Russia is undoubtedly one of the most visibly — and violently — homophobic countries on Earth. Five years ago, reports began to surface of vigilante groups entrapping gay men. These thugs would humiliate their victims on video, beating them and torturing them with Tasers. Last year, state police in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya — an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation — rounded up dozens of gay men. One victim reported that officials held him for 12 days in a bloody cell where they beat him severely and told him his death was imminent. Some of the kidnapped men were murdered, others turned over to their families to be killed.
Westerners are familiar with Russia’s extreme homophobia, thanks in large part to courageous reporting by Gessen, a queer, Jewish, Russian journalist who was raised in the Soviet Union and the United States and now lives in New York. It is clear, too, why the subject elicits such fascination. “While many people in the United States celebrated the decision [in United States v. Windsor] as the ultimate victory of the gay rights movement,” Gessen wrote in a postscript to her biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, “Russia was careening into the Middle Ages.”
That progress can retreat is not something that fits into contemporary rhetoric on gay rights. After all, in his second inaugural address, Barack Obama mentioned the Stonewall riots, and by implication the entire gay rights movement, as a cornerstone of the “constant advance” of “tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”
And so the homophobic swell of the last five years in Russia begs for an explanation. Why has Putin made queer people one of his government’s primary targets? Why is homophobia on the rise in one of the world’s largest and most powerful countries? When, if ever, will the advance of progress resume?
Oxford historian Dan Healey, author of two earlier books on sexuality in the Soviet Union, thinks the past can answer these questions. Bloomsbury Academic published his latest book, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi, in December of last year. Over nine chapters, it traces the history of homosexuality in Russia and the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the present. At the same time, that history is a canary in a coal mine, warning queer Westerners of homophobia’s hold on the present.
Healey is a careful and imaginative historian. Each chapter deals with a different subject in gay Russian history, jumping across decades. The book’s sporadic structure is an intentional testament to the difficulty that historians face researching the gay past in a homophobic country and to the work still to be done in the Russian history of sexuality.
Healey’s decision to tackle the history of homophobia is novel. Although the history of sexuality has blossomed as a field of inquiry since the 1980s — much like histories of race and gender — historians of sexuality remain largely focused on recovering queer voices from the past, understanding mechanisms of oppression, and charting the development of queer identities. Only recently have they begun asking what sits at the root of homophobia.
What makes this work both interesting and difficult is homophobia’s adaptability to a variety of purposes. Recent studies of the US Lavender Scare and homosexuality in the Weimar Republic suggest that homophobia is a complex animus that can serve a menagerie of political needs in diverse social contexts. As Healey is quick to point out, not so very long ago Western conservatives, such as Margaret Thatcher, used homophobia as a weapon with which to bludgeon their political opponents. But within individual cultures, historians can trace the political imperatives that give rise to homophobia. This is the task that Healey sets out to accomplish: uncovering what is distinctly Russian about anti-gay animus in Russia.
Russian Homophobia is rich in the kind of tantalizing, upsetting detail that makes the history of sexuality so fascinating. Healey dwells, for example, on the preponderance of queer tattoos in Soviet prisons. Oftentimes, passive sexual partners would be forcibly tattooed to mark their “degraded” status. He notes that some men even had “pederast” inked on their foreheads, a frightening precursor to the practices of vigilante gangs in Russia today.
Healey sprinkles case studies throughout the chapters, which enliven his argument that Russia’s path toward today’s homophobia was uniquely Russian. It cannot be understood without a grasp of Stalinism, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, or the decades in between.
In 1917, the pressures of World War I unleashed revolution in Russia, toppling the monarchy and ushering Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks into power. One of the communist regime’s first reforms was to repeal the entire tsarist penal code, including the provision that had criminalized sodomy since Peter the Great ruled Russia. The new Soviet criminal code adopted in 1922 left homosexuality untouched. To the communist leaders at the time, sodomy laws were insignificant vestiges of the capitalist, Christian past.
In 1933, this changed. That summer, the OGPU (the Soviet secret police) ordered arrests of gay men — labeled “pederasts” by the police. Those sweeps provided the basis for a proposal to recriminalize homosexuality sent by secret police deputy chief Genrikh Yagoda to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on September 15. Yagoda pointed to the men swept up in OGPU raids, and even suggested that they were spies seeking to “demoralize” the working classes. Healey notes that available records do not satisfactorily explain how or why these raids materialized.
In any event, Stalin signed off on the proposal to recriminalize sodomy and even personally edited the new law’s language. He mandated, for instance, that convictions carry a minimum penalty of three years imprisonment. This addition ensured that convicts would be sent to isolated “corrective-labor camps” within the Gulag system.
The law came into force in March 1934. Although arrest and incarceration statistics do not exist for the Stalinist period, Healey argues that the law’s promulgation marked the moment when “surveillance of male homosexual activity and networks became a routine part of security and regular police work” in the Soviet Union.
But for a history of homophobia, explaining when and how sodomy was criminalized isn’t enough: why did Stalin and his secret police want to arrest homosexuals? Healey gives two possible explanations.
First, he turns to the issuance of internal police passports in early 1933. These documents allowed citizens to continue living in the USSR’s major cities and were a mechanism for the regime to weed out undesirable residents. It is possible that in the process of collecting this information, the secret police uncovered numerous cases of homosexuality, which in turn provided an impetus to recriminalize sodomy. The regime saw them as undesirable social elements.
The second explanation has to do with the regime’s fear that queer people posed a national security threat to the regime. The government believed homosexuals to be in touch with like-minded people in other countries and tied homosexuality in particular to fascism. The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 seems to have amplified this paranoia. It was part of a more general, global concern that gay people were organized into what Gregory Woods has called the “Homosexual International,” or “Homintern.”
The government seized in particular on an “Open Letter,” allegedly from gay people in Moscow and Kharkov, to Marinus van der Lubbe, the gay Dutchman accused of setting the Reichstag fire that helped Hitler’s regime cement its power. Communists had accused van der Lubbe of falling in with gay members of the Nazi Storm Troopers. The open letter not only blamed communists for the fire, but also criticized Soviet policies. Healey suspects that the Soviet secret police counterfeited the letter to give the government ideological cover for the new sodomy law.
Soviet propaganda trumpeted the alleged connection between homosexuality and Nazism. Healey quotes the famous writer Maxim Gorky, who wrote in Pravda on May 23, 1934, “Destroy the homosexuals — and fascism will disappear.” Those efforts would prompt gay German-Jewish author Klaus Mann to write in 1934 that communists had turned the homosexual into a “scapegoat.” In his words, gay people were “roughly ‘the Jews’ of the antifascists.”
Whether or not Soviet fears of a queer conspiracy were genuine or fabricated, Healey deliberately leaves open. But it is somewhat beside the point: in either event, these fears linger in Russian consciousness. They echo today in outbursts such as that of Duma member Gennady Raikov, who, Healey mentions, raved in 2002 that the sodomy law had been “a beam holding up a barrier against international organizations of homosexuals with their powerful finances.”
Stalin’s new law empowered the police to round up gay men and ship them off to forced labor camps flung across the Soviet empire (as in other countries, the law never banned lesbian activity). The Gulag was what Healey terms an “economic empire.” The secret police shipped hundreds of thousands of prisoners to isolated colonies, where they “dug canals and mines, built railways, and felled trees.” They also died at frighteningly high rates: for example, more than one-ninth of all prisoners died in Magadan, a Gulag town on Russia’s Pacific Coast where the gay Russian pop star Vadim Kozin was imprisoned in the 1940s.
One of Healey’s most intriguing arguments is that homosexuality in the Gulag is a key to understanding homophobia in Russia today. Much as in other prison settings, about which scholars of sexuality have begun to devote more attention, both men and women engaged in ritualized same-sex relationships. These typically consisted of a masculine, dominant partner and a submissive, feminized partner. The passive partners were often forced into the relationships or sought them out to gain protection in prison.
These queer relationships, and the violence attendant to them, were common enough that they made their way into the memoirs written by dissident survivors of the Gulag in later decades. These memoirs constructed “the Gulag queer,” according to Healey, as a “diabolical symbol of camp life, tokens of the evil of the forced-labor system.” These recollections entrenched “disgust” for homosexuals among Russian progressives.
Ironically, while the Nazis’ murder of gay people in concentration camps bequeathed later gay liberation movements in East and West Germany moral clarity, Healey argues that the Gulags left Russia’s queer population under a lingering curse, maligned by both the government and its progressive opposition.
For memory of Gulag queers also produced an “incitement to discourse” among Khrushchev-era reformers, who doubled down on the homophobic law even while effacing other legacies of Stalin’s rule. Not only did the new leadership see homosexuality as an ailment that could be cured, sodomy charges were also a useful way of dealing with unruly dissidents. Between 1961 and 1981, Russian courts convicted 14,695 men under the law.
These convictions occurred in a period when most other European countries in both the capitalist and socialist blocs had expunged sodomy statues from their penal codes. The law forestalled any gay liberation movement similar to those that swept the Western world and parts of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s. By way of comparison, communist East Germany ceased to enforce its sodomy law in 1957, repealed it in 1968, and promulgated a slew of pro-gay legislation in the late 1980s.
Not until the Soviet Union neared collapse, as President Mikhail Gorbachev advanced reforms of Soviet government and society at a staggering pace, would gay people begin to organize politically. Media started to discuss sex more openly in the mid-1980s. The first gay and lesbian magazine in Russia began publication in December 1989.
Stalin’s sodomy law eventually fell in 1993 as part of reforms championed by Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president. According to Healey, the repeal had very little to do with gay activism or any repudiation of Russian homophobia. Rather, democratic reformers were interested in bringing Russian codes into line with Council of Europe standards as part of Russia’s Westernization.
While nascent activism in the 1990s and early 2000s created new opportunities for gay people, Healey contends, it also helped spark a backlash among conservatives and within the Russian Orthodox Church. Conservative politicians passed a law raising the age of consent in 2003, promulgated municipal ordinances banning “propaganda for homosexualism among minors” (in 2009 protestors carrying a sign stating “Homosexuality is normal” near a school were arrested under such a statute), and even tried unsuccessfully to recriminalize sodomy in 2002.
Not until the 2010s did the Russian regime — now over a decade into Vladimir Putin’s rule — embrace the grassroots homophobia that had become an increasingly prominent part of Russian political discourse. Putin was running for reelection in 2012 with a weakened economy and a frustrated populace. His United Russia Party began fanning the flames of homophobia in 2011, Healey argues, in order “to revitalize Putin’s popularity before the election.”
Though Putin easily won the May 2012 election, his campaign’s homophobia continued to gain momentum, “aiming to remasculinize the presidency after the limp incumbency” of Dmitry Medvedev. It crested the following year when the Duma passed, virtually unanimously, a law criminalizing gay propaganda nationwide. Around the same time, grassroots vigilante groups with names like “Occupy Pedophilia” sprang up around the country, entrapping and torturing gay men. In one particularly horrific incident, described by both Healey and Gessen, 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoi was murdered in May 2013 by two of his friends because he was gay. The killers crushed his head beneath a paving stone, shoved multiple beer bottles into his anus, and maimed his genitals.
Since Putin’s 2012 electoral campaign, Healey contends, homophobia has become a convenient lever by which the Russian leader generates support among his base of voters, distinguishing a morally righteous Russia from a supposedly degenerate West. As the country seeks to craft its own mythical past to suit the needs of present politics, hatred toward queer people has proven an expedient means to bridge the chasm separating the two and to cement support for Russia’s leaders. Healey’s point is that the regime’s policies did not come from nowhere: they tapped into a reservoir of homophobia that stemmed from the Stalinist era.
Because Healey’s focus is on the national flavor of Russia’s anti-gay policies, he only touches on Putin’s role in a growing, worldwide network of state-sponsored homophobia. Alongside Putin’s government, many African regimes have aggressively promulgated legislation to criminalize homosexuality in the last decade. What ties these together are Western churches that Healey describes as “the main transmission belts of a politicized and often violent homophobia.” After losing the battle in the United States, radical conservative sects took the war to the developing world.
Although writing to a Western audience, Healey insists that overcoming Russian homophobia will be a Russian process, not one imposed from without. “Progress in LGBT rights,” he argues, “has no obvious technocratic formula or roadmaps.” This is undoubtedly true, even among Western nations: the paths that led to gay liberation in Western European countries were each distinct. We should expect the Russian path to be no less unique — or fraught.
Moreover, Healey insists he is an optimist. The book concludes with the strange-sounding assertion that “official homophobia has made Russia queerer — not straighter.” By this statement, he means that the greater the homophobic pressure, the more LGBT individuals will seek out creative solutions to live their lives and press for their rights. And he may well be right. Advance in gay rights has often come from surprising places. During the Cold War, East Germany, a communist dictatorship, was often ahead of West Germany, a liberal democracy, in promulgating gay-friendly policies.
But it is hard not to believe at the end of Healey’s account that homophobia is a hydra of the modern world: defeated at one juncture, it arises in a dozen new guises. In countries such as Germany, where homophobia seems to have been most thoroughly vanquished, the processes that brought about its defeat were hesitant, fragile, and contingent. Even the contemporary trend of pinkwashing, whereby conservative politicians co-opt the language of gay rights to whitewash their xenophobia and racism is a distressing new form of homophobia. There are no guarantees against animus.
In this regard, Healey’s work serves less as a roadmap to understanding how Russia might overcome its own homophobia and more as a grim warning to his readers. We have not so much conquered homophobia in our own societies as driven it to a tactical retreat. Against homophobia, the Russian past and present seem to imply, there can only ever be Pyrrhic victory.
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Europe and a PhD Candidate at Stanford University. He is currently at work on a book, tentatively titled Germany’s Gay Revolutions, which examines homosexuality and politics in Germany during the Cold War.