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Russian Literature  
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Like Russian history, Russian literature can be conveniently divided into three periods: the Kievan (tenth to thirteenth centuries A.D.), the Muscovite (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), and modern (eighteenth century and later).

The Kievan Period

Kievan history began with the unification in the 860s of twelve East Slavic tribes (ancestors of the modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians) into a nation with its capital in Kiev. The country was converted to Christianity in 988. The new religion, which came from Byzantium, brought with it the Slavic alphabet, devised earlier by Byzantine missionaries. The earliest Russian literature, which was also the literature of other East and South Slavic peoples, consisted mainly of historical (chronicles) and religious (prayer books, sermons, lives of saints) genres.

As Vasily Rozanov pointed out in 1913, instances of homosexual love can be found in certain lives of saints (vitae) that date from the Kievan period.

For example, "The Legend of Boris and Gleb," written by an anonymous monk at the turn of the eleventh century, enjoyed a wide circulation not only in Russia, but also in other Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Bulgaria, Serbia, and even the non-Slavic-speaking Rumania. (Religious literature was written in all these countries in Old Church Slavic, a medieval South Slavic dialect that had the same function in Orthodox countries that Latin had in Catholic ones.)

Combining features of history, hagiography, and lyric poetry, "The Legend" told of the assassination of two young Kievan princes for dynastic reasons. Prince Boris had a favorite squire, George the Hungarian. He had a magnificent golden necklace made for George because "he was loved by Boris beyond all reckoning."

When the four assassins pierced Boris with their swords, George flung himself on the body of his prince, exclaiming: "I will not be left behind, my precious lord! Ere the beauty of thy body begins to wilt, let it be granted that my life may end!" Through the standard life-of-saint format, imported from Byzantium, the author's sympathy for the mutual love of Boris and George comes unmistakably through.

George's brother Moses, later canonized by the Orthodox Church as St. Moses the Hungarian, was the only member of Boris's retinue to survive the massacre. His later fate is told in a section devoted to him in The Kievan Paterikon, a compilation of the lives of early Russian saints. Moses was taken prisoner and sold as a slave to a Polish noblewoman who became enamored of his powerful physique. For a year, she tried to seduce him, offering him his freedom and even her own hand in marriage, but Moses preferred the company of her other male slaves.

Finally, his mocking refusals exasperated the noblewoman and she ordered that Moses be given one hundred lashes and castrated. He found his way to the Kievan Crypt Monastery, where he lived for another ten years. The story of Moses the Hungarian is clearly influenced by the biblical account of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. But it can still be read (as Vasily Rozanov maintained) as a tale of a Russian medieval homosexual, punished because he would not enter a heterosexual marriage.

The culturally rich Kievan period ended in 1240, when Kiev was occupied and virtually destroyed by an army of nomadic Mongol invaders. The invasion was followed by 250 years of Mongol captivity. When Russia regained its independence, it had a new capital in Moscow.

The Muscovite Period

The Muscovite period may have been the era of the greatest visibility and tolerance for male homosexuality that the world had seen since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, foreign travelers and ambassadors, coming from countries where "" were subjected to torture, burning at the stake, and life-long incarcerations, repeatedly registered their amazement and shock at the unconcealed manifestations of homosexual behavior by Russian men of every social class.

Among the numerous testimonies to this visibility in travel and memoir literature are the books by Sigismund von Herberstein and Adam Olearius and an amusing poem by the Englishman George Turberville, "To Dancie." Turberville visited Moscow with a diplomatic mission in 1568, the time of one of Ivan the Terrible's worst political purges. The poet was struck not by the carnage, however, but by the open homosexuality of the Russian peasants.

But homosexuality existed not only among the lower classes; it also extended to the ruling monarchs as well. Grand Prince Vasily III of Moscow (reigned from 1505 to 1533) was homosexual throughout his life. He went to the extent of announcing this fact to other gay men of his time by shaving off his beard when his twenty-year marriage to his first wife was terminated--being beardless was a sort of gay password at the time.

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Leo Tolstoy (above) experienced same-sex attraction, but he rejected same-sex love.
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