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Review January 2024

The untold history of gay oppression in the USSR

Review by Siobhán Hearne
Rustam Alexander, 2023
ISBN 9781526167453
288 Pages
Published by: Manchester University Press
St Petersburg Pride in 2014. Photo credit: Flickr/ Maria Komarova (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEE)

 “So, what’s it like living in Gayropa?” a young man asked me as he took my photograph in his small and cosy studio, located around the corner from a busy Moscow metro station. It was nine years ago, and I was studying in Moscow and in need of passport-sized photographs for my student ID. The word Gayropa—a pejorative portmanteau combining the words gay and Europe—was one that I heard with increasing frequency during that period. The term began to gain traction in Russia during Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, which was marked by ruthless domestic crackdown on political dissent and foreign influences, the invasion and annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as increasingly strained relations between Russia and the European Union. In June 2013, Putin passed a new federal law prohibiting discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools and in the media, which became known internationally as the “anti-gay propaganda law”. In the decades since the law was introduced, LGBTQ people living in Russia have been subjected to widespread hostility, discrimination, violence, and vicious hate crimes.  

State homophobia and transphobia ramped up yet again following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In the following December, Putin signed a new law banning all so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” in books, film, television, advertising, and social media. A draconian assault on trans and gender non-conforming people came in July 2023, when gender-affirming surgeries and hormone replacement therapy became illegal, along with legally changing one’s gender. In November 2023, the Ministry of Justice took steps to designate what it calls the “international LGBT public movement” as an extremist organisation and ban it in Russia. 

It is within this context that Rustam Alexander’s latest book was published in English and Russian. With Red Closet—or Closed (Zakrytye) as the Russian version is entitled—Alexander builds upon his pathbreaking and prolific scholarship on the history of homosexuality in the Soviet Union. This time, Alexander writes for a non-academic audience and provides a crucially important and highly readable account of the oppression of gay men and lesbians in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s until the late 1980s. 

Red Closet shows how LGBTQ history is central to the history of the Soviet Union more generally; an important message given that histories of gender and sexuality are often excluded from grand historical narratives

Rather than providing a dry account of state and medical discourse on homosexuality, each chapter of Red Closet focuses on a specific episode and contextualises it within the social and political history of the Soviet Union. This approach makes the book especially accessible to people with little prior knowledge of Soviet history, not least because Alexander is skilled at explaining the intricacies of the Soviet political and legal system in a concise and comprehensible manner. Beyond this, Red Closet shows how LGBTQ history is central to the history of the Soviet Union more generally; an important message given that histories of gender and sexuality are often excluded from grand historical narratives, both within our field and beyond. 

The book is structured in four parts, each dedicated to the premiership of a specific Soviet leader. Part 1 focuses on the Stalin era and charts the introduction of and reactions to the Soviet anti-sodomy law of 1934 and the criminal repression of gay men thereafter. In Part 2, the focus shifts to Khrushchev’s premiership, and the reader is introduced to debates within the legal and medical community regarding the utility of the anti-sodomy law and the “corrective treatment” of lesbians and gay men. Part 3 on the Brezhnev era advances some of these themes in exploring the diversity of opinion among legal and medical professionals, as well as the increasing recognition of state homophobia. In Part 4, Alexander traces the beginnings of the Soviet HIV-AIDS epidemic and its impact upon public attitudes towards homosexuality. 

Red Closet is primarily about the ways in which politicians and professionals in different periods of Soviet history approached homosexuality, which means that when the voices of lesbians and gay men that do appear, they are often within the context of the courtroom and the doctor’s office. This is an issue well known to historians of sexuality and one that must be navigated with care. Alexander approaches his sources with great sensitivity, illustrating the devastating impact of stigmatisation and criminalisation, and in doing so, humanising the very subjects that were so often dehumanised by journalists, politicians, and medical professionals. While perspectives from Russia tend to dominate the narrative (with the exception of one chapter following the case of a KGB officer in Ukraine and another focused on a psychiatrist in Karaganda), Alexander does help to de-centre the history of sexuality in sometimes shifting focus away from Moscow to smaller cities and towns in the Russian republic. 

It is a travesty that the laws introduced in December 2022 prohibit Alexander’s book from being sold in the Russian Federation.

Red Closet also serves to de-exceptionalise the Soviet case in LGBTQ history through frequently comparing the situation inside the USSR with parallel developments in other countries, particularly the United States. While looking at the USSR in an international perspective is a useful exercise, the constant comparisons to the US run the danger of reinforcing West-East binaries and western progressionist narratives, which are being increasingly challenged in recent books and articles. Looking constantly westward also obscures the specific dynamics of the sexual revolutions (or more accurately, the “revolutions of intimacy”) that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in the late socialist period. Using the West as a benchmark for progress also silences the important work carried out by LGBTQ rights organisations in the Russian Federation. On the book’s final page, Alexander notes that LGBTQ citizens of Russia are still “yet to begin their own fierce battle for acceptance and equality in Russian society”, which is rather dismissive of the tireless and courageous efforts of Russian LGBTQ activists and support groups, who have been fighting this fight for decades in the most challenging conditions.  

In the book’s conclusion, Alexander rightly argues that writing LGBTQ history in Russia is more than just producing knowledge, and instead an “urgent enterprise” and deeply political act that has significant implications for the future of LGBTQ Russian citizens. It is a travesty that the laws introduced in December 2022 prohibit Alexander’s book from being sold in the Russian Federation. Red Closet is a crucially important work that deserves the widest possible readership amongst Anglophone and Russophone audiences.

Siobhán Hearne is a historian of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, whose work primarily focuses on histories of gender, sexuality, and medicine. She is the author of numerous articles and Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2021). She is currently a Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Manchester.