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An Examination of Homosexuality in the USSR

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Sergei Eisenstein, the celebrated Russian Director was blackmailed into marrying by the Soviet authorities. 


A small essay examining the laws and general treatment of homosexuals and homosexuality in the Soviet Union. I have only covered the Pre-World War II era. However, as noted below, the injunction by the state against homosexuality continued to exist through out the lifetime of the USSR. In modern day Russia as well, homosexuals and homosexuality is repressed. 

Homosexuality was a taboo in early 20th century Europe, as was the case in the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the “revolutionary government” scrapped the entirety of the Criminal Code that existed. This meant that homosexuality, which was criminalized by Article 516 of the earlier code was eliminated, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality.  By scrapping the criminal code, the soviets had also technically legalized  murder, rape and incest. (Karlinsky, 1993) There were no laws against them in the period between 1918 – 1922. This action is what pro-communist propaganda tries to misconstrue as the legalization of homosexuality by Lenin.

(Interesting historical side note: the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, actually lost the first free and fair democratic elections held in Russia, to the Constituent assembly of Russia in 1918. Though they lost, the Bolsheviks forcibly dissolved the body)

This notwithstanding, many English and German homosexuals looked upon the “decriminalization” as a positive, liberal step, and were inclined to hail the move.

When the new criminal code promulgated in 1922 it excluded from its purview homosexuality, but the Soviet authorities saw it as a “illness” that needs to be “cured”. While the Soviets rejected psychoanalysis on ideological grounds, they were willing to purloin arguments from depth psychology to justify their condemnation of homosexuality. (Russia Profile, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1990).

In a 1923 publication of the Peoples Commissiriat of Public Health, titled “Sexual Life of Contemporary Youth” mentions that homosexuality has been established by science as a “sickness”.

The Communist view is further elucidated by Wayne R. Dynes, who observes that homosexuality was seen as a “bourgeoisie degeneracy”. There might be a historical reason behind this; according to Karlinsky, there were reportedly at least 7 homosexual grand dukes (cosuins, nephews or uncles of tsars).  The Tsar regime, of course, was the epitome of bourgeoisie decadence to Russian Communists.

The general communist distaste for homosexuality can in fact be traced to Friedrich Engels, who called “sodomy” a “shocking vice against nature”. In Engels’s  The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) the division of labour between men and women is not questioned, and heterosexual relationships were presented as the only natural relationships that exist. (Tamagne, 2000)

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Vladimir Lenin,contrary to popular belief, was puritanical


The leader of the Bolsheviks and chief ideologue behind the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, for all of his “revolutionary” tendencies, was very puritanical when coming to sex & sexual freedoms. He says, in a letter to fellow socialist, the German Clara Zetkin:

I would not bet on the reliability and perseverance in combat of any of these women whose personal love life is inextricably intermeshed with political activity. Nor for that of those men who run after every skirt…. No, no, that is all incompatible with the revolution!” 

( Clara Zetkin, 1980, p.192.)

he continues,

“the concern for being ‘modern’ and allocating a disproportionate place to the question of sex …. As many have reported to me, sex is the number one topic among youth organizations …. It can very easily lead one or another to sexual excesses, ruining the health and strength of young persons”  (ibid.,p.188)

For Lenin, the dissolute sexual life is Bourgeoisie,  and is a manifestation of decadence. (ibid., p.192)

While these observations by Lenin is on historical record, one can scarcely imagine Lenin’s approval of homosexuals and homosexuality.  To suggest then, that Lenin was an “ally” to the homosexual community would be a deliberate misnomer. His action of scrapping the criminal code was not meant as an emancipation of the homosexual community, but rather the rejection of the decadent bourgeoisie morals.

There existed, however, according to French Historian Florence Tamagne, “the myth of a USSR that was liberal on the homosexual question” (p.281, Tamagne, 2000) . But as Tamagne and Karlinsky illustrated, this is a product of both genuine misreading and deliberate misconstruction by communist sympathizers.

The question of homosexuality was once and for all laid to rest on December 17, 1933 by Stalin when a new law criminalizing homosexuality was promulgated, with a punishment of five years of  hard labour for voluntary sexual acts.

Gorky called this legislation the “triumph of proletarian humanism”, and attributed the rise of fascism to legalization of homosexuality. (Gorky, 1934) Warren Johansson, leading American gay scholar notes that the date of enforcement of the new law – March 7, 1934, pointed to the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany exactly one year earlier. Gorky in fact, gave a slogan to this effect in his above mentioned essay:” Destroy the Homosexuals and with them destroy fascism!” (Fascism Profile, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1990) In response to this, Nazis enacted a more stringent penalization of homosexuality, under which convictions rose. Nazis themselves portrayed homosexuals as having affinity to communism. One can note the irony of two totalitarian, dictatorial, repressive regimes accusing each other of the sin of “homosexuality”.

Through the enactment of the “March 7, 1934” law,  Article 121 made homosexuality not a crime against public morality, as seen earlier in Tsarist Russia, but a crime against the state, along with banditry, counter-revolutionary activities, espionage, sabotage etc. The opposition to homosexuality then became entrenched in the minds of the Soviet bureaucracy as well. In 1936, Commissar of Justice, Nikolai Krylenko proclaimed that there was no reason for anyone to remain homosexual after two decades of socialism, and those who continue to be so are “remnants of the exploiting classes” and thuse deserved the 5 years of hard labour. It was said that no member of the working class could be homosexual.

Homosexuality was never decriminalized in the USSR, while the intent to enforce it waned in the Post- Stalin years. But to suggest that Soviet Union was a “friend” to the homosexual community is a gross misrepresentation.

In conclusion, one could hope to survive as an public figure only as a closet homosexual, by marrying and concealing their liaisons. ( like famous director Sergei Eisenstein).  As Florence Tamagne notes:

“The enthusiasm of many homosexual intellectuals for the Soviet example thus rests primarily on a misunderstanding. Marxism retained a puritanical outlook on sexual questions, quite apart from any general liberalization of morals. Homosexuality was rejected by most theorists of Marxism and homosexuals were barely tolerated in the USSR.”

An examination of historical records and facts of how homosexuals and homosexuality was treated in the Soviet Union leads to the conclusion that the Soviets were no better than erstwhile European nations, and in most cases, worse.

References:

Karlinsky, 1993- Simon Karlinsky, “Russia’s Gay Literature and Culture: The Impact of the October Revolution”, 1993(link via Encyclopedia of Homosexuality)

Tamagne, 2000 –  Florence Tamagne, “A History of Homosexuality in Europe (1919-1939)”, Algora, 2000.

Clara Zetkin, 1980- Clara Zetkin, “Batailles pour les femmes, Paris“ , Éditions sociales, 1980.

Gorky, 1934 – page 248, Volume 27, “Collected writings of Gorky in 30 volumes” , 1953 (Essay appeared on May 23, 1934, the law in question (criminalizing homosexuality) came to force in March 7, 1934).

Further reading:

Country Profile of Russia at Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (link)

“Fascist Perversion” at Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (link)

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