Why We Still Need to Talk About Russia by Cyd Sturgess

Cyd Sturgess is a first year PhD student in Germanic Studies. This post was originally published on her personal blog on 16 June 2014.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to work in some pretty impressive libraries and archives, being blown away by the determination of some pioneering LGBT rights activists. Trawling through the tomes of Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist who founded the first homosexual emancipation movement in Europe, and poring over the magazines made for female interwar ‘inverts’ gave me a great sense of how far we have come in recent years in the campaign for LGBT+ equality.

However, an experience I had last Friday in the Spinnboden Archive reminded me that in some places there is still a long way to go.

Looking through the 1933 run of Die Freundin (The Girlfriend), a weekly newspaper aimed primarily at lesbian and bisexual women, I saw how the rise of Fascism had perceptibly impacted the layout and content of the paper. From 1928 onwards, articles in the magazine focused increasingly on how ‘non-normative’ women should use their vote, how printing censorship had caused issues for the publication, and the increasing difficulties women were having meeting ‘like-minded’ individuals.

As I was making my way through the final issues of the magazine, a group of Russian women arrived at the archive for a tour of its contents. Members of a punk band, they were about to play a few gigs in Berlin but said they hadn’t wanted to miss visiting Europe’s biggest lesbian archive.

The surprise and happiness of these women at being in a room brimming with so much lesbian history was actually a pretty moving experience. But when one of the women mentioned a lesbian archive she knew in Moscow, it became difficult not to draw comparisons between what I was reading in Die Freundin and the issues faced by LGBT+ Russians today.

Image owned by Cyd Sturgess

Image owned by Cyd Sturgess

To her knowledge, she said that the small collection hidden in the back room of a woman’s flat in Moscow was the only lesbian archive to exist in Russia. But they were determined that its contents should be handed over to Spinnboden. The women explained that the political situation for LGBT+ people in Russia meant that they were not only worried about the safety of the archive but also of those who run it. By giving the materials to the Berlin based archive they could protect Russian lesbian history.

While I didn’t question them about their lives in Russia, I was still left with a sense of unease as I remembered an article I had posted earlier in the year about the situation for LGBT+ people under Putin’s rule.

In February, I had posted for the History Matters blog about Garry Kasparov’s assertion that the Sochi Olympics were to Putin what the 1936 Berlin Olympics had been to Hitler. In the piece, I had concluded that although Sochi had provided a platform, it wasn’t one for Putin’s propaganda; Sochi had been a promotion of the LGBT+ rights movement.

However, I was worried that once the Winter Games came to a close, support for LGBT+ people in Russia would wane and Europe would forget the injustices these people face today. Although some organisations continue to fight for equality in Russia, most of the European media coverage on the subject since the Games has slowly disappeared.

Under Hitler’s rule it is estimated that more than 100,000 homosexual men were sent to concentration camps because of their sexuality. Others were castrated or admitted to psychiatric institutions in an attempt to rid them of their ‘degenerated tendencies. However, while in 1933 the famous Magnus Hirschfeld Institute and Archive was burned to the ground and important documents of LGBT+ history were lost, lesbian women in Russia today are taking measures to ensure the same doesn’t happen under their watch.

While Putin’s ban on ‘propaganda of non-traditional relations’ may not yet be comparable to the atrocities committed against LGBT+ people during the Third Reich, his law has lead to the persecution of hundreds of homosexual people in Russia, the closure of many of the organisations that give support to LGBT+ people and an increase in the number of people losing their jobs, their families, and their homes due to their sexuality.

Allowing ourselves to feel content with our coverage of the plight of LGBT+ people during Sochi Games would be dangerous for those people in Russia who are facing social injustices every day. While there was a great level of support for LGBT+ Russians during the Winter Olympics, they continue to live in fear for their own safety and that of their families.

This is why we have to continue to talk about Russia and the problems that LGBT+ people are facing. We cannot get slack in our coverage of their oppression. They are continuing to reach out for the help of European institutions and archives. We must give it to them.


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