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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 Literature")

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 1917.

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 continuation."

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 German laborers.

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 leadership.

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 14 fronts.

Next: 'People of the moonlight' in the dawn of revolution

Reprinted from the July 29, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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