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social sciences

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When Western-looking Tsar Dmitry (ruled 1605-1606) was overthrown, his corpse was dragged through Moscow by the genitals and displayed with the mutilated body of his reputed lover, Petr Basmanov. In the political symbolism of Muscovy, love between men was not easily tolerated. Instead, sodomy carried negative associations with other forms of deviance, and was invoked to damage reputations.

Further evidence that sexual and gender diversity were not always so lightly regarded comes from religious documents. A number of sixteenth-century lists of sins and penances compiled for clergy hearing confessions included "men wearing women's clothing, or women men's [clothing]" as a sinful act. One list assigned 150 prostrations per day for seven weeks as the required penance.

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Sermons too mentioned the use of women's powder and finery by men seeking to attract other men as an abomination; they also attacked shaving as a way of attracting other men.

Frequently, penitential lists--most of which assumed the confessing party was an adult man--mentioned sexual acts with young men as sins to be discovered in confession; the youthful male was seen as a fair substitute for a woman. Between women, sexual manipulations (usually described as masturbation) were also routinely included on such lists. Less often, women's use of men's clothing would be mentioned.

In the structure of penitential manuals, same-sex sexual sins were not associated with cross-dressing in any systematic way, suggesting that Muscovites did not closely link gender transgression with same-sex activity, except perhaps where young men were concerned.

In the Muscovite period the nature of Russian society expanded. Monasteries and convents proliferated, and the clerical hierarchy was well aware of the temptations to same-sex acts fostered inside them. Religious authorities warned community leaders to guard against intimate contacts between women in convents and between men in monasteries, and apparently there were routines of surveillance to monitor behavior. No research has, however, been conducted on the dimension of these single-sex environments.

Similarly, as commercial bathhouses appeared for the first time in Moscow in the seventeenth century, the state decreed that the sexes should be separated for the sake of public decency. At least on the men's side of commercial baths, youths were employed to scrub clients' backs, and likely also engaged in paid and unpaid sexual relations with them.

The military was another significantly homosocial environment, one where men were normally removed from their home villages and taken into virtual lifetime service. Again, no research into the queer implications of this durable same-sex formation has been undertaken. Nevertheless, the traditional reverence for paired warrior-saints, the ritual of "making brothers," and the fact that Peter the Great (reigned 1689-1725) banned sodomy in the army and navy (in 1716) all suggest that male same-sex love was not an unknown feature of military service.

The sexes were also (in theory at least) segregated in the tsar's court. Both tsar and tsarina had same-sex "companions of the bedchamber," who slept in the same room and even the same bed with them. Sources on these personages seem to insist that some of them were married, perhaps in an attempt to emphasize their respectability.

Women and men at court spent much of their time engaged in sex-segregated activities: noblewomen sewed together with the tsarina, while hunting and falconry were masculine pursuits. Again, the opportunities for particular friendships and physical intimacy inherent in these social structures deserve more study with a queer eye.

Imperial Russia: Hostility and Homosexuality

Karlinsky correctly points to the increased Russian awareness of hostility to same-sex sexuality that came with Muscovy's turn to the West in the early eighteenth century. A slow but determined process of Westernization initiated by Peter the Great transformed the state into a major European power, the Russian Empire, with a modern army capable of occupying Berlin in 1760 and repelling Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.

St. Petersburg, founded in 1703, served as Peter's "window on the West," force-feeding the new Imperial elite Western "civilization." Aristocrats and gentry absorbed new manners, including the mixing of the sexes, and a new sense that marital relations could be a source of personal fulfillment. These developments contributed to the elite's ideas about appropriate masculinity in particular.

Peter's 1716 military ban on sodomy was intended to begin this transformation where he needed to create "new men" first, in the army and navy. A similar ban was proposed for civilians in a draft penal code of 1754, but was not finally enacted until 1835. This law (which lasted until 1917) was apparently a response to the reports of sodomy in boys' boarding schools, in an era when the state needed another kind of "new man," the pious, conservative yet educated bureaucrat. Yet the growth of cities, and their increasing sophistication, allowed the development of alternatives to the masculinity prescribed by the state.

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