A History of LGBT Russia – Part I

Gaz Morris
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The recent trouble in Ukraine is just the latest in the long list entitled ‘reasons why the West should hate Putin’. Don’t get me wrong – I have absolutely no intention of defending the man for even a second, though I have an assumption that at least a tiny fraction of what he does is not his own doing. Russian history and society is as oblique as it is dizzying, full of names which double as tongue-twisters, barely comprehensible swathes of territory and a multitude of races and cultural norms. Still, I thought it would be interesting – if not least a challenge – to get under the skin of Russian history, and in particular focus on its largely unknown LGBT past.

However, when I came to write this piece, it quickly evolved into something much more than a standard Vada-size article. Consequently, I decided to split this examination into two parts; this first part, looking at the religious and historical background to LGBT history in Russia and a second, future, part looking more closely at social and political influences at work, comparisons with the UK’s LGBT journey and trying my hardest to draw some conclusions. So, without any further ado, дава́й! (let’s go!).

Since the times of the Kievan Rus (the forbearer, if you like, to the modern Russian state based around Moscow), Russian culture has been influenced heavily by the themes of Eastern Orthodoxy. This branch of Christianity, without becoming too heavily bogged down in theology, put quite a lot of emphasis on the nature of sin. According to Orthodoxy, since the fall of Adam and Eve (and/or Steve) in the Garden of Eden, humankind has been tainted by sin and this sin is displeasing to God. Only through following God’s rules strictly and without question can mankind hope to once again become closer to Him. (A play on words here is the double meaning of the Greek word ‘doxa’, meaning both ‘worship’ and ‘correct’; thus orthodox is either ‘linear worship’ ‘linear correctness’. Definitely one for the pub quiz, that.)

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Thus, Russia and the literality of the Bible have been embroiled for a while now. In fact, the proportion of Russians that consider themselves a member of the Orthodox faith varies from 40-75%, depending on whom you ask and where in Russia you are. This is not a cop-out, however: I’m not going to blame Russian LGBT intolerance on the religious and have done with it – far from it. Moscow, for example, registers at 41% Orthodox membership (according to a Sreda [a Russian polling company] survey), but also brings with it one of the higher intolerance levels for LGBT issues. Surely there must be something more at work.

Russia's President Putin and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill attend a meeting with Russian Orthodox church bishops in Moscow

Historically, Russia has had one of the harshest stances on gay rights for most of its existence. Peter the Great and Tsar Nicholas I both passed legislation that sought to curtail male same-sex relationships in a bid to ‘modernise’ their countries and bring them into line with more pan-European norms. Gay rights movements were all but banned, in contrast to relatively large groups in France, the UK and Germany towards the end of the 19th century.  Perhaps amusingly, it was in the latter stages of this period of prohibition that Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov served as Grand Duke of Moscow, whose relationships with male prostitutes were an open secret. This fact is rendered all the more shocking when you consider he was the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II, the chap who was ousted by Lenin in 1917. Talk about laws for some and laws for the rest! Further contradictions are available when you consider that this was the period in which Tchaikovsky, perhaps Russia’s most famous gay, was at work.

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Nevertheless, with political upheaval often comes social upheaval and Lenin’s was no exception. In 1917, single sex relationships were decriminalised in what was ostensibly a very open reading of Marx and Engels. (I suspect, however, that it was more to do with getting the liberal swathes in the major metropolitan areas on side, though this is just a hunch.)  This was a time, as I covered in a recent article on attitudes to homosexuality during and shortly after the First World War amongst the belligerent parties, of conservatism in most of Europe as far as gays went. This is all the more surprising when you consider that this means that Russia was leading the way on gay rights.

Alas, it was not to last; this (and a lot more besides) went out the window in 1933 and after Stalin got his grubby mitts on power. Homosexual relationships were prhibited on pain of death (or, worse, transport to the gulags) and it would remain this way until after the fall of the Berlin wall. I presume the successors of Stalin wished to emulate his memory and thus maintain his hard-line approach to gay rights. Another factor, however, is undoubtedly Russia’s stance against America and what they perceived as decadent capitalism. Russia acting as America’s antipode meant that both sides took more than the odd decision on the basis it was exactly what the other didn’t (or wouldn’t) do. Therefore, how better to combat what you see as a decay in morals and a weakening in the public will in the US than by showing how strong and virile (and definitely not gay) Russian men are? [Cue shirtless drinking-vodka-in-the-snow montage.]

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It was only in 1993 that Russia finally (re-)decriminalised same sex male relationships. The Iron Curtain had been down for a whole three years, and I suspect that such a move was more about bolstering European trade links than a genuine concern for human rights. (The same reasoning can be cited for Russia’s decision to disregard homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’ in 1999. Yes – 1999. 4 years after the Lion King was released. 2 years – only 2! – before 9/11.) Indeed, Russia’s economy was up a certain creek without so much as a plastic spoon and so it needed all the help and trade that it could get and so a few short-term bargains were reached.

Things started to go downhill again in 2005, when protests at gay clubs in Moscow were prompted by the city’s decision to allow an annual gay pride march. In 2007, the mayor of Moscow declared homosexuality as “satanic” and the widespread fervour whipped up by the anti-LGBT groups in the capital meant that the pride marches were effectively banned from 2007. Some brave souls did still dare to march, though this often resulted in widespread arrests and time in prison (or worse) on spurious charges of public disorder and indecency. In 2009, for example, all 30 marchers in the Moscow Pride parade – including Peter Tatchell – were arrested.

Fast forward to 2013 and to the passing of the ban on ‘non-traditional sexual’ values in ‘propaganda’. In the second part of this article, I intend to look at the social and political influences on this decision as well as hoping to conclude what I can about Russia’s LGBT history – and thus its future – whilst drawing more familiar parallels to the UK’s story.

About Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.