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It is not so much public opinion as
public officials that need educating.
After a long period of neglect and silence, the history of Russian sexuality and eroticism has become quite a fashionable topic in the 1990s, both in and outside Russia. We now have a few solid social history monographs (Levin, 1989, Engelstein, 1992, Pushkaryova, 1997), general overviews of Russian sexual culture from the pre-Revolutionary times until today (Kon, 1995, 1997), monographs on Russian family history, gender socialization, prostitution, abortion and birth-control, homosexuality, psychosexual literary biographies, sociological surveys of current sexual attitudes and behaviours (Bocharova, 1994, Bodrova, 1996,) a serial scientific publication of Russian underground erotic folklore and literature, and so on.
But is the "Russian Eros" something solid, more or less stable and unchangeable across the centuries, or a vague and fluid cluster of values, attitudes, social representations and behaviours, which has had different meanings for different ages, generations, genders, social strata and subcultures? Was the Soviet sexual culture a continuation of traditional, "genuine" Russian sexual values, or their negation? How are "Russian" sex/gender stereotypes, sexual and romantic values related to comparable "Western" phenomena? Have they been always in conflict with each other or are the differences relatively minor and explicable by the stages and tempo of socio-economic and cultural development?
The unity of opposites
At practically every moment of its history, Russian sexual culture was described both by foreigners and the natives in an extremely polarised manner, and these contrasting images are reproduced in contemporary scientific literature. The three main axes of this counterpoint are 1) gender stratification; 2) bodily canon; 3) love and sexuality.
On one side, medieval and early modern Russia was a patriarchal society, where women were brutally suppressed and oppressed both in social and domestic life, wife beating was considered an expression and proof of conjugal love even by the women themselves. The attitudes and practices of gender inequality, aggravated by centuries of serfdom, are abundantly reflected in Russian folklore and literature. On the other side, Russian social history, culture and folklore have always had a "powerful woman syndrome". In Russian fairy tales there are not only militant Amazons and faithful wives but an unusual, by Western standards, image of a wise woman - Vasilissa Premudraya. Not a few women played important roles in political and public life. Foreign observers in the XVIIIth and early XIXth century were surprised by the relative freedom and social independence of Russian women. Since Hegel and German romanticism, there is a philosophical tradition which considers the "Russian soul" or "national character" as feminine rather than masculine.
Equally contradictory is the Russian bodily canon and body politics, including soul/body opposition, social representation of the body, attitudes to nudity and the rules of decency. On one hand, Russian character, life-style and mentality are often presented and represented as a realm of predominant spirituality ("dukhovnost’ "), in sharp contrast to Western materialism, pragmatism and body-boundedness ("telesnost’ ") . This ideology of disembodied spirituality, with the corresponding underestimation and denigration of the body and its physiological functions is most clearly implemented in Russian Orthodox religious art (Flegon, 1976). Western religious art from the late Middle Ages presents a view of the entire human body as living flesh, with only genitals covered. In Russian icons only the face is alive, while the body is fully covered or outlined in an emaciated, ascetic form. Russian Orthodox icon painting, made according to the Byzantine canon, is much stricter and more ascetic than Western. Secular nude painting appeared in Russia much later and under more stringent control than in the West. Whereas Italian painters were portraying the nude body in secular settings during the Renaissance, Russian artists only gained that right in the late XVIIIth century. Even the extravagant Soviet prudery, with its bans and ideological campaigns against any kind of body display and nudity in art and everyday life, was historically rooted in this traditional religious mentality. On the other hand, Russian everyday life and popular culture and language have always been anything but modest and sexually prudish. Foreign observers of the XVII-XIXth centuries expressed surprise and shock at the Russian custom of nude mixed bathing in bathhouses and rivers, as well as at the richness and openness of Russian obscene language ("mat"), widespread in all social strata .
This exaggerated soul/body contrast is further projected into the incompatibility between romantic love and carnal lust (sexuality). On one hand, the normative image of love in classical Russian literature is extremely inhibited, chaste, spiritualised, and opposed to sexual, carnal pleasure. Russian XIXth century literature created a wonderful language of romantic and sentimental love. Yet this literature also bore a strong imprint of what Freud believed to be a fundamental contradiction of male, especially adolescent male, sexuality: incompatibility between tender love and sensual attraction. Its moral emphasis was generally on self-control and restraint. Carnal passion, "love for sex"had to be sacrificed either to the spiritual "love for person" or to a serene marital "love for wedlock".
On the other side, Russian folklore, language and everyday culture has always been openly and crudely sexual. The so-called Russian erotic tales and proverbs describe naturalistically and in detail all kinds of sexual actions, they glorify sexual exploits of polygamous heroes, such as the possession of a sleeping beauty, dishonouring ( i.e., raping) a young woman in revenge for her refusal to marry the hero, and so on. The nature and even the existence of romantic love in Russiahas been questioned from two absolutely different points of view. According to Nikolai Berdyaev (1989/1907: 17 ), "there is something dark and tormented, obscure and often deformed in Russian love. We have not had genuine romanticism in love". Yet the same fact (if it is a fact) is interpreted either as an effect of excessive idealism and romanticism, the affirmation of Love at the expense of a more prosaic and realistic sensuality, or as the result of sexual permissiveness, serfdom, poor housing conditions, poverty and the peasants' traditional naturalistic outlook .
My point is that we must look not at whether the thesis or the antithesis of these oppositions is "true" (both can be substantiated) but why their unity was historically so stable.
According to the great Russian historian Vassily Klyuchevsky, the history of Russia is that of a country in the constant process of colonisation, extension of borders, and conquest of new territories (Klyuchevsky, 1987:50 ). The extensivity of Russian history has had important consequences for the nature and development of Russian sexual culture.
The Christianising of Russia, stretching over several centuries and all the while involving new territories and peoples, was slow and in many ways inefficient and superficial. In popular belief, rites and customs, Christian norms not only coexisted with pagan norms, but frequently incorporated them. Paganism influenced attitudes toward love and sexuality particularly strongly. Some pagan rites and customs, like Yarovukha or Skakaniya survived in certain peasant communities until the end of the XIX-th century. The former took place on the eve of the wedding ceremony at the groom's house; the young guests would all stand in a circle, resting their arms on one another's shoulders and gallop, kicking their legs up high, the maidens lifting up their skirts, and all of them singing blatantly erotic songs, a group carouse which ended with them all sleeping side byside. Yarovukha (from Yarilo, the pagan god of fertility) was a gathering of young people at the bride's home for a party, after which they would remain and sleep side by side, with every liberty save the final intimacy being permitted.Sexual behaviour and mores of non-Russian ethnic groups were even more exotic from the Orthodox point of view. This mixed and heterogeneous pagan-Christian cultural heritage has been accentuated and made even more contradictory by huge territorial, regional and ethnic diversity. Russian provinces have always had very different sexual customs, attitudes and ideas about courtship, premarital pregnancy and so on. It is impossible to generalise from one part of the country to another. Russian ethnography has always been regionally-oriented.
Regional and ethnic diversity was intensified by the enormous cultural gap between educated and "Westernised" nobility and gentry, on one side, and the illiterate and enslaved peasantry, on the other. Social class and strata differences in Russia have been much more pronounced than in Western Europe.
The extreme ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of the population made the position of the Russian Orthodox Church difficult. Being incapable of exterminating and vanquishing the innumerable and immensely varied vestiges of paganism, the Church had either to incorporate these or turn a blind eye to them. Russian Orthodoxy sometimes appears more "realistic" and tolerant than Roman Catholicism, on, for example, such issues as the celibacy of the clergy, and it tried to balance these unwilling concessions against the spirituality and otherworldly asceticism of the Church doctrine itself: thus creating a highly contradictory system of moral and aesthetic values.
The "civilising process" of cultural modernisation and secularisation, including the emergence of new secular forms of social control over body and sexuality, domestication of body and language, introduction of new rules of propriety and "good manners", was also somewhat different in Russia than in early modern Western Europe. In so far as it was related to and associated with the development of capitalism, urbanisation and emergence of the middle classes, the "civilising process" was belated in Russia was experienced and labelled as "Westernization".
Because of the peculiar strength of Russian absolutism, new forms of socialising and etiquette have often been introduced from above, by the Imperial court, and not as mere examples for more or less voluntary imitation, but as arbitrary and compulsory prescriptions, under close administrative supervision, and with the utmost contempt and disregard for individual preferences and tastes. There is a sort of continuance between Peter the Great’s masquerades and compulsory boyars’ shavings and the Communist party 1950-80s crusades against long hairs, beards, mini-skirts, wide or narrow pants, and so on. Ideologically, these were quite opposite policies - in the first case it was a compulsory Westernization, and in the second - anti-Westernization - but the administrative-compulsory methods and social-psychological consequences of these policies have been similar.
Since it was introduced mainly by external and repressive, rather than internal and positive, means, and because of the general socio-economic and political weakness of the middle classes, the civilising process in Russia tended more to rigid conformity and uniformity than to pluralism, individualisation and diversity.
The differentiation of public and private life, with their correspondingly different means of social control, was underdeveloped in Russia. For a considerable part of Russian history, civil society was either swallowed up in or completely controlled by the despotic State. No Russian man or woman of any estate could claim that his house was his fortress. There were no guaranties of the sanctity of private life. Social vulnerability to State interference was aggravated by housing conditions and strict control by the local peasant community, intolerant of any kind of non-conformity.
An important psychological correlate of imposed social control was a deep-rooted mass conviction that all aspects of personal life, and especially sexual life, could and should be strictly regulated and that everything was either right or wrong (as earlier it was either a sin or a virtue). Yet total control means equally total rejection. When individual judgement is underdeveloped, the people’s only choice is between complete surrender and complete rejection of the imposed norms. Just as centuries ago with the Christianising process, the Russian Empire was far too big and socially/culturally heterogeneous to be effectively controlled or "civilised" by administrative means. Many "pre-civilised" and even "pre-Christian" life-styles and attitudes to body and sexuality continued to exist under the surface and on the periphery of the official public life both in Czarist and Soviet Russia. Just as in a medieval society all forms of unorthodox sexuality were considered heretical, now they were looked upon not only as moral laxity, depravity and anomie ( "vsedozvolennost'") but as political opposition. And since modernisation and civilising have been considered "Westernization" in Russia, the opposition to their manifestations, - be they gender equality, feminism, or sexual tolerance, - inevitably acquired a political and nationalistic flavor in the context of an old war between the Traditionalism/Nationalism and Modernism/Westernization.
Sexual culture and erotic art
In all Christian cultures, basically different languages of love and sexuality have existed.At one pole, there was the highly sublimated, spiritualized love lyric, emphasizing noble and elevated feelings. At the opposite pole, there was openly sensual and physiologically explicit popular carnival culture and aristocratic libertine art. To combine these contrasting images was extremely difficult. The missing link was a refined, sophisticated erotic art as a means of incorporating sexuality into "high" culture.
But in Russia this was more difficult than in Western Europe. The emotional vocabulary for the description and expression of sentimental and passionate love, as well as the corresponding literary genres, were created in XVIIIth century Russian literature, under the direct impact of French, English and German cultures. French libertines also had a strong influence in Russia. Young gentlemen of Pushkin’s time enjoyed not only Denis Diderot's "Immodest Treasures" but also Ivan Barkov’s bawdy verses. But Barkov's obscene and sacrilegious poetry has nothing in common with elegant and playful Western eroticism.
Obscene underground literature in Russia was firmly rooted in the popular culture, folklore and language, and it had important political (as a challenge to the authorities and to the established religious and social order) and psychological ( relieving young men of their sexual tensions and at the same time teaching them "how to do it") functions. But the existence of these two absolutely separate languages only enlarged the already existing psychological gap between love and sexuality.
Russian censorship, supported by the joint forces of the Church and State bureaucracy, was strict and all-embracing. Erotica was considered not only corrupt but also alien, having nothing to do with the Russian national heritage . This idea was clearly expressed as early as the famous book by Prince M.M. Shcherbatov "On the corruption of morals in Russia" (1786-1789). Russian literary criticism was also extremely prudish. Not only frivolous French novels but even highly moralistic works by British sentimentalists, weredeclared indecent. In the 1820s romanticism came under virulent attack for its "sensuousness". And in 1865, the magazine "Sovremennaya letopis'" discovered "eroticism in its most cynical form" even in Russian writer Alexander Ostrovsky's plays.
None of this prudery was exclusively Russian. In France both "Madame Bovary" and "Les Fleurs du Mal" were in 1857 formally condemned by the court. And later Leo Tolstoy's American translator Isabel Hapgood refused to translate "The Kreutzer Sonata" because she found its language "to be too excessive in its candour". Erotica was attacked not only by the religious right and conservative middle class, but also by the radical left. The so-called revolutionary democrats played an important part in forming XIXth century Russian literary and artistic culture. Aristocrats of Pushkin's time had received a good secular education from their childhood, and even while remaining deeply religious generally distanced themselves from official hypocrisy. This was much more difficult for the next generation of Russian intellectuals, who had been educated in religious seminaries and/or were themselves from ecclesiastical backgrounds. While breaking with some principles of their families, they were unable to overcome others.
Transplanted into an alien social milieu, many of them suffered acute shyness and tried to repress the desires of their flesh, the more so because not everything was "orthodox" in their sexuality. Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov suffered from unsatisfied sexual desires, masturbatory anxieties, feeling of sexual inferiority, unconscious homoeroticism, and so on. Similar experiences and feelings were typical for many young men of that period outside Russia. But unsuccessful inner battles, instead of helping ambitious Russian radicals to develop sexual toleration, turned into a principled moralistic-aesthetic condemnation and renunciation of any sensuality as repulsive and unworthy. Unable either to restrain or accept his own sensuality, Belinsky was extremely disapproving of any of its manifestations, for example, the poetry of Alexander Polezhayev. Reasoning from the standpoint of an imagined "innocent young boy", who had to be protected from seduction in every way possible, the "frenzied Vissarion" denounced Boccaccio in passing; he called Paul de Kock's novel a "squalid and ignoble work."
These strong anti-sexual feelings and a general suspicious-circumspect attitude towards the body and sensuality, which were inherited by following generations of Russian revolutionaries, Narodovoltsy and Bolsheviks, were not a simple manifestation of individual personal psycho-sexual problems and difficulties, - but a very clear-cut ideology. While the conservative right censured eroticism for undermining religious and family values, populists and social democrats could not fit it into their normative canon of giving up all energy to the liberation of the working classes. In comparison with this grand social design, everything else paled into insignificance. Even the subtle intimate lyrics of Afanasy Fet, Yakov Polonsky, or Konstantin Sluchevsky seemed "vulgar" to the radical critics of the latter part of the nineteenth century, who could see no difference at all between erotica and pornography. The sexual views of Russian feminists of the time were equally conservative, like many of their Western European counterparts they saw male lust (and indeed constructed lust as specifically male) at the root of many social ills.
In other words, the inflexible rigor of the socio-political and moral attitudes and beliefs of the Russian democratic intelligentsia was becoming the militant foe of the quotidian, emotional, and psycho-physiological realities out of which normal individual human life essentially took shape. Any artist or writer who attempted to deal with these realities came under withering attack simultaneously from both right and left, and this seriously hampered the emergence in Russia of any lofty, refined erotic art with corresponding language and vocabulary, without which sexuality and all talk of it inevitably appeared base and sullied.
The predominantly negative attitudes to sexuality, body and erotica began to change only in the last years of the XIXth century and around the 1905 revolution, when "the sexual question" (polovoi vopros) suddenly became one of the most urgent issues in philosophy, education, politics and the arts . The ‘sexual question’ of the period was fundamentally a gender issue concerning women’s emancipation. Sexuality proper was discussed mainly in its most problematic and socially dangerous aspects - abortion, prostitution, venereal diseases and homosexuality. The sexual education issue was practically reduced to the question of how to prevent adolescent masturbation, which was looked upon as extremely dangerous, although in Western Europe views on the deleteriousness of ‘self-abuse’ were beginning to be moderated around this time, and the young being reassured about the awful warnings carried over from previous generations.
The most important outcome was the emergence of a sophisticated erotic art. New Russian erotic art and philosophy used the same language and discussed the same problems as Western contemporaries. But the social possibilities were much more restricted. Early XXth century Russian philosophy of Eros was more metaphysical than phenomenological. Writers like Merezhkovsky, Gippius, and Berdyaev tried to rehabilitate an abstract Eros, yet as soon as the subject turned to real, everyday, bodily enjoyment, a barrier immediately arose. While this timidity certainly had origins in the personalities of these authors, who were unable to accept some of their own sexual, especially homoerotic, feelings and inclinations, it was typical of the entire generation of thinkers.
Russian erotic art, poetry and literature were much more expressive and outspoken . But, like their European counterparts, they were openly decadent. Enchantment with unusual, strange, deviant, sombre, violent, "perverted" forms of sexuality was liberating but at the same time repulsive and shocking. Decadent art openly declared itself to be immoral and amoral, and it was generally regarded as socially and educationally subversive. And it was not always easy to differentiate the arrogance of the experimental avant-garde art from the shamelessness of commercial erotica.
Russian society was not ready to differentiate between these variegated phenomena. In the minds of many prominent intellectuals, they formed a single picture of a terrifying "sexual Bacchanalia." The logic of both left and right was practically one and the same: sexuality was a dangerous instrument of the class--or national--enemy, through which the enemy was undermining the spiritual and physical health of "our side." Conservative authors maintained that current "obsession with sex" was engendered by the revolutionary movement and godlessness. For the populist and social-democratic critics, "erotic individualism" and pornography were the products of dissolute bourgeois culture, the means through which the bourgeoisie was trying to infect the naturally spiritually healthy working classes. The social democrats claimed that "sexomania" was part of the reaction to the defeat of the revolution of 1905, a consequence of intellectuals' disillusionment with public life and withdrawal into their own private lives. Both were right. The demands for "sexual liberalisation" were an integral part of the social renovation program, which preceded the 1905 revolution. And the defeat of the revolution, while undermining people's interest in politics, encouraged them to seek compensation in their private lives, first and foremost - in sexuality.
Soviet sexual experiment
Strict control over --indeed eventually the elimination of-- sexuality, was one of the main aspects of Soviet policies aimed at the formation of the "New Soviet Man," but this was neither explicit nor deliberate. We may delineate three major stages:
Originally, the Bolsheviks' sexual policy was not repressive. Soviet legislation and policy on issues of marriage and procreation in the 1920s were the most daring and progressive in the world. Women were accorded full equal rights with men in all social and private areas, including marriage and family relations. Medical services for mothers and children were expanded and improved and became entirely free. Yet the realities of life that confronted the Bolsheviks immediately after the Revolution presented more difficulties than they had anticipated. Many of the splendid advances towards equality were impossible to carry forward in the midst of economic ruin, poverty, and lack of culture; these plans had to be put on the back burner for a time. And the costs associated with the subsequent break-down in marriage and family patterns--unwanted pregnancies, fatherless children, prostitution, the spread of venereal disease--were great and provoked mounting concern. The Bolsheviks had to do what was necessary, rather than what was desirable, but these measures often had boomerang effects which only aggravated the original difficulties.
The liberation of women from the ecclesiastical bonds of marriage made them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The massive involvement of women in the labour force proved to be detrimental to family life and the education of children. The legalisation of induced abortion in 1920 produced a terrible decline in the birth rate. As attempts to improve social conditions proved to be a failure, the State had to turn to more and more restrictive social policies. The aim of changing social conditions, adapting them to the needs of individual human beings, which was the original essence of Marxist theory, was gradually reformulated into the task of adapting human behaviours, needs, and even feelings to extant poor and inhuman social conditions. Social control took the place of individual freedom.
Ultimately, the Bolsheviks had two alternative strategies in regard to sexuality: acceptance or suppression. The first, more liberal, viewpoint was formulated by Alexandra Kollontai and was always marginal . The second, more rigid and dogmatic stance, was taken by Aron Zalkind. Zalkind admitted the existence of a biological sexual drive in human beings and the harm of "sexual self-corking." At the same time, however, he proposed wholesale subordination of sexuality to the proletariat's class interests.
The means of legitimising this suppression and its phraseology were changeable. In the 1920s, sexuality had to be suppressed in the name of the higher interests of the working class. In the 1930s self-discipline was advocated for the sake of Soviet state and Communist party. In the 1950s state-administrative control was gradually transformed into moral-administrative regulations for the sake of the stability of marriage and the family. With all these ideological differences, the practical message regarding sexuality remained the same: DON'T DO IT!
What were the real reasons for this sexophobia, unprecedented in the 20th century, and making sexuality literally unmentionable over one-sixth of the world's land surface?
First, as George Orwell put it so pithily, in order to ensure absolute control over the personality, a totalitarian regime endeavours to deindividualise it, to destroy its independence and emotional world. The link between sexophobia and deindividualization was well recognised by such Russian Soviet writers as Mikhail Bulgakov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Andrei Platonov. Sexophobia helped to confirm the fanatic cult of the State and the Leader and also performed some "applied" political functions - the authorities frequently used accusations of sexual perversion, decadence, the keeping or distributing of pornography for dealing with political opponents and dissidents.
Although sexophobia was the official State policy, it was also to a certain degree a "people's policy." As a result of industrialisation and collectivisation, as well as political repression, the social composition of the Communist elite was rapidly changing in the early 1930s: yesterday's peasants were everywhere replacing intellectuals and members of the urban working class. This "cultural revolution " was accompanied by a general upsurge in anti-intellectualism. For unsophisticated former peasants "anti-sexual" arguments were far more convincing than they had been for the previous ruling elites. They could hardly renounce sex itself, nor had they any intention of doing so, but it was very easy for them to expunge it from the culture--and they did so with relish and sincerity.
Whereas the sexophobia of the 1920s had been reinforced by arguments about class interests and by mechanistic theories about the possibility and necessity of channelling individual "sexual energy" into more exalted social goals, the authorities now propagated moral concern for shoring up marriage and the family. Promulgation of policies for strengthening marriage and family stability at any cost was invariably accompanied by attacks on "anarchic" sexuality. People who, because of a lack of education and/or their own inhibitions, did not have the words to articulate and express intricate erotic experiences, were now convinced that only perverts and decadents talked freely about sex. Sexual intolerance, behind which often lurked personal ignorance and anxieties, became an essential aspect of global social intolerance.
Stalinist sexophobia was an important element in the general cultural counter-revolution of the early 1930s aimed at liquidating social and cultural diversity and at establishing total control over the personality, its most important steps being the recriminalization of homosexuality (1933), and bans on pornography (1935) and abortion (1936) . But the liquidation of erotic culture and degradation of the elite to the level of the masses produced not so much a desexualization of public and private life as its impoverishment, primitivization, and vulgarisation. Sexuality, driven underground and degraded to the level of a simple "sex instinct," became more and more wild, and potentially aggressive. Forbidden erotica became a strong anti-Soviet and anti-Communist symbol, pressing the people to make their choice--and their choices were often against the regime.
As for sexual culture proper, the net result of sexophobia was a practical liquidation of all sorts of erotic culture and the prohibition of sexual discourse, whether in the area of sex research, erotic art or medical information. Enforced silence strengthened traditional hypocrisy, which, in turn, was easily transformed into cynicism. Group sex came to flourish openly among every generation in the youth hostels and dormitories. All too common was what went on in the vacation homes and outdoor recreation centres: once out of sight of parents or spouses, young people (and the not-so-young) sometimes binged and caroused as if there would be no tomorrow, fulfilling and overfulfilling the plan, making up for what was out of reach in everyday life.
The Second World War caused serious dislocation to marital and family relationships and sexual morality. It gave rise to innumerable temporary liaisons and children born out of wedlock. The penitentiary system had an ongoing negative effect on the family as well. Not only were millions of people torn apart from their families and deprived of normal sexual lives for years at a time, but they had to put up with the terrible cruelty--including sexual abuse--of the camps. This certainly affected their subsequent sexual lives. The lack of serious discussion about gender differences produced a fantastically sexist everyday consciousness as well as a host of misunderstandings and mutual recriminations between men and women. The absence of sex education resulted not only in sexual ignorance but also in a growing generation gap. And, like the country's economic and social problems, resolution of these burning issues was postponed for many decades.
Gradual liberalisation and transformation of the Soviet regime after Stalin’s death from totalitarian to authoritarian altered its sexual policy from one of brutal suppression to one of awkward taming. Until the 1960s, sex was practically unmentionable; there was not a shred of public information available about it. Yet as soon as life became slightly freer, it became clear that both the value orientation and the sexual conduct of Soviet youth were moving in the same direction as those of their counterparts in the West: earlier sexual maturation and awakening of erotic feelings among adolescents; earlier onset of sexual life; growing social and moral acceptance of premarital sexuality and cohabitation; weakening of the "double standard" of sexual conduct for men and women; enhanced significance of sexual satisfaction as a factor in making and sustaining a happy marriage; resexualization of women; narrowing of the prohibited sphere within culture and an increase in public interest in the erotic; rising toleration in regard to the unusual, variant and deviant forms of sexuality, particularly homosexuality; a growing gap between the generations in terms of sexual principles, values, and behaviour.
These trends are common to the USSR and the West. But whereas in the West they have been openly discussed, and frequently overexposed, over the course of several decades, thereby enabling the public consciousness to internalise and digest their potential consequences gradually (although conservative circles have been incapable of so doing), in the Soviet Union everything was swept under the carpet. While people's behaviour and values, particularly those of young people, have been changing, official society has pretended that nothing has been happening. Unmistakable symptoms of profound, long-term, and irreversible transformations were treated as isolated incidents, or extraordinary events engendered by the malicious influence of the "decadent West," necessitating administrative discipline.
In the 1950s and 1960s some progressive Soviet education experts, doctors, and psychologists began to talk of the need for some sort of sex education for adolescents. It must be said that these initial forays into the subject of sex education were by no means radical . "Sex education" was conceptualised primarily as moral education; the idea of a special course in sexual enlightenment invoked dreadful panic among most progressive educators, who often declared it to be totally unnecessary. No one even dared contemplate the idea of acquainting adolescents with the fundamentals of contraception.
The reformist strategy in sexuality was just as much a failure as the Khrushchev and Kosygin reforms in economics. The Stalinist legacy was too sombre and resistance to change too strong. Medicalization of sexuality in the mid-1960s managed to take the first timid steps, culminating with the establishment of a medical subdiscipline named "sexopathology", while pedagogization remained generally at the level of appeals alone. The "reformers" themselves had but a poor understanding of what they wanted. Sexuality remained an enemy for them, a dangerous wild beast that had to be bridled.
Disputes about whether the USSR needed sex education, and if so, what exactly this should involve, lasted a good quarter of a century. Only in 1983 was a two-part course on preparation for marriage and family life formally introduced into Russian schools: "Hygienic and Sexual Education" (twelve hours), taught to adolescents at the age of 15, within a course on human anatomy and physiology, and "The Ethics and Psychology of Family Life," a 34-hour course for 16-17-year-olds. The course also included some elements of sexual education. All the same, the program remained largely on paper and in the late 1980s it was altogether eliminated from the schools.
Sexual revolution and counter-revolution (1987-1997)
The breakdown of the Soviet regime has brought the Russian people their long-desired sexual liberation. But, as was also the case with the economy and politics, sexual freedom was immediately transformed into anomie and anarchy and became a controversial symbol of social and personal liberation and the object of political speculation. Once again there are two poles: conservative traditionalists, nationalists, and communists, with a common blending of sexophobia, homophobia, anti-semitism and anti-Americanism, on one side, and liberal "westerners", on the other side.
The first and undeniable achievement of the current Russian sexual revolution is that sexuality has become visible. It is openly discussed and represented in mass media and advertising. A lot of erotic publications are available. Sexuality is recognised as an important element in culture and individual life. Questions about sexual attitudes and behaviours are included in national public opinion polls. People have become much more outspoken about sexual issues. Sexual tolerance is growing. After long debate, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993. Despite high levels of homophobia, same-sex love is no longer a taboo topic, and the public tolerance, as reflected in the polls, is systematically growing, especially among younger, better educated and urban people. Several voluntary associations for the promotion of sexual knowledge and safe sex practices, including a Russian Planned Parenthood Association and a few local centers for sex education, have been formed (with Western financial help).
At the same time, sexual liberation means many difficult social problems. Contemporary Russian sexual culture is completely commercialised and Americanised, and this is highly frustrating for parents, teachers and intellectuals. As a consequence of the old Soviet reproduction policies, in 1989 Russia was a world champion for unwanted pregnancies and induced abortions. Thanks to the efforts of medical authorities and RPPA, this statistic has somewhat improved in the last two years. According to official figures, in 1990 women aged 15 to 49 reported having 114 abortions per 1000 women, in 1992 -98, in 1995 - 74. Nevertheless the abortion rate is still one of the highest in the world. And because of the general sharp economic decline of the country, all other health indicators, including birth-rate, infant and mother mortality, are deteriorating. All sexually transmitted diseases have reached really dangerous proportions. The number of syphilitically infected people younger than 19 has increased more than 30 times in the last 5 years. The country in on the verge of a real AIDS epidemics. Prostitution, and especially child prostitution, is growing, as well as sexual violence and rape.
The situation of adolescents is extremely difficult . According to recent surveys (Chervyakov and Kon, 1993 and 1995) sexual behaviour and attitudes of urban adolescents are rapidly changing. In 1993 25% of 16 year-old girls and 38 % of boys had had coital experience; in 1995 the respective figures had already risen to 33% and 50%. Among 17 year-olds, the respective growth is from 46% to 52% (females) and from 49% to 57% (males). The absolute figures are comparable to the US and West Europe but in Russia the change is going very fast, adolescent sexuality is strongly related to social class and is often violent and aggressive. Unprotected and uncontrollable early sexual activity has serious moral and epidemiological consequences. About 10% of teenage girls experience sexual initiation under some degree of compulsion. No more that 5-7 % of rape is formally registered and even these cases are often ignored.
People of all ages complain about inadequate sexual knowledge. Intergenerational taboos on the exchange of sexual information within Russian families are very strong, parents are shy about discussing these matters with their children. According to a representative national survey, only 13 % of parents have ever talked with their children about sexual matters. In the Russian mass media there is a lot of soft porn and cheap erotica but no scientific educational programs. In all national public opinion polls since 1989, the predominant majority of adults, 60 % to 90 %, depending upon age and social background, strongly support the idea of systematic sex education in schools, with only 3% to 20% against. Parents, teachers and students are equally positive about sex education but this is extremely difficult to organise.
The new sexual openness and the negative sides of the sexual revolution are used by the conservatives, fascists and communists as an ideological weapon against liberal reform.
The first massive attack against sexuality, in the form of an anti-pornography crusade, was initiated by the Communist Party in 1991. In whipping up a moral panic in the country, the Communist Party pursued very clear, though always unacknowledged, political goals. The anti-pornography campaign aimed at diverting popular attention from pressing political issues and blunting awareness of the government's economic failures. In defending morality and the family, the Party was deflecting blame from itself for the weakening and destruction of both morals and the family. Communist leaders were trying to cement the developing alliance between the Party and conservative religious and national chauvinist organisations, including blatantly fascist groups. Anti-pornography slogans enabled the Party to direct popular fury and frenzy against the glasnost so hated by the Party apparatchiks, by branding the democratic mass media as a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy bent on corrupting the morals of young people, destroying traditional popular values, etc. Under the pretext of concern for young people, the Party endeavoured to restore the control over them it had lost. Reactionary pundits invariably portrayed young people not as subjects of social activity but as the eternal objects of education, lost sheep vulnerable to any stupid influence (though never any sensible one), from which they had to be saved, by force if necessary, against their own will.
In spite of all efforts, this campaign failed, people didn’t swallow the bait, the USSR Supreme Soviet’s strong worded anti-pornography resolution remained on paper only. The leaders of the August 1991 coup also used anti-sexual phraseology.
In early 1997 a global attack on sexual culture, including the issues of women’s reproductive rights, sexual/erotic culture and sex education has been renewed with new fury by the communists, extreme nationalists, the Russian Orthodox Church and the members of "Pro-life" and the Roman Catholic "Goluba" associations. The US anti-abortionists have no real support in Russia. In the national public opinion poll of 1994, women’s right to abortion was recognised by 73 % of men and 88 % of women, with only 11% and 8% against. But there is considerable ideological and financial support from extreme-right US organisations and it was these who initiated this new campaign, the main arguments of which are that sex education, birth control, abortion, masturbation and homosexuality are exclusively Western, non-Orthodox, anti-Russian subversive phenomena, deliberately aimed at degrading historical Russian culture and physically exterminating the nation by reducing its birth-rate. All this is supported by wild imagination and lies.
Russian Planned Parenthood Association is denounced by Christian fundamentalists as a "satanic institution", propagating abortion and depopulation. The official slogan of RPPA "The birth of healthy and wanted children, responsible parenthood" was represented in Pravda, the Communist Party periodical, and religious newspapers as meaning "One child in a family". The booklet "Your friend condom", for young adults and teens, is described as if it were addressed to first grade children. Influential Orthodox priests publicly proclaim that the IPPF is financed by the US and British governments and at the same time, that it is formally banned by President Clinton.
Another target is school sex education. There is not and never been any such thing in Russia. At the demand of Russian Ministry of Education, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in collaboration with UNESCO gave a grant for 3 years experimental work in 16 selected schools, to developworkable curricula and textbooks "for classes 7, 8 and 9, considering the importance of young people being able to make informed and responsible decisions before reaching the age of potentially starting sexual activities". There was no cultural imperialism or any attempt to invent something uniform and compulsory for the whole country. In the introduction to the project it is emphasised, that "to ensure cultural acceptability, all curricula and text-books will be developed by Russian experts, making use of knowledge and experience from several countries, and with the input of technical assistance from foreign experts".
The project was initiated in October 1996. Its first step was sociological monitoring, trying to assess the sexual values and attitudes of children, parents and teachers of a few pilot schools, on a strictly voluntary basis. Similar controls were planned for the next stages of the experiment. Unfortunately, Ministry of Education officials, without consulting the experts, made a fatal mistake: they declared the initiation of such delicate work without adequate political and psychological preparation. Even worse, the Ministry sent a package to 30,000 schools of 5 "alternative sex education programs", negligently edited, never tested in the classroom, and unrealistic (some of them of them required more than 300 class hours). These programs had nothing in common with the "UNESCO project" but are perceived as a part of it.
So before it was even born, the project came under heavy attack in the mass media as a "Western ideological subversion of Russian children". In some small towns people were asked in the street: "Do you want children to be taught in school how to make sex? If not, please, sign the petition to ban this devilish project". Priests and activists tell their audiences that all bad things in Western life are rooted in sex education, that Western governments are trying now to ban or eliminate it, and only a corrupt Russian government, at the instigation of the world "sexological-industrial complex", is acting against the best interests of the country. This is supported with "scientific" data: for example, that in England, at the instigation of irresponsible sexologists, boys begin masturbation at 9, and at 11 years they are already impotent.
Some prominent members of the Russian Academy of Education Academy also attacked this "Western" spirit: "We don’t need the Netherlands’ experience, we have our own traditional wisdom". President of the Academy Dr. Arthur Petrovsky strongly dissociated himself from this nationalist position as well as from suggestions to re-introduce moral censorship. But the general decision was that instead of special "sex education" the country should improve adolescents’ moral education "with some elements of sex education" (this formula was used in 1962). At the insistence of some communist members of Parliament, the Attorney General’s office has begun a criminal investigation into whether the questions about sexual anatomy in an anonymous questionnaire for pilot schools might be considered as "depravity" and "seduction".
Freedom of artistic expression and the mass media is also under attack. The State Duma has approved the first reading of a law limiting the distribution and sale of products, services and performances of a sexual nature. Its intention is to control the spread of pornography and commercial erotica, especially among minors. But the most difficult issue of any such legislation is the differentiation between pornography and erotic art. In the draft law, prepared by professionals, this was taken into account. Yet later legislators deleted this limitation and instead of the "unclear" concept of erotica introduced the notion "products of a sexual nature", which is defined as " the products of mass media, any other printed and audio-visual products, including advertising, messages and materials, transmitted and received by the computer networks, as well as different things and means, satisfying the needs, related to sexual drive, with the exception of medical drugs and the products for medical purposes". This definition is legally and scientifically meaningless. Everything can be used or interpreted in a sexual way. For a Greek youth who secretly copulated with the Aphrodite statue, the sculpture was definitely a "sexual production", just as was Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian for Yukio Mishima. Does it mean that these objects of art and their reproduction should be distributed only in the "special places" and children should be banned from the Hermitage museum? According to this draft law, Nabokov’s "Lolita" should be banned from any public library. If this law is finally accepted, Russian art and culture will be once again at the mercy of corrupt state officials and their subservient and ignorant "experts".
What may be the possible outcome of these battles? In the short run, almost anything can happen in Russia. But in the long run I’m optimistic. The unique Soviet sexophobia had been partly rooted in old Russian traditions but its main social strength was the underdevelopment of private life and the fact that USSR was a closed society. Both of these factors are now in decline.
Like some other aspects of Soviet/Russian life, sexophobia has been the offspring of the marginal, declasse lumpen-proletarians, ex-peasants who did not really belong to the town or the countryside. This segment of the population is gradually disappearing from the historical stage. By the year 2000, less than half of the 40-year-olds, but over 60% of the 30-year-olds and 70% of 20-year-olds will have been born in the cities .
Current sexual attitudes and practices in Russia are highly diversified according to age, gender, education, cohort, regional, ethnic, and social background. In the near future, this heterogeneity will probably increase and it may produce more cultural conflicts. Yet in the long run, it is the younger, urban, and better educated people who will certainly have the upper hand in defining what is right and what is wrong. Any attempt by the state, Church, or local community to limit forcibly their sexual freedom is doomed to failure, and will be terribly detrimental to the authority of the institutions making the attempt.
© И.С. Кон