Homosexual Existence and Existing Socialism: New Light on the Repression of Male Homosexuality in Stalin's Russia
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.3 (2002) 349-378



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The GLQ Forum

Homosexual Existence and Existing Socialism
New Light on the Repression of Male Homosexuality in Stalin's Russia

Dan Healey


Queer historians and activists have a peculiar relationship with the history of the Soviet Union. It is a relationship that has been shaped by Cold War politics and the rise, initially in the Anglo-American world, of the gay liberation movement. For activists on the left, the knowledge that the world's first socialist state proclaimed a radical sexual politics has served as a talisman and guide. The decriminalization of male homosexuality, in the form of sodomy, in early revolutionary Russia was one of the sweeping changes to criminal, family, and property law that marked the coming of the Bolsheviks to power. The comprehensive clearing away of the tsarist regime's religious and reactionary regulation of sexuality has been presented as the benchmark of an enlightened sexual politics. The same viewpoint interprets the Soviet government's recriminalization of sodomy during 1933-34 as one feature of the "reactionary trend" accompanying Joseph Stalin's rule, a degeneration from Vladimir Lenin's (or Leon Trotsky's) presumed legitimate socialism. 1 Our narratives also present the Soviet reversal on male homosexuality during the troubled 1930s through the prism of international relations. This perspective draws heavily on the work of the Freudian and Marxist sex reformer Wilhelm Reich, who in 1936 published an indictment of the repression of Soviet homosexuals. 2 The antihomosexual drive was in this view a response to the supposed discovery of espionage networks run by Nazi Germans infiltrating homosexual circles in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Soviet cities. The handful of Soviet [End Page 349] justifications for the new law—a diatribe written by Maksim Gorky, a speech by People's Commissar of Justice Nikolai Krylenko—buttress this understanding as contributions to the international propaganda war raging during the 1930s between fascism and communism. 3

Queer thinking about this episode has also been characterized by a generally instrumental approach. When Western gay liberationists, queer theorists, and historians talk about the repression of same-sex love in 1930s Russia, they are almost always making a point about American or Western European politics. John Lauritsen and David Thorstad sought to identify the first wave of homosexual emancipation with a humane and pluralist pre-Stalin socialism that the American New Left of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to resuscitate. Guy Hocquenghem invoked Reich's indictment of Stalinist sexual politics to denounce the contemporary heterosexism of French communists and socialists. More recently, the historian Manfred Herzer, reviewing the record of Weimar Germany's Communist and Social Democratic Parties on homosexuality, has argued that the "thoughtless acceptance of heterosexism was part and parcel of bourgeois culture and [was] imitated in a diluted form by leftists" of that era. Herzer, too, sees 1930s "Soviet homophobia" as alien to the Left, implicitly because of its Stalinist origins. 4 Queer thinking usually invokes Stalin's imposition of homophobic tyranny to fight local battles while evading the Russian dimensions of the story. 5

The pathbreaking articles of the literary scholar Simon Karlinsky, based on sources available in the West, long remained the most authoritative summaries of our knowledge. 6 Karlinsky, adopting a contributionist perspective on Russia's gay writers and artists, provided a rare antihomophobic reading of Russian culture. He also set out an interpretation of tsarist policy on gay sexuality as tolerant and liberal while viewing the October 1917 revolution and the Soviet regime as unremittingly hostile to homosexuals. Soviet medicine was particularly guilty, he argued, of "morbidizing" homosexuality and thereby oppressing Russia's gay community. Karlinsky's anticommunism set him apart from most gay liberationist authors who touched on the question, and it perhaps licensed him to discuss this otherwise taboo topic in the conservative milieu of U.S. Slavic studies. Nevertheless, both right- and left-wing assessments of the issue were Cold War phenomena, hostages to wider political struggles...


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