Monthly Archives: September 2013

The sex of our grandfathers: There wasn’t sex in the USSR, right? Wrong. (Denis Dragunsky on the strange world of Soviet sex)


Denis Dragunsky on how a Soviet person kept freedom over their body in a totalitarian state, from whom they could purchase pornography and why few visited prostitutes.
ANYA Ayvazian.

Svetlana Svetlichnaya – sex symbol in Soviet films of the 1960s and 1970s.

This is a translation of a conversation between Denis Dragunsky and Anya Ayvazian which appeared in the Bolshoy Gorod magazine and whose Russian version can be found here: It is an impressionistic view and, I’d argue that, for example, in his description of the Paradjanov case a lot is left out (and there are far better accounts of gay life in the Soviet Union by for example Yevgeniy Fiks) . Nonetheless, it is one of the most interesting general insights into a world that most people outside (and even inside Russia) know little about.

We have no sex in the USSR.
There had always been an aura of the forbidden around sex in the USSR. Having said that there was, of course, sex. In enormous quantities just as much as the present. In the Soviet Union though there was no sexual discourse: it was seen as shameful and indecent to speak about sex. Most people believe that during the famous live teevision link up between Leningrad and Boston a woman stated that “We don’t have sex in the USSR”. This is a mistake: in reality what she said was that there was no sex on television. Nothing happens by chance: if this were simply a slip of the tongue, no one would have picked it up.

Even before that in 1977 a breakthrough was made. Georgiy Stepanovich Vasilchenko’s book “General Sexapathology” came out in which he summarised his experience and described various clinical cases of couples who came to see him at his practice. It followed from his experience that many sexual disorders arose from the fact that people didn’t know how to talk about the subject. For the naming of the sexual act and sexual organs there existed only indecent swear words or medical terms- neither one nor the other would stimulate a sincere conversation. Yet another scandal happened in 1978 when the film “A Strange Woman” appeared on cinema screens about a love affair between a youth and a mature woman.There was a review of this film in the newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda” where the journalist enquired what was strange about her if in the Soviet Union every third marriage breaks down. At that time I was working at the Diplomatic Academy and found out about it in the morning from a Greek newspaper because it used to print papers from all over the world. Even compared to the West this was a massively high divorce rate.

How sexual freedoms were exchanged for unfreedoms

Michel Foucault stated that sexuality is an instrument with which power directs peoples. In the 1920s Soviet power loosened the sexual reins. The liberation of women and the strengthening of the role of women was made within the framework of those struggles against religions, gymnasiums, the teaching of Greek and Latin, uniforms, and the table of ranks. At that time too homosexuality was decriminalised. Divorces were competely free. It was even possible to divorce without informing your partner.
Then during Stalin’s reign a period of imperial politics was initiated – they began to ban abortions, they criminalised homosexuality and getting a divorce became a long process. Even in the 1960s if you wanted to divorce your wife, it was necessary to publish a note in the newspaper “Evening Moscow” («Вечерней Москве»). Only very influential people were able to get divorced in peace.
After the war there was an extreme shortage of males, so aliment payments were abolished. The issue of owning up to fatherhood wasn’t even recognised: unmarried women simply put a line through the certificate about the father of their child. Then the joke was that births had increased because of the high turnover of men. Then at the beginning of the 1950s when the situation began to straighten itself out once again, they authorities once again were concerned about strengthening family ties. The famous satirical newspaper column “The hopping scoundrel” was published- it is about a man who doesn’t pay aliments, even though just five years earlier this “hopping scoundrel” was encouraged by the authorities.
There appeared the ‘alimentists’ – angry non-payers of aliments. The witch-hunt against alimentists in the 1960s partially substituted another beloved popular sport- the witch-hunting against enemies of the people. The Militsia and the courts took care of the ‘alimentists’- they served enforcement orders at people’s workplaces. For one child, it was necessary to pay 25% of one’s earnings; for two children- 33% and for three or more 50%. Men would deliberately find a way of working for the lowest wages and would pay their aliments from these, and then work ‘on the side’. Each ‘alimentist’ would be convinced that he was feeding another layabout with his money- the wife’s new husband.

The Pornography Black Market
Indecent photographs were much sought after. They were sold in trains by people who for some reason were called Belorussians. I first met them on a Moscow-Kaliningrad train in 1965 and they certainly did have a surprising similarity to many Belolrussians- blonde, with high cheekbones and deep-set bright blue eyes. They pretended to be deaf mutes but were not really. They approached you, brushed your elbow and produced some pornographic photographs. The shots were divided into two unequal parts: on the lesser part there was a photograph of an original foreign photograph and on the main part there was our charming ‘home movie’. Everything took place on iron beds with nickel knobbles and lace pillows with a photo of Shishkin’s ‘Mishki’ on the walls. They were not in any series: each photograph represented a separate scene. A bunch of such scenes cost 3 roubles. To compare: a packet of cigarettes “Stolichnie” cost 40 kopecks, a bottle of vodka 3 roubles and a ticket to the theatre a rouble and a half.

An image from A.M.Konradova’s collection of erotic pictures from Czechoslaovakia and Germany and distributed in the USSR.

Sometimes the photographs were sold as a pack of playing cards. In that case on one side of each card was, for example, the queen of clubs or some other card. As well as this there were also pornographic tales in manuscript- there was the famous book “Holidays in California”. The “Kamasutra”, printed on a typewriter, was also in circulation at that time. But in the book black market at that time only ‘respectable’ things were being sold: Kafka, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. Tlhere were also markets for science fiction (‘fantastika’) and markets where religious literature was sold. Near the second hand bookshop by the statue to Ivan Fedorov opposite the shop for children ‘Detsky Mir’ to where all types of bookworms were attracted there was no pornographic literature.

An illustration from a 1931 Erotic ABC by Sergei Merkurov, a future People’s Artist of the USSR. This would have been for strictly private consumption but in late Soviet times pornography would be more widely distributed.

At the beginning of the 1970s another breakthrough took place: there appeared in the USSR pornographic albums or serials with stories and pornographic comics. They were copied, printed at night and probably found people ready to sell them. At the very beginning of the 1970s films on amateur 8mm stock also arrived in the USSR. The films were foreign and produced in factory-like conditions judging by their quality. This film stock was brought mainly from Germany. The films were shot as silent films- that is there was no sound to help with understanding the plot. But there was definitely a plot!

All the reels of the 1960-1970s and even the 1980s came with a witty or entertaining storyline so they were enjoyable and interesting to watch. That which is made today in comparison is rather stupid and vulgar in comparison.

Gays in Moscow & the ‘Paradjanov Case’

I remember a wonderful joke about a man coming to the square around the Bolshoy Theatre. He sits on a bench and someone grabs his knee. He goes to sit on another bench and there behind his shoulder someone tries to embrace him. On the third bench someone tries to kiss him. He goes up to the millitsioner (Soviet policeman) and says “Comrade sergeant, all these pederasts are accosting me!”. The millitsioner tells him in a soft tender voice “But why did you come to our square?” Amongst the gay community there was quite a well-known company of musicians and actors.

I remember a saying of one of my parents who uttered the surname of someone saying “That is our pederarch” – i.e. our most important gay. One gay ‘swiped’ the young husband of one of our acquaintances, a neighbour in our communal flat. She was over 40 and her husband around 30-35 years old and he started to disappear. She decided to track him down and followed him to some flat. She thought, he has gone off to see some other wench but she looked in and saw only a group of men drinking. She concludes: they’re boozing, playing cards, you never know what’s next.She says: “Vadik, let’s go home, what are doing here”. Suddenly a well-dressed older man with gold cufflinks falls to his knees in front of her, saying “Don’t take Vadik away from me, he’s my last joy”. She later told us all this story in the kitchen of our communal flat. She seperated from Vadim after this.

People had a laidback attitude about gays, they weren’t shocked. Cases came to court only in those cases where they was a question of rape. It’s true that Paradjanov was persecuted and sent to prison for homosexuality. This was linked to the fact that he took a dissident position: apart from that it was rumoured that he was incredibly rich. Legends went around saying that his father was a merchant who colaborated with the Soviet authorities and helped with the purchase of bread abroad. Anyway they stitched up a case against him for sodomy: some boy wrote a denunciation. But later public opinion throughout the world came to his defence and the main European ‘Pederarch’ Louis Aragon, a Communist who had been awarded an International Lenin prize, personally convinced Brezhen to free Paradjanov.

Sergei Paradjanov whose trial and conviction for sodomy became a cause celebre for many Western film-makers and intellectuals in the 1970s.

A lot changed in the 1960s when in the prisons that terrible system of ‘untouchability’ appeared (in which the passive victim of homosexual rape would be completely ostracized by other prisoners). This was connected to an archaic consciousness. So there appeared the ‘untouchables’ the ‘prison bitches’- a completely new phenomenon in the USSR.

Soviet Contraceptives

Condoms were openly on sale at the chemists. But to discuss condoms or lubricants wasn’t the done thing. The majority of men in a chemists either whispered or asked for “a small packet!” or with a wink asked for “one of those pyramid packets”. There was a mass of jokes about this: A man comes to a chemists and whispers “Vsssshshshsh”, the chemist says “Yes? Whatwhat?” The man whispers “I need some vasseline” The chemist replies “Ahhh! Tell me please why are you whispering?” the man (in a whisper) “I need it for sex”. Then it was simply impossible to imagine an enormous glass cupboard standing in the middle of a chemists, and that the purchasers would consult with the chemist about the quality, flavour, colour and odour of the contraceptives.

Soviet condoms

‘A packet’ cost two kopecks. They were prepared by Bakovsky factory of rubber articles near Peredelkino. There were three sizes. Condoms were sprinkled with talcum powder and it was necessary to lubricate them either with vaseline or with spittle- each had their own method. Imported condoms appeared in the middle of the 1970s, initially only Indian ones were available and then others began to appear. Other types of contraceptives were the same as today, only lmore harmful. The more experienced sexual types taught their girlfriends that it was necessary to place a slice of lemon ‘there’. And they put them there- along with the peel. In principal it worked – given the acidity in the lemon. Women also used to wash their ‘intimate parts’ with potassium permanganate: they jumped from the bed and ran to the bathroom- a jug was already ready with the pink-coloured water.

Freedom of the Body and contemporary sexual totalitarianism.

In the USSR there was an inner, secret freedom of the body. It was one of the ways of resisting totalitarianism. Orwell, for a good reason, wrote that the task of a totalitarian state was to subjugate the body, to do away with sexual pleasure. Today a new sexual imperative has appeared: epilation, peeling (skin removal), fitness. Girls used to be of different kinds: plump, thin, bowlegged- no-one had any complexes. The cult of a sporty body didn’t harm anybody: that was for the sportsmen and women, professionals.

In contemporary Russia the phenomenon of plastic surgery, the photo-shopped body has appeared. This is a different kind of totalitarianism- the totalitarianism of the advert, of fashion. The all-pervasive dictate of style. In the USSR it was different, probably also because everyone was poor and made love without a hidden agenda. Because of this even prostitution was slightly less common. It was an era in which many things were free of charge and this included sex. Why should people pay for prostitutes? It was better to go to the dances.

Prostitutes and the Intellighentsia.

Soviet prostitution mid 1950s

There were prostitutes on the platforms of the main suburban stations. They sat there, with their legs spread out, and the price was written on the soles of their shoes: you would go past them and look at her and her price. For prostitutes in Moscow there were two prices: 3 roubles and 5 roubles. The girls would saunter around the “Prospekt Mir” metro. They would make themselves rings from three or five rouble notes- green or blue ones, so that the price was clear. But few people approached the prostitutes: to use the services of prostitutes was like paying for drinking water, when it flowed from every fountain. Even without them there was an oversupply of girls ready to indulge in the joys of sex with you free of charge.

There was, of course, a fear of infection. People feared gonorrhea and syphilis which were very common. There were a lot of myths linked to this. For example people knew that one’s nose would ‘fall off’ due to syphilis but few knew that this happened only ten years later if it wasn’t treated. Therefore lads in the morning after a merry night would, in full seriousness, feel their noses. There were problems arising also because of the absence of hygiene: people washed seldom and badly. People used to say that licentious women would wash more often and intellectual women would change their underwear once every four days and then wash. Even in the 1970s a female student who rented a room in a communal flat and took a shower every day would have a reputation amongst her neighbours of being a prostitute. During those times it was believed that only a prostitute would wash every day.

Soviet prostitution late perestroika times.

Conservative Moscow and the revolt of the provinces: debunking the myths about Russian society.


The typical Moscovite?

This is a translation of an original article from the Russian site Tolkovatel- which is based on an overlooked study which debunks all the myths about Russia as a society and the political processes that very few commentators seem to know well. Basically, the action won’t be in Moscow where conservative bigots and an affluent self-satisfied pro-Putin ethos has settled to wipe out the protest movement of a year ago (a protest movement that was, in any case, rather individualistic in nature and symbolised in part by such figures as the socialite Ksenia Sobchak). The Russian provinces tell a very different story. There, the protest at first less significant has been gathering apace. The provinces also demonstrate a less bigoted and xenophobic ethos than the mass of Moscovites. Far less concerned with migration or ‘moral issues’ economic and social issues are at the fore of their thoughts. Yesterday’s local and regional elections have been misread completely by the Russian and foreign press. In this light the huge figures of non participation in elections- what Boris Kagarlitsky has called a ‘mass political strike’ (70% in Moscow but closer to 85% in the provinces) meant that the system has been given a huge vote of no-confidence but as yet no real alternative opposition force is present that speaks to the mass of the population.

Moscow: a city of solitary, affluent, conservative pro-Putin state employees.

A detailed report by the Kudrin Fund gives us a broad social and political picture of Russia in the summer of 2013. Moscow has become a Putin and ‘United Russia’ stronghold- the city consists of 50% government employees. For Russia as a whole the main problem is seen as poverty and pauperization while for Moscow declining morality is viewed as the main problem. The opposition once again does not wish to study this sociological research.

Here are some of the most basic theses of the report with some comments:

In Moscow the share of respondents with a high state of anxiety is equal to 84% (in Russia as a whole it is 65%). Moreover the share of people with a high level of aggression is only 10%.
Neurosis, inappropriate behaviour of inhabitants of the capital is especially visible on the internet- the net is a personal psychotherapist for Moscovites.
The influx of migrants is seen as a significant problem by 49% of Moscovites, 53% of Saint Petersburgers but only by 16% of the rest of the Russians.

For Moscow migrants are really seen as a problem but this problem seems to have no relevance for people in the rest of Russia. Today’s election campaign in which all teams have built their political programmes on the issue of the struggle against migration remains a local phenomenon.

The electoral ratings of Vladimir Putin in Moscow correspond to the average ratings throughout the country- 49%. The electoral rating of “United Russia” in Moscow is even higher than the average Russian ratings (correspondingly 46% and 44%).

Moscow is no longer the bulwark of the opposition but the centre of conformism and accommodation (the basis for this is the presence of the elevated, in comparison with the rest of Russia, ‘creative class’ and ‘intellectuals’ who previously set themselves up in opposition to those who lived beyond the Moscow circular roads. The statistics below only confirm this fact.

47% of Moscovites believe that the situation in the country will get worse if Vladimir Putin were to resign in the near
36% of Moscovites and only 20% of the inhabitants of Russia as a whole believe that Vladimir Putin should stay on for a fourth term.
One of the explanations for this is that the share of people employed in private enterprises is only 30% whereas public employees account for 50%. In the rest of Russia public employees account for only 40% of overall workers.

But even private enterprises in Moscow are to a significant degree llinked with the state sector (as suppliers of goods and services) and many of them should be seen as semi-state structures. Even a significant share of the “creative class” are semi-public employees (working for the State mass media, carrying out orders from public organisations and the so-called “Kapkov band” after the Moscow culture tsar.

The favoured regime for the Moscovite which they would chose to live under is that of a personal form of governance even under an oligarchy- this choice is more common for Moscovites than for Russian inhabitants as a whole.
Moscovites are more likely than inhabitants in Russia as a whole to choose any regime rather than a free democracy- (46% against 32%).

It is clear that even the protesting ‘creative class’ (not to mention other Moscovites) are the product of Putinism, or rather of Right-wing paternalism- the reumping of rents to this small circle from the rest of Russia. It is no wonder that in a crisis situation (the winter protests of 2011/12) this class preferred to have its fat bird in its hand.

In Moscow a free democracy is chosen by a far smaller share of those questioned than in Russia as a whole (36% against 44%)
The maximum demand for a free democracy is to be found in Saint Petersburg (69%)
The position for “free elections” in both Moscow and Russia as a whole is significantly less popular (13% and 10% respectively).
The share of supporters of democracy in Uzbekistan is one and a half times higher than it is in Russia. The supporters of democracy in Tadzhikistan is two times higher than it is in Russia.

Not only Moscow but Russia as a whole doesn’t recognise the significance of democracy. And even time hasn’t healled Russians- they are as before adherents of authoritarianism (even if a just authoritarianism – a kind of Left paternalism).
64% of Russians are unhappy with their salary, as compared with only 37% of Moscovites.

In first place for the most important issues in Russia the problem of poverty and the pauperisation of the population has come out on top. In comparison with an analogous period of last year the decrease of incomes in Kostroma Region is of the order of 5.6% and in the Altai Republic it has reached 8.6%.

The dissident opposition has intentionally refused to take into account the demands of the rest of Russia. On the agenda of the “creative class” and the “young politicians” there are no words about social justice, or overcoming poverty. Their position ensures that they will remain stuck in a Liberal ghetto with about 5-10% of supporters (in Russia as a whole).

The main issue which interests Moscovites are the crisis of morality, culture and behaviour (45% in Moscow and 28% on average in Russia as a whole).

Interestingly, the most bigoted laws of Putin’s third presidency (the ‘Dima Yakovlev’ law prohibiting adoptions by US families, the struggle against homosexuality and blasphemy, the laws against defaming public officials, the laws prohibiting swear language in the mass media etc) were directed to satisfy the demands of the heart of Russia but those of the Moscovites- as the most conservative sector of Russians.

There is a distinct erosion of the traditional institution of the family. The share of unmarried people consists of 50% in Moscow and an average of 26% throughout Russia.

Moscow is a city of extreme individualism. Here there are very few horizontal relationships, or sense of responsibililty to one’s neighbours- this simplified the regime’s struggle with the opposition demonstrators who rarely believed in anyone but themselves. The tactics of power were simple: divide the opposition into small groups, control them and get them to fight amongst each other. This resulted in a self-perpetuating frustration for these individualistic Moscovites.

In answer to the question how is the patriotism of Putin expressed Moscovites would more often answer than Russians as a whole that this is shown through the development of democracy (33% and 11%).
The readiness to protest against dishonest elections: as a whole in Russia 43% (against 15% in Moscow and 10% in Saint Petersburg)

The leadership in protests belongs not to Moscow but to other regional centres where the problems of poverty have come to the fore.
Already in 2011 the most active protests were carried out not in Moscow but in Novgorod- 367 protestors per 100,000. Next came Pskov which also showed a very high result – 296 people per hundred thousand ie 20% higher than in Moscow. In terms of regions- the most protests were demonstrated in Western Siberia. Tomsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Novosibisrk, Gorno Altaisk showed results of 300 people or slightly lower.

But as was said above the protestors in Moscow didn’t ‘give a flying fuck’ about regional questions since throughout the country the protests were developing in a more regular manner. A year later it has become clear that in Moscow even this opposition has been lost.

The leader of the ‘non-systemic’ opposition Navalny intends to use as his economic consultant the neoliberal Guriev. A clearly losing strategy. The great majority of Russians – 90% dream of a strong and social state in the economic sphere welcoming private property only in the spheres of agriculture and mass media.

The statistics of the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences show that the majority of people see their present lives as being far worse than in the last years of stagnation (mid 1980s). Even in the sphere of alimentation. As a whole from the ‘reforms’ 10% of Russians have benefited, 26% of Russians have lost out and the life of the remaining majority hasn’t really changed.

The Supermarket as a location for the Coming Struggle. (reprinted from Luther Blissett Food and Drink).


A recent article from the site ‘Dangerous Minds‘ about a pro-union flashmob at Walmart in North Carolina got me thinking about sites of struggle. How this particular moment shook the imagination of the site whereas a simple workplace strike would not nowadays do so as much. There seems to be an incipient joy in the disruption of not just the particular productive relations but a disruption of the symbolic places and localities of the post-modern form of Neo-Liberal Capitalism. The flash mob form may not have been particularly radical (ten minutes of fairly good-natured disruption) but the associative force was powerful. A kind of ‘what if?’ chain reaction took place in my mind.

What if the disruptions become more radical so that the consumerist loci are attacked from all angles? What kind of examples from history do we have of this kind of struggle?

Firstly, we can look to the history of Italian struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s with their invaluable concepts of ‘esproprio proletario’ (proletarian expropriation) and ‘autoriduzione’ (self-discounting). A post by Srdjan Cvijic here gives as essential a definition of what proletarian expropriation amounts to in practice:

What is proletarian expropriation? It is a form of civil disobedience intended to represent a form of protest against a disproportional raise of prices and despite stagnating or lowering personal income. It aims at emphasizing the necessity of a Welfare State or more broadly social solidarity and justice. People who practice proletarian expropriation seize commercial goods, and then declare such goods either “expropriated fully” or demand an automatic discount. In their thinking, this practice ensures that they, not the “market.” that determines the “just” price of goods.

Sometimes this can have an essentially necessary character but it can also have a certain ludic character as in this case which Cvijic recounted:

In Venice as a punishment against a restaurant owner that organized a gala-dinner for the representatives of the NATO-parliamentary assembly, the same group booked, several nights later, the whole restaurant for 50 people, they eat and drank the most expensive champaigne and then went out without paying, although leaving the waiters an extremely generous tip.

More recent but sporadic examples of this practice (which has died down) are still known as in an irruption into supermarkets and bookshops in 2004. Of course, these Robin Hood actions striking as though they do at the very heart of capitalism are particularly severely repressed but they can also potentially enlighten consumers to the fact that consumerism can be challenged. Rendering the soulless localities of late capitalism as potential sites of struggle.

However, as this little snippet indicates the 1970s were followed by an era of ‘recuperation’ with businesses trying to organise false incidents of proletarian expropriation to get themselves business into the press. Of course, there has since been the case of the Andalusian mayor of Marinaleda,, who has led groups of villagers to supermarkets to expropriate what they needed. Another report suggested that he was ready to move from supermarkets to banks.

As well as the practice of proletarian expropriation, a number of actions by the Russian ‘Voina’ group also took place in supermarkets. One of the most radical of these was the Decembrists Commemoration action in which two Jews (one of whom is gay) and three illegal migrants were publicly ‘hanged’ in a Moscow supermarket:

As the site of the groups publicist Alexei Pluster-Sarno put it this action was carried out in 2008 to mark the death of a forgotten Decembrist who was one of the more radical exponents of the early nineteenth century Decembrists and to highlight the homophobia and xenophobia of the Russian state which has become so obvious in recent months:

On September 7, 2008, on Moscow City Day, the Voina group came to the city’s biggest supermarket, where in the department of “Light” organized an execution by hanging of 3 illegal Central Asian migrant workers and 2 homosexuals, one of whom was a Jew. The lynching was a special gift to the Russian corrupted authorities, who incite homophobia, misanthropy and anti-Semitism. As a result of this policy the killings of Central Asians guest workers that have become an everyday reality in Russia.
The action, held under the slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!”, was to remind about five Decembrists – the Russian revolutionists, who were hanged in 1826. One of them was an outstanding nobleman PavelPestel, who wanted to free the enslaved peasants in Russia. The group wanted to make the Russians remember the libertarian ideals of the country’s first revolutionists.
The group stated: «This action is a gift to the city’s mayor, who pursues the policy of xenophobia and homophobia and who spreads slavery. The banner «Nobody gives a fuck about Pestel» should remind about execution of the Decembrists movement leaders, who demanded a Constitution with civil liberties and freedom for the enslaved peasants in 1825, and about their liberal ideals. We are accused of amorality, but in fact we portray and symbolically execute this amoral society, that approves slave labour and xenophobia!»

In many ways Voina’s actions were the most radical attempt to subvert the symbolic space of recuperated capitalism within its specifically Russian context before the well-known Pussy Riot act in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Yet the potential radical fallout from turning supermarkets into sites of struggle are surely not negligible. Rather than snobbish attempts to boycott and choose other outlets for Middle Class clicktivists, the site of mass consumption is also a potential site of struggle. The symbolic order of the supermarket and other localities that Marc Auge’ called the sites of hypermodernity can surely make excellent locations for disrupting both the Symbolic and the Real.