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social sciences

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The world of heterosexual prostitution in pre-revolutionary Russia was one place where the lower-class lesbian (and sometimes, her affluent female customers) might be found. Until 1917 brothels were licensed in Russian towns, and women's same-sex relationships were sometimes sheltered in these peculiar institutions.

A St. Petersburg gentlewoman, Julia Ostrovleva, was described by her psychiatrist in 1882 as enjoying dressing up as a man and paying visits to brothels, where "she spent a great deal of money on women." In a criminal case, a young prostitute testified that one of her colleagues had a romantic involvement with another sex-worker in a brothel. "[T]hey became what we call in public houses koshki [female cats]"--slang for women prostitutes who were lovers.

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Some brothel owners may have encouraged liaisons between their prostitutes, thinking that it prevented them from moving on or becoming too intimate with male clients. Older prostitutes were sometimes observed mentoring younger girls, teaching them how to conduct themselves and becoming attached in the process. The officially sanctioned brothel was, for most prostitutes, a harsh and squalid environment, and same-sex relations were perhaps a method of mutual protection for the women who found themselves there.

Upper- and middle-class families tolerated tomboyish daughters, indulging their taste for boys' clothing and games. Most families seemed to expect such women to settle down in late adolescence and get married. Yet not all these women-loving women did.

One young woman of gentle birth, "Z," was sent by her parents to a psychiatrist in 1898 because she refused to get married. Her parents evidently were counting on the improvement to the family fortunes a marriage would bring. Z told her doctor about "our circle": "women such as her, that is, who love women, are found not at all infrequently . . . [but] form a kind of particular world. Such women recognize each other by manners, expressions of the eyes, mimicry and so on."

The "particular world" of the pre-revolutionary Russian lesbian was a world of covert "circles," of special friendships conducted in private rather than paraded in public like the male homosexual subculture.

The Russian authors who wrote about lesbian love described it without mentioning "our circle" or any social context. Lidia Zinovieva-Annibal's Thirty-three Monsters (1907), the first literary work in Russian with a lesbian theme, had a decadent, cushioned indoor setting with little realistic depiction of the social lives of its lesbian protagonists.

Nevertheless, by the time of the Revolution, lesbian writing was an established part of avant-garde salon culture, and certain poets, notably Sophia Parnok and Marina Tsvetaeva, were giving voice to same-sex feelings among women.

Gender Dissent before the Revolution

Both men and women in Russia occasionally departed from standard gender roles, and found various ways to express their gender dissent. When discovered, their disguises and desires were traditionally described as . Later in the twentieth century, such gender crossing was regarded as a sign of homosexuality (by the 1910s, a medical condition).

Full cross-dressing was also observed, not always closely tied to same-sex desire, but rarely distinguished by Russian medical experts from homosexuality until quite late in the twentieth century.

Russia's foremost lexicographer collected a range of words from peasants and townsmen in the 1830s and 1840s to describe the mannish woman and the effeminate man. Women "resembling a man in their appearance, movements, voice" or "by structure, by body formation," were called muzhlanka, borodulia, suparen' and other terms. Men who "luxuriate [or] take women's manners" could be described using the verb devulit'sia. The nouns babatia, babulia (derived from the peasant word for a woman, baba) could also be applied to softer, feminine men.

Such words were viewed as far more insulting than the terms used to define the masculine woman. Women with masculine traits were regarded in a more positive light than their effeminate male counterparts. Rural Russians seemed to understand unconventional gender as a feature of hermaphroditism (which was widely enough observed in domestic animals): if someone behaved like the opposite sex, his or her physical sex was perhaps mixed as well.

The "passing woman" who dressed as a man was not always a lesbian, but appeared frequently in Russian history and in the medical literature on lesbianism. Catherine the Great's transvestite capers on horseback (described in her memoirs) were undoubtedly a means to escape the surveillance of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth I. Natalia Durova's lengthy impersonation of an officer of the Hussars during the Napoleonic Wars occurred with the later connivance of the authorities and satisfied a restless and energetic woman's taste for adventure.

Later Imperial, and early Soviet, case histories of lesbians often described women who impersonated men for sustained time periods. Sexual attraction to women may not have been the only reason for these remarkable transformations; some "passing women" were clearly attracted to the military life, or to aspects of masculine life such as mobility and entrepreneurship that were far less accessible to women.

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