Socialist Worker

Sexual liberation and the Russian Revolution

The 1917 Russian Revolution transformed all aspects of society. Author Dan Healey spoke to Colin Wilson about its impact on sexual freedom

Issue No. 2034

Russian poster from 1918 - “The Strongest Culture Makes Strong Cooperation”

Russian poster from 1918 - “The Strongest Culture Makes Strong Cooperation”

The modern gay rights movement began in 1969 with the Stonewall riots in New York.

Activists at the time took it for granted that they were part of a wider movement that fought racism and opposed the Vietnam War.

In particular, socialists in the movement began to examine the history of campaigns for sexual liberation. They rediscovered a tradition going back to the 1840s which argued that socialism would not only end economic exploitation, but also bring about personal and sexual freedom.

The high point of this tradition was the Russian Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the dictatorship of the Tsar and introduced a new Bolshevik-led government based on control by workers and peasants.

The 1917 revolution transformed attitudes towards sexuality and women. A period of sexual freedom began which lasted until the early 1930s – when it was crushed by Joseph Stalin’s counter-revolution.

Dan Healey’s book Homosexual Desire In Revolutionary Russia provides plentiful evidence for all this – and also gives a more detailed insight into the contradictions between the early years of liberation and Stalin’s brutal bigotry.

Russia under the Tsar was an extremely unequal and repressive society. It was dominated by the Russian Orthodox church, and both sexism and antisemitism were deeply rooted.

But parts of Russia at this time were rapidly becoming industrialised – so in some areas, many of the traditions and social controls that had existed for centuries in the countryside were beginning to fall away.


The concept of homosexuality was not widespread in Russia at this time. People did not categorise others, or themselves, on the basis of their sexual preference.

But modern ideas about sex were beginning to circulate, particularly when censorship was relaxed after the unsuccessful revolution of 1905.

A gay subculture started to develop, with men meeting for sex in parks and public toilets. Many wealthy men had liaisons with waiters, servants and soldiers, while male prostitutes worked in bathhouses. Some women began to identify themselves as lesbians, while other women who loved women lived their lives as men.

Sex between men was a criminal offence, punishable by exile to Siberia. The less privileged ran the highest risk of being caught – the wealthy knew how to be “discreet” and avoid the law.

But the Bolshevik-led revolution of October 1917 led to a complete change of approach. “What came with the Bolsheviks was a very different concept of how sexuality should be understood,” says Dan Healey.

“This was an extremely modern idea – that sexuality should be secularised, that all the religious hocus-pocus should be stripped away, and also that science should be the major factor that determined the approach to sexuality.”

This thinking lay behind the decriminalisation of sex between men in the post-revolution penal code. Abortion was also legalised, while divorce was made available on the request of either partner.

Was this legal decriminalisation accompanied by changes in social attitudes and wider liberation? “It’s very hard to pinpoint,” says Healey. “But you do get the sense that this was a big moment of liberation for some same-sex oriented people. There are some people who saw it as a moment of casting off old conventions – and even of parading themselves.”

Healey cites an example from the period after the revolution, when civil war had led to starvation and poverty. “People were abandoning the cities because there was no food, no fuel and no work. It took a long time for the situation to stabilise before people felt economically comfortable and able to express themselves.

“But there was a sense there that gay people saw this as their revolution too. I can think of one drag queen in Kursk, written about in a medical article, who really does seem to interpret the events of the civil war and the revolution as a licence to be quite flagrant and outrageous. For a while people seemed to be willing to go along with that.”

A 1927 legal case provides another instance. It involved a woman who had lived as a man since the revolution, for which she had been an enthusiastic activist. She had married another woman in 1922. The court recognised her marriage as “legal, because concluded by mutual consent”.

It is remarkable that Soviet Russia recognised a same-sex marriage in the 1920s when you consider that same-sex civil partnerships only became legal in Britain in December 2005.

Some historians have argued that it was no great advance for homosexuals to have to deal with doctors and psychiatrists in soviet Russia, rather than the police.

Healey disagrees. He argues that this was what gay campaigners of the time were demanding, and that it was a step forwards.

“In historical terms, it’s extremely progressive,” he says. “Medicine is a double-edged sword – it can be a force for good or evil. Many psychiatrists in 1920s Russia showed remarkable sympathy for homosexuals and were working to try and help their homosexual patients adjust in some way to the homophobia they found around them.”

However, Healey also comments on tensions in Bolshevik thinking and experience on sexuality, tensions he sees as stemming from a desire to liberate the individual on the one had and a desire to maintain the collective Soviet state on the other.

Healey notes that many leading Bolsheviks such as Alexandra Kollontai called for the transformation of family life, for the end of housework and for communal kitchens.

She wanted to liberate relationships from domestic drudgery, allowing women to lead independent working lives outside the family home.

The Bolsheviks’ position on homosexuality and their commitment to women’s liberation gained the Soviet regime an international reputation among campaigners for sexual freedom.


Gay rights campaigners around the world – including Magnus Hirschfeld, probably the leading gay activist in the world at the time – were inspired by the gains of revolutionary Russia.

However, Healey also detects a different approach from Kollontai’s – what he describes as a “mistrustful view of pleasure for its own sake, and a very mistrustful view of disorderly or irresponsible conduct in sexual relations”.

“The problem for homosexuals is that their relations appear disorderly, partly because there’s no accepted ways for gay people to meet and to formalise their relationships.”

Healey is careful to note the context for all this. “Sexuality was not a major issue for the regime,” he argues. “It was much more interested in the commanding heights of industry and the creation of the world’s first socialist economy – that was their priority.”

These arguments are not without merit, but the Bolsheviks’ concern with protecting their new society was not just driven by economic considerations.

There were also military factors – Soviet Russia was under attack from imperialist powers and counter-revolutionary armies for much of their time in power.

Moreover, Kollontai’s progressive views on sexuality were by no means marginal or unusual among leading Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky, who played a crucial role during the 1917 revolution and in the ensuing civil war, held similar positions on many of these questions.

Asked by a US journalist whether it was true that divorce on demand was available in Russia, Trotsky replied by asking whether it was true that there were still countries where it was not.


However one assesses the debates of the 1920s, Healey stresses that the 1930s saw a complete reversal of the revolution’s gains for both democracy and sexual freedom.

Homosexuality and abortion were both made criminal offences again in 1933, with a three year minimum jail sentence for homosexuality. This went hand in hand with wider attacks – internal passports were introduced from 1932, and workers’ wages cut to a tenth of their 1926 levels.

Healey argues that you can see the start of this shift with the first Five Year Plan in 1928. The leadership became concerned to increase the population, worried that there would not be enough people to populate the army.

Stalin’s regime also wanted to maintain economic and social control. Prostitution was independent of the regime, so they began to act against female prostitutes. As Trotsky commented at the time, the fact that prostitution existed at all showed how far Russia was from real socialism.

At first the state aimed to take prostitutes off the streets and teach them a trade. But after a few years prostitutes were put in labour colonies or sent to prison camps.

Many male prostitutes and other gay men met in the same parts of the cities where female prostitutes operated – so they were affected by these developments.

After homosexuality was recriminalised, hundreds of men were arrested in four or five key cities. The details of these attacks remain sketchy, since the relevant KGB archives are not accessible to historians.

Healey stresses that the ban still came as a “big shock” to lots of people. “There’s the wonderful case of a British Communist, Harry Whyte, who wrote to Stalin after the ban on homosexuality. He put good arguments against having such a ban, all based on a good knowledge of Marxist history.”

Whyte was living in Russia at the time, Healey adds. “He went to psychiatrists who knew nothing about the ban and didn’t believe it until he brought them a newspaper that showed the ban had been put in place. He talked to various officials, he even went to the secret police and asked them how they were interpreting the ban.”

Healey points out that before 1933 sexual freedom was largely seen as the common sense in Soviet Russia. “It was taken as part of the sexual revolution that Russia didn’t persecute people the way they do in ‘bourgeois philistine’ countries, where a religious and moral stricture fuelled an old prejudice.”

By contrast, in the 1930s Stalin’s spokesmen began to claim that all homosexuals were spies and fascists.

The revolution’s ideals were rooted out and reversed. The gains and glimpses of freedom in all realms of human life were destroyed by Stalin’s counter-revolution.

Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent by Dan Healey is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £19. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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