Russian History


Sexual Attitudes

In the 1990s, Russian sexual values and attitudes generally moved toward liberalization and autonomy, with distinct differences according to age, sex, region, and level of education. In the Soviet era, the Russian attitude toward sexuality itself paralleled that toward artistic expression of the erotic: it simply was concealed. Most Soviet philosophical, psychological, and biological reference works made little or no mention of sexuality as a major characteristic of human beings. Soviet psychology, notoriously backward and misused, ignored almost completely the influence of sexual behavior and motivation on overall psychological makeup.

After decades of Stalinist repression, Russian erotic art, literature, and theater began a gradual revival in the 1970s as censorship and ideological control weakened somewhat. Access to Western novels with erotic motifs, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita , also improved in this period. In 1992 restrictions on the publication of erotic literature were loosened in Russia, heralding a rapid output of erotic and pornographic material of all sorts. A collection of children's erotic folklore was prepared in 1995, and erotic film festivals and photography exhibits began to appear in the 1990s. The public seemingly has accepted the frequent use of nudity in Russian television, dance, and drama.

Especially in film and literature, the shift has produced many instances of gratuitous or cruel sex and arbitrarily introduced nudity. Violence against women frequently is a central motif of movies, and violence and sex often are linked. Russian observers have expressed alarm that the release of long-repressed sexual expression in art will be accompanied by a similar deluge of sex and violence in Russian society. Indeed, the incidence of violence and sexual attacks against women in the first half of the 1990s seems to confirm these fears (see The Role of Women, this ch.).

Objections to the trend toward sexual liberation are concentrated in the older generations. In surveys younger and better-educated Russians generally voice approval, and new enterprises selling cosmetics, high-fashion clothing, and health products play to a new public interest in attractive display of the human body. The individuality implicit in such marketing--and especially obvious in the new Russian youth culture--is a drastic change from the strict standards of dress and grooming imposed in the Soviet era. The wearing of shorts, for example, only was accepted in Russia in the 1980s; in the Soviet era, women could not wear trousers in public without harassment or arrest; and vigilantes often forcibly cut the hair of youths who exceeded the standard for hair length.

According to surveys taken in the early 1990s, most Russians feel that romantic love is a precondition to marriage and to sexual intimacy. But there are great differences in attitude toward this ideal between the older and younger generations, between the sexes, and between rural and urban Russians. Russians in larger cities tend to take a more liberal outlook on premarital sex. The younger generations in Russia show a much more casual attitude toward commitment to a long-term relationship than do the older generations. However, in surveys younger males showed a much stronger identification of sex with pleasure, and younger females a stronger identification of sex with love. Russians' attitudes toward premarital sex became somewhat more liberal in the 1990s; in a 1993 survey, the percentage of those disapproving was substantially lower than it had been in previous years.

The official policy of the Soviet Union toward homosexuality was one of persecution and intimidation. Until the late 1980s, Russian social scientists and society in general were completely silent on the subject. Under those conditions, homosexuals, known as "blues," lived in an underground culture circumscribed by the brutality of gangs and the police and by employment discrimination.

With the advent of glasnost and the appearance of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the Soviet Union, open scientific and journalistic discussion of homosexuality began in 1987. The issue became politicized in 1990 as gays and lesbians began attacking discrimination as a human rights issue. At this point, strong arguments appeared for abolishing Article 121 of the Criminal Code, which stipulated that sex between men (but not between women) was a crime. Despite increasingly strong opinion against Article 121, in the early 1990s nationalists and communists joined some religious organizations in opposing decriminalization. Meanwhile, the number of convictions under Article 121 decreased steadily. Although Russia's new Criminal Code had not been ratified as of mid-1996, substantial modifications had been made to Article 121 by that time.

Hundreds of gay rights organizations appeared in Russia in the 1990s, mostly in urban centers. Moscow became the center of Russia's gay and lesbian communities, both of which remained substantially less overt than their Western equivalents. Despite a gradual increase in public tolerance in the 1990s, substantial residues of homophobia remain in Russian society. The neofascist group Pamyat', for example, remained violently antigay in the mid-1990s, and the communist and extreme nationalist media have launched strident homophobic attacks. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous surveys identified homosexuals as the most hated group in Russian society, although the number of Russians calling for their extermination or isolation decreased noticeably between 1989 and the mid-1990s.