Geopolitics of Russian Sexuality
Even as early as 1926, the sexual politics of Russia and Russians have been of interest to international audiences. The revolutionary fervour of the 1920s that led to the Bolshevik attempts to abolish the family, the Stalinist censorship of sexual discussion, and the sexual revolution of the 1990s all colour and shape our perceptions of Russia as a nation, and therefore how we believe it will act as a nation internationally. Similarly, Russia itself can mobilise different sexual politics for international effect. The “new sex relations” are also new sexual international relations; the sexual is not only political, but geopolitical.
“We have no sex and we are very much against it”
During the first video link between American and Soviet women, broadcast in 1986, the following exchange occurred:
American: “I would say that sex features in many TV commercials in our country, do you have this problem?”
Russian: “We have no sex and we are very much against it.”
The interview quickly became infamous, demonstrating the cultural and political gulf between Russia and the West. To English-speakers, for whom ‘sex’ meant something supposedly universal to all humans, the idea that there was no sex in the Soviet Union sounded farcical. In reality, however, the Soviet perception of ‘sex’ (as a loanword from English, with no direct equivalent in Russian at the time) reveals a complex interaction between cultural norms and political agendas throughout the twentieth century.
In a later interview the Russian, Liudmila Ivanova, explained “We understood sex to be something dirty with something unwholesome. I was an active woman, and when I was given the mic I said “‘we have no sex, we only have love,’” however she was cut off before finishing the thought.
Regardless of Liudmila’s intention, the incident still highlights the puritanical atmosphere of the late Soviet Union. Liudmila “was terrified” and risked losing her job simply for using the word “sex” on television. She faced shame from coworkers and acquaintances who were shocked that “a respectable married woman and a hard worker [could] blurt out this shameful word,” and this was because “officially no one spoke about sex.”
Liudmila’s understanding of and reservations regarding “sex” have been reflected in studies and surveys of older Russians, who have offered comments such as:
Of course there was no sex in the Soviet Union… The process, of course, was there, but there were no words for it, only interjections. Married couples used to say: “Why don’t we that, this, y’know what?”(Maria, 78 years old).
It sounds paradoxical, but there was really no sex in the Soviet Union. In this country, there was love, and all the rest was just added on (Valeriy, 63 years old).
At the beginning of the 1980s the air was, it seemed, saturated with sex, although the concept as such did not yet exist (Anna, 45 years old).
In more revealing insights, Liudmila explains that on the program the Soviet women knowingly lied about the prevalence of abortion in the country, playing it down, and the host of the program reflects on the fact that even the word “condom” was not used easily in the Soviet Union. Rather, the only legal form of birth control, was known as “Rubber Product no. 2” (a supposedly larger size to “no. 1” which in fact never existed —perhaps the one universal is male insecurity!).
This repressive state censorship would soon give way, however, to a new sexual permissiveness at the close of the Cold War. Ideas of modernisation, liberalisation, freedom, openness, westernisation would all have significant sexual implications.
Increasing openness brought by perestroika and glasnost allowed for more public discussion of sex and sexuality to occur, including homosexuality, and sex-positivity was a mark of belonging to the new, fresh and democratic order. Soviet media broke with past censorship and talked explicitly about sex for the first time.
The first Soviet Queer organisations were created in this time. Tema (Theme) was founded in 1989, as the first openly Gay and Lesbian magazine in the Soviet Union. The Moscow Association of Lesbian Literature and Arts (MOLLI) was similarly founded in the late years of the USSR.
Following the collapse of the USSR, a wave of sexual liberation would sweep Russia (although predominately focused in Moscow and St Petersburg). The 1993 de-criminalisation of homosexuality (and passage of the 1996 penal code by the Duma which re-iterated this de-decriminalisation) was a landmark change in the new approach to sexuality in Russia. A plethora of new materials, newspapers, and journals (such as Gay Slaviane, RISK, ARGO, Adelfe, Sofa, Safo, and Ostrov) were published and a range of new organisations and associations met. The All-Russian Conference of Lesbians and Gays met in 1996. The same year, the possible first Russian homosexual pornographic magazine was published by 1/10. The prominent Boris Nemstov would summarise this liberal current in Russian politics when he said, “I am against the idea of the state getting into bed with the people.” It is worth quoting historian Dan Healey at length on this era of LGBT rights in Russia:
Late-Soviet queers were cautious and often victimised, yes: but they were also resourceful and ambitious, and when freedom arrived they lost no time in speaking out, and they had plenty to say. The queer voices that burst on the scene in the 1990s in Russia were “Made in the USSR,” not manufactured in the USA or Europe. The battles still ahead for the next generation of queer Russians is daunting, and yet the distance that Moscow’s queers have traveled in the space of a single lifetime inspires respect and hope.
The Geopolitics of LGBT Rights
Unfortunately, this period of liberation and Westernisation would be short lived. The election of Vladimir Putin in 2000 marked a conservative reaction to the chaotic (and disastrous) liberalisation under Boris Yeltsin. Although in the early 2000s, Putin’s Russia did not fully abandon a commitment to European-style human rights (and attempts to re-criminalise homosexuality were dismal failures), this would change following the 2008 financial crisis. An increasingly repressive atmosphere against LGBT rights and publicity reached a crescendo in the form of the 2013 “Gay Propaganda” law.
It would be simplistic to cast this repressive turn as a simple “distraction” or “scapegoating” by an increasingly unpopular government to shore up its support. While yes, it is those things, it is also part of a broader movement in Russian geopolitics to assert its “sovereignty”.
Coined in 2006, the term “sovereign democracy” has been used in Russia to emphasise an increasingly statist, nationalistic, insular form of “democracy”. Scarred by the collapse of the Soviet empire and the shock doctrine of capitalist reforms in the 1990s, Putin’s Russia is clinging to a narrative of a more stable past, of traditional values and of national strength. The repression of LGBT people is not simply because they are viewed as a “problem”, but because the repression itself is framed as a sign of Russian distinctiveness against the West and therefore implies strength.
In text alone, the “Gay Propaganda” Law of 2013 is not that dissimilar to Margaret Thatcher’s “Section 28”. Quite importantly, however, Section 28 was never actually used against any “offender”, while in Russia the law was immediately put to use, significantly, against foreigners. Three weeks after the enactment of the law, it was used to persecute Dutch LGBT activists at a Youth Rights Camp. Homosexuality was cast not just an internal problem, but a foreign incursion which required defence against.
Another key element feeding into Russia’s homophobic turn is the concern of demographic collapse, and the statist impulse to manage, direct, and control the “resources” of the nation — in this instance, people. Putin first voiced his fears on this demographic issue as early as 2000, in his first “state of the Federation” address to the Duma. Putin’s “managed democracy” makes no secret that they expect the state to play an important role in managing the lives of the Russian people. As Putin would later say:
It will not happen soon, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the US or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutes and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change… The public looks forward to the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state to a degree that is necessary, proceeding from the traditions and present state of the country. [emphasis added]
I do not want to under emphasise the widespread homophobia throughout Russia at a grassroots level — organisations like Occupy Pedophilia emerged organically, for example. But much of Russia’s “concern” for its youth derives from the State viewing this youth as a national resource, needing to be cultivated and quite literally bred to serve the country.
This view was voiced loudly on the fringes as early as 2002. Chair of the Duma Women’s Committee Svetlana Goriacheva led a campaign to re-criminalise homosexuality (as well as ban pornography and even make masturbation an administrative offence). Language used during the testimony of her bill is indicative:
- “Society is undergoing a pathological mutation”
- “A national betrayal of unprecedented scale, in favour of the fallen nature of adults, is taking place in the country”
- “The sexual despoilation of children is destroying the gene pool of the nation!”
- “It’s time to begin the repression of those who are destroying our nation” [all emphasis added]
The Labour Minister, quoted in the Parliamentary Newspaper, said “not only will there be no reinforcements for the army, but for the police, the emergency services and other bodies as well”. The Newspaper went on to say:
Remember when in Soviet times long lists of women were awarded the Hero-Mother and Maternal Glory prizes were published in the newspapers? That was when the state was really worried about the future generations. There was an intelligent demographic policy. Now that’s all gone without a trace.
While most of the extreme measures were laughed out of parliament in 2002, the same arguments and rhetoric were able to win over passage of the “gay propaganda” law in 2013. It is also important to contextualise this law, and other homophobia, within a broader movement to control and manage sexuality generally.
Interestingly, Putin’s increasing turn to religion can be seen in a similar light. Speaking to the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin characterises the peak of the demographic crisis as supposedly the “loss of the ability to self-reproduce” and he argues that the “values embedded in Christianity and other world religions” are necessary to prevent such crisis, “degradation and primitivism” and to maintain “human dignity”. Therefore, he argues it is “natural and right to defend these values”.
Russian sexual policy (and policing), even from the early Bolshevik era, has rarely been a case of individual rights or a moral condemnation at the individual level, but rather part of a national project, and constituting a State led policy shaping society to its needs. Modern Russia has constructed sexual politics as a national resource, in need of state management, and has thus “securitised” sexuality. Challenges to the State-official sexual politics is thereby transformed into a national security issue, which justifies further oppression and domination of the State across society.
Contrary to attempts to cast sexual and gender diversity as a “pathogen” from the West, an intrusive and external thing, the golden era of the late 1980s and the 1990s show that there is a vibrant and wholly domestic LGBT community within Russia. Homophobia is not intrinsic to “Russianness” or “Russian culture” nor is it necessary for the security of the Russian nation. Rather, homophobia is being deliberately mobilised and fostered by the State, with geopolitical considerations and repercussions. Simultaneously, geopolitical factors — fallout from global economic crisis or the end of the Cold War — can have significant sexual repercussions. Both the sexual and geopolitical intersect. This is something I would like to explore further with you all, particularly in the events around the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s descent into Pariah Status.
In lieu of a proper bibliography, please find some suggested further reading:
- Dan Healey’s Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi and Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, which heavily informed this post.
- Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, which forms some of the theoretical basis of what I would like to discuss further.
- Valerie Sperling's Sex, Politics and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia, which examines the importance of masculinity (in the form of machismo) to the Putin regime.
- Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages, not touched on much in this article, but I will be using her concept of homonationalism in future articles
- Gerard Toal’s Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus, which takes a “critical geopolitics” look at Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine. Whilst not focused on sexual politics, Toal aims to deconstruct Russian geopolitics, to show how it is culturally, subjectively and complexly manifested.