The Russian Revolution of 1917 changed the lives of gay men and lesbians. Russia became a beacon for workers, the poor and oppressed who saw for the first time how society could be run for the benefit of all.
The very process of making the revolution, of sweeping away the existing social order, made sexual liberation and genuine equality possible.
To understand the impact of the revolution, it is important to look at Russia before 1917.
Most people lived as they had for hundreds of years – as peasants in small villages, living from the soil. Until 1861 most peasants were serfs, owned by the aristocracy.
Russia was a dictatorship, ruled by the Tsar and opponents faced exile to the brutal cold of Siberia.
A tiny minority of Russians lived in wealth and splendour. For example, the Sheremetevs owned 200,000 serfs and had 340 servants waiting on them.
Sex was characterised by violence and oppression and sexual behaviour was controlled by the church and state.
Homosexuality was illegal. Evidence of same sex relationships existed, but they showed mainly unequal relations between upper class landowners and their male servants or peasants.
Aristocratic women could not travel, work or study without their husband’s permission. For peasants, marriage was for necessity and survival. A wife’s tasks were to help her husband in the fields and produce children to do the same.
Domestic violence was common. A proverb ran, “Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.”
But from the mid-19th century, Russian society began to change. The Tsar abolished serfdom – though there was no real democracy, and extreme inequality remained. Industrialisation meant rapid urbanisation in cities like Moscow and St Petersburg.
Radical movements developed from the 1870s, carrying new ideas about women and sex. The novel What is to be Done? became the bible of the new movement. It tells the story of Vera Pavlovna who enters a fictitious marriage to escape her bourgeois parents.
The novel recounts her dreams – its finale depicts a utopia where wealth and poverty are no more, men and women are equal, and people can choose what work to do and what relationships to have. Such ideas inspired thousands of young men and women.
Urbanisation also brought changes to sexual relationships. There wasn’t space or money to duplicate peasant marriage and family patterns in the cities.
A homosexual sub-culture – the “little homosexual world” – emerged. Men met for sex in parks and public toilets. Wealthy men had liaisons with waiters, servants, soldiers and male prostitutes in bathhouses.
Lesbians found life more difficult. Wealthy women had leisure time to spend in the literary salons, fashionable meeting places for rich lesbians.
But life was harder for working class women – brothels were meeting places for “koshki”, or female cats, the name given to working class lesbians.
The growing working class was central to the revolutionary movement, and women increasingly played a role.
In 1905 revolution broke out, but it was defeated. In 1917 a revolution was successful, and in October the Bolshevik party took power.
Men and women became equal under law, divorce was available on demand, church control of sexual behaviour was abolished and abortion was legalised.
The revolution transformed the lives of homosexuals with a flourish. All references to sex practices were removed from the Criminal Code in 1922.
A sex crime was now described as an act violating the individuals’ right to “life, health, freedom and dignity”.
Relationships based on the unfamiliar ideas of complete freedom, equality and genuine friendship flourished.
These legal reforms reflected changes in society. Peasant women sang songs about how they would divorce their husband if he beat them. A court confirmed the right of two women to marry.
Of course some bigoted ideas and practices remained. Long established ideas can be hard to overcome. But the Bolsheviks strove to make the advances real – so that women, homosexuals and workers were liberated in practice.
So for example, communal dining halls were instituted – partly to ensure people were fed, and partly to liberate women from domestic labour. Through the civil war, every child in the capital got free food, and most adults ate in the dining halls as well.
Prostitution was decriminalised. The government set up cooperatives to provide support for prostitutes, access to medical support and training in other kinds of work.
Dr Grigory Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, led the Soviet delegation to the World League for Sexual Freedom conference in Berlin in 1923.
He made clear the approach of the new society – “Soviet legislation… declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as no one’s interests are encroached upon.
“Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality, Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”
Many of the gains the revolution achieved still do not exist in some countries to this day.
In Britain abortion is not available on demand, and nor is divorce. Homosexuality was illegal until 1967 and only removed from the mental health register in 1993. Many discriminatory laws against homosexuals remained on the statute books in Britain until the start of this century.
The advances in Russia were not because of Bolshevik decrees, but because the revolution involved the vast majority of people fighting to transform society and take control of it themselves. But the lack of economic development meant that the country was too poor to sustain socialism.
The Bolsheviks relied on revolution spreading to more developed countries. This was a reasonable assumption. In 1919 British prime minister Lloyd George stated that, “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution.” Unfortunately the radicalisation failed to break through.
And the victorious Russian revolution faced years of war against supporters of the Tsar, and foreign armies determined to destroy the new socialist society. This took a huge toll. It made millions of children homeless and devastated the working class.
The Bolsheviks had no choice but to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP) in a bid to hold on to power until a more developed country became socialist. The policy partly reintroduced capitalism.
Peasants were paid to produce grain. Limited funds meant communal dining halls were closed, as were many nurseries, which made it harder for women to work. Prostitution began to increase again.
Slowly the old ways crept back. The problem was poverty and backwardness. Many peasants had never favoured divorce as their communal households centred on married couples.
The Bolsheviks had sought to liberate men and women from the constraints of the family. But for many the family was the only option – the state had no money to guarantee women a decent standard of living.
Joseph Stalin rose to power in this context of isolation and poverty. He had been a relatively minor figure in 1917, but represented an emerging class that believed the solution to Russian backwardness was to force workers and peasants to be more productive.
The state increasingly controlled and directed work and life.
As under the Tsar, a woman’s main function was seen as reproduction – women with seven children received payments from the state, and those with eleven got even more money.
The Stalinist government banned abortion, made divorce more difficult and recriminalised homosexuality. Gay men faced up to eight years in prison.
Homosexuals were driven back into the closet and suicides rose significantly. In 1934 there were mass arrests in Moscow and other cities.
Anti-homosexual discourse was used in wartime propaganda between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Stalin said “eradicate homosexuality and fascism will disappear”, while Hitler labelled homosexuality a “communist degeneracy”.
Stalin’s betrayal of socialism, however, does nothing to diminish the revolutionary tradition of which the Bolsheviks were the best example.
They saw the achievement of sexual liberation and the fight for a better world as inseparable.