Being gay in revolutionary Russia A WWI veteran's letter to a psychiatrist asking to be cured of his ‘terrible vice’

18:51, 21 august 2017

Moscow in the early 20th century

ClassicStock / Alamy / Vida Press

Russia introduced punishment for sodomy in the early 18th century, banning same-sex relationships among soldiers and sailors. Under Nicholas I, sodomy between any men became illegal, and around the mid-19th century the government started exiling perpetrators to Siberia. Beginning in 1900, gay men could be arrested and imprisoned for several years. The number of sodomy convictions spiked after 1905 (mostly outside Moscow and St. Petersburg). In other words, in the early 20th century, it was effectively impossible for men in Russia to say openly that they were gay or to be involved openly with another man sexually. Many men at the time tried to overcome this “vice,” turning to psychiatrists for help. While collecting documents at the Central State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg, fashion and cultural historian Olga Khoroshilova recently uncovered a letter written by a petty officer to a psychiatrist, apparently in 1921. In the letter, a World War I veteran describes his attraction to men, his exhaustion from living a “strange life,” and his desire to die on the battlefield. Meduza publishes a translation of the letter, and commentary from Khoroshilova about how she identified the text’s author.

Olga Khoroshilova

Historian of art and fashion, author of several books about military history, fashion, and everyday culture, associate professor at St. Petersburg State University for Industrial Technology and Design

Collecting materials on Russian travesty-culture, I turned to the archives in hopes of digging up something interesting. The search brought me to the archive of Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev, a famous Russian psychiatrist in his day, who practiced reflexology, neurology, and experimental psychology, and spent a great deal of time working on “sexual anomalies,” not only studying the field but also giving public lectures.

In the early 1920s, Bekhterev even had to come to the defense of the representatives of Petrograd’s gay community when police detained them during a “wedding ceremony.” The psychiatrist told the authorities that he as a physician found nothing improper or diseased about their behavior. Police released the men from custody and dropped their investigation.

This affair attracted major public attention at the time, and confession letters from gay men across the country started pouring in, addressed to Bekhterev. Many of the letters weren’t signed, but they were full of sincere and intimate revelations. The letter-writers wanted the this apparently all-understanding doctor to cure their depression and possibly help them cope with being gay, which many men called a “sickness” and a “vice” in their letters.

Leafing through these curious messages, I came across a longer letter where the author systematically laid out his difficult personal life and the torment of “love that dare not proclaim itself,” all against a backdrop of historical events that he witnessed himself.

It’s interesting and rather unusual that the man who wrote to Bekhterev was a veteran of the First World War — an officer, possibly a warrant officer, who earned this rank in combat. The man was decorated, awarded the St. George’s Cross, and seriously wounded in battle. And he was very eager for death, finding life to be too painful and meaningless. The torment from which he suffered came not from his wounds, but from his feelings for other men and his inability to express them. He described all this in a heartfelt letter — his own “De Profundis.”

The letter would have remained anonymous, were it not for a postscript penciled in by Bekhterev that read, “Suslov.” In other words, the author’s surname is Suslov, and that could be enough to identify him.

Circumstantial evidence in the letter indicates that Suslov trained soldiers, leading drills in Krasnoye Selo, outside Petrograd, at the beginning of the war. This kind of work belonged not to privates, but non-commissioned officers. Before long, however, he asked to be sent to the front. Unfortunately, the author didn’t write about his unit number in the letter. There are only indirect indications of his identity: early during the war, he was seriously injured somewhere outside Łódź, in Poland. He remained on the battlefield and was taken captive.

There were many non-commissioned officers named Suslov in the Russian army during the First World War. And many of them were injured. However, I managed to establish using archival materials that only one of these men was left on the battlefield: Sergey Vasilyevich Suslov, born in 1897, senior non-commissioned officer of the Yuryev 98th Infantry Regiment. According to documents at the Russian State Military Historical Archive, he was indeed wounded not far from Łódź in combat in November 1914. The battle ended with the city in German hands. Suslov wrote that the Germans took him prisoner and hospitalized him at the Łódź infirmary. It all lines up.

The letter’s author also wrote that he was awarded the St. George’s Cross, and records show that a Suslov did win this honor: Sergey Suslov, awarded the St. George’s Cross of the fourth order.

So the author of this letter was most likely Sergey Vasilyevich Suslov, senior non-commissioned officer of the Yuryev 98th Infantry Regiment. After being injured, he spent 11 months in German captivity, and then returned to Russia and left again for the front. In 1917, he was made a commissioned officer for his military service. Not long afterwards, however, he left the front, due to his injuries, and this marked the beginning of his grim, agonizing struggle with his “illness.” In 1921 and 1922, he reached out to Bekhterev for help. It was his last hope.

Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev
K. K. Bulla

At the time, the famous psychiatrist, many of his colleagues, and Soviet lawyers treated homosexuality precisely as an “anomaly” and an “illness.” The revolutionary events of the era partly influenced this approach, including the abolition of Tsarist laws. Before the revolution, being gay (classified legally as “sodomy”) was against the law and subject to criminal prosecution. This is precisely why Suslov in his confession talks about misery, fear, and the impossibility of having open relationships with men. Serving in the Russian army, he feared persecution and severe punishment.

In the first Soviet Criminal Codes, issued in 1922 and 1926, there were no articles prohibiting “sodomy,” but archival records show that police continued to persecute gay people. Nevertheless, after the successful resolution of the “male wedding” case, a wave of gay men poured into Petrograd, believing that the city would show them greater tolerance. This is how Petrograd became the USSR’s unofficial gay culture capital in the early 1920s.

Believing homosexuality to be a “sexual anomaly,” not a crime, Bekhterev and his colleagues, Mishutsky and Protopopov, developed treatments. Bekhterev tried one of these approaches on his own patient, Suslov. According to the records contained in his archive, the doctor instructed Suslov to consume lupulin with monobromated camphor and a certain “medicine” made from adonis, bromine, and codeine. Bekhterev also prescribed a course of “corresponding suggestions.” He described the results of the procedure as follows: “After several sessions, his condition improved so significantly that his erotic dreams about men stopped entirely.”

What happened to Suslov afterwards remains unclear.

The letter

The Central State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg, fond 2265, opis 1, delo number 510. 1921 (?)

I was born in one of the northern provinces, spending my childhood surrounded by the depraved society of the Tikhvinskaya water system [a waterway connecting the Volga River with the Baltic Sea]. From the age of 10, I’d mastered all manner of debauchery and was already drinking wine. I spent the winters in the village, living as a boy among the village kulaks who cared nothing about education. Because of this difficult period, all my life is tied not to bright childhood memories but to the different vulgarities I suffered then. Everything base, vile, and evil took root in me, clouding everything good and decent. [...]

At 15, I found a job at a corner store working as a shop assistant. Once, the shop owner brought back from Petrograd a collection of pornographic cards that found their way to me. Of course, everyone was familiar with pornography, and I took a few examples from the deck and realized them later.

After some time, I started experiencing attraction toward men, trying to seduce them, not understanding this terrible vice. Of course, I did this with great caution. At 18, I left for Petrograd and enlisted at one of the local sawmill factories. I’d then repeat my abnormal acts, because I had an irresistible attraction to this. It never once occurred to me that this condition was an illness that needed to be treated, and so day after day, year after year, I continued on this downward spiral.

Then I was drafted for military service, where I found a convenient setting for my fulfilment. I’ve never felt any attraction toward women. At the end of my draft service, I started feeling weak and experiencing nervous irritability, after which I became prone to pessimism. I often fought with myself, and frequently entertained thoughts of suicide.

But then war was declared and I was mobilized. I was stationed in Krasnoye Selo [outside Petrograd] to train new soldiers, but I volunteered for the front line. In combat, of course, I had to forget about everything, because I was caught between life and death at every moment. I wasn’t afraid of death because I’d found no joy in life. Heavy thoughts weighed me down, and it seemed to me that I was one of very few unhappy people. My experiences at the front made me forget about my rotten past and this was comforting for me. When I became a hero, that is, when I was awarded the St. George’s Cross, I was ashamed of myself, remembering my base and vile private life.

And then I was wounded in a German trench. I suffered three injuries: one to my chest, one to my back, and one of my legs was ripped off. Lying there dying, I was happy to think that my strange life was coming to an end. But four hours later they picked me up and brought me to the Łódź city infirmary. The first night, they brought a priest to see me. I repented, and then I waited for the end with total satisfaction and peace of mind. I’d done everything I could for my country, and there was nothing more I could do.

To my regret, however, my body didn’t quit. After two operations, I begged for death, but life came back to me, just as grim and burdensome as before. After 11 months in German captivity, I returned to my homeland, and expressed my desire to return to the front again, where I was given an officer’s rank. This didn’t satisfy me, and my conscience started suffering even more, and I began looking for an end. In this state, I wasn’t able to last very long at the front. My wound opened up again, and I returned to Petrograd for treatment.

In Petrograd, I moved from one officers’ hospital to another. [...] In this time, the revolution came, the army disbanded, and military service became uninteresting. With my poor health, I then resigned.

After all this, I had to start thinking about my future survival. There generally wasn’t anything provided by the state, and even when there was it was just crumbs. I wasn’t capable of physical labor, and I wasn’t able to earn a living using just my head. Then I got the idea to go back to school, to raise my intellectual development to a level at which I could subsist. My relatives welcomed my plans, and promised to help, but that ended up being all talk and no action. Currently, I have a profession that provides a comfortable life, but I have a thirst to continue my studies and finish my general education.

My perverse antics are not frequent, but they have continued, mostly under the influence of my imagination. Last fall, completely by chance, I began talking about the issue with a physician from the Psycho-Neurological Institute. From that day, I’ve been experiencing a kind of spiritual upheaval, and I decided that I would either kill myself or abandon these perverse habits. The second option won out, and I started fighting this and I had success. All this was accompanied, once every couple of weeks, by hallucinations in my sleep about men. I now stand at the altar of science, thirsty for a final cure from all this. Presently, I’m experiencing a reaction caused by the transition from an abnormal life to a normal one.

Translation by Kevin Rothrock