Kelly Sans Culotte


The Other Siberia
Part 1: Gay Russia Under Church and State
Of Priests, Commissars, and Putin

By Camilla Roubleva

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APRIL 11, 2003. Russia, a mammoth territory with bears and vodka, no sex, and therefore no homosexuality: that is a typical image of post-Soviet Russia. But while bears are dying, homosexuals are coming out with the often unvoiced hope that their rights will be recognized.

Despite its pledge to protect the human rights of all people equally, Russia's "democratic and lawful" government continues to deprive lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people of their basic rights to life, security and equality before the law.

Does the reason for this ill-treatment lie in the huge and portentous Soviet inheritance that continues to dominate the Russian mind, or is it a legacy of the still powerful Eastern Orthodox Church?

First The Church
Before the Soviet Union, Russia was relatively tolerant of homosexuals compared to most European countries. According to author, Ivan Kon, while Britain, Germany, Holland and Spain prosecuted gays in government courts, torturing, castrating, or killing the guilty, in Russia male homosexual relations from the 11th through the 17th centuries fell under the jurisdiction of the church, the most powerful institution in pre-Soviet society. Offenders were punished, not by torture or death, but by ecclesiastical penance ranging from one to seven years.

The age of the offender, the frequency of his violation of "church standards," and his matrimonial status were all taken into consideration when deciding which penalty to impose. These include, in ascending order: prayers, kneeling and prostration, fasts, a ban on communion, and finally anathema (excommunication which condemns the offender to hell). If there was no anal penetration, homosexuals received lighter punishments.

The church also penalized lesbianism, which was believed to be connected with pagan rites. Though regarded as a minor offense, it rated the same punishments as male homosexuality, with the exception of anathema. That remained a male privilege for those who dared shave off their beards (and therefore looked "female"). Lesbians who performed the "male" role while having sex were usually beaten.

Enter the State
Despite Peter the Great's short-lived Army Regulations of 1716, which punished sodomy by hanging or exile, it wasn't until the 19th century that the state began to regulate homosexuality. In an 1845 law, sex between consenting adult males was punished by the seizure of property, exile to Siberia for four to five years, and sometimes hard labor. If there was violence towards a minor or anal intercourse, the sentence of hard labor could be quadrupled.

In Siberia, that most severe region of the Russian Empire, homosexuals sentenced to hard labor were "treated" by doctors eager to cure their "unnatural" habits, and often raped by local authorities.

The Criminal Code of 1903 mitigated these penalties. Consensual sex between adults was punished with a mere three months of imprisonment. If violence or minors were involved, the sentence could be increased to up to eight years. The new law triggered a flood of protests. Critics charged that by implying that homosexual relations were consensual, it made it impossible to prove in court any particular act. The law was further undermined by a general lack of enthusiasm to enforce it, especially among the upper social classes where homosexuality was generally tolerated.

Queers and Class Warfare
After the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks first came to power, a great many laws were abolished altogether, including those that criminalized homosexuality. Neither the Criminal Code of 1922 nor that of 1926 contained any articles concerning homosexuals. The framers obviously thought that homosexuality was a class-related phenomenon, and that it would disappear with the former regime.

When homosexuality failed to disappear, a 1934 government resolution recriminalized it, stipulating five to eight years of imprisonment whether the acts were forced or voluntary. The very existence of homosexuals was prohibited by law. They were characterized as rotten, filthy scum unfit to live in the Soviet Union, and were legally deprived of all civil rights. In all quarters, homosexual individuals were told they were desperately sick and needed to be cured.

The infamous anti-gay article 121.1 of the 1960 Soviet Criminal Code was used to discredit, blackmail and silence intellectuals and other prominent people, as well as homosexuals. And if you were both, so much the better. Among the thousands of men sent to prison in the 1980's were archeologist Lev Klein, singer Vadim Kozin, film director Sergei Paradzhanov, writer Gennady Trifonov and a host of other Russian artists and intellectuals.

Those "pidori" [fags] who had the good fortune to avoid prison joined lesbians in mental institutions where electroshock and other degrading rehabilitation methods were standard practice. Lesbians were always on a fast-track to mental hospitals, instead of prisons.

According to data from the Russian Ministry of Justice, as late as 1989, a total of 538 men were convicted of homosexuality. In 1990, there were 497; in 1991, the figure was 462. In the first half of 1992, as many 227 men were sentenced to imprisonment.

It was only in 1993 that article 121.1 was revoked. That action was widely seen as a public demonstration of democracy, and of the government's desire to be admitted to the European Union. Homosexuality was only officially deleted from the Medical Register of Mental Diseases in 1999.

Democracy For Queers, Kind Of
The 1996 Criminal Code in effect today neither singles out homosexuals, nor uses offensive terminology towards them. It establishes the minimum age of consent as 14, the same for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Nevertheless, lesbians and gay men are still vulnerable in Russia.

In 2002, several failed attempts were made in the national legislature to recriminalize homosexuality. On April 22, 2002, four deputies introduced an amendment to the Criminal Code that punished male sodomy with one to five years in jail. The deputies alleged that the law would end everything from AIDS to prostitution and pornography, and contribute to the health of children.

A similar bill was introduced on May 14, 2002 by members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). In a perversion of equality, it was aimed this time at lesbians. The LDPR leader, Oleg Mitrofanov, maintained that his party's legislative initiative was even more important than the proposed male sodomy amendment, because "it is women who are the most important participants in Russia's population growth from the state's viewpoint, so a tight hand must be kept on them." He added, "We are against abortions and prostitution, and in favor of prosecuting lesbians."

Denounced by the political mainstream, including Russia's human rights ombudsman, Oleg Mironov, neither bill passed. In fact, they were widely regarded as little more than an election year anti-gay publicity stunt. But their very introduction signals a lack of social and cultural change that leaves lgbt people in Russia vulnerable to legal reverses and widespread abuses.

Canary in the Coal Mines
Between 1997 and 1999, the Eastern Orthodox Church was rocked by gay-related "scandals." As church authorities excommunicated a bishop on grounds of homosexuality, many priests anonymously revealed that they were gay. Nevertheless, the Church continues to define lesbians and gay men as depraved sinners who should not be allowed to teach at schools or hold positions of authority in the army or in the penal system.

That doctrine, combined with the Soviet legacy of legal and medical abuse, shapes Russia's "new" homophobia in which the state, the medical profession, and the church actively collaborate with families to persecute lesbians and gay men.

The extreme case of Alla Pitcherskaia was documented by Amnesty International. As a lesbian activist, she was repeatedly charged with hooliganism, and held by the police. While in detention, she was beaten and threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital if she didn't quit her job in a local lesbian organization. She finally fled Russia in 1992.

According to the U.S. gay civil rights group, Lambda Legal, which is helping her pursue asylum in the United States, Pitcherskaia decided to leave permanently after her mother informed her that the Russian Mafia had destroyed the business that she had begun with gay co-workers, had killed one of them, and was looking for her.

A 2001 Amnesty Report, "Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence: Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity," describes the case of another Russian lesbian, identified only as Irina, who is also seeking asylum in the United States. She was reportedly tortured and subjected to inhumane treatment, not only by the police, but by her relatives as well. In 1995, her sisters demanded that she relinquish rights to her child and enter a mental institution.

Her parents hired private detectives to videotape Irina and her girlfriend having sex. When they used it to blackmail them, the two girls went to a police station to report it, and were sexually assaulted. On another occasion, the detectives on the case raped Irina to "teach her a lesson ... and convert her to normal heterosexuality." Irina dropped the charges and kept her mouth shut rather than continue to face the police.

Waiting for Change
The Eastern Orthodox tradition will always be allied with those elements of the state determined to impose a comprehensive social plan on Russia, which includes wiping out "social deviance," like homosexuality, abortion, divorce and broken families.

The smallest elements in the human rights equation are the Russian people themselves. Caught in massive political and economic shifts, and the struggles between the two giants of Church and State, they behave like victims of an invisible power, increasingly more downtrodden than furious.

As a result, many don't really care what's going on around them, whether it's same-sex marriages or homophobia, war or globalization. Few of the anti-gay groups engineered by right-wing politicians during the legislature's homophobic fever survived after the election. In Nizhni Novgorod where I live, 400 kilometers east of Moscow, the "Straights Union," disappeared at the same time as their funding did.

In the end, it may be sheer exhaustion that will slowly resign heterosexual Russians to sharing their social space with their fellow citizens who happen to be lesbian or gay.

Next time: Queer Russia Today

From the Web
Update on Alla Pitcherskaia's claim for asylum
Amnesty's 2001 "Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity"
Bears face extinction

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