Posts Tagged With: soviet union

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

Life under Totalitarian Regimes

War on Cancer

Robert Proctor’s study of science and medicine under National Socialism and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life under Stalinism both offer intriguing insights into what life was like under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Proctor grapples with the question of whether we can see anything “good” or even “progressive” coming out of the same regime that produced Josef Mengele and state-sanctioned euthanasia programs for the sick, elderly, and handicapped.  Proctor concludes that recognition of Nazi public health campaigns against cancer does not equal an endorsement of Nazi medicine; but he asserts that we must recognize that “the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world,” even if this recognition only complicates our understanding of the Nazis’ aims (4).  Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, looks at life for “everyday” people under Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia in an effort to define normalcy.  How did men and women adjust to a life of material shortages, surveillance, and random terror? What did daily life look like for them?  Interestingly, while Fitzpatrick attempts to study the formation of a new normal life or routine, what her book ultimately highlights is the formation of a new, normal Soviet citizen under Stalinism.

In the Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor studies Nazi leaders’ public health campaigns, focusing specifically on their attempts to prevent cancer within their sphere of influence.  He reveals that Nazi Party leaders and doctors led initiatives that helped raise awareness between the connections of environmental factors (chemicals and asbestos, for instance) and the development of cancer.  They promoted new ideal diets for the Germans, encouraging healthy eating (even going so far as forcing bakeries to sell whole wheat bread) (130), the avoidance of alcohol, and even herbal remedies that were believed to lower the risk of cancer  And it was in Nazi Germany that the connection between tobacco and lung cancer was first made (176), leading to a massive anti-smoking campaign that included banning of smoking in public places as well as strict laws on advertisement for cigarettes.  Proctor deftly presents these facts and shows that the Nazis’ efforts were more focused on prevention rather than cures, but all throughout his book (and most clearly in his prologue and concluding chapter), he explicitly grapples with why he felt compelled to write the book in the first place.  Of course it was not meant to exonerate Nazi doctors for their other, more infamous acts (even though he shows that between 1950 and 1990 German women have experienced the most drastic drop of lung cancer mortalities than any other Western nation – a result he believes could possibly be tied to Nazi anti-smoking efforts, 268). Instead, Proctor argues that acknowledging these more “socially responsible” aspects of Nazi policy gives a more complex and accurate understanding of life under Nazism.  “Both elements – the monstrous and the prosaic – are key” to understanding the realities of Nazi science and medicine (277).

In complicating the picture, Proctor reminds his readers that these “progressive” campaigns must be viewed in their historical context.  Yes, the Party leadership, along with the doctors who supported them, wanted to prevent cancer in their population.  But they had a very narrow definition of who belonged in the Aryan Volk, which meant that their ideas of public health were steeped in racism.  Just as Nazis wanted to purge the Volksgemeinschaft of racial enemies like Jews, they wanted to cleanse the German body of impurities like cancer.  In this vein, Hans Auler, a Berlin professor and researcher claimed, “It is fortunate for German cancer patients, and for anyone threatened by cancer, that the Third Reich has grounded itself on the maintenance of German health” (71).  Proctor then sees Nazism as “an experiment of sorts – a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia” (11).  In this light, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-gran bread operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps” (278).

By bringing out these connections, Proctor reminds us that the relationship between science and politics, or between science and society is much more intricate than we may think.  Science was neither a neutral subject, removed from the effects of politics and society, nor was it simply a tool of Nazi ideologues.  The

relations between “science” and “society” are more complex than is commonly imagined. Even in the microcosm of Nazi cancer research we find very different ways that science can express politics, and vice versa…Fascists were arguing over what kinds of science should be supported, and scientists were arguing over what kinds of fascism should be supported (251-252).

Nazi ideologies set some of the directions of medicinal research and public health initiatives, just as science and medicine helped shape Nazi ideology.  “Public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism” (249).  By adding these nuances to our understanding of life under the National Socialist regime, we learn that “Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible” (7).

In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick studies the emergence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus, a “social species” that developed in response to the transformation of everyday life under Joseph Stalin.  The term “Soviet” makes it into Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical classification because the Soviet state was a “central and ubiquitous presence” for individuals living in Russia during this period (3).  In this book, Fitzpatrick studies a vast range of everyday processes: obtaining goods, travelling, telling jokes, finding housing, marriage and divorce, voting, avoiding the secret police, and more.  Interestingly enough, she does not take working and the workplace into consideration, because that would mean that she could talk about only one section of society: men (but she also shows that almost ten million women joined the labor force in the 1930s, so one wonders why women could not be taken into consideration when studying the process of working under Stalin, 139).  Despite this absence, the rest of her material is enlightening.

The predominant characteristic of everyday life in Stalinist Russia during the 1930 was shortage.  Shortages of basic material goods such as clothing and food accompanied near complete absence of luxury goods, which were randomly dispersed among the new cultural elite.  Additionally, an influx of nearly 10 million peasants into Russia’s cities created gross housing shortages that the state seemed to overlook in lieu of its efforts to industrialize and modernize other sectors of society.  The ubiquity of shortage led to cultural shifts in Russian society.  New words and phrases entered the common vocabulary.  People no longer spoke of “buying” goods, but instead of “getting” them; men and women carried “just in case bags” for the unlikely chance that some product was being distributed while they were in town (40).

Fitzpatrick reveals how, by the 1930s, the main function of the Soviet state transitioned from the redistribution of wealth and goods to the basic distribution of all goods to its citizens (39).  In a life plagued by shortage, not money or production, but personal connections became the currency to acquire goods.  Blat (“influence” or “pull”) “subverted the meaning of Stalin’s great economic restructuring, creating a second economy based on personal contacts and patronage parallel to the first, socialist, economy based on principles of state ownership and central planning” (65). The inefficiency of the State to distribute even the most basic of goods, despite its dogmatic emphasis on rationalized central planning, forced its citizens to become risk takers.  Shopping became a survival skill and blat undermined the state’s control on distribution; corners were cut to meet unrealistic goals in the labor force.  Ultimately, the need for goods was greater than the fear of being caught on the black market.

A life of chronic shortages became the new, “normal” everyday life for Homo Sovieticus.  Fitzpatrick’s discussion of “normal” reminds me of Marion Kaplan’s discussion of normality and “catastrophic gradualism” in Between Dignity and Despair, in which she shows that people quickly become accustomed to new normals.  But while Fitzpatrick shows that new routines were established in Stalinist everyday life, she also reveals that the people themselves did not think of their life as normal.  The hardships of life they were experiencing were understood as temporary, a transition period into a life of abundance.  This mindset reveals another aspect of life under a totalitarian regime (or one could argue under any regime): the leaders’ ability to influence its citizens’ collective memories.  She describes these collective memories as “common property,” stories that help “make sense out of the scattered data of ordinary life, providing a context, imposing a pattern that shows where one has come from and where one is going” (8).  These sets of stories helped Homo Sovieticus understand their period of transitional hardship leading to a “radiant future,” position themselves in a great modernizing crusade to overthrow the backwardness of imperial Russia, and understand themselves as preparing for the final battle with capitalism.  All of these mentalities allowed Russian citizens to see normal life as something just around the corner, worth working for; but Fitzpatrick shows that life under Stalin had indeed established new, everyday routines, a new normal that would prove to be anything but temporary.

Both Proctor and Fitzpatrick urge us to reevaluate our understandings of life under National Socialism and Stalinism.  Nazism’s apparent concern for its (narrowly defined, “racially pure”) citizenry may help explain why everyday Germans were willing to follow the movement and overlook its more radicalized aspects.  According to Fitzpatrick, most people in history accept their governments simply because they perceived that there was no other choice – and Russians under Stalin were no different (225).  The omnipresent existence of state surveillance and arbitrary terror “encouraged fatalism and passivity in the population, instilling a sense that the individual was not and could not be in control of his own fate” (219).  “Us vs. them” mentalities are important in both stories, though in different ways.  Russian citizens (“us”) identified with each other in relation to – and often against – the state (“them”), a group of men calling the shots and causing shortages from their position “up there” in the government.  The Nazi state, on the other hand, sought to create an “us” that included both state and people who were meant to serve each other.  The “them” was meant to be racio-political enemies of the German Volk.  In both cases, the party-states and citizenry saw themselves as not only modernizing, but ultimately vanquishing the troubles of modernity while capitalizing on its fruits.  This process of perceived modernization helped provide a cohesion and goal for Nazism and Stalinism, both of which promised to usher in a new era for humanity.

Books under review:

Proctor, Robert. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Life under Totalitarian Regimes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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