The inner lives of queer comrades in early Soviet Russia

At the dawn of Soviet power, LGBT people found a language to express their identity. 

Artem Langenburg
15 December 2017

A drag ball in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Irina Roldugina.The annual Side by Side Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival took place in St Petersburg from 16-25 November, and included not only feature and documentary films but public discussions as well.

One of the participants in these discussions was historian Ira Roldugina, a DPhil student at the University of Oxford who has been studying the lives of “Soviet queers” for many years. Roldugina is specifically interested in those changes in society that were nipped in the bud by the beginning of the homophobic politics of the Stalinist era. Journalist and cultural historian Artyom Langenburg talked to her about her research.

Artyom Langenburg: As a historian, you chose to study homosexuality in the Soviet Union, which was criminalised and treated as psychologically abnormal for most of the period. What drew you to this theme? Have others investigated it before you?

Ira Roldugina: There were two main factors — the personal and the political — hardly original! I was interested in the sociology of gender, Foucault, and so on. I then discovered Dan Healy’s book, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, long after I got interested in the subject. First came the stigma of being seen as “abnormal” myself, and my experience of that. My academic research became a kind of sublimation — I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t been a history student. And of course it’s always interesting to study more obscure topics. There’s quite a buzz when you find archival resources that no one has ever looked at before.

I was also stimulated by the subject’s political dimension. The agglomeration of fears and prejudices, the explicit and implicit repressive mechanisms in Russia around non-normative sexuality make working in this area particularly attractive and meaningful. I’m not saying, of course that a gender analysis of medieval European frescos or 18th century Russian politics would be less valuable to scholarship: it’s more about my own identification with this issue. I just feel that it’s very relevant to the here and now and that looking at it could be liberating not only for me but for anyone with an interest. My plan has so far been successful: I’m involved in a major research project at Oxford and no longer feel any need for the ambiguity and secretiveness of younger years.

My main forerunner in this topic is professor Dan Healy, whom I work with at Oxford. He was the first to study the history of homosexuality in Russia, collecting a vast amount of source material and generally laying out the street plan. Igor Kon also worked in this field, although from a sociological perspective, and I really wish I had been able to get to know him personally. There’s also Laura Engelstein, an American slavic studies specialist who has now retired. They’re all brave and wonderful scholars.

We can probably see the first Soviet years (up to the late 1920s) as a time when non-normative sexuality became liberated. Were there any social projects on the subject at the time; was it spoken about in the press? Was this incredibly liberal attitude towards gays and lesbians perhaps influenced by psychoanalysis?

IR: I think we can talk about the early Soviet period as a time of liberation, although not of liberty. In my research, I move the emphasis away from experts and the Bolshevik authorities towards the self-advocacy of queer people themselves. I also need to explain why I use the word “queer”, although not exclusively: I feel that today’s LGBT etc. terminology doesn’t translate to the past, and I at least try not to use it reflexively.

But looking back at the 1920s, a lot of the concepts and practices that are common today would have been unthinkable and unknown. When it comes to those like Tatyana Miroshnikova, a student who fought in the Russian Civil War, had a loving wife, a passion for male uniform, and asked the renowned neurologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev what was known to science about changing sex — queer seems the most appropriate word. This vague term with indeterminate limits denotes a rejection of normative behaviour and existing models of sexuality but doesn’t explain them and doesn’t assign anything specific, whether socially or medically.

As for the Bolsheviks’ attitude to homosexuality, they made no attempts to emancipate “gender dissidents”. The Bolshevik government did provide support for many specialists, including financial support, but it would be wrong to describe their relationship in terms of dependency. The medics had a considerable amount of independence, and used it. Bekhterev himself gave lectures across the country: I haven’t been able to find any actual lecture scripts in his archive, but judging from the letters he received from his audiences, he was engaged with the issue of decriminalising homosexuality. In his work as a doctor and lecturer, Bekhterev came across people who in the 1910s and 1920s had literally emerged from silence and created their own language of gender, stripped of all overtones of religion, guilt or medicalisation.

No special organisations existed for Soviet queers — it was self-advocacy; nobody forced them into it “from above”

These people, born at the turn of the 20th century, belonged more or less to one generation: they were children of peasants and town dwellers influenced by various factors — left-wing ideas, secularisation, economic growth, weakened censorship after the reforms of 1905 and the new literature on psychoanalysis and sexual pathology. They started describing their non-normative sexuality using new terms and concepts. They were reaching for a language of their own that drew on both medical and legal models, but mostly on their own experience. No special organisations, such as women’s sections [a section of the communist party devoted to women’s affairs - ed.], for example, existed among early Soviet queers — that’s for certain. It was self-advocacy, no one forced them into it “from above”.

What do you, as a researcher, think led to the repressions which began in the early 1930s? Many people regard this as something merely implicit, as opposed to the explicit homophobic rhetoric of the Nazis.

IR: I don’t have any easy answer. Despite the brazenness and scale of Stalin’s Terror, the reasons behind it, as opposed to the mechanisms, aren’t so easy to analyse, especially where homosexuality was concerned.

But it’s not just that. New slants on collectivisation, for example — a policy that led to the death from starvation of millions — are still appearing. And if we more or less have a handle on the “technical” aspect of collectivisation, the thinking behind it is much less clear. Stephen Kotkin, author of a recent three-volume monograph on Stalin, believes that none of the Soviet leaders of the time, apart from Stalin, could have carried out such an extreme policy. But why Stalin? Kotkin describes him as a “true believer”.

Repressions of homosexuals had even more complex reasons. It’s well known that the mass operations in the large cities were carried out by the OGPU, a branch of the Security Services that in 1934 was amalgamated with the NKVD. Documents revealing the details of this campaign can still be found in FSB archives.


"Perversions" - reads this archive file. Photo courtesy of Irina Roldugina.My biggest breakthrough has been access to the papers from a multi-volume criminal case against 200 queer people Leningrad in 1933-1934. I know their biographies and when and how they were arrested; I even know what they were wearing at the time. But all the operative details and, for example, correspondence between the officers dealing with the case — i.e. the “organisational” side, documents attached to charge sheets and sealed in envelopes — are still classified and unavailable to the public.

There must be other sources, not directly relating to this case, still lurking in FSB archives: Secret Police correspondence such as, for example, documents coordinating the work of different departments and the leadership and so on. In other words, precisely what I need to find, to discover the reasons behind the campaign. But although I can have no access to these documents, I can make a shrewd guess at the campaign’s possible causes.

In general, there can never be one single reason for any phenomenon (as opposed to event). And there were certainly a number of them in this case. One of the main reasons, in my view, was the emergence of a grassroots queer agenda and the literal visibility of queer people — on streets and squares, in the pubs they frequented — that increased throughout the 1920s (and the sources confirm this).

In the second place, it was no coincidence that the campaign was led by the OGPU. This crucial Soviet executive organ has been little researched, for obvious reasons: most of the documents in it are still classified. Secret police operatives as a social group are another subject that requires independent research. My intuition tells me that the start of the anti-homosexual campaign was somehow connected with the evolution of an internal group “morale” within the directorate.

Among the names mentioned by detainees during interrogations in 1933 — the thousands of acquaintanceships made through the homosexual subculture or sexual partners — were people connected with the OGPU. They didn’t figure as defendants in any trials I looked at, but I’m sure that these facts brought them to the attention of their bosses.

The researcher Olga Khoroshilova showed me an interesting photo that indirectly confirms this idea. It was published in the context of the history of dress, her main speciality. Olga has an amazing collection of queer photos, amongst them one from 1933 in which, judging by their uniform greatcoats, OGPU members pose for the camera. The back of the photo has a message on it: “Write about love? You don’t know me. Believe me when I say that this replaces everything for me, except my wife. There can be no return to the past — that’d be too cruel. But I hope we’ll live our lives as closely as in this photo. 1933. Your Nikolay”. There can be any number of interpretations, but I’m inclined to believe that in 1933 the subject of homosexuality was not unknown in the world of the secret police.

By the 1930s, sexuality was seen as political: a very different situation from before the revolution. Any non-normative sexuality was treated as potentially destabilising

There’s one final point which is crucial in understanding of Stalin’s anti-homosexual campaign and his biopolitics in general. By the 1930s, sexuality was seen as political: a very different situation from before the revolution. To put it bluntly, homosexuals were seen as a threat, on a level with “counter-revolutionaries” and “traitors”: sexuality had become as important a factor for purging as any narrowly political one. The persecution of homosexuals and the creation of an asexual façade were closely connected in the 1930s.

I can imagine that the government saw any non-normative sexuality as a potentially destabilising factor, and not just in the context of homophobia and the disgust felt by a former seminary student towards single sex relationships, which were in fact especially common in such institutions in the Russian Empire.

Can we make any guess at how many people were victims of Article 154a (and after 1960, Article 121) of the Soviet Penal Code (“Male homosexual relations”)? What happened afterwards to at least some of those who had spent time in the gulag?

IR: We know how many people were prosecuted under these two articles, but we don’t have an overall picture of the victims of Stalin’s anti-homosexual policies. Law enforcement in the Soviet Union is a separate issue, and I’m not a specialist here. But it’s obvious — there’s lots of evidence of this in memoirs — that the threat of being charged with this offence potent enough to persuade people to cooperate with the authorities.

No statistics on the use of these Penal Code articles have been published, but they were declassified in the 1990s and I worked with them in the archives. So, for example, in 1977, 877 men in Soviet Russia were convicted of having homosexual relations. By comparison, 85 men were convicted of the same crime in Soviet Ukraine that year, and 1320 men across the whole USSR (by 1990 this had fallen to 732). Interestingly enough, no distinction was made between consensual and non-consensual sex between men, and I don’t think this was an oversight. My colleague Vladimir Volodin and I compiled these statistics and some of them have been published — data from the 1940s and 1950s will be published a little later, and in any case we only see the figures, not the people behind them.

Criminal case papers are filed in the internal ministry system, which is even more closed than the FSB’s archives. It’s simply impossible to visit them. But there are clearly people still alive who were convicted under the article on “male homosexual relations” in the USSR. And unlike victims of the “political” article 58 on “counter-revolutionary crimes”, homosexuals were never “pardoned”, and the current semi-official homophobic environment in Russia doesn’t encourage them to talk about their past, nor expect public sympathy.

Unlike victims of article 58 on “counter-revolutionary crimes”, homosexuals were never pardoned, and the current environment in Russia doesn’t encourage them to talk about their past

Several vivid memoirs bear witness to these hardships. Archaeologist and historian Lev Klein’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written under the pseudonym Vadim Samoilov) describes in detail how his conviction for “male homosexual relations” in the early 1980s was the result of some administrative machinations. Importantly, he gives a detailed description of prison life and the position of homosexuals there While his status as an academic guaranteed him a certain security, some of the things he mentions are hard to even think about. It’s a very traumatic read.

Lesbianism was an even more taboo subject, although Hungarian director Károly Makk’s film “Looking at One Another” (marketed in the US as “Another Way”), shows a relationship between two women after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as being frowned upon but not punished. What “measures were taken” against lesbians who were “outed”?

IR: Lesbians were in a double bind. There was no legal ban on such relationships, no formal prosecutions, so their situation has barely been acknowledged. We have no accurate information on the subject.

Researchers have no access to any medical documentation, but lesbianism was seen as a psychological deviation, as opposed to male homosexuality, which was criminalised. Oral history could be a key element in unlocking the lives of gay Soviet women — how they socialised, their behavioural strategies – but public homophobia and a well founded fear of being open about their sexuality make older lesbians impossible to find.

You have of course examined all sources of information on LGBT people in the 1920s and 1930s — letters, notes, anything that can be found in archives. How did people from various social groups perceive their sexuality, bodies and lives?

IR: As I said, I’m mainly focusing on the 1920s and 1930s, although I have collected evidence from other periods, both pre-revolutionary and late Soviet. There’s an astonishing range of self-awareness and subjectivity. As far as social groups are concerned, lower class queer people in the 1920s were very open about their thoughts; they wrote about their own sexuality without shame or inhibitions, unlike people of a slightly different generation and social class.

“Wings”, the first Russian novel about homosexuality, was published as early as 1906, followed by two volumes of the diary of its author Mikhail Kuzmin. Despite including masses of interesting detail on the subculture, he did not attempt to write and think about his sexuality as a central element of his consciousness, as other writers later would.

“Wings”, the first Russian novel about homosexuality, was published as early as 1906

Another great example is the diary of the artist Konstantin Somov. One volume has come out so far, and the rest (there will be another seven, prepared by my colleague Pavel Golubev) will follow it soon. Somov was also openly about his homosexuality, but not to the extent of the lower class queers.

I suppose that is the main difference between people from different social backgrounds. Queers could have become the main gender emancipation force in Russia, were it not for the Terror of the 1930s and Stalin’s revision of the entire Soviet project.

Tell me about the “Soviet Queer” show staged at Teatr.doc, that came out of your work with dramatist Valery Pecheykin.

IR: In the course of my work in the St Petersburg archives, something amazing happened to me, which stunned me, changed my life and gave a whole new dimension to my work, which turned into a very personal story, although it’s debatable whether it’s good for my research as a whole. It started when I was working in the Central State Historical Archive, looking at the letters written by queer people in the Vladimir Bekhterev Collection, and there was one that was simply extraordinary.

Unlike the other handwritten letters, this one was typed and much longer than usual. Its style, depth of analysis and improbable facts it contained also marked it out from the others. But it wasn’t signed at the end, just initialled N.P., and none of the enormous amount of information in the text was verifiable.

N.P. wrote, for example, that he and his partner, who was a soldier, travelled to Germany on the eve of the First World War, “to study the daily lives of the German people”. When the war broke out, they were arrested as spies and spent time in solitary confinement before returning to Russia. N.P. described himself as coming from a large peasant family. But thinking about the inventive picture he gave of himself, it occurred to me that this might be a pastiche. Not a fake, but a document that mixed facts with fiction. Think about it: NP, the son of a peasant who, from what he told us, lacked even elementary education and at the age of 21 was “a totally illiterate lad”, wrote to Bekhterev in the 1920s that: “no conventions can persuade us that our actions are criminal and abnormal. Laws are written by people, and can be changed by them, and we believe that a time will come when we will have rights, that is to say a civil right to free homosexual relationships”.

“Laws are written by people, and can be changed by them, and we believe that a time will come when we will have a civil right to free homosexual relationships”, wrote N.P. in the 1920s

At the same time as studying this document, I was also looking through FSB archives — specifically a file on a criminal case against 200 Leningrad homosexuals arrested in the summer and autumn of 1933.

So on another grey day I opened another equally grey volume, leafed carefully through the disintegrating records of interrogations in fading ink (there were shortages of everything in the 1930s, and the paper was of terrible quality) and suddenly found myself looking at familiar phrases: “visited Germany”; spent time in prison”; “lived in Odessa after my return”; “was arrested together with my partner”. I turned another page over with a shaking hand, to discover the name of the person arrested. Nika Polyakov. N.P. It was the same person. Only now, in 1933, he was describing himself as a visitor to a “pederast den” and “an effeminate pederast”, as well as, naturally, someone who “rejects Soviet Power” and “seduces Red Navy sailors”.

It wasn’t easy to deal with this story alone; I was getting too emotional about it. So I decided that Nika Polyakov, and the subject of queer emancipation in general, deserved a wider audience than academia could provide. I went to see Valery Pecheykin, the dramatist at Moscow’s Gogol Centre. I already knew him a little, and knew that he wouldn’t be put off by the subject. At the premiere, which took place at Teatr.doc, we had a full house (admittedly, it’s not a very large space). The show did not contain a single made-up line, and afterwards we spent an hour and a half answering audience questions. People just couldn’t believe that it wasn’t fiction, but reality, that Nika’s words could sound so contemporary and relevant. Now Valery is putting the finishing touches to the show, and we hope that it will have a proper run in the winter.

Why is what you’re doing important at the present, less than wonderful stage in our LGBT movement?

IR: I can’t say exactly why it’s important in general: I try not to think about that too much. But I know it’s important for me and at least a few close friends who support and take an interest in my research. I am writing the history of my own social group and find it almost therapeutic. I think that putting people who were victims of both Stalin’s Terror and various conspiracies of silence on the map, has significance, even if no one else cares. You just know that you have to do it — and do it as well as you can.

This article first appeared on the site of the “Side by Side” Festival, and was translated by Liz Barnes.

A theatre production based on Irina Roldugina’s archival work will be staged at Teatr.Doc from 19 December.

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