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  • Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent
  • Jeffrey Merrick
Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent. By Dan Healey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xvi plus 392 pp. $40).

Lenin decriminalized homosexuality, and Stalin recriminalized it. Dan Healey has done a magnificent job of excavating and explicating the more complicated history of same sex-relations before, during, and after the Russian Revolution that lurks behind those seven simplistic words. This worthy addition to the outstanding University of Chicago Press line in the history of sexuality will not disappoint anyone who has looked forward to reading it since the publication of Healy’s first article in 1993. It will allow scholars and teachers, especially those of us who cannot read Russian, to incorporate the tsarist and communist [End Page 1089] regimes responsibly into accounts of the development and deployment of the modern conception of homosexuality and into analyses of the intersections of private lives and public events in both democratic and totalitarian states during the twentieth century. The book has many virtues, including extensive research in manuscript and printed sources, contextualization of legal changes through social and medical as well as political history, and exploration not only of a unifying theme but also of significant variations.

Healey did not have access to Soviet police records, but he was able to locate documentation about twenty-three prosecutions (before 1917 and after 1930) involving fifty-six defendants in the archives of the Moscow city courts. He has made good use of other archival materials as well, including the papers of the commissariats of justice and health and the diaries of the poet and novelist Mikhail Kuzmin. He has also collected information about more than a hundred case histories from articles and books published by physicians and psychiatrists and studied representations of homosexuality in a variety of literary and polemical sources.

The experience and regulation of same-sex relations evolved differently in pre-Revolutionary Russia than in western Europe. Operating within traditional structures (defined by class and age) and institutions (bathhouses and monasteries), men interested in and involved with other men were not routinely troubled on that account. The church did not stigmatize sodomy with distinctive horror and hostility. The state did not generalize its prohibition from the military forces (1716) to the civilian population until 1835, and even then the police did not enforce it systematically. An urban homosexual subculture emerged in Saint Petersburg and Moscow in the wake of emancipation and industrialization, two hundred years later than in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Here, as there, men met partners by exchanging signals in public places and had sex for pleasure or profit. Some adopted effeminate mannerisms, and some developed a sense of sexual identity. But in Russia, unlike western Europe, medical discourse about the physical and mental causes and consequences of homosexuality had relatively little influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Liberals cited medical arguments in advocating legal reforms before 1917, and Bolsheviks acknowledged medical authority in drafting the criminal code of 1922, which decriminalized same-sex relations between consenting adults. Before and after 1922, however, jurists and doctors expressed a multiplicity of views about sexual difference/deviance in a Sovietized country composed of productive men and women. As economic problems and political conflicts continued into the 1930s, pressure for social and sexual conformity increased. After Hitler seized power in Germany, influential figures within the Stalinist regime associated homosexuality with fascism and denounced “pederasts” as agents of corruption and subversion. After recriminalizing same-sex relations in 1934, the government prosecuted both workers and intellectuals to enforce compulsory heterosexuality and appropriated medical language to provide scientific justification for the deportation of homosexuals to Siberia.

Healey traces the evolution of Soviet theory and practice with much more subtlety than any summary can suggest. In Chapter Six, for example, he examines the ways in which the authorities prosecuted some categories of men, ostensibly for sexual offenses but actually for political reasons, in the 1920s. [End Page 1090] While “pederasts” cruised boulevards and lavatories in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Bolsheviks attacked “predatory” priests and monks in order to undermine “superstitious” loyalty...

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