The Politics of Homosexuality in Russian History: a meandering story

Vladimir Putin’s latest comments stating that gay athletes and spectators are welcome to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics next year are unlikely to satisfy observers. Coming from a leader instrumental in passing a law that has prohibited the publication of “homosexual propaganda” to under-18s, Putin’s remarks are just the latest stage in an ongoing saga over the politicisation of homosexuality in Russian history.

A movement to boycott the Sochi games is struggling for momentum
A movement to boycott the Sochi games is struggling for momentum

As early as the sixteenth century, political opponents accused Tsar Ivan IV (the ‘terrible’) of homosexuality to discredit his increasingly debauched and erratic rule. At a time when cross-dressing and homosexuality were illegal, some suggested that Ivan encouraged his male attendants to dress in women’s clothing for his pleasure. There is little historical evidence for this, with the exception of some dubious works of 19th century literature, yet it is an early example of how the ‘taboo’ of homosexuality has been used for political purposes by Russia’s elite.

Peter the Great outlawed homosexuality in the army during the 1700s. For Peter, this was an essential step in ridding Russia of its international reputation as a weak, corrupt nation. By preying on accepted European sentiments of the time (i.e. that homosexuality was unnatural, pathetic and immoral), he could convey an image of unbending strength and virtue within his armed forces.

Tsar Nicholas I would introduce a ban on sodomy to Russian society in general in 1832. Despite punishments of exile and imprisonment, this law was not always enforced and Russia would become notable for its gay community in the 19th century, particularly in intellectual circles. Why there was no crackdown on this behaviour is difficult to ascertain. Possibly it was an acquiescence of sorts by Nicholas, whose Romanov dynasty was already facing accusations of being excessively repressive, particularly with regards to the persisting conditions of serfdom amongst the peasants.

Nikolai Gogol, Russia's most famous writer of the time, was openly gay
Nikolai Gogol, Russia’s most famous writer of the time, was openly gay

Perhaps then the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 gave the Tsars greater confidence in clamping down on homosexuality towards the end of the 19th century. Seizing on an apparent popular conception that homosexual behaviour was a symptom of the corrupt elite (expressed in works by Leo Tolstoy and others), the Tsars attempted to distance themselves from the toleration of sexual ‘deviance’ by enforcing punishments for perceived crimes.

This atmosphere of sexual repression would be altered by the communist revolution of 1917, which sought to reverse nearly every aspect of Tsarist policy and portray a climate of freedom amongst the populace. Indeed, Lenin was instrumental in legalising homosexuality in the new Soviet Union.

Stalin’s rule would lead to another change in the political establishment’s view of homosexuality. Stalin opposed it not so much on moral or religious grounds. Rather, he saw homosexuality as counter-productive to the workers’ revolution. Men and women should copulate to increase the manpower of the workforce. A simple if absurd theory, which would condemn many to the Gulags.

"Bring up a generation of selfless devotion to the cause of communism"
“Bring up a generation of selfless devotion to the cause of communism”

The fall of communism and the election of Boris Yeltsin as President was followed by the re-legalisation of homosexuality. Just as Lenin had tried to disassociate his new regime with that of Tsarist rule, Yeltsin wanted positive comparisons to be drawn between him and his communist predecessors.

That Putin has slowed the progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights in Russia is unsurprising given his general desire to do anything that he knows will rile the West.

It is, however, also symptomatic of the way homosexuality and politics have been linked in Russian history. What is needed now is for the burgeoning political opposition movement in Russia to embrace LGBT rights as an expression of their promise for greater freedom to the Russian people. Such a statement is long overdue.