Homosexuality in the Soviet GULAG (1956–59)
in Regulating homosexuality in Soviet Russia, 1956–91
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On 27 January 1956 GULAG director Sergei Yegorov issued a secret decree in which he demanded that his subordinates take urgent measures against sodomy and ‘lesbian love’ in Soviet prisons and colonies. He also gave them orders ‘to study’ these phenomena and submit elaborate reports with suggestions on how to deal with them. These reports are the focus of this chapter. Yegorov’s decree sparked unprecedented discussions on homosexuality among GULAG commandants and doctors and, therefore, represented what Michel Foucault has called an ‘institutional incitement’ to speak about sex. These discussions displayed certain signs of modernity: instead of framing homosexuality merely as a moral failing, GULAG officials and doctors framed it as a threat to the health of prison cohorts (being a source of STIs and gruesome acts of violence among prisoners) as well as populations outside the barbed wire. In their reports, doctors and GULAG directors offered a host of discursive measures to combat homosexuality, including educational work and individual conversations with prisoners. They also encouraged prisoners to speak about the same-sex liaisons of their fellow inmates by condemning and collectively shaming them. Despite these ‘modern’ approaches to the problem of homosexuality, GULAG commandants contended that sodomy and lesbianism should, nevertheless, be considered a crime. GULAG doctors, however, while agreeing that legal penalties were useful in cases of sodomy, contended that female homosexuality should be carefully studied and dealt with medically.


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