TV & Radio
From Siberia to sauna: gay rights in Russia
by Claire Cavanagh
Russian history may not mark Saturday 27 May 2006 as a significant day, but for gays and lesbians in Russia, that's exactly what it was. The first ever Gay Pride Parade was held in Russia, in the capital Moscow, despite an official ban and threats by radical right-wing groups to beat up the participants.
In the end, the event ended in chaos, with an angry mob and police stopping an attempt to lay flowers at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a number of arrests. Gay rights have always had a rough ride in Russia, even after homosexual acts were decriminalised 13 years ago by then president Boris Yeltsin.
As far as gay rights activists are concerned, just the fact that a Pride event was scheduled at all is some sort of progress, though clearly there's still a lot of animosity and even hatred towards gays and lesbians in the country. Some demonstrators on Saturday shouted "Moscow is not Sodom", and "Paedophiles, get out of Russia!"
Moscow's Mayor too Yuri Luzhkov had vowed never to allow the parade to take place in his city, at least not in his lifetime. He believes the wishes of religious leaders in Russia should be respected as they consider gay relationships a sin. As far back as the 11th century acts of homosexuality were treated as sinful by the Russian Orthodox Church, but then there were no legal sanctions brought against the 'sinners'.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, writers and historians were commenting on the prevalence of homosexuality in Russia. In the following century the first laws against gay acts appeared during the reign of Peter the Great, but they were military statutes and only applied to soldiers. In 1832 the first criminal codes which applied to civilian life made 'men lying with men' an offence punishable by exile in Siberia for a five-year term.
There may have been tough legislation but many prominent figures were still able to lead relatively open homosexual or bisexual lifestyles. Famously, the sexual preferences of writer Philip Vigel, explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky and composer Peter Tchaikovsky were an open secret.
The most significant changes took place in the following hundred years: in 1903 Vladimir Nabokov, a founder of the Constitutional Democrat Party, published an article on the legal status of homosexuals in Russia, arguing that the state should not interfere in private relationships. There was an increase in visibility and even tolerance, with the laws being relaxed somewhat, though still staying in place. Some of Russia's most public figures were known to be gay, including members of the Russian ballet and the Imperial Court.
Just as life seemed to be getting less complicated, the Russian Revolution of 1917 intervened and changed social attitudes again. On the one hand the entire criminal code was scrapped and with it the offence of men going to bed together. However, that didn't mean an end to persecution. Homosexuality, including among women, was dealt with as a medical problem, something which could be treated and cured.
Under communism lesbians were often reported to the authorities by their parents or a guardian, then held in a psychiatric clinic for three months, given mind-bending drugs, and eventually registered with a doctor as mentally ill. Any attempt at a professional career was crushed and they were even refused driving licences.
Soviet psychology devised a theory for recognising 'active lesbians', including singling out women performing masculine jobs, and those who smoked, went drinking, rode horses and used bad language. An article written by Maxim Gorky was damming about homosexuality: "eradicate homosexuals and fascism will disappear." A year after he wrote those words, the Nazis criminalised homosexuality anyway.
The situation got worse: during the height of Stalin's reign of terror, raids and arrests took place on a regular basis, with homosexuals being punished once again with five years exile in Siberia. The exact numbers of arrests aren't known, but by the 1980s the figure had reached 1000 men being detained each year. It was only with President Gorbachev's 'glasnost' policies that the first glimmer of recognition for gay people emerged with the setting up of the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Alliance and an officially registered newspaper, called Tema.
Finally in 1993, with Boris Yeltsin in power, a new Russian Criminal Code was signed without the inclusion of Article 121 - the clause that made homosexuality a crime. Along with the fall of the Soviet Union, a gay scene started to spring up: bars, discos and saunas opened. Although life remains particularly difficult outside of the major cities, and despite continuing resistance - sometimes at the highest level - to gay rights, the future is perhaps starting to look a little less bleak for Russia's gays and lesbians.
by alfayoko2005 | 2006-05-31 18:51