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Historical Prelude
by Professor Igor Kon

Same-sex love has a long history in Russia (Burgin, 1994; Engelstein, 1992, 1995; Healey, 1991; Karlinsky, 1976, 1989; Kon, 1995; Levin, 1989). The Russian Orthodox Church, like other Christian denominations, defined it as a mortal sin, but the concept of sodomy in Ancient Russ was vague and included both homosexual relations and heterosexual anal intercourse, as well as any deviations from "normal" gender roles and partners, such as intercourse in the "woman-on-top" position. The most serious deviation was muzhebludie [male lechery] or muzhelozhstvo [male fornication] wherein coitus with the "wrong" gender partner was compounded with the "wrong" sexual position, that is, anal penetration. The punishment depended on the sinner's age, marital status, how often he had indulged, and the extent of his own active involvement. The penalties for juveniles and young men were more lenient than those for married men. If no anal penetration took place, reference was no longer made to muzhelozhstvo, but to masturbation. Lesbianism was usually categorized as a form of masturbation. The Orthodox church was very concerned about homosexuality spreading in the monasteries but were fairly tolerant of its practice among laymen (Levin, 1989).

Inconsistencies were inevitable, as the process of Christianization of Russia, which lasted over centuries - all the while involving new territories and peoples - was in many ways incomplete and superficial. Christian norms not only coexisted with pagan norms, but also frequently incorporated them. During the 15th through 17th centuries travelers and diplomats in Russia frequently remarked on the widespread occurrence of homosexuality in all milieux and the surprisingly tolerant - by European standards - publ.ic attitudes toward it (Karlinsky, 1976). This probably came less from a conscious tolerance than from a primitive acceptance of the "realities of life." A similar situation existed in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages; it was only much later that the bonfires and persecutions of the Inquisition flared up. Be this as it may, homosexuality was neither mentioned nor punished in any Russian secular legislation until the time of Peter the Great (Nabokov, 1902; Piatnitsky, 1910; Popov, 1904).

It was not until 1706 that punishment for "unnatural lechery" first appeared in Peter the Great's military code, which was based on the Swedish model. Yet 10 years later Peter, himself not averse to bisexual relations, in Chapter 20 of the broadened military code (O sodomskom grekhe, o nasilii i blude) watered down the punishment for sodomy. Burning at the stake was replaced by corporal punishment, but by the death penalty or hard labor for life if rape or other use of violence was proven. However, these regulations applied only to military personnel, not to the civilian population.

By the close of the 18th century, with the growth of civilization and closer contacts with Europe, genteel society began to feel uneasy about homosexuality. Among the common people it was mainly associated with the religious sects of Skoptsy and Khlysty. Among the aristocracy homosexuality tended to cause scandal mostly by the nepotism and corruption it fostered, notably in various government ministries, when powerful men repaid their young protgs by appointing them to high positions that in no way corresponded to their abilities. Otherwise such matters were spoken of scornfully, but at the same time rather humorously.

As one finds everywhere, homosexuality was most rife in closed educational institutions, such as the high ranking Page Corps, Cadet Corps, the Junker colleges, and the School of Jurisprudence. Since it was so commonplace, boys were quite phlegmatic, even lighthearted, about it, reserving for it a host of bawdy, jesting verses. Attempts by the administrators of these institutions to put a stop to such "indecent conduct" came to nothing (Karlinsky, 1976; Poznansky, 1988, 1991).

There were also strong unconscious homoerotic undertones in Russian classic art and literature. According to Billington (1970) there is, in general, little room for women in the egocentric world of Russian romanticism. Lonely brooding was relieved primarily by exclusively masculine companionship in the Masonic lodges. From Skovoroda to Bakunin there are strong hints of homosexuality, though apparently of the sublimated, Platonic variety. Homoeroticism appears closer to the surface in Ivanov's predilection for painting naked boys, and finds philosophical expression in the fashionable belief that spiritual perfection required androgyny, or a return to the original union of male and female characteristics. (p. 349)

In 1835, during the reign of Nicolas I, a new criminal code was introduced, based on the German (Wurtemberg) model. In 1845 another version of it was accepted. Muzhelozhstvo [man lying with man], which had been interpreted exclusively as anal penetration, was now criminalized for all social strata as a "vice contrary to nature." According to Article 995 of the 1845 code, a man convicted for muzhelozhstvo was punished by deprivation of all rights and resettlement in Siberia for 4-5 years. If the muzhelozhstvo was aggravated by rape or by seduction of a minor or a mentally ill man (Article 996), it was punished by 10-20 years hard labor in Siberia.

In 1903, a new, more lenient, code was adopted. According to Article 516 of this code, muzhelozhstvo was punished by imprisonment for not less than 3 months or, in aggravating circumstances such as rape or seduction of a minor, by 3 - 8 years imprisonment (Ugolovnoe ulozhenie 1903).

When the draft was in preparation, eminent lawyers, including Vladimir D. Nabokov (1902), father of the famed writer, proposed decriminalizing homosexuality altogether, but this was rejected. The punitive legislation was rarely enforced, however. Russian doctors, like their European counterparts, considered homosexuality "a perversion of the sexual feelings" and debated the possibility of treating it, but many ordinary people simply turned a blind eye to it. Some members of the royal family, like Nikolai II's uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, led a blatantly homosexual lifestyle. Intellectuals were also able to avoid prosecution for homosexuality. The legend of Tchaikovsky's suicide following the sentence of a court of honor made up of his former classmates is thus patently absurd Poznansky, 1988).

While it is true that few men were ever prosecuted in tsarist courts for the crime of consenting (homosexual) sodomy, it is not the case that imperial legislation, or even the dominant opinion among progressive legal scholars and lawmakers, exempted sodomy from repression. The tsarist regime was notorious both for ignoring the law ... and for its laxity in implementing the laws it did endorse. The relative neglect of sodomy in the courts may say more about the inefficiency of the legal system than about active tolerance for sexual diversity. (Engelstein, 1995, p. 158)

© 1998 Professor Igor Kon


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