No Sex in the USSR

“AIDS threatens those who lead a disorderly sex life.” Poster from the Ministry of Health of the USSR, 1988. The snake is the cyrillic acronym for AIDS (СПИД).

There’s actually quite a lot of sex going on in the USSR and without protection. Although the famous phrase “In the Soviet Union there is no sex” is just a misunderstanding on the part of a participant in a “Spacebridge,” a series of televised dialogues between Soviet and American citizens, it reveals a long tradition of silence and taboo around sex.  Sex education in the Soviet Union was abysmal, essentially non-existent until a rise in STD rates during the Brezhnev era forced action.  Real progress in this area, however, really didn’t start until Gorbachev and glasnost, when AIDS came to the Soviet Union in the 1980’s;  still, efforts were severely hampered by “years of neglect which meant that there was a lack of the necessary resources (staff, establishments, medical supplies, finance).” (Williams, 98)

In the USSR, as in the FSU and USA, conservative attitudes towards sex and AIDs elicited (and still elicits) the usual calls for abstinence, martial fidelity, and scapegoating of victims.  From the Current Digest, I found an article from September 1987, which sums up public attitudes well (for example, no talk of condoms in public), but also talks of an alarming extremism.   According to the article, a group of 16 doctors (yes, doctors… Hippocratic oath?) called the AIDs virus “that most noble epidemic which eliminates from society gay males, drug users, and prostitutes” and that they were “categorically opposed to any efforts to combat the virus, which will soon eliminate the [above mentioned groups] from society.”  Another article from July 1987 shows not only the hysteria associated with the early days of the epidemic–fear of “vampire mosquitoes” transmitting the disease–but also the problems I already mentioned, of a lack of basic supplies, staff, and so forth.

The rise of prostitution is discussed here, and I also wanted to mention this post on the macho Lyuber sub-culture, as both tie in with the social transformation going on.  The Lyubers in particular seem to be a predecessor of something of what can be seen now in Russia: Putin’s image, the gay propaganda law (problems in Chechnya around this issue as well, but that deserves its own post), and issues of sovereignty/guarding against Western influence.

AIDS denialism is also, unfortunately, a thing that exists.  I mention it here because I actually encountered it in person for the first time in my life in Moscow last year. From Freeze on infection rates in the 90’s: “135,000 cases were reported, but the real rate was probably five times higher; in some cases, the rate was of a horrifying magnitude: in Tver, the rate jumped from 8 infected in 1997 to 2,342 four years later.” (483)  Russian interference in elections around the world seems like echoes of the disinformation campaigns allegedly employed by the KGB on HIV/AIDS.  “Simplistic scapegoating, endless repetition, and the clever mixing of lies and half-truths with undeniable facts” were employed to foster distrust of the West, suggesting that the virus had been manufactured in the USA.  As the author writes, “Once the AIDS conspiracy theory was lodged in the global subconscience, it became a pandemic in its own right … having effectively harnessed the dynamics of rumors and conspiracy theories, Soviet bloc intelligence had created a monster that has outlived its creators.” (19)


Williams, Christopher.  “Sex education and the AIDS epidemic in the Former Soviet Union.” University of Central Lancashire.  Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 16 No. 1 1994 ISSN 0141-9889

Current Digest of the Soviet Press: A. Novikov. Komsomolskaya pravda, Aug. 1, pp. 3-4 and K. Smirnov “AIDS Without the Uproar.” Izvestia, June 16, p. 3

Freeze, Russia: A History. pg. 483

Boghardt, Thomas.  “Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign.” Studies in Intelligence Vol. 53, No. 4 (December 2009) pg. 19

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Turncoats and Slanderers

Yurii Belov: A Worker-Inventor, 1957 Source Ivanov, S. V.: The Leningrad School, 1930-90. 1999.

With the death of Stalin in March 1953 and the soon-to-follow process of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev, socialist realism as a movement finally begins its slow succumb to scrutiny… but not without a lot of mixed signals and zig-zags from the Soviet leadership.  Seventeen Moments has a wealth of information already on Boris Pasternak, so I thought I’d look for other authors/sources.

As we read in Ben’s post last week on the Zhdanov Doctrine, while controls on expression were temporarily relaxed during WW2, the screws were tightened once again in 1946.  In February 1952, during deliberations on the candidates for the Stalin Prize in Drama, Stalin says:

“[Playwright] Sofronov has talked about such a theory, that one can’t write good plays: there’s no conflicts.  How can you write plays without conflict?  But we have conflict. (…) These conflicts should be reflected in dramaturgy — otherwise there’s not going to be dramaturgy.” (1Russian site, quote and source #189, translation my own)

Knowing Stalin, the last line of the quote almost reads like a threat.  In any case, an editorial in Pravda appears in April later that year, in which the author, following Comrade Stalin’s lead, rejects these “pseudo-nonsense-theories” on conflict, but bemoans the lag in Soviet drama and the absence of satire.  The article begins: “Wanted: New Gogols to Write Searing Plays.” (2)  The fact that the writer chose Gogol in particular is interesting, which I’ll come to in a minute.

The “No-Conflict” theory (teoriya beskonfliktnosti) mentioned above segues now to V. Pomerantsev’s December 1953 essay “On Sincerity in Literature.”  Pomerantsev brings a new term to the polemics: the “varnishing of reality” (lakirovka dejstvitel’nosti), namely the obfuscation of problems, or insincerity, and the need for sincere truth, so absent in works of socialist realism. In December 1954, the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers discusses the abovementioned problems and rejects them as “foreign marxism” and ultimately a poor understanding of Marx in general.  (3, Russian site)

Andrei Sinyavsky, 1975, becomes professor of Russian Literature in France at Sorbonne University, image from Wikipedia

In 1959, Andrei Sinyavsky, writing under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, secretly sends two works to be published in a French magazine (tamizdat, compare: samizdat): one is a critical essay (“On Socialist Realism”) of the development and problems inherent to socialist realism, while the other is a short novella (The Trial Begins), presumably an attempt by the author to employ his new ideas.  To briefly summarize the essay, the term socialist realism itself is really a paradox.  In realism, an author tries to describe her surroundings, emotions, and individual experiences truthfully and honestly, whereas in socialism (and ultimately communism), we’re speaking of the path to utopia, an ideal world without conflict, a reality which doesn’t even exist yet.  Sinyavsky finds that Soviet literature is ultimately closer to 18th century Russian classicism than the 19th century’s realism and romanticism (pg. 195): late Mayakovsky is closer to Homer’s Iliad–socialist realism emphasizes adherence to form with clear-cut heroes and villains.  19th century literature, on the other hand, suffered from an excess of individualism, giving us authors like Dostoevsky, who in one work manages to perplex the reader with the nihilism of Nietzsche and his own brand of Russian Orthodoxy.  Instead, Sinyavsky hopes to return to Gogol: to laughter, irony, the grotesque, phantasmagorical descriptions of reality, which he himself attempts in The Trial Begins.  

Naturally, publishing harsh criticism abroad didn’t go over well with the Soviet authorities.  In 1966, Sinyavsky-Tertz and another writer Daniel’ (pseudonym: Arzhak) are found out and sentenced to 7 and 5 years respectively at a hard labor camp.  Many, many articles covering the closed trial viciously attack the two (4); 30’s style rhetoric even makes a comeback, with terms like “renegade,” “turncoat,” “werewolves and blood-suckers.”  All in all, the trial is a unique episode marking the end of Khrushchev’s liberalism and eagerness to denounce Stalin.


Freeze, Russia: A History, Chpt. 13: Cultural Thaw and De-stalinization

Seventeen Moments, 1956: Literary Life at a Crossroads

Tertz, On Socialist Realism. U. of California Press, Berkley. 1960. pps. 147-219.





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Soviet National Anthem

The Alexandrov Ensemble (also known as the Red Army Choir), founded in 1928 by composer of the anthem of the Soviet Union and now Russian Federation. 60 members of the 186 member ensemble tragically perished in a plane catastrophe over the Black Sea on December 26, 2016

Russia is perhaps one of the only countries in the world whose anthem reveals so much about that country’s past.  “God Save the Tsar” obviously was no longer appropriate after the February Revolution of 1917; “The Internationale,” the French piece which replaced the former poetically captures the sentiment of its milieu–that of a permanent, global revolutionary movement towards a better world, founded on socialism.

“The Internationale”‘s inherently multi-nationalist flavor soon lost favor to “Song of the Motherland” from 1936 film “Circus,” shot just as the Great Terror was beginning, and ultimately was replaced by the anthem which most people nowadays probably can recognize from Olympic medal ceremonies. Composed in 1937 by A. V. Aleksandrov originally as the Bolshevik Party Anthem, Aleksandrov’s music won the grand competition to select a new anthem in 1943.  New patriotic lyrics were selected and personally edited by Stalin, who removed from the text the phrase “the people’s choice,” he himself never having been elected, as well as the word gryadushchee, a less common word for “future,” apparently too high-falutin’ for the peasantry in Stalin’s view. (Volkov & Bouis)

In the context of Lebensraum, a struggle for the very continued existence of your people, the power of a moralizing anthem and a singular, powerful leader around which the people can rally is inestimable.  As truly ubiquitous as his own portrait, one gets a frightening sense of how personally involved Stalin was in this process in the arts as he was in other spheres from a recollection of the competition itself, taken from the point of view of another competitor, famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (the link is Piano Concerto No. 2, for those interested in classical music, see also the long Symphony №7 dedicated to the Leningrad Siege), who had a complex and turbulent relationship with the dictator:

“Stalin spoke to Shostakovich. ‘Your music is very good (Shostakovich had earned a perfect score in the competition), but what can I do, Alexandrov’s song is more suitable for an anthem.’ Then he turned to his [Politburo] comrades : ‘I think that we should take Alexandrov’s music, and as for Shostakovich…’ Here, Stalin paused; Shostakovich later admitted to a friend that he expected to hear ‘as for Shostakovich, take him into the courtyard and have him shot.’ But the leader completed his sentence differently. ‘As for Shostakovich, he should be thanked.” (Volkov & Bouis)


Volkov, Solomon and Bouis, Antonina W. Shostakovich and Stalin : The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator. Vol. 1st Ed. New York: Knopf, 2004. EBook Collection. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 1943: New National Anthem

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We Love the Leader

A. Moravov’s “At the Direct Line,” oil on canvas, c. 1934, (Digital Library of Staliniana, Uni. of Pittsburgh), Lenin and Stalin during the Civil War

The Cult of Personality that rose up around Stalin in the 30’s is a phenomenon which reached even beyond Soviet borders, twice being chosen as Time’s Man of the Year in ’39 and ’42.  Rallying around Stalin was nevertheless a marked turn from earlier revolutionary attitudes towards such centralized leadership, like, oh… say, that of tsar Nicholas II’s reign. With Lenin’s death in 1924 and subsequent deification (some percentage of his body is still on Red Square for public viewing), despite being a relatively minor figure of the revolution, Stalin ensured that he would be tied to Lenin’s image  in the effort to legitimize his power.

While the older citizenry was being purged or sent to labor camps, the proletarian masses were being brought up to admire Comrade Stalin, educated by new history textbooks with the vozhd’s (Вождь, or leader) stamp of approval.  Naturally, Stalin’s leadership role alongside Lenin is emphasized throughout the work, which also includes denunciations of former allies (now either shot dead or exiled abroad) as anti-Bolshevik: “…Lenin vigorously condemned the anti-Bolshevik views of Bukharin,” “Lenin further refuted the anti-Bolshevik views of Bukharin and Piatakov on the national question…” and so on.1

One Stakhanovite mason, previously judging Stalin by his portraits as a seemingly “severe and angry man,” is so dazzled by the aura of “love and benevolence” which Stalin exudes by his mere presence, he claims his work productivity increased even further.2

More recently, the term cult of personality has not infrequently been used to disparage the popular appeal of current Russian president Putin; of course, Putin’s overzealous PR campaign–riding horseback shirtless, fishing, hunting, saving endangered species, judo, various military roles–does not help to dissuade that opinion. Anne Garrels writes in her book Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia of her experiences living in Russia in the 90’s and talking with ordinary citizens about the nation’s leaders both past and present.  Quoting the widely-held views of a businessman from a provincial town in Chelyabinsk Oblast’, Stalin, just as Putin is now, was a “figure of the moment” who “renewed and strengthened the country, without whom, we [Russians] would be nothing.” (pg. 219)  Still, Putin’s own cult of personality does not yet match or have the degree of control over society which Stalin enjoyed during his lifetime.3

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Soviet Supermen are Our Superiors



The transition from revolutionaries to rulers was a huge upward battle for the Bolsheviks. Lenin and the new leaders struggled to steady the reins of a vast country in shock, torn by war, revolution, and contentious issues of ideology. Out of this turbulent Modernist climate during the New Economic Policy, a cultural revolution was taking place with a variety of movements gaining momentum. Each with its own manifesto issued pre-revolution, they claimed their own predecessors and often denounced their peers–the Symbolists, Acmeists, and Futurists—to name a few. Lenin and Trostky agreed that these “bourgeois aesthetics” must become the proletariat’s culture, which, from 1921-29, reached the public. (Freeze 338)
Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938), an Acmeist, looked wistfully to the Medieval period, lamenting the modern feeling of superfluity, the loss of a sense of purpose (i.e., if you were the village cobbler, you had a definite use for your village and were valued and needed). He glorified the fugues of Bach and especially Gothic architecture, such as the Notre Dame and Hagia Sophia Cathedrals, as the highest ideals of art. In Morning of Acmeism, Mandelshtam writes that poets are not prophets, but craftsmen like anyone else that must work hard to develop their abilities.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was the star of the Futurists and dedicated himself to the Bolshevik cause. The Futurists delivered their own manifesto in 1913, the “Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” which declared for bold innovation in language: the “New Word,” with some even creating their own “Trans-rational language” (in Russian Zaum) of nonsense words which served as a sort of invocation. Futurists wanted to speak in terms of a collective “We” rather than “I” and to wash away the old literary icons like Pushkin, who was “now less understandable than hieroglyphics.”  Futurists of all types were very active in supporting the Bolsheviks with their works.

 “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a SUPERMAN.”

Trotsky in Literature and Revolution, 1924, emphasis mine


Wherever his masterful call is heard,
The world’s bosom is bared,
The mountains give way before him,
The earth’s poles together are brought.

Wherever he walks, he leaves a trail
Of ringing iron rail;
He brings joy and light to us,
A desert he strews with blossoms.

To the world he brings a new sun,
He destroys the thrones and prisons,
He calls the peoples to eternal fraternity,
And wipes out the boundaries between them.

His crimson banner is the symbol of struggle;
For the oppressed it is the guiding beacon;
With it we shall crush the yoke of fate,
We shall conquer the enchanting world.

— Excerpt from poem “The Iron Messiah” on the New Soviet Man, Vladimir Kirillov 1918

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) satirized the attempts to transform society, including the so-called “New Man” of the USSR, in his hilarious novella Heart of a Dog (1925), in which a renowned professor surgically places the testes and pituitary gland of an alcoholic criminal into a stray dog, transforming the poor creature into an extremely vulgar human that naturally finds a place on a Soviet housing committee as a a cat-strangler. The work was prohibited in the Soviet Union until 1987.  For those interested, both the 1988 film version of Heart of a Dog and a 2012 TV series, “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” starring Daniel Radcliffe, loosely based on Bulgakov’s life as a doctor working the backwater provinces of Russia, can be streamed online.  Highly recommend.

Профессор Преображенский и Шариков. Кадр из фильма

The Professor and “Sharikov,” his creation, from 1988 film based on the novella


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, New York. 2009.

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When Blood Flowed Like Water

November 1, 1905– A bloodthirsty mob in Odessa comprising some 300 men, set into a rage by rumors of Jews defiling religious icons and murdering Christians, meets a strong resistance armed with bombs and revolvers supplied by Social Democrat allies. According to this eye-witness account, since the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, capital of Moldavia, Jews had learned to not trust police, stock ammunition and weapons. Women were even given sulfuric acid for self-defense. The number of dead and wounded in this clash that lasted two days is estimated at 5,000 minimum. Another New York Times article on the Odessa massacre given by those who had just arrived in America paints an even more frightening scene: attacks with butcher knives and iron bars; gendarmes, disguised in civilian clothing, inflaming loyalist mobs by declaring Nicholas II’s October Manifesto as giving free reign to kill Jews; and infants being thrown out of third-story windows into the street.

Imperial Russia’s national minorities–Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and Finns living and growing up in the hotbed milieu of the geographical periphery in the late 19th-early 20th centuries–were natural targets for recruitment by revolutionaries (Freeze 233). In the case of the Jews, that periphery was the Pale of Settlement (outlined in red below), an area designated in 1791 by Catherine the Great which included most of the area of the current Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova and Poland.

Indeed, it’s not terribly surprising that pogroms, increasing forced Russification, exclusion from local governance, university student quotas, and repressive measures such as the so-called “May Laws” of 1882 would push these minority groups into the arms of the revolutionaries. After the events of Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905), a socialist committee in Vilnius printed 1,000 copies of a proclamation in Yiddish:

Our worker-brothers in St. Petersburg opposed the bloody government and demand freedom and rights. Yes, we join with our brothers … The moment has come, the revolution is near, the rotten edifice of the autocracy must collapse … Brothers, workers vigorously demand civil and national rights for Jews. End the War! An eight-hour working day! Down with the autocracy! Long live political freedom!

Bund Rally in 1917

Apart from the Jewish socialist parties (known as Bundism), there also existed a unique “safe space” for Jewish workers (typically a street where local artisans gathered) called the birzha: “The birzha was for workers what the revolutionary movement was for the young members of the semi-intelligentsia – a space for self-assertion.” Moreover, “The local birzha was a dangerous place for traitors or for police officers who would not cooperate with the revolutionaries. Similarly, pogromists feared bomb-throwers.” (Shtakser 80-82)



Shtakser, Inna. The Making of Jewish Revolutionaries in the Pale of Settlement: Community and Identity during the Russian Revolution and Its Immediate Aftermath, 1905-1907. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

“Russian Refugees Here; Tell of Massacres.” New York Times 12 Dec. 1905: 10.

“When Blood Flowed Like Water at Odessa.” New York Times 26 Nov. 1905: SM2.

Images: Wikipedia

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Happy Little Trees


No, this isn’t a Bob Ross.  This seemingly innocuous and modestly named photograph ‘Forest’ is the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), presumably shot in 1910 near the town Kyshtym in modern-day Chelyabinsk Oblast. As a chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii was primarily interested in showcasing the utilitarian aspects of the three-color photography process. He put it to great use in creating records of nature, as in this picture of a pine forest. More interestingly, however, the photo recalls a legacy of landscape art produced by painters of the “Itinerant movement” (peredvizhniki) in Russia’s cultural Golden Age, the late 19th century. Take, for example, Ivan Shishkin’s iconic painting Morning in a Pine Forest (1889), used even today on the wrapper of a popular chocolate candy:

Morning in a Pine Forest

Prior to artists such as Shishkin, the idea that Russia even has a landscape worth painting would have seemed absurd. Instead, Russian gentry would look for paintings of the Alps or the Italian countryside to flaunt their cosmopolitan good taste (Ely 254). Since the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia’s attention had been fixed exclusively on the West. It’s not until 1870 that the Peredvizhniki break away from the conservative Academy of Art, eventually overtaking it in popularity. At an exhibition in 1871, of 47 paintings 24 were landscapes; from then on, their popularity only increased (Ely 255). In literature, Russian nationalism finds its culmination perhaps most of all in Dostoevsky, whose characters have a habit of kissing the ground and “bathing the earth with their tears” in a bizarre quasi-pagan Orthodox devotion (Raskol’nikov in Crime and Punishment, Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov).
The landscape painters were only one facet of the peredvizhniki. Other members of the movement plainly showed the troubling inequality of the social classes, such as in Grigorii Myasoedov’s The Zemtsvo Eats Lunch (1872):

Земство обедает

The lower classes are seen squatting outside while the nobility drink wine inside.  Following the emancipation of the serfs, a climate of Slavophilism and Russian populism (narodnichestvo) took hold. Intellectual debates on how Russian society ought to go forward, on the meaning of art and its place in society, and much more gave way to an idealization of the peasant’s commune, an “embryonic unit of communism” (Freeze 226); intelligentsia even “flooded into the countryside for the purpose of fusing with the people.” (227) Since Peter I, Russia had been fixed to the West. Now Russia was struggling to determine a new national identity.


Ely, C. “Critics In The Native Soil: Landscape And Conflicting Ideals Of Nationality In Imperial Russia.” Ecumene 7.3 (2000): 253-270. Environment Complete. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, New York. 2009.

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Library of Congress

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