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

1600-1861: Traditional Masculinities And Love Between Men
by Dr. Dan Healey

The relative paucity of sources on everyday life in early modern Moscow, the difficulties in gaining access to those held in the old USSR, and historians' conservatism, dictate that our knowledge of sexuality in Russia before this century is modest, compared to what we know about Western Europeans. A handful of Western works examine same-sex love in medieval and early modern Russia, using religious texts and foreigners' accounts of travels to Moscow. On all aspects of sexuality much is to be found in Levin (1989). Karlinsky (1976, 1989) wrote landmark articles on Russian homosexuality and culture. New American and Russian research on sanctified unions between persons of the same sex can also provide clues to the status of same-sex love in early Russia (Boswell 1994; Gromyko 1986). In the absence of more precise data about our subject from 1600 to 1861, a picture of masculine mentalities can at least be sketched as a means to understanding later developments and their differences from Western European experience.

Until some time into the nineteenth century, it appears that masculine norms for the majority of Russians (i.e. peasants and lower orders of townsmen) included permission for some forms of same-sex erotic contact. There was no 'homosexual identity' discernible among a subset of Muscovite men, much less a corresponding subculture. Instead, 'sin' with boys or men was celebrated in the general male culture through bawdy stories and praise for the sinner, and justified by the immoderate consumption of alcohol. Europeans in Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commented on the prevalence and acceptance of sex between males they observed, noting that married men of many classes, under the all-forgiving influence of drink, might prefer other males to their wives as sexual partners. Karlinsky (1976: 1; 1989: 348 p. 3) discusses such reports as does Kozlovskii (1986: 20-1). Westerners' accounts of sexual disorder they encountered elsewhere in this period, in the Americas, Asia and Islamic societies, often noted critically the practice of 'sodomy' in native populations, and such reports must be treated cautiously as sources on actual customs (Bleys 1995: 18-22). Yet Moscow, on the fringe of Christendom, represented a border zone between supposed 'barbarity' and 'civilization,' and travellers' accounts of Muscovite 'sodomy' could resemble condemnations of the vice internal to European societies. Adam Olearius, a diplomatic secretary, visited Moscow four times from Holstein between 1633 and 1643, and his comments on 'sodomy' during these years are revealing:

they speak of debauchery, of vile depravity, of lasciviousness, and of immoral conduct committed by themselves and others. They tell all sorts of shameless fables, and he who can relate the coarsest obscenities and indecencies, accompanied by the most wanton mimickry, is accounted the best companion and is the most sought after...

So given are they to the lusts of the flesh and fornication that some are addicted to the vile depravity we call sodomy; and not only with boys... but also with men and horses. Such antics provide matter for conversation at their carouses. People caught in such obscene acts are not severely punished. Tavern musicians often sing of such loathsome things too, in the open streets, while some show them to young people in puppet shows.

(Baron 1967:142)

Olearius' description conveys accurate information about popular culture in seventeenth-century Muscovy. The introduction of 'sodomy' into the text is clearly a device to distinguish European readers from the Muscovites, yet it is integral to a description of a coherent popular culture. Sex between males in Muscovy appears to have been, at least on a plebeian level, scarcely a sin 'not to be named,' but an aspect of male sociability lightly proscribed and effectively protected by a double standard.

One of Russia's most cherished national institutions, the bath-house, which by the late nineteenth century had become a significant locus of male prostitution in Russian cities, was a probable site for sexual indulgence between men at an earlier period. The first commercial baths appeared in Moscow in the seventeenth century and the state mandated that the sexes should be scrupulously segregated (Biriukov 1991: 17; Rubinov 1990: 19). Authorities vary on how rigorously segregation was observed, and on whether the baths represented a desexualized space in Russian culture. Levin (1989: 195-7) concludes the Russian baths were desexualized space, although foreigners' accounts contradict this picture of decorum, suggesting that in peasant villages and disreputable establishments in towns the sexes mixed freely (Greve 1990: 948-54). Separate steam rooms for men and women created a homosocial environment which certainly contributed to the evolution of bath-house male prostitution in a later era. A seventeenth-century miniature illustrating a visit by bearded, mature males to the baths shows four beardless, youthful males serving them.4 One youth in trousers, removes an older man's boots; another trousered lad draws water from a well. A naked young man pours water on the stove to produce steam as another, also unclothed, beats a bearded older visitor, lying nude on a bench with a leafy switch. While there is no intimation of sexual acts in the illustration the young men's subordinate social position in their roles as servitors is emphasized by their beardlessness. Clerics, for example the fifteenth-century Metropolitan Daniil, and later archpriest Avvakum, condemned men who shaved off their beards as inciting immorality, apparently because smooth faces were an invitation to sodomy (Kozlovskii 1986: 21). Russian men adopted shaving from the West in the seventeenth century. With the growth of commercial relations in the eighteenth century, youths appear to have sought out careers in Moscow's public bath-houses. A group of 16-year-old peasant males apprehended entering the city in 1745 claimed they came to seek work in commercial baths.5 Moscow's spas, staffed by beardless youths, may have been sites of mutual male sexual relations long before the recorded instances of the nineteenth century, to which we will return.

The apparent indulgence of same-sex relations does not mean that there were no countervailing cultural norms. Religious prohibitions existed, but were never as harsh as Roman Catholic ones. Russian Orthodox authorities preserved a vague definition of 'sodomy' as any 'unnatural' sexual act, with man, woman or beast, well into the seventeenth century. Penances were lighter than those for rape and adultery (Levin 1989: 197-203). The intensification of contact with the West in that era brought new attitudes which altered some aspects of elite strictures on male same-sex relations.

John Boswell (1994) discussed the widespread observance of rites of bonding between persons of the same sex in early Christian liturgy. The 'same-sex union,' known in modern Russian as pobratimstvo ('making brothers' might accurately render the sense of this term), was part of the Christian heritage Russia shared with Europe. Such services of union were expunged from the Roman Catholic liturgy in a systematic fashion after the twelfth century, leaving only vestigial documentation. There were female ceremonies as well (Boswell 1994: 19-20, 264). Boswell said little about the later fate of pobratimstvo in Russia. These rituals survived as officially approved offices in Russian Orthodox liturgical texts until the mid-seventeenth century. Unions of two men or two women of this kind when solemnized by the Church were 'almost on the same level with blood relations (rodstvo) and served to some degree as a barrier to marriage' between families; and prayerbooks carried advice about mixing bloodlines created by pobratimstvo, marriage pledges, and godparenting. Canon law revisions of the mid-1600s saw the first prohibitions of ceremonies of 'making brothers' under reformer Patriarch Nikon (Gromyko 1986: 81). But popular versions of the ceremony were observed around rural Russia until approximately the 1880s. The exchange of crosses worn on the body was very common; other rites included swearing vows in church before a revered icon, or in a field facing toward the east (Gromyko 1986: 81-2).

Any possible erotic element in these unions remains a subject of speculation (Boswell 1994: 267-79). Gromyko wrote of the depth of emotional and material support offered by pobratimstvo but it would have been politically impossible for her 1986 monograph to address homosexuality directly (chapter 2, passim.); she noted one instance of denial of erotic content in these unions, from a female late-tsarist ethnographer (Gromyko 1986: 86). The two cultural traditions, an indulgence of male lust for boys or other men, and a religious and popular custom of male pair-bonding, could have overlapped to create a space for emotional and sexual relations between men. Yet the two cultural traditions were not identical. Male sexual adventuring reflected Moscow's hierarchical society; much of the mirth generated by tales of 'sodomy' was evoked by the inversions of popular and religious notions of order they retailed (Levin 1989: 199-203). Such inversions in Russian popular culture have been discussed by Peter Burke (1978: 214). Sexual relations between males reflected the forms of domination and submission prevalent in Muscovite society. Pobratimstvo, on the other hand, emphasized loyalty and particularly friendship, 'brotherly love and devotion'.6 The bond has frequently been presented as a matter of mutual aid and emotional intimacy. Nineteenth-century observers reported pairings between peasant males of the same occupation, especially where distance from home and the dangers of a livelihood made pacts of mutual assistance prudent (Gromyko 1986: 82, 86-7). The two traditions organized different elements of everyday life - lust on the one hand, and personal survival and mutual comfort on the other - and reading into them modern notions of companionate marriage distorts our understanding of their place in Muscovite mentalities. Boswell's 1994 monograph on 'same-sex unions,' because of its vast temporal and geographic sweep, obscures the differences between local practice and the continuity of a specific liturgical rite; his argument that these unions often had erotic content is a speculative hypothesis at best.

These traditions were disrupted by the cultural division which began with the westernizing rule of Peter the Great (1689-1725). As nobles adopted European dress and mores during the eighteenth century, peasants retained older folkways. Enlightenment ideas on relations between the sexes, and the Europeans who came to teach, practice technical professions and serve what became in Peter's reign the imperial court and state, infused new attitudes toward the erotic, including a novel stigmatization of 'sodomy' (Healey 1993: 28). Sex between men in the remodeled military was criminalized, and while indulgence of such relations beyond the army and navy doubtless continued, occasional attempts to impose 'civilized' norms by condemning sodomy in elite circles can be observed (Costlow et al. 1993). Sanctions for improprieties with imperial choirboys were enunciated (Maroger 1955: 193). Moscow ceased to be the capital of Russia, and the transfer of power to the 'window on the West,' St Petersburg (founded 1703), introduced another division in Russian culture, between the 'old,' Muscovite. capital, where traditional ways were thought to persist, and the 'new' city of Peter, a center of wealth and European influence. Moscow's eclipse as capital until 1917 rendered the forms of same-sex love observed there perhaps less Western, less 'modern,' than those found in its glittering rival.

Popular pobratimstvo declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among settled urban dwellers, while it probably persisted among peasants who migrated to Moscow for seasonal labor. Meanwhile, in elite culture, the adoption of Western codes of morality followed at an accelerating rate, and in 1835 'sodomy' between males was formally criminalized for all parts of Russian society, in legislation enacted by Nicholas I. Indulgence of male-to-male lust apparently continued, since few cases of sodomy were actually formally prosecuted (Healey, 1993: 28).

Dr. Dan Healey


4 Akademiia nauk SSSR Istoria Moskvy, 7 vols (Moscow: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1952-9), vol. 1,p.515.

5 Istoria Moskvy, vol. 2, p. 553.

6 See article under 'pobratimstvo' in Vladimir Dal, Tolkovyi slovar' zhivogo velikorusskogo iazyka. (St Petersburg-Moscow: 1903-9), t. 3, col. 348.


Next chapters:

Historical Prelude
A chapter on the same period of the Russian gay history written by Professor Igor S. Kon.

Adelphopoiia - The Rite of Spiritual Brotherhood
Introduction to the rite of spiritual brotherhood practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church to unite same-sex couples.

Home  > Russian Gay History  > Queer Sites - Moscow

Gay.Ru is the project of Russian National GLBT center "Together"
Mailing address: PO Box 1, 109457 Moscow, Russia
E-mail: together@gay.ru