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1861-1917: The Appearance of a Homosexual Subculture
by Dr. Dan Healey

The late tsarist decades were a period of rapid social transformation, and as might be expected, Moscow shared in that change. In 1861, when the Emancipation Edict freed the serfs, there were 350,000 inhabitants in the old capital. By the 1880s and 1890s, a national policy of industrialization had transformed Moscow into a major manufacturing center and transport hub. Meanwhile, much production continued in workshops, often extended households with apprentice boys. To be an apprentice, in the language of the day, was to be 'in the boys' (v mal'chikakh). Industrial districts began to develop beyond the city's traditional limits, while more peasants came from the countryside to stay and an urban working class emerged. By 1914, the population of Moscow had reached 1.4 million.

The character of same-sex erotic relations underwent associated transformations. We notice an increase in sources on same-sex love, logical given that eros in general was receiving greater attention. Diaries, criminal court records and medical texts now began to speak about love between men, and these are only beginning to be exploited by historians. The continuing inflection of sexual relations by social ones took on new forms as market relations mixed with traditional patterns. Finally, in Russia's cities, gathering places appeared where individuals who felt desire for their own sex began to recognize each other and create a subculture.

The transitional mentality characteristic of the era is illustrated in the attitudes of a Moscow merchant from the peasant estate, Pavel Vasil'evich Medved'ev, whose diary of the year 1861 describes his emotional and spiritual inner world.7 Unhappily married, Medved'ev sought consolation alternately in church and at the tavern. When drunk, he indulged in 'lustfulness' with both male and female partners - and recorded these encounters in his diary. This document reveals a male homosocial culture, indulgent of sex between men, reminiscent of that witnessed by foreign visitors two centuries before. Yet at the same time, in the commercialization of Medved'ev's sexual encounters, and their location outside the home, we can also discern the seeds of a transition to a 'modern' homosexual subculture.

When aroused, Medved'ev and his companions were apparently indifferent to the sex of potential sexual partners. While walking one June day to Sokol'niki (a park beyond Moscow's Garden Ring) with his wife and a male friend, he quarreled with his wife and she abandoned them. Medved'ev wrote of his emotions:

And so with annoyed vexation Sinitsyn and I continued walking along the railway line, and the desire to drink and give myself up to debauchery took shape in me, there appeared a disturbing desire to have a woman or a man for onanism, 'kulizm,' anything.. .8

Eventually, Medved'ev got drunk with Sinitsyn, meanwhile trying to 'prepare' his companion for mutual masturbation or anal intercourse by encouraging him to talk about his own fantasies. Sinitsyn was at first unresponsive, and so they visited a 'den' of women prostitutes (referred to as 'camellias'). There, they discovered that all the women were 'busy' - and drunkenly, Sinitsyn agreed to Medved'ev's proposition, declaring spontaneously in the street 'Let's f*** each other!' They found a deserted spot in Sokol'niki and set about trying to 'produce lust' - falling asleep, dead drunk, in the mud before their tryst could be consummated.

Medved'ev and his companions habitually used subordinate males for sex when lust was unleashed by vodka. An account of an evening of theater, dining and drinking 'to excess' ended with Medved'ev's reflections on how to satisfy one's arousal on the journey homeward:

For some time now my lust leads me to pick a younger cab-driver, who I make fun of along the way; with a little nonsense you can enjoy mutual masturbation. You can almost always succeed with a 50-kopek coin, or 30 kopeks, but there are also those who agree to it for pleasure. That's five times this month.9

Cab-drivers who supplemented their income (or simply took pleasure) in this fashion are not unusual characters in Russian legal and psychiatric literature of the era (Tarnovskii 1885: 69-71).10 Coachmen were not alone among male servants willing to service male employers sexually. From medical reports we can observe that youths and young men profited in this fashion as waiters, household staff and as simple soldiers or officers' servants.11 It is not always possible to gauge whether subordinates were motivated solely by incentives of money and advancement, but the easy willingness of Russia's urban serving classes to tolerate 'gentlemen's mischief' as they were said to call it (Tarnovskii 1885: 70) suggests continuities with an earlier indulgence of mutual male relations.

In workshops, apprentice boys were the object of sexual advances or assaults by older males, often in positions of authority over them. Medved'ev confessed to his diary that he repeatedly masturbated with a member of his large household, a 'boy' of 18 - an apprentice or servant - who 'satisfied me according to my desire with manual onanism, and I did the same for him.'12 Medved'ev consoled his religious anxieties by writing that the youth enjoyed their encounters, arguing he was old enough to know what he wanted. Court records of male rapes in Moscow workshops demonstrate a similar if more violent pattern of relations. In one 1874 trial, the 17-year-old rapist was the son of the workshop's owner, and the court reacted sternly to his assault on an 11 -year-old apprentice. In another case in 1892 a more indulgent attitude prevailed, because the alleged racist was himself a subordinate within the workshop, and because the 13-year-old youth was perceived as nearly fully grown and capable of looking out for himself.13

Bath-house attendants, whose age and status probably made them objects of sexual commerce in an earlier era, appear in a range of sources from the late tsarist years as homosexual prostitutes. Pavel Medved'ev wrote of a visit with an old drinking buddy to an unnamed Moscow bath-house, where they found 'onanism and kulizm` awaiting them, in 1861.14 Few references to this trade in Moscow appear in forensic texts or the city court records, but there are enough discussions of the phenomenon in St Petersburg baths to suggest that what Medved'ev encountered at the bath-house in Moscow persisted and flourished until the 1917 revolution. In one 1866 St Petersburg sodomy trial, a young peasant told of finding work in an upper-class bath with private rooms, where another lad from his village was already an attendant. The young man's testimony reveals a high degree of indulgence of clients' tastes without regard to sexual object choice:

[the client] lies with me like with a woman, or orders me to do with him as with a woman, only in the anus, or else [he is] leaning forward and lying on his chest, and I [get] on top of him, all of which I did. Besides all this, other visitors to the baths demanded that we bring them a woman from a public house; they would first make me do the deed (copulate) with her, while they watched, then they would use the woman in front of me.

(Merzheevskii 1878: 239)

These attendants earned about 1 ruble for each session of "sodomy" they provided. Petersburg bath-houses were noted in professional and later popular texts as places where 'pederastic' prostitution flourished. Blackmailers exploited the bath as a site for shaking down victims (Merzheevskii 1878: 252; Koni 1912: 152-6); psychiatric patients reported discovering their sex inclinations with the help of bath-house attendants (Bekhterev 1898: 1-11); eventually, social critics bemoaned the existence of such male brothels (Matiushenskii 1908; Ruadze 1908), while foreign homosexual advocates sang their praises (Mayne ?1908: 431).

The records of a case against a Bishop Palladii in 1919 indicate that homosexual practices in spas, especially ones with private rooms, were notorious in Moscow as well. This cleric was accused of 'pederasty' with a monastic novice of 14 who served as his servant, Ivan Volkov. Twice the bishop testified that while they had indeed been to 'public' baths or the baths for the upper clergy in Moscow, he specifically insisted he had never taken the novice to baths with private rooms. He said 'it was the custom that two boys went with me, to allay the suspicions of bystanders.'15 The allegation that he had been to different bath-houses with Volkov and other novices was perceived as damaging, and the notoriety of baths with private rooms in Moscow was sufficiently widespread to move Palladii to repeated denials.

A most significant development in the emergence of a homosexual subculture in Moscow was the arrival of patterns of street cruising, with the mutual recognition and communication beyond workplace and client-patron relations this implied. Also increasingly evident is the use of public space not merely for socializing, but for sex as well. Sources for these patterns are again more modest for Moscow than St Petersburg, and suggest a slower evolution toward 'modern' homosexual behaviors. Medved'ev's 1861 diary made no mention of cruising or male prostitution in the streets (as in European capitals); meanwhile public cruising, male prostitution and sex were already part of the St Petersburg streetscape. Well-to-do individuals such as the composer Peter Tchaikovsky found lower-class sexual contacts in Moscow among servants or through louche friends, rather than risk scandal through direct cruising. In 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote to his homosexual brother Modest, describing how a friend Nikolai Bochechkarov introduced him to a young butler. The three met on the boulevard, went to a pub, and an 'infatuated' Tchaikovsky took the butler to a private room (Poznansky 1996: 19).

An example of a Moscow street pick-up comes from an 1888 sodomy trial of 42-year-old Petr Mamaev. Mamaev was apprehended after a drunken scuffle with Nikolai Agapov, 28, on Prechistenskii Boulevard on the night of 29 July 1888. The older man claimed he had committed sodomy with Agapov on the boulevard and admitted that he had picked up strange men for this purpose on city boulevards for the previous eight years. Medical examinations of the men convinced investigators that Mamaev was a 'passive pederast,' while Agapov was released, since he bore none of the supposed signs of active pederasty. Married with two sons, but with his family living in distant Ekaterinburg, Mamaev described his sexual habits thus:

For the past eight years I have been committing sodomy with different, unknown persons. I go out to the boulevard at night, strike up a conversation, and if I find a lover (liubitel'), then I do it with him. I cannot identify who I did it with.... I attempted to do just the same with Agapov, without money, without any exchange of money in mind, just to obtain pleasure for myself and for him.16

Mamaev was able to find 'lovers' on the boulevard who shared his aim of pleasure without necessarily requiring payment for a sendee, an indication thar like-minded individuals might recognize each other and even use public space to consummate their desires.

Rather later, in 1912, the same Moscow boulevard was the scene of a formative encounter for Pavel, a 17-year-old peasant newly arrived from Smolensk province. The story of this youth's progress through the 'homosexual world" before and after the 1917 revolution was described by psychiatrist VA. Belousov in 1927, as a case history of 'male prostitution' in a 'psychopathic' individual.

Forced to leave home after compromising sexual misadventures, Pavel found employment through a woman from his own village who was resident in Moscow. While working as an apprentice at the 'Nature and School' shop, he began to attend night courses for workers. Coming home in the evening after classes along Prechistenskii and Nikitskii Boulevards, he met 'his own people' and 'many acquaintances appeared.' He began to have sexual relations with these men, and found himself drawn to loiter on these boulevards every night - 'it was boring to stay at home.' Pavel soon met Prince Feliks Feliksovich Iusupov and they had a sexual liaison intermittently over the following two years. Pavel joined the prince's household service as a lackey 'in order to deflect the suspicions of the prince's wife.' Iusupov reportedly kept two other male servants, a cook and a coachman, as sexual partners.17

Pavel recalled the two years before the Great War as 'a marvellous time,' when first Iusupov then a second wealthy sponsor showered him with money and presents. Pavel also described to his psychiatrist aspects of the homosexual subculture of that time. He attended 'balls of women-haters' (zhenonenavistniki) in drag as an Ukrainian woman; to avert the attention of the suspicious, 'lesbian-prostitutes' were invited to come along, but 'we weren't bashful around them.' A beer-hall near Nikitskie Gates was run by an 'auntie' (tetka), an older homosexual man, and there was a special room there 'with an electric organ,' where only 'our kind' were admitted and where dancing was permitted.18 When he wasn't staying with the prince, he would pick up a variety of men for sex, claiming to his psychiatrist (who did not believe him) that he did this without mercenary motives. He said he would take home beggars, give them a bath and make them stay the night; he also loved soldiers, and cruising public pissoirs and baths. When Pavel lived with Prince Iusupov, he was not permitted to 'loaf about' in the street, perhaps with good reason, for he had a sharp nose for finding Moscow's homosexual street life of the day

Arbat Square on the Boulevard Ring, c. 1930. In the foreground of the photograph is the start of Prechistevskii Boulevard where the young peasant Pavel met his first homosexual contacts upon arrival in Moscow in 1912.
Source: D. Healey collection.

Pavel's account of Moscow's male homosexual subculture on the eve of the Great War and the 1917 revolution catalogues the transformation of mutual male erotic relations and the social practices which grew up around them. The contrasts and continuities with Medved'ev's world are instructive. Instead of a sexual identity based on a sinful but unavoidable male lust to be satisfied with either woman or man, Pavel's world included men who identified themselves as exclusively attracted to their own sex (the so-called 'women-haters'). Others, like Prince Iusupov, indulged themselves with both men and women, and still others, perhaps from poverty, confined the homosexual element of their lives to a subculture of the streets (for example, the tramps and soldiers Pavel picked up, or the men he cruised in public toilets). Yet a new group of 'our people' also appeared in Pavel's account, and they had ways of recognizing each other on the boulevard (argot, gesture and dress were among the signs they used, to judge from criminological comments about male prostitutes). Moreover, they congregated in notorious public locations to socialize and have sex. New commercialized spaces for the subculture (balls organized by 'their own kind,' a beer-hall with music and dancing) reflected the growing intrusion of the market even into highly specialized leisure activities. Despite these changes, as in Medved'ev's time, same-sex relations continued to reflect social hierarchies, and the cash-for-sex exchange (and its non-monetary variations) remained a prominent part of everyday life for both the affluent and the indigent.

Dr. Dan Healey


7 Jeffrey Burds, trans. and ed., Dnievnik moskovskogo kuptsa Pavia Vasil'evicha Medved'eva, 1854-1864 gg. [Diary of Moscow merchant Pavel Vasil'evich Medved'ev, 1854-1864] (forthcoming). I am very grateful to Prof. Burds for providing me with generous access to this text.

8 Kulizm (i.e. anal intercourse) was derived from French 'cul' (ass); see entry for 'mUste' in Courouve (1985).

9 Burds Dnevnik moskovskogo kuptsa, p. 152.

10 See e.g. V.G. Golenko, 'Pederastiia na sude,' Arkhiv psikhiatrii, neirologii i sudebnoi psikhopatologii (3 1887): 42-56.

11 N.A. Obolonskii, 'Izvrashcheme polovogo chuvstva.' Russkii arkhiv patologii, klinicheskoi meditsiny i bakteriologii (1898): 1-20, esp. 15; VM. Bekhterev, '0 polovykh izvrashcheni-iakh, kak patologicheskikh sochetatel'nykh refleksakh,' Obozrenie psikhiatrii (7-9 1915): 1-26, esp. 9-13; VA. Belousov, 'Sluchai gomoseksuala-muzhskoi prostitutki,' Prestupnik i pristup" nost. Sbornik (1927): 309-17.

12 Burds, Dnevnik moskovskogo kuptsa, p. 144.

13 Tsentral'nyi gos. istoricheskii arkhiv g. Moskvy (TsGIAgM), f. 142, op. 3, d. 233; f:142,op.2,d.433.

14 Burds, Dnevnik moskovskogo kuptsa, p. 157.

15 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv rossisskoi federatsii (GARF), f. A353, op. 3, d. 745, 11. 39, 32 ob.

16 TsGIAgM, f. 142, op. 2, d. 142,1. 148.

17 On Pavel, see Belousov, 'Sluchai gomoseksuala-muzhskoi prostitutki'; on the prince's identity and family life, see V Sheremet'evskii, 'Neobkhodimoe dopolnenie,' Zerkalo: Informatsionnyi biulleten' 'GenderDok' (2 1996): 14-15. The prince's son, himself a bisexual, was the famous murderer of Grigorii Rasputin.

18 The word 'tetka' used to denote homosexuals, following from the French 'tante,' dates at least from Merzheevskii's (1878: 205) use of the Russian word to render the Parisian argot for a male prostitute. Tetka soon acquired the meaning of 'middle-aged homosexual,' to judge from Tchaikovskii's use of the term in his diary (13 March 1888) to describe a gathering of such men: 'Russian tetki are repulsive' (Chaikovskii 1923/1993: 203) and Kozlovskii (1986: 69).


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

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