Homosexuality in Russia


This text is a much edited version of an original "1600-1861: Traditional Masculinities And Love Between Men" by Dr. Dan Healey.

Until some time into the nineteenth century, masculine norms for the majority of Russians included permission for some forms of same-sex erotic contact. There was no "homosexual identity" discernible among any subset of Muscovite men, much less a corresponding subculture. Instead, "sin" with boys or men was celebrated in the general male culture through bawdy stories, and justified by the immoderate consumption of alcohol. Europeans in Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commented on the prevalence and acceptance of sex between males that they observed, noting that married men of many classes, under the all-forgiving influence of drink, might prefer other males to their wives as sexual partners. Adam Olearius, a diplomatic secretary, visited Moscow four times from Holstein between 1633 and 1643, and his comments on "sodomy" during these years are revealing:

"They speak of debauchery, of vile depravity, of lasciviousness, and of immoral conduct committed by themselves and others. They tell all sorts of shameless fables, and he who can relate the coarsest obscenities and indecencies, accompanied by the most wanton mimicry, is accounted the best companion and is the most sought after ..."

"So given are they to the lusts of the flesh and fornication that some are addicted to the vile depravity we call sodomy; and not only with boys ... but also with men and horses. Such antics provide matter for conversation at their carouses. People caught in such obscene acts are not severely punished. Tavern musicians often sing of such loathsome things too, in the open streets, while some show them to young people in puppet shows."
[Baron 1967:142]

Sex between males in Muscovy appears to have been, at least on a plebeian level, scarcely a sin "not to be named", but an aspect of male sociability lightly proscribed and effectively protected by a double standard.

The apparent indulgence of same-sex relations does not mean that there were no countervailing cultural norms. Religious prohibitions existed, but were never as harsh as Western ones. Orthodox authorities preserved a vague definition of "sodomy" as any "unnatural" sexual act, with man, woman or beast, well into the seventeenth century. Penances were, however, lighter than those for rape and adultery.

John Boswell (1994) discussed the widespread observance of rites of bonding between persons of the same sex in early Christian liturgy. However, he said little about the later fate of pobratimstvo in Russia. These rituals survived as officially approved offices in Russian liturgical texts until the mid-seventeenth century. Unions of two men or two women of this kind when solemnized by the Church were almost on the same level with blood relations and served to some degree as a barrier to marriage between families; and prayer books carried advice about mixing bloodlines created by pobratimstvo, marriage pledges, and godparenting.

Canon law revisions of the mid-seventeenth century saw the first prohibitions of ceremonies of "making brothers" under reformer Patriarch Nikon. But popular versions of the ceremony were observed around rural Russia until the late nineteenth century. The exchange of crosses worn on the body was very common; other rites included swearing vows in church before a revered icon, or in a field facing toward the east.

The two cultural traditions, an indulgence of male lust for boys or other men, and a religious and popular custom of male pair-bonding, could have overlapped to create a space for emotional and sexual relations between men. Yet the two cultural traditions were not identical. Male sexual adventuring reflected Moscow's hierarchical society; much of the mirth generated by tales of "sodomy" was evoked by inversions of popular and religious notions of social order. Pobratimstvo, on the other hand, emphasized loyalty and particularly friendship. The bond has frequently been presented as a matter of mutual aid and emotional intimacy. Nineteenth century observers reported pairings between peasant males of the same occupation, especially where distance from home and the dangers of a livelihood made pacts of mutual assistance prudent.

The two traditions organized different elements of everyday life - lust on the one hand, and personal survival and mutual comfort on the other - and reading into them modern notions of companionate marriage distorts our understanding of their place in Muscovite mentalities. Boswell's 1994 monograph, because of its vast temporal and geographic sweep, obscures the differences between local practice and the continuity of a specific liturgical rite; his conclusion that these unions often had erotic content is, of its very nature, speculative.

Both traditions were disrupted by the cultural upheaval which began with the westernizing rule of Peter the Great (1689-1725). Sex between men in the remodelled military was criminalized, and while indulgence of such relations beyond the army and navy doubtless continued, occasional attempts to impose "civilized" norms by condemning "sodomy" in elite circles can be observed. Popular pobratimstvo declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among settled urban dwellers, while it probably persisted among peasants who migrated to Moscow for seasonal labour. Meanwhile, in elite culture, the adoption of Western codes of morality followed at an accelerating rate, and in 1835 "sodomy" between males was formally criminalized for all parts of Russian society, in legislation enacted by Nicholas I. Indulgence of male-to-male lust apparently continued, since few cases of sodomy were actually formally prosecuted.