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Russia used to be one of the best places in the world to be gay.

Russia used to be one of the best places in the world to be gay.

Once slammed as the ‘land of sodomy’ by its western European neighbors, there have been many years in its tumultuous history when many LGBTI people could live freely.

In the 1920s, Russia even became the first country in the world to consider same-sex marriage.

So how did Russia become the largely homophobic nation we know today?

Gay sex as a ‘crime’ in Russia

Lesbian sex has never been a crime in any part of Russia or the Soviet Union. Sex between men, on the other hand, has faced more persecution.

Under the Orthodox Church in the 15th and 16th centuries, sex between men was considered a sin. But even then, believers could use confession and were rarely disciplined.

There was no state law against sodomy until 1716, when Peter the Great decided to westernize the empire. He included a clause against ‘men lying with men’ in his Military Articles, so it only applied to the army and navy. Consensual gay sex led to flogging, while male rape could bring death or life in prison.

In 1832, a sodomy law was enacted punishing civilians with ‘birching’ or deportation to Siberia for four to five years to work in the internment camps.

This was still less strict than many western neighbors. In comparison, England hanged 55 men for gay sex between 1805 and 1835.

After a reform of the penal code in 1903, this was drastically reduced to three months imprisonment. Prosecutions became rare, and a gay subculture developed.

Exceptions made for ‘gay heroes’

During this time, the country’s greatest composer Tchaikovsky was under threat to be jailed for the ‘crime’ of being gay. But because of his cache, it was unthinkable to arrest the cultural hero. After his death, acknowledgment of his homosexuality was suppressed.

Nadezhda Drova, a person assigned female at birth, cross-dressed to fight against the Napoleonic invasion in 1807. When they were found out, the generals gave their blessing to allow them to serve in the army. It was seen as a victory for ‘patriotic duty’.

The first gay novel with a happy ending written in any European language came out in 1906, called Wings.

‘People generally thought within the educated middle class, as it was in Russia, homosexuality was not a big thing. It was tolerable,’ Dan Healey, a professor in modern Russian history at the University of Oxford, told Gay Star News.

‘When you move into the revolution, the socialists that came to power had inherited ideas from European socialism – among those were removing the laws against homosexuality.’

Progressive laws

In 1917, all laws against sodomy were abolished as well as with the rest of the Tsarist penal code.

Intersex people, unusually in the 1920s and 30s, were possibly treated as humanely as they could be in any country in the world. Doctors would trust the intersex patient to make their own medical judgment and help them realize the identified gender.

‘Soviets were progressive about this…and quite relaxed about the sexuality side of it,’ Healey added, ‘Western Europe was anti-surgical adjustments for intersex people.’