Notes on Soviet Attitudes to Homosexuality

Notes on Soviet Attitudes to Homosexuality

Fragments of information concerning the attitudes of the Bolshevik government in its early years to homosexuality.

Note: Still in rough form, this text may be subject to change and editing.

Notes on Soviet Attitudes to Homosexuality

Article 121

Sexual relations of a man with a man (pederasty),
Shall be punished by deprivation of freedom for a term of up to five years.
Pederasty committed with the application of physical force, or threats, or with respect to a minor, or with taking advantage of the dependent position of the victim,
Shall be punished by deprivation of freedom for a term of up to eight years.’

(Butler, WE, Translator & Editor, Basic Documents on the Soviet Legal System, Oceana Publications, 1983, Page 344)

For the past couple of years there has been increased interest in the history of gay rights in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately outside of the queer community in the ex USSR most of this interest is less about learning and more about trivial point scoring either on “western society” or between sects of communists.

To demonstrate the latter I’m going to do something I’d never thought I would do, quote someone from the Stalin society and agree with them (the quoted bit, I disagree with much of the rest of the article and will touch on some of those disagreements later).

“The fact that homosexuality was criminally sanctioned under Soviet law is something that is often thrown in the face of communists in general, and used to “discredit” Comrade Stalin in particular. Indeed, “Stalin hated gays” is something I’ve seen posted online numerous times by trots and anarchists. I doubt Stalin ever wrote or spoke a single public word on the matter. In any event, such an accusation is by, its very nature, decontextualized and misleading.”

Most of the rest of the article including the rest of the paragraph I cut off is full of half truths, fabrications and weak justifications. But from what I’ve seen over the past few years the first part isn’t really wrong. Indeed much of the discussion on this issue generally relies on the repeating of misunderstandings, generalisations and outright myths, and that’s after you cut out the homophobes and social conservatives masquerading as communists.

So I’m writing down what I’ve learned so far in the hopes that it’ll add some clarity and stop the reproduction of at least a few myths. I should point out this isn't meant to be the last word on the subject, on the contrary I'm still finding information on this subject and period, work is slowly being translated and some articles are leaking out of the pay walls.[1]

I originally started writing this months ago, but each time I started drafting something I would find a bit more information on the topic and would put off. This is true of this version, while writing it I've discovered some more sources, some of which I've managed to include, but others I'm still working through. So this may be subject to additions, changes or another update in the future.

To start with lets just handle some factual inaccuracies.

Common myths about the USSR and gay rights:

The Soviet Union was the first government to decriminalised homosexuality: I used to see this one a lot when Western states started passing same sex marriage legislation. Its not as common now but it does still pop up. The answer is it simply isn’t true. Ignoring nations and societies that never had laws against same sex relations, and leaving aside that quite a lot of the laws against it often specified male same sex relations, the USSR was beaten by several societies and nations.

Probably the first nation to decriminalise sodomy was the French Republic in 1791 when its new penal code (one of many) was enacted which contained no references to sodomy. I say probably because for much of world history decriminalisation of same sex relationships hasn’t been explicit, usually a new code or constitution would be adopted that just removed it as a category of crime. This was also the case with the Bolsheviks, they decriminalised by declaring the old Tsarist code and published a new one.

Other notable earlier decriminalisations were the 1830 Imperial penal code of Emperor Pedro of Brazil, the Ottoman Empire in 1858 who largely adopted a Napoleonic legal code, and Japan in 1880 striking down a law enacted in 1872.

It may seem harmless on the face of it, but the prevalence of this myth does show some of the problems with the discourse on this subject.

The Bolsheviks Were Unique in Decriminalising Homosexuality: This is tied to the first myth. Its not entirely accurate and obscures some important details. Before and during the early days of the revolution there actually was some public agitation to decriminalise homosexuality. However curiously the Bolsheviks were absent from this. The most prominent advocate was from a group of Cadets (Constitutional Democrats) most importantly Vladimir Nabokov and some anarchists, Berkman and Goldman’s advocacy in the United States having made an impression on some in the Russian Empire.[2]

This is important to remember because it explains quite a bit of what happened after the Revolution. There was no real pressure from within the Bolshevik party to decriminalise homosexuality, they decriminalised in a de facto manner by abolishing the old code in its entirety, as a result they never took any initiative to combat homophobic prejudices. On the contrary the few people who publicly tried to combat homophobia soon became the enemies of Bolshevik government.

The law against homosexuality was against paedophilia: This is something else that you see dug up from time to time. The text of the law Stalin’s government drew in 1934 Article 121 refers to Pederasty. So some have argued that it didn’t actually criminalise homosexuality at all, but protected children. This despite that the article defines all sexual acts between men as pederasty regardless of age. The article I quoted at the start makes this excuse later on for an example.

Stalin had no role to play in the recriminalisation of homosexuality
: This is an odd one, but its not surprising given how many Stalinists are squeamish about homophobia, but don't want to admit a fault. I’ve seen it argued repeatedly that Stalin had nothing to do with the revised criminal codes, or he did but not the anti homosexuality articles. For example the text by the Stalin Society says this “I doubt Stalin ever wrote or spoke a single public word on the matter” odd since the recriminalisation of homosexuality was carried by the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party of which he was the general secretary.

To be completely accurate in the 1934 criminal code the article against homosexuality was originally listed as Article 154-a but the text remains unambiguous.

“154-a. Sexual relations of a man with a man (pederasty)--

deprivation of liberty for a term up to five years.

Pederasty, done with the employment of force or use of the dependent situation of the victim, --

deprivation of liberty for a term from five to eight years.
[1 April 1934 (SU No 15, art. 95)].”

The Soviet Union Legalised Gay Marriage: There is no evidence of this. There are records of gay couples having marriage ceremonies in the aftermath of the revolution, which probably explains the confusion. However none of them received official recognition or any of the civil benefits of marriage that heterosexual couples enjoyed. And in at least one case a lesbian couple -discussed later on- who got married were ordered to dissolve their union, and when they refused to comply the couple were taken to court.

The Soviet Union Decriminalised Homosexuality: This is actually a big one, to be clear at no point did the Soviet Union abolish legal sanctions against homosexuality. It was decriminalised only in the Russian part of the Union, officially the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In the other territories controlled by the Bolsheviks, the Central Asian Republics, and Georgia, laws against homosexuality remained in force. So yes even under Lenin men were still being legally punished for homosexuality in territories controlled by the Bolsheviks.

In effect the USSR did not decriminalise but the Russian territory the RSFSR did until 1934. This my seem pedantic but I think its important to keep I mind. I have seen the 1934 recriminalisation of homosexuality depicted as a sort of unprecedented event, but it had plenty of precedent. I haven't seen any details but I have read that after 1934 some of the Soviet Republics actually updated their anti homosexuality laws to be even harsher than the Soviet punishments.

Homosexuality in the early Soviet period

Now that we’ve got that out of the way I’d like to address some misconceptions instead. Its not entirely accurate to credit Lenin with decriminalising homosexuality. Well at least not in the way its usually done. Typically this is depicted as a benevolent act from a progressive government consciously correcting a great social evil. Its not entirely incorrect the law codes for the Russian territory used to contain bans on homosexual activity (article 516 in the last code to be enforced), then at some point after November 1917 the new codes in use did not, but it leaves out a lot of important context. Some of which I’d like to address here.

The often-overlooked Provisional government formed after the February Revolution had made a start on dismantling the old Tsarist framework,

“which hesitantly assumed responsibility for affairs of state after the fall of the monarchy in February 1917, represented the liberal impulse among the political elite. Cautious in regard to formal niceties, the new rulers refused to consider themselves the nation’s legitimate successor government until the anticipated convocation of a constituent assembly. They nevertheless began piecemeal to dismantle the legal structure of the old regime. It was under the Provisional Government that women achieved civil rights, that religious and ethnic discrimination was abolished, along with the death penalty and deportation to Siberia, and that the possibility of divorce was enlarged.”


But it didn’t get to the decriminalisation of sodomy. That would have to wait until the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks declared the rest of the code obsolete and worked on a new one.

“By contrast, when the Bolsheviks came to power in October, they showed no timidity in overturning the legal basis of the old regime. Indeed, they immediately ordered the newly instituted ‘‘people’s courts’’ to obey Soviet decrees and to reflect ‘‘revolutionary legal consciousness,’’ while selectively applying only those existing laws that did not contradict socialist principles. By the end of 1918, the Soviet authorities had prohibited the application of any tsarist law. To fill the legislative gap, the new government issued numerous decrees imposing penal sanctions for specific transgressions but failed to introduce any clearly defined order or precise definitions on which the courts could rely. During 1920-21 the Commissariat of Justice authorized the production of a new criminal code, which went into effect on June 1, 1922, to be revised four years later”


As stated previously the absence of a criminal charge for same sex acts only applied to the RSFSR, but even then, the authorities were mixed in their approach. For example in 1930 an entry by the medical expert Sereisky in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia reads as such, “Soviet legislation does not recognise so-called crimes against morality. Our laws proceed from the principle of protection of society and therefore countenance punishment only in those instances when juveniles and minors are the objects of homosexual interest.”[5]

However another expert the Psychologist Vladimir Bekhterev who worked with the Bolsheviks after the revolution including organising the First Conference on Scientific Organization of Labour in 1921 publicly testified at a trial of Russian homosexuals that “‘the public demonstration of such impulses might attract unstable people into the ambit of perversion. The introduction of homosexual tastes and activities to the broad public…is socially harmful and cannot be permitted. The creation of clubs or dens for such purposes must be punished under the criminal law.’

In practise generally speaking homosexuality was treated as a social illness to be cured if possible. To quote Sereisky again “while recognising the incorrectness of homosexual development… our society combines prophylactic and other therapeutic measures will all the necessary conditions for making the conflicts that afflict homosexuals as painless as possible and for resolving their typical estrangement from society within the collective.”[6]

Its not perfect but it sounds like an improvement, though it would depend on the procedures actually used. At this time “therapeutic measures” for homosexuality were often very brutal. Such as aversion “therapy” which was practised at the time. So far I’ve not been able to find any information on what was typically practised by therapists at this time in the Soviet Union. I have however come across some information on how young lesbians were treated in the 80s which involved commitment to psychiatric wards and mind altering drugs.

“A typical scenario, recounted by more than a dozen young Russian lesbians ages 15-19 who were interviewed from 1991 to 1993 by Masha Gessen (1994), involves a parent or other guardian (such as a teacher at a residential school) finding out about a lesbian relationship and committing one or both of the - usually - very young women. A diagnosis and a relatively brief hospitalization - two to three months - and forced treatment with mind-altering medication followed. After her release from the psychiatric hospital, the patient was to remain registered with a local psychiatric ambulatory clinic, (pp. 17-18)”


Now that’s a different time and political climate, but my knowledge of therapeutic cures at that time doesn’t fill me with optimism.

However that was official policy and just like in every other society on earth there’s major differences between how things are supposed to be and how they actually are.

I think a good introduction of the immediate post-revolutionary period is a BBC news story called 1917 Russian Revolution: The gay community's brief window of freedom

It’s a selection of stories from 1917 to the early 1920s about Russia’s queer community. The first story is from 1921 when a member of the secret police staged a fake gay wedding to round up Petrograd’s gay community. He arrested 95 people in all. Fortunately for them he couldn’t get anything to stick, but its still not a good sign that he was able to plan an elaborate sting operation and mass arrest. And indeed in 1922 the year the Bolshevik government published its first criminal code, there were at least two public trials for homosexuality in the RFSR even though the criminal code contained no such category.

Its a very confusing period and its not helped that the early Bolshevik government was open about arbitrarily punishing people even when they had not technically committed a crime. To give an example of this bizarre attitude in 1921 at a national congress Alexandra Kollontai admitted that sex workers were being sent to labour camps despite the fact that there was no actual law against sex work. Indeed she criticised party members who had been looking into drafting some laws against sex work, but maintained her support for the current policy that included sentencing sex workers to labour camps.

“A prostitute is not a special case; as with other categories of deserter, she is only sent to do forced labour if she repeatedly avoids work. Prostitutes are not treated any differently from other labour deserters. This is an important and courageous step.”


The justification being that they were guilty of the crime of labour desertion, but what exactly counted as labour desertion wasn't defined very well either, hence the confused attitude to sex workers within the party committees concerned with it.

This legal arbitrariness is not unprecedented; funnily enough, it was a common feature of the Tsarist period.

“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 (acting through imperial fiat or passing ‘‘emergency legislation’’ that superseded formal procedures and guarantees) 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.”


The early Bolshevik regime fighting a civil war also had severe issues with upholding its laws and even determining clearly what was and was not a crime. It largely ruled by decree which didn't make for a very coherent legal system.

“the definition of crime was itself in flux, as the violence of revolution and civil war created its own exceptional standards. It was not considered murder, for example, to kill in defense of the revolution or as a matter of ‘‘class justice.’’ Such conduct was thought the stuff of heroism, not delinquency. Yet the absence of codified laws and the state of general uncertainty did not mean that all behavior formerly considered criminal was now officially sanctioned or left unpenalized”


Technically the Bolsheviks had decriminalised murder at the same time that they decriminalised homosexuality, because the way they did it was to abolish the entire code at the same time. And while decrees covering that crime were quickly instated it took years for the Bolsheviks to codify a proper legal sanction against it. But in practise the courts and tribunal system where they still existed continued to hand out sentences for guilty verdicts for all sorts of offences in the meantime.

The penal code of 1922 is very important, as it finally clarified the official views of the government. And the absence of an article against same sex relations is also important. Its absence shows that while the Bolshevik government wasn’t interested in the rights of homosexuals, at the time it wasn’t interested actively prosecuting them. In Russia, anyway the code was for the RSFSR, it still didn’t apply to the other republics.[11]

However even after 1922 there is a problem causing confusion. The Penal Code allowed for the prosecution of people for acts which were not against the letter of the laws in the name of public welfare. This lead to a number of strange cases including the two trials of homosexuals in the RSFSR in 1922 mentioned earlier.

One was similar to the events in the BBC story, Secret police raided what they thought was a political meeting of sailors only to find that it was a meeting of homosexuals and cross dressers. They arrested them all and tried them as a danger to public welfare. It was at this trial where Bhekterev made his testimony urging the crackdown on public displays of homosexual behaviour.

“The first case arose when the local security police (Cheka) noticed that small groups of men, mostly sailors (voenmory), often congregated in a Petrograd apartment. Interrupting one such meeting, which they suspected of harboring a political agenda, the officers were surprised to discover a peaceful domestic scene apparently consisting of brides and grooms, gentlemen and ladies, decked out in appropriate attire. Upon closer inspection the participants all turned out to be men. They were not political conspirators, the press report indicated, but members of a ‘‘club’’ or ‘‘den’’ (priton) for ‘‘sexual perverts,’’ who presented no less of a public danger. ‘‘Homosexual behavior,’’ the report warned, ‘‘spreads not only among people obviously afflicted with organic abnormality, but also by attracting suggestible people, drawn to their example by curiosity, who accidentally succumb to perverted urges.’’


The second case in 1922 involved a lesbian couple (Well one of the pair may have been transgender or impersonating a man to take a wedding certificate the reports allege fabrication of documents). Which appears the first time in Russian history.[13]

“The other 1922 case concerning homosexuality evoked that same conflict between public interest and private right. It involved the conduct of a woman from a provincial town who changed her name from Evgeniia to Evgenii, adopted male attire, and settled down in marriage with another woman. Instructed by their employers to dissolve their ‘‘marriage,’’ the two refused, claiming that ‘‘no one had the right to interfere in their intimate lives.’’ ‘‘Unsuccessfully defined’’ as a ‘‘crime against nature,’’ the press report noted, the case had bogged down in the courts as investigators tried--and failed--to find signs of abnormality in the defendants’ behavior. A psychiatrist, it was suggested, might have been more successful in defining as deviant the pair’s falsification of documents and stubborn refusal to part.”


So even in 1922 in the territory of the RSFSR there was still some form of official persecution. Though by 1926 there does seem to have been a trend of genuine improvement. The revised RSFSR criminal code kept sodomy off the books and it doesn’t appear that similar trials or raids by the police took place, as far as I’m aware, though I’m still finding more information. Curiously the most tolerant period seems to be the early years of Stalin’s rule. By this point Soviet experts were taking part in international conferences for sexual reform[15] and supported the German Communist parties agitation against Germany’s law against sodomy Paragraph 175. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia entry quoted earlier from 1930 also comments positively on Magnus Hirschfeld arguably Europe’s most important homosexual rights activist at the time.

Of course it didn’t last, by 7th of March 1934 homosexuality between men was again a serious crime and the official toleration and links with sexual reform movements were shutdown. The second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia now said this

“The origin of H[omosexualism] is linked to everyday social conditions; for the overwhelming majority of people indulging in H[omosexualism], these perversions stop as soon as the person finds himself in a favorable social environment.... In Soviet society with its healthy mores, H[omosexualism] as a sexual perversion is considered shameful and criminal. Soviet criminal legislation regards H[omosexualism] as punishable with the exception of those instances where H[omosexualism] is a manifestation of marked psychic disorder. (Gomoseksualizm, 1952, p. 35)”


In addition high profile Communist party members like Maxim Gorky and the then Commissar for Justice Nikolai Krylenko publicly attacked homosexuality.

Gorky 1934

“In the land where the proletariat governs courageously [muzhestvenno; also translated as manfully] and successfully, homosexuality, with its corrupting effect on theyoung, isconsidered a social crime punishable under the law. By contrast, in the ‘‘cultivated land’’ of the great philosophers, scholars, and musicians, it is practiced freely and with impunity. There is already a sarcastic saying: ‘‘Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear.’’

Krylenko 1936

“The laboring masses believe in normal relations between the sexes and are building their society on healthy principles. In this environment there is no place for such effete gentlemen

[gospodchiki]. Who provides our main clientele for such affairs? The laboring masses? No! The déclassé riff-raff, whether from the dregs of society or the remnants of the exploiting classes. With nowhere to turn, they take up pederasty. In their company, in foul secret dens, another kind of work also takes place, using this pretext—counterrevolutionary work. These are the people who destabilize [dezorganizatory] the new social relations we are trying to establish between people, between men and women, within the laboring masses. And therefore it is these gentlemen [gospoda] whom we prosecute in court and deprive of five years of freedom”


This attitude would continue until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but even today its effects are still being felt in the ex USSR.


In addition to the sources directly referenced in the footnotes below this essay relied on the information produced from the following sources.

Article published by the Stalin Society

Partial translation of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR

Constitution of the RSFSR

Speech by Kollontai in 1921

Translation (partial) of Soviet Criminal Code published 1936

Interview with Ira Roldugina "The inner lives of queer comrades in early Soviet Russia "

Soviet Homophobia by Professor Igor Kon

Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality a Multi nation Comparison

Soviet Policy to Male Homosexuality by Laura Fingelstein

The Pink Triangle the Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant

1: I've made extensive use of the article Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality. In order to read that article I had to pay £36 for the privilege of having access to it for 24 hours.

2: Though to be clear I don't believe either group had a majority, Nabokov seems to have been a minority, occasionally solitary voice, and many anarchists don't appear to have made public statement at all on the issue. Tolstoy for example vilify a fictional homosexual activist in his novel Resurrection.

3: Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality, Laura Engelstein.

4: Idib.

5: pg 593 of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, taken from Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality a multi nation comparison pg 224

6: Idib.

7: Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality pg 225-6


9: Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality,

10: Idib

11: A partial translation of the RSFSR criminal code (revised in 1924) can be found here

12: Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality

13: To be clearer, the court and the media treated the pair as a lesbian couple and accused Evgenii of posing as a man to trick the authorities.

14: Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality

15: In the early 20's and 30's there were numerous conferences around the question of sexual reform. Usually pushing for legalisation of a number of activities like birth control, abortion access, sexual activities, homosexuality. And additionally educational campaigns were conducted.

16: pg 35 of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, translation taken from Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality pg 224

17: Both quotations come from Soviet Policy Towards Male Homosexuality. Krylenko's are taking from a speech in 1936 given to the Central Committee