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Sexual liberation and the Russian revolution – 100 years on

By: 
Faline Bobier

June 21, 2017

It's often implied that the Marxist conception of revolution is only about overturning an economic system, capitalism, and that as such it would be possible to have a revolution but to leave the structures of oppression intact. From this follows the notion that Marxists don't take questions of oppression seriously.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution it's important to look at what really happened when workers and peasants “stormed the heavens” and ended centuries of brutal tsarist repression.

Tsarist oppression

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.

The Tsar and his class consciously fostered anti-semitism, Russian chauvinism, women's oppression and the oppression of gays and lesbians to keep themselves in power and to effectively divide and conquer workers and peasants against each other.

But just as capitalism was transforming Russian society unevenly – creating some of the largest workplaces in the world in cities like St. Petersburg – at the same time as people in rural areas continued to live in semi-feudal conditions, it was also transforming people’s lives. Secret gay clubs for men sprang up in cities. Rich women were able to meet in fashionable literary salons. But these options were mainly only accessible to wealthier people in cities.

These examples pointed to a process of social transformation that largely passed people in the countryside by. But the revolutions of February and then October 1917 ushered in a society that turned social relations on their head.

Revolution

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.

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.”

The increased freedoms ushered in by the Russian Revolution – for oppressed nationalities, for racial minorities, including Muslims and Jews, for women, for lesbians and gays – were not an accidental outgrowth of the revolution, but consciously fought for as part of the project of overturning the economic system which underpinned all inequality.

Liberation strategy

Just as consciously the Bolsheviks set out to build a party that would be, as Lenin called it, a “tribune of the oppressed.” This is why they organized among the Muslim peoples in the east, promising them freedom of religion in the new society. This is why the question of women's oppression was not an add-on, but central to the task of overthrowing the old system with its age-old sexism and violence against women, and its dependence on unpaid and endless domestic slavery inside the private household.

Leading Bolshevik and member of the Central Committee, Alexandra Kollontai, fought alongside other women both for sexual freedom and liberation from stultifying and rigid gender roles and for the material improvements that would make it possible for women to truly participate in building the new society.

Kollontai, along with Inessa Armand and other Bolshevik women, set up the Women's Department or Zhenotdel, which organized communal kitchens and laundries to free women from domestic drudgery. The Zhenotdel also  encouraged literacy by travelling and performing agitprop theatre outside the cities, where women were often the most isolated and oppressed.

But combatting women's oppression was not only the task of women in the party, although Kollontai did engage in critical battles to win over other Bolsheviks to the necessity of addressing questions of women's oppression.

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 and wrote about some of these ideas in his Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Conditions for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia. 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.

Just as the Revolution challenged age-old beliefs about women's place in society it also opened up space for people who defined themselves outside the binary of male-female or who wanted to live openly as gay.

Dan Healey in his book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent describes how “there was a sense […] 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 these 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."

Counter-revolution

Unfortunately, the immense gains that were won as a result of the revolution were eventually rolled back under the dual forces of material scarcity caused by civil war and the counterrevolution led by Stalin.

Stalin aimed to dismantle workers' control in the soviets in order to enter into military competition with the West. To do this he had to smash the freedoms that workers and peasants had won in other areas. 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 was at stake in the fight for LGBT+ rights.

It was impossible to separate the fight against economic inequality and the fight for other forms of human freedom. Revolutionary Russia became lauded internationally as the most progressive state in terms of LGBTQ rights. Many countries today are still backward by comparison to revolutionary Russia in terms of sexual liberation.

In fact, if we look at the recent election of Donald Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence, we see, in the wealthiest capitalist country in the world in the 21st century, a self-declared, unabashed homophobe in power and a government that wants to turn back the clock on the rights of women and the LGTBQ community. The Trump government has also created an environment where attacks on racial minorities, immigrants and Muslims are becoming par for the course. We've also seen legislation passed in several US states banning trans people from using the washroom of their choice and an alarming increase in physical attacks on trans individuals, here in North America and around the world.

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. But the rapid, and unprecedented, advances in the short years after the Russian Revolution show what is possible in the fight for sexual liberation today.

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