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Russian Literature  
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Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

The two giants of Russian nineteenth-century literature, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were men of the Victorian age who regarded all forms of sexuality as impure, distasteful and dangerous.

The theme of homosexuality in the life of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) deserves a special study that will undoubtedly be written one day. In his childhood, Tolstoy kept falling in love with both boys and girls, and recorded such experiences in the first two novels of his early autobiographical trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857).

While serving in the army in the 1850s, Tolstoy was strongly attracted to several of his fellow soldiers. But he noted in his diaries that he rejected same-sex love because his attraction to men was purely physical--he was drawn only to very handsome men whose characters were usually not admirable--while his love for women was based on their personalities and good qualities and not exclusively on their looks. In his later novels, Tolstoy showed male homosexuality in a negative light.

Anna Karenina (1877) contains a brief vignette of two inseparable army officers, whom Anna's lover Alexei Vronsky and his friends avoid, suspecting them, not without reason, of having an affair with each other (Part Two, Chapter XIX). In Resurrection (1899), the aged Tolstoy wanted to indict the inequities and corruption of Tsarist Russia. The novel contains an episode about a high government official who gets convicted for violating paragraph 995 of the criminal code. (Criminalization of male homosexuality for the entire population was enacted in the code of 1832-1845, promulgated during the reign of the most repressive of the Romanovs, Nicholas I. The law was hard to enforce and was very rarely applied.)

The convicted homosexual arouses the warm sympathy of St. Petersburg high society and, since his sentence calls for resettlement in Siberia, he arranges a transfer to one of the major Siberian cities, keeping the same rank.

Later in the novel, a reptilian government-employed lawman (who spitefully railroads the novel's heroine, Maslova, to a Siberian penal colony), defends equal rights for homosexuals and proposes that marriage between men be legalized.

Both of these characters were meant to suggest the country's moral decay.

Feodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was far less interested in homosexuality than Tolstoy. In an early novel, Netochka Nezvanova (1849), Dostoevsky depicted a passionate lesbian infatuation between two adolescent girls. In Notes from the House of the Dead (1862), a semifictionalized account of Dostoevsky's own experiences in a Siberian hard-labor camp, there are veiled indications that homosexuality is practiced by some of the convicts.

But in the curious episode that involves the violent and hardened professional criminal Petrov, the narrator seems perplexed about the reasons for Petrov's fondness for his own person. Petrov seeks the narrator out, plies him with meaningless questions just to be in his presence, and constantly does him favors. In recompense, all Petrov wants is to undress the narrator at the communal baths and to soap and wash his body while seated at his feet.

The narrator (who clearly stands for Dostoevsky) offers several tentative psychological explanations for Petrov's behavior but finds them all unsatisfactory. The most obvious explanation of all, which is that Petrov found the narrator physically attractive and desirable, just did not occur to Dostoevsky.

Less Known Nineteenth-Century Russian Writers

Some of the less known Russian writers of the second half of the nineteenth century also touched on homosexual themes.

Ivan Kushchevsky (1847-1876) was a radical writer who lived only long enough to write a volume of stories and the satirical novel Nikolai Negorev, or The Prosperous Russian (1871). The title character belongs to a coterie of idealistic young revolutionaries, all of whom he eventually betrays to the authorities.

At the end of the novel, looking for opportunities to start a new career, Negorev encounters an apparent homosexual named Stern, who has "prohibited relationships with several young men." Through Stern, Negorev meets a group of aristocratic young men, who refer to each other as "countess" or "princess," brag of their conquests of other men, and are much given to shrieking.

Negorev decides to investigate this group, hoping to blackmail one of them--for homosexuality, the modern reader expects. However, the author becomes confused: The fellow does get blackmailed, but for having gotten pregnant the daughter of a powerful official and trying to obtain an illegal abortion for her.

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