Russia's sexual counter-revolution

Modest moves are made toward some limits after a decade of unrestraint

August 07, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - When prosecutors here recently threatened to file pornography charges against a post-modernist novelist, the writer accused them of trying to turn Russian society into a "castrated cat."

If so, they have set themselves a formidable goal. Russia seems as sexually unrestrained as any nation in the world. During the Soviet era, authorities tried to impose a prudish moral code on their comrades, outlawing sex and nudity in arts and literature. But in the end, they could no more rein in Russian libidos than they could crush the black markets.

Depending on your point of view, the collapse of Communist rule either ended 70 years of hypocrisy or unleashed a tide of sleaze, as sex came very much out into the open. Moscow has more than its share of raunchy nightclubs, strip joints and prostitutes. Sidewalk peddlers sell X-rated videos, and state-controlled TV stations broadcast films with nude scenes uncut.

Now, Russia's decade-old sexual revolution may be heading for some restraint. The Russian human rights commissioner has called for raising the age of consent from 14 to 16, and there is a move to strengthen laws against child pornography. Graphic movies are no longer broadcast in prime time.

"After the period when we didn't have any sex at all, we had a period of a sexual revolution," says Yana Lepkova, 26, a staff writer for the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. "This period has passed and has turned into some reasonable limits."

These moves are modest. Some religious and political leaders are trying to push the sexual counter-revolution further, urging abstinence outside marriage - a bold proposal in a culture where adultery has a long tradition, particularly among the powerful.

The Stalin-era law against homosexuality was repealed when communism fell. Now some deputies in the Duma, Russia's parliament, have proposed legislation to make it illegal again.

While new anti-gay laws are unlikely to pass, Russians increasingly seem to be drawn toward what some would describe as traditional values. "We are convinced that a true sex life is only possible in a family and can only be based on love," says Boris Yakimenko, a spokesman for the national youth group Moving Together.

The group, which staunchly supports President Vladimir V. Putin, launched a campaign this year against Vladimir Sorokin, author of a number of post-modernist novels. One work that drew its ire was Sky Blue Pork Fat, which depicts an imaginary erotic encounter between clones of Communist Party leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Josef Stalin. (The word for sky blue in Russian slang also means homosexual.)

Moving Together wrote to the Moscow prosecutor's office, demanding an investigation of the novel. It charged that Sorokin and his publishers violated Article 242 of Russia's penal code, which outlaws the distribution of pornography.

In June, the group staged a rally in downtown Moscow to denounce the author. At one point, the group placed a toilet bowl in front of the Bolshoi Theatre to protest its decision to commission Sorokin to write the libretto for a new opera.

Prosecutors recently agreed the book was pornographic and brought charges, but it is doubtful the novelist will ever be hauled into court. Sorokin, who refused to answer questions in a police interview this week, scornfully rejects the allegations.

"I have written, I am writing and will continue writing tough literature," he told a Moscow newspaper. "It will contain everything that exists in our lives - starting with love and ending with sex and violence."

Politics, as well as sex, may be fueling this cultural struggle. The main taboo that Sorokin broke may have been dishonoring the memory of Communist leaders, who remain popular with a surprising number of older Russians nostalgic for the Soviet Union of their youth.

While Russians pride themselves on their sophistication about sex, public discussion is considered "uncultured" - a Soviet-era concept deeply rooted in Russian society. For many nonreligious Russians, being uncultured is the equivalent of committing a mortal sin.

From books, magazines

Sex education is rare, banished from most public schools after a short-lived experiment in 1996 drew criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church. "We didn't learn much about sex in school," says Anastasia Vasiliyeva, 16, a high school student whose parents also did not discuss it with her. "What we know, we got from reading books and magazines ourselves."

Autumn M. Lerner, a graduate student in international studies at the University of Washington, recalls discussing sex with students in a Moscow nightclub a few years ago. She was shocked that what little they knew was wrong.

"Russian kids were denying there was AIDS in Russia," she says. "They denied that safe sex was important."

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