Tusovka -- a rendez-vous of political ideas, analyses and experience ... and more.
Pilot issue

Homosexuality in Russia

Editors' intro: Heterosexuals often feel threatened by the mere existence of people who do not follow the sexual norm that society attempts to impose. In a series of articles in Tusovka, we would like to discuss, working out differences and similarities between Eastern and Western Europe, how gender stereotypes are maintained, how sexual identities are shaped, through what mechanisms heterosexuality is socially imposed, and what individual and collective strategies have been developed by lesbians, gay men and other non-heterosexual people in order to build a place for themselves in a predominantly hostile and partly indifferent society.

In Western Europe and North America, lesbian groups have long played an important role in the development of political discussions and strategies and are not so easy for heterosexual activists to ignore (gay men have less often managed to organize themselves as political groups working in solidarity). Long years of lesbian struggles have led most political activists (though by far not all of society) to adopt the attitude that sexual preferences are every person's own business. However, this does not always mean that non-heterosexuality or pressure to comply with the heterosexual norm can be discussed openly. On the contrary, the predominant attitude could be described as "repressive tolerance", in which unspectacular everyday discrimination is covered up by a superficial tolerance. We will come back to this in future issues.

In this issue of Tusovka, we open the discussion with three texts by lesbian women on lesbian life in Russia and previously in the Soviet Union. The situation in the East is not necessarily worse than in the West, but discrimination and rejection are sometimes more explicit. For instance, when lesbian activists are denied access to e-mail by the NGOs who offer such services to the activist community. Learn about the historical and current situation of lesbians in Russia in the article and interview by Anne Buetikofer, and enjoy the prose of Elena Ch.!

(Olga & Alain)

[Source: the Swiss lesbian magazine "die", Number 9, Fall 1998, pp. 6-8]

Homosexuality in the Soviet Union and in today's Russia

At first it might seem like the situation of Russian lesbians and gay men is backwards compared to Western Europe or the United States, but it would be dangerous to conclude that the Russian society is more homophobic than ours. (By now there are even US-American studies according to which the degree of homophobia in Russia is not higher than that in the US - only the way in which homophobia appears is different.) Rather, a completely different historical development is likely to be the reason, for since the taboo of sexuality - be it heterosexual or homosexual - was broken in the 80ies with glasnost and perestroika, the situation has been changed at a stunning rate.

State Repression

During the time of the Soviet Union there were two decisive repressive measures of the State against homosexuals: the notorious article 121.1 which punished myzhelozhestvo (a man lying with another man) with up to five years of imprisonment, and psychiatry which made it possible to forcibly confine lesbian women in a psychiatric clinic. When a lesbian love relationship was reported to the authorities by the parents or another legal guardian, the former could see to it that a psychiatric problem was diagnosed, usually a disorder of personality. The young women (most of them 15 to 19 years old) were then held in a psychiatric clinic for three months. In the following they would then receive a mind-bending drug treatment before being forced to register with a local psychiatrist as mentally ill. Once they were registered, any chance of a professional career or even of getting a driver's license was denied to them. In the 20ies, the Soviet psychology specially developed a typological theory for recognizing "active lesbians". According to this theory, they could be recognized by their personal initiative and their success in male professions, by their smoking, drinking alcohol and use of dirty language, their manly appearance, their liking horseback riding and their careers in the Red Army. Although since 1988 forcible psychiatric confinement has been outlawed, in the province they are still quite possible, since even contemporary sexual pathologists and psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as an illness.

The State repression however was not directed against homosexuals alone - there was a consistent policy of breaking the individuality of people in all walks of life. For instance, in parallel to the introduction of the paragraph 121.1 in the 30ies, abortion, which had been legalized in the 20ies, was outlawed again; marriages and divorces, which had previously been handled rather loosely, were again made more difficult, and the family was declared to be the more important pillar of the collective; the death penalty for "traitors to the fatherland" was introduced and their families made collectively responsible for their acts. It is also typical that the paragraph 121.1 was not only used against homosexuals but also in order to criminalize dissidents and send them to Siberia. And it is not that all gays were simply arrested - the State contented itself with letting them live in the constant fear of getting arrested. It is rather certain that "pink lists" containing the names of known homosexuals circulated within the police, even if their existence has never been officially confirmed.

Information - Press - Organizations

Probably the greatest problem for lesbians and gay men in the Soviet Union was a lack of information, for after an initial attempt at ideologizing the anti-homosexual legislation, the press which was under a State monopoly consistently blacked out the subject of homosexuality. Sexuality in general was a complete taboo, and even so much as a kiss on the movie screen was morally intolerable. Shortly after the introduction of the law, Gorki still wrote in an leading article in Pravda and Isvestija: "In a country in which the proletariat rules courageously and successfully, homosexuality, which depraves the youth, is recognized and punished as the antisocial crime that it is, while in the so-called cultivated countries /.../ it occurs freely and unchecked. Already, a sarcastic proverb has been devised: Eradicate homosexuality and you will eliminate fascism." This anti-homosexual campaign of the press did not last long, however, and soon homosexuality was nowhere mentioned - it became an unspeakable crime, and from then on the shadow of silence lay over it. In jurisprudence circles for instance, already in 1973, lawyers were speaking of the ambiguity of the paragraph 121.1: Nowhere in the jurisprudence literature of the Soviet Union can one find attempt at giving a solid scientific argument for punishing conjoint homosexual contacts among adults. The only argument which is given, namely that the subject is morally depraved and has breached Soviet moral rules, is not convincing, since a morally reprehensible act cannot serve as a reason for a legal punishment. This judicial opinion was however completely ignored, and the "common" Soviet people - including of course people directly concerned - for the first time found out about the existence of homosexuals and their problems from 1987 on in newspaper articles. Often they came across terms such as lesbians or gay men for the first time, for in the course of perestroika and glasnost the topic of homosexuality became fashionable in the liberalized press. In the first articles, the question of what exactly homosexuals are, criminals or victims of their fate, was discussed exclusively by "experts" in a restrained or compassionate tone, before the people concerned themselves found the courage to stand up for their rights. Of course this discussion was first and foremost about abolishing the paragraph 121.1, and thus gay men were at the center of attention at first. Even the political organizations of sexual minorities of which more and more came into existence at the end of the 80ies and which worked closely with human rights committees and were largely financed from abroad, especially by the ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association), were considerably shaped by gay men and their concerns. When in 1993 the paragraph 121.1 was finally abolished, the collaboration between the organizations diminished sharply and thus of course its political effectiveness - now they are mostly concerned with finding spaces for meetings, organizing social gatherings and discotheques as well as providing contact information and a telephone service.

Important Lesbian Activists and Organizations

Of course lesbians were also active in the organizations and tried again and again to call the attention of the public to their concerns. Thus the lawyer and president of the Moscow Union of Lesbians and Gay Men, Jevgenija Debrjanskaja, was termed in the press the "first Lesbian of Russia" - she was among the initiators of a press conference in 1990 at which the publishing of the first official gay magazine, TEMA, was announced. In St. Petersburg it is mainly Olga Krause who became famous: As a singer she outed herself as a lesbian and thus became an important identification figure for young Petersburger lesbians. In addition, she founded in 1991 the klub nezavisimyh zhenshchin (Club of the Independent Women) and issued the bulletin Probuzhdenie (wake-up), which contained texts on lesbian-gay subculture and contact ads and was sent to 500 lesbian and bisexual women across Russia. In the meantime, though, Olga Krause is not a singer any longer, for she could not stand it any more to be a public person and have to clink glasses (for Russian hosts it is a great offense if someone does not drink along!) at the numerous social events to which she was now even more insistently invited, as an open lesbian. And Probuzhdenie is not issued for lesbians any more, since the financial burden has become to heavy, and even the feminist center GendernyCentr (Center for Gender Problems) was not interested in continuing to publish it or at least keep Olga Krause's address file in a safe place - it seemed too risky to Olga Krause to keep it herself.

Russian lesbians rarely consider themselves feminists, and feminists have a hard time with their lesbian sisters, which probably has to do with the fact that there is not a momentous feminist movement. In the post-Soviet phase feminism is especially unpopular because ironically most Russians associate it with communism - many lesbians also have an antifeminist attitude and have adopted the opinions and ideas of patriarchy. But even the Moscow association MOLLI (Moscovskaye obyedinenie lesbijskoi literatury I iskusstva - Moscow Union for Lesbian Literature and Art) which is clearly feministically oriented, is not accepted by other local feminists and is not even informed about ongoing feminist events. At least the GendernyCentr in St. Petersburg does not seem to be averse to all lesbians, since the young lesbians of the organization Labris who have split off from the klub nezavisimyh zhenshchin, work closely with the center.

Lesbian Subculture

The strictly repressive political context makes the situation of lesbians enormously difficult, since as opposed to gay men they could not simply use parks or public toilets as meeting points. Therefore it was considerably more difficult for them to find like-minded women (public meeting points such as discotheques or cozy cafes were hardly available during the Soviet times - people celebrated and had fun together in their circle of friends at someone's house). Paradoxically however there were in the Soviet Union (and still are in Russia today) many institutions which favor(ed) homosexual contacts, such as the army, work camps and prisons, but also student homes strictly separated according to gender and in which at least two have to sleep in one room. Most young women have had their first sexual experience with a woman, if they lived in a student home in which male visitors were forbidden, and of course nothing "bad" could happen between women. It was also no problem to rent a room in a hotel with a woman - if however one came with a man, both had to prove that they were properly married. Nevertheless, the pressure of not getting caught was certainly hard ...

The first open lesbian subculture came into being in the Soviet times in the Stalinist work camps and women's prisons. Olga Shuk, who investigated into this camp subculture, even thinks that the lesbian subculture has spread into all of the Russian society coming from the work camps, especially among lesbians of the working class and lower social segments, since they also reproduce a clear role-specific behavior with strong patriarchal structures. Since the end of the 70ies there are reports of lesbian groups and secret networks in the communist party elite and in the association of artists in Moscow. Apparently there were many lesbians in university and theater circles in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as among intellectuals, the technical intelligentsia and factory workers. In both metropolises, there were again and again famous people whose homosexuality was an open secret - and noone did anything against them. In fact, such private circles are a typical phenomenon in the Soviet Union.

Whoever was not happy with the all-powerful State could not speak up about it in public; freedom of expression was possible only in private circles.

The current situation

Most Russian lesbians and gay men still don't dare to admit to their sexual orientation at their workplace, or to become members of an organization. However, besides the openly apparent homophobia, this surely also comes from the general disinterest of Russians in politics. Also, many women would risk losing their job, so that they prefer to go through listening to neverending jokes on homosexuals (Russia has an extensive joke culture). In addition, there is an enormous difference between the two metropolises Moscow and St. Petersburg and the province. While in the particularly homophobic province (province in Russia can also mean a city with a million inhabitants) many lesbians are completely isolated with their inclination, in Moscow and St. Petersburg at least there are public discotheques - in Moscow three and in St. Petersburg one dedicated exclusively to women - and other meeting points or organizations where women can find like-minded women.

The discos are expensive, but they have the advantage that lesbians are protected from homophobic violence The entrance of tri objazjani, a lesbian disco under the direction of Jevgenija Debrjanskaja is monitored by surveillance cameras, and everyone who wants to enter are searched. Surprisingly also, especially young lesbians make no secret of their homosexuality on the street, despite widespread homophobia. Many of the older lesbians however regularly reject this public exhibition as a short-lived American fashion phenomenon. Especially in Moscow it is common practice to make contact with other lesbians over the internet. Worth noting is also the fact that many Russian lesbians still reject the term lesbijanka (lesbian) and prefer to refer to themselves as jedinomyshlennitsa (like-minded) or amazone or transsexual. In the Russian perception the term transsexual has a different meaning than in Western Europe and can be understood as a synonym for lesbian. The lesbian organizations are lacking especially financial means, for in most cases they rely on support from abroad, and at some point they run out of money. Nevertheless, despite the general political disinterest, there are again and again women who actively work towards lesbian becoming more visible in society. For instance, the publishers of Safo-Sofa, probably the first purely lesbian-oriented, regularly issued magazine - incidentally following the model of "die" [Swiss German-language lesbian newspaper in which the present article first appeared; ak] - aim at distributing the magazine for free so that it will be read widely.

If we take into consideration that homosexuality had been absolutely tabooed for over seventy years and that the Western sexological developments had remained widely unknown not only to the general public, but also among intellectuals, the shift in the attitude of the population towards homosexuals is remarkable. Notably for women it is certainly particularly important that especially in Moscow, a middle class has been formed, which of course allows young lesbians to live independently and build up their identity themselves.

Anne Buetikofer (translation from German to English by Alain Kessi)

Studies published on this topic:

If you are interested in the material used here, you can contact the author at any time by e-mail at Anne Buetikofer <chydo@mailcity.com> or through the Tusovka editorial collective, be it for newspaper clippings, bulletins, lesbian magazines, but also for some literary texts by various lesbian authors. 
We are eager for comments and suggestions!
Back to our Homepage.
This page in Russian language.

Tusovka: Homosexuality in the Soviet Union and in today's Russia / tusovka@savanne.ch
Last updated 1999-04-11