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  • Homosexuality in the Late Imperial Russian NavyA Microhistory
  • Irina Roldugina (bio)

During the winter of 1916, at the height of World War I, Second-Rank Captain Vladimir Grigor´evich Petrov, aged 35, found himself in a trouble-some situation. The Naval Procuracy in Kronstadt had opened a preliminary investigation: he was suspected of homosexual activity with his subordinates.1 Petrov refused to assist the investigation and said nothing about the sensitive topic. His reluctance to cooperate did not prevent officials from conducting the inquiry, but it meant that they had to rely on the testimonies of witnesses. More than 20 people were thoroughly questioned about Petrov's same-sex liaisons during his service at the Kronstadt Naval Base. Some of them had to answer the official investigator's questions two and even three times. As a result, the surviving paperwork provides a unique perspective on how homo-sexuality was discussed and perceived by people not professionally engaged with the subject.

Since Michel Foucault first raised the question about the birth of the modern homosexual, historians have been quite prolific in researching and contextualizing the issue in various regions and countries. Alongside the important role of medical science, they argue, homosexual selfhood was forged by such factors as capitalism, the rise of free wage labor, secularization, the [End Page 451] spread of literacy, and urban growth.2 The present article seeks to contribute to this historiography by examining how the figure of the homosexual emerged and was understood outside the expert community in prerevolutionary Russia. The military context, I further suggest, shaped the perception of homosexuality in this case.

Scholarship in this area is still relatively modest. In her groundbreaking book The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia, Laura Engelstein suggests that homosexuality had never been a subject of broad public discussion or political attention in Russia, as it was in England and Germany.3 By the turn of the century, however, she shows that a significant proportion of Russian legal scholars were advocating for a modernizing approach to homosexuality and the decriminalization of consensual male intercourse, although this agenda subsequently failed.4 "The reformers refused, however, to endorse a notion of privacy and individual self-determination that would have allowed adult males to deviate freely from public norms and reproductive sexuality and gender definition."5 According to Engelstein, Russian medical experts did not provide significant help to these legal reformers. Frustrated by the lack of autonomy within tsarist society, they were not as influential as their European colleagues: "The medical interpretations of homosexuality, which Foucault sees as crucial to the development of modern sexual identity in the West, had little effect on Russian legal thinking."6 One of the most important implications of Engelstein's analysis for the present article is her argument about the failure of the "political and sexual modernity" that Russian professionals had sought to achieve in late imperial Russia.7 Having worked mainly with printed sources and focusing her attention exclusively on medical and legal discourses among "educated Russians," Engelstein [End Page 452] ignores the question of how expert medical and legal debates might have influenced laypeople. What exactly could they have absorbed through the era's flourishing print culture on the question of homosexuality? Indeed, she admits the sexual question preoccupied not only professionals in the years following the revolution of 1905 but also began to attract attention "in settings open to a more general audience."8

A decade later, Dan Healey offered a different approach.9 Using previously unknown archival material, he demonstrates how a "masculine tradition indulgent of mutual eros," and the increasing visibility of male prostitution in St. Petersburg and Moscow by the end of the 19th century combined to shape the emergence of a homosexual subculture in the capital cities.10 He also discusses the intersection of masculinity and social status, arguing that class played a central role in same-sex urban sexuality: "Men who experienced same-sex desire expressed it according to the social roles they played."11 At the end of the 19th century, according to Healey, "traditional mutual male sexuality in the provinces highlights the apparent patriarchal confidence...