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22 August 2014

Lesbian Lives in Soviet Russia

A focus on the Soviet past may seem out of place at the moment, when institutional homophobia is rearing its ugly head and contemporary issues seem more pressing. However, an exploration of the Soviet past can challenge common portrayals of homosexuality as a ‘nontraditional’ sexual orientation, a term which conveys the image of same-sex relationships as a novel-post-Soviet lifestyle, imported from ‘the west’ and alien to Russian traditions.

Existing literature on the Soviet period has generally focussed on the socio-legal control of same-sex sexualities through law and medicine. While offering very valuable insights, this work offers only tentative and partial answers to many questions about the lives of Soviet non-heterosexuals: for example, how did they live outside of the clinic and the prison camp? What made their lives so invisible? How did they negotiate their relationships?

The pathologisation of lesbianism was a mechanism of social control which operated on a symbolic level, but also directly affected the everyday lives of some non-heterosexual women. Existing literature reports cases of women who had undergone forced psychiatric treatment because of their sexuality. However, none of the women I interviewed underwent forced psychiatric treatment because of their sexuality, although some made medical practitioners aware of their attraction to women. In 1987 Lyuba (Moscow, b. 1962) sought the help of a psychiatrist during a period of depression, and disclosed that she had been rejected by a woman she was in love with.

"After finishing college, I felt I could no longer hold it together. I went to see a psychiatrist, she sent me to a sexopathologist, and these idiots, excuse me, instead of reassuring me, instead of telling me: “What about it? Ten percent of people in the world were, are, and will be [gay], there is nothing to worry about” – these idiots asked me God knows what, they told me, take notice of men, when you are on the underground take notice of men. I told them that I would not have turned to them if I took notice of men."

There is no doubt that medical knowledge no doubt played a key role in upholding the notion of same-sex desire as abnormal and deviant through the authority of ‘objective’ science; nonetheless, interviews show that pressures to conform to heteronorm were embedded in women’s gender socialisation and manifested themselves in much more mundane situations (in the family, at school etc.). Moreover, punishment for engaging in ‘deviant’ sexual practices could come from other social institutions.

"We had what was called a hostel supervisor, who could enter the room without knocking, to say for example “be quiet” and the like. They caught us… They caught me with a girl, and they even had a comrades’ court [tovarishcheskii sud] […] And they told us that they would bring the case to the Komsomol if we didn’t stop this nonsense (Iuliia, Saint Petersburg, b. 1966)."

Comrades’ courts were often called to deliberate on matters of sexual morality, such as extramarital affairs and sexual promiscuity. Iulia and her girlfriend were accused of “morally corrupted behaviour”, unbecoming to a member of the Komsomol. Sexual morals, rather than sexual deviance, were invoked to initiate the trial: as Iulia explained, the word ‘lesbian’ was never uttered during the trial. Iuliia’s trial also involved the participation of her co-workers and even of her mother, who was notified of Iuliia’s conduct by letter and asked to influence her behaviour.

Interviews reveal commonalities in the experiences and strategies to negotiate intimate relationships among women from the ‘last Soviet generation’. Lesbian relationships where one or both partners were married, or involved in a parallel heterosexual relationship, were common. The notion of marriage and motherhood as unavoidable and as markers of ‘respectable’ womanhood feature prominently in older women’s narratives, whether they had actually been wives and mothers or not. It is tempting to read the widespread experience of heterosexual relations and marriage as a case of false consciousness, double life and compliance to dominant models of femininity. Nonetheless, women’s accounts challenge such a straightforward interpretation. Heterosexual marriages were sometimes short-lived, and motivated by practical reasons such as finding a living space and obtaining a residence permit. In other instances, reasons for getting married were more complex, and ranged from a desire to have children to a real emotional attachment to one’s husband. Even when well aware of their attraction to women, women had some degree of agency in negotiating the terms of heterosexual marriage and/or motherhood.

For example, Katia retrospectively talked about her marriage as a choice taken in order to settle down and to have a child. Like other ever-married women, she spoke about marriage as a fact of life and an inevitable rite of passage to adult womanhood. However, she also emphasised that she had sought a companion who would make a good husband and father. Katia continued to be involved in lesbian affairs; however, she saw her loyalties and responsibilities as lying mainly with her family.

"I fell for one of my [female] teachers, I lost my mind, I almost quit college, I was jealous and thought that somehow I had to put my life in order. […] I didn’t particularly hide from my husband my crushes [on women], but he was ok with it. […] The funny thing is, he later confessed he felt he may be gay (Katia, Moscow, b. 1956)."

Although marriage was rarely pursued with this aim alone in mind, other women mentioned that their status as mothers, wives, widows or divorcees could be used to keep suspicion of being sexually ‘deviant’ at bay and to mask their lesbian relationships as friendships. The invisibility of same-sex relations, however, did not only result from women’s strategy to negotiate a ‘respectable’ femininity. Cohabitation with a female partner during the Soviet period was an extremely rare occurrence for the women interviewed, and often was not even contemplated as an option. Tamara explains:

"I know that she [her first girlfriend] then dated another woman, but later got married and had three children. In general, after we split up she lived a heterosexual life. During the Soviet period the majority of the women I dated eventually got married and lived a heterosexual life, I mean, same-sex relations had no prospects. For two women, well, you could of course live, sort of, together, but at the time there were huge problems with housing, and it was difficult to explain to your parents why your girlfriend was staying (Tamara, Moscow, b. 1952)."

A chronic housing shortage, compounded by the preferential allocation of housing to married couples with children, meant that single unmarried individuals, and often single parent families too, were expected to live either with their family of origin, in shared flats [kommunalki] or in hostel accommodation [obshchezhitiia]. Tamara herself, a single mother with four children who had relationships mainly with women, lived with her mother until the latter’s death. The high symbolic and material capital that accrued to the nuclear family, and to marriage and motherhood as obligatory rites of passages into adult womanhood, resulted in severe constraints on the possibility of lasting same-sex intimacies. Heteronormative ideals about couple relations and parenthood shaped the experiences and expectations of women involved in same-sex relations. Lack of long-term prospects of sharing a home with a female partner and starting a ‘proper’ family contributed to the widespread perception of same-sex relations as unviable. In women’s retrospective accounts of the Soviet past, same-sex relations compared unfavourably to heterosexual coupledom, seen as offering better prospects to settle down and to receive social approval by conforming to the key markers of respectable femininity and adult womanhood – getting married, moving out of the family home and starting a family. Aglaia’s relationship with her first girlfriend ended when the latter decided to get married (Aglaia, Saint Petersburg, b. 1957). Aglaia understood and supported her decision because, as she explained, ‘with a man you can start a family’. Similarly, never-married, childless women experienced their marginalisation not only as stemming from the pathologisation of same-sex relationship, but more importantly as a consequence of their perceived ‘failure’ to conform to normative femininity. Women from the ‘last Soviet generation’ experienced same-sex desire and/or relationships in isolation from ‘lesbian’ social networks, in a wider social context where same-sex relations were not only stigmatised but also invisible.

Read the full version of the article in the book ‘At the crossroads: methodology, theory and practice of LGBT and queer research’ (in Russian) or here (in English)

Author: Francesca Stella, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK.

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