In 1917 Russia saw a workers’ revolution that transformed society—including by bringing about a sexual revolution.
Under the rule of the despotic Tsars, homosexuality was illegal. Gay men and women constantly faced risk of punishment.
For those with wealth, circumstances were much safer. Wealthy lesbians could meet in sophisticated coffee clubs and the upper classes were able to have safer, more discreet relationships.
But as for working class gay men and women, they would often only be able to meet at brothels.
Sexual oppression was long engrained in Russian society. Alongside the illegality of homosexuality, women were oppressed as domestic slaves.
But during the revolution, in October 1917, homosexuality was legalised.
The Soviet government also abolished bans on civil and political rights such as state employment for homosexuals.
Georgy Chicherin, an openly gay man, was named People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1918.
In 1923 the leading Bolshevik Grigorii Batkis published a report called The Sexual Revolution in Russia, stating that homosexuality was “perfectly natural”.
It explained that Soviet law “declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one’s interests”.
Two women who married secretly before the revolution had their union recognised.
People found a new sexual freedom without fear of state punishment and it drastically changed their lives.
There were still debates about homosexuality.
But revolutionary Russia was decades ahead of its time.
It was a far cry from the often deadly discrimination and persecution that LGBT+ people still face even today.
When the revolution was rolled back, so was the sexual liberation it had brought.
The Bolsheviks held off attempts by the old ruling class and the imperialist powers to reconquer Russia.
But civil war decimated the working class and weakened the foundations of socialism.
Josef Stalin staged a counter-revolution from within, and used state control to develop capitalism in Russia.
The loss of the revolution was felt hard.
Sexism and homophobia, along with the institution of the nuclear family, are part of how capitalism controls the working class.
Stalin’s state capitalism was no exception.
Women were forced back into domestic servitude.
Homosexuality was once again criminalised in 1933. In 1934 male homosexuality in Russia was made punishable by five years hard labour.
It remained a serious criminal offence until 1993. Homophobic repression is rampant in Russia today.
But for a time, a century ago, there was a massive leap forward for LGBT+ and sexual liberation.
It is no coincidence that this occurred during a massive workers’ uprising. As leading Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin wrote, “Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited.”
The Bolsheviks understood that sexual liberation and socialism were irrevocably intertwined.
In order to unite against their rulers, workers must confront all forms of oppression. And when ordinary people take control of their lives a society without oppression becomes possible.
The gains made in 1917 show that sexual liberation is possible—through socialist revolution.