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three pairs of lovers with space



The story of Greek love in very modern Russia is as grim as in most European countries, but in early modern times attitudes were much more lenient. There had been punishments for sodomy (defined as pedication), apparently under the authority of the Orthodox church, but foreign observers in the 17th century thought it unusually prevalent and surprisingly well-accepted among all classes in Russia.

Peter the Great pacifying his marauding troops, 1704 by Nikolay Sauerweid

From the early 18th century, hostility to sodomy grew as the state was modernised on western European lines. The Military Legal Code issued by the reformist Tsar Peter the Great in 1706 and copied from Swedish army regulations, ordered death by burning for it, though there are no known instances of its being applied. Ten years later, this was softened, the relevant Article 166 saying:

“If anyone depraves a young lad, or if a man lies with a man, they must be punished as mentioned in the previous article [ie. “cruelly chastised”]. If it was done by force, those men must be killed or sent to galley forever.”[1]

This is interesting both in indicating that at this time sodomy of other men or of boys was seen as equally reprehensible, and in implying that pedication of boys was a known feature of army life.

However, plans to extend this prohibition to civilians were shelved and the statutes themselves cancelled later in the same century. The Venetian adventurer Casanova stayed in Russia for ten months of 1764-5. In his famous memoir he mentioned the love of boys of a Secretary of the cabinet and his own apparently open dalliance, including some kind of sex, with a pretty aristocratic youth of seventeen, all described without any sense of fear or shame.

It was not until 1832, by when social hostility to homosexuality had grown under western European influence, that all sodomy was forbidden through paragraphs 995 and 996 of The Criminal Code of the Russian Empire, copied from the criminal code of the German state of Wurtemberg. While 995 punished sodomy (still defined as pedication only) between consenting men with deprivation of rights and property and resettlement in Siberia for four to five years, 996 prescribed ten to twelve years of hard labour in Siberia for sodomising consenting boys.

by Ilya Repin, 1866

Nevertheless the gap for the remainder of the tsarist period between the legal position and social reality was much larger than in most countries, especially where the upper class was involved: no members of it were ever prosecuted under the new legislation. Exhaustive research on Russian homosexuals in the 1890s has revealed only case of a man of any class who was prosecuted under paragraphs 995 or 996: one Langovoy, a classics teacher at a private boys’ boarding school. Following complaints from the parents of several of his pupils that he had seduced them, the case reached newspapers, he was tried and convicted of sex with a boy of thirteen, and banished to the provincial city of Saratov. After five years, he was amnestied and allowed to resume his teaching career.[2]

The life of Russia’s greatest composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-93), whose sexual tastes were centred on boys of fifteen,[3] is an illuminating illustration of what life was then like for a Russian pederast: always in fear of public exposure and hostility, he was nevertheless embroiled in love affairs from his schooldays onwards (the leading schools in the capital, St. Petersburg, offering much the same opportunities as boys’ boarding-schools in other European countries), and with both boy servants and boys of his own class.

The cultural historian Bernhard Stern concluded the chapter on “Bestiality and same-sex love” in his History of Public Morality in Russia (1907) with this mention of Greek love:

In southern Russia, especially in the Caucasus, due to the customs of the Orient, in all hotels and baths, pleasure-boys are at the disposal of the guests. The Circassians, strangely enough, among all the inhabitants of the Caucasus, are the only people among whom pederasty is regarded as a desecration of the male honour and an act worthy of the contempt of all tribesmen.[4]

But then the Caucasus had a radically different cultural history, far more friendly to Greek love, it was only conquered by Russia in the 19th century and the southern part broke away from her in 1917, so it is doubtful if this may be considered Russian pederasty.

In their global survey of boy prostitution, Boys for Sale (1969), Drew and Drake devoted a short section to Russia which, apart from noting that boy prostitution no longer existed there, was entirely devoted to the century down to the time of the Bolshevik revolution.

In December 1917, the month following the revolution, the tsarist legal code was abrogated and all homosexuality became technically legal, more or less by accident, while leaving the social prejudice against it intact (interestingly just as had happened in France following the 1789 revolution there). However, the first Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 introduced an age of consent of sixteen for Russia and the Ukraine,[5] and whatever little freedom this left Greek love ended on 7 March 1934, when article 154a (later renumbered 121) of the Soviet Penal Code illegalised all “sexual relations” between males throughout the USSR, with longer imprisonment of up to eight years for sex with consenting boys under 14. This law was hailed by Maxim Gorky in both Pravda and Izvestiia as a “triumph of proletarian humanitarianism.”[6]

The journal for 1967 of the visiting French boy-loving writer Gabriel Matzneff descibes how the KGB used cleverly-acquired knowledge of his tastes to deploy a beautiful boy of fifteen to try to entrap him for purposes of blackmail.

If you want to be healthy ...

As part of the brief liberal reaction following the fall of communism, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1994 with an age of consent of sixteen, and in 1998 Greek love became quasi-legal as a result of the age being reduced to fourteen,, but this only lasted until 2002, when it was returned to sixteen, and thereafter violations of the law were treated with increasing brutality.


[1] A. Preobrazhensky, Legislation of Peter the Great (Moscow, 1997).

[2] Nina Berberova in the “Préface a l’édition de 1987” in her Tchaikovski (Paris, 1987).

[3] Alexander Poznansky,Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (London, 1993)  p. 120. Poznansky’s biography gives in general much the fullest account of Tchaikovsky’s romantic life.

[4] Geschichte der Öffentlichen Sittlichkeit in Russland, (Berlin, 1907),  II p. 570. The translation is this website’s.

[5] Whilst, ironically, homosexuality was illegalised in the southern Moslem republics of the USSR, where there was a strong tradition of Greek love.

[6] Maxim Gorky, Sobrany sochinenii v 30 tomakh (Collected Writings in 30 Volumes), Moscow, 1953, XXVII 238. The essay originally appeared in Pravda and Izvestiia on 23 May 1934.




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