Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other / Edition 1

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In Queer in Russia Laurie Essig examines the formation of gay identity and community in the former Soviet Union. As a sociological fieldworker, she began her research during the late 1980s, before any kind of public queer identity existed in that country. After a decade of conducting interviews, as well as observing and analyzing plays, books, pop music, and graffiti, Essig presents the first sustained study of how and why there was no Soviet gay community or even gay identity before perestroika and assesses the degree to which this situation has-or has not-changed. While male homosexual acts were criminalized in Russia before 1993, women attracted to women were policed by the medical community, which defined them not as criminals but as diseased persons potentially cured by drug therapy or transsexual surgery. After describing accounts of pre-perestroika persecution, Essig examines the more recent state of sexual identities in Russia. Although the fall of communism brought new freedom to Russian queers, there are still no signs of a mass movement forming around the issue, and few identify themselves as lesbians or gay men, even when they are involved in same-sex relations. Essig does reveal, however, vibrant manifestations of gay life found at the local level-in restaurants, discos, clubs, and cruising strips, in newspapers, journals, literature, and the theater. Concluding with a powerful exploration of the surprising affinities between some of Russia's most prominent nationalists and its queers, Queer in Russia fills a gap in both Russian and cultural studies.

This accessibly written book will interest scholars and students of gay and lesbian studies, Russian history and culture, and sociology, as well as all readers interested in gay and lesbian issues.

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Editorial Reviews

Choice Magazine
[A] well-written and fascinating account of what the author calls 'queer subjectivities' . . . among Russians in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the period from 1989 to 1994. . . . [A]n important book for scholars of sexuality, women, and culture in post-Soviet Russia.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drawing on the conventions of postmodern critical theory and cultural studies, sociologist and journalist Essig investigates issues of sexual identity and community in the former Soviet Union. Her brief overview of Russian attitudes toward same-sex activity reveals that laws criminalizing homosexual behavior were passed in 1716, repealed by the Bolsheviks, reinstated by Stalin and abolished again in 1993, and that jail or psychiatric institutionalization were not uncommon penalties. Essig's broader project is to reveal how the very concepts of "law," "cure" and "sexual identity" are constructed generally and in Russia. Using the theoretical work of Foucault, Judith Butler, J rgen Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as personal interviews and reportage on the activities of gay social and political groups, Essig paints an engaging and perceptive portrait of a community emerging from the underground and struggling to define itself. She is adroit at discussing how the globalization of Western gay identity is received in post-Soviet Russian culture, particularly how the concept of "coming out" is difficult in a society in which any "public self-confession" has been politically dangerous. While Essig has the unflinching eyes and ears of a seasoned reporter, the book's deep grounding in theory may diminish its appeal for some readers. Illustrations not seen by PW. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“An entirely original investigation of the gay and lesbian scene in Russia and a book of enormous value, Queer in Russia will serve as a beachhead in the field of Russian queer studies. In one volume one finds a concise history of sexual transgression in the Russian context as well as the rise of queer Russian identity.”—Luc Beaudoin, University of Denver

“Laurie Essig’s book is significant both for Russianists and for queer theorists. Essig demonstrates that ‘queerness’ in Russia is not defined as a matter of identity politics, and, in so doing, she raises important theoretical questions about the nature(s) of queerness as it crosses cultural borders.”—Jehanne M Gheith, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822323464
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurie Essig has taught sociology at Columbia University and Trinity College in Connecticut. She is a columnist for New York Blade and Chicago’s Outline.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Expert Gaze 1: The Law


When I told my mother I was a lesbian, her response was curious. She told me that I did not deserve to be an American. Somehow she saw my sexual practices as a threat to the nation in which we lived. I was completely unprepared for her response. I believe I began to laugh. The connection between having sex with women and the United States of America seemed so absurd to me. None of my friends' mothers had responded this way. Most of my friends who came out to their mothers experienced tears and anger, but the recriminations were more psychological than national. "This is what I get for letting you wear your brother's clothes" or "I knew I shouldn't have let you play sports" or "You're this way because your father left us" were all fairly common responses. These responses said that homosexuality was a personal, not societal, disease. My mother never once blamed herself or our family structure. To her, my lesbianism was clearly an act of treason against the healthy society in which I live. Had I known then what I know now, I might not have found her response so incomprehensible. The problem with my mother's response was not that it was illogical; it was merely out of context. Had we been living in Russia, she would have made perfect sense. In Russia, homosexual acts are read differently than they are here.

    In the United States, homosexual acts have, in the last century, congealed into the homosexual person. The birth of the homosexual person was the result of science: biology, demography,medicine, and psychology. The science of sex insinuated itself into the bodies of individuals, who in turn were disciplined to confess their sexual practices. A variety of experts—political, legal, psychiatric—identified the sexual other, who, in turn, learned to self-identify. Sexual identity came from without and then from within. The homosexual was born.

    In Russia, despite the development of a similar matrix of disciplinary sciences, the birth of the homosexual species was much more belabored. Homosexual acts did not metamorphose into the homosexual person until much later, and even then, the homosexual was seen as a temporary aberration, always capable of being cured or eradicated with the advance of socialism. Legally, homosexual acts first came under public scrutiny in the Military Articles of 1716. The articles, also known as Peter's Code, marked the first time consensual sex between men was prohibited, but the Code only applied to active-duty soldiers and spoke only of acts, not persons. Later, the act of anal penetration between two men became stabilized in the specificity of the term muzhelozhstvo, man lying with man. The prohibition of muzhelozhstvo, Article 995 in Tsar Nicholas I's legal code, forbade anal intercourse between men. Other homosexual practices did not warrant prosecution under Article 995. As Laura Engelstein points out, "The nineteenth-century codes substituted nouns for verbs but were no more precise in their definition."

    It was, of course, the very possibility of being subjects before the law that allowed men to be the objects of legal punishment. In 1872, the antisodomy code was interpreted as etymologically and traditionally about men. Like American and English legal codes, it left out same-sex contact between women. Instead of being punished by the law, Russian experts were more interested in curing sexually transgressive females. "Admission to the system of criminal justice, the ability to qualify for criminal status, was in fact a mark of acceptance into civil society, a sign of inclusion, not marginalization." Men who desired other men became criminals because they were citizens; women were treated as less than full legal subjects, weaker and therefore more susceptible both to perverse desires and their necessary correctives.

    The beginnings of this century saw a Russian juridical complex that still did not have the homosexual object locked firmly in its gaze. Legal prosecution was extremely rare and public tolerance was generally high. In literary and artistic circles, many men and women explored their homoerotic desires in popular venues. Ballet masters Sergei Diaghilev and his protégé, Vaslav Nijinsky, writer Mikhail Kuzmin, and the poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Sophia Parnok ushered in the twentieth century with a host of textual and mimetic explorations of queerness.

    After 1917, the antisodomy law, like the rest of the tsarist legal codes, was discarded. But dark clouds were forming over homosexual expression, whether symbolic or literal. Soviet legal and medical experts tried to find "cures" for this degenerative disease of the terminally bourgeois. For the first time, prominent homosexuals were encouraged to marry women. The Bolshevik State also encouraged highly visible homosexuals to commit themselves to psychiatric institutions in the West. Within the ideological scope of Bolshevism, homosexuality, along with other nonprocreative forms of sex, had no place.

    The Bolsheviks rejected earlier Russian constructions of homosexuality as an act, not a species. The Soviet experts were also distancing themselves from their Western counterparts, who saw homosexuality as indicative of a deviant personality. Under the Soviets, the homosexual person was finally born in Russia, but he came out a criminal. Homosexuality was a crime not just against "nature" but against society. Homosexual acts were treasonous in the (dis)utopia of the Workers' State.


Eliminate homosexuality, and you will make fascism disappear.

-- Maksim Gorky, 1934

By the end of the 1920s, daily life under the Soviets was increasingly politicized. Conversations, letters, diaries, dress, and, of course, desire were becoming matters of state. In the panopticon of Stalinist Russia, sexual practices were no longer affairs of the individual, but indicative of political systems. Sex was political and politicized. The state must intervene in desire, or desire will intervene in the state. As in the West, desires described the person: same-sex desire was more than a momentary lapse, but a perversion of the individual. In Stalinist Russia, the pervert was never a patriot. Queers were fascists, fascists were queers. Good citizens—always straight—must control, punish, and eventually eliminate treasonous desires.

    In 1933, a Union-wide law made consensual sex between men punishable by up to five years of hard labor. The law was introduced to the public by Maksim Gorky. In an article, nearly hysterical in tone, that was published in both Pravda and Izvestiia on 23 May 1934, Gorky warns that the capitalist world is "sick." Capitalism's exploitation of labor incubates social disease. The symptoms of capitalism's disease are visible to everyone, including the capitalist exploiters. As evidence, Gorky cites a German newspaper's account of the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy by his classmate. Next Gorky cites the opening of the first pet food store in England. Continuing in this vein, Gorky offers the most obvious example of the corruption of Western society: "Not tens, but hundreds of facts speak to the destructive, corruptive influence on Europe's youth. To recount the facts is disgusting, but ... I will point out the following, however, that in the country which is bravely and successfully ruled by the proletariat, homosexuality, the corruption of youth, is socially understood as a crime and punished, but in the `cultured' country of great philosophers, scientists, musicians, it exists openly and unpunished." Gorky's argumentation leads him to conclude that the time is near for the proletariat to "crush, like an elephant" the immoral minority, which stands in the way of a truly ethical system.

    The Soviets continued to regard homosexuality as a vestige of bourgeois mentality analogous to the exploitation of workers. It would be naive to argue that all of Soviet officialdom believed this, especially since some of Soviet officialdom could surely have been charged under Article 121.1, but the official position for the next fifty years was that homosexuality was a crime. A survey of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, a rich source of state-sanctioned opinions, reveals a remarkably consistent attitude toward homosexuality. In 1952, a relatively long entry on homosexuality described it as an "unnatural attraction to persons of the same sex, seen in both women and men." The entry goes on to criticize "bourgeois" scientists in the West for seeing homosexuality as an individual illness caused at either a psychological level or a biological level (i.e., hormones), while ignoring societal influences. Homosexuality is, of course, spreading in capitalist countries while decreasing in socialist countries, where it is limited to those suffering from other "psychiatric anomalies." "In Soviet society, with its healthy morality, homosexuality, as a sexual perversion, is considered both shameful and criminal."

    The politicization of same-sex desire did not end with Stalin's death, but homosexuality, like many other treasonous crimes of daily life, was no longer worthy of much notice from the state. The 1972 version of the encyclopedia contains an entry about one-tenth the size of the previous edition's entry, limited to "[S]exual perversion, including an unnatural attraction to persons of the same sex. Seen in both sexes. In the criminal code of the USSR, socialist countries, and also a few bourgeois states, it is punishable under the law." This entry does not discuss homosexuality in overtly political terms. In fact, an entry on muzhelozhstvo in the same 1972 edition describes intercourse between two men as a "crime against the person." But the underlying assumption in both texts is that homosexuality is more prevalent in capitalist systems. There is no citation at all on lesbianism in either edition of the encyclopedia, perhaps because lesbianism was assumed to have already withered away.

    Despite sporadic mentions of homosexuality in publicly accessible texts such as the encyclopedia, homosexuality was almost completely invisible in Russian society. As Russian sexologist Igor Kon explains, after "[t]he initial anti-homosexual campaign in the Soviet press (in the 1930's) ... a complete and utter silence had fallen over the entire issue. Homosexuality was simply never mentioned anywhere; it became `the unmentionable sin' in the literal sense of the words." Homosexuality was now invisible, even if ever present. For five decades, homosexuality existed outside the public's view, glimpsed only fleetingly in a law that forbade it. This chapter explores the objectifying practices of the Soviet and post-Soviet juridical complex, objectifying practices that produced (male) homosexuals as subjects before the law.


I was pulled out of bed in the middle of the night.... I was interrogated by the KGB ... [T]he man I had slept with worked for the KGB ... his job was to seduce foreigners who could then be used to inform on other homosexuals.

--Gay man from the United States in Gorbachev's Russia, 1989

As long as the Soviet Union existed, the law against male homosexuality, in one form or another, would remain in effect. The 1987 version of the Criminal Code's Article 121.1 read: "Sexual intercourse between men [muzhelozhstvo] is subject to imprisonment for up to five years. Muzhelozhstvo, carried out with the use of physical force, threats, or in relation to an underage person, or by using the dependent position of the victim, is subject to up to eight years' imprisonment." It is the version that sent hundreds of men to labor camps each year before 1993.

    The article had an almost mythical ability to silence anyone who wished to speak about or live out homosexual desire. Except for the antisodomy statutes, there was no public presence of queer desires—not in the mass media, nor in the art or literary worlds, not even in the medical or psychiatric professions. And most of all, those who were the objects of the law never ever spoke aloud about their lives. Instead, the entire imaginative realm of unsanctioned desires became concentrated, confined, limited to the law. Queers were completely erased, except as objects of a law that demanded they disappear.

    No one knows exactly how many men were jailed for desiring other men. Not all the files are accessible, and even those records that are public are often difficult to read. Part of the problem is that there were no separate records kept for those sentenced for consensual adult relations (under Article 121.1) and those sentenced for sex with a minor (Article 121.2). Also, men were often sentenced for a number of different violations at the same time and the crimes were not necessarily cross-listed. A look at recently declassified files for 1962-1970 indicates that the Russian Republic sentenced an average of 560 men annually under Article 121.1. In the Soviet Union as a whole, an average of 1,414 men went to jail each year for muzhelozhstvo.

    Men sentenced under Article 121 were part of the lowest caste of the Soviet prison society, the opushcheny. Opushcheny comes from the verb for descending or sinking. In the argot of Russian prisoners, opushcheny are the degraded ones, the lowest stratum in the merciless hierarchy of convicts. Many other prisoners became opushcheny, not because they were sentenced under Article 121 but because they violated the unwritten rules of prison life. The warden of the St. Petersburg Colony ITU 20/7 (also known as Yablonevka) explained:

The meaning of opushcheny is highly complex. It means not only those sentenced under 121 or homosexuals `by choice,' but also those who were forcibly, violently `degraded,' `humiliated.' A person can be degraded in many different ways and for many different things. It's not necessary to rape him, it's enough to publicly run the penis along his lips. This person might simply be weak or crippled, or maybe he's degraded because of his not `prestigious'—by criminal standards—crime, and maybe for informing, or for treachery.

Thus all sorts of persons are "degraded" in the Soviet/Russian penal colonies. According to one study of 1,100 prisoners between the ages of eighteen and eighty and serving sentences of one and a half to ten years, 90 percent of them had homosexual contacts. Of these men, only about 8-10 percent were opushcheny. But all men sentenced under Article 121, as well as "homosexuals by choice," were automatically placed into the lowest caste of prison society. Perhaps even more revealing is that the method of placing someone into the caste consisted of forcibly putting a man in the position of a "passive" homosexual. Whether through the violence of rape or the violent symbolism of placing a penis on the man's face, even the momentary position of "passive homosexual" was sufficient to permanently "degrade" a fellow prisoner.

    Jailers treat the "degraded" more harshly than other prisoners, giving them the dirtiest tasks—like cleaning the outhouses—and the least protection. The jailed force the opushcheny to hand over their belongings, their bodies, even their lives. Sometimes the opushcheny are separated from the other inmates, sometimes they are not. If they are not separated, they are subject to beatings, rapes, blackmail, and starvation. Former prisoners tell of witnessing gang rapes that led to a "degraded" prisoner's death. "I will always remember how they raped him, all of them, the entire barracks, even after he was dead, even after there was so much blood." A degraded prisoner can never lose his status. Even transfer to another prison cannot help, since if a member of the opushcheny caste does not confess his position, the other prisoners will sentence him to death upon discovering it.

    Article 121 worked on several different levels, paradoxically annihilating the homosexual in society and creating him as a stable, if criminal, entity. There is no single history of the law, no seamless account of the prohibition of intercourse between two men. Various first-person accounts can, however, reveal something of the way this law disciplined homosexual desire into a self. This is not to say that the oppression written into law also created the law's eventual downfall. To the contrary, political failure was more responsible for Article 121.1's eventual repeal than the protests of those who suffered under it. But the law did create resistance, and resistance created survival and tales of surviving. The power of these tales is in the telling. We hear them and know that even the most repressive legal regimes can be resisted through the formation of self.

    Unfortunately, much of this history has vanished from view forever. Too few of the "degraded" survived, and many who did would rather die than discuss their prison experiences. A few brave men, most of them leaders in nascent gay rights organizations, have spoken publicly of the nightmares they lived as opushcheny in the Soviet gulag. These are some of the stories of Article 121.1 and those who lived under it, figuratively and literally bearing the weight of the law. Some of the narrators are those who feared being sent to prison under it, some of these accounts are by those whose fears were realized in three to five years of hard labor. The accounts are not meant to reside in the past. Instead, they provide some clues to the meaning(s) of Article 121.1 in the present.

    One of the first accounts from someone sentenced under the antisodomy statutes came in 1977 in the form of an open letter from Gennadi Trifonov. Trifonov, a Leningrad writer, was sentenced to six years under Article 121.2 (i.e., homosexual sex with a minor). From a prison camp in the western Ural region, Trifonov wrote a plea to Literaturnaia gazeta, beseeching them to print his account. The Brezhnev-era journal did not, of course, publish Trifonov, but his letter was published in the United States. Although not part of the public discourse on the law and homosexuality, Trifonov's letter was widely circulated among homosexuals in Russia and continues to be cited by many homosexuals as an important event and thus merits a closer look:

I have experienced all nightmares and horrors, but to get used to them is not possible. At the present time, when I have become known in the West, they treat me less barbarically. But in the course of the past year and a half I have daily witnessed what it is to be a convicted homosexual in the Soviet correctional system. In comparison, this system makes the position of its counterparts in the death camps of the Third Reich look like child's play. They had a clear perspective—the gas chamber; we have—our half-animal existence, doomed to a death from starvation with each one of us secretly hoping for any sort of fatal disease so that we could have a few days of peace in a hospital bed of the camp's infirmary....
The administration of the places of interment, working within the overall parameters of the state's conception of a "relationship" to homosexuals, dismisses without the least bit of attention any of our protests or complaints, allowing the other prisoners to torture us unpunished .... The majority of homosexuals ... are forced to feed off of food thrown into the garbage piles, we are not allowed to sit at the general tables in the camp mess hall, in the jails we must go completely without food. I myself ... during three months of awaiting an investigation—while they threw me from cell to cell, where each time I was cruelly beaten and forced to sleep on a cement floor for only thirty minutes a day—did not have anything hot to eat for a month and a half.... Many of the homosexual prisoners are without any sort of place to sleep and at any time of the year forced to sleep outside the walls of the barracks and then are cruelly punished for this by the administration.

    Pavel Masal'skii was also among the first to speak out as a man sentenced under the antisodomy statutes. For Masal'skii, being gay was never something he tried to hide. "I was very open. When I was fifteen years old ... I went and announced to my group home [Internat] that I was gay. I thought that they couldn't do anything to me as long as it was just words. At eighteen I told the militsia I couldn't fulfill my military service requirement because of my homosexuality. I asked: `What do you want to do? Has the army become a house of ill repute?'" Despite his youthful optimism, Masal'skii was imprisoned under Article 121.1 from 1984 until 1987. His time in prison, from the ages of nineteen to twenty-one, was spent as a "degraded" inmate. Masal'skii survived the ordeal by finding protectors among the inmate population. By "prostituting" himself for protection, food, cigarettes, and his life, Masal'skii was able to survive his prison sentence and then serve four more years of forced exile from his family home in Moscow.

    For Iuri Ereev, the leader of a St. Petersburg-based sexual minorities' rights group, imprisonment under Article 121 seemed doubly unfair, since it resulted when the boys who had burglarized his home were allowed to go free in exchange for testifying against him. Although the boys lacked any evidence, they accused Ereev of plying them with liquor and (unsuccessfully) attempting to seduce them. Because his guilt was not proven, the court sentenced him to four rather than eight years. Like Masal'skii, Ereev was sent to a camp where opushcheny were not separated from the other prisoners. Ereev was subject to beatings, but not rape, since his open homosexuality was perceived by the other prisoners as a source of contagion. A prisoner who risked sexual contact with him was himself subject to being "degraded." "I learned to be brave in jail. There I was before thousands of people who hated me ... who wanted to kill me for who I was because although there are many homosexual relationships in the camps, very few men are actually imprisoned under 121.... I never thought that my life would hold such difficult lessons. It's been a school of hard knocks."

    For other men, prison sentences were not realized except as an ever present threat. Aleksandr Kukharskii, a founder and leader of another St. Petersburg gay group, had what he describes as a good relationship with the Soviet authorities. In fact, Kukharskii is convinced that no men were sentenced under Article 121.1 after 1985 (despite evidence to the contrary). Nonetheless, in 1987 he himself was the "victim" of a "ferocious attack ... by the assistant prosecutor." According to Kukharskii, the prosecutor couldn't find any evidence against him of violating the law against homosexual sex with a minor (Article 121.2). Instead, the prosecutor focused on a semipublic distribution of pornographic images. "On New Year's Eve of 1986/87 I had distributed some gay pornography among my guests at a party and I was thus charged with 121.2. The case eventually collapsed ... but I lost my professorship at the university [Leningrad State University]."

    Many of the men over thirty with whom I spoke related similar stories of intimidation. Consider V, a middle-aged man who for nearly two decades had carefully recorded and reported all homosexual contacts he had with foreigners because the KGB threatened him with imprisonment. Then there is S, who always kept the keyhole in his door taped so that none of his neighbors in his communal apartment could actually witness a criminalized sex act being committed. Once, a neighbor broke into his room and caught him and his boyfriend anyway, and she blackmailed him into signing over his extra room to her.

    The law against sodomy embedded itself in the bodies of queer men and insinuated itself into their lives. The terrifying nature of imprisonment as a "degraded one" ensured that the effect of Article 121 was always out of proportion to the actual number of men prosecuted under it. Its power was always more symbolic than actual. It created fear and mistrust. It created a series of lacunae in Russian society. Homosexuality was denied, unseen, forced to remain hidden, but it was always in danger of getting caught in the world.


On 29 April 1993, President Yeltsin signed a bill that eliminated the law against consensual sex between adult men. Additionally, the maximum sentence for homosexual sex with a minor was reduced from eight to seven years. The reversal of the antisodomy law lightened the psychological burden of both men and women who desired queerly. Although it is unclear how many men were actually released from prison, there is no evidence that men continue to be sentenced for consensual homosexual sex. Many saw the fact that Article 121.1 was retroactively repealed rather than as part of an amnesty as an admission that there should have never been a law against consensual homosexual sex. Many men and women describe feeling vindicated, feeling as though they could now be openly queer without fear of (state) reprisal.

    Just as the fear of Article 121.1 was always far greater than the law's actual reach, rejoicing at its repeal was far greater than was warranted. The "new" legal system is hardly a safe haven for queer desires. Even after the article's repeal, the remaining law still stated that "[s]exual relations between men committed with the use of physical force, threats, or with a legal minor, or by exploiting a dependent position or helpless state of the victim shall be punishable by up to seven years in prison." Clearly, the law remained ambiguous enough to allow prosecution in the case of "exploiting a dependent relationship," since such a relationship could include any employee/employer or teacher/student relationship, as well as numerous others. Also, the law continued to treat heterosexual and homosexual relations as completely separate, creating all sorts of meaningful, if not purposeful, inconsistencies. For instance, heterosexual rape was paradoxically subject to a higher penalty than homosexual rape. Heterosexual contact with a seventeen-year-old, however, was fully legal, while homosexual contact with a seventeen-year-old was subject to seven years of imprisonment. The current Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (effective 1 January 1997) is far more "fair." The new laws put both men and women at risk of criminal prosecution for same-sex relations and do not create separate punishments for heterosexual acts. Article 132, "Violence Acts of a Sexual Nature," allows prosecution for "[s]odomy, lesbianism, or any other acts of a sexual nature which use force or the threat of force to the victim or any other persons or take advantage of the helpless position of the victim." The vague term "helpless position" of the victim is repeated in Article 133 as "taking advantage of material or any other dependence of the victim." Article 132, subsection 3b, also allows prosecution for "recklessly endangering the health of the victim ... with HIV-infection." Despite the more equitable wording of the law, its ambiguities allow the government a lot of leeway in deciding what sorts of sexual acts are punishable.

    Many other laws exist that allow for harassment of gays and lesbians, including articles that make not seeking treatment for a sexually transmitted disease a crime. Indeed, public misconceptions about AIDS and its transmission provide the most obvious point for state intervention in queer desires. A recent proposal by the Committee for Health Protection would allow for mandatory testing of any persons suspected of having the AIDS virus, as well as the possible imprisonment of such persons. In addition to laws regarding sexual disease, the articles against "hooliganism" as well as "pornography" seem ready made for the harassment of sexual dissidents. During the course of my research in Russia, two separate prosecutions occurred that illustrate the "new rule of law" in Russia. In one, a publisher of an erotic newspaper was charged with distributing pornography; in the other, a gay journalist was charged with hooliganism. Eshche: Pornography and Politics During the Emergency Rule that descended on Moscow after the 1993 attempted coup, the Yeltsin government temporarily shut down those newspapers it deemed "oppositional." Unexpectedly, the erotic newspaper Eshche (More) was shut down along with Pravda and Sovetskaia Rossiia. Forty thousand copies of the erotic paper were confiscated from the apartment of Zufar Gareev. The paper's publisher, Aleksei Kostin, was also arrested. According to press accounts, no official warrants were presented to justify either the arrest or the search. Two of the persons involved in the arrest did offer their own justifications. One, an arresting officer who did not give his name, said: "`We should have destroyed the sexually anxious a long time ago.'" A certain Detective Matveev was even more to the point: "I ... am categorically against the sex act." After three days, Kostin was released, although the confiscated papers were never returned. After his release, Kostin managed to produce several more issues of the paper. Then, on 3 February 1994, Kostin was arrested again. This time he was charged with violating Article 228 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits "the manufacture and sale of pornographic materials" and carries a prison term of three years. During the course of the arrest, a fax machine, private correspondence, and letters to the paper were taken. Even before any trial Kostin was placed in a general holding cell in Moscow's Butyrskii Prison. Kostin continued to be held in this cell, one described as so overcrowded that the prisoners are forced to sleep in three shifts. Even more shocking, Kostin remained in prison for over a year awaiting a trial, despite the fact that the Russian Processing Code only allows for a maximum pretrial imprisonment of nine months. Criminal proceedings were launched against the editor and a distributor of the paper.

    The charge of pornography seemed ludicrous on several levels. First, Eshche can hardly be described as a marginal publication, especially given the number of other erotic/pornographic publications that can be bought at any metro station in Moscow. By comparison, Eshche seems much more like Playboy than Screw. Second, Kostin is the publisher (i.e., neither the creator nor distributor) of Eshche. Neither the paper's editor nor the persons selling it were immediately charged. Third, Kostin never received any warnings that his paper was in violation of the Criminal Code. In fact, Eshche had been legally registered with the Ministry of Publications for several years. Finally, Kostin's arrest seemed like a clear violation of the new laws protecting freedom of speech and the press.

    The reasons for Kostin's arrest remain unclear. The weekly Ekspress khronika claimed that Kostin was the victim of a legal contradiction that put him between the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Ministry of Publications, between a law against pornography and a law guaranteeing freedom of the press. Others suggested that Kostin's real crime was participating in a roundtable discussion the day before his arrest. The roundtable, organized by the journal Ogonek, was to explore erotica in the mass media. It was also meant as a press gathering to discuss the case against Kostin. At the roundtable, Kostin apparently offended the MVD representative by insisting that "pornography contains everything that the government would like to forbid." Yet another possible reasons for Kostin's arrest was his connection to former Vice President Aleksander Rutskoi and the former head of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov. These connections are what Komsomol'skaia pravda referred to as the "political subtext" to Kostin's arrest.

    Uncovering the actual directives/intentions behind the state persecution of an erotic newspaper is undoubtedly the task of future historians. Regardless of what the future reveals, the historical moment of Kostin's arrest says volumes about sexual otherness in Russia. I first heard about Kostin's case a few days after his arrest. It was a typical evening in Moscow: huddled around a table drinking tea, or perhaps it was vodka, four of the country's top queer activists and myself discussed the case. Two of them insisted that Eshche was being targeted not because of Kostin's political affiliations, nor because of the paper's possible pornographic nature, but because Eshche had always published a lot of articles by and for queers. I was unsure whether my friends' fears were justified or paranoid (or both). I did, however, hear the same sentiment echoed again and again, whenever Kostin's name was mentioned among queers.

    The suspicion that Kostin's "real" crime was publishing articles about homosexual desire became even stronger once his trial actually began in February of 1995. At the trial, Kostin was led into the courtroom hand cuffed and forced to sit in a steel cage, one usually reserved for violent criminals. According to a report by Masha Gessen for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):

The judge droned on to a fidgeting, giggling courtroom, reading the reports of some ten different expert committees called together to determine whether the newspaper was pornographic: There is no definition of pornography in Russian law. (Judge): "The newspaper places a conspicuous focus on the satisfaction of sexual desire in perverted ways.... It should be noted that the editors pay particular attention to male and female homosexuality.... The editors are interested only in the unusual sides of sexual life.... The images of heterosexual group sex and female homosexuality should be considered pornographic."

Regardless of the government's intention, the prosecution of Kostin was read by many as an attack on public queerness. The Eshche prosecution appears to be an attack not just on freedom of the press, but on the freedom of desire.

Mogutin the Hooligan In November of 1993 charges were brought against openly gay journalist Yaroslav Mogutin. Mogutin was charged under Article 206.2 of the Russian Legal Code: "criminal hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and particular impertinence." Anyone convicted of "hooliganism with exceptional cynicism" is subject to imprisonment for up to five years. This highly publicized case began with an ironic twist: Mogutin came to the attention of the prosecutor's office when he tried to obtain legal redress after one of his articles was plagiarized by another paper.

    The article, "Dirty Peckers," was first published in Kostin's Eshche. "Dirty Peckers" openly discussed the homosexuality of Boris Moiseev, a popular performer. Moiseev not only spoke as a gay man, but spoke about the sexual attraction men in the audience feel for him. Perhaps even more disturbing to the prosecutor's office was Moiseev's "confession" of performing oral sex on "aging Komsomol members' dirty peckers." A highly edited version of the interview was later used by Moskovskii komsomolets (MK), Russia's largest circulation daily, without the permission of its author. At this point, Mogutin tried to press charges and published segments of the interview under the same title in the independent newspaper Novyi vzgliad (A New View) in November of 1993. Instead of charging MK for the unauthorized use of another publication's material, the prosecutor's office used the Novyi vzgliad article to charge Mogutin with "criminal hooliganism" (i.e., Article 206.2). According to an article in Kuranty, both Mogutin and the editor of Novyi vzgliad, Evgenii Dodolev, were charged for hooliganism because the "judicial organ was not at all pleased with the article's glaringly foul language illustrated by naked `gay' he-men [muzhiki]."

    Several persons and groups protested that the prosecution of a journalist for published material, no matter how offensive, constituted an extreme violation of the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Russian chapter of PEN, in a letter of protest to the prosecutor's office, pointed out that the leaders of Russia have publicly declared their support for a freedom of the press that is only limited in the case of "the incitement of racial and national enmities, propagandizing violence and hatred between people. Any other prosecution of an author, particularly criminal prosecution, is impermissible." When Mogutin mentioned the danger to freedom of the press that his prosecution would bring, a person from the Moscow Prosecutor's Office replied that the sort of language used in "Dirty Peckers" and the homoerotic pictures that accompanied the article were comparable to "summoning the public into the editor's office, climbing onto the desk, pulling down his pants, and telling the onlookers to suck his dick."

    Mogutin was actually brought to trial for "criminal hooliganism" several times, each time facing a possible conviction and prison sentence. I attended one such trial on 14 April 1994. The following is a highly edited version of my notes from the trial:

The trial is held in a courtroom intended for criminal cases. A large cage takes the place of a defense table, although Mogutin and his codefendant Dodalev are mercifully allowed to sit in the spectator seats. Mogutin is represented by Genrikh Padva, a lawyer whose fame in Russia is comparable to William Kunstler in the U.S. Under the Soviets, Padva represented dissidents, today he represents the likes of Alexander Rutskoi [leader of the failed 1993 coup]. Both lawyer and his client are dressed extremely well, in expensively tailored suits. In contrast, the judge, a middle-aged woman, wears a Russian-made suit. The cheaply outfitted judge and shabbiness of the courtroom, in dire need of new paint to cover the peeling lime green walls, make the trial look more like a clash between the newly successful and the formerly elite. Slava [Mogutin] asks to acquaint himself with the charges because he received no official notification. Padva argues that the case should be dismissed because of a variety of technical errors on the part of the prosecutor's office.... He points out that this is not just "a minor point, but ... a violation of his human rights."

    During a break Padva spoke to the reporters, mostly Russian, in the room. He pointed out that the gay theme of the article was certainly one of the reasons for the prosecution. Asked by a reporter why the state withdrew Article 121.1 from the legal code, Padva replied that "the prosecutor would happily put them [queers] all in jail ... but world opinion and some understanding that this is not a criminal matter [prevent him from doing so]. Although there are certainly people still in jail for this ... we have to ask in what way is this a crime." After about forty minutes the judge returned with her ruling that although the defendants were obviously guilty, the case would not be pursued (although it could be reopened later).

    Ironically, the trial was held in the Krasnopresnskii Regional Court, the same legal district in which the October Events, the failed overthrow of the Yeltsin government, took place in 1993. Mogutin himself pointed out to me the absurdity of the legal office responsible for prosecuting the putsch organizers relentlessly pursuing a case of "hooliganism." Why the prosecutor's office decided to prosecute this case in the first place is unclear, but why they decided to close the case and eventually drop it is even less clear. Perhaps the answer lies in a part of the story which I left out of my edited version: the night before the trial Mogutin and his partner were visited by a very large man accompanied by a police officer (from the militsia). The man insisted they pay him money and in exchange he would make sure the case against Mogutin was dropped. The man also insisted that he was a member of Zhirinovskii's quasi-fascist Liberal Democratic Party, hated "pederasts," and would be just as happy to kill them if they did not pay the bribe.

    Public homosexuality continues to be subjected to Russian law, but Russian law is intersected and dissected by paralegal entities, political powers, and personalities, all of whom bend it and shape it to their own will. The juridical complex is, as it turns out, not as stable as it seems. The homosexual subject is certainly produced by the Law. But the Law itself is never completely whole. There are constantly breaches in the Law's security, wars over borders and margins that may end up being the site of more central battles. Perhaps this is even more true in a legal landscape as highly contested as post-Soviet Russia.

According to Michel de Certeau, there are always a variety of "tactics" available to those who are not in a position of power. In terms of the Law, the most visibly queer "tactic" is the (mis)use of the very legal system that subjects them in the first place. It was just such a tactical skirmish that took place in the spring of 1994, when two men tried to officially register their marriage. The men, Mogutin and his American partner, Robert Filippini, first told me of their plans to "marry" in March of that year. Filippini wanted to get married because the "bottom line is that two men love each other and that's it.... [L]ove is love and I have as much a right to my love as my mother has to hers.... It's not our sexuality that's different, it's the presumption that there is a difference ... that the grace of our love should not be allowed." For Mogutin the reasons were more overtly tactical: this was to be an "iconographic act against the homophobia and sexism of the regime." Mogutin was not convinced of a "right" to marriage as much as he was the opportunity to get a lot of press coverage. Both agreed that any coverage of queers in the press is a good thing because the media is a public space, accessible even in the deepest of closets.

    The would-be honeymooners set the date for 12 April, a holiday that commemorates the USSR's cosmonauts. Both believed this to be a very "manly" day. It also happened to be Mogutin's twentieth birthday. The day before the wedding, the two went to the U.S. Embassy to register their intended marriage as per U.S. law (again, Filippini is an American citizen). Surprisingly enough, they were not refused. Instead, after completing the required forms, a stunned Filippini asked the embassy worker if he understood that this was a same-sex marriage. The man answered that the "same-sex" nature of the relationship did not concern him. Buoyed by the nonchalance of the U.S. government, the two lovers drove the next day to the Palace of Weddings Number 4.

I arrive around 3 p.m. There is a huge contingent of press, including CNN and AP and a lot of the Russian papers and television. The doors are not yet open [i.e., the Palace is on a lunch break] .... Evgeniia Debrianskaia [probably the most famous of the gay and lesbian leaders in Russia] and her girlfriend arrive looking very visibly queer. The three of us stand out in the crowd of reporters with our black leather motorcycle jackets, combat boots, short hair. The Russian press immediately notes Debrianskaia's arrival and several reporters surround her. They ask what she thinks of the wedding. She answers that she does not understand the point of imitating heterosexuality, but as an "act which reveals the innate homophobia and sexism of the state" she supports it.... The grooms arrive. Mogutin is dressed in a tee shirt and motorcycle jacket.... After about thirty minutes the crowd (about 60 people, most of them apparently reporters) moves into the Wedding Palace, which is lit in fluorescent light with pictures of happy, if tacky, heterosexual couples on the wall. The people who work there seem a bit overwhelmed by all the press attention. The director of the Palace, Karmin Boreva, seems well prepared for their visit. She gives a statement that seems to be sympathetic: she understands love, she herself thinks that love should be recognized by the state, but according to the Family Code adopted in 1969 marriage is between a man and a woman and this code remains in effect. Boreva suggests that the grooms address themselves to their representatives in the Duma. They kiss anyway and Filippini tells the press that they exchanged vows and rings this morning .... Afterwards the director answers a few questions. She says that this is not the first time two men have tried to get married, although no women have ever tried. When asked why, she says because men are "more romantic somehow." She also mentions how she has read a lot of ancient Greek poetry and therefore she personally saw nothing wrong with their marriage[!], but she cannot break the law.

    As Mogutin predicted, press accounts of the affair were indeed numerous. Ekspress gazeta, Kuranty, Segodnia, Komsomol'skaia pravda, Inostranets, and the English-language Moscow Tribune all wrote of the event within a few days. Not only was this decidedly queer action spoken about publicly, but all of the newspapers contained supportive, if sarcastically so, accounts of the young couple's attempt to be wed. The article in the moderate Segodnia was entitled "The Setting Right of Russian-American Relations Is Delayed." The article goes on to say that "unlike its legislative counterparts in European countries, Russia does not anticipate the possibility of registering same-sex marriages." The director of the Palace is described in decidedly derogatory terms as advising the young pair to address themselves to the legislature without removing her "happy dezhurnaia's [gatekeeper] smile." When asked to whom in the Duma they should address themselves, the director apparently answered, "`To anyone of the exotic politicians, there are plenty of them there.'" Komsomol'skaia pravda was even more gay-positive, describing the refusal to register the marriage as "callous" and reminding the lovers that "happy marriages are made in heaven" (i.e., not in the Palace of Weddings Number 4).

    As spectacular as the wedding was, there are other, less "newsworthy" tactical maneuvers to use laws to subvert the Law. Many of the gay/lesbian rights organizations have worked very hard to become legally registered. Although no organization has yet registered as an organization of queers, many have registered as an organization for the rights of sexual minorities. Moscow's Triangle saw registration as an organization of "gays, lesbians, and bisexuals" as a primary goal. According to Triangle's Debrianskaia, it is unacceptable to register in any other way since it does not force the state to recognize the legitimacy of sexual minorities coalescing into groups.


The workings of the Law on the homosexual body and the body politic are similar under the "new" rule of law and the Soviet regime. In the past, Article 121 transformed same-sex desire into a sort of person: the homosexual. The homosexual was then separated from the majority by a law, which sometimes actually removed his body from the social realm, but, more often than not, Article 121.1 worked in the body politic. The homosexual was a subject before the Law. As a subject, the homosexual could now speak/act in his own behalf.

    The "new" rule of law must contend with that self-speaking homosexual, but it does so in ways that reproduce him. Homosexual desire is still separate, ready to be criminalized if it transgresses its allowed public space. This separation is codified in laws that create a higher age of consent for homosexual acts, which target those who speak too gay-ly, which create legislative bills that would make "homosexuals" and "lesbians" a separate population in need of state intervention.

    The Law also continues to reproduce its misshapen offspring, the demi-legal entities that are enough a part of the Law to blackmail, extort, and commit other acts of violence against those they identify as sexual minorities. This quasi-legal subjugation often reeks of the Law when it takes the form of powerful nationalists who are closely allied with the militsia, or judges, or prosecutors (as it did in the Mogutin case). At other times, the connections are much more tenuous, as in the case of militsioneers who look the other way during a gay bashing.

    The Law is not just repressive, it is productive as well. It remains a powerful source of public queerness. The power of the Law to subject simultaneously produces self-speaking subjects. It is the double sense of subject, subjected to and a subject before, which creates the paradoxical situation of the legal system as a producer of homosexual identity. The Law, old and new, cultivates queer identities as well as queer fears.


When discussing the creation of the homosexual subject, the personal pronouns are decidedly gendered—as male. Russian/Soviet laws against homosexual desire were always gendered. The very term for illegal homosexual acts, muzhelozhstvo, literally means "men lying together" and has always been interpreted to mean a penis entering the anus of another man. Legal experts created the homosexual criminal and they created him male. Transgressive female desires were not the object of legal knowledge, women were not subjects before the Law.

    Although women were never sentenced under the law, prison camps played a large role within lesbian and popular conceptions of female-female relationships. Some Russian specialists on female homosexuality in prison estimate that nearly one-half of all female prisoners are sexually engaged with other women. In interviews, many women suggested that their own lesbianism was the result of either reform school or camp experiences. Often, they themselves were not interned but learned about lesbianism from women who were. Olga Zhuk has argued that all lesbians in Russia were highly influenced by the sexual roles developed in the camp system. These roles consisted of an active partner, who attempted to "imitate a man" in bed. "All that was female is repressed and hidden; they do not completely undress nor do they allow their genitals to be touched." "Active" lesbians paired only with "passive" ones, who were considered by themselves and others to be "naturals" (i.e., heterosexual).

    But if many women who desire other women feel tied to criminal systems, it is not the same tie that binds men. Women may experience lesbian relationships in female prisons, just as they may experience these relationships in single-sex worker dormitories. Women, however, do not become criminals for the expression of their desires. Lesbianism is not against the Law. Instead, according to this (il)logic, lesbianism is against Nature: unhealthy, diseased, needing a cure. The next chapter explores diseased desires and those who would cure them. Although medicopsychiatric experts certainly attempted to cure men, it was women who were their most likely patients. For a man to speak of his desire for other men was a dangerously illegal act. For a woman, it was often a mandatory part of the "Cure."

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Table of Contents

Pt. I the other
1 The Expert Gaze 1: The Law 3
2 The Expert Gaze 2: The Cure 25
Pt. II self
3 Identity Politics and the Politics of Identity 55
4 Queer Subjects and Subjectivities 83
Pt. III intersections
5 Clothes Make the Man: Gender Transgression and Public Queerness 105
6 Patriots and Perverts: The Intersection of National and Sexual Identities 123
Pt. IV sex
Conclusion 161
Postscript 173
Notes 175
Bibliography 229
Index 239
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