“Blue” in Russian is the street slang for gay. Prejudices towards gays remain strong. Homosexuality is generally viewed with contempt and hostility. In some places homosexuality was crime punishable by ten years in prison. Laws that called for up to three years in prison for homosexual activity were repealed in 1993. There is a gay and lesbian scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg has it own gay march. The scene is very low key in other places.

The official policy of the Soviet Union toward homosexuality was one of persecution and intimidation. Until the late 1980s, Russian social scientists and society in general were completely silent on the subject. Under those conditions, homosexuals, known as "blues," lived in an underground culture circumscribed by the brutality of gangs and the police and by employment discrimination. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

With the advent of glasnost and the appearance of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the Soviet Union, open scientific and journalistic discussion of homosexuality began in 1987. The issue became politicized in 1990 as gays and lesbians began attacking discrimination as a human rights issue. At this point, strong arguments appeared for abolishing Article 121 of the Criminal Code, which stipulated that sex between men (but not between women) was a crime. Despite increasingly strong opinion against Article 121, in the early 1990s nationalists and communists joined some religious organizations in opposing decriminalization. Meanwhile, the number of convictions under Article 121 decreased steadily. Although Russia's new Criminal Code had not been ratified as of mid-1996, substantial modifications had been made to Article 121 by that time. *

Book:”Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russian “by Mark Taplin.

History of Homosexuality in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “ Although the Russian Orthodox Church has always severely condemned sodomy and other forms of male and female homosexuality - especially when it threatened the monasteries - the state tended to turn a blind eye to such things in everyday life. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Russia, homosexuality was not an unmentionable subject; it was, in fact, often the subject of very frank discussion and ribald jokes. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality = =]

“Many Russian aristocrats, including members of the imperial family, as well as eminent artistic figures of the turn of the century openly led homosexual or bisexual lifestyles. A few lesbian couples were also quite well known at the time. Homoerotic poetry, literature, and painting began to appear. Same-sex love began to be debated seriously and sympathetically in philosophical, scientific, and artistic literature. = =

“Up to the 1930s, the situation of Soviet homosexuals, who frequently called themselves “blues,” was reasonably bearable and many played a prominent part in Soviet culture. However, the opportunity for an open, philosophical and artistic discussion of the theme, which began at the turn of the century, gradually diminished.” ==

History of Homosexuality Laws in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “The first state laws against muzhelozhstve (male lechery, buggery) appeared in military statutes drawn up on the Swedish model during the eighteenth-century reign of Peter the Great. The initial punishment of burning at the stake was changed to corporal punishment. The criminal code of 1832 based on the German model punished sodomy (buggery) with deprivation of all rights and exile to Siberia for four to five years. New criminal legislation adopted in 1903 reduced punishment to incarceration for no less than three months or, in aggravating circumstances, to three to eight years. This legislation, however, was employed extremely rarely. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality = =]

“After the February 1917 Revolution and the demise of the old criminal code, the legal persecution of homosexuals ceased. In the Soviet Russian Criminal Codes of 1922 and 1926, homosexuality is not referred to at all, but in those parts of the old Russian Empire where it was most widespread - the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, and Uzbekistan, as well as in Christian Georgia - the legislation remained in force. In the 1920s, homosexuality was treated as a sickness rather than a crime. = =

“In 1933, male homosexuality (muzhelozhstve) again became a criminal offense and literally an unmentionable, even in scientific literature, vice in the U.S.S.R. Conviction of this crime was punishable by deprivation of freedom for up to five years, or up to eight years if compulsion, violence, a minor, or abuse of a dependent was involved. This law (Article 121 of the RSFS Criminal Code) was frequently used up till the 1980s against dissidents and to extend terms in labor camps. Application of the law has always been selective. As long as they did not fall foul of the authorities, certain homosexual cultural and artistic celebrities enjoyed relative immunity. If they overstepped the mark, however, the law descended upon them with a vengeance. ==

“After the breakup of the Soviet Union, some republics, beginning with Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, and Armenia, revoked their antihomosexual legislation. On April 29,1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed, and lawmakers approved, a decree repealing Article 121.1 dealing with consenting adult relations. Article 121.2 regarding minors and force remains in effect. The repeal did not address gay women since lesbianism was not acknowledged by previous Soviet governments (Kon 1995, 239-264). A new 1997 criminal code may well restore the former repression of gays.” ==

Persecution of Homosexuals in the Soviet Era

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Gay men in confinement have to endure absolutely unbearable conditions. A person who ended up in prison or labor camp under Article 121 usually became straightaway a “no-rights odd-bod” and recipient of constant taunts and persecution from other prisoners. Further, the rape of adolescents and young men is widespread in both prisons and labor camps; after such assaults, the victims forfeit all human rights, become “degraded,” and have to act submissively to their violators. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality = =]

“The status of the “degraded” is even worse than that of voluntarily passive homosexuals, who, to a certain degree, select their own partners and protectors (who perform an active, “male” sexual role that is not stigmatized and is even encouraged). The “degraded,” on the other hand, are fair game for anyone. (Some Russian medical experts still make a “fundamental” division of homosexuals into “active” and “passive,” depending on preferred sexual positions; moreover, they associate “passive” with “inborn” and “genuine,” and “active” with “acquired” homosexuality.)’ ==

“In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic worsened matters for homosexuals. When AIDS arrived in the U.S.S.R., health officials referred to morality and risk groups, especially gays, portraying them as carriers, not only of the dreaded virus, but of just about every other vice. This hypocritical moralizing and the search for scapegoats instead of a real sociohygienic policy helped to increase HIV infection already at a high level because of contaminated blood transfusions for hemophiliacs.” ==

Situation for Gays After the Fall of Communism

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “ While the possibility of decriminalization of homosexuality has been debated by lawyers since 1973, these arguments have been secret and did not spill over into the newspapers until 1987. Since 1987, the popular press, particularly youth papers, radio, and TV, have discussed homosexuality: What is it? How should one relate to “blues”? Should they be treated as sick, criminal, or as victims of fate? [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“By 1989, after public discussions of homosexuality began in the mass media, on television and radio, sometimes quite sympathetic, gays and lesbians themselves initiated a struggle against discrimination. From journalistic articles and letters from gay men and lesbians and their parents, ordinary Soviet people have, for the first time, come to recognize the scarred destinies, the police cruelty, the legal repression, the sexual violence in prison, labor camps, and armed forces and, finally, the tragic, inescapable loneliness experienced by people living in constant fear and unable to meet any of their own sort. Each publication has provoked a whole stream of contradictory responses that the newspaper editors have just not known how to handle. ==

“Most gay and lesbian adults attempt to keep their orientation a secret from family, friends, and colleagues in the workplace. The risks of public scandal and humiliation, loss of a job, and other complications are too great. Gay men and lesbian women are often physically assaulted in the streets, beaten, and even murdered.” [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

Gay Bashing in Russia

Despite a gradual increase in public tolerance in the 1990s, substantial residues of homophobia remain in Russian society. The neofascist group Pamyat', for example, remained violently antigay in the mid-1990s, and the communist and extreme nationalist media have launched strident homophobic attacks. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous surveys identified homosexuals as the most hated group in Russian society, although the number of Russians calling for their extermination or isolation decreased noticeably between 1989 and the mid-1990s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Homosexuals remain the most hated and stigmatized social minority. In the VCIOM 1992 survey directed by Levada (Kon 1995, 275), the question “How ought we to act with homosexuals?” produced the following spread of answers: 33 percent favored exterminating homosexuals, 30 percent favored isolating them from society, and 10 percent said leave them alone. Only 6 percent favored helping homosexuals. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“The Communist, chauvinist, and fascist media methodically and consistently lumps together Zionism, democracy, and homosexuality. With few exceptions, Russian sexopathologists and psychiatrists still regard homosexuality as a disease, and repeat in their writings the negative stereotypes prevalent in the mass consciousness. Thus, parents are likely to be both worried and defensive when they confront behavior in one of their children that might lead to questions about homosexuality. If an adolescent appears to have a “crush” on a classmate or peer of the same gender, his or her parents may consult a physician or psychiatrist who is almost certain to discourage it directly, or attempt to eradicate the feelings and prevent any erotic activity.” ==

Gay Rights Movement in Russia

Hundreds of gay rights organizations appeared in Russia in the 1990s, mostly in urban centers. Moscow became the center of Russia's gay and lesbian communities, both of which remained substantially less overt than their Western equivalents. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In 1990, the first openly gay and lesbian organization was formed in Moscow. As of mid-1994, there were several such organizations. In 1993, the National Union of Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals was formed. Gay activists take part in the AIDS-prevention work. Gay themes are now represented in the theater and movies. Several legally registered gay and lesbian newspapers (Tema, Risk, 1/10, and others) are published. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are gay discos, bars, and restaurants. Special consulting services are being organized. But all these effects suffer from the shortage of both money and professional personnel, as well as the lack of internal cooperation. Political activists quarrel among themselves and have little influence in the mainstream culture and mass media. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

Gender Conflicted Persons

Among the native populations of Siberia and the Far East regions of Russia, the tradition of the berdach, a spiritual leader who is neither male nor female but a third gender, was widespread in the beginning of the twentieth century as an aspect of shaman behavior. The present situation of this custom is unknown. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“In 1960, Professor Aron Belkin began biomedical (psychoendocrinological) research on transgenderists and transsexuals. However, the psychological and social factors of gender dysphoria are largely ignored. An Association of Transsexuals was formed in 1992 in Moscow to work for the human rights of transsexuals.” ==

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.

Last updated May 2016

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