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

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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: http://bg.ru/society/seks_v_sssr-19361/ 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.

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: The sex of our grandfathers: There wasn’t sex in the USSR, right? Wrong. (Denis Dragunovsky on… | Research Material

  2. This is great! Funny, I heard about a lot of this stuff—the nose “falling off,” the Indian contraceptives, the “pediki”—from my mother’s anecdotes of growing up in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. Also funny: the girl in the last picture could pass for a model in any number of “poverty chic” nineties revival editorials printed in American fashion glossies these days…down to those beguilingly childlike overalls. My mom often jokes about this: how the West took Eastern European “ubozhestvo” and made it into an aesthetic statement—perhaps because they ran out of ideas. I would argue that Russian sexuality in a nutshell is that bizarre, inorganic union of vulgarity and naivete. It’s only a matter of time before the new generation of privileged young muscovites catch up and start dressing like perestroika-era hookers.

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