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Just after the revolution, at least during the first decade of Soviet rule one could speak about a great improvement in the sexual emancipation and gender equality. For instance, in the Criminal Codes of the RSFSR of 1922 and 1926 there were no articles concerning the criminal responsibility for being gay, since Soviet legislation was unaware of the “crimes against morality”.
“Park Gorkogo” is a typical name of an amusement park in most of the large cities of the former Soviet Republics. “Gorky Park” is also a name of the popular Russian rock-band, with disgusting ballads in English – one of the failed export projects of the late Soviet pop-industry. Tailed rock-singers in their late 30s perform on stage glamorous macho masculinity with slight Russian accent.
When I was a child I often visited the one in the centre of Minsk. Once sticky candy floss, chocolate ice-cream and cold lemonade were sold there, now pop-corn and coca-cola replaced them, offering a fast sugar shot.
At the weekends citizens with their children come there to take rest after the working week. They spend time together, sitting on the benches, playing chess, drinking beer, or cycling. During the week young people meet up there usually in the evenings – from nasty looking punks, hip-hoppers and goths to “gopniki”, the lumpen youth. The park is used also for celebrations during the official holidays, when huge stages are built up there. They host the most barking pop-music ever, mixed with staged folk dances.
The park, where sparkling red squirrels besiege the old chestnut trees, is named after the idol of socialist realism Maxim Gorky (Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov). The monument to the writer and poet in his young years is erected in the park; however he had hardly any relations with Minsk city and Belarus.
It is difficult to explain, why he became so acknowledged in the Soviet Union. For me his writings were quite primitive and unimaginative, he used words rather as a hatchet man, than a writer. Probably, his proletarian origin and Stalin’s personal fancy mattered more than his actual talent. I particularly hated to read him at school - his books were a part of the obligatory curriculum. I always tried to keep a straight face while reading his texts in the “proletarian humanism” manner:
„The fat, foolish penguin hides, timid and craven,
In nooks of the cliffs, where it finds a safe home;
Alone the proud storm-finch soars freely and boldly
Above the rough ocean, all hoary with foam”.
(“The Song of the Storm-Finch”)
What irritated me even more is that at the literature classes we had to find the deep meaning and symbolical background of his evidently unintellectual scribble.
Supposedly while he was self-conscious of being weak as an author, he meddled into politics, pleasing Stalin and showing obedience to the authorities. He became a mouthpiece for Stalin’s arbitraries.
I was born in quite “successful” Soviet family; both of my grandfathers were members of the Communist party – as any “respected” man was. This allowed them an access to such resources, as comfortable accommodation, car, TV, prestigious jobs, possibility to travel, extra medical services and good education for their children. It is a myth that the Soviet Union was built on equality. At least the last years of its existence, which I remember myself, were marked with food and clothing deficit, everyday hardships, and the society was consumed with envy.
My relatives nevertheless belonged to Soviet establishment. The loyalty to the authorities, which was their strategy to achieve comfortable existence, played a cruel trick on them – starting as a survival conformism, it developed into the life philosophy, and they accepted the values of the propagated “communist morals” as their own. But each family has its own skeletons in the closet – one of my mother’s uncles was in Soviet forced labor camp, and my father’s mother was from the family of “kulaki”. These facts were always concealed, there were no solidarity with the uncle, who was very poor, thin as a rail and sick after many years of imprisonment in the camp. Despite the rehabilitation, he was never back to social life. His pain and exclusion were the price which my mother’s family had to pay for their own comfort.
Almost each Soviet family had a member who endured repression. While the camps where a taboo topic for the collective subconscious, at the same time the popular culture absorbed the lager culture, with its specific folklore and typical modes of behavior. If we consider the number of people with camp background in the Soviet Union, it becomes clear, why criminal culture became a dominating source for Soviet pop-culture. The attitude to gays and lesbians as to the stigmatized and subservient was an intrinsic part of this camp culture. For instance, the homophobic attitude is fixed in such common insults, as “pidor” / “pider” (“faggot”) or special camp slang “petuh” (“cock”) and “kozjol” (“billy goat”), originating from the criminal slang, and as well in the stereotype of the same-sex intercourse as an act of rape. It was associated mostly with “ opuschennye” (“degraded”, “downcast”, a special slang term for one who has been beaten up, raped and urinated upon). The politics of criminalization of gay people practically during the whole history of the Soviet Union, from 1934 till 1993 resulted into this subconscious interconnection of being gay or lesbian with criminal activity or with criminal background. And this interconnection is not deconstructed up to the present time.
Just after the revolution, at least during the first decade of Soviet rule one could speak about a great improvement in the sexual emancipation and gender equality. For instance, in the Criminal Codes of the RSFSR of 1922 and 1926 there were no articles concerning the criminal responsibility for being gay, since Soviet legislation was unaware of the “crimes against morality”. Hence, this decriminalization was influenced by hormonal hypothesis of an etiology of homosexuality, which appeared after the Steinach-Lichtenstern experiment in 1918. Officially in the RSFSR the approach of medicalization of gay people and hormonal correction of their “anomaly” was chosen. For instance, in 1928 an attempt to pattern the Steinach-Lichtenstern experiment was undertaken by doctor Kirov in Kharkov University at the Faculty of Psychiatry. He tried to reverse sexual orientation of Efrosiniya B. implanting animal ovary sections beneath her right breast. When this sadistic experiment failed, Kirov blamed the false data in the Western literature on this question.
D. Healey in his article “The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born” describes a raid on a „pederastic party” in Petrograd on 15 January 1921, resulted in the arrest of 98 sailors, soldiers, and civilians, many of them dressed in drag. They had tagged a mock wedding ceremony and celebrated the occasion with waltzes and minuets. Other guests wore “Spanish costumes” or “white wigs”, and there was a “flying post” for sending messages; one lucky sailor got notes saying “I fancy you” and “I’d like to get to know you”.
According to Healey, the Soviet Union in the 1920s was the most significant example of decriminalization of the male same-sex relations since the French Revolution, while Britain and Weimar Germany continued to prosecute gays and lesbians. Soviet health authorities even courted the left-leaning sex reform movement headed by Berlin sexologist and gay rights campaigner M. Hirschfeld. Biologists and doctors began to investigate homosexuality as a scientific and medical phenomenon, often with loyalty. But M. Hirschfeld himself, after his encounters with Soviet doctors who had the repressive view on gay people, changed his enthusiasm for the Soviet Revolution, which was too puritan for him. With Stalin’s rise to power after 1924 the situation changed dramatically.
In September 1933 the first raid on the suspected of being gay persons was carried out, and 130 people were arrested. Genrikh Yagoda, the vice-chairman of the OGPU (the State Political Directorate) wrote a report to Stalin, informing him that the “dangerous groups of gays” in Moscow and Leningrad were exposed. These groups quasi were building a gay network with a plan to turn later the salons and brothels into the spy cells.
With Stalin’s approval the OGPU prepared the project of the anti-gay law. On 13 December 1933 Genrikh Yagoda send another one paranoid brief to Stalin, blaming gay communities for counter-revolution and complaining about the absence of the appropriate criminal laws to persecute the “pederasts” who supposedly recruit and pervert the healthy youth and the Red Army and the Red Navy men. This conspirological delirium turned shortly afterwards into the reality for the gay people in the USSR - by the end of December 1933 the anal and genital contact between consenting males was considered a crime. It was made in order to destroy the gay subculture and allegedly followed the logic of the anti-prostitution initiatives in the crisis years of the early 1930s.
This hype about the international networks of gays was designed to inseminate the mass consciousness with the idea of connection of being gay with the counter-revolution. The repressions against the “suspicious” Others, including gays, foreigners, former Czarist diplomats, White Guards, Jews, intellectuals, and dissidents were launched.
On 7 March 1934 the resolution “On the Criminal Responsibility for the Sodomy” was pushed ahead at the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. It was not enough for the Soviet state to control the mind of the Soviet people; their anuses had to be controlled as well. The criminal law determined much harder sentence for the sexual intercourse between two males, than in the pre-revolutionary Russia. On 1 April 1934, Article § 154 (later § 121) had been fixed in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR – according to this law, prepared by the butchers from the OGPU, the voluntary gay sex was persecuted as a crime in all Soviet republics. The notorious Article §121 determined punishment for the “sodomy” with the term of imprisonment up to 5 years, and in case of violence, threat or in case of the minor or with the use of the dependant position of the victim, up to 8 years. Lesbians and bisexual women were not criminally persecuted according to this law.
D. Healey in his article “Unruly Identities: Soviet Psychiatry Confronts the “Female Homosexual” of the 1920s.” mentions several lesbians who registered their marriage and two women “transvestites” who served as Red Army commanders in men’s clothing. Being lesbian was treated in the Soviet Union in general more liberally. Just after the revolution, when the identity of the socialist woman was just in the process of formation, and women moved into education and paid labour, the lesbians where socially accepted. Masculine women were seen then as competent, powerful and in general loyal to the values of the Revolution. However already in the 1930s within the introduced politics to increase the birth rate in the Soviet state lesbian was seen as disobedient. When the anti-gay campaign was launched, the massive criminalization and psychiatrization of lesbians and transgenders started. Hospitalization or isolation in prison clinics was a probable destiny for many of these women who were considered “psychotic” because of their rejection of the heterosexist maternal role.
Especially male femininity was imagined as foreign, primitive, and bourgeois. “Petuh” (“faggot”) is the most vicious insult in the Russian language, undermining the strength of the dominant stereotype of the patriarchal heterosexual man. Besides it bears the connotation of sexual violence and abuse in Soviet prisons, camps and army circles.
Soviet authorities displayed their striving to control the human body and sexuality, following very regressive biopolitics – with prohibition of abortion in 1936, as well as toughened divorce. Since the Soviet state needed new working hands, these were the measures to increase the birth-rate. The family was proclaimed to be a basis of the socialist collective, and, in case of the criminal punishment for the public enemies, the responsibility for their guilt was shifted off on their family members as well.
The article §121 was used not only to punish gays, but also to criminalize dissidents, who were sent to Syberia. Secret lists and profiles containing the information about allegedly gays were forged by the militia. The Soviet state always kept the gays in the awe of arrest: most of them for sure were aware of the arrests of their friends, lovers and acquaintances, and that made them obedient and willing to collaborate with the regime. The disobedient were proclaimed dissidents and sent to Soviet forced labor camps.
In the official press the public campaign against the gays was launched – and Stalin’s favorite writer, Maxim Gorky himself contributed to the justification of the repressions. On 23 May 1934 he wrote in the leading article published on the front pages of the newspapers “Prawda” and “Izwestija”: “Not the dozens, but the hundreds of facts testify the devastating and perverse influence of fascism upon the youth in Europe. It is disgusting to list these facts, and my memory refuses to be loaded with the filth, which is more and more industriously and abundantly produced by the bourgeoisie. I will mention only, that in the country, where the proletariat operates with courage and success, gay people, perverting the youth, are recognized as criminals and have to be punished, and in the cultural land of the great philosophers, scientists, musicians it operates freely and unpunished. A sarcastic proverb appeared: Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear”. This appeal was directed against Hitler’s fellow Ernst Röhm, which was shortly afterwards killed by the führer’s order.
It is not clear, if Gorky made it on his own intent, or by order of the above-standing authorities. Prominent Russian gay writer Slava Mogutin in his essay “Gay in the GULAG” reminds one of the popular rumors that the adopted son of Maxim Gorky was seduced by a gay, and the leading proletarian writer took his revenge in such a mean way. The choice for the intellectuals in the Soviet Union was limited: the authorities demanded from them only hymns to Stalin, those, who were critical, paid with their lives. Destruction of ethics and its replacement with ideological dogma happened. When being gay was proclaimed a “crime against communist morals” - it was obviously nonsense, while the unmoral deed could not be persecuted according to the criminal law. This criminal article was not supported with any “valuable” scientific basis. Anyway the lawyers and the doctors in the USSR supported the triumph of “communist morals”, which described being gay as a “foreign disease” and the sign of the “moral decay of the Western bourgeoisie”. This conception justified, however, the massive sexual crimes of the Soviet regime, which took place in every camp and prison without exception.
This aggressive Anti-Western tendency of the “communist morals” could be explained by the analysis of the logics of transitivism by J. Lacan in his text “The Other and Psychosis”. “One child who has beaten another can say - The other beat me. It's not that he is lying - he is the other, literally”.
In 1936 the Commissar for Justice, Nikolai Krylenko, declared being gay a political crime against the Soviet state and the proletariat. As S. Mogutin writes, “The fate of homosexuals in Soviet prisons and camps is unprecedented in the scope of its tragedy and brutality”. Over 25 thousand people were persecuted and end up in the forced labor camps in accordance with this article, which was in power for almost 60 years. It was cancelled in 1993.
All in all in the Soviet Union two state repressive measures against the gay people existed – the first one is the implementation of the criminal article persecuting gays for 5 years, and the second one is the abuse of psychiatry, which allowed, for instance, to psychiatrize lesbians and transgenders. When the parents, teachers or colleagues informed the authorities about the lesbian relationship, the psychiatrist usually manipulated with the diagnosis, which sounded as “personality disorder”. Young women (especially in the age of 15-19) were put into psychiatric clinics for the term of 3 months. During this time they received psychopharmacological medication, which influenced their consciousness and mental development. Afterwards they had to be registered by the local psychologist as psychically ill. This registration gave up for lost their future carrier and the driving license.
Most of the sodomy trials of the 1930s took place behind the closed doors. The militia intervention into the intimate life of individuals was directed towards the destruction of the privacy, which is peculiar to any authoritarian society. Such notions, as “private sphere”, “autonomy” and “self-determination” are still alien to the dominant cultural vocabulary in the post-Soviet countries. This makes the life of an individual extremely difficult there. The dominating stereotypes and prejudgments concerning the “successful” and “normal” lifestyle serve as blackmail in order to compel persons to conform and to be obedient. The collectivist lifestyle, paternalism and heteronormativity which were propagated during the Soviet regime, destroyed the ability of the citizens to make responsible decisions and take the initiative themselves. The intimate sphere and the interpersonal relations’ were also touched upon by the omnipresent control of the jailors of the “communist morals”.
It was very difficult in Soviet times to create intimacy, while the living conditions where so, that one always had to share one’s private sphere with somebody else in so-called “kommunalnyh kvartirah”, where from 4 up to 16 and more people lived together in one accommodation, especially in the big industrial cities. It was impossible to stay on your own there, which impeded the formation of the individuality and independent thinking. Violence, insanitariness and crime were there as a matter of course. Another one variant of cohabitation, a legacy of the village culture, meant living together with parents even in the adulthood, which often created intergenerational conflicts. Such power relations were difficult even for the straight people, not mentioning gays and lesbians, who very rarely lived in partnership. Most of them leaded the double-life, were officially married and even had children in their heterosexual marriages. This means hypocrisy and thousands of ruined, unhappy and unbearable lives.
Extreme density of prison and camp life was a continuation of this transparent communal living, where everyone was always in somebody’s else presence and control, often unintentionally. Even the cattle, if they live in poor conditions and too close to each other, are at the risk of getting foot-and-mouth disease. Soviet authorities were treating the citizens worth than the cattle in the dense stalls of communal apartments, public transport and factory world. This produced frictions, conflicts, paranoia and hatred between the people. The scale of violence and repressions against any imaginary public enemies – “spies”, “parasites”, “perverts”, “prostitutes”, “dissidents”, “conspirators”, “thieves”, “collaborators”, “pederasts” and “dykes” was inconceivable. And very often the arrest and further interrogation and imprisonment were the result of a denunciation, faked by neighbors from the same communal apartment or, worse, the relatives as an act of revenge or realization of the plan to improve their living conditions, occupying the accommodation of the person, who was sent to the camp or a nuthouse.
After Stalin, during the years of so-called “liberalization”, another one, more “mild” way remained to deal with the “public enemies” and “dissidents” - the compulsory psychiatrisation. Soviet psychiatry, based on the behavioral Pavlov’s doctrine, was harsh. The electro-shock therapy and the cheapest psychopharmacy were used there.
Post-Soviet society has not coped yet with its past that vastly embarrasses the rights of the LGBT people there. It still leans to the image of the strong leader, the father of the people, the commander – this authoritarian tendency is cherished by the ruling class. It could explain also the long-lasting political course in Russia, where the ex-officials of the secret service gained the rule. Or the flashbacks of the Stalinist propaganda constituting the symbols of the ideological space in Belarus. Or the frightening growth of the anti-Semitism and nationalism in Ukraine and Lithuania. The Soviet Imperia was built upon the symbols of the military power, patriarchal tradition and atmosphere of the general mistrust and denunciation. This ideologems still hinder the development of democratic societies in the post-Soviet counties.
Most of my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends from Belarus with great commitment struggle against the successors of the Stalin rule who are still in power there.
List of cited books and articles:
Anna Bjutikofer. Gomoseksualizm v Sovetskom Sojuze i v segodnjashnej Rossii. Iz zhurnale "die" (di), No 8, Autumn 1998 g., pp. 6-8.
Healey D. Unruly Identities: Soviet Psychiatry Confronts the «Female Homosexual» of the 1920s. (in Gender in Russain History and Culture, ed. by Linda Edmondson, Studies in Russian and East European Histoty and Society Series, University of Birmingham, 2001). Pp. 116 – 138
Healey D. The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born (in Russian Masculinities in History and Culture, ed. by Barbara Evans Clements, Rebecca Friedman and Dan Healey, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 NY). Pp. 152 – 171
Kon I. S. Sociologicheskie zametki o gomofobii i sposobah ee preodolenija: http://sexology.narod.ru/info154.html
"Krasnym" po "golubomu". - Sovetskaja vlast' protiv gomoseksualistov: http://www.oliari.com/comunismo/russia4-b.html
Lacan J. The Other and Psychosis (in The Psychoses. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller. Book 3, 1955 – 1956. Translated with notes by Russell Grigg. London, Routledge 1993). pp. 29 - 43
Mogutin S. Gay in the GULAG. Translated from Russian by Irena Maryniak. (in: Index on Censorship (London), Volume 24, No.1/1995)
Publikuju po pros'be Valerija Bondarenko... http://community.livejournal.com/ru_antidogma/363718.html