Staring down the barrel of a gun but making a difference in Uganda with LGBTIQ music.
Russian language until 1895.
By the end of the 18th Century, a clash between the old order and the new had broken out on the other side of Europe: The French Revolution. One of the results was that homosexuality was decriminalised in France in 1791. Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies extended that policy everywhere they conquered – except Russia. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 with his Grande Armee of 650,000 men. They took Moscow, but retreated as the weather turned.
The legacy of personal freedoms in the countries that retained the Napoleonic Code after the wars created the opportunity for the world’s first gay activist: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. He began a campaign of pamphlet writing from Germany in the 1860s that planted a seed that grew to become a panEuropean movement for sexual law reform by the early 20th Century.
Ulrichs’ radical pamphlets were read across Europe. In Germany, they were noticed by the authors of a book that became influential in Russia’s own revolution – The Communist Manifesto. In 1869, Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx about one of Ulrichs’ pamphlets, calling it “a very curious thing”.
“The pederasts are beginning to count themselves, and discover that they are a power in the state. Only organisation was lacking, but according to this source it apparently already exists in secret. And since they have such important men in all the old parties and even in the new ones… they cannot fail to triumph.”
When the Bolsheviks that Marx and Engels inspired took power in Russia in 1917, one of the first things they did was legalise homosexuality along with prostitution and abortion.
Some Russian socialists were also involved in the World League For Sexual Reform that was active across Europe, attending its congresses in Berlin in 1921, Copenhagen in
1928 and Vienna in 1930. Their delegate to the World League, Dr Grigorii Bakkis, wrote in
1923 that, “[Soviet law] declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no-one’s interests are encroached upon – concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against morality.” He continued, “Soviet legislation treats these exactly as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”
Dan Healey, Oxford professor of Modern Russian History and author of Russian Homophobia From Stalin To Sochi, tells DNA that decriminalising homosexuality was not a priority in itself for the early communists, but was part of showcasing radical reforms.
“There were many such ‘progressive’ measures, some quite utopian, adopted by the new communist regime,” Healey says. “This was the world’s first socialist state and
Gay men were sent to labour camps. Male homosexual social groups were associated with political conspiracy and treason.
it believed it had to show the world the full range of political radicalism that socialism could offer.”
How gay men in Russia viewed the revolution, though, is unclear. “Early indications from the research of my doctoral student Ira Roldugina are that many urban male homosexuals believed in the Soviet sexual revolution and thought it was a liberating part of the socialist project,” says Healey. “They were still cautious about the authorities, who could be arbitrary and violent against the populace.”
Homosexuality was not, generally, seen as a sickness at the start of the revolution, but Soviet scientists increasingly came to view it as a mental illness towards the close of the 1920s.
Despite that, the official line in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia as late as 1930 was still, “Soviet legislation does not recognise so-called crimes against morality… Our laws proceed from the principle of protection of society and therefore countenance punishment only in those instances when juveniles and minors are the objects of homosexual interest.”
However, as Stalin cracked down on resistance to his regime, homosexuality was recriminalised in 1933 and gay men inside the
Sexologist Kurt Freund spent the 1950s trying to ‘cure’ gay men before deciding it was futile and pointless to punish them.
USSR suddenly faced being sent to a labour camp for as long as five years.
“They were deporting female prostitutes, who cruised in the same urban streets and parks where gay men met, to labour camps by this time already,” says Healey. “They seem to have associated male homosexual social groups with political conspiracy and treason. Stalin also seems to have personally felt disgust at homosexual activity as he amended the secret police draft law to make it harsher, extending the minimum penalty to three years for consensual sodomy, which meant imprisonment in the very worst parts of the
Given the brutal conditions, that could be a death sentence for some. It’s estimated that somewhere between 800 and 1,000 gay men were imprisoned each year under Stalin’s Article 121, which effectively silenced LGBT people and made them invisible in Soviet society for the next half century.
THE THAW BEGINS
In the second half of the 20th Century some of the socialist countries in Europe began to reform their laws. Most of the Eastern Bloc countries outside of the USSR legalised homosexuality during the 1960s, beginning with Czechoslovakia in 1962 thanks to a campaign by the sexologist Kurt Freund.
Freund had been commissioned to develop a test to exclude homosexuals from the Czechoslovak Army and spent the 1950s trying to “cure” gay men before deciding it was futile and that it was wrong and pointless to punish them for expressing their attraction.
As socialism placed science above religious moralising, his ideas proved influential behind the Iron Curtain and Hungary followed suit decriminalising sex between men the same year, with Bulgaria and East Germany following in 1968.
Russia, however, remained resolute with its ban, and Romania even further criminalised homosexuality at this time. A Soviet sex manual from 1964 warned, “With all the tricks at their disposal, homosexuals seek out and win the confidence of youngsters. Such people should be immediately reported to the administrative organs so that they can be removed from society.”
In 1984, with Article 121 still in place, a group of gay men in Leningrad attempted to form an LGBT organisation for the first time in modern Russia, but they were quickly suppressed by the KGB. But when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and declared a new era of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring) it was a breath of oxygen for a new generation of gays and lesbians in Russia.
Four years after the KGB had suppressed those men in Leningrad, the Moscow
Gay And Lesbian Alliance was founded by Yevgeniya Debryanskaya and Roman Kalinin. By the beginning of 1990, the country had its first gay newspaper, Tema (literally “The Theme”), edited by Kalinin under the pseudonym “Dimitri R”.
This early progress, however, was followed almost immediately by an attempted coup against Gorbachev in 1991 by hardliners in the Communist Party. Another reformer, the recently elected President of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin saw his time to shine and organised mass resistance to the coup, speaking to the nation from atop a tank.
As the first leader of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, Yeltsin quickly dismantled socialism. In April of 1993, as part of an effort to obtain membership of the Council Of Europe, he signed a wide-ranging reform that
With all the tricks at their disposal, homosexuals win the confidence of youngsters. Such people should be reported so they can be removed from society.
finally repealed the prohibition of sex between men in Russia after six decades.
In 1997 that reform was reflected in the new Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Two years later Russia declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Then, in 1999, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power when Yeltsin resigned. In 2003, in perhaps the only pro-gay reform to take place under Putin’s watch, Russia equalised the age of consent to 16.
But when LGBT activist and Gayrussia.ru founder Nikolai Alekseev tried to organise the first Pride march in Russia in 2006, Moscow’s city council banned the event and Christian and Muslim leaders called for vigilantism against anyone who took part. When they marched the following year, the event was attacked by anti-gay hooligans. Police moved in – and arrested the Pride marchers.
In 2008 activists held a flashmob in Moscow in front of a statue of Tchaikovsky and unveiled a banner on a building opposite Moscow’s city hall that read, “Rights to Gays and Lesbians. Homophobia of Mayor Luzhkov should be prosecuted.”
The following year the Russian Duma voted against criminalising “homosexual propaganda” 226 to 90. With Moscow hosting Eurovision that year, it was inconvenient. But the idea of banning the public expression of LGBT people had caught on, with other jurisdictions seeking to pass their own bans over the next few years.
Finally, in June 2013, Russia passed a federal law banning so-called “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors – effectively banning any public expression of LGBT identity across the Russian Federation. This time the Duma voted 436-0 in favour of the proposal and it was promptly signed into law by Vladimir Putin. Exactly 20 years after Russia had decriminalised homosexuality, their own government made the LGBT community invisible and voiceless once again.
Professor Healey sees the Russian government and Putin’s homophobia as part of an effort to foster a sense of “united Russian exceptionalism” in opposition to the West.
“It’s a populist tactic to distract attention from domestic problems and to deflect blame on supposed ‘outsiders’ or foreign agents,” Healey says. “At the same time, it’s important to recognise that every society undergoes its own journey in dealing with differently oriented sexuality and genders. We should remember how homophobic our own countries were before the very recent past.
“Russia, before and after 1917, made amazing advances in what we would now call LGBT rights and culture. The Soviet period began as one of heady and world-leading experiment, including in homosexual rights as they were then understood.
“The Stalin and post-Stalin period laid down the basis for Russia’s modern homophobia. But the democratisation process of the 1980s and ’90s also gave LGBT Russians the courage to express themselves, and their voices aren’t going to disappear.
“Russian LGBT citizens are in this ‘culture war’ for the long haul, and I think in the longer run, their cause will be recognised and acknowledged by mainstream Russia – on Russian terms, not on ‘foreign’ or Western or European terms.”
Back in Biysk, Maxim is hopeful, too. He tells DNA that, in his experience, the younger generation of Russians were more openminded than their parents. “Stalin and the Soviet system are to blame for this,” Neverov says. “You can see that those people who grew up in the ’90s and later are less homophobic than those who were brought up in the USSR.
“Surprisingly, the children of homophobes are tolerant. They quietly communicate with me, despite the fact that I’m gay, and can discuss anything with me. In my own life, I almost do not face homophobia.”
Maxim can also see a time where LGBTIQ people have equal rights in Russia once more. “In 20 years, I think we will live in a tolerant country, where the rights of all people will be respected,” he says.
Let’s hope so.
An LGBT activist is arrested.
International support: a proLGBT rally in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Stephen Fry at a support rally in London.
Members of an orthodox Russian church group join an anti-gay counter-rally.
At an illegal LGBT rally in Moscow, this sign reads, “Homophobia can be cured.”