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social sciences

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The Revolution and Same-sex Love

By 1914 modern Russia had one of the most articulate gay and lesbian cultures in the Western world, but the tsarist government was not responsible for fostering that culture. It emerged spontaneously from Russian society and cannot be plausibly linked to any particular political current.

Nicholas II (ruled 1894-1917) was a devoted family man but utterly out of his depth in his determination to rule the Empire autocratically. His many uncles and cousins (some of them gay or bisexual) intrigued against him and contributed, along with the Romanov women, to the collapse of the dynasty with their collective political incompetence.

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Undermining the democratic reforms of 1905, the Romanovs stifled the emergence of competent leadership in the Duma, the country's first parliament (1906-1917). The crisis of World War I destroyed the monarchy and then the provisional liberal-democratic order that replaced it in February 1917. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 proclaimed the world's first socialist state, but that state was founded on blood and terror (in a civil war from 1918 to 1921) rather than the traditions of European parliamentary social democracy.

Nevertheless, the early Bolsheviks and their allies in the Soviet state apparatus eagerly pursued the goal of modernization. As in so many other regimes and states, the modernization of approaches to sexuality had both positive and negative consequences for sexual and gender dissent.

In the first criminal code they composed after the revolution (1922), the Bolsheviks decriminalized sodomy. They did so because they were intent on secularizing and medicalizing the language of sexual crime. Old Testament concepts like "sodomy," "fornication," and "feminine honor" were purged from the law. In their place came a modernized, gender-neutral language to describe a sexual revolution.

Henceforth, the sexual inviolability of all young persons was to be protected by the state, and the maximum self-determination was offered to both adult men and women: freedom to marry and divorce without having to explain why, freedom to engage in harmless consensual sexual relations without the interference of a moralizing higher authority.

Homosexual relations were not explicitly welcomed by the Bolsheviks and raised to an equal status with heterosexuality. Yet they were regarded in principle as no great vice. The majority of Bolsheviks perhaps subscribed to the view that homosexuality was a medical condition, probably (if they read the popular sex advice tracts that they sponsored) a hormonal anomaly, and perhaps one day science would be able to control or even eradicate it. In the meantime, the legal persecution of homosexuals found in Britain and Germany was seen as irrational, reactionary, and bourgeois.

Nowhere was the indulgent Soviet view of homosexuality so vividly expressed as in medical circles. Soviet psychiatrists enthusiastically studied lesbians who came to their clinics for advice and sometimes for cures. The psychiatric profession in the 1920s did not always believe that same-sex love between women was inherently a problem. Some medics, perhaps a majority, thought the most humane and politically acceptable approach was to help lesbians to accept their desires so that they could be fulfilled as lesbians in socially non-disruptive ways.

Many aspects of the "typical lesbian personality" (in the stereotype shared by these doctors) were positive traits for the new Soviet woman: her active, tough, can-do attitude, her disregard for feminine fripperies, her will to study and do paid work. "Masculinization" carried positive political messages. Privately, some of the Soviet Union's leading psychiatrists even declared that marriage between two women ought to be recognized by the state.

Yet other medical authorities worried that the lesbian was a problem, that her refusal to have babies was socially disruptive, and that masculinization was a vulgar parody of the Soviet regime's proclaimed emancipation of women. Nevertheless, the tough, "masculinized" woman remained a feature of the Soviet social landscape, and many women-loving women undoubtedly took cover in this politically "safe" costume.

Soviet Russia's cities recovered fairly quickly in the 1920s from the devastation of seven years of war, revolution, and civil war. The male homosexual subculture reconstituted itself as parks, public toilets, and boulevards began to function again as meeting places for men-loving men. In the partially privatized economy of the 1920s some bars, cafes, and bathhouses welcomed homosexual clients, but the exuberant public face of the subculture did not return. (Mikhail Kuzmin's diary for the 1920s retains its queer eye, but the aging poet's activities were evidently more directed toward scraping together a living than flaunting a homosexual persona.)

Police surveillance of pleasure-spots was fairly constant, not so much because of a fear of public homosexuality as worries about heterosexual prostitution, which also flourished in many of the same locations. Soviet authorities devoted much effort to monitoring and studying women's prostitution in the 1920s, yet their records say nothing about the "little homosexual world." It is nevertheless very likely that the same police, welfare officials, and women's organizers who studied the heterosexual underworld of Soviet Russia's cities encountered male homosexuals and male prostitution simultaneously.

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