Rediscovering the enemy. Historian Rustam Alexander on how homosexuals were persecuted: from early USSR to modern Russia
Павел Васильев
Rediscovering the enemy. Historian Rustam Alexander on how homosexuals were persecuted: from early USSR to modern Russia
29 April 2024, 10:09

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

At the end of last year, the Russian Supreme Court recognised a non-existent ‘International social movement, the LGBT’ as an extremist organisation. Soon after, the Russian police have started detaining and fining people for wearing rainbow pins, patches and earrings, conducting raids of private parties, and eventually opened the first criminal case of ‘LGBT extremism’. All of this is reminiscent of the circumstances the gays found themselves under Soviet rule, as per Rustam Aleksander, the author of the book ‘Closeted. The lives of homosexuals in the Soviet Union’. Mediazona talked to the researcher about the how and the why of persecution of homosexuals in the USSR, why Joseph Stalin had a particular hatred towards them, and how members of the LGBT community managed to build relationships in the wake of fear and repressions.

Homosexuality in the Russian Empire

The first case of laws prohibiting the then called ‘sodomy’ in pre-revolution Russia was instituted by Peter I in early 18th century. When he started political reforms of the country, he was inspired by the West, particularly Scandinavian countries. Peter was the first to criminalise homosexuality, although the law only concerned military men. Civilians were in no way restricted.

Over a hundred years later, in 1832, Nicholas I introduced a new article to the Criminal Code which called for punishment to those practicing ‘sodomy’. The royal police were not particularly interested in pursuing such cases. Meanwhile in Europe they were really concerned with writing textbooks and conducting psychiatric research on the matter, trying to figure out how to tell if a person is gay and how to then catch and imprison them. The Russian Empire wasn’t as adamant, as the volume of such cases was insignificant. It’s also important to note that such cases didn’t raise suspicion when they involved people close to the emperor. The general rule was that the closer one was to the royal court, the more likely people were to look the other way, even if it concerned a higher-up, like a martial general.

We don’t know much about homosexuality of peasants. Although we do have access to certain cases, diary entries, to be exact, depicting landowners trying to coerce their serfs into participating in a homosexual relationship. A lot of serfs followed suit, chalking it up to ‘lordly pleasures’, and this was the exact language used, as there wasn’t even a concept of homsexuality. Some of them insisted they were merely trying to please their owners, while others admitted reciprocity. In the 1860s and 1870s it wasn’t uncommon for a coachman to offer sexual services to noblemen. The nobleman would agree, and of course pay a fee.

In spite of the nature of such relationships, they were never deemed as ‘sodomic’. Homosexuals were roughly described as ‘ones that have committed the abominable sin of sodomy’. This was the language used in documents pertaining to legal cases, but the concept of sexual identity was not yet established in society. The focus remained on the sheer sexual act as something forbidden and punishable by law. They just agreed that it was a sexual act between two men that should be punshied, and that was that. Only much later the language would be introduced to words such as ‘homosexualist’ and ‘pederast’.

In the 1880s and 1890s people in the bigger cities of the Empire started realising that homosexuality isn’t merely a sexual act, but a lifestyle. But, again, this way of thinking only applied to people in big cities, and people of a higher socio-economic class, and definitely not peasants.

Changes during the Bolshevik era

When the Bolsheviks came to power after 1917, the part of the empire’s Criminal Code prohibiting male homosexual relationships (female ones weren’t considered under the law) was simply removed. Historians still aren’t sure of the person behind it and their reasoning. Some people say it was a calculated move, others state it was an accident, but nonetheless the Bolsheviks removed the law. They decided to do a major overhaul of the whole criminal code.

After the law ceased its existence on paper, from the legal point of view life for homosexuals became a bit easier. That, of course, didn’t mean that people couldn’t still be prosecuted due to the homophobia still present at that time in society. Of course, if a particular law enforcement officer had a personal distaste towards homosexuality, he could easily deem it a different offence, like disorderly conduct, but the main hindrance in the life of the LGBT community was removed.

1920s were a period in early Soviet days that involved a lot of discussions on sex. It wasn’t even called ‘sex’, the word famously didn’t exist in Soviet Russia, it was called ‘intimate life’. I delve deeper into this issue in my book called ‘Sex existed: the intimate life of the Soviet Union’, which comes out later this year. Royal Russia didn’t touch on this subject a t all, and Bolsheviks realised that the masses needed to be enlightened on the matter.

The LGBT topic wasn’t discussed publicly and openly, but the theme frequently appeared in the medical field, by quite famous doctors. They publicly stated that the sexual orientation of a person didn’t matter, as long as they were a good communist and contributed to society, their sexual life didn’t concern anyone but themself.

So yes, there were public discussions and statements. Although, again, this period isn’t thoroughly researched. A fellow historian, Ira Roldugina, is researching the matter. She claims (and I cannot say how accurate this is, as I don’t have access to the sources she’s working with) that during this period there even emerged an LGBT community in Soviet Russia. Already there were people that not only recognised their homosexuality, but those that wanted to stand up to heterosexual aggression against them. They wrote to doctors, saying that ‘you need to accept us as we are, we are already facing severe societal pressures’. Anyway, there were lots of interesting cases, although this needs thorough research, of course. But the fact that legal persecution of homosexuality was nonexistent is really important, because of course it influenced a lot of aspects of life.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

‘Spy’ LGBT net and Stalin’s ire

Everything took off in 1933-1934, when Genrikh Yagoda proposed that Stalin institute a law punishing people participating in ‘sodomy’.

What happened? In the 30s the industrialisation in bigger cities began, as well as collectivisation in villages. It is then of course important to somehow arrange the masses living in cities. So the OGPU set out on a mission to do just that: they began to search the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, removing sex workers, the homeless, closing down drug dens. To mobilise the masses to work it was important to remove outside noise and distractions. Presumably during one of such raids they stumbled upon a homosexual den and were horrified by what they saw. It’s difficult to say whether they started closing down such dens before or after the law was instituted, but the fact remains that they were closing down such dens all over the Union. They really were mass detentions, raids, and this time they included the higher-ups of society.  

In the end Yagoda wrote to Stalin that it was necessary to punish such people, but for some reason the law against such activities doesn’t yet exist. He painted the picture as such: these ‘homosexualists’ were spies that created spy cells that recruit Soviet citizens, the working youth, and even try to infiltrate the army and the navy. These things were especially painful for Stalin to hear, as in the beginning of 1933 Adolf Hitler started his rule over Germany, and Stalin heard rumours that Germans somehow infiltrated Moscow’s societal circles, particularly with the help of people that were having sex with people in the military. So he wholeheartedly supported the proposal to punish homosexuals by law.

In the beginning of my book I write that Stalin and his disciples hated homosexuals. How so? Well, the language of his correspondence with Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich is quite homophobic. There isn’t any sympathy or affection towards the matter. 

Again, there aren’t any one hundred percent reliable historical sources on the issue. But this hatred, I think, consisted of what Stalin and his comrades saw in prisons, where in different times existed various hierarchies that were dictated and regulated by sexual violence. It is most likely that all of Stalin’s knowledge of this topic came from such sources, from personal experiences tinged with casual homophobia.

The Soviet viewы of homosexuality

The emergence of the law punishing ‘sexual acts between two men’ wasn’t explored by the Soviet media. Izvestiya and Pravda only allotted a line for coverage on the law, if I remember correctly. It’s most likely that people didn’t even notice it. Of course, there weren’t any meetings or debates about whether to pass the law. Stalin wasn’t known for giving a crap about what people thought of his new reforms. After the law was passed, Maxim Gorkiy wrote an article about fascism and homosexuality, linking the two.

The Soviet government under Stalin never gave any explanation as to why a law was passed. It only gave a signal. The air of mystery around the regime was one of the ways of fortifying Stalin’s power.

The same applies to the law of ‘sodomy’. Nothing was explained to anyone, especially concerning such a topic, which was potentially a taboo in those times. There weren’t any show trials against homosexuals either. It was the individual  whim of the Soviet leader and his disciples.

Soviet society existed for over 70 years. There were different approaches to the matter — the understanding, the quiet agreement. For example, if everyone knows that their neighbour is a homosexual, nobody says anything, is surprised at anything, doesn’t call and tell on them. People simply coexist, and this applies to big cities and villages. There is a particular case that interested me. In the 50s there was a man in Leningrad Oblast, who slept with soldiers, and the whole village knew. He was called weird, peculiar, and unserious. But the most offensive word wasn’t used. They didn’t have words for describing such people. Or one could speculate that it was just a shameful topic.

Of course there were also homophobic tendencies: someone would peep something and then to some authority or another. Or, for example, someone would wait on someone in a particular establishment, knowing that the person is a homosexual: ‘Why don’t I write a report on him, this will benefit me’. What exactly happened to such cases under Stalin is hard to trace, and in the times of Brezhnev and Kruschev this didn’t happen often enough. But people could use the weakness of someone being homosexual for personal gain.

It’s also very interesting to look at the so called repairmen: they would lure gays into fake dates to then beat them up and take their money, threatening to out them. I read a couple of lines on this from Masha Gessen’s report in 1994. There isn’t a lot on this topic. I know there really were such organisations. And their motives were most likely not only homophobic, but they were seeking financial gain as well.

Many gays in the USSR truly could be successful people. They worked, they visited countries abroad. In my book, I talk about the proof that states that in Moscow there were higher-ups living in lavish apartments that would pick up men from streets and train stations. This was a good way of gathering blackmail.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

How LGBT people built relationships under repressions

Everything depended on multiple factors, but it was difficult. First of all, they were under the watchful eye of the law enforcement. Secondly, nobody wrote anything on the topic. When the person grows and realises they are gay, then, of course, the first thing they hear are slurs coming from peers that somehow point to their sexual orientation in a negative light.

Of course it’s difficult to exist in such an informational vacuum, and there was always the looming danger of being found out by the police and winding up in jail. Even though there was a relatively small amount of such criminal cases (less than 1500 a year), that was enough to be scared.

There was also the depression, the fear, the melancholy that came with the prospect of being found out. That could potentially happen at home, in school, in university dorm rooms. The soviet life was a fairly social one, it was difficult to keep things private, everything was out in the open. But some people could get lucky, the people around them would see them for what they were, but would simply look the other way.

The Soviet gay life isn’t like one in New York in the 70s and the 80s. It is filled with danger, shame, it’s homophobia and other horrible things.

Someone would live a family life, but then go to the so-called pleshkas, they were specific places in cities where men would go to cruise. One of such places in Moscow was the Aleksandrovsky garden, situated right near the walls of the Kremlin. People would meet in train stations, parks, public toilets, and saunas. The sauna was one of the more harmless places, people couldn’t simply walk in there.

People would look at each other a certain way in public, they would introduce themselves. Of course, there weren’t any pride pins, but there were ways of carrying oneself, certain mannerisms. For example, one would give the other a look, and then sit next to them, start a conversation. Or someone knows that another person always sits on the same bench in the park, and thinks to themself, ‘Why don’t I join them and we can talk.’ But most city gays knew such places, the pleshkas. The people inhabiting such spaces were definitely gay, so starting up a conversation was harmless.

There weren’t any parties or nightclubs. There were most likely house parties, perhaps in the 70s and 80s. But these would be held for the upper classes, not the proletariat.

Of course, the intellectuals and the elites wouldn’t visit pleshkas, parks or public toilets, in order to avoid trouble, they had different channels for meeting people. If we’re talking about the elites, most likely they would work in some sort of creative fields, so they had an opportunity to meet other homosexuals.

In general, the elite had their own lives, they had connections. But the KGB also had lists, all these stars were under control. And since there were no scandals of homosexuality in the Soviet Union, no one published compromising information on anyone, it means they all did things correctly. In general, the KGB was satisfied with what gay Soviet celebrities were doing. They weren’t touched.

What changed regarding LGBT after Stalin’s death

When Stalin died, naturally, among intelligent, thoughtful people, lawyers, there arose an understanding that the law on ‘sodomy’ needed to be removed from the Criminal Code.

They explained their initiative by the fact that the law itself makes no sense and it is very difficult to enforce: if two consenting men are not bothering anyone, engaging in sex at home behind closed doors, then how can such a matter be investigated? There is no victim in this crime, and it turns out that there is no point in punishing someone for voluntary sex.

There was even an attempt to remove this law, at least that part where voluntary sexual contact between two men is punished. But the attempt was thwarted in 1959, this initiative of prominent Soviet lawyers was rejected. The response from the authorities was not rational, but emotional:

“This article cannot be changed or removed.”

“And why?”

“You just can’t.”

Since 1970, the number of cases of ‘sodomy’ sharply increases, from 900 per year to 1200, and it remains at this level until the 1980s. This amounts to about 30 thousand cases throughout the existence of the Soviet Union across the country. This is not a huge number. But if we are talking about the lives of individual people, then it is a tragedy.

No one in law enforcement agencies tried people solely because they were gay, at least there are no sources on this subject. They were held in regular prisons. But if other inmates found out about their same-sex relationships, they fell into the caste of ‘outcasts.’ Everything that is happening in Russian prisons now derives precisely from Soviet times.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

Authorities did not attempt to regulate same-sex relationships among women. It was typical macho logic: women don’t decide anything, so there’s no need to worry about them. In reality, there are several theories about this. The entire homosexual subculture that developed in big cities mostly concerned men: they went to bars, roamed the streets, met each other. And women, if they tried to realise their homosexual desire, did so in narrow circles, in a very private setting. Since law enforcement agencies encountered homosexuals, primarily men, they became victims of this law. And since women were not active cruisers, the legislators of that time, under Stalin, never even thought that female homosexuality was something serious.

Female homosexuality began to be seriously concerned about in the Gulag in the 1950s. When the ‘thaw’ began under Nikita Khrushchev, political prisoners began to be released from the camps, and the authorities finally began to pay attention to the lives of the detainees. The quality of their lives had not concerned the authorities before; they treated them only as a resource, as labour. But when it was discussed that they all needed to be gradually released and somehow reintegrated into society, they finally started to study their lives and conditions in prison. And suddenly it turned out that homosexuality was very widespread among both men and women.

When Soviet officials saw homosexuality in such concentrated amounts, they were horrified and tried to address it somehow. Reports from prison officials, from the heads of the Gulag, indicated that women who started their lesbian relationships in prison continued them after release, and marriages with men broke up because of this. If we look at the history of the Soviet Union, the most moral panic occurred precisely during the period of people’s release from the Gulag.

The Soviet penitentiary system naturally wanted to solve this problem somehow. But there were no plans to deliberately introduce criminal punishment for lesbian love. There was some lawyer who wrote a dissertation, dedicating a whole chapter to justifying the necessity of criminal punishment for female homosexuality. But no one supported his views; the reviewers stated that this problem was not serious and not as widespread as male homosexuality.

How homosexuals were medically ‘treated’ in the later stages of USSR

One of the main enthusiasts of homosexuality treatment in the Soviet Union was Yan Goland. Patients from all over the Soviet Union would come to him in desperation, trying to change their sexual orientation to fit into Soviet society. His treatment methods were actually quite tame compared to methods used in other countries, where electroshock and medications were employed. What Goland did was, as he put it, ‘psychotherapy,’ suggestion.

During such sessions, for example, the patient sits and tries to suggest to himself that he is no longer interested in men, that he is focusing on the aesthetic beauty of the female body, and so on. The person keeps a diary, describing their sexual emotions towards men, describing their attempts to suppress them. They try to focus as much as possible on female beauty, on reproductions of paintings by French artists, trying to imagine naked women. That's the whole methodology of Goland’s therapy.

Soviet citizens learned about Goland through their local doctors, who in turn read about him somewhere. Goland didn’t force anyone to undergo treatment. He even conducted interviews, during which he asked how serious the intentions of the person seeking to rid themselves of homosexuality were. He simply turned away ‘non-serious’ patients, without reporting them to the authorities. If a person showed eagerness to ‘work on themselves,’ Goland took such patients.

For Goland, it was all driven by enthusiasm and vanity; he didn’t take any money from his patients. But he enjoyed the fame of being a sexologist dealing with ‘sexual deviations.’ He had very few competitors in the Soviet Union. Even prison authorities sought advice and instructions from him.

Why is Russian law enforcement hunting LGBT people

I’ve never seriously considered the sayings and beliefs that history repeats itself, but in this case the saying is applicable. The police come to certain events, visit certain places. And it really is horrifying to watch what’s happening.

As for extremism. To be honest, this is some supernatural happening, I can’t even explain this phenomenon. I don’t have a rational explanation. Experts have given so many different opinions on the matter that I will just agree with them. Maybe it was necessary to invent some sort of evil before the election. And all of this fits well into the narrative that we are fighting Ukraine to fight with gay pride. This just adds fire to the flames of rampant insanity that is going on now in this country.

Why did such a violent attack on the LGBT begin in 2013? The same exact reason, but not as apparent: [Vladimir] Putin had to find a villain that could be blamed for everything, that could be the conduit of all his ire and hatred, to give the sense that he was actively fighting something. In general, I agree with the theory, and this isn’t something new. A lot of dictators did the same: they organised manhunts of LGBT people, because it was beneficial to their personal regimes.

I’m sure that on a personal, household level, Putin is homophobic, despite the fact that there are many gays around him who, by the way, are also homophobic. However, the laws that legislators write don't apply to them, they apply to ordinary people. This makes Russia a unique case where many things converge and lead to what we see now. And if we generalise, the explanation is simple: an external enemy, an external threat. LGBT people are an easy target.

If we look at it globally, historically, what’s happening in Russia right now is a complete mess. But in Russia, as many thinkers and experts say, there are a lot of educated people. Many minds are brainwashed, but Russia still has the resources to recover, even in the case of a strong setback. There are the resources needed to return to the point of normal development and move forward again. The question is when that will happen.

Right now, the Russian state is adding even more problems that we;ll have to resolve later. Unfortunately, the LGBT agenda won’t be the first. And if democratic society in the future says again, ‘Oh, LGBT, let’s deal with you later, we’re dealing with war now,’ then Russia will step on the same rakes again.

If the promised wonderful Russia of the future comes, we'll have to tackle all these problems. And then, perhaps, the question of what to do with homosexuals will arise again. Someone will say, ‘What about these gays, they’re a minority, don’t meddle, we’re dealing with great problems here.’  In that case, Russia won’t achieve anything again. And that will be very sad, because it won’t be the first time such nonsense has happened.

Because there;s no such thing as saying, ‘Let’s restrict your rights, you’ll endure, we’ll deal with something else.’ No. Either you democratise everything, or you won’t achieve anything at all.

Editor: Maria Klimova

Translator: Suzy NotSontag

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