Condemnation of Homosexuality in Russia

Sixty-three percent of Russians believe so-called “gay propaganda” is destroying “the spiritual values” of their country. This was the result of a survey released last month by a Russian pollster. About a week earlier, a Russian court fined Maxim Neverov, a sixteen-year-old boy, 50,000 rubles (around $700) under a 2013 law banning gay propaganda. He had posted pictures of shirtless men on a social networking website. Earlier in August, St. Petersburg police arrested 25 activists at an LGBT Pride rally. That should have come as little surprise though. In 2012, the city council in Russia’s capital Moscow banned gay pride parades for a century. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, “queer people,” journalist Masha Gessen recently wrote, “have been the government’s scapegoat of choice for several years.”

Russia is undoubtedly one of the most visibly—and violently—homophobic countries on Earth. Five years ago, reports began to surface of vigilante group entrapping gay men. These thugs would humiliate their victims on video, beating them and torturing them with Tasers. Last year, state police in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya—an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation—rounded up dozens of gay men. One victim reported that officials held him for twelve days in a bloody cell where they beat him severely and told him his death was imminent. Some of the kidnapped men were murdered, others turned over to their families to be killed.

Westerners are familiar with Russia’s extreme homophobia, thanks in large part to courageous reporting by Masha Gessen, a queer, Jewish, Russian journalist who now lives in the United States. It is clear, too, why the subject elicits such fascination. “While many people in the United States celebrated the decision [in United States v. Windsor] as the ultimate victory of the gay rights movement,” Gessen wrote in a postscript to her biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, “Russia was careening into the Middle Ages.”

That progress—a term against which most historians are violently allergic—can retreat is not something that fits into contemporary rhetoric on gay rights. After all, in his second inaugural address, Barrack Obama mentioned Stonewall, and by implication the entire gay rights movement, as a cornerstone of the “constant advance” of “tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

And so the homophobic swell of the last five years in Russia begs for an explanation. Why has Putin made queer people one his government’s primary targets? Why is homophobia on the rise in one of the world’s largest and most powerful countries? When, if ever, will the march of progress resume?

Oxford historian Dan Healey, author of two earlier books on sexuality in the Soviet Union, thinks the past can answer these questions. Bloomsbury Academic published his latest book, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi, in December of last year. Over nine chapters, it traces the history of homosexuality in Russia and the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the present. At the same time, that history is a canary in a coalmine, warning queer Westerners about homophobia’s hold on the present.

Healey is a careful and imaginative historian. Each chapter deals with a different subject in queer Russian history, jumping across decades. The book’s sporadic structure is an intentional testament to the difficulty historians face researching the gay past in a homophobic country and to the work still to be done in the Russian history of sexuality.

Healey’s decision to tackle the history of homophobia is novel. Although the history of sexuality has blossomed as a field of inquiry since the 1980s—much like histories of race and gender¬—historians of sexuality remain focused on recovering queer voices from the past, understanding mechanisms of oppression, and charting the development of queer identities. Only recently have they begun asking what sits at the root of homophobia.

What recent historical studies of the U.S. Lavender Scare and homosexuality in the Weimar Republic, to name just a couple, have suggested is that homophobia is a complex animus that can serve a menagerie of distinct political needs. Likewise, societies have conquered or accommodated it in a myriad of different ways. As Healey is quick to point out, not so very long ago Western conservatives, such as Margaret Thatcher, were using homophobia as a weapon with which to bludgeon their political opponents. Healey sets out to uncover what is distinctly Russian about anti-gay animus in Russia.

Russian Homophobia is rich in the kind of tantalizing, upsetting detail that makes the history of sexuality so fascinating. Healey dwells, for example, on the preponderance of queer tattoos in Soviet prisons. Oftentimes passive sexual partners would be tattooed to mark their status. He notes that some men even had “pederast” tattooed on their foreheads, a frightening precursor to the practices of vigilante gangs in Russia today.

Case studies stud the chapters, such as that of Lidia Babenko, a woman living near Leningrad in the 1950s, who complained to the police about her husband. Not only did he sleep with men, but he also allowed the men he brought home to rape her. Her complaint resulted in eight convictions on sodomy and rape charges. These stories make Healey’s work a gripping read, enlivening his argument that Russia’s path towards today’s homophobia was a uniquely Russian one that cannot be understood without a grasp of Stalinism, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the decades in between.

In 1917, the pressures of World War I unleashed revolution in Russia, toppling the monarchy and ushering Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks into power. One of the communist regime’s first reforms was to repeal the entire tsarist penal code, including the provision that had criminalized sodomy since Peter the Great ruled Russia. The new Soviet criminal code adopted in 1922 left homosexuality untouched.

In 1933, this changed. That summer, the OGPU (the Soviet secret police) ordered arrests of gay men—labeled “pederasts” by the police. Those sweeps provided the basis for a proposal to recriminalize homosexuality sent by secret police deputy chief Genrikh Yagoda to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on September 15. Yagoda pointed to the men swept up in OGPU raids, suggesting that they were spies seeking to “demoralize” the working classes.

Stalin signed off on the proposal and even personally edited the new law’s language. He mandated, for instance, that convictions would carry a minimum penalty of three years. This addition ensured that convicts would be sent to the Gulag. The law came into force in March 1934. Although arrest and incarceration statistics do not exist for the Stalinist period, Healey argues that the law’s promulgation marked the moment when “surveillance of male homosexual activity and networks became a routine part of security and regular police work” in the Soviet Union.

But for a history of homophobia, explaining when and how sodomy was criminalized isn’t enough: why did Stalin and his secret police want to arrest homosexuals? Healey gives two possible explanations.

First, he turns to the issuance of internal police passports in early 1933. These documents allowed citizens to continue living in the USSR’s major cities and were a mechanism for the regime to weed out undesirable residents. It is possible that in the process of collecting this information, the secret police uncovered numerous cases of homosexuality, which in turn provided an impetus to recriminalize sodomy.

The second explanation has to do with the regime’s fear that queer people posed a national security threat to the regime. They believed homosexuals to be in touch with like-minded people in other countries and tied homosexuality in particular to fascism. The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 seems to have catalyzed this process, in particular the infamous Reichstag fire, which was started by Marinus van der Lubbe, a gay Dutch communist. Soviets accused van der Lubbe of associating with gay Storm Troopers close to Adolf Hitler’s friend Ernst Röhm.

Soviet propaganda trumpeted the alleged connection between homosexuality and Nazism. Healey quotes the famous writer Maxim Gorky, who wrote in Pravda on May 23, 1934, “Destroy the homosexuals – and fascism will disappear.” Those efforts would prompt gay German-Jewish author Klaus Mann to write in 1934 that communists had turned the homosexual into a “scapegoat.” In his words, gay people were “roughly ‘the Jews’ of the antifascists.”

These fears linger in Russian consciousness. They echo today in outbursts such as that of Duma member Gennady Raikov, who, Healey mentions, raved in 2002 that the sodomy law had been “a beam holding up a barrier against international organizations of homosexuals with their powerful finances.”

This language is particularly fascinating not only because it grew out of Soviet fears of German fascism, but also because the Nazis themselves used similar justifications to explain their own terror directed at gay men in the 1930s. Hitler and his cronies ranted about the threat that gay cliques and conspiracies posed to the National Socialist state. Under Hitler, Germany would imprison almost fifty thousand gay men and send around ten thousand to concentration camps, where historians estimate around six thousand perished.

Stalin’s new law empowered the police to round up gay men and ship them off to forced labor camps flung across the Soviet empire (as in other countries, the law never banned lesbian activity). The Gulag was what Healey terms an “economic empire.” The secret police shipped hundreds of thousands of prisoners to isolated colonies, where they “dug canals and mines, built railways, and felled trees.” They also died at frighteningly high rates: in Madagan, a Gulag town on Russia’s Pacific coast, more than one ninth of all prisoners died.

One of Healey’s most intriguing arguments is that homosexuality in the Gulag is a key to understanding homophobia in Russia today. Much as in other prison settings, about which scholars of sexuality have begun to devote more attention, both men and women engaged in ritualized same-sex relationships. These typically consisted of a masculine, dominant partner or husband and a submissive, feminized partner or wife. The passive partners were often forced into the relationships or sought them out to gain protection in prison.

These queer relationships, and the violence attendant to them, were common enough that they made their way into the memoirs written by dissident survivors of the Gulag in later decades. These memoirs constructed “the Gulag queer,” according to Healey, as a “diabolical symbol of camp life, tokens of the evil of the forced-labor system.” These recollections entrenched “disgust” for homosexuals among Russian progressives. Ironically, while the Nazis’ murder of queer people in concentration camps bequeathed later gay liberation movements in East and West Germany moral clarity, Healey argues that the Gulag’s left Russia’s queer population under a lingering curse, maligned by both the government and its progressive opposition.

For memory of Gulag queers also produced an “incitement to discourse” among Khrushchev-era reformers, who doubled down on the homophobic law even while effacing other legacies of Stalin’s rule. Not only did the new leadership see homosexuality as an ailment that could be cured, sodomy charges were also a useful way of dealing with unruly dissidents. Between 1961 and 1981, Russian courts convicted 14,695 men under the law.

These convictions occurred in a period when most other European countries in both the capitalist and socialist blocs had expunged sodomy statues from their penal codes. The law forestalled any gay liberation movement similar to those that swept the Western world and parts of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s. By way of comparison, communist East Germany ceased to enforce its sodomy law in 1957, repealed it in 1968, and advanced a slew of pro-gay legislation in the late 1980s.

Not until the Soviet Union neared collapse, as its new President, Mikhail Gorbachev, advanced reforms of Soviet government and society at a staggering pace, would queer people begin to organize politically. Media started to discuss sex more openly in the mid-1980s. The first gay and lesbian magazine in Russia began publication in December 1989.

Stalin’s sodomy law eventually fell in 1993 as part of reforms championed by Russia’s first democratically elected President Boris Yeltsin. Healey notes the law’s repeal had very little to do with gay activism or with any innate repudiation of Russian homophobia. Rather, democratic reformers were interested in bringing Russian codes into line with Council of Europe standards.

Numerous queer associations—what Healey terms Russia’s “first generation” of activists—sprouted up in Russian cities in the early 1990s. The groups employed many of the same tactics of Western organizations, including public demonstrations. They were confronted by latent homophobia in the media and local governments that denied them the right to organize on so-called “moral grounds.”

In the early 2000s a second generation of queer activists grew up from Russia’s new, young, urban classes. These men and women, perhaps disillusioned by the failure to win any new rights in the 1990s, focused their efforts on community building. Nevertheless, the increasing visibility of queer people, Healey contends, helped to spark a backlash among conservatives and within the Russian Orthodox Church. These conservatives passed a law raising the age of consent in 2003, promulgated municipal ordinances banning gay propaganda, and even tried unsuccessfully to recriminalize sodomy in 2002.

Not until the 2010s, however, did the Russian regime—now over a decade into Vladimir Putin’s rule—get behind the grassroots homophobia that had become an increasingly prominent part of Russian political discourse. Putin was running for reelection to the presidency in 2012 with a weakened economy and a frustrated populace. His United Russia Party began fanning the flames of homophobia in 2011, Healey argues, “to revitalize Putin’s popularity before the election […], aiming to remasculinize the presidency.”

Though Putin easily won the May 2012 election, his campaign’s homophobia continued to gain momentum, cresting the following year when the Duma passed, virtually unanimously, a law criminalizing gay propaganda nation-wide. Around the same time grassroots vigilante groups with names like “Occupy Pedophilia” sprang up around the country, entrapping and torturing gay men.

In one particularly horrific incident, which both Healey and Masha Gessen have described, twenty-three-year-old Vladislav Tornovoi was murdered in May 2013 by two of his friends because he was gay. The killers crushed his head beneath a paving stone, shoved multiple beer bottles into his anus, and carved his genitals.

Since Putin’s electoral campaign, Healey contends, homophobia has become a convenient lever by which the Russian leader fabricates support among his base of voters and distinguishes Russia from a supposedly degenerate West. As the country seeks to craft its own mythical past to suit the needs of present politics, hatred of queer people has proven a expedient means to bridge the chasm separating the two. Queer people are convenient “others” that the government uses to cement support for its leaders. Healey’s point is that the regime’s policies did not come from nowhere: they tapped into a reservoir of homophobia that stemmed from the Stalinist era.

Because Healey’s focus is on the national flavor of Russia’s homophobia, he only touches on Putin’s role in a growing, worldwide network of state-sponsored homophobia. Alongside Putin’s government, many African regimes have promulgated aggressively homophobic legislation in the last decade. What ties these together, as Masha Gessen has also written on extensively, are Western churches, which Healey describes as “the main transmission belts of a politicized and often violent homophobia.” After losing the battle in the United States, radical homophobic sects took the war to the developing world.

Although his book is written for a Western audience, Healey insists that overcoming Russian homophobia will be a Russian process, not one imposed from without. “Progress in LGBT rights,” he argues, “has no obvious technocratic formula or roadmaps.” And while he insists he is an optimist—the book concludes with the strange-sounding assertion that “official homophobia has made Russia queerer—not straighter,” it is hard not to believe at the end of his account that homophobia is a hydra of the modern world: defeated at one juncture it arises in a dozen new guises around the world.

For Healey reveals how Russian homophobia has submerged and reappeared suddenly and without warning several times over the course of the last century to serve the political whims of autocratic rulers. In this regard his work serves less as a roadmap to understanding how Russia might overcome its own homophobia and more as a grim warning to his readers. We have not so much conquered homophobia in our own societies as driven it to a tactical retreat. Against homophobia, the Russian past and present seem to imply, there can only ever be Pyrrhic victory.