Roots of Russian 'homosexual subculture'
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 7
By Leslie Feinberg
Revolutions against feudalism and capitalism
in Russia illuminated the nexus of the battles for the
liberation of sexuality, particularly same-sex love, the
abolition of sex and gender restrictions, and the emancipation
These seemingly divergent struggles were up against
institutionalized common obstacles. The economic unit for both
peasants and workers was the oppressive patriarchal family,
whether feudal or capitalist. The super-structure of law,
religion, politics and education functioned to justify the
inequality of a class-divided economic base. And this economic
and social injustice was enforced by the state machinery of
Russian capitalism created an exploited economic class that
was up against these common enemies at every turn and was
forced to take on the Amazonian task of battling class rule,
its ideology and its state.
Of course, women as a whole were easily visible in
pre-revolutionary Russian society; they were not a "closeted"
population. But it took the growth of capitalist
industrialization to create a homosexual "subculture" in
As early as the 1870s, historian Dan Healey describes that
"as Russian cities expanded and commerce and industry grew, a
new, 'homosexual' identity appeared alongside more traditional
relations." (Russian Queen)
Forensic doctors and others referred to these men as
"tetki." The word literally means "auntie," Healey explains,
but it can be translated as "queen." Tetka was a patronizing
word used for any woman older than the speaker.
"The 'little homosexual world' (gomoseksual'nyi mirok)
became a feature of Russia's largest cities," Healey says.
The abolition of feudal serfdom in 1861 and the demand for
wage labor created by industrialization drew large numbers of
peasants to the growing cities in search of paid work. It was
this centrifugal force of capitalism in Russia that centralized
an urban industrial class in the 1880s and 1890s, in which a
homosexual subculture took root.
Healey writes that, as this subculture in large cities like
St. Petersburg and Moscow began to grow in size and complexity
at the end of the 19th century, "It developed its own
geographies of sexualized streetscapes, its rituals of contact
and socialization, its signals and gestures, and its own
fraternal language. In these rituals, gestures and language,
the subculture elaborated roles for participants, often based
on the principles of the market in male sex." (Homosexual
At the same time, capitalist market relations stamped their
own trademark on sexual relations. "This pattern of relations
marked a distinct break with older, patriarchal forms of male
sexuality, for encounters took place beyond the patron-client
nexus of the household or workshop," Healey continues. "Now a
sexual marketplace evolved, with a new hierarchy of values and
a new symbolic order." (Homosexual Desire)
"Indeed, capitalists were now taking the Russian tetka and
his friends seriously, running bathhouses, bars and 'balls of
woman haters' that catered discreetly to this clientele."
Healey adds, "'Female homosexuals' (as Russian psychiatrists
tended to call certain women who had sex with women) appeared
in more scattered locations, often off the public stage, in the
1890s." ("Homosexual Desire")
The weight of the patriarchal family
Women bore the brunt of the burden of the patriarchal family
structure in feudal Russia.
"Russian peasant society ... replicated the structure of the
hierarchical patriarchal state," observes Christine D. Worobec.
"Women and children found themselves subordinated to husbands
and fathers just as peasants as a whole were subordinated to
the tsar, the supreme father." (Late-Imperial)
The medieval family economic structure was a heavy yoke
around the necks of all those who were not wealthy, landowning
Author William M. Mandel wrote: "Although the serfs were
freed in 1861, they remained dependent upon and ruled by their
former owners in precisely the fashion of the Black population
of the American South after Emancipation." (Soviet Women)
These oppressive conditions generated resistance. In a mass
trial of 50 peasants (Narodniks) in 1877, 15 were women. Mandel
describes them as populists who "believed the solution to
Russia's problems lay in that country's traditional peasant
communes--freed, however, of landlord exploitation."
He quotes Sophia Bardina, a 22-year-old defendant, who spoke
eloquently from the docket about the need to abolish the
patriarchal class structure of the family. She told the court,
in words laden with sarcasm, "Nor do I know whether the family
is undermined by that social order which forces a woman to
leave her family and turn to the factory where she and her
children are inevitably corrupted, that order which compels a
woman to become a prostitute because of her poverty and which
even sanctions prostitution as a legitimate and necessary
phenomenon in every well-ordered state; or whether the family
is undermined by us who are striving to eradicate this misery,
which is the principal cause of all social calamities,
including the destruction of the family." (Soviet Women)
Mandel recalled that the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was
beaten almost to death by Cossacks in a rural village after he
tried to save a woman who was being dragged naked behind a
horse because she was accused of the "crime" of adultery.
"That practice did not exist in town," Mandel concludes.
Next: Shaking the branches, not the trunk
Reprinted from the July 15, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
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