The Sexual Revolution in Russia. From the Age of the Czars to Today.
Igor Kon has received fame in the Western world because of his frequent visits but more so for his insistent work on sexual life in Russia. Before he ventured into the field of sexology, he worked in philosophy, sociology, history, and became a member of the Soviet and now Russian Academy of Education. He is a true interdisciplinarian focusing earlier on youth and recently on sexual problems. His first work that came to my attention was a book on friendship, translated into German. It was surprising to see a Soviet study on this theme in the late seventies. It made me suspect that the author wanted to discuss homosexuality, but not being able to do so, chose for an innocent but close theme. Nowadays, Kon participates in heated debates on the legal status and the social place of same-sex love.
Kon's Sexual Revolution is both his own story and Russia's history of sexuality. The book's double face makes it compelling reading as Kon's memoirs add to the sexual history of the country. The part that deals with the pre-War history, is based on written sources and the few studies that have up till now appeared, such as Laura Engelstein's magnificent study. Kon offers us an interesting story of this period, stressing and using the sexological successes in Russia in the early part of this century. Just before and after the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917, several rather primitive sex surveys were executed among prostitutes, students, workers and other social groups. But soon after the communists came to power, hopes for greater sexual freedoms that were expected could be forgotten and surveying sex became impossible. As prudish as their bourgeois opponents, the communists very soon started to thwart prostitution and homosexuality. Although they legalized abortion in their early days, they forbade it again in the thirties for demographic reasons.
In the age of the czars, political society had been morally traditional and not supportive of sexual liberation. But in the arts a rich erotic culture had developed under the aegis of Sergei Diaghilev, famous for his ballets and literary enterprises. Others started to write about carnal love, brothels, homosexuality, necrophilia and comparable erotic topics. Leo Tolstoy might have condemned sex, but in his wake others as the philosopher Vasily Rozanov began to defend it. Russian culture reached just before the Revolution with the so called "Silver Age" its erotic pinnacle, and declined very soon after it because many artists left the country, others were killed or imprisoned, while few remained active under communism.
Kon divides the communist period in four parts. From 1917 to 1930, the main characteristics were disintegration of the family and emancipation of women. From 1930 to 1956, marriage and family were strengthened, and the erotic culture was eliminated. Kon calls it the totalitarian epoch which developed into the authoritarian period from 1956 to 1985 when sex became domesticated and regulated and some individual freedoms were allowed. In the last period from 1985 to 1990 sex came out of the closet what produced both radical sex movements and also anomie and sex panics.
There is no doubt that communism in its Soviet version has been one of the most repressive sexual systems that ever existed, worse than most religions, and on a par with nazism. Only in Cuba and North-Korea the strict sexual codes of the totalitarian period continue to exist. It is no coincidence that Cuba was the only country with forced confinement for aids-patients. Communism is an ideology of labour and scarcity, and not of pleasure and abundance. It never allowed privacy, and only sustained marital relations with the worst Darwinian procreationist aims.
The consequences of the communist sexual politics are according to Kon to perceive to this day. There does exist neither sexual education nor sexual culture in contemporary Russia. Knowledge of the "facts of life" is largely absent whereas sexual violence is omnipresent. Because the pill was a capitalist invention that endangered the health of women, the most common contraceptive method has always been abortion. The Soviet Union had in the late 80's officially seven million abortions and in some rural areas, there were 770 abortions on 100 births!
Since the collapse of communism, Russia is witnessing a sexual revolution. Support for sexual education is growing; next to abortion, other contraceptive methods are distributed but remain still too expensive for a poor public; gay and lesbian emancipation is making inroads in Russian society. But as sex is often commercially abused, the most visible aspects of free sexuality are prostitution and pornography. According to Kon, the sexual revolution taking place these days is for Russians an American, capitalist import. Opposing the consequent vulgarization and commercialization of moral and sexual values, they return to old fashioned nationalisms and communisms. This makes the hope for a new sexual Silver Age rather faint. Kon warns western adepts of the school of social constructionism to realize that sexual culture neither in the West nor in Russia might witness the radical changes they hope for, because "human nature and historical traditions, given all their plasticity, should be taken seriously". Social change in the field of sexuality is always slow because of ingrained systems of belief and behavior.
Kon ends in a very pessimistic tone, fearing a return to the traditional sexophobia of Soviet times. He stresses the need for "a sophisticated sexual-erotic culture" that cannot be imported but must be created from the inside. I would ask him from which country such a rich sexual-erotic culture could be imported, as no Western country, certainly not the United States but neither my native Holland that he seems to see as a good example, could offer it.
Kon has written a very fascinating book on a horrifying topic. Russia has always been an enigma to Westerners, and it remains so. There is a large group of people who look to the west, as Kon does, but more Russians seem to look into their orthodox Slavic souls. Which might not necessarily be disastrous, as Russia has witnessed a rich sexual history, but the twist it seems to make with morally conservative neo-communisms and nationalisms is horrendous. Let us hope the work of Kon and his allies will influence Russian sexual politics and help to create, one hundred years after the Silver Age, a Golden Era.
University of Amsterdam