HISTORY OF SEX IN RUSSIA

HISTORY OF SEX IN RUSSIA

A 5,000 year-old Siberian rock engraving shows a stone-age man on skis trying to have sex with an elk. Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Ancient Slav paganism was rich with sexual symbols and associations. Sexuality was believed to be a general cosmic force. There were numerous openly sexual rites and orgiastic festivals at which men and women bathed naked together, the men symbolically fertilizing the earth and the women exposing their genitals to heaven in order to invoke the rain. In spite of the Church’s efforts to eradicate certain “devilish” pagan sex rituals, some of these survived among Northern Russia peasants until the end of the nineteenth century (Kon 1995, 11-49). [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

“The Christianization of Russia, beginning in the ninth century, introduced a new philosophy of sexuality, but this influence has been slow and superficial. The Russian Orthodox Church, volens nolens, had to accommodate ancient sexual practices in numerous regional and ethnic diversities. On some issues like clerical celibacy, it was more lenient, or rather, more realistic, than the medieval Catholic Church. While complete abstinence from sexual relations, even in marriage, was officially classified as a “holy deed,” in everyday life, sexual activity in marriage was fully accepted. While celibacy was obligatory for the monks from whom the highest Church leaders were chosen, ordinary priests were obligated to marry and to have children. Unable to eradicate certain ancient pagan customs, the Church concentrated more on matters of social representation and verbalization. ==

“Hence, we have the persistent normative conflict between the naturalistic pagan attitudes to sexuality in the “low” everyday peasant culture and the extreme spiritualism and otherworldly asceticism of the official “high” culture. Everyday life was openly sensual, cruel, and carnal. Debauchery, drunkenness, sexual violence, and rape were quite common. Russian folk tales are filled with polygamous heroes. Various sexual exploits, such as the rape of a sleeping beauty, are sympathetically described. It was permissible and noble, for example, “to dishonor” or rape a virgin girl in just revenge for her refusal to marry the hero. There was no place for modesty and privacy in the lives of peasants, and the nude body was often unwillingly and deliberately (ritually) displayed. Russian communal bathhouses, where men and women often washed together, surprised and shocked more than a few foreign travelers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ==

“At the same time, the limits on symbolic, artistic representation of the body were extremely narrow. In Western religious painting since the Renaissance and even in the late Middle Ages, the entire human body was represented as real, living flesh. Only the genitals were veiled. In the Russian icons, only the face is alive. The body is entirely covered or outlined in an emaciated and ascetic manner. Nothing similar to the paintings or sculpture of Michelangelo, da Vinci, or Raphael was permitted. Secular paintings of nudes did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century. ==

“Sexually explicit art emerged in Russia only in the middle of the eighteenth century, under the direct influence of French “libertines.” The Imperial Court of Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was highly eroticized. The first explicitly sexual Russian poetry by Ivan Barkov (1732-1768) was deliberately crude and arrogant. It lacked the elegance of French “libertine” literature and was never published legally. Russian nobility took lovers and read pornographic literature (mostly imported) (Kon 1995, 23-38). In the West, the Church and clerical forces were a major foe of the erotic art and culture of pleasure. In Russia, the Church was particularly powerful because of its close relations with the state. Russian censorship was stricter and more pervasive than in Western countries.” ==

Sex and Culture in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In addition to the religious influence, one special factor has powerfully influenced sexuality in Russia: nineteenth-century, left-wing radical revolutionary-democratic literary criticism. Young aristocrats of the early nineteenth century received a good secular home education from early childhood. Whatever their moral and religious convictions, they tried to distance themselves from official bigotry and were not afraid of their own sexual feelings and experiences. The most revered Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), wrote some elegant and witty erotic poetry. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

“For the next generation of Russian intellectuals, who came mainly from a clerical background and were often themselves former seminarists, such freedom was impossible. While breaking with some of their parent’s principles and values, they were unable to overcome others. Constant inner battles against their own unconventional sexual practices and feelings, particularly self-pleasuring and homoeroticism, turned into a global moral and aesthetic rejection and denunciation of sexuality and hedonism as something vulgar, dangerous, and unworthy. Only broad social objectives, such as liberation of the poor and oppressed, were morally justified. Everything that was private or personal was considered secondary - and egotistical. ==

“These antisexual, antihedonistic attitudes have become an integral part of a definite ideological trend in Russian culture. As in the West, it was a moral expression of the middle-class, bourgeoisie opposition to aristocratic individualism. In Russia, however, this opposition was more radical. While religious bigots condemned eroticism as godless and amoral, populists rejected it as politically incorrect, vulgar, and nonaesthetic. ==

“Any artist or writer who dared to walk up that “slippery slope” came under immediate attack both from the right and from the left. This seriously hampered the birth and development of a lofty, refined erotic art and language, without which sexual discourse inevitably appears base, dirty, and squalid. Inhibitions against sexuality and sensuous pleasure are generally typical for Russian classical literature. Sex is presented as a tragedy or quasi-religious revelation, very rarely as a pleasure. ==

“On the eve of the twentieth century, the Russian cultural climate began to change. Leo Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (1891) stimulated a philosophical dispute about the nature and relationship of love, sex, marriage, and erotica, with prominent Russian writers like Anton Chekhov and philosophers like Vladimir Solovjev, Nikolai Berdjaev, and Vassilij Rozanov taking part. While this metaphysics of sexuality tried theoretically to rehabilitate eroticism, it had no place for real, everyday, routine sexual pleasure (Kon 1995,39-49). ==

While sophisticated erotic art and literature did appear in Russia in the early twentieth century, the artists of that era were seeking more a legitimization of eroticism than portraying sexual enjoyment. Exceptions like the poet Mikhail Kuzmin and the painter Konstantin Somov only confirm this general pattern. Whatever its aesthetical and moral value, early-twentieth-century Russian erotic art was marginal both to the official and popular cultures. It was looked upon as decadent and was equally denounced with vehemence by the right and by the left.” ==

Catherine the Great's Lovers and Sex Life

Catherine the Great (born 1729, ruled from 1762-1796) was one of Russia's greatest leaders. She once wrote, "My misfortune is that my heart cannot be happy, even for an hour, without love." She reportedly gave herself totally to her lovers, who she worshipped. Catherine had between 10 and 20 official lovers. But contrary to the impression that she viewed them as mere boy toys, she in fact had fairly long term relations with them, ranging in length from one year to twelve years.

In addition to Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s lovers included Stanislaw Poniatowski (whom she made king of Poland and then dumped him), Gregory Potemkin and Alexandre Lanskoi. Potemkin helped Catherine seize power in the coup and served as her prime minister and aide. He reformed the army, built roads, founded universities and negotiated the annexation of the Crimea but is best known for creating Potemkin "villages" (alleged facade villages reportedly set up to impress Catherine on a tour of the Crimea).

Prince Grigory Alexandravich Potemkin (1739-91) was Katherine the Great’s military strategist, diplomat, art collector, literary advisor and lover. He gave his name battleships and films in addition to villages. Potemkin and Catherine were reportedly only lovers for two years but they remained confidants until her death. He reportedly served as her pimp, supplying her with a series of young lovers. She in turn, ignored his incestuous relationship with his nieces. The youngest and most beautiful of these nieces had been chosen by Catherine as future wife for her son but these plan were scuttled when she became pregnant by her uncle when she was 15.

When Lanskoi died suddenly of diphtheria, Catherine wrote a friend, "My happiness is gone. I have thought of dying myself...My room which until now was so pleasant has become an empty cavern into which I drag myself like a ghost. I cannot see anybody without being chocked by sobs. I cannot sleep, nor eat. Reading bores me and writing exhaust me."

Catherine reportedly had an enormous sexual appetite and advocated having sexual relations six times a day and said that sex helped relieve her insomnia. It was said Catherine fantasized about making love with her horse. She reportedly had a "special” harness created. A lot the claims about her love life appeared to be attempts by rivals to smear her.

Nicknamed by some of her critic as "Messalina of the North," after the famed Roman nymphomaniac and wife of Claudius, Catherine is said to have regularly taken lovers from the Imperial Guard and placed them in an imperial aide-de-camp assigned to her bedroom. Before she would sleep with them she had them physically examined by her doctors and ran them through a series of performance tests administered by the Countess Bruce and Mme. Protassov. Sometimes Catherine observed a prospective lover in action before selecting them.

Book: Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin by Sebag Montefiore (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2002) Sex in the Soviet Era

In the Soviet era, as far as the government was concerned, sex did not exist. A sex therapist told the New York Times, “In the Soviet Union, anything erotic, and particularly nontraditional, was completely banned.” Possession of pornography was a criminal office in the Soviet Union. Women could not wear trousers in public without harassment or arrest; and vigilantes often forcibly cut the hair of youths who exceeded the standard for hair length. Most Soviet philosophical, psychological, and biological reference works made little or no mention of sexuality as a major characteristic of human beings. Soviet psychology, notoriously backward and misused, ignored almost completely the influence of sexual behavior and motivation on overall psychological makeup. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “The October Revolution of 1917 liberated sexuality from its traditional religious, moral, and institutional restraints. No longer was sex a taboo subject. On the contrary, traditional sexual morality and marriage as a social institution were themselves suspect. Everywhere there were fierce discussions of “free love” and debates over whether the proletariat needed any sexual restrictions whatsoever. The first net result, however, was sexual anarchy, the growth of unwanted pregnancies and births, induced abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, and prostitution (Kon 1995, 39-49). [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

““The sexual question” being politically important, the Soviet government in the 1920s sponsored some sociological, biomedical, and anthropological sex research, as well as elementary sex education. Yet, the elitist, individualistic, and “decadent” erotic art was absolutely incompatible with the new revolutionary mentality. Sexual pleasure was only a hindrance and distraction from the goals of the Socialist revolution. In the 1920s, a few liberal Communists, like Alexandra Kollontai, suggested “to make way for winged Eros,” but that was against the mainstream. ==

“Already in the 1920s, erotica was treated as morally and socially subversive. The only legitimate function of sexuality was reproduction. According to the influential party educator and sexologist, Aaron Zalkind, “sexual selection should proceed according to the line of a class revolutionary-proletarian consciousness. The elements of flirtation, courtship, and coquetry should not be introduced into love relationships” (1924). In the article on “Sexual Life” in the first edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1940), the emphasis is exclusively on social control: the dangers of “unhealthy sexual interest” are discussed and the aim of sex education is clearly described as the “rational transmission of sex drive into the sphere of labor and cultural interests.” ==

Sexual enjoyment and freedom have been incompatible with totalitarian state control over personality. As George Orwell put it in 1984: “It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own that was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual [de] privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship.... For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling up some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account.”

“The history of the Soviet regime was one of sexual repression. Only the means of legitimation and phraseology of this suppression was changeable. In the 1920s, sexuality had to be suppressed in the name of the higher interests of the working class and Socialist revolution. In the 1930s, self-discipline was advocated for the sake of the Soviet state and Communist Party. In the 1950s, state-administrative control was gradually transformed into moral-administrative regulations, this time for the sake of stability of marriage and the family. But with all these ideological differences, the practical message regarding sex remained the same: DON’T DO IT! The Communist image of sexuality was always negative, and the need for strict external social control was always emphasized. The elimination of sexuality was beyond the abilities of the Soviet regime. But the net result of this sexophobia was an extermination of all sorts of erotic culture and the prohibition of sexual discourse, whether in the area of sex research, erotic art, or medical information. No wonder that the breakdown of the Soviet regime in 1991, and ever earlier with the advent of glasnost, sexuality became one of the most important symbols of social and cultural liberation.”

Sex After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, sex was everywhere: on television, in advertisements. Kiosks were filled with pornographic publications. In the 1990s, Russian sexual values and attitudes generally moved toward liberalization and autonomy, with distinct differences according to age, sex, region, and level of education. In 1997, women the Hungry Duck in Moscow regularly stripped

After decades of Stalinist repression, Russian erotic art, literature, and theater began a gradual revival in the 1970s as censorship and ideological control weakened somewhat. Access to Western novels with erotic motifs, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita , also improved in this period. In 1992 restrictions on the publication of erotic literature were loosened in Russia, heralding a rapid output of erotic and pornographic material of all sorts. A collection of children's erotic folklore was prepared in 1995, and erotic film festivals and photography exhibits began to appear in the 1990s. The public seemingly has accepted the frequent use of nudity in Russian television, dance, and drama. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Especially in film and literature, the shift has produced many instances of gratuitous or cruel sex and arbitrarily introduced nudity. Violence against women frequently is a central motif of movies, and violence and sex often are linked. Russian observers have expressed alarm that the release of long-repressed sexual expression in art will be accompanied by a similar deluge of sex and violence in Russian society. Indeed, the incidence of violence and sexual attacks against women in the first half of the 1990s seems to confirm these fears. *

About It, a late night Russian talk show about sex introduced in 1997, covered topic like frigidity, group sex, sadomasochism, oral sex and masturbation. Hosted by a black woman in a blond wig, the show featured 19-year-old teenagers confessing their frustration of still being virgins, a whip-wielding woman who asked for audience volunteers, and people talking about their sexual fantasies. Late night soft porn programming like that found on the Playboy channel and an erotic French channels is common. One channel broadcasts the news with a woman who takes her clothes off while reading the news.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sex

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the controversial leader of Russia's nationalist neofascist party, ran for president in 1996 using television campaign advertisements featuring a sexy cabaret singer unzipping her blouse while singing to Zhirinovsky: "The world would be so boring without you/ you are my idol." Zhirinovsky once said Gorbachev should have stayed in bed with Raisa rather than pursue a career in politics. Zhirinovsky said his first attempt at sexual intercourse was failure because he was unable to remove the bathing suit of one of his female classmates ("the experiences impoverished my soul").

Zhirinovsky has bragged that he has slept with more than 200 women and said the solution to the low population rate was for him to personally sire children in different pats of the country. When he cast his vote in 1993, he said, "Today is the beginning of orgasm. The whole nation, I promise you, will feel orgasm next year." Before the 1996 election, he said, "At a sexually active age, women vote for me. And women in—what do you call it, menopause—women in menopause vote for Yeltsin."

In an interview with Playboy magazine, Zhironovsky implored the 20-year-old female interviewer—Jennifer Gould— to have sex with him and his bodyguards. "We'll understand one another better if you undress right now," he said. "You lie on these little beds, and these boys will caress you. An I will be listening to you and continue talking myself."

On pursuing group sex he said, "It's best when its with a group. There are of four of you here. You have to show me love for four. I love to watch more. I can join you later during the process. For me it's a way to get excited." After having his offer of group sex rebuffed, Zhironovsky told Gould, "Look how selfish you are...If each Chechen would have a woman, there would be no war. That's why you're the source of war in the planet."

Russian Sex Scandals in the 1990s

In 1997, a Russian tabloid published a grainy photograph taken from a videotape showing Russia's Minister of Justice cavorting nude with naked women in a sauna frequented by gangsters. Russians were angered more the invasion of the privacy than by any wrongdoing committed by the country's highest legal official.

In March 1999, a blurry video showed the powerful 51-year-old prosecutor Yuri Skuratov having sex with two prostitutes. Skuratov was under pressure for having launched probes against powerful oligarchs.

The video was widely broadcast on television, including n government-owned stations, and Shuratov became the laughing stock of the nation. In it Shuratov tells the prostitutes, "I haven’t done this for a while. I may not succeed." After the girls work hard to arouse him and fare share of mounting he does succeed.

History of Sexual Counseling and Therapies in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “The traditions of pre-1917 Russian sex research were completely lost in the 1930s and 1940s. Revival of medical sexology (sexopathology) as an area of clinical medicine that studies the functional (behavioral, personal, and social) aspects of sexual disorders began in the 1960s with a series of seminars under the leadership of Professor N. V. Ivanov in the city of Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) and later in Moscow at the Sexopathology Department of the Moscow Psychiatry Research Institute. In 1973, this department gained the status of an All-Union Scientific Center on Sexopathology. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

“Initially, a monodisciplinary approach dominated Soviet sexopathology. Urologists, and to a lesser extent the gynecologists and endocrinologists, set the tone. Subsequently, however, when the neuropathologist Profesor Georgi Vasilchenko took charge of the center, the picture changed. Vasilchenko maintained that sexopathology should not take the “brigade” approach, where the urologist treats “his” pathology, the psychiatrist “his” and the endocrinomologist “his,” while the sexopathologist operates as a transport controller. His approach viewed sexopathology as an independent, interdisciplinary clinical discipline. It was in this spirit that the first Russian handbooks for doctors were written under his editorship - General Sexopathology (1977) and Special Sexopathology (1983). ==

“Professor Abram Svyadoshch set up the first Sexological Center in Leningrad. His book Female Sexopathology (1974) enjoyed three editions and became a genuine best-seller. The Leningrad psychiatrists Professor Dmitri Isayev and Dr. Victor Kagan began to study the formation of sexual identity and problems in juvenile and adolescent sexuality. They published the first Soviet guide for doctors The Psycho-Hygiene of Sex Among Children (1986). ==

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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