- Comrades, Queers, and “Oddballs”: Sodomy, Masculinity, and Gendered Violence in Leningrad Province of the 1950s
On a wintry November night in 1955, twenty-year-old Russian Red Army private Mikhail Yermolaev met a group of his comrades in the village of Rakhia near Leningrad. They were looking for a good time and found it in Barrack No. 18, a women’s dormitory, where a party with vodka was in full swing. Mikhail drank his fill. He began to feel unwell. When his comrades decided to leave the party—perhaps in search of more vodka—they left Mikhail in the care of Aleksei (Alyosha) Kiselev, thirty-seven years of age, who took the soldier home to his room in the village bathhouse, where he lived and worked as a stoker. Kiselev played some music on his treasured gramophone; he told the younger man to undress and lie down. After first throwing up in the toilet, Mikhail went to bed. Later he told the police:
I woke up and heard Alyosha say, “Get on top of me.” At that very moment my belt was undone, my trousers and underpants were down, and my penis was exposed. Then he pulled me toward him and said, “Give it to me, give it to me in the ass.” I got on top of him, for Alyosha was on his stomach with his back to me, but I was revolted so I didn’t use him, even though my penis was erect. I went back to sleep. . . . After a little while Alyosha came to me again, first turning me over on my stomach. He got on top of me and tried to use me in the ass, but [End Page 496] he didn’t manage it because I wouldn’t let him. He was only wearing his underpants, and I could feel his erection. He didn’t say anything. I just turned away and went back to sleep.1
At two o’clock in the morning, Mikhail woke up, dressed, and left Kiselev to meet his comrades and catch a train back to his base. Before he left, he gave his host his surname and address. When he got to the station, one of his army buddies asked him, “Well, how did you sleep? They say he’s a man and a woman.” “Yes, of course—he’s a queer [pidarast],” Mikhail replied, and no more was said between the men, who went back to their barracks on the late-night train.
What went on between the young soldier and the bathhouse stoker that night? What was Aleksei Kiselev hoping for when he offered Mikhail a bed to sleep off the drink, and why did the soldier accept his offer? What did these soldiers understand by the word “queer” in this time and place? And what did the women of Barrack No. 18 represent for them? Nothing systematic has been written about same-sex relations between men in rural Russia, and to begin to answer the questions that incidents like these pose, we need to consider the social and historical context more broadly.
The era after 1945 in Soviet history is attracting fresh attention. Interest focuses on that society’s aspirations for a better life after the devastation of war and under the relentless demands of late Stalinism. Recent work often emphasizes the complexity and instability of the last years of Stalin’s rule and the ambiguities of de-Stalinization, suggesting that 1945 was a significant temporal landmark in Soviet history.2 Studies of family policies show the leadership’s determination, sustained across the period, to find innovative ways to steer gender relations to solve the demographic crisis and to satisfy political objectives.3 A significant emerging area of inquiry is the question of how public and private spheres were reconstructed in the postwar years in a “negotiation” between rulers and ruled.4 [End Page 497]
With some important exceptions, the history of Russian sexualities for this period remains relatively unexplored, and yet the acts of individuals in pursuit of a sexual life and the meanings ascribed to their actions can tell historians a great deal about gender relations, public-private boundaries...