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

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

by Laurie Essig

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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 a 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 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, who saw them less as criminals than 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379522
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/15/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Lexile: 1400L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Queer in Russia

A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other

By Laurie Essig

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7952-2


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 muzhelozhstuo, 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 810 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 theopushcheny 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.


Excerpted from Queer in Russia by Laurie Essig. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Part 1: The Other

The Expert Gaze 1: The Law

The Expert Gaze 2: The Cure

Part 2: Self

Identity Politics and the Politics of Identity

Queer Subjects and Subjectivities

Part 3: Intersections

Clothes Make the Man: Gender Transgression and Public Queerness

Patriots and Perverts: The Intersection of National and Sexual Identities

Part 4: Sex





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