On homosexuality in the USSR

Representatives of the “simple,” one of the Leningrad gay communities, mid-1920s.

By Alfonso Casal, National Chair of the American Party of Labor.

The fact that homosexuality was criminally sanctioned under Soviet law is something that is often thrown in the face of communists in general, and used to “discredit” Comrade Stalin in particular. Indeed, “Stalin hated gays” is something I’ve seen posted online numerous times by Trots and anarchists. I doubt Stalin ever wrote or spoke a single public word on the matter. In any event, such an accusation is by its very nature decontextualized and misleading. What needs to be stated is that Soviet legal and medical opinion on this question was no different than what was generally accepted in the world at large, namely, that homosexuality was a psycho-sexual disorder, a form of mental illness. Additionally, there were arguments made that attempted to tie homosexuality to fascism – especially considering that many of Hitler’s Brownshirts were homosexual.

Bad as this may seem, it needs to be seen in historical context. Science advances, knowledge grows and deepens. The science of human sexuality was in its infancy for all of Stalin’s life. Stalin died in 1953. He died before the ‘sexual revolution,’ and he never heard of Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, or the “Hite Report.” In fact, it was only in 1973 that the American Psychological Association itself ceased to classify homosexuality as a mental disorder. To expect that Stalin, and Soviet Russia in the 1930s, would foresee the advances in medical and psychological science that would occur forty years in the future is either naïve or malicious. It should be noted, by comparison, that the GDR had a much more open and positive policy with respect to homosexuality. This can be explained by the fact that studies in sexology were more advanced in Germany than in any place else in the world. But this too has to be seen in historical context, as part not only of the deepening of scientific knowledge, but the spread of such knowledge throughout society in general. By 1987, GDR law stated that “homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, represents a variant of sexual behavior. Homosexual people do therefore not stand outside socialist society, and the civil rights are warranted to them exactly as to all other citizens.”

So, here is the real answer. As Marxist-Leninists, we are scientists. As scientists we seek to advance human knowledge and understanding. And, as our knowledge and understanding grows, so does our ideology. Today, there is not a single communist worthy of the name who does not wholeheartedly support LGBTQIA+ rights.

Moreover, I think it should also be pointed out that, despite the view that homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, the actual law in question – Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code – was pretty much only enforced in cases of pedophilia, with some 800–1000 prosecutions annually.

Actually, Communists were MORE progressive on the question of gay rights than was the bourgeois society of the time. Once again, the important thing here is the level of scientific understanding and the extent to which that knowledge has been spread throughout society at large. Germany had the longest history of psychological and medical research on human sexuality. There was an Institute of Sexology as early as the 1920s. The Nazis closed it down when they came to power. Leading medical researchers at the Institute of Sexology were affiliated with the KPD. That’s right, the KPD, the “STALINIST” German Communist Party. Many German Communists were not only supportive of gay rights, but were pioneers of sexual liberation. In fact, a number of them sang the health praises of nudism. This includes Markus Wolf’s father and family. Markus Wolf would later become the head of foreign intelligence for the GDR; the man the CIA would call “the man without a face” because they didn’t possess a photograph of him.

Furthermore, “Lenin decriminalized homosexuality” is a much beloved Trotskyite trope that they love to throw at Marxist-Leninists. The facts are a little different, as presented by Professor Igor Kon in “Soviet Homophobia”:

“The initiative for revocation of antihomosexual legislation, following the Revolution of February 1917, had come, not from the Bolsheviks but from the Cadets (Constitutional democrats) and the anarchists (Karlinsky, 1989). Nevertheless, once the old criminal code had been repealed after the October Revolution, the antihomosexual article also ceased to be valid. The Russian Federation criminal codes for 1922 and 1926 did not mention homosexuality, although the corresponding laws remained in force in places where homosexuality was most prevalent – in the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, and Uzbekistan, as well as in Christian Georgia.

“Soviet medical and legal experts were very proud of the progressive nature of their legislation. ln 1930, the medical expert Sereisky wrote in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia: ‘Soviet legislation does not recognize so-called crimes against morality. Our laws proceed from the principle of protection of society and therefore countenance punishment only in those instances when juveniles and minors are the objects of homosexual interest.’

“The most important collection of documents and texts on Soviet homosexuality is Kozlovsky (1986).

“As Engelstein (1995) justly mentions, the formal decriminalization of sodomy did not mean that such conduct was invulnerable to prosecution. The absence of formal statutes against anal intercourse or lesbianism did not stop the prosecution of homosexual behavior as a form of disorderly conduct. After the 1922 Penal Code was published there were in that same year at least two known trials for homosexual practices. The eminent psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev testified that “public demonstration of such impulses … is socially harmful and cannot be permitted” (Engelstein, 1995, p. 167). The official stance of Soviet medicine and law in the 1920s, as reflected by Sereisky’s encyclopedia article, was that homosexuality was a disease that was difficult, perhaps even impossible, to cure. So “while recognizing the incorrectness of homosexual development … our society combines prophylactic and other therapeutic measures with all the necessary conditions for making the conflicts that afflict homosexuals as painless as possible and for resolving their typical estrangement from society within the collective” (Sereisky, 1930, p. 593).”

“The precise number of persons prosecuted under Article 121 is unknown (the first official information was released only in 1988), but it is believed to be about 1000 a year. Since the late 1980s, according to official data, the number of men convicted under Article 121 has been steadily decreasing. In 1987, 831 men were sentenced (this figure refers to the entire Soviet Union); in 1989, 539; in 1990, 497; in 1991, 462; and for the first 6 months of 1992, 227, among whom all but 10 were sentenced under Article 121.2 (figures are for Russia only) (Gessen, 1994). According to Russian lawyers, most convictions have indeed been under Article 121.2, 80 percent of cases being related to the involvement of minors up to 18 years of age (Ignatov, 1974). In an analysis of 130 convictions under Article 121 between 1985 and 1992, it was found that 74 percent of the accused were convicted under 121.2, of whom 20 percent were for rape using physical force, 8 percent for using threats, 52 percent for having sexual contact with minors and 2 and 18 percent, respectively, for exploiting the victims dependent or vulnerable status (Dyachenko, 1995).”

So, in conclusion: Lenin DID NOT specifically decriminalize homosexual activity. The Tsarist criminal code was declared null and void, the anti-homosexual statutes along with all the others. The 1922 and 1926 Soviet criminal codes did not mention homosexuality, but anti-homosexual laws remained on the books in the Islamic republics and Georgia. When homosexuality does re-enter the Soviet criminal code, prosecutions are relatively rare (1,000 per year out of a population of 200 million) and those that were prosecuted targeted instances of rape, child abuse, and abuse of dependent and vulnerable persons.

Those are the FACTS. Was the law perfect? Of course not! Was it a good law or something to be admired or replicated? No. Was the law abused and innocent people sanctioned? Likely, as in all legal systems. But, the intent and extent of the law was far different from what anti-Stalin and “left anti-communist” propaganda would have one believe.

Categories: History, LGBTQIA+, Revolutionary History

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