The Chronicle Review

Queer Russia

Isabelle Cardinal

February 07, 2014

The depth of homophobia in Russia apparently knows no bounds. Ivan Okhlobystin, a Russian TV personality and former Orthodox priest, says he would like to shove homosexuals into ovens and burn them alive. Dmitri Kisilev, deputy general director of the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, recently said: "They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."

With the Sochi Olympics, many Americans are asking how Russia could be exploding with such virulent hatred of its own gay and lesbian citizens. I think I know the answer, and it has to do with queer theory. I think I might even know the solution. It also has to do with queer theory. Let me explain.

I spent a good part of my 20s researching the lives of Russia’s "sexual minorities" for my first book, Queer in Russia. What I found was that the Russian history of sexuality is radically different from the West’s. Specifically, the homosexual in Russia has always been considered a threatening aberration. Many Russians think of homosexuality as crossing borders in the same manner as tuberculosis. Any exposure can corrupt the most innocent of souls and infect them with same-sex desire. Whereas here in America, at least according to the current, fashionable, politically correct conceit, gays are born that way and any ideas about the contagion of sexual orientation are ridiculous.

The Soviet Union considered homosexuality a foreign, bourgeois perversion that must be contained in the Workers’ State. As Maxim Gorky wrote in 1934, "eliminate homosexuality and you’ll make fascism disappear."

The Soviets punished sexual acts between men, muzhelozhestvo, with imprisonment under Article 121.1. Women who desired other women were considered mentally ill and often institutionalized and "cured" with drugs, electric shock therapy, and even sex reassignment.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea that sexual minorities should be punished or cured ended, and for a while Russia was awash in queer possibilities. For those of us who lived in large cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, life was not that different than it was in New York or San Francisco. There were gay bars, lesbian bookstores, queer political groups, and a growing sense that it was possible to be both queer and Russian.

But what did not go away with the Soviet regime was the very Russian idea that same-sex desires can infect anyone. And Russia also retained its strong and deep xenophobia. The disease model of homosexuality, like a disease itself, festered and grew, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church and among the ultranationalist movements that were sprouting up even before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Given the power of same-sex desires to infect even the straightest among us—even a manly, shirtless, crucifix-necklaced Vladimir Putin on horseback—the current manifestation of virulent homophobia in Russia makes cultural and historical sense. It explains the Duma’s unanimous passage of the new anti-gay propaganda law. Federal code 6.21, which was signed into law by Putin in June, prohibits "distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations."

So while Russia is a difficult place to be gay, it may be an even more difficult place to be a queer theorist or a feminist scholar.

The twofold rationale is clear: Queers recruit and queers pollute.

That is not to say that Russia has remained isolated. On the contrary, sex in Russia is now intimately caught up in Western notions of sexuality. In the past 20 years, LGBT scholars and activists have moved back and forth freely between Russia and the West, and the Internet has made for an even more vigorous exchange of ideas. At the same time, though, conservative, primarily Christian, activists, scholars, and politicians have worked together across borders to create a global movement for "traditional values."

The use of the terms "traditional" and "nontraditional" is no accident but rather the result of a very specific strategy to make Russia not just a straight state, but a particular form of Christian state with complete control over the sexual lives of its citizens. The goal is to thwart not just sex between two men or two women but access to birth control and reproductive rights as well. As the imprisonment of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina of Pussy Riot showed, the close connection between a conservative state and church was not just about trying to stop gay pollution from the West, but feminist pollution too.

The turn in Russian politics and culture from queer possibilities to gay panic is the motivation behind a queer-studies conference, now in its second year, sponsored by the Centre for Independent Social Research, in St. Petersburg. The conference brings together sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, and historians to think through the meaning of queer in Russia. At the last one, in October, I argued that because of Russia’s particular history of sexuality, there was always a possibility that homosexuality would be considered a dangerous form of foreign pollution in the new Russian state.

At the end of my talk, a St. Petersburg gay activist accused me of cultural imperialism for my insistence that the history of sex is different in Russia than it is in America. To him, it was dangerous to treat Russia as a special case since that could mean not holding it responsible for achieving a similar level of tolerance for sexual minorities, but it was also imperialist to view Russia as different since that difference could be read as backwardness.

At first, I was surprised. After all, I had been careful to say that knowledge about the meaning of sexual practices is not more advanced, more scientific, or more legitimate in the United States. It is just different. I made clear that the notion of "born this way" that has come to dominate American understandings of homosexuality is not any more or less true than Russian understandings of queer sexuality as a more universally possible set of desires. Instead, as a queer theorist, I am interested in both of those ideas as culturally and historically ideological formations, not truth with a capital T.

Yet it is the very fact that I get to spend my time thinking about such things, to immerse myself in the historical and cultural specificity of desire and its meanings, that makes me privileged to the point of imperialism. I get to live in a world of queer theory, a world where both the American and the Russian understandings of sex are equally true and untrue. In the rarefied world of queer theory, sexuality is something that gets written onto the body by the surrounding culture as well as a lifetime of practices.

In this sense, sexual appetites are not that different from gustatory ones. We either like to eat grasshoppers or we feel sickened by the idea. We either like men or we like women or we like both. It’s not a choice, but it’s not a genetic fact either. This view, so clear from history and anthropology, might actually be dangerous in Russia. It might be that the idea of "born this way" is the best way to protect gay rights there. To cede that sexuality is not a genetic fact might be to condemn Russian LGBT citizens to further persecution.

Still, in retrospect and with all due respect, I think that it is time to condemn the charge of "cultural imperialism" to the dustbin of history. I am not saying that I know better than Russia’s gay activists or its sexuality theorists what is needed. On the contrary, it is precisely Russia’s very different history of sex that can make American ideas seem ludicrously out of place. American notions that we are "born this way" stick out like cowboy boots in Red Square.

But let’s please leave accusations of cultural imperialism to the Russian ultranationalists who scream it about everything from gay-pride parades to gender-studies scholars. Charging cultural imperialism is a way of stopping the global circulation of knowledge in an ill-conceived attempt to protect a native population. As Anna Temkina, a gender-studies professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, wrote me:

"In Russia … the message from organizations that name themselves anti-gay … is that LGBT and queer studies, and along with them gender studies, do not correspond to the Russian context, mentality, culture, and are a threat to it. Culture, the family, the country, must be saved from queer and gender studies. In essence theirs is … a critique of cultural imperialism."

Everything that is condemned by conservatives in Russia, Temkina notes, is a form of foreign pollution, and that includes homosexuality.

Of course all things foreign with which Russian conservatives agree, like American notions of "traditional values," are revered. Even highly contested studies by American academics, such as one by Mark Regnerus ostensibly proving that children of gay and lesbian parents fare worse than children of heterosexual couples, are touted in Russia as scientific proof supporting conservative stances.

So while Russia is a difficult place to be gay, it may be an even more difficult place to be a queer theorist or a feminist scholar. On one side, ultraconservative politicians and groups denounce queer and feminist academics. On the other, some gay activists, in Russia as well as America, try to force these scholars to reduce the work they do to "born this way" in order to counter Russian hysteria over perceived gay contagion.

Queer theorists should resist boiling down something as complex and messy as desire to a single, simplistic explanation. The Russian state’s gay panic is an abomination. It should be countered with a sustained argument against the notion that homosexuals infect others with queer desires. It should be opposed through alliances with other groups, like Central Asians and Jews, who are also marked as foreign and a threat to Russian purity. But scholars shouldn’t let a defensively parochial and bigoted state spur them into defensively parochial theories of sexuality and gender. Slip through the confining borders of nation-states and the imagined communities they produce. Celebrate the global circulation of difficult ideas, however uncomfortable they sometimes make us.

Queer theorists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Laurie Essig is an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College. She is the author, most recently, of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection (Beacon Press, 2010).