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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 1936.

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 eradicating."

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, manners.'"

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 "sinful."

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 patriarchal semi-feudalism.

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 duty.

"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 in motion.

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 Commons License.
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