Queer emancipation in early Soviet Russia

The early Soviet period is marked not only by workers’ power and civil war, but a complete transformation of social life. Many of the movements against oppression that flourished after the 1960s find a forerunner in these early Soviet years. In this piece Ira Roldugina publishes a long letter from a gay man, signing himself as NB to a doctor supported by the Soviet authorities, who received correspondence across Russia. The letter sets out in detail his first hand account on the politics of sexuality in early Soviet Russia. The piece is in two parts, the first part setting the context, and the second is NB’s letter. The piece has been translated by Nick Evans.

LGBT Russians, 1921
LGBT Russians, 1921

Background and context

No laws and no conventions will convince us that our actions are criminal and abnormal

We will not know the full scale of the repressions in the USSR, or understand their mechanisms, for as long as many documents remain inaccessible to historians and often to the relatives of those affected. Some of the documents are still locked away in the FSB[1] archives scattered across Russia. In 2014, a mass of documents relating to the work of the Soviet security agencies had their classified status extended for another 30 years, after a ruling by an interdepartmental commission on the preservation of state secrets. Nonetheless, while many lacunae remain, historians have made significant progress in their analysis of Soviet repressions and their assessment of the numbers of victims.

In 1934, an article on ‘sodomy’[2] appeared in all the Soviet criminal codes, and was kept on the statues until 1993. Unlike those sentenced under the famous ‘political’ article 58, those sentenced under article 121 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR[3] have never been recognised as victims of political repression by the state or by society in post-Soviet Russia. This means that we still know virtually nothing about how gay people lived in the USSR, and the forms of oppression that they faced. Soviet statistics, declassified in the 1990s, indicate that on average between one and one and a half thousand men across the Soviet Union were sentenced under this law each year. It is harder to calculate how many more people were blackmailed and forced to collaborate by the security agencies.

Still less is known about lesbian women. The law did not apply to them; instead their repression took the form of pathologisation. All of the relevant medical documentation was either been destroyed after a defined period, or remains classified. This wall of silence has helped the contemporary Russian authorities to construct their rhetoric of ‘traditional family values’, and to pass the law ‘against propagating homosexuality’. None of the living survivors of incarceration in the Soviet-era camps or hospitals is now prepared to talk about this first-hand, and with good reason.

The rare exceptions include the memoir of the archaeologist Leo Klejn, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, written under the pseudonym of Vadim Samoilov that Klejn used for his non-academic work. The famous Soviet and Russian archaeologist and historian explains how conflicts with officialdom in Leningrad University in the late 1970s led to him being sentenced under article 121. He was stripped of his academic credentials and his reputation was destroyed. This example shows how easily and effectively the article on ‘sodomy’ could be used to settle scores with an opponent. Klejn gives a detailed account of the prison system, and the position of gays within it. A gay man had little hope of leaving the system alive, or at least without serious injury. Klejn himself was protected by his status as a member of the ‘intelligentsia’, so his description is that of a witness, rather than a participant.

The ‘traditionalism’ of sexuality in Soviet and Russian reality is a constantly recurring trope. This is reinforced by the stigma which surrounds homosexuality, which makes it impossible for people to advocate for themselves or to speak in the first person. But this was not always the case.

The repressions which began in the early years of Bolshevik power, and even more the great terror of the 1930s, have obscured many revolutionary social processes that escape a narrowly political definition. One such phenomenon was gender emancipation, which touched gay people across the whole country. The Bolsheviks repealed the law on ‘sodomy’ in 1917, in a move that had already been actively discussed and prepared in Tsarist Russia. Other processes also played an important part: the increased mobility of the population, secularisation, the spread of literacy, and the changing nature of the patriarchal family. Leftist ideas, which had been circulating in society since the end of the nineteenth century, allowed abstract conceptions of justice to be understood in more tangible ways, in relation to the specific circumstances of concrete individuals. Moreover, the weakening of censorship after the revolutionary events of 1905 opened the way for numerous translations of popular European medical literature. In this literature, gay people were often pathologised, but they were at least described and analysed in scientific terms, rather than in terms of religious morality. The famous book of the Austrian psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), which was translated into Russian several times, included many first-person accounts. After the publication of the first Austrian edition, in which Krafft-Ebing described clinical cases from his own medical practice, readers began to write to him, wanting to share their own perceptions and experiences. Over time, after multiple re-editions, his work had evolved into a compendium of stories told by gay people about themselves. The Russian translation of this book helped to make the emancipation of gay people visible in the Russian sources as well. Russians also began to write their own letters.

One such collection was kept in the archive of Vladimir Bekhterev (1857–1927), and has been published by me. Bekhterev was a psychiatrist, neurologist, physiologist and the founder of the Psycho-neurological Institute. He began his work with gay people during the Tsarist period, using the method of hypnosis. During the Soviet period he became even more influential and in demand. With the financial support of the new authorities, he constantly travelled around major Russian cities to give lectures and presentations. We have letters written to the doctor from all across Russia. His responses are not preserved as he had no secretariat. Bekhterev was responsible for his own correspondence, and judging by the intensity and tone of the letters he received, he was well trusted and respected by the public. Besides traditional patient requests for treatment of a whole spectrum of nervous and other illnesses, the archive includes a range of letters with a quite different emphasis: where people, feeling attracted to members of the same sex, do not ask to be cured, but engage the expert in a kind of dialogue. It is no coincidence that these often resemble the correspondence between Krafft-Ebbing and his readers. To understand why they did this, we will need to briefly explain who they were.

It is important to note that the letter writers all belonged to the same social group. They came from lower social classes, had little education (at least in the sense of systematic education) and belonged to roughly the same generation. They were people born at the end of the nineteenth century, so they would have grown up as leftist rhetoric became widespread in Russian society, and then would then have experienced the new possibilities opened up by the change of regime in 1917.

For example, Tatiana Miroshnikova, a former peasant, who studied at the Institute of Popular Education in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepr) in the mid-1920s, wrote to Bekhterev,

As for women, I have loved them, and I love them in a way no man can. I served in the Red Army, and cared for young ladies just like a man would. The attraction was sometimes so strong, and still is, that if I was betrayed, then I would try to kill myself out of jealousy. For this I was put in prison. I cannot find words to express how strong my feelings of attraction were. Now I am a student at the Dnepropetrovsk Workers’ Faculty at the Institute of Popular Education. I have lived here for three years, I have a girlfriend, with whom I have lived for over two years, and I love her so much that, as a mark of our friendship, she changed her surname.

A letter from a man from Rostov, who gives only the initials L.G., began with an apology, ‘Dear reader, I ask you to forgive me as a poorly educated for some errors in my words and punctuation, such as full stops and commas. I am 35 years old, I am a pederast […] a man who you would call a homosexual.’ In uneven, broken phrases, with errors of syntax and punctuation, these people, who did not know each other, give open and detailed descriptions of what, only twenty years earlier would have been considered a sin, only to be spoken of, if at all, in confession. These and other such pieces of evidence found in the archive leave no doubt that, alongside the great social cataclysms and political changes another much less visible event was taking place. In the new, rational and secular Russia, the emancipation of people for whom an attraction to members of their own sex was an integral part of their identity was another revolutionary achievement which, literally within a decade, having been noticed and weighed up by the authorities, was then cut off with targeted repressions and the introduction of the law on ‘sodomy’.

Meanwhile, one particular letter sent from Odessa stands out within the Bekhterev archive. Unlike the others, this was written on a typewriter, and is significantly longer. The author does not give his name and signs as NP. He tells the story of his remarkable life to Professor Bekhterev in the form of a pamphlet in defence of his rights, in which he reveals a large number of intimate details in passing. The elegant writing style is immediately apparent, and quite unlike any of the other letters. NP asserts that he was born in Siberia into a large peasant family, but he has obviously worked hard to acquire an education and has carefully analysed his own life. He has also clearly spent a long time composing the letter and has carefully divided it up into subsections, with their own subheadings: ‘Achievements of our life together’, ‘How the revolution affected our sexual life’, ‘Whether we are a danger to society’.

Letter from NP to Dr. Bekhterev

‘Highly respected Professor,

When I listened to your lecture, I found many true features of the life of our society. In particular, there was much that was accurately presented in the letter from Rostov. However, I cannot entirely agree with your view that sexual attractions depend solely on upbringing, although, of course, that is also possible to a certain degree. Contrary to your view, I will give you several examples from my own life, and from the lives of many like-minded people. I was born into a peasant family in Siberia. I had two brothers and two sisters. My brothers and sisters were normal people. And yet, despite the same material conditions – there’s no point talking about upbringing, as we were peasants – out of the five of us, from the very earliest childhood, I already began to experience entirely different feelings and desires where sexual relations were concerned. From the very earliest childhood, all my inclinations were feminine. I loved to clean rooms, sew, I played with dolls, and loved to dress in women’s dresses, and gave myself women’s hair arrangements.  Later I made myself wigs and put on women’s jewellery. I wore a corset and all my friends in childhood were girls. I didn’t like playing with boys because of their rough behaviour. I never fought, I never swore, I hated smoking and drinking. I loved to stay clean, to keep my room clean, I never wear dirty linen, and I love flowers. In other words, I lacked all the ‘normal’ characteristics for a man, such as roughness, drunkenness, rudeness, and so on. I was critical of the way men treated women, when they allowed themselves any manner of liberty, but would demand women were true and honest to them, and where the most debauched man would demand an honest girl when he was married. This troubled me to the depth of my soul. I considered a debauched man to be far worse than any prostitute, since a prostitute is driven onto that path by need, whereas a debauched man who uses a prostitute is driven only by his sexual gratification. And then, when I began to grow older, I found myself more drawn to members of my own sex.’

NP mentions in passing his left-wing views, which were important to him, and describes his meeting with his partner, with whom he had lived together for 17 years at the time of writing to Bekhterev. He does not give his partner’s name.

‘Of course, life in small provincial towns is impossible for us, thanks to its patriarchal nature, and the claustrophobic uniformity of all the inhabitants. It is therefore better for us to live in large cities, where we can more easily hide our inclinations, since in a large city even your neighbours don’t know what you do or who you know. In 1907 I was in the theatre, and got talking to a young soldier who was sitting near to me. As we got talking, we realised that we had the same views on political questions, which is to say we were both left-wing. We instantly became very close friends. He walked me home from the theatre. He stayed the night with me. From that time we became intimate […] Apart from our political similarities, we discovered that we shared many other similar characteristics. He was careful, like me; he did not smoke or drink, just as I did not smoke or drink; he was modest, which also drew us together, and he was not extravagant. Altogether, this made for a very close bond between us. After a year and a half, we were living as a single household. Any doubts and mistrust between us had disappeared. We did not keep accounts. All that we earned, or, more accurately that I earned, since he was on military service and only received 8 roubles a month, we held in common. At that time, we signed a marriage agreement, imagining at the time that it would establish an even closer link between us. And so we have lived a happy 17 years together without arguments or squabbles.’

The author provides some explanation in the text itself for the elegance of the letter’s construction and a depth of analysis which appears extraordinary considering his peasant background. NP writes that, having been illiterate until the age of 21, he made a leap forward in his intellectual development, thanks to his partner, who had academic interests.

‘When we met, both of us, and I in particular, were practically illiterate, but my friend was very determined about his studies. He would get up in the middle of the night to study. His ambition influenced me, and I too began to study. Over the course of a year and half, I studied Russian history, Russian language, mathematics up to algebra, the history of literature, and I began to study the natural sciences. I took a subscription to the local paper and to the Petrograd Financial Times[4]. In short, I started to enjoy reading and academic endeavours. Of course, our life was a major advantage as far as my development was concerned.  Until the age of 21, I was a completely illiterate fellow, but after two years of our life together I already knew a good deal. After finishing military service we decided to move to Moscow to complete our studies. Life in Moscow helped my development even more. Here there were lots of Sunday schools and evening classes. After four years in Moscow I had finished middle school and had decided to continue my studies.’

The following details revealed by the author are even more astonishing. On the eve of the First World War, NP and his partner set off to Germany, where he intended to continue his education. This kind of foreign trip by somebody from an underprivileged background, who migrated for reasons other than employment or professional need, were exceptional for the period in themselves. The impressions from the country which he shares with Bekhterev, full of philosophical overtones and reminiscent of citizen journalism, are still more remarkable.

‘In our very first days there, that is, on 1 August according to the new calendar, we were arrested on suspicion of espionage and were held for three years in solitary confinement. Our solitary confinement was not passed in vain. We read the entire prison library, and learned a fair deal. The whole way of life of the German people had a major effect on us. I found much there that resonated with me. I found cleanliness and neatness there. I found conscientiousness and orderly life.  I discovered what you can achieve if you count every minute, which is to say, if you don’t waste time. As I travelled along the Elbe, I was astonished by the order that ruled everywhere.  Here there was not a single square foot of unworked land. And this had all been achieved by human hands. Here I saw the whole nature of the divide between our homeland and Germany. I was astonished that all our former rulers, most of whom were of German nationality, had paid no attention to their own country. Our sex life dried up due to severe malnutrition at this time. In 1918 we were sent to Petrograd. On arrival in Russia I joined the Red Army.’

NP devoted particular attention to a conception of ‘social morality’ in his letter, and to the situation, in which a woman, married to a gay man, would find herself. In general, NP’s rhetoric seems exceptional, especially for somebody of his background, but it also seems unbelievable for a person of any status in this period.

‘It won’t be a secret to anyone that such things are done without an agreement even with women, and in that case we can be sure that any of us could be punished if there was the will, and any man could be charged with rape, since no woman opens her legs to a man willingly, and he is forced to resort to psychological violence.’

In this sentence, the author expresses an idea which would, in a more clearly formulated way, become one of the key premises of radical feminist critique half a century later, in the USA in the 1960s: the idea that the silence around patriarchy and male dominance is repressive even in the absence of direct physical violence. Now NP would be called a feminist, and perhaps he would deserve it.

One of the most dramatic moments of NP’s letter is saved for the end of the text. The first part of the letter gives the impression that he was never married to a woman, perhaps deliberately to heighten the effect. But then we are given the story of his married life with a woman. Everything he writes seems quite contemporary, even a hundred years later.

‘I was married, that is, married to a woman, when I was 19. I thought at the time that you can’t be a bachelor for ever. And look what happened. My wife loved me. I thought that I would get used to her. I did have sexual relations with her, but I did so without any of the necessary passion from my side, almost as a duty. I didn’t want to offend her, and tried to give her some of what she wanted, but it felt repulsive and unbearably fake. Later I began to find the whole exercise utterly repellent. My wife also began to notice this attitude. The sighs and reproaches began. I tried my hardest to convince her that I had the kind of nature that she could make her peace with. I never stopped her from going out with young men, and my spirits even lifted when she cheated on me, thinking that I might be able to be rid of her this way. In the end, I found the hypocrisy impossible. I wanted to have her as a friend, only not my wife, but that was impossible. She couldn’t understand me, and I found her hard to understand. I admitted that she was right. But who was guilty… Of course, it was the social conditions that led to this marriage. Then I understood the crime that had been committed. Two lives had been ruined, especially the woman’s life. Where could she go now? She found herself in an impossible situation. After all, it was not that easy to get a divorce in the Tsarist period, and being a woman without a husband, think what that that meant…’

There are many other details in the letter: on the life of the gay community in towns such as Odessa, where NP was living at the time he sent the letter; on the persecution of gay men even after the repeal of the statute on ‘sodomy’, under the statute on ‘perversion of minors’; on their blackmail by gangs in the cities; on the nature of sexuality as a whole, and on the intimate ties with those whom NP called ‘normal’. But the main task of NP’s letter, evidently, was to defend his rights. He wanted to tell the influential doctor about the injustices and arbitrary persecution which gays suffered in the new Soviet Russia, in the hope, perhaps, that Bekhterev would speak in his lectures and speeches about these aspects of the lives of those whom the Soviet authorities did not consider criminals de jure.

‘Where is the achievement of that culture, which we boast about so much? The attitude taken towards us by the authorities, whose laws should be based on science and logic, is entirely unfair. We fought for Soviet power from the very first days of its existence, and now that we have peace, it turns out we do not have the same rights as others. What should we do? Surely such an attitude cannot last forever, surely common sense will overcome outdated medieval prejudices?’

The words with which NP ends his letter could have belonged to Harvey Milk, the famous American LGBT activist who fought for gay rights in the 1960s, resisting police raids and attacks on gay bars, and insisting on the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

‘We will not force anyone to join our way of life, and if we enter into relations, by mutual agreement of both parties, and that seems normal to us, then no laws, no conventions will convince us that our actions are criminal and abnormal. Laws are written by people, and they change, and we believe that the day will come, when our right will be acknowledged – that is, the civil right to free cohabitation’.

The letter’s rhetoric, the thoughts and ideas expressed by the author, and the unbelievable details of his biography might make one think that this anonymous text is, if not fake, then embellished. The use of a type-writer lends support to such suspicions. We would call it embellished if the document really was created by the author in the period in question, but certain facts were either distorted or made up, and if the author of the text occupied a different social position from the one described in the text. Moreover, despite the enormous number of facts presented by NP in the letter, it is impossible to check them or establish authorship precisely. A much more educated person might have written such a letter, knowing about Bekhterev and his interest in gay men, in order to create such a literary narrative. It seemed impossible to hope for a precise identification of the author.

In Leningrad, eight years after the supposed date of composition of NP’s letter (in 1925), many gay men were secretly seized by the secret political section number 4 of the OGPU.[5] Hundreds of men were arrested, and were charged under one or other of the points of article 58 (‘counterrevolutionary’ activities) of the Criminal Code. Some months later, the deputy of the head of the OGPU Genrikh Yagoda informed Stalin in a dispatch about the discovery of a ‘society of pederasts’, and in 1934, a new article 154 appeared in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and other republics (in 1960, when a new Criminal Code was introduced, it was given the number 121). The documents about this case, apparently specifically related to counterrevolutionary activity, have been preserved in the archive of the FSB. Flicking though countless denunciations on crumbling poor quality paper (paper had been in very short supply at the time), and glancing at the discoloured letters, I read how on the first meeting with the investigator, a given clerk/driver/hairdresser/barman would insist that he really was gay, but had never opposed Soviet power. Such statements were very brief, establishing simply that the man had not confessed. Then there would be attached the transcript of the second interrogation of the same man, made a month after the first. The picture changes radically. The man under investigation calls himself a ‘pederast’, at once sympathising with fascism and viciously opposed to Soviet power, especially to the collective farms. The second interrogation provides copious details and names.

I only became familiar with these documents after having found NP’s letter. The following report immediately caught my attention, reflecting vaguely familiar facts, but with dates and places revealed.

‘From 1910 to 1914, I lived in Moscow, worked on a typewriter and attended evening courses (general studies). From 1914 to 1918 I was in Germany, where I had gone to find work, and to learn German… I was in Germany together with citizen Stepan Antonovich Minin. In January 1919, I volunteered for the Red Army, and worked as a member of the operations section in the brigade headquarters of the first Ukrainian division… Stepan Antonovich Minin, with whom I have lived for 26 years, since 1907.’

The signature on the interrogation is Nika Poliakov – NP.

Poliakov was born in 1885 in a village in Irkutsk region. Having left Odessa, he and his partner Stepan lived in Leningrad in 1933 at the same address – Rubinstein street, house 15 (‘Tolstov house’), flat 561. They were captured there by the OGPU in September 1933. There could no longer be any doubt that NP was the same person as Nika Poliakov, and the assumption that the letter to Bekhterev had been embellished also had to be discarded. It is still not known what happened later to Poliakov and Minin, who were sentenced by a Special Meeting of the Collegium of the OGPU, and each given three years in the camps. The case contains a report that Minin was freed after a period spent at the camp at Solovki, but no such document survives for Poliakov. It is possible that he did not survive the harsh conditions of incarceration in the White Sea-Baltic camp, where those arrested in this group case served their sentences.

The letter of Nika Poliakov is one of the most striking examples of early Soviet queer emancipation, whose memory has been eradicated by the repressions and the enforced silence about single-sex love. While the history of women’s emancipation has received various forms of institutional support, the early Soviet queers remain at the very bottom of civil society’s agenda. Partly this is because they are invisible in the normative and legal sources, and have no place at all in the ‘grand narrative’ of Russian history. However, in the wake of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the rhetoric of this social group feels remarkably contemporary: the need to be oneself is still not regarded as self-evident. And yet a voice from the 1920s articulates arguments that are relevant today, and describes familiar examples of oppression. In so doing, he provides an entirely new standard for the defence of civil rights and reopens the question of ‘whether it is possible to be queer in Russia’. Now that history needs to be written.

Nika Poliakov’s letter and the whole history of the early Soviet queer agenda in the 1920s can also contribute new material and insights to the debate on the concept of ‘modernity’. The concept is often criticised, but few works of contemporary history can get round using it. A recent special edition of the journal Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (‘New Literary Review’) showed how leading historians who have engaged in the debate about modernity and its associated concepts, have all ended up presenting their own intellectual constructions. What makes a person and a society contemporary or modern? Which characteristics and qualities are revealed by this process? How and when did the idea of progress enter everyday life and how do people realised it in practice? Was modern late imperial Russia simply Soviet, or was there a Stalinist and early Soviet phase? The obvious absurdity of these questions is explained by the significant – and rarely problematized – distance between theories about conceptions of modernity on the one hand, and empirical studies, on the other. I would argue that Nika Poliakov and the history of the social group to which he belonged, seen through the lens of modernity, can helps us overcome this dichotomy. They allow us simultaneously to undermine the universalist pretensions of the concept, and to demonstrate how it changed according to time and place. His rhetoric critiques any notion of power exterior to human beings (‘people write laws’), and also makes sense of his own form of existence, a form which has been treated as sinful for centuries, and has been pushed out of the public sphere. His demand for legality, and his sense of fellow feeling with those who had experienced a similar emancipation, of how they had come together in small communities in towns across the country – all this indicates a flash of modernity, and progress, where no historians had even bothered to look.[6] It seems another conception of ‘modernity’ needs to be added to those already in circulation (None, Shared, Alternative or Entangled): Truncated Modernity.

References

[1] The FSB is the post-Soviet successor agency to the KGB.

[2] The term used was “muzhelozhstvo”.

[3] Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the largest constituent republic in the USSR.

[4] ‘Birzhevye vedomosti’, lit. ‘Stock Exchange News’.

[5] Predecessor of the KGB.

[6] Dan Healey’s book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia (2001) remains the single pioneering study in this sphere, but it is nonetheless more oriented towards the analysis of scholarly discussion of homosexuality, than gay subjectivity, simply because Healey worked with different sources.

The original article is available here.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,

    interesting article, but what the hell happened afterwards?
    I mean, why did Stalin reverse this emancipation,? Why did the various ‘stalinist’ or ‘Marxist-Leninist’ states all criminalize homosexuality?

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