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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 of women.

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 repression.

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 Russia.

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. (Homosexual Desire)

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 Desire)

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." (Russian Queen)

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 males.

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 under a Creative Commons License.
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