Before the age of the Russian Tsars, homosexuality was systematically repressed by the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Like most other Christian Churches of its time, the Eastern Orthodox Church chose to selectively interpret the ancient ranting of religious fanatics and use them to persecute innocent gays and lesbians.
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan the Terrible (actually his name was mistranslated, he was Ivan the Formidable) was most likely a bi-sexual. He was married numerous times, yet stories of his cross-dressing boyfriends have survived for hundreds of years. One of the toughest chieftains of Ivan's political police, Feodor Basmanov, gained his high position by performing seductive dances in women's clothes at the tsar's court.
Peter the Great
Tsar Peter the Great, banned male homosexuality in the armed forces in 1716. It was considered a “modernization” but all efforts to extend the ban to civilians were rejected until 1835.
Tsar Nicholas I added Article 995 in 1832 which outlawed sodomy (muzhelozhstvo.) Instead of creating a ban of all forms of private adult homosexual behavior, the courts interpreted it as strictly anal sex between men. The result was that oral sex between two consenting adult men was absolutely legal. Not to say that Article 995 wasn’t horrible; a person convicted would be stripped of all rights and sentenced to 4 or 5 years in Siberia.
There is no way to know how many gay Russians were arrested and sent to Siberia, yet there were a number of openly gay and bisexual Russians such as the writer Nikolai Gogol who were allowed to live freely.
Other openly gay or bisexual artists and intellectuals include the poet Alexei Apukhtin, Sergei Diaghilev (founder of the Ballets Russes) and the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Mikhail Kuzmin wrote the novel “Wings” in 1906 which was one of the very first “coming out” stories that had a happy ending.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky's story did not have a happy ending. Check out the full story:
Diaghilev never attempted to conceal the affair which infuriated the socially conservative members of Tsarist Russia. In 1911, upset by Diaghilev’s affair, the tsar withdrew his financial support of the Ballets Russes, and Diaghilev departed Russia for good.
The tolerance that was shown certain gay artists and intellectuals was constantly threatened by the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its corrupt and power hungry leaders. Popular literature of the day included gays and lesbians as examples of corruption and immorality. Even the great writer, Leo Tolstoy, in his novel Resurrection, introduced gay characters as examples of decadence and immorality in Tsarist Russia.
While other nations, such as Germany, had an active "gay rights movement" at this time, the only open examples of Russian homosexuality, aside from literature, was male prostitution in its major cities. Both St. Petersburg and Moscow had gay brothels and cruising locations.
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov was famous for his homosexual exploits while serving as Governor of Moscow form 1891 to 1905. Being the younger brother of of Tsar Alexander III and the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II is surely why he was able to live such an openly gay life.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin effectively legalized no-fault divorce, abortion and even homosexuality when he abolished Tsarist laws. During this time an openly gay person could actually serve in the new Soviet Government. These freedoms only applied to Russians and not to those living in the more culturally backward regions of Transcaucasia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia.
All of this came to an end in the 1930’s under the brutal dictatorship of Stalin. Homosexuality was labeled a disease and works with LGBT themes faces strict government censorship. All of this was done in the name of protecting juveniles (exactly the same ridiculous stance that Putin is now using.) In 1933, Stalin’s Article 121 made male homosexuality a crime punishable for up to 5 years of hard labor in prison. Stalin’s anti-gay law, like his anti-abortion law, was an attempt to win influence with corrupt officials of the Easter Orthodox Church (just like Putin.) Soviet propaganda at that time even began to equate homosexuality with fascism. In 1936, Russia’s Justice Commissar issued a public statement that the anti-gay law was correctly aimed at the decadent and effete old ruling classes. This was his attempt to link homosexuality with the decadent Tsarist aristocracy. Homosexuality remained a serious crime in Russian until Stalin’s law was finally repealed in 1993.
Stalin died in 1953 and was replace by Nikita Khrushchev. Khruschchev liberalized the Stalin era laws regarding divorce, abortion, and marriage, but left the anti-gay criminal laws in place. Stalin believed that without these laws, the gay sex that happened in prison would “spread” through the general population like a disease. In 1958, Krushchev sent a secret memo to law enforcement to crack down on gays and lesbians; thousands of innocent people were imprisoned only because of their homosexuality.
In 1984 a very brave group of Russian gay men attempted to organize a gay rights group, but were quickly arrested by the KGB. Public discussion of homosexual rights wasn’t even permitted until after Glasnost (Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy to increase openness in government from the late 1980s.) Moscow’s first gay rights organization was led by Yevgeniya Debryabskaya in 1989 and included a newspaper called “Tema.”
Russia formally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1999; 9 years after it was removed by the World Health Organization in 1990. Over the years, several Gay Pride Marches have been held in Moscow, each one met by larger and larger groups of protestors, mostly Neo-Nazi Skinheads and religious fanatics. In 2007 Moscow Pride was banned by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who branded it as “satanic.” Every attempt at a march since then has resulted in violent clashed with anti-gay protestors and the police doing nothing to protect the marchers.
This year, Putin’s government pushed through a federal law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Basically anything that is unbiased towards LGBT people is considered propaganda and because a minor might see it, it is against the law. This homophobic law imposed heavy fines and jail time for anyone that dares to speak out about gay oppression.
Anti-Putin/Pro-Gay Right Rally in Russia 2013
This official seal of approval on homophobia has lead to a dramatic increase in attacks on innocent gays and lesbians, mostly orchestrated by Neo-Nazi, religious fanatics and hate groups.
Gay Rights Protesters, Russia 2013
Putin’s popularity with Russian citizens soured years ago and in a desperate move, right out of Stalin’s playbook, he has decided win favor of the Eastern Orthodox Church and gain more power by attacking gays and lesbians.
Some have even compared Putin’s official persecution of the LGBT population to Hitler’s early moves against Germany’s Jewish citizens. We can only hope that the international human rights uproar that this law has created will prevent Putin from following in the footsteps of Stalin and Hitler.
To all of our Russian fans, hang in there, the World is watching.