Sexually liberated, or just badly brought up?


Miss Russia contest
Final of Miss Russia 2010. In Soviet times, beauty contests were unknown.
Ideologists considered such public displays of the female body as decadent bourgeois behavior.

by Elena Fanailova

A couple of years ago I was part of a group of young female writers on an Oxford University course called “Open World”. It took place in the American South, in a town immortalised by William Faulkner as Yoknapatawpha. One occasion we got into a discussion with the professor of Russian Literature about the strength of civic movements in the 60s in America and in Russia. The professor has a Russian wife and spent several years in Russia. He assured us that the dissident movement, and indeed all protest movements, in Russia had been weak and they played no part in influencing public mood.  But, we cried, what about Okudzhava, Natalia Gorbanevskaya and Vadim Delone? The Taganka Theatre, Vysotsky, Novocherkassk? The professor replied that we hadn’t had countrywide mass protest movements like the anti-segregation and anti-Vietnam movements in America. To prove his point he took us to the Memphis hotel on whose balcony Martin Luther King was shot, which has been turned into a the Civil Rights Museum.

What we found most impressive was not so much the rooms where King and his friends had spent his last day, but the huge amount of film footage, which showed vast crowds of people. We watched old film showing whites and blacks in the South going pointedly into a restaurant that was “only for whites”, where they had boiling water poured over them. We saw them in the white districts forming a human chain and facing up to the Ku Klux Klan. In the North there were rallies with many thousands of people and a police presence. This crowd of demonstrators against segregation marching in a solid block from Capitol Hill made an indelible impression on me. In the Soviet Union rallies like this would only have been possible on 1 May or 7 November. To judge by the chronicle of the 1968 events in Paris, the marches of the elderly in support of de Gaulle were truly massive. The Soviet Union had never seen such quantities of people out in the streets until the Baltic uprisings or Tbilisi. Then there was August 1991 and Soviet people came out on to the street and would continue to do so until the beginning of the 00s.

A real revolution, not just a palace coup, is carried out in the name of the downtrodden masses. If one maps the mass participation in Western public movements into the area of sexual freedom, you get the idea that most people were liberated by the sexual revolution, which started after the Second World War in Europe and America and reached its peak in the 60s. Views on love, sex and the formation of family units will not be very different in British 60-year olds and 16-year olds of either sex. They are more likely to disagree on politics. Contraception and family planning, the political and social, but also emotional and sexual, equality of the sexes, feminism, common law marriages, the legitimisation of homosexuality and same sex marriages is one side of sexual liberation. The development of the porn and sex industries, including in their most perverted forms, is the other. For third-world countries the sexual revolution sometimes leads to the murder of feminist activists, and the sex-economy trade with Western sex-tourists. Where is Russia with its claims to be great power on the map of the world sexual revolution?

In asking the question as to whether there has been a sexual revolution in Russia, one needs to look separately at information, society, medicine, psychology and sociology

The information revolution

The information revolution was — by any account — substantial. “Little Vera” and “Interdevochka” [”international girl” – a Soviet-era prostitute who catered for clients with hard currency — ed] removed once and for all any ideas our fellow citizens might have had about taboos in the cinema. At the same time – and most importantly – taboos were being destroyed in video outlets and at home when we all watched (now it’s even a bit scary to remember the juxtapositions) “Emmanuelle”, “The Fruit is Ripe” and “Nine and Half Weeks” alongside Rambo and horror films. The intelligentsia was interested in “The Night Porter” and Pasolini and it was considered bon ton to receive one’s guests with the soundtrack of Roman Viktyuk’s “The Maids” on in the background. “Lolita” became available at the beginning of the 90s, and editions of Freud and the Kama Sutra started appearing.

One of the most popular perestroika films, Interdevochka, told the story of a hard currency prostitute of the 1980’s. To the Russian audience, the ‘Interdevochka life style’ was as fascinating as condemnable, and her material achievements were envied.

Journalists published (and not in samizdat) the manifestoes of revolutionary leaders dealing with the sex life of the proletariat. It transpired that after the 1917 revolution, there was an attempt at a sexual revolution in Russia and simultaneously moves to regulate it. The tabloid press was born from the wave of press freedom and was an essential sign of that freedom. It made it its business to find out about the personal lives of film stars and music hall stars, who in their turn started appearing nude on the covers of foreign magazines and Russian weeklies. One of the outstanding photographs of the 90s shows the actress Elena Koreneva on the cover of AIDS-INFO:  the star of Andrei Konchalovsky‘s films is no spring chicken, but she is photographed nude and unembarrassed with an antique glass of wine in her hand: vintage wine is, after all, better than young wine. 

Like the words to their songs, the pop stars’ outfits are ever more explicit:  the best of the home (or, more accurately, Ukrainian) pop projects is “ViaGra” which makes no bones about appealing to male erotic fantasies.  On stage Boris Moiseev and his group are the embodiment of the liberated gay artist. Homosexuality is no longer a criminal offence and since 2000 the Russian sexual minority has been battling (so far unsuccessfully) for the right to hold gay marches in Moscow, a subject much discussed in the media. Beauty contests and lists of Russia’s sex symbols are now to be found regularly in the glossy and the tabloid press.

The naïve erotic shows at gangsters’ evening parties in the 90s, irony about Soviet sex in modern performance art of the same time and academic (i.e. ironic) exhibitions of Soviet underwear in the 00s, the destruction of erotic and religious taboos in the world of contemporary art…these were all signs of the times. How strange it is, by the way, that it’s only the religious element that attracts the attention of the Russian Orthodox Church, which brought a case against the exhibitions “Beware, religion!” and “Forbidden Art”.

In general, cinema without an erotic element has become a nonsense, just as in Soviet times cinema with hints of erotica. Russians can hardly forget scenes from “The Diamond Arm”, where Svetlana Svetlichnaya covers her breasts in front of the outraged heroine Nonna Mordyukova, or Svetlana Toma stripped to the waist in Emil Lotman’s romantic film “The Queen of the Gypsies”?

There is still, of course,  a stigma attached to discussions in the open media about paedophilia (I remember only one analytical work in the journal “On Guard” in 1999) and BDSM (in spite of the fact that it is widespread in big cities, including among middle managers). These subjects provoke public aggression and are on the whole only discussed in Western press and in a penal context.

Society and medicine

One can also talk about a revolution in the medico-social sphere, though there are local variances which leads to talk of social stratification and varying interpretations of sexual morals and behaviour in these countries. Contraception is available, though not everyone understands the need for it:  less-educated men prefer to leave that question to the woman, or – more accurately – consider that it’s not their problem; the pill remains fairly expensive for those on low incomes. At this level women prefer to leave decisions to the men in everyday life and in sexual matters too, as they did in Soviet times, ignoring the implications for their health, according to specialists. 

After a public discussion and chiefly as a result of local initiatives, schools are beginning to provide sex education lessons. The Orthodox Church has come out against sex education lessons in secondary school and Patriarch Kirill has initiated a move to put a stop to them. Whether this succeeds or not is a question of ideology, as indeed is the influence of the Church on the way people behave, which includes sexual mores.  The fact that there is a choice of gynaecologist or urologist, that both treatment and early abortions can be anonymous has put an end to the humiliations of Soviet times, but this is a privilege accorded only to the educated and well-off.

I still remember something that happened 20 years ago and wonder if it would be possible today: a girl friend of mine, a final year medical student, decided to lose her virginity surgically. She did this because, after two attempts, she realised that she would not be able to have a full sex life without this help. She was refused the operation on the grounds that she was trying to have sex outside marriage. Her third partner managed to solve her problem, as she said, but this resulted in frigidity and considerable problems with sex thereafter.

Sexual education demo
Russia has no real programme for sex education.  Feminist activists want to change that

An endocrinologist from a local district polyclinic told me some years ago she was sure that hormonal disorders in women over 30, including thyroid problems, were linked to the sexual revolution of the 90s (her words), just as much as to the deterioration of the ecological environment. What she meant was divorce for social reasons and frequent changes of sexual partners, which for Russian (Soviet) women with their parental steer towards patriarchal marriage represented psychological trauma. I don’t know if she suggested her patients should live by the patriarchal moral code, or that they should see a psychotherapist – I never went back to her after that one visit.

It would be interesting to see the statistics for sexually transmitted diseases for those years at various social levels: on the one hand people are more educated and want to live a bourgeois life, but on the other increasing dumbing down leaves little room for hope.

The social space: getting to know people and making friends

In the 80s, even the 90s, to be a single girl in a café (or, heaven forfend, a restaurant!) was considered risky. The exception to this was the Baltic States: there groups of girls, or even a girl on her own, did not invariably become an object for male attention. On the whole people got to know each other in school, at the institute, at work or at specially arranged evenings; boys went to meet girls at friendly student hostels, which is where sexual contact took place, but vigilante raids were not uncommon and they led to dressings down at Komsomol meetings, though not for one offence – a pair or one of a pair had to have broken the rules frequently. Places of refuge for amorous couples were parental flats when they were away or, when it was warm enough, wooded parks or entrance halls to apartment blocks. Sex in a cemetery was considered pretty exotic, but that is more of a myth. Restaurants were regarded as places of depravity and pick-ups, where girls went for one reason only. In 1992 one of my young girl friends and her friend were beaten up in a bar by a bouncer because they had said they didn’t want to spend any more time with him. They told their story to journalists, who published critical articles along the lines of what kind of normal girl would go to a bar without a man?

In the 00s the mood changed in big cities with the opening of sufficiently democratic restaurants and bars catering for any social or erotic taste:  in “Propaganda” you could dance, or you could find a partner for the night; in “Project O.G.I” or “Mayak” you could drink vodka, talk all night and part friends for life. Or you could go home alone from any of these venues, proud and happy, for this is also a form of sexual behaviour and freedom.  In “Vogue Café” or in the establishment at Kazan Station a blonde could meet her destiny in the form of an oriental mini-oligarch or an exotic trader who had just arrived (despite the best efforts of the Moscow authorities to spread hatred to “immigrants” or “people not from here”). Moscow has become an international Babylon and the sexual footprint is ever more international, though xenophobes of every stripe and colour make huge efforts to prevent it. 

Arranged marriage
The Unequal Marriage (1862) by Vasilii Pukirev, depicts the wedding ceremony of an elderly, high-ranking official and a young, visibly unhappy girl. This denunciatory picture had wide impact revealing the unequal position of women and the corruption of bureaucracy.

The clubs, the parties, the expats…the only disturbing thing is that they are only interested in girls younger than 36 and men younger than 60. This has a whiff of ageism, though the educational work carried out by our pop stars has shown that unequal marriages don’t have to be like the Pukirev picture: they are quite possible without the mercenary factor, where there’s real love and harmony. Well-off Russians can get a feel for this when they go to foreign holiday destinations: couples where the woman is about 10 years older than the man are plentiful, one in three, and the women don’t even try to hide their age. These are the results of the Western sexual revolution.

The first naïve striptease joints of the 90s and the 00s are now rather more lacquered.  There are striptease clubs for men, but also for women (no age limits, mainly in Moscow) and homosexual clubs (thought at the time of writing this article one of them had just been closed down by the city authorities, apparently after complaints from the neighbours). At the same time, the glossy magazines publish the revelations of the “ladies from Rublevo” [expensive Moscow suburb ed] and their visits to the “Little Red Riding Hood” striptease club. These ladies acknowledge that they independent of their husbands, both economically and emotionally, and that they are trying to find distraction and an emotional breathing space for money.

The information I have about prostitution and its distribution in establishments and public spaces is sketchy. Two years ago I observed a couple of places in the subway near Dinamo metro station and in Staropimenovsky lane, which is where the film “The Spot” was shot, partly using professional prostitutes. My friends in the know say that the number of high class prostitutes in Moscow is at an all time low. It’s no longer a prestigious profession: at the beginning of the 90s it was educated girls whose dream was to catch a rich client and marry him, now the girls are provincial and from the working class suburbs of Moscow. But male prostitution is now very like female prostitution was at the beginning of the 90s, according to my well informed friends.

Relationships formal and informal

This brings us to the psychology and the anthropology of sexual relations. It’s true that society has become more tolerant of common law marriage and relationships outside marriage: a man’s career is not ruined if he has a mistress, neighbours don’t any longer give divorced or single women funny looks, a single man in a big city is not likely to be described as gay and some people know the word “metrosexual” (though young homosexuals are drawn to the big cities, as there’s more freedom of all kinds, including sexual, there). A young couple (including homosexuals) encounter no obstacles to renting a flat, as long as they have the money. Young people in jeans with tears on their bottom no longer attract critical looks, except in the provinces (though in the big cities many people find it off-putting deep down, however liberal they may be). People enter lightly into sexual relationships and part more easily.

At the same time patriarchal society, which has been catapulted into savage capitalism, legitimises biological and social instincts. For instance a rich elderly man and pretty young woman (or man – same sex couples are regarded as legitimate in the artistic world). Social and personal prejudices do not permit open discussion of sexual problems, be they physical or psychological. The woman is still servant to the man and the young are servant to the old, but I am not inclined to blame the men or the old, as it’s a centuries-old social contract which suits both sides. The man (the older in a homosexual couple) earns the money and takes on the social responsibility, the woman (or younger man) evidently accepts the situation, expects presents in return for sexual favours and has none of the feelings of anxiety connected with free choice. The women complain of the men’s indifference and the men complain of the women’s materialism. Under the new capitalism relationships have become businesslike, superficial and interested in erotic and economic advantage. This last existed in Soviet times too, but it was not done to talk about it.

Se3x shop Ivanovo
Sex Shop in the city of Ivanovo. In the last 10 years the number of sex shops in Russia has grown considerably. There are also many more Internet-based companies.

Homosexuals and single people have approximately the same problems. As well as the points already listed, homosexuals have no model for their relationship or social tradition of the experience of life as a couple, so they either act out a traditional patriarchal relationship or base their union on a professional, business partnership. In leaving behind one kind of un-freedom they are forced to look for another. Everyone suffers if there is no love, not very good sex, loneliness or a desperate need for personal space within a marriage. 40-year olds get confused when love and sex change places. 60-year olds have grown up with the patriarchal model. There are new conservatives among the 20-year olds: a successful marriage in all respects, including economically and socially, is considered an absolute, which is more important than sexual, social or personal freedom. 

In conclusion, Russia has too many geographical and economic zones with different ways of life to enable us to conclude that the sexual or social revolution can be accomplished in 25 years. Indeed, as we used to sing in one of the Soviet songs, “the revolution has a beginning, but it has no end”. At the same time, the friends I interviewed for this article were overwhelmingly of one viewpoint. Regardless of age, family circumstances, sexual orientation and social standing, only one disputed the assertion that Russia had experienced a sexual revolution in Russia in the years since 1991.

Piece originally published at OD Russia | 

About the Author:

Elena Fanailova is a poet who lives in Moscow.  She is a laureate of the prestigious Bely Award.