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social sciences

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Khrushchev dismantled the Gulag camps, releasing some 2.5 million people (about three-quarters of whom were men) into Soviet society. Life inside the Gulag had been characterized by a brutal sexual culture. In men's camps rape and sexual humiliation were widespread and exploited by authorities and powerful prisoners as a means of keeping the majority in line by stigmatizing a small minority who were forced into the receptive role in anal intercourse.

It seems likely that in Khrushchev's blunt imagination the best way to prevent the sexual behavior of the camps from "infecting" Soviet society was to retain the anti-sodomy ban. Of course, male homosexual cruising territories continued to operate and expand as Soviet cities grew during the post-Stalin decades, and the anti-sodomy law did little to limit the subculture's growth. About 1,000 men per year were imprisoned as a result of the legislation during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

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Despite his anti-intellectual instincts, Khrushchev did begin a process of liberalization in the sciences, and the re-birth of Soviet sexology as a sub-discipline of psychiatry (after decades of suppression) was one modest result of this trend. Soviet psychiatrists began new work on the lesbian but unfortunately without a trace of the humane approaches displayed by their predecessors in the 1920s, whose works were virtually ignored.

Instead, psychiatrists sought to cure the lesbian of her "perversion" and convert her to "normal" relations by a combination of libido-deadening drugs and talk therapy. A major study of the 1950s and 1960s was initiated in Soviet Kazakhstan, drawing its subjects from a former Gulag camp for women. It offered only a modest "success rate" with its drug-and-persuasion regime, but one of its authors continued to promote this "cure" when he moved to Leningrad in the 1970s and convinced the city health department to fund a sexological clinic under his direction.

As with Gulag men, it appears that the authorities hoped to contain the spread of Gulag women's sexual culture, but with medical measures. By the late Soviet years the medical treatment of lesbians had solidified into a routine. If girls or women were "outed," they were given compulsory psychiatric treatment, made to report to medical authorities on a periodic basis, and (as psychiatric outpatients) were denied certain forms of employment or a driver's license.

The massive expansion of the late Soviet scientific establishment allowed for pockets of experimentation in the realm of gender issues. This experimental license took place within a traditional, paternalistic framework of doctor-patient relations. The surgical re-assignment of gender was attempted and made routine from the 1960s into the 1980s under endocrinologist Aron Belkin, director of the Moscow Center of Psychiatric Endocrinology. (Belkin was recently hailed as the "father of Russian " in an online obituary after his death on April 29, 2003.)

Belkin was also a leading exponent of Soviet medical routines for the surgical and hormonal "correction" of intersexual babies and adults. Changing the sex of Soviet citizens involved not only complex medical procedures, but also a nightmare of paperwork to appease totalitarian bureaucrats and give patients completely new civic identities that concealed their gender transitions.

Belkin's work, and the medical literature produced by his school of gender specialists, reveals no awareness of the experiments of early Soviet surgeons and endocrine specialists in these areas. There were "crude operations" to effect changes of sex in humans in 1928 in Moscow (later condemned) and attempts to "clarify" the sex in hermaphrodites as early as 1925.

After Communism

Russian life changed drastically with the accession of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (in power 1985-1991). The end of the Soviet Union (which collapsed in the second half of 1991) and the eventual rise of the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin (who served as President, 1991-1999) brought greater freedom but also staggering economic decline. "Transitional economics" (from state socialism to unfettered capitalism) have impoverished the majority of Russians, leading to a demographic implosion. In 2002 the government released statistics showing that the population of Russia had been declining by 800,000 annually as a result of illness, alcoholism, and poverty linked to the "transition."

The political evolution from authoritarian one-party rule to a still-unsettled "democracy" initially led to some very positive developments for same-sex desiring Russians. After some unpublicized debate inside the Soviet system, and pressure from the Council of Europe after 1991, Boris Yeltsin decriminalized sodomy in 1993.

From 1989, Russian gays and lesbians began to organize support and lobbying groups, often with the financial backing of American and European organizations. These groups had little impact on the eventual decision to decriminalize sodomy, but they did attract wide media attention, publicizing queer issues and demands. Their health campaigning succeeded in keeping the AIDS/HIV issue from being entirely dominated by the doctor-knows-best outlook of the Russian medical establishment. Russia's lesbian and gay activists also began organizing social venues, magazines and periodicals, and contact clubs for people isolated in the remoter regions of the country.

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