Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 677-681
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Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent. By Dan Healey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. 392. $40.00 (cloth).
This excellent book is the first to study same-sex love in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union in a serious and historically contextualized way. Historians have until recently said little about homosexuality in their accounts of gender and sexuality in the Imperial and Soviet regimes, in part because of a lack of sources before the fall of Communism in 1991. Those who have written about homosexuality have often focused on more recent events and have lacked the kind of careful, contextualized, historical approach Healey demonstrates here. In addition to new information, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia provides new perspectives on long-standing questions posed by Russian historians about historical continuity across the 1917 divide, about center-periphery relations, about the particular nature of Russian modernization, and about the attempted construction of a socialist society through discourse and through coercion.
Healey begins in part 1 by discussing the public and private worlds of same-sex love for men and women in the Imperial and early Soviet period. He describes a transformation from a "masculine tradition indulgent of mutual eros" to a "modern homosexual subculture" (21-23). According to Healey, a "traditional masculine culture" existed in largely rural and unindustrialized Russia before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. A coherent male homosexual subculture developed only at the turn of the century with the urbanization of Russia and the concomitant development of public and private meeting spaces, rituals of recognition, and a community with which to self-identify. Russian women engaging in same-sex relationships did not develop a similar lesbian subculture, lacking as they did the sites of possible community available in the salon culture or cafes of Western Europe. As Healey readily admits, this makes it much harder for the historian to reconstruct the history of women involved in same-sex relationships, a problem not limited to historians of lesbian women [End Page 677] but of most women whose lives tend to be lived away from the public gaze. Healey uses the term "same-sex" love (or relations or eros) to describe relations between members of the same sex as "observed in most societies in history." "Homosexuals" are those who "operate within and identif[y] with a subcultural context" (11). The term "homosexuality" is, as this suggests, a modern one and also a disciplinary one, applying to "a specific psychological condition defined by Western medicine beginning in the last third of the nineteenth century" (11).
What Healey calls the "traditional" culture of single-sex male eros clearly involved peasants. Some peasants engaged (willingly and not so willingly) in same-sex relations with gentry employers. In addition, the peasant practice of mutual assistance and association for fellow villagers moving to the city sometimes included work in bathhouses, another site for "traditional sexual indulgence between men" (26). As an urban, homosexual subculture developed at the turn of the century, it is unclear what remained in the countryside. Even less is known about rural women, although Healey has uncovered interesting materials about the language peasants used to describe persons of ambiguous gender. There are good reasons for this silence; this largely illiterate population is known to us largely through the gaze of ethnographers who presumably would not have had access to information about these more private habits or may not have chosen to write about them if they did. The material on the lower classes and the peasantry is even scantier for the Soviet period; in both cases it is a loss, even if an understandable one.
Part 2, which makes up the bulk of the book, focuses on the regulation of homosexuality in the late Imperial period and the Soviet era. Healey begins with the Russian Orthodox Church, which was comparatively tolerant of nonpenetrative male and female same-sex acts. That is, the Orthodox Church "regarded...