|In official Soviet posters, such as this|
one from 1947 encouraging young people
to vote, men and women were usually
depicted as wholesome - and sexless
In the beginning, (1918-1921) sex relations were too free but now this freedom has been modified.
(Dreiser, p.83, 12 Nov 1927)
Sex in the Soviet Union was rather like it was in Victorian England: officially it didn’t happen, but curiously the population continued to increase. This quotation has become a part of folklore:
‘В СССР секса нет.’ [‘There is no sex in the USSR.’]
(‘Telebridge’ between Leningrad and Boston, 17 July 1986, ‘Women talking to Women’)
In fact, this apparently well-known phrase is a mis-quotation from a televised link-up (what the Russians call a ‘telebridge’) between Leningrad and Boston on 17 July 1986, entitled ‘Women talking to Women’. One of the American participants complained that TV commercials were all based on sex, and asked the Soviet side if that was the case with them, too. Lyudmila Ivanova, the Director of the Hotel Leningrad, answered, ‘We don’t have sex here, and we’re completely against this!’ [‘Cекса у нас нет, и мы категорически против этого!’], and after much laughter at this, another woman in the Soviet audience added, ‘We do have sex; we don’t have commercials!’ [‘Секс у нас есть, у нас нет рекламы!’] But the line, ‘There is no sex in the USSR’, came to sum up the prudish official attitude to sex.
|This 1917 poster for the Polish film,|
The Abyss, would not have been
acceptable in the USSR by the 1930s
Theodore Dreiser (above) reflects not only that sexual freedom was originally the case, but that ten years after the Revolution the situation had changed. This may partly have been because of the spread of venereal diseases –
We came into a fairly large room where a number of couples were sitting patiently for their turn to be married. On all four walls hung many colourful posters with vivid pictures of venereal diseases beneath which the captions read: ‘Are you perfectly sure that you are not ill and will not contaminate your future wife?’ or ‘Are you sure that the man – or girl – you are going to marry has not got this?’…
(Skariatina, p.145; 1934)
– but more significantly it was because the Soviet system was so suffocating that it wanted to control every aspect of people’s lives. One way to try to expunge what was unwanted from Soviet life was simply to deny that it existed (as will be seen in Chapter 10, lies have come all too easily to many Russians). So when Irina Skariatina made her first visit back to Russia in 1934 and asked about prostitution, she was told that it had been completely wiped out.
‘[This place] used to be one of the most famous houses of prostitution in Moscow. Did you notice how the rooms are arranged? With separate entrances everywhere? That’s the reason.’
‘But what has become of the prostitutes?’ I asked, ‘and where is the “red light” district now?’
‘There isn’t any,’ he replied. ‘Prostitution has been completely wiped out as there is no need for it. One gets married instead. And the former prostitutes are nearly all working women in different factories. Instead of twenty thousand prostitutes perhaps five hundred are left in all Moscow now and they will eventually become factory workers like the others. We certainly have destroyed that evil of your capitalistic countries.’ And he looked at us rather proudly as much as to say: ‘See how advanced we are’…
(Skariatina, pp.144-145; 1934)
This was a myth still being propagated forty years later, as I discovered when in Moscow in 1978. I asked an English-speaking Soviet student whether it was true that Russian prostitutes hung around the railway stations at night-time.
‘No, Steve, this cannot be true because, you see, in Soviet Union we have no prostitutes.’ After a moment’s thought, he added, ‘We have many whores, but no prostitutes.’
In fact, stories were legend of prostitutes hanging around the railway stations in Moscow. They would sit on the benches with one leg crossed over the other and a number chalked on the sole of their shoe – their price. But just as it was easier to say, ‘There is no sex in the USSR’, it was easier to say, ‘There is no prostitution in the USSR’ – even when everyone knew that there was.
Laurens van der Post uses the description ‘Victorian’ to describe Soviet attitudes to sex – and that was in the mid-1960’s.
All the time I was in Russia I saw only one contemporary statue in the nude and that was of a little naked boy sitting next to a little girl (discreetly clad in marble bloomers) on the edge of a pool in a park. In all statues, even when the woman is about to enter water, she is portrayed as wearing plaster bikinis, marble brassieres and slips or some other kind of Soviet ‘ceinture de chasteté’ [chastity belt]. No Victorian cover-up of sex was ever more complete. It was not a ‘black-out’ but an official ‘white-out’ blurring the whole field of sexual passion in the imagination… Of course all this is part of the State idiom in these things. Immediately after the Revolution all over Russia there was a period of extreme licence and excess in sexual behaviour, legalized abortions, abandoned babies, neglect of children, and contempt for marriage as a bourgeois enslavement. But the reaction against it since has been widespread and profound. Officially the Party are both Puritan and Spartan in all these matters.
(van der Post, pp.176-177; 1965)
This official puritanical attitude to sex helped to produce a curious book in 1971. The English publisher, Tom Stacey Ltd, issued Octobriana and the Russian Underground. This large-format and well-illustrated book by Petr Sadecky purported to tell the story of a clandestine group in Kiev which called itself ‘Progressive Political Pornography’ (PPP). Sadecky, a Czech, claimed to have been in touch with the group – just one of a network of such groups across the USSR – on his frequent visits to the country between 1961 and 1967. He wrote in detail about how the members of PPP would gather at night-time for parties fuelled by alcohol and sex.
Ideas were changing and developing. Sex was and still is, taboo in the USSR. Now when you get discovery like this, it’s a shock, but it’s a shock you can welcome as a new Messiah, a new aim, a new meaning. Who can resist a forbidden fruit if it smells divine?...
Parties became something of a sex bazaar where people met, decided they fancied each other and went to bed or onto the carpet or anywhere. Anybody who wanted to watch just watched if anything especially interesting was going on.
(Sadecky, pp.61-62; 1971)
But when the sex became the norm, Sadecky writes, the members of the group began to look for some other excitement, and collectively they came up with the idea of ‘Octobriana’ – a scantily-clad, Amazonian wonder woman, who became the heroine of comic-book style fantasies.
But fantasy was what the whole thing was: Sadecky’s fantasy. There was no PPP. And the drawings of Octobriana were made not by some clandestine group in the USSR but by friends of Sadecky’s in Prague. When Sadecky defected to the West in 1967, he took the drawings with him, denying his one-time friends any rights to their work.
The most interesting aspect of the book is that Sadecky persuaded the respected dissident Soviet writer, A Anatoli (who changed his name from Kuznetsov when he defected in 1969) to write a foreword to the book. Whilst admitting that he had never come across PPP, Anatoli says that, ‘When I was living in the USSR…I saw many similar groups and people like them in a wide variety of towns’ (p.9). And he acknowledges that,
Despite the risk of harsh punishment, there is an extraordinarily large amount of home-produced pornography in the Soviet Union…I have known the most respectable of people to have whole libraries and collections of it.
(Sadecky, p.7; 1971)
So even though Sadecky’s book is one long fantasy after Anatoli’s foreword, perhaps it contains elements of truth. Anatoli certainly praises Sadecky on one point:
The author of this book makes the brilliant observation that in the Soviet Union the female breast only exists (officially!) for the purpose of feeding babies. If a picture of a naked breast is anywhere to be seen it is only the suckling-breast on a poster on hygiene in a maternity consultation centre, or one infected with cancer in medical textbooks. Sex is anathematized as a sign of bourgeois degeneration, characteristic solely of the West.
(Sadecky, p.7; 1971)
It’s cosy to have women students in the dormitory. Quarters are assigned helter-skelter in the Russian way, with men and women often in adjoining rooms. For four years in the 1960’s women were segregated in a specially guarded wing of the main building… But later, segregation was found not to have appreciably reduced the demand on the University [abortion] clinic, perhaps because hundreds of male students managed to sleep in the women’s section every night.
(Feifer, p.24; 1976)
But as Robert Kaiser found in the mid-seventies, even if the official view was that there was no sex, many young people were more liberated.
Russian young people are not puritanical about sex. An unpublished poll of twenty-two-year-old students at Leningrad University found that less than 5 per cent of them were virgins.
(Kaiser, p.58; 1976)
Robert Hingley suggests that some further research had been done on the subject of sex; but although the scientific basis of this may be doubted, no-one who has spent time in the Soviet Union with their eyes wide open could doubt that the findings are true.
On sexual morals it is impossible to achieve statistically valid conclusions. That casual promiscuity is cultivated by some sections of the community is beyond doubt. Having investigated this problem in the field, one American journalist judges that seven out of ten of Moscow’s young women are instantly available to any presentable male. These are respectable girls seeking relief from everyday routine: enthusiastic amateurs, not the professionals who may also be found and who are less moved by the spirit of adventure.
(Hingley, p.158; 1978)
Although William Millinship’s interview with Katya Deyeva comes 15 years later, the fundamental problem of where couples could have some privacy was true in Soviet times and for many remains so today.
‘Young people are very lucky if they have their own flat. In most cases, couples live apart, with their own parents, and meet three or four times a week. They may spend days together but not nights. And it can go on like that for years. It’s halfway love, rather than living together. They meet either at friends’ places or at home, when their parents are out. These days students make a business out of letting their rooms in hostels for two or three hours. In summer, there are the forests and in winter there may be a well-heated cellar.’ [Katya Deyeva, Journalist]
(Millinship, p.33; 1993)
Feifer adds a cunning touch of linguistic humour to the sex scene; before David Willis points out that whilst there was, in fact, a lot of sex in the USSR, the quality of the act – especially for women – was often sadly lacking. Perhaps this is inevitable when a male-dominated society is officially kept in the dark about the subject.
In my longing for Anastasia, I will question him about his time with her, and he will single out her delight in language as the icing of her appeal. Telling The Seagull’s Masha to ‘Close the window, tebe naduyet,’ one of the characters made an unintentional double entendre that could mean ‘you’ll be knocked up’ as well as ‘there’s a draft on you.’ When in the whole of the Moscow Arts Theatre only they two laughed out loud, he knew he had to keep pursuing her.
(Feifer, p.137; 1976)
|This post-Soviet meme suggests|
that Russian men still have a long
way to go before they understand a
woman's sexual needs. The caption
reads, 'These stockings were designed
by a bird who'd got fed up with
hinting about what she wants'
(Willis, p.163; 1985)
Kaiser brings us back to the official Soviet line:
An American journalist and his wife met the dean of a large Soviet university. The journalist’s wife was interested in the personal lives of students, and asked about sex. The dean replied: ‘We have no pre-marital sex in the Soviet Union.’
(Kaiser, p.37; 1976)
While Katya Deyeva speaks about what was really going on at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union:
‘Sex life is starting at an increasingly early age, depending on one’s background. Girls in vocational schools, who left secondary schools in the eighth year, start at fourteen or fifteen. Girls from more educated families start at seventeen or eighteen.’ [Katya Deyeva, Journalist]
(Millinship, p.33; 1993)
There’s a glimpse back into a more romantic suggestion of courtship from Skariatina; before a frank description of a typical scene at his friend Alyosha’s from Feifer.
The dining-car is filled with people. Opposite us sits a smart Red Army officer and next to him is a pretty young woman in a dark blue dress with short sleeves and a red silk handkerchief twisted round her blonde head. She talks a great deal and I gather she is a responsible factory worker, a shock brigader on her way to Mineral Waters where she hopes to have a good rest for she has been working hard and is tired. The Red Army officer is very much interested in her and as he is going to Mineralny Vody too, it is not hard to predict that this casual acquaintanceship begun in a dining-car will develop into a gay flirtation.
(Skariatina, p.190; 1934)
…undressing effects a transformation: the girls have a startling lack of modesty about their naked bodies, especially their breasts (which are smallish compared to their hips and thighs). Within minutes of meeting they are persuaded to expose them – to cup them out of their own blouses themselves – for appreciation and caresses.
The contradictions go further. Unashamed of their bodies in the presence of girls as well as of men, many of our guests reach out to one another. Kissing her mouth, adjusting the hair, fondling her breasts while murmuring their language’s tender endearments, one helps prepare another – a stranger until the second rang Alyosha’s bell forty-five minutes ago – for the mating she herself has just enjoyed. This seems no indication of homosexuality as such, but an expression of Russian ‘togetherness’, always strongest among tight, private groups convened for pleasure. Often the sex itself is secondary to the larger satisfaction of sharing – especially, in the general gloom, the sharing of frivolity and flourish.
(Feifer, p.167; 1976)
Anyone wanting a more detailed and sometimes graphic account of sex in Moscow in the 1970’s will find Feifer’s book revealing.
In the post-Soviet era it has been a case of ‘anything goes’ as far as sex is concerned; it has been one of the parallels between post-World War One Berlin and post-Soviet Moscow. John Lloyd points to the blatant sexualisation of society.
[In the early nineties]…there was a heavy and quite unembarrassed emphasis on female decorativeness and sexiness: some companies advertised for secretaries ‘bez kompleksov’ (without complexes), which meant that if her boss asked her to have sex with him, she was expected to agree.
(Lloyd, p.305; 1998)
Just as the West was moving away from open sexuality in advertisements, such as semi-naked women draped over cars, Russia was just getting into it, trying to make up for the years of Soviet repression. And as people came to realise that they had to use their talents in order to find employment (instead of having the state simply place them somewhere) some women who fitted the tall, slim, beautiful, leggy stereotype were quite prepared to use their physical attributes to ensure a comfortable life.
This election poster from 1954 (left) calls for electors to vote for worthy candidates, and declares that 'Woman is the Great Strength of the Soviet State!' The 'worthy' 'Heroine of the Soviet Union' is quite a contrast with the modern Russian girl hired to advertise a brand at the Moscow City Racing event in 2010 (below)