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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, not inexplicable.

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 USSR.

Prominent clinical psychiatrist P. B. Gannushkin said that he "constantly encountered" requests for surgical sex change.

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 transgender.

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 unpenalized.'"

The question is why. In what soil were these changes rooted?

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 1934.

The transportation network grew, beginning to link the vast country, canals were dug and the Moscow Metro began running in 1935.

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 war-time conditions--suffered.

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 consciousness-building.

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 itself."

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 new

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 capabilities.

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 sex life."

Femininity was upheld as a virtue. However, Healey noted, women viewed as masculine or lesbian were not demonized or pathologized.

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 feminine.

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 in 1933?

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 regulation.

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 Commons License.
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