By the time the Soviet Union was established, homosexuality was considered a criminal act and punishable by death in Tsarist Russia. However, this was a mere legal formality. Those scandal-ridden courts set out for Oscar Wilde in Great Britain, Philipp, prince of Eulenburg in Germany, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine in France did not exist in Russia in the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, nearly a thousand homosexuals were taken to court, but judges tended to either acquit them or sentence them to mild punishment.
Even as a general rule, tsars themselves turned a blind eye to the artists known as homosexuals. Criminalising homosexuality was an attempt for them to satisfy the Christian society.
All tsarist rules were abolished just after the establishment of the USSR. Similarly, homosexuality was decriminalised around the union, while the death penalty for anal sex among men persisted only in Caucasian and Asian countries within the USSR. However, communist rulers took an ambiguous approach to homosexuality. Because the new rules were based on secular and scientific thoughts, there was no punishment for same-sex relationships. Yet, people were persecuted at times for their sexual orientation.
Stalinist repressions pervaded the whole union in 1933. Stalin saw homosexuals as “agents tasked with destroying the morals of the soviet society”. An article called “mujelojestvo” was added to criminal codes in all Soviet Union countries, according to which anal sex between men would be punished with five years of imprisonment.
After Stalin’s death, this article was not abolished, even worse, attitudes towards homosexuals turned considerably negative, and persecutions against them multiplied. After World War II, the state facing a demographic crisis aimed to sacralise the family institution, creating the cult image of giving birth to children and promoting large families with higher numbers of children. Consequently, they followed a “moralistic” policy throughout the union.
According to various calculations, almost 250 thousand people were taken to court with the accusation of being homosexual in 60 years in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, hundreds of women received repressive “psychological support” to abstain from homosexual intercourse in the post-Stalin period.
Homosexual artists of the USSR period
During the approximate 70 years of existence of the USSR, homosexuality was a totally ignored topic in all branches of art. It was out of the question to see something about homosexual relationships in any example of movie, literature, theatre, or artwork. If the tsarist period was described in memoirs, the author was allowed to narrate disgustingly about “disgraceful relationships of those times” as an issue of the past. The tradition of “walking soft” with homosexual artists in the tsarist period did not only disappear in the Soviet period; even worse, it was an obligation for the artists to adjust themselves to the ruling party’s morals more than others and “show an exemplary moral” to the society. No doubt, under such conditions, homosexual artists in the USSR had to hide their sexual orientation because, otherwise, they would be exposed to imprisonment, exile, and disgrace.
In the given circumstances, it was entirely forbidden for Soviet literature enthusiasts to write about homosexual relationships. On top of that, while foreign literature was translated into Soviet languages, parts of the writings inferring such relationships were either censored or presented implicitly in translation. Certainly, there were some exceptions: The poet Yevgeny Kharitonov was considered “the Bunin of the gay literature”. His works were censored by the authorities and were only published by the underground press called the “samizdat” system. This system, gaining popularity in the 70s of the last century, printed marginal writers’ works in few copies, who could not pass the censor of the official Soviet publishing and sold or distributed clandestinely. However, the mysterious death of Kharitonov, who had been persecuted by the KGB for a long time, intimidated his colleagues to speak out about their sexual orientation or start a “gay literature”.
Despite a threat of imprisonment, hostile attitudes from the government and society, some bisexual film directors in the USSR, such as the renowned director Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990), continued their work. Indeed, the problem of the Soviet system with this genius director were the movies “Ashik Kerib”, “The colour of pomegranates” and “Shadows of forgotten ancestors”, which were loved internationally and brought him worldwide fame. These movies were not only about his bisexuality. Sergei Parajanov stood up for the persecuted intelligentsia in Ukraine besides criticising communism fiercely. Such behaviour could not have been accepted by the Soviet rulers.
In 1974, Parajanov was charged with “sodomy”, “raping a male”, and “propagation of pornography” by the court and sentenced to five years of imprisonment. S. Parajanov did not hide his bisexual identity while he denied the accusations.
That period was called a “Brejnevskiy ottepel”, which inferred Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the USSR Communist Party, who assumed a milder political attitude than his preceded colleagues.
The imprisonment of prominent artists like Parajanov could not have been held silently even in the soviet regime. Artists of various fields throughout all regions of the union protested Parajanov’s confinement, not being afraid of further persecutions they were likely to experience.
While Parajanov kept drawing pictures and writing novellas and screenplays even in prison, highly prominent artists and filmmakers, not only within the union but all around the world, started to protest on behalf of him. Distinguished art figures such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Robert De Niro, Bernardo Bertolucci, Irving Stone and Michelangelo Antonioni gave speeches in support of him. They demanded the release of this genius filmmaker immediately. However, the USSR authorities ignored all those protests.
One of those art people who did not stay indifferent to the problem was Lilya Brik. Brik’s sister Elsa Triolet was married to Louis Aragon, a well-known French poet who was also popular in the Soviet Union for his leftist views. Keeping his promise to Lilya Brik, Louis Aragon travelled to the USSR in 1977, received the Order of Friendship of Peoples in Moscow and asked Brezhnev personally to release Parajanov. Consequently, the filmmaker was released from prison; however, he was forbidden to live in Moscow, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Kyiv and Yerevan.
Post-USSR period and continuing homophobia in the region
After the USSR was disintegrated, it took a long time to decriminalise homosexuality in many post-soviet countries, including Russia. To exemplify it, the rule considering punishment for homosexuality lasted in Russia by 1993, while it was 1992 for Ukraine, 1997 for Kazakhstan, 2000 for Georgia, 2001 for Azerbaijan and 2003 for Armenia. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both post-soviet countries, homosexuality is still forbidden by law and punished with several years of imprisonment. Unfortunately, legally allowing same-sex relationships in many post-soviet countries was not a step taken to keep up with human rights or humanist values but to be accepted by the Council of Europe. In other words, it does not prevent homophobia and persecution of LGBT+ individuals.
For example, about a hundred LGBT+ individuals were exposed to severe persecutions, torture in Chechnya in 2017. At least three of them were murdered, while some of them went missing. Local authorities denied not the only repression against LGBT+ individuals but also the “existence of gays in Chechnya” and said: “The government do not need to murder them, their family will do so themselves”.
A bit of hope
Nowadays, queer publishing and NGOs specialised in protecting the rights of LGBT+ individuals who work openly or clandestinely in almost every post-soviet country. Novels containing homosexual relationships are written in modern post-soviet literature, and movies are produced on the queer topic. These sometimes lead to scandals or threats and persecutions against authors, but what really matters is taboos set by the soviet system to arts and society with regards to homosexuality are being broken even as Putin and other post-Soviet leaders continue to persecute sexual minorities.
Image source: Internet
Gunel Movlud (Azerbaijani, translated to Norwegian) was born in 1981 in Azerbaijan. As a pursued Azeri journalist, translator, and poet, she has been living in Norway as an ICORN writer since 2016, where she has won the “Words on Borders” poetry prize in 2017. In 2019, she was published in Aschehoug anthology of refugee poets, To kiss a desert. To kiss a wall. Gunel is a women’s rights activist and writes against violence, oppression, and injustice.