Homosexuality in Contemporary Russia

May 21, 2013
An unauthorized gay rights rally in Moscow in July 2012. (Photo: AP)

[The recent brutal murder of Vladislav Tornovoy, a 23 year-old gay man, in the Moscow suburbs has once again brought the subject of homophobia in Russia to the fore. Below is a blog post by Pavel Svyatenkov examining cultural definitions of homosexuality, and how Soviet-era propaganda has been carried into the post-Soviet era. — Ed.]

The current war against “homosexuality” is not a conflict between homosexuals and heterosexuals, as it is portrayed in the media. It is a conflict between two different versions of homosexuality – “Soviet” and “Western.”

“Soviet homosexuality” was based on a system of labor-camp sodomy created under Nikita Khrushchev. Joseph Stalin, who had himself been in exile, understood the needs of prisoners well. That is why he put the women’s labor-camp zone and the men’s zone next to each other, a few kilometers apart. Many memoirists testify that in the labor camps, there was normal family life (with the caveat that the labor camps themselves were abnormal). Women married men they met in the labor camp because they already despaired of seeing their husbands alive.

Khrushchev and his clique discovered that people were “f***ing” in the labor camps and separated the male and female zones 100 kilometers apart (I read this information in Evgeniya Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind). As a result, homosexuality flourished in the labor camps, but of a particular type.

From the perspective of the criminal underworld’s philosophy, it was shameful to be a passive homosexual, or a petukh [rooster], as they were called. However, an active homosexual was described as “a real pasan” [the word in Russian for “lad” is patsan—Ed.]. There is a status in labor camps known as being “dropped” [victim of rape] but there isn’t a concept of “dropper” [rapist]. It hides shamefully in the shadows.

Since you would have to have strength and power in order to be able to “drop” somebody, homosexual relations in labor camps mirrored the structure of power; the relations of authority and submission. The labor-camp philosophy infected all of Soviet society, particularly the siloviki and the intelligence services.

The philosophy of Soviet-developed homosexuality penetrated even those social segments where it did not literally exist. What does a manager mean when he says that his bosses have “f**cked him in the a**?” It’s obvious: “The bosses have made a strict reprimand.” In other words, the relations of power and submission in Russia are understood by many in terms of the homosexual sex act.

That is, the very “vertikal of power,” the famous “Chekist hook” is essentially…yes, you get the idea.

Hence, the cult of “the real pasan” or “muzhyk” [from muzhik, the word for peasant man—Ed.], which developed in the gopnik [street toughs], semi-criminal world. The pasan is an active homosexual, respected in labor camp, not the pathetic petukh. Why is this cult necessary? Because people are afraid. They are afraid they will be “dropped.” And in order not to be “dropped,” you have to “drop” others first. The pasan is a heterosexual man who behaves as an active gay man under the pressure of circumstances and the social setting, but who portrays his behavior as the manifestation of manliness in doing so.

Thus, “Soviet homosexuality” and its relations of power and submission rest on three whales [as in the Mordvin creation myth]. The first whale is fear of being “dropped” and thus winding up in the lower caste. The second whale is “knowledge of life,” that is knowledge of the real nature of the hierarchy and claims to power on the basis of this knowledge (usually peculiar to middle-ranging bureaucrats who are in Sorokin’s “caterpillar” between the masters and the submissives) [so named for the scene in Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin describing a ritual of men forming a chain for anal sex; the oprichnik was the tsar’s henchman—Ed.]. The third whale is the interpretation by the masters of the process of ruling the country precisely in the terms of developed homosexuality.

The most amusing thing is that the overwhelming majority of participants in the system of Soviet-developed homosexuality are heterosexuals.

Soviet-developed homosexuality is experiencing a serious crisis, as it encounters the Western model of attitudes toward homosexuals. “What, are petukhi now people, too?” – this groan, like a song, has been carried through all levels of the power hierarchy. It is this conflict of models that explains the current “homophobia.” If the petukhi and homosexuals in general are to be declared people, that would mean that the very foundations of rule of the Soviet bosses who remain in the Russian power structure would crumble.

The pasan who admits that he is an active homosexual is no longer a pasan. The petukh, recognized as a person, is no longer a petukh. The Soviet labor-camp castes are cracking at the seams and are ready to collapse. This explains the hysterical war against homosexuality, at the leading edge of which are Soviet pasany with beer bottles at the ready. In order to prove that they are not gay, the pasany are prepared to do a lot—even sticking a bottle in the rear end of their “opponent.”

What follows from this? Europeanization will affect even this very intimate region of the Soviet hell. Developed homosexuality awaits the same fact as developed socialism. The question is only whether Russia will come to the Western model for attitudes toward gays, or will elaborate its own peculiar “sovereign homosexuality.”