Progress and regression
Sex and gender in 1930s USSR
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 15
By Leslie Feinberg
The question of when male homosexuality was re-criminalized
in the Soviet Union is easy to determine: 1933-1934. Why such a
regressive move occurred is, while politically indefensible,
The czarist anti-homosexual legislation had been removed by
the revolutionary Bolshevik leaders immediately after the
October 1917 Revolution. When the Russian Soviet Federal
Socialist Republic first codified its own laws in 1922 and
1926, no anti-gay laws were written.
As late as 1929, the top medical body in the Soviet
Union--the Expert Medical Council of the Commissariat of
Health--held a conference to take up questions of
homosexuality, cross-dressing, transsexuality and
intersexuality (referred to as "hermaphroditism").
These deliberations did not demonstrate a uniform view, nor
were they devoid of the prejudices or limitations on
understanding of that era, but they were taken up with genuine
scientific concentration. And the impact of, and respect for,
the work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld--a leader of the German
Homosexual Emancipation Movement--was still apparent in the
Prominent clinical psychiatrist P. B. Gannushkin said that
he "constantly encountered" requests for surgical sex
Biologist N. K. Kol'tsov asserted, ahead of his time, "Of
course, there is no intermediate sex, but rather an infinite
quantity of intermediate sexes."
Some doctors defended cross-dressing females, described as
very masculine, and proposed that they have a right to marry
women. Kol'tsov, showing his confines of consciousness,
disputed this, saying a law should be written to block a
cross-dressed female from wedding a woman.
But historian Dan Healey notes in his book "Sexual Desire in
Revolutionary Russia" that "the minutes record no support from
colleagues," and Kol'tsov's suggestion didn't find its way into
the final conference resolution.
However, the two-line struggle taking place in the USSR at
the time--"nature" vs. "nurture"--was visible even during the
1929 deliberations. And this ideological battle would have
great bearing on subsequent official views of homosexuality and
A strong current of scientists looked favorably on
cross-dressing, masculine females believed to be lesbians.
Their condition was seen as biologically based. They were
considered strong and loyal to the workers' state, particularly
those in the Red Army.
But they considered feminine, cross-dressing males, presumed
to all be homosexual, a dangerous weakness in the ranks of the
military. And this form of self-expression and sexuality was
seen to be a problem of byt or social life.
This nature vs. nurture debate at the 1929 conference later
emerged more visibly as a two-line struggle that reshaped the
direction of the scientific and political approach to questions
of same-sex love.
The 1930 Great Soviet Encyclopedia extended strong support
to Hirschfeld's Homosexual Emancipation Movement. "In 1930,
Sereiskii's Great Soviet Ency clopedia article on the same
topic linked the endocrinological hypothesis to a robust
endorsement of Hirschfeld's campaign for homosexual
emancipation and for the integration of the alienated
homosexual 'into the new collective,'" Healey notes.
The encyclopedia entry stressed that criminalizing
homosexual men was an illustration of the cruel and irrational
acts of bourgeois jurists.
But an "ethnographic sketch," included by the editors as an
appendix penned by P. Preobrashenskii about "homosexual love"
among the peoples of the Far North--the Chuchki, Koriaki and
Kamchadal--and in the Islamic cultures in the Soviet Republics
revealed the fault line.
Preobrashenskii argued that the origins of the widespread
expression of same-sex love in these cultures, enjoy ing
ancient acceptance, was not biologically based but "to a
significant extent bear a social character."
Historian Laura Engelstein in "Soviet Policy" explains that
by the second edition of the 1930 encyclopedia, the editors
"denounced homosexuality as a feature of capitalist society, in
which, they asserted, homosexuality was left 'de facto
The question is why. In what soil were these changes
Economic, military pressure cooker
Famine, and military and economic warfare by world capital,
were burning the revolutionary fuel of the population and the
left wing of the Bolshevik Party at a rapid rate in the 1920s.
The subsequent need to build an industrial base with the speed
of lightning--at the sacrifice of civilian goods and services
for the vast tens of millions--was requisite in order to defend
the USSR militarily and lay the foundation for a rise in the
overall living standard.
The industrial component of the first five-year plan--steel
and machinery product ion, coal mines and oil fields--exceeded
expectations. Begun in 1929, the goals were met in 1932, before
the plan's end date. A second plan was set in motion in
The transportation network grew, beginning to link the vast
country, canals were dug and the Moscow Metro began running in
This industrial boom and its accomplishments in the planned
Soviet economy shone against the chaos of the Great Depression
in the capitalist countries.
But everything is relative. The USSR, the only workers'
state in the world, was trying to pull itself up out of extreme
material underdevelopment and at the same time advance from
semi-feudal social relations to ones more advanced than in the
capitalist countries. This would have been a huge task even in
times of peace. But, while the depression in the West gave the
USSR a breathing space for a few years, by 1933 it was clear
that the revolutionary potential of the proletariat in Western
Europe had been crushed and that German imperialism was on the
road to military expansion once again.
By 1938, when Britain signed the Munich Pact with Germany,
Italy and France, it was because the "democratic" imperialists
in Europe were giving Ger many the go-ahead to expand eastward.
Another war was on the horizon. The Soviet Union had to
industrialize at break-neck speed, much of it channeled into
military defense of the workers' state.
In the face of relative scarcity and economic inequality,
and an urgent need for the skills acquired during the czarist
era in order to build the economic and military infrastructure,
more conservative elements gained ascendancy on the shop floor
and in the Bolshevik Party. The working class was increasingly
politically disenfranchised and the worker democracy that Lenin
and the left-wing Bolsheviks had tried to foster--even during
The state did not, could not, wither away. In fact, military
spending and social prioritizing took its toll on efforts to
build socialism and advance revolutionary
In this economic, military and political pressure cooker,
official attitudes shifted, bolstering old prejudices against
women and reinforcing ideals of gender expression.
'Masculine professions' movement
Economic underdevelopment and the need to free men for
military defense had spurred the massive recruitment of women
into the process of rapid industrialization as early as the
first five-year plan.
To do so required confronting gender stereotyping of skilled
work. Acquired skills were viewed as socially "masculine."
The temporary reintroduction of some capitalist relations
within the planned economy in 1921--known as the New Economic
Policy--was designed to help stimulate the economy. Lenin had
warned of the risks inherent in the measure.
One result of the NEP was the emboldening of male managers
and skilled workers who had acquired their trade during the
czarist period. As they regained some shop-floor predominance,
they tried to block women from gaining these skills, defining
mechanical ability as a "masculine trait."
However, notes historian Thomas T. Shrand: "As the USSR
began mobilizing for war with Poland and Finland in Sept ember
1939, the party instructed union, Komsomol and industrial
organizations to support the so-called 'masculine professions'
movement, which aimed to recruit women into fields that had
previously been considered too skilled or physically demanding
for women. In anticipation of a military crisis that would
drain off skilled male workers, industrial officials began
encouraging women to work as locomotive engineers, engine
machinists, open-hearth furnace workers, and to enter other
occupations from which they had previously been excluded."
But rather than emphasizing the need to employ women as part
of the revolutionary process of liberating them, the official
explanation now was that recruiting women workers would free
men to defend the socialist state.
The military motto used to describe this industrial shift
was "work that strengthens the rear of production, which
assures the uninterrupted and precise work of production
The slogan also elevated a tactic to a theory--and one that
contained a theoretical error, at that.
In reality, as important as the front lines of armed defense
of the workers' state were, they were not producing goods and
services. Workers in the industries of the USSR--more than 10
million of them women--were the front lines of production.
Gender contradiction: old alongside the
During the Second Five-Year Plan, 1932-1937, an estimated 82
percent of all new workers joining industry was female. The
birth rate was dropping.
On the one hand, old patriarchal "family values" re-emerged
against this backdrop of economic and social upheaval.
During the 1930s, health studies and legislation protecting
industrial laborers focused on the impact specific jobs
involving heavy lifting or tractor driving had on women's
reproductive capacities. While this shows a concern for women
workers, similar studies were not done on the hazards of jobs,
no matter how dangerous, on men's reproductive
This trend towards encouraging all women to be mothers
reached its zenith in 1936 when abortion and the sale of
contraceptives were banned. Women received economic incentives
and medals for bearing seven or more children.
Pravda criticized "so-called free love" and "all disorderly
Femininity was upheld as a virtue. However, Healey noted,
women viewed as masculine or lesbian were not demonized or
In political educational campaigns, soldiers were portrayed
as masculine heroes, women as feminine producers and
reproducers. From a class standpoint, the working class as a
whole was portrayed as masculine and the peasantry as
However, even as old thinking was regenerated, new and
profound social changes were breaking like waves.
Healey writes that as women peasants, collective farmers and
urban workers were called up in massive numbers during the
1930s to enter public life and wage labor, "Women in these
spheres were compelled and encouraged to emancipate themselves
from patriarchal fathers and husbands, who were not to stand in
the way of their progress towards careers beyond the home."
But specifically and concretely, how and why did these
social, economic and military conditions specifically warp a
sector of official attitude regarding homosexuality, beginning
These questions have vital meaning today, because this
political backsliding is held up by virtually all
anti-communist historians of the period as "proof" that
socialism is not viable to liberate human sexuality from state
It's time for the communist movement as a whole to become
expert on these developments and to lay claim to the historical
lessons in order to fortify its own revolutionary analysis.
Next: 1930s struggle--'Can a homosexual be a
member of the Party?'
Reprinted from the Sept. 30, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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