Similar to many other totalitarian regimes, the Soviet Union was hostile towards homosexuality and gender non-conformity. Homosexuality was criminalised in 1933 by Criminal Code clause 121, which was among the few Stalinist laws not to be removed or liberalised after the dictator’s death. In fact, statistics show that during and after the Khruschev Thaw, clause 121 was actually employed more and more frequently.
When discussing clause 121, historians have tended towards what is actually a rather disturbing and extraneous reading: they emphasise the way in which the law was used to persecute both gay people and dissidents — heterosexuals who could be persecuted and smeared as gay in one. This detail might be important in principle, but in practice is almost always used as a pretext to shift the conversation away from the question of LGBTQ rights and towards heterosexual victims of homophobic laws. This distinction also connects to a point that surprises many contemporary progressive Russians: most dissidents, viewed today as pioneers of human rights and all things liberal in Russian history, beacons of hope in the dark Soviet times, at best ignored the persecution of gay people, and at worst agreed with and reproduced the homophobic rhetoric of the state which they opposed so fiercely.
Gennady Trifonov, an openly gay Soviet writer who was persecuted and jailed for four years for his homosexuality, published an article in November 1991, just a month before the dissolution of USSR, in which he reflected on the pre-perestroika situation for gay people in the Soviet Union. He pointes to the lack of support for the cause from both dissidents who prided themselves on championing human rights, and many foreign critics of the Soviet regime. He noted that in his classic of dissident literature The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn ambiguously called clause 121 “a bit dirty” without offering a slither of sympathy for the gay people imprisoned in the camps. Another famed dissident writer, Varlam Shalamov, wrote about gay gulag prisoners with outright hate and disgust — which prompted Trifonov to quit his research into the author.
Most dissidents at best ignored the persecution of gay people, and at worst agreed with and reproduced the homophobic rhetoric of the state
The problem wasn’t limited to literary figures. When the Italian activist Angelo Pezzana arrived in Moscow in 1977 to protest clause 121 and the detention of the director Sergey Parajanov — whose sexuality was an open secret — he met with the celebrated humanitarian and scientist Andrey Sakharov in hopes of securing his backing. Support was not forthcoming. Pezzana ended up staging a very brief one-man protest before being arrested almost immediately, and Parajanov was released several years later after world famous artists like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard and John Updike rallied for his cause.
In his article Trifonov presents some approximate numbers, garnered from several published research sources. Over the 59 years that clause 121 was in effect, over 60,000 people were jailed under it. But even the most progressive of dissidents brushed off “gay issues” as being of secondary importance — “real political struggle” came first, with gay rights excluded from the dominant human rights discourse. And while broader public reluctance to engage in these conversations might be understandable, the same diffidence amongst the most progressive circles, those that consistently struggled against human rights abuses, is much more unsettling.
“The political opposition shouldn’t be wary of gays, we are people who are actively trying to make this country better; they should be afraid of their own homophobia”
This is not meant as an attack on Soviet dissidents, whose contribution to exposing human rights violations in the USSR was of course immense. But the lack of recognition of this problematic attitude has led to the trend repeating itself. Today, too, Russia’s political opposition prefers not to engage with the topic. The two main arguments in defence of this attitude in the Soviet Union — that everyone had it pretty bad back then and that private lives and sex shouldn’t be brought into politics — are almost exactly the same as those employed by the liberal opposition in modern Russia in an attempt to avoid discussions of their own homophobic tendencies.
In 2006, LGBTQ activist Nikolai Alexeyev — who had attempted to organise a Russian Pride parade — annouced that he would be joining the now-defunct Strategy 31 movement, a major opposition effort of the time focused on the right to protest. In a news report from the time, opposition politicians associated with the Strategy 31 movement such as Ilya Yashin and Boris Nemtsov (who was assassinated in February 2015 outside the Kremlin) respond drily and sternly. They say that they have nothing against LGBTQ activists joining them in theory — but only if they’re not there for “provocation”. Yashin, quite ridiculously, adds that he doesn’t understand the need to “promote anyone’s sexual orientation at a protest that aims to defend the Constitution”. When the reporter asks Alexeyev about these suspicions, he says: “The political opposition shouldn’t be wary of gays, we are people who are actively trying to make this country better, more democratic; they should be afraid of their own homophobia. Because if they keep promoting their own homophobia, nothing will ever change in this country.”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a legendary human rights activist and co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group who was 79 years old at the time, is the only one in the report not to dismiss gay rights. Instead, she explains that the issue with the pride movement engaging in political opposition is that they’re opposed not just by the regime but by the majority of the Russian society. In other words, for protest movements that look to gain popular support, accepting LGBTQ activists is a bad PR move. No one making a claim for power and popularity in Russia is willing to take up a topic as unpopular as LGBTQ rights.
In a surprising turn of events current opposition figurehead Alexey Navalny — who has a less than perfect track record when it comes to issues like nationalism — has spoken in interviews in support of legalising gay marriage. Rest assured, he did so in true politician style, stating that while he personally would vote in favour of gay marriage across the country the matter should be left to local federal legislators and referenda (because, as he put it, “St Petersburg and Dagestan are destined to vote on this differently.”) His sincerity is questionable anyhow — the interview was filmed when he was already on the 2018 presidential campaign trail. How Navalny’s stance sits with Ludmila Alexeyeva’s words from 2006 is open to interpretation. What is clear, however, is that Nikolai Alexeyev was right: if people in Russia who claim to fight for freedom keep ignoring LGBTQ rights, nothing will ever change.