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Dasha Serykh: Introduction to Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe in the U.S. Homophile Press, 1953-64


          The three major U.S. homophile periodicals of the 1950s and early 1960s (ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder) published 128 items that referenced or discussed Eastern Europe, Russia, or the countries encompassed by the Soviet Union. This introduction offers a brief quantitative and qualitative overview of these items. 

         For the Soviet Union, all countries and regions that were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were included. In contrast, changing geopolitical developments and divergent popular understandings of the differences between Western and Eastern Europe made the inclusion criteria for the Eastern Bloc more ambiguous. The idea of “Eastern Europe” has existed since the Enlightenment, but it was generally Western Europe that determined its geographical boundaries and the criteria for belonging. British leader Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech about the “Iron Curtain” reinforced the ideological barrier between the “two Europes” in the context of the Cold War. Ultimately, geopolitical relationships and ethnic stereotypes greatly influenced the boundaries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Albania, for instance, was often understood to be part of Eastern Europe, while Macedonia and Greece, its neighbors to the east and south, were not. Due to these popular conceptions, Albania was included in the search, but Macedonia and Greece were not. We similarly erred on the side of inclusiveness by incorporating references to Finland, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, but not Austria, which was ideologically aligned with the West. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly referred to as East Germany, was established in 1949 and was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Many people in the United States viewed East Germany as a Western European country that had been infiltrated by Soviet ideology. Because of its relationship to the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, references to East Germany and East Berlin (when they were specifically mentioned) were included. Finally, when the Eastern European, Russian, or Soviet origins of writers, composers, and artists could be easily established, they were also included.

         Of the 128 items that were identified for Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Soviet Union, 59 were published in ONE, 59 in the Mattachine Review, and only 10 in The Ladder. Of these items, approximately 40 included significant discussions or statements about the regions or people, while the rest contained only passing references. Chronologically, 21 of the items were published during the period 1953-1956, 61 during 1957-1960, and 46 during 1961-1964. Most of the items referenced either pre-Soviet or Soviet Russia. References to other countries or regions were less common - the next runner-ups were Poland and Hungary with 8 references each. With respect to notable people, Tchaikowsky (with variable spelling), Catherine the Great, and Dostoyevsky were mentioned most frequently.

         In terms of gender, where discernible the discussion generally focused on men. References to women were sparse. There were several mentions of Catherine the Great in relation to her acceptance of non-heterosexual sexualities, female sexuality, and cross-dressing. ONE also briefly referenced a Soviet female athlete whose female identity was doubted (ONE,Jan. 1955, 34-35). No references to women came from The Ladder. One letter to The Ladder came from a Hungarian woman, but did not discuss women’s lives in the region.

         With regards to the types of items published, the majority were news and feature stories (40), letters to the editor (18), book reviews (14), reprints from other (often European) periodicals (10), and works of fiction (8). Of the 18 letters that referenced the Eastern Bloc in the three periodicals, only two came from Eastern European individuals themselves – one to The Ladder from a Hungarian woman who lived in Switzerland and one from Poland requesting copies of the Mattachine Review. No letters were published from the Soviet Union.

        Since there was an evident lack of communication with countries behind the “Iron Curtain,” U.S. homophile periodicals mostly referenced as their sources Western mainstream media, homophile periodicals from Western Europe, anecdotal accounts based on first- and second-hand travel experiences, personal speculations, and anthropological reports. Philip Jason’s “Progress to Barbarism” was the only significant feature story that extensively discussed the history of homosexual life in pre-Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. It was also the only story that had been written “in collaboration” with a man who was born in Russia but emigrated to the United States (Mattachine Review, Aug. 1957, 18-21). A smaller article, but one that still focused primarily on the Soviet Union, was Lee Vincent’s “The Soviet Fishermen” in the Mattachine Review. This article was largely speculative and addressed the espionage and blackmail tactics of Soviet agents (Mattachine Review, Feb. 1961, 4-6). There were no articles that treated Eastern European countries to a similar extent.

         Homophile representations of Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Soviet Union fit into several significant frameworks that demonstrate the specific ways that the U.S. homophile periodicals produced knowledge about the “other” in general and the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in particular. While they generally portrayed the Soviet state in negative terms, Soviet, Russian, and Eastern European “non-political” people received mostly favorable, though sometimes stereotypical and simplified, depictions.

          Many of the references to the Soviet Union used a Cold War lens. Just as mainstream U.S. commentators in the Cold War era portrayed the USSR as a totalitarian regime that violated individual rights and freedoms, so too did the U.S. homophile periodicals present the Soviet Union as a repressive authoritarian state. Not surprisingly, they used examples related to homosexuality to illustrate the Soviet Union’s intolerance, hostility, and abuse of human rights. Equating the Soviet Union with Hitler’s Nazi regime and discussing the Soviet Union’s harsh laws against homosexuality and the government’s persecution of anyone who did not fit the profile of a “Soviet citizen” helped paint a picture of a hostile state (Mattachine Review, Sep. 1955, 18-22, 27; Mattachine Review, Feb. 1957, 32-34, 36-38; Mattachine Review, Sep. 1957 (insert), 4). The Soviet Union was also frequently portrayed as infringing the rights of people outside of the USSR through blackmail and espionage. ONE and the Mattachine Review had substantial coverage of the “spy scandals” that were reported by the mainstream media. These stories referenced American or British citizens who were blackmailed by Soviet agents on the basis of their actual or imagined homosexuality. The Soviet tactics were discussed as deceitful, cunning, and immoral and the Soviet agents were portrayed as carefully trained and having “no scruples” in devising ways to manipulate and blackmail those who were vulnerable (ONE, Oct. 1960, 4-5; ONE, Oct. 1960, 19; Mattachine Review, Feb. 1961, 4-6; ONE, Aug. 1962, 19; Mattachine Review, Dec. 1962: 2, 34; Mattachine Review, Jan. 1963, 5-6).

         Several authors also pointed out unfavorable similarities between the USSR and the United States in order to promote change in the latter. Marlin Prentiss, for example, pointed out in ONE that the most “intolerable” practices of political espionage and arbitrary judgment that existed in the Soviet Union were also “a little too commonplace” in the United States and were “the very evils from which we are supposedly striving to keep our nation secure,” (ONE, Dec. 1955, 4-6; see also Mattachine Review, Feb. 1957: 32-34, 36-38; Mattachine Review, Oct. 1963, 2). Placing the two countries alongside each other served to highlight the hypocrisy that the United States needed to overcome in order to ideologically distance itself from the USSR.

        While the Cold War context may have contributed to much of the hostility against the USSR in political and socioeconomic terms, pre-Soviet Russia, Soviet citizens, and Eastern European people, as well as the cultural legacies of Eastern Europe and Russia, were presented in quite favorable ways. Some periods that preceded the Stalinist Soviet era were represented as quite favorable for same-sex sexuality and relatively accepting of non-heterosexual sexualities. Items referencing Catherine the Great, for example, marveled at the acceptance of cross-dressing and female sexuality during her reign. Post-tsarist Russia was also identified as tolerant and accepting. Many writers and composers from pre-Soviet Russia were treated as part of an “international cultural legacy.” Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, and Chekhov, for example, were mentioned alongside other European talents. These figures, as well as brief mentions of Stanislavsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Nijinski, were used in the context of general and queer appreciation for classical culture. Most of them were not presented as homosexual, but Tchaikovsky was referenced alongside Wilde, Michelangelo, and da Vinci in discussions of accomplished homosexual artists.

         As for the “common” Russian and Soviet citizens and the Eastern European people, they were frequently presented as tolerant, friendly, and worthy of sympathy. Reviewers of books featuring Hungarian and Polish characters, for example, portrayed them as amiable protagonists. Soviet people were also regarded favorably and as more tolerant than the Soviet government. Several articles pointed out the Russian roots of a Denver psychiatrist who was speaking very sympathetically about homosexuality. The author of one letter to the editor indicated that his close friend found the “Homo Russian” to be most hospitable during his yearly vacations to the Black Sea, while another article talked about two men living together comfortably without harassment in Moscow (ONE, Aug. 1962, 19; ONE, Jun. 1964, 29).

         The U.S. homophile press often used Orientalist frameworks when discussing ethnic minorities and tribal cultures in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Orientalist discourse, generated by the West, constructed a hierarchical relationship between Asia and the Middle East (“the East”) and United States and Europe (“the West”), with the latter seeing itself as culturally, politically, racially, and intellectually superior to the former. While the West saw itself as more civilized, however, it also romanticized the East as being closer to nature, spirituality, and primitive desires. Western discourses involving Eastern Europe and the USSR often engaged in Orientalist stereotyping that constructed the Eastern Bloc as an inferior and at times romanticized “other.” U.S. homophile periodicals engaged in similar kinds discourses as they romanticized Balkan cultures and ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union by portraying them as more accepting of same-sex sexuality. However, these people were also depicted as more primitive (i.e. living in smaller communities or tribes, disengaged from modern politics) and as underdeveloped culturally. Their sexual customs were presented as anthropologically significant in that they offered confirmation that homosexuality was not a product of Western civilization.

         Overall, the U.S. homophile periodicals followed mainstream Western discussions by labeling the Soviet Union as repressive towards its own citizens and deceitful and scheming towards other countries. They also reproduced mainstream Western discourses by “orientalizing” Eastern Europe. At the same time, however, these periodicals provided a response to the mainstream media by criticizing the USSR for its anti-sodomy laws, by separating the people from the state in their favorable treatment of Soviet and Eastern European people, and by praising the sexual “freedoms” of the tribal cultures in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe more generally. Due to the lack of information originating in the Eastern Bloc, however, the representations were often brief, schematic, and speculative. In viewing these items as a whole then, Churchill’s image of the “Iron Curtain” can be evoked to illustrate how the U.S. periodicals discussed Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Just as a curtain presents a barrier that can offer only glimpses of what is happening behind it, so too the U.S. homophile press’s coverage of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc provided only glimpses of life in this region of the world.