Freedom to love

The path to equality for LGBTQ+ people has been a rocky one. While there’s still a long way to go in terms of acceptance, we are closer than ever before to a world in which LGBTQ+ people are free to live and love openly without prejudice.

It might come as a surprise that at the beginning of the Soviet Union, there wasn’t any uniform legislation for homosexuality, with the law and punishment varying widely across different states. In fact, some Soviet Socialist Republics – including that of Armenia, Russia and Ukraine – were created with no laws prohibiting same-sex relationships whatsoever.

It wasn’t until 1934 that Stalin’s communist government brought in a blanket law recriminalising homosexuality for the whole of the Soviet Union. On 7 March 1934, Article 121 was added to the criminal code, expressly prohibiting male same-sex sexual intercourse with a punishment of up to five years hard labour in prison.

It’s believed that there were up to 1,000 men imprisoned each year under Article 121 – with more than 25,000 jailed in total. There were no laws written regarding lesbianism.

Article 121 was revoked slowly, state by state, from 1953 until 1968; but it wasn’t until the early seventies that the public attitude towards LGBTQ+ people started to relax. Even when the laws were revoked, LGBTQ+ people were still subject to inequality and bullying by the communist authorities.

Notably, from 1985-87 in Poland, many gay men were arrested as part of ‘Operation Hyacinth’. Hyacinth was a secret operation by the Polish communist police which aimed to create a national database of all Polish homosexuals and people who were in touch with them. The database resulted in the registration of around 11,000 people. Polish officials claimed that the operation was launched because of the fear of the newly discovered HIV virus, to control homosexual criminal gangs, and to fight prostitution.

Citizens arrested were forced to carry special files entitled ‘karta homoseksualisty’, which translates to ‘card of a homosexual’. These files are now known as the ‘różowekartoteki’, or pink-card index. Members of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland have since petitioned the Institute of National Remembrance to destroy the remaining files in the pink-card index without success.

Poland wasn’t the only place where attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people continued to be hostile after legalisation. A poll conducted in 1989 – the year the Soviet Union fell – reported that homosexuals were the most hated group in Russian society, with 30% of those polled feeling that homosexuals should be ‘liquidated’.

Despite an overall improvement in attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people since the revolutions of 1989, there are still parts of the former Soviet Union that are yet to catch up. In Russia, for instance, anti-LGBT sentiment remains strong. A 2013 survey found that 74% of Russians thought homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted by society, compared to just 16% who thought it should.

It’s believed that there were up to 1,000 men imprisoned each year under Article 121 – with more than 25,000 jailed in total.

Most recently, in 2018, what would have been Russia’s first-ever gay Pride was cancelled within 24 hours of being announced in order to protect ‘traditional family values’ and prevent children from seeing ‘the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’.

However, many countries in the former Soviet Union are challenging the repressive attitudes of the Soviet past and creating an environment of equality for all, making it safer for LGBTQ+ people to live without fear. Georgia, Lithuania and Estonia have all enacted legislation to ban all anti-gay discrimination; and in Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Estonia, and Kyrgyzstan, transgender people are allowed to legally change their gender.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain the only two former Soviet states in which male homosexuality is illegal.  The fight for the freedom to love who you like goes on.

Real people: Mikhail Kuzmin

Mikhail Kuzmin was a Russian poet, musician and novelist who worked in the Soviet Union until his death in 1936. Kuzmin is best known for his work Wings(1906), the first Russian novel centred around homosexuality.

Despite the general anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric of the time, Kuzmin was unapologetically and outwardly gay,expressing himself freely in his work and personal life.

It’s said that Kuzmin argued that homosexuality “was not immoral or ungodly, but morally distinctive, ethically sanctioned, and even at times spiritually superior, a matter not of decadent immoralism but the personal creation of values”.

Kuzmin met poet Yuri Yurkun in 1913 and struck up an intimate relationship. The pair continued to work and love largely unhindered for many years. However, by 1928, the public and political attitude towards homosexuals had shifted and people no longer turned a blind eye.

Despite the hostility towards homosexuals, Kuzmin and Yurkun continued to live together until Kuzmin’s death in 1936. Kuzmin died of pneumonia two years after homosexuality was officially outlawed. Yurkin died two years later after being arrested, interrogated for seven months and eventually shot in a political purge under the Stalinist regime.


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