- Russia’s transition from a totalitarian state to a market economy and democratic society in the late 1980s and 1990s was marked by a concurrent cultural and sexual revolution. In the Soviet Union, representations of sex in literature, visual art, television, and film were highly regulated and even taboo. Foreign films that contained sexual scenes were heavily edited. Textbooks did not contain any references to sexual intercourse, although a study of the human reproductive system was part of the curriculum. This created a sense of a sexless, prudent society, which was often mocked in the West. It is not surprising that during one of the television link-ups between Soviet and American youth, co-hosted by journalists Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue, a Soviet lady famously declared that there had never been any sex in the Soviet Union. The lack of official information about sex had many negative impacts: for example, Soviet shops did not stock condoms and so the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had one of the highest abortion rates in the world, leading demographic problems.In contrast to the bland official culture, Soviet unofficial culture was quite sexualized. First, the use of mat—a substratum of the Russian language containing vocabulary describing sexual organs and activities—was extensive, though unofficial, in the Soviet army and industry. Second, Soviet-era informal commercial networks, known as blat, enabled the circulation of certain consumer goods such as lingerie that were unavailable in state stores. Finally, folk traditions, for example, the Russian chastushka, contained powerful erotic manifestations that the state was unable to control.Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika enabled public discussion on many previously taboo subjects, including sex. As part of the broader education reform, sex education was introduced in Soviet schools during the 1980s. This shift promulgated a view that a romantic relationship was a precondition to sexual intercourse (always in a marriage). Several popular Western books were translated into Russian during this period, serving as one of the main sources of sexual education. Soviet media began to discuss matters of sex and sexual education. For example, the youth-oriented talk show 12th Etazh (“The 12th Floor”) addressed the issue of sexual development among Soviet young people in new and illuminating ways. In 1988, Vasily Pichul’s Little Vera (Malen’ kaia Vera) premiered, becoming the first motion picture to contain explicit sexual scenes. This and other films shocked Soviet audiences, who were generally unaware of the country’s burgeoning social and sexual revolution.The post-Soviet sexual revolution, however, had all the characteristics of a sexual revolt. In the course of just a few years, the Russian media marketplace was flooded with low-quality pornography. The newspaper Spid-Info started as a publication whose goal was to draw public attention to the threat of the HIV/AIDS pandemic (hence the title, which in Russian means “information about AIDS”); however, it was soon converted into a tabloid, publishing semipornographic stories and images. While finding an erotic image in a public space was unthinkable in 1980, a decade later magazines with explicit images of sexual intercourse were sold openly at every metro station in Moscow. Sex clubs proliferated, pornographic films were shown on cable television networks, and video salons stocked rows of erotic films, with little to no state regulation. Prostitution became a common profession, and many Russian women were smuggled out of the country to become sex slaves.Meanwhile, the AIDS pandemic drew the attention of the public to homosexuals. In the absence of an effective hygienics policy, public health officials and media personalities began to blame male homosexuals for the spread of HIV, as well as linking them to other societal problems. However, the public controversy surrounding homosexuality did not stop Boris Yeltsin’s government from decriminalizing homosexuality in 1993. Fifteen years later, many Russian homosexuals prefer to keep their identity secret from their families and colleagues for fear of being stigmatized. Gay pride parades and demonstrations in Moscow have been consistently banned by the city authorities, largely because of the religious beliefs of the mayor, Yury Luzhkov.The Russian Orthodox Church remains the fountainhead of moral codes that regulates sexual behavior in the Russian Federation. Like many other traditional Christian denominations, the Church promotes reproductive sex as the only acceptable form of intercourse, denounces abortions, and condemns homosexuality. Russia’s ethnic minorities often follow their own cultural traditions, which sometimes may be at odds with the federal law. For example, there have been attempts to reintroduce polygamy in certain Muslim communities. In Chechnya, tribal law, which allows women to be kidnapped and forced into marriage, still trumps state law regulating sexual and marital relationships.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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