- Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia
Though the cold war has faded to a hazy, occasionally nostalgia-tinged memory, Russia and the United States remain rivals in an unlikely competition: in Western scholarship, the mass media, and the entertainment industries, each country is distinguished by a sexual culture posited to be either puritan, libertine, or somehow both at the same time. The American anecdotal data are all too familiar: the culture industry manages to sustain a nonstop flood of sexual talk and imagery while still mustering outrage over Janet Jackson’s bared nipple. The case of Russia is less immediately apparent to the average American (non)observer, but here, too, the messages are decidedly mixed. In Western media Russian women have long oscillated between alluring yet distant sex kittens and tough, angry babushki with five o’clock shadows, while pundits revel in stories about a nation of former prudes discovering the joys of (talking about) sex.
When the term “sexual revolution” is thrown into the mix, matters are only made worse. The phrase is problematic enough in the American context, where Time felt free to declare this particular revolution to be over by editorial fiat. When Western observers talk about Russian sexual culture, the call of “sexual revolution” is all but irresistible. For the West, Russia has long been at least as much of a politics object as it has been a sex object. The idea-driven radical visionary has been one of Russia’s leading cultural exports for over a century (revived most recently by Tom Stoppard in The Coast of Utopia), while the romance of Russia for Kremlinologists involved a veritable dance of the seven veils, in which the regime would alternately conceal and reveal its intentions. Germany can have its “sex reform,” but Russia must have “sexual revolution.”
When applied to Russia in the 1920s, the term “sexual revolution” does seem to come naturally. The Bolsheviks’ radical family code (making abortion [End Page 514] and homosexuality legal while rendering divorce a matter for the post office rather than the courts) would have been impossible to implement under the old regime, while the attention devoted to sexual matters in the Bolshevik popular press was unprecedented. The outlines of this “sexual revolution” have been well documented by historians, sexologists, and scholars of cultural studies over the past three decades: Richard Stites’s Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, Igor Kon’s The Sexual Revolution in Russia, Eric Naiman’s Sex in Public, Dan Healey’s Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, and, most recently, Frances Bernstein’s The Dictatorship of Sex.1
Gregory Carleton’s intelligent and engaging contribution to this body of scholarship is hard to place. The bulk of the volume traces the familiar debates about sexuality in early Soviet Russia with greater detail than previous studies, examining the approaches to sex taken by medical professionals, feminist activists, and writers. A scholar of literature by training, Carleton does some of his best work in his close readings of the potboilers that helped put the “sex question” on the map. Carleton does a great service here, for not only are his readings quite compelling, but they give nonspecialists information about popular texts that are inaccessible to those without proficiency in Russian (Sergei Semenov’s 1927 novel, Natalia Tarpova, is unlikely to be exhumed, translated, and published in Granta).
Often scholarly monographs will meet with the criticism that the volume at hand is not one book but two, usually suggesting that there are two barely related arguments that would best have been handled separately. Carleton’s book is a strange variation on this cliché: it is definitely one book, but it seems to be the product of two different scholarly moments. Anyone venturing to analyze Soviet sexual discourse must reckon with Naiman’s Sex in Public, the first and, to date, most sophisticated full-length scholarly approach to the subject of Soviet sexual discourse as a whole (Bernstein and Healey address more specific aspects of this larger phenomenon). This is not to say that Naiman should have the...