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social sciences

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In St. Petersburg and more slowly in Moscow, a subculture of male homosexuality had evolved by the end of the nineteenth century. One sarcastic critic called it "the little homosexual world." This world was based on a geography of specific cruising territories, on a common fund of rituals, dress and language, and on networks of mutual support.

The most visible features of the little homosexual world owed much to the routines of male prostitution. Streets and public gardens in the center of both capitals gained notoriety as places where men who offered men sex for cash were available. Those who purchased their services were often called "aunties" (tetki), an adaptation of the French and German street-slang "tante."

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Aunties and male prostitutes recognized each other through a concealed dance of sustained eye contact, strolling, and apparently casual conversation (asking for a light for a cigarette was typical). Some aunties and men who sold sex wore provocatively colored outfits or make-up; the red necktie was said to be a homosexual signal in St. Petersburg.

Many of these cruising sites were near public conveniences that offered opportunities for prostitutes to display their attributes to potential clients. Men selling sex exploited the masculine aura provided by their student, civil, or military uniforms (Imperial Russia was a society replete with uniforms for all kinds of occupations). There was even a slang term for the manly homosexual who preferred such butch men: "woman-hater" (zhenonenavistnik).

The bathhouses of Russia's cities were another important site in the homosexual world. In comparison to earlier eras, when sex between youthful attendants and their clients was organized according to relatively egalitarian peasant customs, by the 1890s bathhouse homosexual prostitution was a business not unlike work in heterosexual brothels.

Managers appear to have cultivated particular male bath attendants to earn money as sex workers both on the premises and off. Earnings were no longer pooled among the attendants, peasant-fashion, but channeled through a manager who distributed work among attendants. Bathhouse managers were also aware that affluent homosexual men resorted to private cabinets in baths for sex and profited from this arrangement.

Blackmailers mined the reputation of bathhouses as places for homosexual encounters, either by leading their victims there and then issuing threats and demands, or by mentioning the baths in the claims they made to authorities. (Incidentally, extortionists victimizing Petersburg homosexuals feature often in Russian criminological literature; blackmail was far from unknown to Russian street toughs, police, and homosexuals at this time.)

Of course, male homosexual life in late Imperial Russia was not confined only to this world of public sex that seemed to consist of apparently loveless encounters and presumed economic exploitation. Karlinsky convincingly demonstrates in his extensive descriptions of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russia's gay culture that its artists and writers brought male and female same-sex love into the public realm in bold and radical fashion.

The achievements of Mikhail Kuzmin, whose novella Wings is the first modern coming-out story with a happy ending (1906), and whose diaries (1905-1934) constitute one of the most moving documents of homosexual life in the twentieth century, could have been possible only through his interaction with the little homosexual world.

Similarly the hidden world of love between men was a source of inspiration for Peter Tchaikovsky, and only with Alexander Poznansky's detailed studies of his life and death do we have a clear picture of the composer's involvement in this universe. To dismiss this visible subculture of male homosexuality as a "culture of the toilet," an embarrassment, is to ignore the influence that concealed desire and its possibilities for realization had on gay male Russians who made contributions to the "high" culture of the Imperial era.

Lesbian Russia before 1917

Women who loved women evidently existed well before the late nineteenth century in Russia, although the traces they left are slight. Muscovite penitential lists and other religious documents show that the Church was aware of the possibility of sexual attraction between women, but to date no individual stories of such love have been unearthed in the archives.

Historians have speculated that the empress Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1795) may have had a lesbian relationship with Princess Catherine Dashkova, the director of Russia's Academy of Sciences in the late eighteenth century, but the slim evidence suggests that the legend reflects male historians' discomfort with strong women.

Karlinsky mentions the activities of the late Imperial generation of publishers, poets, and prose writers who contributed a lesbian presence to Russia's mainstream culture. Yet women without connections to cultural elites also experienced lesbian desire, and by the end of the Imperial era various experts noticed and described them.

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