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literature

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Russian Literature  
 
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Because Esenin's poetry was an object of a veritable cult in the last decades of the Soviet system, all references to his homosexuality, in his poetry and in memoirs about him, were banned. Most Russians today respond with stupefaction or rage when this aspect of his life and writings is mentioned.

The Bolshevik Revolution and Homosexuality

The February Revolution of 1917 brought to power moderate democrats and libertarian Socialists and it turned the country into a democracy for the next eight months. But the seizure of power by Lenin and Trotsky in October led to the negation and reversal of all the rights that homosexual and lesbian writers and artists had gained through the revolutions of 1905 and February 1917.

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Because the most visible homosexuals of the prerevolutionary decades belonged to royalty or aristocracy (the grand dukes, Meshchersky) or were politically ultraconservative (Leontiev, Przhevalsky, Tchaikovsky), the Bolshevik government assumed from the start that homosexuality was the vice of upper-class exploiters.

Lenin himself, who had set out to create the Soviet Union in his own image, was a blue-nosed Puritan in sexual and cultural matters. He was shocked that in Germany women were allowed to read Freud and he declared unequivocally that he saw any kind of sexual liberation as antisocial and non-Marxist.

Much has been written in Germany and England in the 1920s and in America from the 1970s on about the supposed abrogation by the Bolsheviks of all antihomosexual laws after they came to power. What they actually abrogated was the entire Criminal Code of the Russian Empire, of which paragraphs 995 and 996 were a very small portion.

A new criminal code was promulgated in 1922 and amended in 1926. This new code did not mention sexual contacts between consenting adults, which meant that male homosexuality was legal. (Lesbianism was never criminalized in Russia.) But as discovered recently, there were two show-trials staged right after the appearance of the 1922 code.

One trial was of a group of Baltic Fleet sailors, who had rented a large apartment in which to receive their gay lovers and friends. The other one involved a lesbian couple, one of whom had changed her name to its masculine form and took to wearing male clothes, so that she and her lover could be seen as spouses.

The trials were publicized only locally; internationally, the Soviet Union pretended to have the most liberal legislation on sexuality in the world until the late 1920s. The local press accounts recognized that homosexuality did not violate any Soviet law, but stressed that overt homosexual behavior should be punished because the condition is contagious and might lead young people to imitate the behavior of the gay sailors or the lesbian couple.

The flowering of gay and lesbian poetry, fiction, drama, and art that existed during the decade that preceded the October Revolution was gradually stifled in the 1920s. The right to print gay-affirmative works, won after the Revolution of 1905, did not become extinct until the late 1920s.

Such acclaimed figures of earlier times as Kuzmin and Kliuev were doing their best work during that decade. But their books could no longer be advertised or receive favorable reviews in the Soviet press.

One of the worst casualties of these new conditions was the fine lesbian poet Sophia Parnok (1885-1933). Her two most important books of verse, Music (1926) and In a Hushed Voice (1928), were greeted by total silence in the press, and no one but the poet's friends knew that these books were published. (In the 1970s, the Soviet scholar Sophia Poliakova wrote the biography of Parnok and prepared an edition of her poetry, which she sent abroad to be published. This brought Parnok the recognition she was denied in her lifetime.)

Among the numerous talented poets and fiction writers who made their debuts in the 1920s, there was not a single openly lesbian or gay figure. By 1922, numerous noted writers had emigrated to the West, among them the great bisexual poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), who did her most important writing while in exile; also, the openly gay critic Georgy Adamovich (1894-1972) and gay poet Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944).

The most important novelist produced by the Russian emigration, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), later an American writer, had homosexual characters in many of his fictions, though he usually wrote of them in a sarcastic tone.

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