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Problems and Prospects
by Professor Igor Kon

Persecution and torment by no means require persecutors and tormentors; all that is necessary is us ordinary folk confronted, by someone who is not one of us: a Negro, a wild beast, a man from Mars, a poet or phantom. Aliens are born to be persecuted.
Marina Tsvetayeva

Nobody can tell how many gay men and lesbians exist in Russia. Even in the West, statistics on the subject are extremely contradictory; perhaps the question itself is scientifically invalid.Russian gay activists, like their Western counterparts, claim that every tenth male is gay; the most stable gay newspaper, edited by Dmitri Lychev, is even named 1/10. In a journalistic, statistically unreliable questionnaire survey on AIDS and safe-sex attitudes among teenagers conducted in the popular journal Zdorovye (Health) in February 1990, 4% of boys said they were homosexual and 0.7% of girls declared themselves as lesbians. In a telephone interview conducted by D. D. Isayev in St. Petersburg in 1993, among 155 men surveyed, 2.9% admitted to having had homosexual contacts "often," and another 2.9% "rarely," while 94.2% said they had "never" had homosexual contacts. Of the 280 women surveyed, the respective figures were 1.9%, 1.9%, and 96.2%. But it must be repeated that these statistics are not in any way representative.


The most obvious social change in Russia is the disappearance of the old conspiracy of silence and the appearance of same-sex love as a fashionable topic for newspapers, art, and salon conversation. Formerly suppressed and forbidden "gay sensibilities" and eroticism are gradually being recognized and integrated into the elite culture. The most popular theater director in Moscow is the openly gay Roman Viktyuk, and his theater, where some performances have marked homoerotic overtones, is always full, although the audience is not even predominantly gay. In St. Petersburg, the eminent classical dancer Valery Mikhailovsky recently established a first-rate all-male ballet company, and the prominent choreographer Boris Eifman staged a very successful piece about the life of Tchaikovsky in his Modern Ballet Theater. The problems of gay and lesbian life are often discussed on television and in the mainstream newspapers. A shockingly revealing interview with Boris Moiseev, an openly gay popular dancer, was recently published. Moiseev spoke frankly about his sexual experiences with former Komsomol bosses. Foreign films with homosexual allusions, and even some completely dedicated to this topic, are shown openly in the cinemas and sometimes even on television.

Mikhail Kuzmin's classic homoerotic poetry and his famous novel, Krylya, as well as novels by Jean Genet, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote have been published. A two-volume collection of the works of the Russian gay writer, actor, and theater director Evgenii Kharitonov (1941-81) was published for the first time in 1993.

Changes can also be seen in everyday life. Whereas Russian gays used to have to meet each other in the streets or public toilets, which was dirty and risky, now there are at least five openly gay discos and bars in Moscow and St. Petersburg; they are very expensive, however, and are practically monopolized by nouveaux riches and foreigners on the one hand and male prostitutes on the other. Describing a gay restaurant in Moscow, a visitor commented: "The street-sex heritage, in combination with the typical male mentality - all men are sexy animals - turns many victims of passion into a commodity in this market. Here men buy others and sell themselves. It is a constant haggle, a real market where attractive but impecunious youth pay for merriment and satiety to rich, but no longer fresh, old age, using the only currency youth has - their own bodies (Paramonov, 1993, p. 60).


Approximately half a dozen gay newspapers are published in Russia. Kalinin's Tema, which had published a total of 13 issues, ceased publication in 1993; according to Kalinin, it had "fulfilled its historic mission." Kalinin himself is now more involved in gay commercial activities. Seven issues of RISK (Ravnopravie-Iskrennost-Svoboda-Kompromiss, or "Equality-Sincerity-Freedom- Compromise"), edited by Vladislav Ortanov, with a circulation of 5,000, were published between 1992 and 1994. In 1994, Ortanov published also the first issue of an illustrated erotic gay journal, ARGO. The gay newspaper published most regularly - ten issues since November 1991 (up to mid-1994); largest circulation a print run of 50,000 copies - is 1/10, edited by Dmitri Lychev; in 1994, the first international edition, in English, was published. Other gay newspapers and illustrated magazines (Ty [You] and Gay, Slavyane) are rather ephemeral, often publishing one issue and then disappearing because of financial and other difficulties.

The gay newspapers and magazines cover virtually the same issues as those in the West - information about gay and lesbian life, erotic photos (taken mainly from Western journals), translated and original articles, personal dating service ads, medical and other advice (on how to deal with gay-bashing, for example), advertisements for condoms and other sexual aids - but they are, of course, poorer. Material of interest to women, as well as erotica for them, is in substantially shorter supply than material for men. Much appears primitive, but the overall intellectual and artistic level of the publications is rising steadily, which is especially impressive when one considers how difficult and costly it is to publish at all.

Letters and ads vividly show that the lifestyles of and problems facing Russian gays are just as multifarious as in the West. A typical personal ad reads, "Social, easygoing, intelligent young man, 22/180/58, seeks tall, sports-loving, educated gay friend with decent statistics and 22-28 cm size penis." Many young men frankly seek rich patrons. On the other hand, there are also quite a few ads stressing the need for love and friendship.

RISK (1992, no. 2-3) opened a discussion on the issue of having a permanent partner. Nineteen-year-old Igor writes:

In my view all this talk about constancy is just a load of rubbish. . .. To sleep all the time with the same person is boring: it's hardly conceivable! I'm not a monster, thank God, and can find any number of fellows I want: different bodies, different lips, different penises - a new thrill every time. Maybe in a score or more years, when I won't need any of this, I'll have to tie myself down with someone permanent, but for the time being - you can keep it, thank you very much.

Alongside Igor's note is a letter from 27-year-old Dmitri:

I don't understand what a "permanent partner" is. Since he walked into my life a year ago, my life has gained a purpose and fullness. I want him constantly, all the time, but that isn't the point: for some time now sex has been secondary: we haven't anywhere to live anyway, so we spend most of our time walking the streets and drinking tea with his or my friends whom we've known together for some time. . . . You could probably call us permanent partners, but he is no "partner" to me, he is the man I love. And that's forever.


There are now many independent political and cultural organizations for gay men and lesbians, some of them formally registered, some not. In 1991, the Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) Union was founded in Moscow by Yevgenia Debryanskaya and Roman Kalinin to take the place of MULH. The ARGO-RISK Association (ARGO - Assotsiatsiya za ravnopravie gomosexualistov, the Association for Homosexual Equal Rights) was officially registered in Moscow in 1992; its leader is Vladislav Ortanov, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry. MOLLI (Moskovskoye obyedinenie lesbijskoi literatury i iskusstva - The Moscow Union of Lesbian Literature and Art) was founded in 1991 by Mila Ugolkova and Lyubov Zinovieva for humanitarian and cultural activity. In St. Petersburg, the two main organizations are the Tchaikovsky Cultural Initiative and Sexual Minorities' Defense Fund, set up by Olga Zhuk (after an initial refusal, city authorities permitted the group to use Tchaikovsky's name) and the Krylya (Wings) Homosexual Defense Association, whose president is Alexander Kukharsky professor of physics. Krylya was initially called Nevskie berega (Neva Shores), then Nevskaya perspektiva (Neva Perspective), but the city fathers, who thought these names were "advocating the homosexualization of the district," forced the change. Similar associations have arisen in a number of former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia) and Russian cities (Nizhny Tagil, Barnaul, Kaluga, Murmansk, Rostov, Omsk, Tomsk, to name a few).

In August 1993, 27 regional gay and lesbian organizations formally established a national union, Rossiyskaya assotsiatsiya lesbiyanok, geev i biseksualov "Treugolnik" (The Russian Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Association "Triangle"). Like most organizations - and people - in Russia, the Triangle has ambitious plans but no money Thus far, they have managed only to publish a small information bulletin, "The Triangle." As is the case with all other post-Soviet organizations, gay and lesbian groups suffer the inability to cooperate with one another. Their leaders accuse each other of grievous sins and each desires complete independence.


The political clout of the lesbian and gay organizations is negligible. Although most of the groups were formed as political organizations, they have actually focused primarily on community building, social gatherings, discos, dating services, and setting up telephone hotlines (Gessen, 1994). Prominent artists and intellectuals are in no hurry to "come out" and join these organizations. This is because they are, with reason, afraid, partly because they prefer privacy to American-style publicity and partly because, like most Russians today, they feel a general aversion to politics and believe that gay politics is no better than any other.

By contrast with ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians cannot proclaim their sovereignty and set up their own independent state (the most popular post-Soviet idea!); their emancipation and sociocultural integration are two sides of the same coin. This will be a long and difficult process. Sexual minorities can be liberated only by concerted effort from all democratic forces. Political happenings and street confrontation are fine for a community of contented, benevolent people with full bellies, but in Russia, such actions may only provoke general irritation and intensify the tensions of daily life.

Another formidable task is educating the ignorant public about sexual minorities. This will be possible only though the actions of the mainstream mass media, science, and the arts. The development of a true gay subculture is also vital if the homosexual ghetto is to become a normal gay and lesbian community, with its own publications, clubs, counseling centers, and so on, as is the case in the West.

All this can be accomplished only through cooperation and dialogue with the heterosexual majority - political action alone is inadequate.

Recent progress in this direction is undeniable. In June 1994, in the framework of the government-sponsored international conference in Moscow, "The Family on the Eve of the Third Millennium," a roundtable on "Same-Sex Marriages: Moral and Legal Issues" was organized, and the recommendation to legalize such unions was taken without contradiction. Not that anybody will do so in the foreseeable future.

The idea of a separate gay identity does not appeal to many Russians. The American author Andrew Solomon (1993) was told by a gay Russian friend: "Activism occurs here because Westerners put Russians up to it. My good friends know I am gay, but it's my private business. I'm not interested in telling everyone that I like to sleep with men." Another informant added: "I don't want to be part of a subculture. I know that's the fashion in the West, but though I may choose to sleep mainly with gay men that doesn't mean I want to socialize primarily with them (p. 22).

Without some sort of organizational support, however, there is nobody to defend the human rights of sexual minorities. The Russian state and all its established political parties are either openly hostile or indifferent. In August 1994 Treugolnik [Triangle] Center, a regional social lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization was established. This association is supported by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and is linked to the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). However, the Moscow Justice Department refused its legal registration (in a letter of July 21, 1995) on the grounds that the organization "contradicts social norms of morality" and fails to meet the requirements of the federal law on "voluntary social organizations."


Despite obvious achievements, homosexuals in Russia remain "a marginalized and maligned community" (Gessen, 1994, p. 59). They are subject both to public prejudice and to state discrimination in every field of social and private life. If the Moscow Justice Department can discriminate against the organization of homosexuals on "moral" grounds, an even worse reception may be expected in the provinces. Most Russian state officials, especially police officers, are strongly homophobic, and gay-bashing is widespread. Organized bands of hooligans, sometimes acting with the silent acquiescence of the police, blackmail, rob, assault, and even murder gay men. They portray their actions as protecting public morals, calling it remont [repair work] - that is, eliminating vice with their own methods. The police often blame the victims for having provoked such crimes. Since gays are afraid of reporting such incidents, they mostly go unpunished. Many common murders and robberies of gays are attributed by the police to pathological homosexual jealousy. Old police records and lists of known homosexuals are preserved and can be used for blackmail. In the absence of effective legal control, the victims have no defense. But then, practically any Russian citizen risks facing such situations.

In 1993 the IGLHRC reported numerous cases of discrimination. After the repeal of Article 121.1, legal and prison authorities have been in no hurry to release the victims of that law. When an IGLHRC delegation tried to collect information about prisoners and their possible release, many officials were unwilling to help. Sometimes it was through mere bureaucratic inertia and lack of specific instructions. One official told them: "We have a thousand inmates here. Do you want me to look through everybody's file?" In other cases, open animosity was expressed: "I don't care what has been repealed. They're still in there and they will stay in there." Or, "They chose this life for themselves, don't deny that they are this way, so why should we try to protect them?" (Gessen, 1994. pp. 28-29).

Antigay articles are often published in the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskie vesti (Russian News). A typical example is an article entitled "Pathology should not take hold of the masses," by the Moscow psychiatrist Mikhail Buyanov (during perestroika he became a vocal critic of the former Soviet "repressive psychiatry"), which was full of open hatred toward homosexuals and their "sympathizers" and demanded strong, repressive measures against them. Like other "patriots," Buyanov claims that homosexuality was always alien to Russia and that its "popularity" now is the result of Western, primarily American and British, ideological expansionism.

The democratic Komsomolskaya pravda published a long article by Dr. B. Irzak in July 1993. The article's subtitle was "What should the majority do when homosexuality becomes fashionable?" Unlike Buyanov, Irzak supports decriminalization of homosexuality and is in principle against society's interference in private life. But he is worried about the growing "normalization" and popularization of same-sex love: "As a biological phenomenon, homosexuality is in need of research, and as a social phenomenon, it needs strict control". Even some liberal Russian intellectuals opposed to fascism and anti-Semitism, such as the famous actor and film director Rolan Bykov, sometimes talk publicly about the existence and danger of a "homosexual conspiracy".

On the one hand, such statements may be interpreted as a natural reaction to the excessive, noisy, and sometimes aggressive publicity of the homosexual lifestyle in the Russian mass media; Russians are unaccustomed to this. For a strongly normativist psychiatry, a pluralistic attitude to sexual orientation is also intellectually unacceptable. On the other hand, these statements are clearly a part of a large-scale ideological campaign, which may have tragic social consequences. It is not by chance that the current wave of antihomosexuality had its start with the repeal of Article 121.1.


Sexual abuse is a serious problem in Russian prisons and, to a lesser extent, in the army. According to a medicopsychological investigation of 246 male convicts registered by one prison camp's administration as having had homosexual contacts, all claimed to have been raped. Half of them said it had happened for the first time during their preliminary confinement before trial, 39 percent while on their way to the penal colony and II percent in the camp itself (Shakirov, 1991). Most of these young men had had no previous homosexual experience, but after these incidents they became so-called opushchennye [degraded], required to submit to anything others demanded of them. The authorities are aware that this is a serious problem. When questioned by a police sociologist, 74 percent of police officers working in correctional institutions acknowledged that homosexual contacts were rife there (Dyachenko, 1995), yet 13 percent thought this was the result of "inborn homosexual drive," and 45 percent blamed the bad influence of older homosexuals. In their view the only means of prevention of prison rapes and homosexual contacts were stronger punitive measures. Given the present legislation and attitudes, the obvious risk of prison epidemics are not tackled. For example, one HIV-prevention agency was not allowed to give inmates free condoms. Since prisoners are supposed to have no sex life, condoms are formally forbidden.

The strong public and official homophobia means that gays and lesbians are afraid to come out to their work colleagues, friends, or even parents. Some are terribly lonely, and gay newspapers are full of sad letters. Most people understand that in the relations between men and women there is much more involved than sex, but same-sex love tends to be thought of as exclusively a matter of exotic, unusual, and dangerous sex. To combat this stereotype, I organized, within the framework of a large, government-sponsored international conference in Moscow in June 1994 (Family on the Eve of the Third Millennium), a roundtable entitled "Same-Sex Marriages: Moral and Legal Issues." The discussion was lively and interesting; as a result, the participants, and later the plenary session of the conference, recommended unanimously the inclusion of some form of state registration of same-sex couples in the Russian family code. Although several deputies belonging to the Women of Russia faction had been present and voiced no objection to the proposal, they did not inform the Dumas legislative committee about it. No Russian newspaper saw fit to cover the discussion.


All gay newspapers and organizations engage in some anti-AIDS propaganda, but the sexual behavior of many gay men is still risky. In 1993, D. D. Isayev surveyed 290 St. Petersburg gay men aged 16 to 40 on the premises of gay organizations and gay discos and at gay beaches. Some 40.5% had had more than 20 male partners, and 27.5% among them had had more than 50; 47% had no permanent partner, and 14% preferred anonymous and short-term contacts. Only 12% had sex exclusively with their permanent partner. Twenty-six percent combined permanent partnership with occasional short-term contacts. Only 19% had had heterosexual contact before their first homosexual experiences, but parallel homo- and heterosexual contact is widespread (52%).

This type of sexual behavior is epidemiologically dangerous. Although 47% of the gay men surveyed were worried about possible AIDS infection (16% more than among straight men), 33% had never used condoms and 24% did so only rarely. Another 33% thought it was enough to use condoms in casual contacts and for anal sex. Like the majority of St. Petersburg males, only 12.5% used condoms regularly. Nineteen percent of the gay men had had a venereal disease, and 2% had had more than one.

Public health authorities are equally resistive. Official governmental health services, headed by Dr. Pokrovsky, openly despise and ignore lesbian and gay organizations that are actively involved with AIDS prevention. The dislike is mutual. Sexual health education is generally poor in Russia, and this is true among gay men as well.

As previously mentioned, AIDS is often used as an argument against decriminalization of homosexuality. A new federal law gives the government an unchecked power to establish a list of professions and occupations whose members must pass HIV testing. In view of past experience of Soviet repressive medicine, gays have reason to fear this provision will be applied in a discriminatory manner.

Concern about AIDS is very often used as a pretext for anti-gay campaigns. For example, in November 1993, the Moscow newspaper Kommersant-Daily, representing "the new Russians" (i.e., the new Russian capitalists), published an article with the headline "AIDS epidemic among homosexuals has begun in Moscow." This sensationalist story was presented as an interview with Dr. Vadim Pokrovsky, the epidemiologist, who was quoted as saying there was already a real AIDS epidemic among gay men in Moscow. To a professional, the statistics purporting to document this claim look strange; they could not have been compiled by a professional. Yet the article was supplemented by a commentary from Vladimir Pron, the chief of the Moscow police's vice squad division:

Society wanted depravity, and now it has it. At present, the militia has no right to control homosexuals in any way. The article punishing homosexuality was deleted from the Criminal Code, and now only violence against minors can be punished. Even if we know about a "blue" den, we have no right to raid it because these dens have become, as a rule, legal clubs.

The militant homophobia of Pron's department and that of the newspaper that published the interview is well known. But I have seen no disclaimer of this provocative publication from Pokrovsky. Only 1/10 published a rebuttal to this nonsense.

Living in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear, many gays and lesbians have personal problems, but for them access to effective psychological services is difficult. They are afraid to approach official Russian state psychiatry, which always was, and still is, prejudiced, hostile, and ignorant about homosexuality. The new breed of self-educated, private psycho-analysts are even more ignorant. Even in Moscow and St. Petersburg it is difficult to find a doctor who is both well educated and sympathetic.


Like almost everything else in contemporary Russia, the advances in gay and lesbian social and legal situations are extremely tentative. Many things that are possible in the capital are still absolutely impossible in the provinces. Political opposition to the legalization of homosexuality is very strong. In a television interview in June 1993, ex-Vice President Alexander Rutskoy was asked about his attitude toward sexual minorities; with a squeamish gesture of pushing away, he said, "In a civilized society there should be no sexual minorities." The former Komsomol activist Valery Skurlatov, who initiated the campaign for "moral purification" in the 1960s, is now chairman of the extreme nationalist Vozrozhdenie (Renewal) Union. At a press conference in August 1993, he said that "70% of the men in Yeltsin's cabinet are homosexuals" who posed a danger to state security because of their "hostility toward healthy citizens" and "their links to foreign homosexuals." He proposed forming a parliamentary commission to investigate the sexual preferences of government officials. "Russians have never stood for homosexuality," Skurlatov said. "We have decided to campaign actively to bring the truth about homosexuality in the government to the people".


According to VCIOM 1994 survey replicating one of 1989, in the last five years people became more tolerant of almost all stigmatized groups, including gays. The number of people wanting "to liquidate" homosexuals dropped from 27% in 1989 to 18% in 1994, and of those wishing "to isolate" them from 32% to 23%. The number of those wishing to "help," on the contrary, rose from 6% to 8%, and those wishing to "leave them by themselves" from 12% to 29% (the figures for 1989 are only Russian and not the whole of USSR, as at page 248). It is an important change. But is it stable?

Gays and lesbians are now finally coming out in Russia as a social and cultural minority, but they still lack a clear self-image. And it is very dangerous to come out into a ruined and chaotic world, where everything is disconnected and everyone is looking not for friends but enemies. If the country takes a radical turn to communism or fascism, gays and lesbians and their "sympathizers," along with Jewish intellectuals, will be the first candidates for murder and the concentration camps. Once again, this a social, not a sexual problem...

Finally, it has to be said that, however bad the situation may be for homosexuals in Russia today, it is much better than it was in most times past, say 2, 5, 10, 20, or 60 years ago. Some of the present difficulties should disappear in time, but some will need special measures. Russian gay organizations receive a little money from abroad, mainly for political purposes, but collaboration in comparative social research or help with the education of doctors, social workers, and other professionals dealing with individuals seems harder to obtain. Continual pressure on the Russian government by the West on matters of human rights is very welcome, but other forms of constructive help are also needed.

© 1998 Professor Igor Kon


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