Lesbian, gay, bit and trans pride series part 9
Naysayers pooh-pooh Bolshevik gains
By Leslie Feinberg
Simon Karlinsky, a Berkeley professor of
Russian literature and drama, pooh-poohs the decriminalization
of same-sex love by the young Russian workers' state in October
1917. "The revolutions of 1905 and of February 1917," he
writes, "which brought unprecedented new freedom of expression
for Russian gay and lesbian writers, are all too often
conflated in Western minds with the Bolshevik-led October
Revolution, routinely credited with the sexual liberation
achieved by the two earlier revolutions." ("Gay
Karlinsky offers details about the public articulation of
same-sex love in Russia's literary Golden Age in the late 19th
century and its Silver Age in the early 20th century. He
focuses in particular on the flowering of what today would be
called "gay" and "lesbian" literature between 1905 and
The most famous, of course, was the novel "Wings" by Mikhail
Kuzmin (1872-1936) that swept the imagina tion of the male
homosexual population because it was the first "gay" novel in
European literature to end happily.
Between 1905 and 1910, the publication of Lydia
Zinovieva-Annibal's novel "Thirty-three Freaks" and her
collection of stories "The Tragic Zoo" also electrified the
public in general and "lesbians" in particular.
The celebrated writer Nikolai Kliuev, leader of the "peasant
poets"--named for their class origin and for the theme of their
writing--was also openly "gay."
Using quotation marks around the words "lesbian" and "gay"
is a reminder that modern identities are relative and not
precisely adaptable to other historical periods, regions,
nationalities and classes. Russians have used different con
cepts to describe same-sex attraction, like "blue" or "pink,"
or "people of the moonlight"--the title of a book by Vasily
Rozanov in 1913.
From all this, Karlinsky concludes--and so do other
anti-communist historians--that the revolution should have
stopped in February 1917. "Constantly sabotaged by the
monarchists on the right and the Bolsheviks on the left, the
regime managed to promote human rights and freedoms on a scale
not experienced in Russia before or since. That was when women
and minorities were given full civil and political rights,
including the vote. Freedom of religion, speech, press, labor
unions, and strikes became a reality, the prominent feminist
Sophia Panina was given a cabinet-level post, and all vestiges
of censorship were abolished."
Karlinsky concludes, "The seizure of power by Lenin and
Trotsky in October 1917 was hailed by many then (and is still
often regarded) as an enhancement of the rights gained by the
revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. But as far as rights
(including gay rights) and personal freedoms are concerned, the
October Revo lution was actually a reversal and a negation of
the two earlier revolutions rather than their
Is that true?
Those who wax eloquent about the bourgeois democracy that
briefly flourished in 1905 and again in 1917 focus on the
political freedoms incorporated in the laws of that time. But
they omit that, while political debate emerged and strikes may
have become legal, millions of bellies were still growling for
bread. Backs were bowed by dawn-to-dusk toil in fields and
factories. Women were drag ged by the hair to their patriarchal
family roles. Young men and women, looking for same-sex love,
lived invisible lives, ended up being marketed for someone
else's profits or forced to pay extortionists from their own
pockets. Jews were forced to fight or to flee from pogroms.
Even after the February revolution, all this continued to be
exacerbated by Russia's participation in the war, whose killing
fields were drenched with the blood of millions of Russian and
The February 1917 Provisional Gov ernment, headed by
Kerensky, was hoisted to political power by a ground swell of
workers and peasants who yearned to throw off the yoke of class
exploi tation by rich landowners and factory bosses.
They hungered for bread, land and peace. But the Provisional
Government was tied to Russia's weak capitalist class. They
wouldn't give up the territorial claims that kept Russia in the
war. They weren't for expropriating the bosses. They couldn't
even carry out land reform.
All that required another revolution--one that suppressed
the landlords and capitalists. It came in October, under the
leadership of the Bolsheviks.
The communist revolution had to carry out the tasks that the
capitalists and their government could not complete.
In December 1917, only weeks after seizing state power, the
Bolsheviks abolished the tsarist anti-gay law, legalized
abortion, provided maternity leave, lifted the onerous
restrictions on divorce, and legally recognized children born
outside of marriage.
This act of expunging the super-structure of egregious laws
was of a political character. It demonstrated the revolutionary
direction and goals of the Bolsheviks under Lenin's
However, these tsarist laws had been a codification of the
inequality that was institutionalized in the semi-feudal,
semi-imperial class relationships in the economy and in
society. So the revolutionary work of transforming the social
structure had just begun. And that work was not unimpeded. It
was carried out under fire from invading imperialist powers on
Next: 'People of the moonlight' in the dawn of
Reprinted from the July 29, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
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