Today’s particularly timely lesson is about the history of queerness in Russia, featuring Professor Dan Healey, a Professor of Modern Russian History at Oxford University.
Healey’s first foray into Russian history was in high school, when he took a trip to the Soviet Union in 1974. “I really became captivated by the Russian language, the Russian culture, and the history in the two weeks we were in Moscow and Leningrad,” he said. So he studied Russian in university–but when he graduated, he struggled to find a job with his degree. “You had to be someone who might go into the foreign office,” he explained. “I was a Canadian, so we would go into the Department of Foreign Affairs, but they didn't accept homosexuals back then,” and he was already out. Instead, he returned to university to pursue a Master’s degree, where he began studying the queer history of Russia.
Some of the earliest evidence of queerness in Russia dates back to the period of Ivan the Terrible, in the late 16th century. Russian gender historians have uncovered evidence cross-dressing, sodomy–even some evidence of lesbian relations. “There's an early history there, and some of it is linked to the rise of a Russian state, which became an empire, but it's also linked to the Russian Orthodox Church,” explained Healey.
Healey’s article, “The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet was Born”–one of my favorite article titles of all time!–begins around the late 19th century. During that time, “subcultures of homosexual life” had begun to develop in the Russian Empire’s large cities. With queer-friendly restaurants and public cruising becoming more common, the culture of male homosexuality–the “Russian queen”–became more and more visible.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which brought to power the first Communist government in the world, the Bolsheviks repealed the old czarist prohibition against sodomy. Despite that signaling of acceptance, Healey said, “the Bolsheviks don't actually talk about homosexuality very much at all, and certainly not in public, but they do proclaim a kind of sexual revolution where there will be equality for men and women.”
But when Stalin came to power, everything changed. “In that mix of chaos and construction in the early 1930s,” Healey explained, “Stalin is alerted to the idea by secret police that gay men are gathering conspiratorially. They're recruiting soldiers into their salons, and this could lead to spying for Nazi Germany or for Western powers.” So Stalin promptly recriminalized homosexuality: the passage of this law marked “the disappearance of the Russian Queen and the arrival of the Soviet closet.”
We can't be certain about how many became victims of that 1934 law. Officially, there were about 35-40,000 victims; unofficially, there may have been as many as 30,000 more. Men continued to go to prison–to the Gulag or, later, to penal colonies–for “voluntary homosexuality,” right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After Stalin’s death, upon the closing of the Gulags in the late 1950s, two very divergent things began to happen: policing of homosexuality intensified, while the “public subculture of homosexuality” returned, though very discreetly. Eventually, queer acceptance began emerging into the mainstream. By the end of the Soviet Union, the beginnings of a queer movement were forming. The queer magazine Tema (theme), or “Russian slang for anybody who is in the know about queer sexuality,” as Healey describes it, popped up. American and European activists were reaching out to Russian queer communities and holding conferences.
After the fall of the USSR, the law against male homosexuality was repealed in 1993, and LGBT communities in Russia started to become more visible. Freedoms for queer people were part of a “wider sexual revolution in terms of public displays of pornography and the marketing of absolutely everything from McDonald's hamburgers to automobiles using sexuality”–a remarkable pivot from how sexuality was treated before.
This sudden openness towards sexuality frightened people, most of whom were too poor to participate in the consumerism that came with it. “The Russian consumer was just not used to it and was pretty shocked by it,” said Healey. The arrival of the Internet only made that fear worse: that “borders were so porous,” that children could be “looking on a computer at something totally inappropriate, and there was no regulation.”
All this fear led to a tremendous backlash against sexuality in general. In 2002, politicians began to talk about recriminalizing homosexuality, strengthening penalties for sex with underaged children, and raising the age of consent. These ideas “dovetailed” with President Vladimir Putin’s “more nationalistic, pronatalist, conservative, and increasingly religious agenda,” which accelerated around 2010 or 2011, as Putin prepared to retake power.
This agenda, and its political implications, came to light during the parliamentary elections in 2011, which were “very obviously manipulated.” Massive demonstrations erupted in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cities across the country. “So,” explained Healey, “the Kremlin fought back by picking out elements of the democratic opposition that it felt it could single out and embarrass.” They started by jailing the punk feminist band Pussy Riot for “blasphemy and offending Russian Orthodox sensibilities, along with an attack on gender politics and gender ideology.”
Next, the Kremlin proposed a national gay propaganda law, framing it as protecting children from growing up gay and from pedophilia, which was associated with LGBT lifestyles and identities. Under that law, people were arrested “for having a website or for holding a demonstration in uncontrolled circumstances or failing to label books and magazines as suitable for people over the age of 18 only.” And anybody who tried to oppose the law was branded as “being in the pedophile lobby.”
If this rhetoric sounds familiar to U.S. readers, there’s a reason for that. “Some of the ideas and the rhetoric came from the U.S. right wing and the Christian right wing,” said Healey. “There was a lot of transfer of ideas and sharing of strategies between the American right and the politicians in Putin’s parliament.”
That brings us to today, to Russia’s “strategic military operation” into Ukraine. Where does the LGBTQ+ community stand now? “I think the first thing to note is that the world has changed as a result of February the 24th,” said Healey. “There is no going back to some kind of pretend world where Putin pretends to be a democrat and pretends to run Russia as an open society. We are now going to get something that's much more totalitarian, much more repressive, much more police driven.”
This repression is driving LGBT refugees out of Russia and towards wherever they can escape police violence against dissenters, even temporarily. “We can expect many, many more migrants from Russia who disagree emphatically with the state on the grounds of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” said Healey.
The only hope is that the Putin regime becomes increasingly destabilized, Healey explained. “In a certain sort of way, Putin has been the ‘forever president,’ up until the 24th of February, and now, Lord knows whether that will actually remain the case, barring any illness–or somebody called it an actuarial incident–on the part of Vladimir Putin.”
So what can we do to help? Thankfully, there are organizations doing the work to help queer migrants–both Russian and Ukrainian–escape state violence. From Rainbow Railroad and OutRight International in North America to Insight Ukraine, Kyiv Pride, and Lambda Warszawa (which you can donate to here), many nonprofits are trying to make sure that queer refugees can reach safety, and all of them could use your assistance.
Despite the efforts of Putin and the American Right, in both of our countries, queer folks have survived through empire, totalitarianism, and war. We won’t be going anywhere.
For more of Healey’s fantastic work, check out:
Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)
Bolshevik Sexual Forensics: Diagnosing Disorder in the Clinic and Courtroom, 1917–1939 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009)
Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (University of Chicago Press, 2001)