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Soviet Homophobia
by Professor Igor Kon

The Soviet and post-Soviet policies toward homosexuals may be divided into five key periods:

  1. 1917-1933: decriminalization of homosexuality, relative tolerance, homosexuality officially labelled a disease

  2. 1934-1986: homosexuality recriminalized and severely dealt with by prosecution, discrimination and silence

  3. 1987-1990: beginning of open public discussions of the status of homosexuality from a scientific and humanitarian point of view by professionals and journalists

  4. 1990 - May 1993: gay men and lesbians themselves take up the cause, putting human rights in the forefront, resulting exacerbation of conflict and sharp politicization of the issue

  5. June 1993: decriminalization of homosexuality; the homosexual underground begins to develop into a gay and lesbian subculture, with its own organizations, publications, and centers; continued social discrimination and defamation of same-sex love and relationships

The initiative for revocation of antihomosexual legislation, following the Revolution of February 1917, had come, not from the Bolsheviks but from the Cadets (Constitutional democrats) and the anarchists (Karlinsky, 1989). Nevertheless, once the old criminal code had been repealed after the October Revolution, the antihomosexual article also ceased to be valid. The Russian Federation criminal codes for 1922 and 1926 did not mention homosexuality, although the corresponding laws remained in force in places where homosexuality was most prevalent - in the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, and Uzbekistan, as well as in Christian Georgia.

Soviet medical and legal experts were very proud of the progressive nature of their legislation, lnl930, the medical expert Sereisky (1930) wrote in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia: "Soviet legislation does not recognize so-called crimes against morality. Our laws proceed from the principle of protection of society and therefore countenance punishment only in those instances when juveniles and minors are the objects of homosexual interest" P. 593).

The most important collection of documents and texts on Soviet homosexuality is Kozlovsky (1986).

As Engelstein (1995) justly mentions, the formal decriminalization of sodomy did not mean that such conduct was invulnerable to prosecution. The absence of formal statutes against anal intercourse or lesbianism did not stop the prosecution of homosexual behavior as a form of disorderly conduct. After the 1922 Penal Code was published there were in that same year at least two known trials for homosexual practices. The eminent psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev testified that "public demonstration of such impulses ... is socially harmful and cannot be permitted" (Engelstein, 1995, p. 167). The official stance of Soviet medicine and law in the 1920s, as reflected by Sereisky's encyclopedia article, was that homosexuality was a disease that was difficult, perhaps even impossible, to cure. So "while recognizing the incorrectness of homosexual development ... our society combines prophylactic and other therapeutic measures with all the necessary conditions for making the conflicts that afflict homosexuals as painless as possible and for resolving their typical estrangement from society within the collective" (Sereisky, 1930, p. 593).

Although, during the 1920s, a few homosexual intellectuals still played important roles in Soviet culture, the opportunity for an open, philosophical, and artistic discussion of the topic, which had been opened up at the start of the century, was gradually whittled away. By the decree of December 17, 1933, and by the law of March 7, 1934, muzhelozhstvo once again became a criminal offense. The exact reasons for this abrupt change are still unknown, but it was clearly part of the "sexual Termidor" and of a general repressive trend. Criminalizing clauses were inserted into the codes of all the Soviet republics. According to Article 121 of the Russian Federation criminal code, muzhelozhstvo was punishable by deprivation of freedom of up to 5 years and, by Article 121.2, in cases of physical force or threat thereof, or exploitation of the victim's dependent status or involvement of a minor, a term of up to 8 years.

In January 1936, Nikolai Krylenko, People's Commissar for Justice, announced that homosexuality was a product of the decadence of the exploiting classes who knew no better, but that in a democratic society founded on healthy principles there was no place for such people (Kozlovsky, 1986). Homosexuality was thus tied to counterrevolution. Later, Soviet medical authorities and lawyers described homosexuality as a manifestation of "moral decadence of the bourgeoisie," reiterating verbatim the arguments of German fascists. Typical of this stance was an anonymous article on gomoseksualizm in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia in 1952. References to possible biological causes of homosexuality, which had hitherto been used for humanistic purposes as reasons for decriminalizing homosexuality, were now rejected:

The origin of H[omosexualism] is linked to everyday social conditions; for the overwhelming majority of people indulging in H[omosexualism], these perversions stop as soon as the person finds himself in a favorable social environment.... In Soviet society with its healthy mores, H[omosexualism] as a sexual perversion is considered shameful and criminal. Soviet criminal legislation regards H[omosexualism] as punishable with the exception of those instances where H[omosexualism] is a manifestation of marked psychic disorder. (Gomoseksualizm, 1952, p. 35)

The precise number of persons prosecuted under Article 121 is unknown (the first official information was released only in 1988), but it is believed to be about 1000 a year. Since the late 1980s, according to official data, the number of men convicted under Article 121 has been steadily decreasing. In 1987, 831 men were sentenced (this figure refers to the entire Soviet Union); in 1989, 539; in 1990, 497; in 1991, 462; and for the first 6 months of 1992, 227, among whom all but 10 were sentenced under Article 121.2 (figures are for Russia only) (Gessen, 1994). According to Russian lawyers, most convictions have indeed been under Article 121.2, 80 percent of cases being related to the involvement of minors up to 18 years of age (Ignatov, 1974). In an analysis of 130 convictions under Article 121 between 1985 and 1992, it was found that 74 percent of the accused were convicted under 121.2, of whom 20 percent were for rape using physical force, 8 percent for using threats, 52 percent for having sexual contact with minors and 2 and 18 percent, respectively, for exploiting the victims dependent or vulnerable status (Dyachenko, 1995). These statistics should be viewed skeptically, however, bearing in mind that many of these and other accusations may have been fabricated or falsified and that many confessions have been "beaten out" of accused persons and witnesses.

Article 121 was not aimed just at homosexuals. The authorities frequently exploited it for dealing with dissidents and for augmenting labor camp sentences. Sometimes the KCB was clearly involved in the prosecution, as, for example, in the case of the well-known Leningrad archaeologist Lev Klein: His trial was orchestrated from start to finish by the local KGB in gross violation of all procedural norms (Samoilov, 1993). Typically, the purpose of such actions was to scare the intelligentsia. Application of the law was selective. If eminent cultural figures took care not to offend the authorities, they enjoyed a kind of immunity and a blind eye was turned to their homosexual proclivities, but they had only to fall foul of an influential bigwig for the law to go into high gear. This was the scenario that destroyed the life of the great Armenian filmmaker Sergei Paradzhanov. As late as the latter part of the 1980s, the chief director of the Leningrad Yuny Zritel Theater, Zinovy Korogodsky, was arraigned before a court, fired from his post, and deprived of all his honorary titles. Examples of this kind were legion.

The antihomosexual campaign in the press in the early 1930s was short-lived. By the middle of the decade utter silence on the subject had descended. Homosexuality had become unmentionable in the full sense of the term. The conspiracy of silence even embraced such academic subjects as phallic cults and ancient Greek pederasty.

Its gloomy silence further intensified the tragedy of Soviet homosexuals, who not only feared prosecution and blackmail, but who also could not even develop adequate self-awareness and self-identity. Apart from legal prosecution, widespread and unlimited illegal discrimination and persecution of all kinds have been aimed not only at male homosexuals, but equally at lesbians.

Lesbian relations did not fall under the rubric of any criminal code, and close relations between women have been less visible and less liable to harassment. Public attitudes about lesbians have been just as obdurate as those about gay men. Lesbians have been exposed to ridicule, persecution, expulsion from university, termination of employment, and threats to take custody of their children away from them.

A typical scenario, recounted by more than a dozen young Russian lesbians ages 15-19 who were interviewed from 1991 to 1993 by Masha Gessen (1994), involves a parent or other guardian (such as a teacher at a residential school) finding out about a lesbian relationship and committing one or both of the - usually - very young women. A diagnosis and a relatively brief hospitalization - two to three months - and forced treatment with mind-altering medication followed. After her release from the psychiatric hospital, the patient was to remain registered with a local psychiatric ambulatory clinic, (pp. 17-18)

Soviet punitive psychiatry was one of the main weapons of both legal and illegal repression. Sexologically ignorant psychiatrists were always ready to find some serious diagnosis that enabled persons so stigmatized to be put under lifelong medical and police observation or detained in a psychiatric hospital under conditions often much worse than prison. Even after the emergence in the late 1970s of a more tolerant and better-informed "sexopathology" (the Russian term for a medical sexology suggesting that all sexual problems are pathological), medicine offered little help. In all Soviet books on sexopathology, homosexuality was described as a pernicious "sexual perversion," a disease that must be treated (Vasilchenko, 1977,1983).

In the early 1980s, an antihomosexual campaign was launched in educational publications. In the first, and at the time the nation's only, teachers' manual on sex education (one million copies of which were published and immediately sold out), homosexuality was defined as a dangerous pathology and was said to be "a violation of normal principles of sexual relationships.... Homosexuality challenges both normal heterosexual relationships and society's cultural, moral attainments. It therefore merits condemnation both as a social phenomenon and as a specific persons behavior and mental attitude" (Khripkova & Kolesov, 1982, pp. 96-100). Thus, teachers as well as police and doctors were being warned against homosexuality.

Still today, with rare exceptions, Russian sexopathologists and psychiatrists, even those who supported the decriminalization of homosexuality, regard it as a disease and reproduce in their writings the many absurdities and negative stereotypes prevalent in the mass consciousness. The latest medical reference book on sexopathology, published in 1990, defines homosexuality as a "pathological drive." It states that, in addition to biological causes, "a strong pathogenic factor encouraging the formation of homosexual attraction can be the inculcation by parents and teachers of a hostile attitude towards the opposite sex" (Vasilchenko, 1990, p. 429-430).

In a doctoral dissertation in psychiatry in 1994, prepared under the guidance of Professor A. Tkachenko, not only is homosexual behavior described as "anomalous," but most of the 117 gay men studied by the author are diagnosed as having "psychic, psycho-physical and disharmonic infantilism," "signs of organic defects of the central nervous system," and "overvaluation of the sexual sphere" (Vvedensky, 1994, p. 8).

The AIDS epidemic made the position of gays still worse. When symptoms of the virus had just emerged in the United States, the initial information about it in the Soviet press was roughly as follows: a new and unknown disease has appeared in the USA; its victims are homosexuals, drug addicts, and Puerto Ricans. Brought up in the spirit of official internationalism, Soviet citizens were puzzled at the mention of Puerto Ricans. They could well understand God punishing homosexuals and drug addicts for their sins, but why Puerto Ricans? God surely wasn't a racist!

In 1986 Professor Nikolai Burgasov, then Deputy Minister for Health and Chief Hygiene Doctor for the USSR, publicly announced: "We have no conditions in our country conducive to the spread of the disease; homosexuality is prosecuted by law as a grave sexual perversion (Russian Criminal Code Article 121) and we are constantly warning people of the dangers of drug abuse" (Burgasov, 1986, p. 15). When AIDS did appear in the Soviet Union, the heads of the state epidemiological program, the president of the USSR (now Russian) Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor Valentin I. Pokrovsky, and his son, Dr. Vadim V. Pokrovsky, once again blamed homosexuals, accusing them in public of being carriers of HIV infection and of displaying every kind of vice.

Somewhat later, Alexander Potapov, then the Russian Federation minister and professor of psychiatry, ventured into print in Literaturnaya gazeta, answering questions on drug addicts; for some reason he linked them with homosexuals, adding, "My colleagues in Paris told me of an enraged crowd killing two homosexuals in a Paris park - right in front of the police." This representative of the most humane of professions gave no further commentary on this event, moving on to discuss what the authorities in Belgium were doing to confine the pornography business. He concluded by saying pensively, "You see how life forces one to act."*8 Nobody even remarked on the monstrosities he was mouthing. . . .

When AIDS did appear in the Soviet Union, heads of the state epidemiological program once again blamed homosexuals for everything, accusing them in public statements of being carriers of HIV infection and just about every other vice besides. Such were their sincere convictions, since the educational programs of the Soviet medical institutions had not discussed homosexuality. Even the liberal journal Ogonyok, in the first published profile of an AIDS victim, a gay engineer who had caught the virus in Africa, could not conceal its disgust and condemnation.

All the same, glasnost, plus the threat of AIDS, made possible for the first time more or less frank discussions of sexual orientation problems. initially in the scholarly and then in more popular literature - whether the authorities liked it or not.*9

In the USSR the only nonjudgmental sexological and psychological books on homosexuality were written by the present author (Isayev, Kagan, & Kon, 1986; Kon, 1988, 1989, 1991). It was extremely difficult to get these books published, introduction to Sexology was banned in the USSR for 10 years, even though the book had either completely avoided or merely hinted at the most important legal, social, and human rights issues.

© 1998 Professor Igor Kon


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