Lesbian, gay, bi, and trans pride series, part 6
Gender & sexuality in czarist Russia
By Leslie Feinberg
Lenin's Bolshevik Party abolished the czarist
anti-gay law and legalized abortion less than eight weeks after
the October 1917 Revolution. The Soviet leadership under Stalin
retreated from those revolutionary positions by
re-criminalizing homosexuality in 1933-34 and abortion in
Neither of these actions reflects the policies or
psychologies of individuals, but of deep economic changes going
on in Soviet society and their impact on the family. The
question of same-sex love and the role of women in what became
the Soviet Union has a long and complex past that can't be
examined in isolation from the class struggle as a whole.
Much of the scrutiny of this particular aspect of history
has been by researchers and academics who are hostile to the
Russian Revolution and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
it forged. Anti-communism not only taints their work, in too
many cases the discrediting of socialist revolution is the
actual foundation of their analysis.
Working-class communist intellectuals--particularly those
from the former socialist-bloc countries--who examine the
question of sexuality, gender and sex in this vast region
within the context of the class struggle, without glossing over
any of the weaknesses or mistakes of the revolution, will make
a vital contribution to the socialist movement.
As ancient as humanity
As with every other inhabited land mass on the planet, the
extended region that was to become the Soviet Union seems to
have encompassed same-sex love and gender/sex variance during
early times. Sexual variance is found not just in the history
of one nationality or one class.
British archeologist Timothy Taylor identified what he
believed was evidence of what today is called transgender, as
well as women warriors, in pre-class Iron Age graves in
southern Russia. "I think I have identified females who moved
into a male sphere as well as men who cross-dressed," he wrote.
("She-Men," British Daily Telegraph, Feb. 13, 1995)
Historian Dan Healy stated in his book "Homosexual Desire in
Revolutionary Russia" that: "The popular, everyday (bytovoe)
sexual patterns and practices of the mass of Russians were
marked by pagan survivals (orgies, nonreproductive sex acts),
which Russian Orthodoxy, with its incomparably weak
institutions and priesthood, had been incapable of
Healy explained, "Rural and lower-class Russians possessed
an array of terms to describe individuals who appeared or
behaved like members of the opposite sex. They associated this
gender marginality with hermaphroditism observed in
domesticated animals, linking social qualities with the
familiar phenomenon of physical sexual indeterminacy."
For example, Healy noted that "The lexicographer Vladimir
Dal, who gathered his material between the 1830s and 1850s in
central Russia, found that the manly woman was known as
muzhlanka, muzhlatka, borodulia, suparen, and razmuzhiche. Dal
reported that his informants defined these women as 'resembling
a man in their appearance, movements, voice, et cetera,' or 'by
structure, by body formation'; they might even approach the
condition of a 'hermaphrodite-woman' (germafrodit-zhena).
"The lexicographer found an analogous vocabulary describing
the feminine male. In addition, Dal reported that the verb
devulitsia was used of men who 'luxuriate, take women's habits,
None of the words used to describe "manly" females were
insults; some of the terms for feminine males were.
The stamp of feudalism on sexuality
In an essay about Russia and same-sex love, Simon Karlinsky
observed, "There is a considerable body of evidence that prior
to the Westernizing reforms of Peter the Great (at the
beginning of the 18th century) male homosexuality was
widespread and tolerated in all strata of Russian society. This
is attested by foreign travelers and also by the sermons and
denunciations by Russian Orthodox churchmen of the 16th and
17th centuries who repeatedly complained about the prevalence
of homosexuality." ("Hidden from History," NAL Books: 1989)
Sexuality between men took place within every economic class
in imperial Russia--even the tsar, Peter "the Great," was said
to "dabble in bisexuality on occasion." (Karlinksy)
Of course, men of all classes who had sex with other men
might still have believed that what they were doing was
And the sex that took place between men in the owning
classes and laborers, termed "gentlemen's mischief," cannot be
characterized as consensual sex, even when physical violence
was not directly involved as coercion. Some 52 million human
beings, enslaved as serfs in czarist Russia, had no rights as
far as the landowners were concerned.
Serfdom was formally abolished in 1861 as part of the Great
Reforms under Alexander II. But the peasantry, the preponderant
class in czarist Russia, still lived under the boot heel of
Codifying state repression
Revolutionary ferment in Western Europe in the second half
of the 18th century, which brought the bourgeoisie to power in
France and elsewhere, also brought challenges to the absolute
monarchy in Russia. Other Western influence, however, had
brought repressive laws in its wake earlier in the century.
German military advisers to Peter the Great had drafted a
Military Legal Code in 1706, based on a Swedish military edict,
that penalized consensual sex between males. The punishment was
burning at the stake.
This law was broadened in the Military Code of 1716. The
legislation of 1706 and 1716 applied to soldiers on active
"Criminalization of male homosexual behavior for the whole
of Russian society came with the promulgation of a new Legal
Code drafted in 1832," Karlinsky wrote, "during the reign of
the most brutal of the Romanovs, Nicholas I. This code did not
retain the military legislation of Peter the Great, but was
instead patterned on the criminal codes that existed at the
time in various German principalities, especially that of
Wurtemberg, which it copied."
But industrialization in Russia in the 1880s and 1890s--and
the urbanization it brought with it--set swift economic changes
As large numbers of peasants--mostly men, but some women,
too--left their villages and farms to come to the cities in
search of paying jobs, the old feudal social structure of the
family, sexuality and gender/sex expression they brought with
them was transformed, as well.
Next: Capitalism creates same-sex subcultures;
1917 revolution seeks to liberate them.
Reprinted from the July 8, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted
under a Creative
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe to WW by Email: [email protected]
support pro-labor, anti-war news.