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social sciences

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Stalinism: A "Great Retreat" from Bolshevism?

There is a very politicized argument between the historians who view Josef Stalin's violent and transformative reign (1929-1953) as the realization of the Marxist program laid down by the first leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin (died January 1924), and those historians who argue that Lenin's and Stalin's intentions were fundamentally different.

Revelations from government archives since 1991 have tended to weaken the claims of the second group of historians: we now know more about Lenin's taste for terror and intrigue and about the evolution of secret policing and political confinement under his rule. The mechanisms and habits of Soviet state violence had Leninist foundations; however the scale of this violence was grotesquely expanded under Stalin. More categories of people were targeted as Stalin sought to "sculpt" the population to play its role in his vision of a modern, industrialized power that could stand up to the capitalist West and the Nazi regime in Germany.

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In sexual politics, Stalin's "great retreat" from Bolshevism has long seemed like a major rupture with the settled policies of Lenin's government. Instead of a sexual revolution allowing the maximum personal autonomy, Stalin's new policies limited life-choices for women (by banning abortion in 1936) and made divorce more difficult and expensive.

The 1933-1934 decision to make sodomy a crime once again seems part of the same reversal: facing a major war with Germany, the state sought to promote heterosexuality to lift the declining birth rate. Many Western homosexuals in the 1930s, and many since that time, have seen Stalin's sodomy ban in this light.

There were, however, also domestic, internal impulses that led to the sodomy ban of 1933, and some of these can even be traced to the "liberal" policies of the pre-Stalin sexual and political order. As part of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), fairly ambitious and humane projects were designed to eliminate the scourges of prostitution and begging. "Socially anomalous" individuals were to be taken by welfare officials to special workshops and agricultural colonies to be retrained and re-deployed in factory jobs.

In the early years, these retraining schemes were relatively chaotic, but they grew harsher as the crisis atmosphere of the Five-Year Plan era developed, and as violence against the population increased. By 1932 prostitutes were simply rounded up by the police and shipped off to farming prison camps outside the biggest cities. (Moscow and Leningrad each had their own camps for "social anomalies.")

The police who arrested these women were aware of the existence of male prostitutes and their customers haunting the same places. The secret police proposed a ban on sodomy in mid-1933, including heightened penalties for male prostitution. The mention of "sodomy as a profession" was ultimately dropped from the published law, but the striking focus on male prostitution in the secret police reading of the problem indicates that they worried about economic deviance as much as sexual perversion.

What had begun as a way of reducing economic marginalization and giving women factory skills, apparently ended in the Stalinist goal of urban social cleansing. Gulag sentences for both female prostitutes and male homosexuals (whether prostitutes or not) were now a distinct possibility.

Until KGB and other archives are opened to public scrutiny, we will not be able to know precisely how many men suffered as a result of the 1933-1934 anti-sodomy law. The few surviving Moscow city court records from the 1930s to the 1950s show that despite this draconian law, the police were unsuccessful in eliminating the male homosexual subculture from Russia's capital. Even at the height of the Great Terror at the end of the 1930s men were still congregating to meet each other for sexual and emotional intimacies in notorious cruising spots like the boulevard and public toilets at Nikitskie Gate in the center of Moscow. Given the ferocity of state terror, this persistent homosexual presence constitutes a remarkable form of social disobedience.

After Stalin: The Gulag and the Clinic

We usually think of Nikita Khrushchev, the man who ruled the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953, as a "liberal" whose policy of de-Stalinization did much to humanize Soviet life, preparing the ground for Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. Yet Khrushchev's crude and bullying of cultural and intellectual leaders were also a feature of his ambiguous years in office.

He initiated reforms that undid some of the Stalinist sexual conservatism: abortion was decriminalized in 1955, and a housing boom made privacy and a sex life more accessible for millions. Despite a comprehensive review of thousands of Stalin-era laws, the ban on male homosexuality remained in place, for undisclosed reasons.

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