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social sciences

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Russia's enormous size, straddling eastern Europe and northern Asia, its relative poverty, and its often violent history have all left their mark on the forms of same-sex love and gender diversity found within its borders. Moreover, the many nations and ethnic groups in the Russian Federation have diverse traditions regarding these issues. A cultural crossroads between Asia and Europe, Russia has a heritage of varied influences and stark confrontations in regard to its patterns of same-sex love.

Early Rus'

The eastern Slavic tribes gathered under the prince of Kiev accepted Christianity in 988, following contact with Byzantium. In the eventual schism between Rome and Constantinople, Rus' (as it came to be known) was an outpost of Orthodox Christianity.

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Its earliest records (chronicles and religious texts) leave only a few hints about unconventional love. Lives of paired saints, such as Boris and Gleb, were celebrated as examples of devotion and love between pious warriors. The Christian tradition also gave to Orthodox Russians the ceremonies of same-sex union (known in Russian as pobratimstvo, "making brothers," and posestrimstvo, "making sisters") that enabled ordinary folk to emulate such saintly couples.

Through Byzantine Orthodoxy, however, Russians also received a negative view of all sexual activity, with a variety of penalties (exclusion from communion, fasting, prostrations) that were generally as harsh for adultery and masturbation as they were for same-sex acts.

Muscovy--A Gay Paradise?

Kievan development was interrupted in the thirteenth century by Mongol invasion and domination. In response, Russians migrated northward from steppe to forest and founded new towns. By the fifteenth century Mongol domination ended, and Moscow became the center of a northern Russian homeland, Muscovy. More is known about the social life of Muscovy than of Kiev as more written evidence has survived for the former. Contact and conflict with Western Europeans increased dramatically in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Simon Karlinsky writes that "the Muscovite period may have been the era of the greatest visibility and tolerance for male homosexuality that the world had seen since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome." It is true that there were no laws against same-sex acts in Russia until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It would, however, be a mistake to think of Muscovy as a gay paradise in a supposed historical top-ten of such times and places.

While Muscovite manly behavior apparently included plenty of scope for sex between men, there is much evidence that "" had a negative cultural value. Equally suspected were cross-dressing and mannish behavior in women. Lesbian sexual relations, well hidden and sparsely recorded, were mistrusted too.

Social historians have long relied on foreigners' reports of what they saw in Muscovy. These foreigners wrote vividly about the widespread practice of sodomy or "unnatural vice" between men and boys, between adult men, and between men and animals, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Muscovy.

Yet European visitors carried a complex array of negative Western Christian and secular views about male-male sex with them to Moscow, and their reports were written to appeal to a home audience holding those values too. What is more, these visitors' reports were part of a cultural trend in which Western Europe began to imagine Eastern Europe as a place that was Christian but only barely "civilized." These stories of sodomy in Muscovy may well have been accurate, but a certain degree of exaggeration to emphasize Muscovy's "primitive" and "barbaric" character cannot be easily dismissed.

Many of the claims that Russia's tsars and subjects engaged in same-sex relations are based on propagandistic sources that tell us more about the symbolic meaning of sodomy than about actual same-sex love in Muscovite society. These writings were often produced as part of the clan-based struggles for power during the chaos created by Ivan the Terrible (ruled 1533-1584) and the dynastic breakdown that lasted until the Romanovs assumed the throne in 1613.

These stories of sodomitical relations often mix them with allegations of other forms of deviance, such as practicing witchcraft, association with wandering minstrels (condemned by Orthodoxy), or desecration of holy sites and lax views of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The source for Ivan the Terrible's alleged sexual involvement with his henchman Fedor Basmanov was an anti-Ivan letter written by a disgruntled prince who defected to Poland. This story (which is impossible to confirm or deny on available evidence) was later embellished in the historical novel of A. K. Tolstoy (Prince Serebriany, 1862) and in the film masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible (Part II), made in 1945 by Sergei M. Eisenstein. These embellishments are thus the product of later historical eras and tell us little about Muscovy.

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