Tsarist Russia was brutal and backward—life was strictly and violently controlled by the state and legitimised by religion.
Sexual and domestic violence were built into everyday life. Poor women’s existence was limited to producing children and working in fields.
Several laws were passed to criminalise homosexuality.
But as capitalism transformed Russian society unevenly, so it transformed people’s lives.
Secret gay clubs for men sprang up in cities. Rich women were able to meet in fashionable literary salons.
These genteel places were mainly accessible to wealthier people in cities.
Meanwhile, working class women were forced to meet in brothels to have sex.
And these examples pointed to a process of social transformation which largely passed people in the countryside by.
The revolution of February 1917 ushered in a society that turned social relations on their head.
And sexual relations weren’t excluded from revolutionary change.
As a result of the huge social processes that began to transform society after the October revolution, homosexuality was decriminalised and gay marriage was legalised.
Women won the right to immediate divorce and legal abortion on demand.
Two women who had married in secret before the revolution had the union legally recognised. “Same-sex love… no longer oppressed by [our] own lack of consciousness and by petty-bourgeois disrespect,” said Evgeniia Fedorovna.
Revolutionary Russia became lauded internationally as the most progressive state in terms of LGBT+ rights.
Many countries today are still backward by comparison to revolutionary Russia in terms of sexual liberation.
It was not until 1967 that homosexuality was made legal in Britain.
Dr Grigory Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, wrote in 1923 that “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 homo-sexuality, 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.”
A century of experience since the Russian Revolution shows that society does not gradually become more tolerant—there is a constant battle for which ideas win through.
The gains that have been won were fought for.
The bureaucratic counter-revolution led by Stalin rolled back the gains won by LGBT+ people.
The role of the family, the root of LGBT+ oppression, was reinforced through state-led initiatives such as awards for women who gave birth to many children.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1930 lists homosexuality as an “unnatural sexual attraction to persons of one’s own sex (the opposite of the normal—heterosexuality).”
This rolling back showed what is at stake in the fight for LGBT+ rights.
But the rapid, and unprecedented, advances in the short years after the Russian Revolution show what is possible in the fight for sexual liberation.
These advances were gained through fighting for a workers’ socialist revolution—the Bolsheviks saw the fight for LGBT+ rights as inseparable from the fight for socialism.
4 February 1917 (1 March in modern ‘New Style’ calendar)
-A strike called by the Bolsheviks continues with 90,000 workers on strike from 58 different factories
-Police attempt to arrest demonstrators but protesters beat them back