Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia


Healey, Dan.  Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia:  the Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Main Arguments & Points: Healey argues that understanding of homosexuality in 19th/20th century Russia took a different development than Western European conceptions of same-sex desire.  In Imperial Russia, the landed estates provided a “traditional masculine culture” in which “traditional indulgence between men” (26) (between serfs, or between serfs and lords) was plentiful.  Moreover, he uses diaries, letters, and court records to show that enforcement of the empire’s anti-sodomy laws was lazy and uneven at best.  Additionally, the Eastern Orthodox Church didn’t consider same-sex sex as particularly worse than any other sin.

With the relatively late urbanization of Russia, a “modern homosexual subculture” took root, where some same-sex desiring men embodied gender-inversion and took on effeminate characteristics to pair up with more traditionally masculine men (who were only interested in effeminate men).  Same-sex desiring women didn’t develop a similar lesbian sub-culture because of the state’s strict regulation of public spaces, which were barred to women.  Because of the lack of historical sources, women actually have an absence in Healey’s book, but he does show how neither the imperial state nor the Bolshevik revolutionaries felt particularly threatened by same-sex desiring women.  In fact, the revolutionaries seemed to welcome the strong, masculine “transvestites” (women who took on and fully embodied a masculine gender, cross-dressed, and took on a male identity) who would fight for the new state…as long as they would mother children along the way.  When same-sex sex was recriminalized in 1933 by the Stalin regime (Lenin had decriminalized consensual same-sex acts among adults), women were not mentioned in the law, and in fact, Healey argues, that because they were able to act in unconventional ways, these masculine women were able to meet others like themselves, even though no lasting sub-culture emerged.

What I find most interesting though, is the way Healey ties in understandings of homosexuality with Russian imperialism, thus showing that understanding (homo)sexuality – far from being an obscure or marginal interest for scholars – is central to understanding Russian history.  He argues that the imperial state was much more likely to enforce its sodomy laws in the periphery of the empire, as a way of shoring up its boundaries.  This discrepancy carried over to Soviet Russia, when in the 1920s, medical “experts” concluded that in urban Russian areas (the “civilized” areas), homosexuality was a relatively minor issue that could be addressed through medical means (he also points out that the medicalization of homosexuality didn’t have near an impact in Russia as it had in Western Europe, mainly because of strict state control of the medical profession).   In the rural parts of the Soviet Union, however, homosexuality was dealt with in political, not medical, terms.  This was because the government leaders correlated homosexuality in the rural areas with a supposed “primitiveness” of those societies.  In fact, when the anti-sodomy law was repealed in 1922, it was only repealed for the heart of the Soviet Union; it was kept on the books for the outlying regions like Uzbekistan and Georgia (178-80).

Healey argues that this divide between urban and rural had more to do with political goals than an understanding of homosexuality in and of itself.  City-dwellers at the heart of the Union were seen as loyal to the government.  The traditional acceptance of male-male intimacy of the rural population was seen as oppositional to the revolution.  Therefore those on the outskirts were understood as class enemies, and thus enemies of the state (or they were at least more likely to be class enemies).  Healey calls the Russian focus on centers and peripheries a “geography of perversion,” in which a healthy and urban Russian nation was situated between a diseased and perverted West and a primitive East.

His work also exemplifies the importance of “spaces” in the development of homosexual subcultures.  As mentioned before, Russian women (even in the cities) didn’t have access to the public spaces, such as salons and cafes, that women had in Western Europe, so it was hard for larger networks of Russian lesbians to develop.  But Healey also shows that while sodomy may have been decriminalized in 1922, the possibilities for a male homosexual subculture decreased as the Soviet state grew, because there was more state control of spaces like dance halls and bath houses.  Healey reiterates that this new control of public spaces was not meant as a means of controlling homosexuality in particular, but it had confining effects nonetheless.  The re-criminalization of homosexual acts in 1933 should be seen as a larger effort to stigmatize any and all perceived deviancy in the Soviet Union, though the effort against eradicating homosexuality was given special fervor with constant campaigns portraying Nazi fascism as inherently homosexual in nature.

My Comments:

I thought that it was interesting how, in a more authoritative state that was less concerned with the individual as it was the integrity and power of the state, homosexuality was seen as less of a problem.  And it wasn’t until the authority of the state was directly questioned – whether on the outskirts of the empire, or by internal socio-economic pressures – that homosexuals – and almost exclusively effeminate men – became one of the scapegoats.  I think this might show that the Russian state was more interested in controlling male gender (getting rid of effeminate men rather than trying to control men’s sexuality, or who they slept with) and female sexuality (reproduction – rather than keeping them from being masculine).

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of book reviews HERE. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia

  1. anhleub

    My first impression on seeing the title of this book: MUST-READ. I have always been curious about the history of homosexuality in a country as Russia, given the government’s recent violent crackdowns on major LGBT movements. Based on what you wrote about the main arguments of this book, it seems like the regulation of homosexual desires has been tightened lately, which strikes me as really interesting.

  2. Yeah, present day Russia is a prime example that disproves the commonly held notion of inevitable progress, that as time moves forward, humanity inevitably gets better. That’s just not the case.

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