Is Russia Looking to Return to Soviet Practices of Treating Gay People?
August 5, 2023
Rustam Alexander writes about the evolution of state policy toward gay people over the last century in Russia, which has gone from freedom in the early Soviet period to criminalization under Stalin and back to relative freedom in 1993 before a renewed crackdown in the past decade.
"Equal rights without compromises." LGBT march in Moscow, 2012 before the adoption of the ban on "homosexual propaganda". Source: Wiki Commons
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.
Overnight, attraction to the same sex became a criminal problem, to be handled solely by the police.
Those charged with “consensual sodomy” could be sent to jail for a term of three to five years, while those found guilty of “forcible” sodomy were to be sentenced to five to eight years in prison. For the next two decades, the issue of homosexuality was virtually unmentionable in either educational or medical literature. As it was once again regarded as a crime, there was no need to look at the issue from any other perspective.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rolled back Stalin’s repressive policies, including decriminalizing abortion and even introducing sex education campaigns. Khrushchev’s liberalization, which fell short of decriminalizing homosexuality, also extended to science, prompting some Soviet doctors to again examine the issue of homosexuality from a medical point of view. Still, this research remained rather unusual, and the doctors acted at their own risk.
Yan Goland, a Soviet sexopathologist, started "curing" homosexuals in 1960s through psychotherapeutic methods. Source: Yandex

For example, in the 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrists Elizaveta Derevinskaya and Abram Svyadoshch from the Kazakh city of Karaganda conducted an ambitious research project that aimed to study lesbian women and help them to become heterosexual. Apparently, Derevinskaya and Svyadoshch decided to focus on lesbians because female homosexuality was not criminalized. To these doctors’ chagrin, the women’s homosexual desire returned once the administration of libido-deadening medications was discontinued. Roughly at the same time, doctors working in the Soviet GULAG and other places of imprisonment also tried to study homosexual relations among prisoners, supplying GULAG authorities with recommendations on how to stamp it out.

During the 1960s, the emergence of the Soviet science of “sexopathology” spawned medical discussion of same-sex attraction. Sexopathologists began questioning the view of homosexuality as a criminal issue, arguing that it was, instead, a treatable medical condition. Some of the more daring among them, like Yan Goland, staked their entire career on providing psychotherapeutic treatment for homosexuality.

By today’s standards, Western doctors of that period were hardly “progressive” either and commonly treated their homosexual patients with electroshocks, strong medications and other aggressive methods. Goland, however, relied merely on psychotherapy. He talked, and he listened. His patients kept diaries during treatment and practiced rechanneling their thoughts about men toward women.

Goland’s rejection of the use of medication does not mean that his homosexual patients were in less pain than their Western counterparts: most of them saw themselves as secret outcasts, deviants in a strongly conformist society, and many suffered depression, anxiety and other mental distress. Although some of them declared that they had managed to get rid of their homosexuality following their treatment, there is no evidence this was actually the case.
Sergei Parajanov, the famous Soviet Armenian film director, was convicted in 1973 on charges of homosexuality and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. Over 1,300 men were prosecuted on similar charges that year. Source: Wiki Commons
Doctors invited to cooperate with police

Even though male homosexuality was still handled by police – not doctors – when Soviet law-enforcement officials became aware that specialists in sexology were secretly treating homosexuality, they did not ban their practices, but decided instead to make use of their expertise. In 1979, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) commissioned Moscow sexologists to “design methods of identifying individuals with various types of homosexuality.” It also approached Yan Goland, entrusting him with “designing methods of treatment of individuals with various types of homosexuality.”

There are several reasons why the MVD became interested in such research. Firstly, MVD officials were anxious to eradicate homosexual relations in prisons, widespread in Soviet penitentiaries, as elsewhere in the world. Secondly, Soviet police needed more expert knowledge to help facilitate the task of investigating and solving sodomy cases, especially in cases where consenting adults were trying to hide the evidence of their “crime.”

Many European countries (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, England, East and West Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Norway and others) had decriminalized consensual homosexual relations between males by the 1980s. However, in the USSR, consensual sodomy among adults remained a crime, albeit not broadly enforced (the all-time highest number of sodomy convictions in a year across the entire Soviet Union was registered in 1985, at 1,620).
Despite the existing anti-sodomy law, Soviet sexopathologists continued to regard male homosexuality as a disease.
It was not until 1993 that male homosexuality was finally decriminalized, and in the subsequent two decades LGBTQ people enjoyed relative freedom.

The anti-gay campaign that began with the legal ban on “gay propaganda" instantly made life for LGBTQ people difficult and dangerous, forcing many to leave the country. Similarly, Putin’s recent order to “research” the behavior of LGBTQ people may or may not portend a reintroduction of “aversion therapy,” though it is certain to make life for LGBTQ people even more dangerous.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy