Prisoners, Primitives and Patients: Looking for nuance in Early Soviet queer histories

By Mal Priestley

Edited by: Tahlia Antrobus

Image Credit: Unknown photographer. A Russian Drag Ball. 1921. Accessed at: .

Content Warning: discussions of homophobia and transphobia

Due to an intentional lack of sources created by the policies of the Soviet Union, the history of queer people within the Soviet Union is often under-examined or even outright ignored. This results in their erasure from popular historical understandings, which falsely legitimises a variety of negative conceptions around queerness, primarily that queerness is a modern occurrence, and by extension that it is unnatural, of Western import or a conscious choice. The early Soviet Union is often considered a liberationist state for queer people, being only the second major power to decriminalise sodomy, thus allowing people assigned male at birth (AMAB) to engage freely in sexual relations with one another. Complementing this is the notion that its re-criminalisation in 1934 symbolised the intolerance of Stalin’s regime and a move away from the ideas of the immediate post-revolution. However, such histories erase the reality which many queer people in this context faced. Treatment of queer people within the early USSR was not universal, nor clearly defined or consistent. It changed throughout the period and was contingent on gender, location, and race among other factors, and even varied within these categories. This is reflective of the variety of conceptions of homosexuality (a word used in this essay to accurately reflect the ideas of the past, which generally conflated homosexuals with transgender people and other queer people) that existed at this time, many of which share similarities across periods otherwise considered distinct. In order to complexify this history and recognise queer people who do not fit within dominant categories, I will attempt locate a broad range of queer people within the early USSR. While they may hold an overinflated place within literature of this kind, AMAB queer people within Russia must nevertheless form a part of any queer history of the USSR, and so they will be discussed first. Following this I will analyse how location and related conceptions of race similarly shaped the treatment of queer individuals, before finishing by considering how and why the treatment of queer individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) differed from that of AMAB individuals. Through these themes, a general understanding of the treatment of queer people in the early Soviet Union will emerge.

The treatment of AMAB queer people in the heartland of early Soviet Russia was ambivalent and inconsistent, reflecting the range of competing discourses which existed at this time. Initially, the new Soviet penal code did not outlaw sexual relations between men, and this is directly linked to certain notions of modernity at this time. The new Soviet regime defined itself through a rejection of religion, which it supplanted with science, the ideology through which it aimed to achieve modernity and, by extension, communist utopia. As such the lack of laws against homosexual relations is generally considered a result of the regime’s commitment to removing any laws based on religious practice. While there were a number of medical perspectives on the nature of homosexuality, party understandings of homosexuality assumed that, through a medical approach professionals could ‘eradicate the queer personality,’ and  thus that homosexuality would eventually disappear through the advance of modernity. Importantly, the decriminalisation of sodomy did not result in the liberation of AMAB queer people from state interference. Though not illegal, AMAB queer people continued to be arrested and harassed by the police for homosexual and genderqueer behaviour, often being charged with disorderly conduct. Furthermore, the new Soviet state did not provide any settings where citizens could appropriately express homosexuality, meaning that while same-sex sexual activity was permitted, AMAB queer people were still largely prohibited from expressing their sexuality.  Additionally, aggressive government campaigns against pederasty were used as means to attack male institutions within the church, highlighting how the treatment of queer people during this time was actually based more in politics than it was in science. Despite the continued state harassment of homosexuals, the number of AMAB persons arrested for homosexuality did markedly decrease, and AMAB queer people were permitted to seek medical assistance, as can be demonstrated through the psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev’s collection of  letters received from a variety of queer people, in which many of the authors openly admit their queerness and seek medical advice or treatment. The freedom afforded to this group was further increased by the NEP which allowed AMAB queer people to own and regulate queer spaces, although this was quickly reverted following the end of the NEP.

While Stalin’s decision to criminalise homosexual relations is not necessarily a break from previous understandings of homosexuality, it had widely negative impacts on the treatment and experiences of AMAB queer people within the Soviet Union’s centres. The Stalinist period saw the Soviet state asserting that it had already achieved modernity, and consequently, acknowledging that homosexuals still existed within the Soviet Union was to concede that it had not. However, homosexuals still visibly existed through street culture, and so the logical conclusion as to why  was that they were anti-Soviet remnants of bourgeois society, sabotaging the revolution. This was based on the somewhat accurate notion that areas in which homosexuals congregated acted as unregulated markets where money was exchanged for sex, thus obstructing the fulfilment of communism. However, these fears were grossly exaggerated by the NKVD’s claims that homosexual gatherings were vulnerable points of entry through which foreign spies could infiltrate the Soviet Union. Despite being illogical, these conclusions had direct implications for the lives of AMAB queer people within the Soviet Union’s centres. Homosexual men could now be arrested for homosexual acts in both public and private settings and faced sentences of up to five years in labour camps. While this did result in an increase of arrests, the largest change to the treatment of homosexuals by the state was the much harsher standard punishment, since AMAB queer people were being arrested for queer expression before this legislation. Some sources such as Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin emphasise that this was a drastic change, but this only highlights the inconsistency of the state’s stance towards homosexuals, rather than offering opposition to the notion that they remained targeted during the decriminalisation period. Hence the treatment of AMAB queer people during the early Soviet Union was widely inconsistent and rooted in competing and shifting conceptions of homosexuality.

Similarly, the conceptions of homosexuality outlined above were not only contingent on time, but also space, and corresponding notions of race, culture and ethnicity. Despite the theoretical envisionment of the USSR as a unified federation of equal states, it expressed many similar colonial tendencies to the Russian Empire in attempting to control a vast territory, home to many distinct and resilient cultural groups, religions and ethnicities, and was also alike in its utilisation of nationalism to remedy this. Consequently, the main point of difference between the Soviet Union and its predecessor, was the ideology which underpinned this nationalism and the aggressiveness with which it was disseminated. This ideology, as discussed above, was communism and though it may have been postulated as universal, it contained many distinctly Russian aspects that were disharmonious with the cultural norms of many regional areas. Because the cultures of these regional areas were so distinct from that of the metropole, the policies of eradicating religion and other cultural practices deemed counter to communism resulted in different treatment of queer people in these places. While in Russia homosexual relations were decriminalised as a response to the religious underpinnings of their criminalisation, the opposite was true in Soviet Central Asian countries. Here, sodomy began to be outlawed as early as 1923, and further laws were enacted in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to outlaw all practices relating to bachi (groups of young male dancers and prostitutes). These laws not only banned keeping bachi, but also extended to any events involving bachi. This is not because such practices were religious but because they were deemed primitive in the same way that religion was, and thus, as Langston Hughes identified, ‘in contention with narratives of progress and futurity’. Whilst instances of homosexuality in Russia could be viewed as a medical issue, on the fringes of the Soviet Union they were considered symptoms of these persisting primitive cultures which would have to be removed if communism was to progress. It is important to note that these ideas were also strongly connected to understandings of race, particularly the notion that non-Slavic races could be brought into modernity under the tutelage of their Slavic countrymen. Thus, because of their location and ethnic status within the USSR, queer people in Soviet Central Asia faced strongly repressive treatment practically as soon as the Bolsheviks asserted power in these regions. Furthermore, this treatment was even more oppressive than the kind they faced under the Tsarist regime because not only was sodomy outlawed, other aspects of queer life and culture were too.

AFAB queer people within the early Soviet Union experienced vastly different treatment to that of AMAB people, and this was rooted in the evolving gender roles of the time. Unlike those between men, sexual relations between women were not legislated against in the early Soviet Union. Rather than a criminal problem, expressions of homosexual or transgender behaviour by those deemed women was envisioned as a medical problem, though some AFAB people were arrested for expressing their queerness. Despite this, these people were still greatly restricted because of their sexual or gender identities. Medical treatment for them was by no means more humane, since it involved forcible institutionalisation and a variety of cruel treatments, including hypnosis, shock treatment and  operations such as the ‘implantation of animal ovary  sections ’. This is clearly a manifestation of the conceptions of homosexuality discussed above in relation to AMAB queer people, which posits that homosexuality is an illness that modern science can cure. However, the reason this conception prevailed in relation to AFAB people, as opposed to the carceral approach, can largely be attributed to the hierarchies of gender within Soviet Society, which placed men and masculinity as superior to women and femininity. Within this framework, a woman who exhibits masculine qualities, such as a desire for women, reaffirms the gendered hierarchy because she is perceived to be desiring manhood over womanhood. Further, the masculinisation of women was almost Soviet policy, since the Soviet worker was considered inherently masculine, and thus in the effort to bring women into the workforce, women were necessarily masculinised somewhat. This is evident in the posters of the time, wherein women were repeatedly encouraged to join the ‘ranks’ (Fig. 1) of men, a metaphorical incorporation into manhood reinforced by the use of military terminology and the casting off of female symbols (Fig. 2). Despite this, women continued to be subordinate to men, as the exclusively male patriotic soldier ideal was inherently positioned as superior to the worker. Nevertheless, it follows that expressions of queerness by AFAB people through masculinity were perceived as less threatening to that of their AMAB counterparts. As such the shifting gendered perceptions of women at this time, which saw them as increasingly masculine yet still inferior, provides much insight for understanding the alternative treatment faced by AFAB queer people, which can be characterised by a medicalised approach rather than a carceral one. 

Queer histories are important, particularly in areas where the existence of queer people has been systematically erased, because they dispel false narratives about the nature and existence of queer people and allow us to understand the structures which have brought about such false ideas, as well the experiences of queer people within them. By examining how the treatment of queer people in the early Soviet Union changed overtime and was dependent on factors like location, race and gender, this essay has revealed how the oppressive treatment of queer people was not homogenous, but rooted in a number of competing conceptions of homosexuality and structures of control, which make it impossible to characterise the treatment of queer people in this period without an emphasis on plurality.

Figure 1. N. A. Valerianov, N. A. Работницы и крестьянки, все на выборы: Под красный стяг, в ряды с мужчиной! – буржуазии страх несем! (Female workers and peasants, make your way to the voting booth! Under the red banner, in the same ranks as the men, we inspire fear in the bourgeoisie!),. 1925.

Figure 2. Korotkova, N. F. and M. A. Voron. Труженица востока, становись в ряды строителей социализма (The Girl Worker of Oriental Russia. Freedom for Women. 1930). 1930.


List of Figures

Figure 1. Valerianov, N. A. Работницы и крестьянки, все на выборы: Под красный стяг, в ряды с мужчиной! – буржуазии страх несем! (Female workers and peasants, make your way to the voting booth! Under the red banner, in the same ranks as the men, we inspire fear in the bourgeoisie!). 1925. Poster. Duke University Library, Durham.   

Figure 2. Korotkova, N. F. and M. A. Voron. Труженица востока, становись в ряды строителей социализма (The Girl Worker of Oriental Russia. Freedom for Women. 1930). 1930. Poster. Duke University Library, Durham.    

Primary Source

“Document 3.2 Ussr: Harry Whyte, an Ordinary British Communist, Challenges Stalin on Homosexuality.” Translated by Dan Healey. In The Communist Experience in the Twentieth Century: A Global History through Sources, edited by Glennys Young. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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