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

Этот пост заслужил Красную звезду от редакционной команды.

11 thoughts on “No Sex in the USSR

  1. This is a really cool post, you touch on so many different topics: Prostitution, Lyuber sub-culture, homosexuality, STDs, and even Western influence. It was interesting and somewhat sad to read about doctors referring to AIDs as a “noble” disease since it caused so any gays, prostitutes, and drug users to die. Cool, informative post, I enjoyed it.

  2. Great post. Very informative. I think it’s cool that you actually experienced AIDS denialism in Russia firsthand. Great use of the textbook and bringing out the various stats. They certainly help enhance the overall post.

  3. This post was super interesting and super detailed, it was a great read! Your title grabbed my attention as well! I wonder if religion had a large influence over the talks about sex and sexual topics in public, or whether it was a population control issue, or if it was just ideological and exclusionary to control the masses.

  4. Wow – great post. This is a really interesting read. I also like how you link the issue of AIDs denialism to you having seen it first hand in Moscow last year. That really brings a sense of realism to the issue that helps me better understand it since I’ve never experienced this firsthand. I like how you linked this issue to that in Chechnya. I’m not as caught up with that as I should be but I’ll be looking into it after reading this post. Great job!

  5. It is very interesting to see how communicable diseases affect society. I was shocked at AIDS being called noble and that the reputation of AIDS affecting only homosexuals was also popular in the USSR. Very interesting!

  6. This was a really interesting and unique post! I guess because it is such a taboo topic, especially during this time, there is not as much written on it. The quotes from the doctors were quite alarming; it shows how ingrained these homophobic and AIDs denialist views were during this time. Your recent experiences also shows the legacy of the USSR today and through Putin’s policies.

  7. I had started reading about this on the 17 Moments page and I’m glad you wrote about it! I think it’s a very interesting topic, especially because it’s generally a taboo subject. I also found in interesting, because in the parts I read, sex was almost made out to be bad, yet abortion was so easily talked about, even in the 1920’s. I thought it was very interesting to see the different takes on this subject, great post!

  8. I think it’s fascinating the topic of sex has been a hot button issue in the Soviet Era, and each time the viewpoints seem to shift back and forth. I thought your post had a ton of depth as you touched on several different topics! Great Job!

  9. This is such an interesting post. I had no idea about the AIDS issues of the Soviet Union or that there was such a thing as AIDS denialism. I find it so interesting how throughout Soviet history, so many public issues seemed to have so much control over how things were going because the government made it seem that way, like with abortion and family issues.

  10. I’m really glad you brought this topic up (well topics) up in your post. Just like in America, AIDS, along with many other taboo sex-related topics were either never talked about or demonized. I find it very interesting that the Soviets had the same initial reaction to AIDS as the US. I also had no idea that the rumor about US patented AIDS viruses was started by Soviet intelligence. Overall great post!

  11. Until your post I did not know that AIDS denial was a thing. I find it interesting that the government would rather discredit its citizens rather than to work to assist those effected. The sex education and the idea that sex was a taboo topic in public showed the difference between the generations and the call for social change. Great post!

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