, either it be from the Mongols, the French, or the Fascists.
Everything about the Russian Idea is native; it is opposed to the introduction of Western liberalism. The West is deceived, has sold its soul. The Western worldview is opposed to the Russian Idea, it is threatens to annihilate all that is Russia, and what makes up the Russian character. In this sense homosexuality and queer expression are understood as inherently Western, and opposed to the natural make-up of the Russian individual.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and in those early bitter decades when Russia barely survived as a nation, when the once proud people were degraded and humiliated a the feet of Western and American power. The importation of Western capitalism into a young free Russia brought with it a brutal and long mafia war that created an environment of blood-feuds, street gangs, and extortion.
The dark 1990s saw educated Russian doctors, scientists, and artists emigrate on a massive scale. Decorated World War II veterans died of starvation, whole Russian villages died out from alcohol abuse, thousands of children were orphaned, the kidnappings and exports of Russian women for sexual exploitation became urban legends, and the country – along with its soul – seemed to be dying a quick and terrible death.
Homosexuality, queerness, was openly introduced into this framework – it implied in some sort of fashion that male homosexuality was a sign of weakness and female homosexuality a sign of mental disease. The rise of AIDS sent shivers across Russian society, and of course its association with homosexuality did not help the queer cause. Russia, a land so prone to conspiracy theories, saw queerness as Western plot, designed to destroy the fabric of Russian traditional life, poisoning its youth with AIDS, and further embarrassing and humiliating the Russian people, who had never associated themselves with weakness or disease.
As homosexuals began to come out of the closet in the 1990s, which included forming organizations, associations, and holding festivals — the idea that queerness could be a central inseparable element of a Russians identity brought into question of what exactly made one a Russian, what was at the core of Russian identity?
As Konchalovsky once said recently, there is something medieval to the Russian people. They seem prone to fall in line under strict leadership, they seem suspicious about all imports, especially cultural. The Russian identity is infused with its history, its concept of Russia being a beacon for the rest of the world, an incorruptible source of inspiration for all the world.
Because of its sheer size, its historical ability to expand, to annex, to wage wars and sacrifice its own people for its ideas — Russians are proud to inspire fear in the world, with fear comes honor and respect – and for Russians, who had been respected for most of their lives under the Soviet order, under Yeltsin witnessed a level of psychological humiliation and powerlessness that they had not experienced in generations.
As Russians begin to reassert their power in the region, and under Putin’s policies seek out to restore Russia’s traditional role as a superpower, with a vision for a nation that has world respect and a people who have dignity, the question of homosexuality and queerness becomes a tense issue, for it counters the tradition family ethno-centric identity of Russian-ness. There is nothing traditional about queer desire in the Russian collective consciousness — it is foreign, unreliable, and prone to suspicion, it is seen as a weakness that undermines the sanctity of Russia’s strength — who, after all, would respect of a nation of queers?
The Russians have had to confront many of their demons in the years since 1991, but the issue of homosexuality is something that the Russians are perhaps culturally still unwilling to have a public debate upon. The battle for queer rights took decades in Western Europe and it is hard to say that the battle has been fully won there, least of all in the United States, which only recently disbanded the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the military, and where many states still do not allow for same-sex marriage to take place. At the heart of the matter is not weather gay Russians deserve equal rights, it is the fundamental fact that Russians must reconcile that one could be queer and Russian. But having no historical basis for queer expressions, having no fundamental movements that had defined generations to which today’s Russian queers can look to for a thread of continuity and inspiration; the road for Russian queer liberation is much harder, it is in its initial stage where the pro-gay activists will have to align themselves with the Russian Idea but with queer element, and not with Western Europe.
The anti-gay propaganda law in Russia that was signed into law by Vladimir Putin in June 2013 effectively legalized a form of discrimination against the Russian LGBTQ community, addressing the fears that homosexual propaganda was against the fundamental values specific to the Russian people. The law re-affirmed the Russian Idea and placed gay Russians and queer expression into the other category of something foreign and worthy of suspicion and condemnation. Homosexuality was a threat, homosexuality as expressed in a vague law, could be cause to break apart families, to discriminate against Russians seeking to express themselves in the only ways they know. The move towards codifing queer expression as anti-Russian propaganda is not necessarily a step backwards in Russian democracy but a reaffirmation of Russian rejection of queerness as a national threat and is separate from the Russian soul, identity, and destiny.
Sasha Pogrebinsky holds an M.A. in Russian Studies from NYU (2011), and is fluent in English, Ukrainian, and Russian.