In June, Vladimir Putin ordered
Russia’s Ministry of Health to set up a department within the Serbsky Institute, notorious for its use of punitive psychiatry during Soviet times, to study the “social behavior” of LGBTQ people. Understandably, this initiative sparked concerns about the possibility of the institutionalization in Russia of “aversion therapy,” a pseudo-scientific practice aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.
Putin’s move is hardly surprising, considering his numerous attacks on Russia’s beleaguered LGBTQ community from the early 2010s, when he began to draw on “traditional values” as part of a conservative shift aimed at consolidating his legitimacy. In 2013, the Russian parliament adopted what was essentially anti-gay legislation – a legal ban
on “homosexual propaganda.” According to its co-sponsor, the law banned “spreading information aimed at forming nontraditional sexual attitudes among children… or a distorted perception of social equality between traditional and nontraditional sexual relations.” Then, in late 2022, the Duma expanded
the existing ban, outlawing “LGBT propaganda” to adults. This year, in the latest example of the continued crackdown on LGBTQ people, Russia’s parliament banned
legal or medical gender change.
While Putin’s order to study “the social behavior” of the LGBTQ community may seem like a product of modern Russian homophobia, attempts to study LGBTQ people with a view to “curing them” were also made as far back as the post-war Soviet Union, as new research
demonstrates.Criminalization of gay sex and gradual softening
During the 1920s the early Soviet state, brimming with progressive ideas, did not seek to regulate same-sex relations. Indeed, after 1917, the Bolsheviks promptly disposed
of the tsarist criminal codes, which contained criminal penalties for homosexual behavior. For over a decade, the new Soviet Union remained one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of homosexual rights, while many European countries still had laws penalizing homosexual acts. Early Soviet psychiatrists took great interest in the issue of homosexuality
, many believing that men attracted to the same sex should be helped to accept their sexuality rather than be treated for a supposed problem.
Everything changed in 1934, when Joseph Stalin recriminalized male homosexuality, and Soviet doctors, legislators and educators promptly adopted this perspective.