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Subject: Soviet Union in 1920s: Scientific, not utopian

Soviet Union in 1920s: Scientific, not utopian

By Leslie Feinberg, Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans Pride Series, Part 11, Workers World, 12 August 2004

During the 1920s, in the first decade of the Russian Revolution, signs that the struggle to build socialism could make enormous social gains in sexual freedom—even in a huge mostly agricultural country barely freed from feudalism, then ravaged by imperialist war and torn asunder by civil war—were apparent.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

For example, author Dan Healey states, “The revolutionary regime repeatedly declared that women who sold their bodies were victims of economic exploitation, not to be criminalized, and campaigns to discourage them from taking up sex work were launched.” The growth of prostitution had of course been spurred by the chaos and dislocation of people accompanying war.

Historian Laura Engelstein summarizes, “Soviet sexologists in the 1920s participated in the international movement for sexual reform and criminologists deplored the use of penal sanctions to censor private sexual conduct.” (“Soviet Policy”)

In 1923, the Soviet minister of health traveled to the German Institute for Sex ual Science and reportedly expressed there his pride that his government had abolished the tsarist penalties against same-sex love. He stated that “no unhappy consequences of any kind whatsoever have resulted from the elimination of the offending paragraph, nor has the wish that the penalty in question be reintroduced been raised in any quarter.”

Also in 1923, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Soviet Hygiene, published a pamphlet titled “The Sexual Revolution in Russia.” It stated, “Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle: it declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, as long as nobody is injured, and no one's interests are encroached upon.”

And the pamphlet spelled this out clearly, “Concerning homosexuality, sod omy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against public morality—Soviet legislation treats these the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In Germany, the vicious Prussian Paragraph 175 was the law of the land in 1923. That same year in the U.S., where anti-”sodomy” laws aimed to padlock closet doors, the FBI had labeled anarchist Emma Goldman “most dangerous woman in America” because of her vocal support for gay rights and other forms of social equality. (

In Britain the “Buggery” Act of 1533 had proscribed death by hanging— the death penalty not formally removed until 1861. But the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act criminalized any form for male homosexual expression that offended a jury—”gross indecency”—with up to two years with or without hard labor. Oscar Wilde, a feminine homosexual, was convicted under this law in 1895. It took 82 more years to repeal this repressive measure. (


On Jan. 15, 1921, a raid took place in Petrograd that may have been sparked by official fears of a large private gathering of soldiers and sailors. It turned out those gathered were carrying out a wedding ceremony.

Some 95 soldiers, sailors and civilians were arrested in the only such raid known during that period on a party of male homo sexuals and cross- dressers in Petrograd.

Healey explains, “A lone Justice Commissariat lawyer argued that this raid was justified despite the decriminalization of sodomy, for public displays of ‘homosexual tastes' endangered suggestible personalities. He proposed prosecuting such overt demonstrations of these tastes … .”

When the Bolsheviks struck down the tsarist anti-gay laws, that political act challenged the prejudices that were deeply embedded from centuries of class rule. But it could not change everyone's attitudes in the population overnight. From that standpoint, however, Healey's findings are very significant: No such charges based on cross-dressing or public displays of homosexuality have come to light. “Few other jurists advocated such a criminalizing approach, and most explained the absence of a sodomy ban as a feature of the sexual revolution.” (”Russian Queen”)

The eminent psychiatrist V.M. Bekh terev wrote about those arrested as “sexual deviants.” It's worth recalling that he began his career of professor of psychiatry at the Academy of Military Medicine under the tsar—the same military that had adopted legislation in 1706 and 1716 mandating the death penalty as punishment for male same-sex love between soldiers.

While feminine males were generally not as socially accepted as masculine females, Healey notes, “Soviet sources of the 1920s continue to mention the use of female nicknames and occasional indulgence in cross-dressing, although these practices were evidently reserved for private events and spaces.”

The great Russian novel “Wings,” by Mikhail Kuzmin, about same-sex love bet ween men, was re-published and brought out in Berlin in 1923 by a literary house owned by the Soviet government. (Simon Karlinsky's essay in “Hidden from History”)

Modern anti-communist historians have denounced the early Soviet workers' state based on reports that the Bolsheviks used charges that male clerics were having sex with boy children during public trials of church officials.

While not underestimating the impact of political backwardness about same-sex relations in the trials of clerics from the church hierarchy, more study must be done to find out how much of these measures resulted from outrage at sexual abuse—much like the outrage over exposures of the rapes of boy and girl children in the modern Catholic Church scandal.

More thorough primary research about these trials is needed. Any attempt to gloss over instances of backwardness only sets back the struggle to build socialism in the long run. However, simplistic, anti-communist arguments do far greater damage.


While the October 1917 Revolution in Russia—the heart of the tsarist oppressor nation—eradicated the laws against homosexuality, Soviet governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where homosexuality was reportedly widespread, did enact laws against some forms of same-sex expression in the 1920s.

In 1928 the People's Commissariat of Justice of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic replied to a request from Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific-Humani tarian Committee in Germany, which wrote to ask the state of homosexuals in the Soviet Union.

The response stated in part that “pederasty”—sexual abuse of boy children by adult men—was punished “[i]n particular republics where pederasty is especially common.” (”Sexual Desire”)

The Bolshevik's struggle against sexual exploitation of children is a matter of public record. However, there is also backwardness in this attitude towards the Republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus that cannot be examined outside of the context of the “national question” and the centuries of entrenched “Great Russian” chauvanism towards these formerly oppressed nationalities.

These vast new republics of the Soviet Union had different customs, languages, and economies than Russia had—and diverse attitudes towards the sexes, gender expression and sexuality. Some of these societies, closer to the legacy of their communal pasts, appeared to retain more widespread acceptance of same-sex love and trans expression, even where class divisions had formed.

Historian Laura Engelstein writes that in the early 1900s in tsarist Russia, jurist V.D. Nabokov had noted that laws of homosexuality “had changed over time and still varied across cultural traditions; there was no single, absolute standard common even to the Christian world upon which to base consistent legal norms.”

She concludes that “Nabokov must have been aware of the testimony of judges from the Muslim areas of the Russian empire, who explained the impossibility of enforcing the [tsarist] antisodomy laws among peoples who did not disapprove of homosexual behavior.” (”Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Russia”)

Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the early Bolsheviks unlocked the cell door of the tsarist “prison house of nations” by forming a voluntary Soviet Union of Russia with the formerly oppressed nations that had been coerced under tsarist rule. Lenin steeled his party to support the right of self-determination, including the right to separate from Russia, of nations that had been forcibly held in bondage by the imperial state. At the same time, the Bolsheviks organized unity and class solidarity of the workers and peasants in the oppressed and oppressing nations to fight the propertied classes that exploited their labor.

Even the seizure of state power and the setting up a government that defended the right of self-determination, however, did not end racism, national chauvinism or anti-Semitism among “Great Russians” with a single blow. The effort to eradicate every vestige of national oppression and the attitudes it engendered was a process, and an uneven one.

And there had been as yet no thorough historical materialist view of sexuality. The painstaking task of examining questions of society and culture in order to weed out bigotry and superstition that had resulted from centuries of ruling-class ideology was severely impeded by the relentless imperialist onslaught.

The Soviet Union had no Homosexual Emancipation Movement like the one that had arisen in Germany and had gathered and archived vast cross- cultural, cross-historical information about the sexes, gender expression and sexuality.


Laws were enacted against sodomy and the keeping of “bachi”—cross- dressed, feminine boy dancers kept as prostitutes—in the Soviet Republics of Azerbaijan in 1923, Uzbekistan in 1926 and Turkmen istan in 1927.

The 1928 Uzbek Soviet Socialist Repub lic criminal code, for example, grouped eight laws against male same-sex relations with others adopted against “survivals of primitive custom.”

The role of Russian national chauvinism and backward attitudes towards same-sex love and what today would be called “transgender” needs to be thoroughly examined. The greatest contributions, of course, will be made by revolutionary researchers from those nationalities, who can disentangle historical forms of gender expression and sexuality in their historical context—both ancient and enduring—from forms of commercial exploitation that arose with the development of class relations.

The struggle against sexual exploitation was an important focus of these Soviet laws.

Healey gives the most thoughtful account of this aspect of the laws' intent. “Just as revolutionary jurists had rejected the criminalization of female prostitutes in the Russian republic, in Uzbek and Turkmen law the male prostitute himself was not banned, but virtually every other aspect of the masculine sex trade was prohibited.” (”Desire”)

Healey elaborates, “The men who kept youthful male prostitutes were regarded by Bolshevik legal drafters as class aliens, capitalists making deals with families to maintain male children and youths, ‘educating’ their charges, and exploiting them sexually while providing public entertainment. In their first Soviet criminal code of 1927, Bolshevik jurists in the Turkmen SSR adopted similar but less elaborate language, primarily directed against those who committed offenses involving bachi who were minors.”

And, “In Uzbekistan, the sexual harassment of men was made a crime, in language that mirrored the Russian republic's pathbreaking 1923 statute protecting women from the same offense.”