Russian National GayLesBiTrans Site
Russian National GayLesBiTrans Site
Home  Feedback/Gay.Ru Team Russian version

Struggle for Decriminalization
by Professor Igor Kon

After 1987, the question of what exactly homosexuality was and how one should relate to "blues" - whether to regard them as sick, as criminals. or as victims of fate - began to be discussed extensively in the popular, especially youth, press (Moskovsky komsomolets, Komsomolskaya pravda. Sobesednik, Molodoi kommunist, Literaturnaya gazeta, Ogonyok, Argumenty i fakty, SPID-Info, the teenage journal Parus, and some local newspapers), and on radio and television. Although discussion in these publications was extremely diverse in terms of orientation and level of sophistication, the very fact of it was of huge significance. For the first time, ordinary Soviet people began to learn - from journalistic articles and letters from gays, lesbians, and their parents - of the crippled destinies, the police brutality, the legal repression, the tragic, inevitable loneliness of people doomed to live in constant fear and unable to meet people similar to themselves. Every article provoked a stream of contradictory reactions, which editors had no idea how to handle.

The question of the decriminalization of homosexuality has long been a subject for debate in professional circles. In 1973, a textbook on criminal law by Mikhail Shargorodsky and Pavel Osipov discussed the illogicality of Article 121 of the RSFSR criminal code:

In the Soviet literature of jurisprudence, there has never been any attempt to articulate a sound scientific basis for the existence of criminal penalties for muzhelozhstvo [sex between men]. The only reason that is usually given - that the subject is morally depraved and has violated the rules of socialist morality - cannot be considered substantive, since negative personal traits cannot serve as grounds for criminal penalties and the amoral nature of an act is insufficient for declaring it criminal. . . . Serious doubts exist regarding the expediency of retaining criminal penalties for the unqualified act of muzhelozhstvo.

This professional opinion was completely ignored. Back in 1979, Professor Alexei N. Ignatov, aleading legal expert on so-called sex crimes, had raised the question with those in charge of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. The present author tried unsuccessfully to publish an article on the topic in the legal journal Sovetskoye gosudarstvo i pravo in 1982. Although it was strongly supported by the medical experts, professors G. S. Vasilchenko and D. N. Isayev, the editorial board decided against publication of the paper.

Arguments for the decriminalization of homosexuality were advanced from a variety of points of view:

  1. Legal: Soviet legislation on the subject is not in accord with the standards and principles of international law; it lacks internal logic, since only males are punished under Article 121 and criminalization of homosexuality invites abuse and corruption on the part of law enforcement agencies.

  2. Humanitarian: If an individual's sexual orientation is a matter of biology, not personal choice, he should not be punished for pursuing it.

  3. Scientific: Criminalization goes against current sexological opinion.

  4. Medical and hygienic: Criminalization makes it more difficult to combat the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases'

  5. Social: Criminalization is damaging because it alienates homosexuals from the rest of society, forcing them into a squalid underworld.

Although these arguments never made their way into the press, the draft of the revised Russian Criminal Code, prepared by a commission of lawyers in the mid-1980s, excluded Article 121. However, as discussion and adoption of the new code was delayed, disputes about Article 121 finally spilled out into the popular press and onto television. Three major lines of thought emerged:

  1. Article 121 should be fully revoked; there should be no mention of sexual orientation in the Criminal Code, since children and adolescents, as well as victims of rape and sexual coercion, irrespective of gender, are protected by other laws.

  2. Criminal prosecution for same-sex contacts between consenting adult males (Article 121.1) should be revoked, but Article 121.2, covering aggravating circumstances, should be retained. This was the opinion of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

  3. Article 121 should remain unchanged. This was the demand of Communists, nationalists and religious organizations.

Until the late 1980s, Soviet gays, with rare exception, were victims who could only complain about their fate and futilely bemoan their humiliation. In 1984, some 30 young people in Leningrad, led by Alexander Zaremba, a young philologist who had recently moved there from Kiev, set up a "Gay Laboratory." They established contact with a Finnish gay and lesbian association, dispatched information to the West about the woeful state of Soviet gays, and started, to the extent that circumstances allowed, to provide information on AIDS prevention for homosexuals, which the Soviet medical community had completely failed to do. It did not take long, however, before the group caught the eye of the KGB and found itself on the receiving end of political and ideological accusations, threats, and repression, as a result of which group members were forced to emigrate or hold their peace.

During the initial years of glasnost, experts were alone in discussing the problems of sexual minorities, which they mentioned in sympathetic, but distanced, tones. Gradually, gays and lesbians themselves broke through to the press, gaining courage to fight for themselves. In this emerging self-awareness, they received considerable support from international gay and lesbian organizations and publications.

The first international conference on "The Status of Sexual Minorities and Changing Attitudes Toward Homosexuality in 20th Century Europe" to be held anywhere in the Soviet Union took place in Tallinn at the end of May 1990. Held on the premises of the History Institute of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, it was organized with the support of international gay organizations. The conference was very successful and encouraged increased self-awareness and elucidation of the social and psychological identity of Soviet gays and lesbians.*25 Many foreign scholars such as Jeffrey Weeks and Gert Hekma took part. The first comparative questionnaire survey into the status and problems of sexual minorities in Finland and Estonia was initiated within the framework of the Soviet-Finnish program for studying social minorities; it had its base in Tallinn under the leadership of the demographer Teet Veispak. The questionnaire was later extended to Russia, but no results have been published.

In late 1989, Moscow witnessed the establishment of the first Sexual Minorities Association (later the Union of Lesbians and Homosexuals). According to the program announced at a press conference in February 1990, it was "primarily a human rights organization with the main purpose of obtaining the complete equality of people of different sexual orientations." It saw its prime objectives as campaigning for the revocation of Article 121, changing public attitudes (or, rather, prejudices) toward members of sexual minorities by employing all the opportunities presented by the official mass media and pressing for the social rehabilitation of AIDS sufferers. The group began to publish a newspaper, Tema (The Theme). It also considered it important to study homosexual problems, to campaign for safe sex, to gather all available information on gay persecution, and to offer assistance to people in their search for friends and soulmates. There were no formal requirements for membership, and no membership lists, and anyone over 18 could join.

SPID-Info published the association's appeal to the USSR president and supreme Soviets of the USSR and union republics, which they simply discovered in their editorial mail. Signed, pseudonymously, by V. Ortanov, K. Yevgeniev, and A. Zubov, the appeal requested the removal of discriminatory statutes (referring to article 121.1) from the criminal code and the declaration of an amnesty for those convicted under it. At the same time, the authors of the appeal declared their "resolute condemnation of any attempts to seduce minors and use violence, in any form and in regard to persons of any age, and regardless of who actually makes such attempts." They went on to say, "We do not attempt to convert anyone to our belief, but we are what nature made us. Help us to stop being afraid. We are part of your life and your spirituality, whether you or we like it or not."

Unfortunately the political climate of Soviet society and the impossibility of having a constructive dialogue with the authorities encouraged a situation where all democratic movements immediately began to splinter into factions of "radicals" and "moderates" who refused to work with one another. Gays and lesbians were no different in this respect. Immediately after the publication of Tema's second trial issue, a split emerged in the association, which then actually ceased to exist; in its place appeared the Moscow Union of Lesbians and Homosexuals (MULH), headed by Yevgenia Debryanskaya and the 24-year-old student Roman Kalinin, who became the sole editor and publisher of Tema. The paper was officially registered by the Moscow City Council (Mossovet) in October 1990.

The establishment of the Sexual Minorities Association had opened up new opportunities to gays and lesbians. It was an event triumphantly acclaimed in the West. The fact that a few courageous people had "come out," demanding civil rights in place of compassion and condescension, was an important moral victory. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was founded in 1991, with the American Julie Dorf as executive director. The question now was how to continue the struggle.

MULH decided to operate through street meetings and protest demonstrations, employing trenchant political slogans aimed more at the Western press than at Soviet citizens. It was a tactic that found favor with radical American gay activists. Kalinin was particularly well received in the United States, where he was cordially welcomed by the mayor of San Francisco; in fact, the day of his arrival in the city was proclaimed "Roman Kalinin Day," and Kalinin was awarded an honorary certificate and given promises to flood the USSR with free condoms.

Funds collected in the United States enabled the International Tema Organization to hold international symposia on gay and lesbian rights and the fight against AIDS in both Leningrad and Moscow in the summer of 1991. Plenary sessions took place in large conference halls. The first gay and lesbian film festival was a part of the conference, which was very successful. Apart from the plenary sessions devoted mainly to political issues, the organizers arranged several symposia at which specific questions concerning sexual minorities were debated, including psychological health and culture, AIDS prevention, and so on. At the last moment, the participants sensibly decided against holding a gay parade with the slogan "Turn Red Squares into Pink Triangles" in Moscow's Red Square, confining themselves instead to a more modest protest meeting near the Moscow City Council accompanied by free distribution of condoms.

Despite the discretion in this particular case, the common features of post-Soviet politics - extremism, lack of political experience, and an unwillingness to deal with reality - soon began to manifest themselves in the activity of Kalinin and his group. Demands by the Libertarian Party, of which MULH was a part, to legalize homosexuality, prostitution, and drugs were understandable: but when lumped together without any detailed argument - the press was given only the bare slogans - they served only to reinforce the stereotype that homosexuality, prostitution, and drug addiction were one and the same thing and that "such people" should be given no quarter.

In autumn 1990, the Communist and nationalist press whipped up a dreadful scandal regarding an alleged interview with Kalinin published in the Moscow district paper Karetny ryad. The article said that the Sexual Minorities Association was not protecting the rights of gays and lesbians only, but also the rights of pedophiles, necrophiles, and those favoring bestiality as well. "I don't go in for children myself," Kalinin was quoted as saying, "but our Association's position is clear: the statute on seduction of minors should be removed from the Criminal Code. We are against forced abuse, but if sexual contact takes place by mutual consent, it's normal at any age and in any combination of sexes. . . . Where do you get hold of kids? There are channels: a child costs between 3,000 and 5,000 [rubles]. A pedophile gets a fantastic thrill; after all, a child has a wonderful body and mind, completely unsullied." "But bodies for necrophiles?" "No problem there, either; some necrophiles work in morgues, or the ambulance services, or cemeteries. Others come to an arrangement with them."

It is not so important that Kalinin's words may have been blown out of proportion or that Kalinin and his friends were having fun at the expense of a young and inexperienced journalist. TASS and the rest of the official Party and conservative press - Sovetskaya Rossiya, Pravda, Semya, and many other periodicals - as well as the television program "600 Seconds," at once seized upon the sensational piece published in the hitherto obscure Karetny ryad. It provided the perfect pretext for a propaganda campaign against the democratic Mossovet, which was roundly condemned for encouraging sexual perversion and pornography Protest meetings were even held at a number of factories far from Moscow, and there were resolutions, ultimately tabled, demanding immediate new elections for the Moscow City Council, and, at the very least, an absolute ban on Tema and the Sexual Minorities Association. Parents were alarmed. They were already scared of letting their children out of doors because of crime; they didn't want to see someone openly defending pedophilia and trade in children!

The democratic press justly assessed the statements from TASS and similar mass media as deliberate political provocation, and a newspaper war broke out. The Moscow City Council took Karetny ryad to court on the charge that neither the Tema program submitted to the council for registration nor the previously published issues had contained anything like the alleged Kalinin interview, and the gay and lesbian association as such had never been registered at all. The court ruled that the Mossovet claims were justified and compelled Karetny ryad to print an apology. Pravda, frightened off by the subsequent court case, apologized, too, but repeated its attacks on Tema and sexual minorities. Mossovet was able to safeguard its honor. But the damage done by the scandal to the reputation of gays and lesbians was not lessened thereby.

During the press war, both sides tried above all to distance themselves from the unpopular "sexual minorities." The Communist press blamed Mossovet for giving them succor, while Mossovet remonstrated that it was the Communist and conservative press that was giving free advertising to homosexuality by kicking up such a fuss. Only one influential mass-circulation weekly, Argumenty i fakty, would publish an article I wrote at the time defending the political correctness and necessity of the legal existence of gay and lesbian associations, despite the possibility of extremist outbursts by their leaders, who were generally typical of Soviet political activists. But what good could a single article do in the face of a propaganda campaign directed at people who were already sufficiently alarmed?

In April 1991, Kalinin's political activism took another step when it was announced that he would be a candidate for the Russian presidency. However, he was not eligible to do so, since he did not meet the age requirement, and he was forced to extricate himself from a situation that soon proved embarrassing. The other leaders of the gay movement (Vladislav Ortanov, Olga Zhuk, and Alexander Kukharsky) were annoyed by Kalinin's antics, which conservative local authorities used as an excuse for refusing to register other, more constructive gay and lesbian organizations and publications. Kalinin's clumsy statements provoked public scandal and have been used by the communist and fascist mass media to compromise and defame the gay and lesbian movement. Ongoing quarrels between their leaders also diminished their political influence so that the repeal of Article 121.1 "came as a surprise to the gay and lesbian community" (Gessen, 1994, p. 56).

© 1998 Professor Igor Kon


Previous chapters:

Next chapters:

Home  > Russian Gay History  > Moonlight Love

Gay.Ru is the project of Russian National GLBT center "Together"
Mailing address: PO Box 1, 109457 Moscow, Russia