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Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, September 30, 1998

Sex Ed Soviet Style

No nasty pictures, but a surpising revelation about Russian intamacy

Moscow Times, September 30, 1998

AIDS Epidemic Was Russia's Sexual Revolution

By Irina Glushchenko

The early years of perestroika were set against the backdrop of the West's spiralling AIDS epidemic. This was also when the first telemost, or live U.S.-Soviet television link-up, took place. I watched all but one of these broadcasts. Later, my grandmother excitedly told me what I had missed on that occasion: "An American woman asked something about sex, but one of our women got up and said there was no sex here!"

The phrase "There is no sex in the U.S.S.R." subsequently went down in the annals of history and provided millions with a laugh at that unfortunate woman's expense. So how exactly do people have children in the Soviet Union, people would ask with a snigger? But if we stop to consider just what sex meant for us, then she was right in a way f there really was no sex in the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1970s, reports from the United States often appeared on the pages of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, the staple diet of every educated family. I still remember one article about New York's 42nd Street. Although it didn't give any particular details, the fleeting mention of the words striptease, sadism, masochism, sexual deviance, prostitution and pornography caused a sweet sensation of horror, nonetheless. Near the end, it said that naked girls dance in cafes on the street. "It would really be something to go there," wishful teenagers would comment as they read the piece. (I did go there in 1992, and I was extremely disappointed.)

Russian clubs today

Reading these reports we naturally pictured countries in the West, and the United States in particular, as the center of all earthly depravity and sin. When a family acquaintance returned from a business trip in the United States, my grandmother even asked him how much sex he saw while he was there. It's a shame I don't remember how he replied.

In the Soviet Union the word sex was only used in social and political articles about the flaws of capitalist society and occasionally in translated works of literature. It certainly did not figure in speech as a rule. Distinct from the word pol, or gender, and polovaya zhizn denoting sexual relations in a functional sense, the word sex was laden with mystery and impropriety.

And it certainly had no place in family life.

Although the actual concept of a conventional family was in itself utterly bourgeois in its origin, the Soviet state carefully guarded the foundations of the family, primarily because things were easier that way. The authorities had to know who lived where, and this was done by means of registration and residence permits. The family was the lowest level of society that the state was able to regulate and everything that happened outside the boundaries of the family was regarded as suspicious and undesirable. Since it was impossible to eradicate life on an individual basis altogether, family life was paradoxically regarded as belonging to the sphere of public and not private life. And amidst all of this, the role of sexual relations in society was limited to childbearing exclusively within the family.

Since promiscuous sexual freedom was seen as undermining the foundations of the family, the state created various administrative obstacles to extramarital sex. Unmarried couples could not share hotel rooms; nonresidents were not allowed to stay the night in student dormitories. Soviet people basically had nowhere to be alone. These norms survived right up to the end of the Soviet period, although in less draconian form.

There was no sexual education in schools, since this could lead youngsters into evil ways. There was certainly no instruction in taking precautions, going on the assumption that if a person is unsure about this aspect, he or she just won't go through with it. The greater the risk, the less the desire. "How do you best avoid pregnancy?" went the old joke. "By drinking tomato juice." ? "Before or after?" ? "Instead of."

Once, when I was in the fourth grade, our teacher took all the girls to one side and told us about menstruation and a few other things. As much as they were innocent in themselves, these explanations were delivered in a suitably menacing way, designed to ward us off certain contacts with boys. The way she portrayed it, once we reached sexual maturity we were pretty much likely to get pregnant from kissing. After this talk one girl went to her parents complaining that "they're telling us about adult love." That was the end of the talks.

The magazine "Health" was a limited source of knowledge, and a few spartan facts could be gleaned from medical encyclopedias. Another unique form of sexual education was provided by lecturers travelling around resorts, droning on about venereal diseases, which inevitably put you off any sort of sex life whatsoever.

So is this all to say there was no depravity in the Soviet Union? Of course there was. But it wasn't sex. Sex presumes the presence of a certain culture. Children were born here not as a result of sex but of polovaya zhizn. You have to admit there is a difference.

I remember how our press came down on the West's "sexual revolution" and how the rebellion of young people against bourgeois society in the late '60s was perceived in the Soviet Union as a sign of the final breakdown of the bourgeoisie. Nor did the hippies escape the vitriol, because although they rejected bourgeois society, they also rejected order and authority. The most feared thing in the Soviet Union was any spontaneous, uncontrollable and chaotic process that did not yield to planning. The authorities didn't like drifters who frequently changed their place of work, and they frowned absolutely upon "casual encounters" and a "disorderly polovaya zhizn."

At the end of the 1970s there were some changes, mainly in youth culture. This was immediately reflected in the Russian language, with the introduction of the term seksualno ozabochenny, or "sexually preoccupied," and the appearance of the concept of the "Swedish family," believed to have been inspired by the example of the pop group Abba, where everyone sleeps in one bed and no one is sure who fathered whom.

Not Abba, but worthy to practice procreation with!

By the time perestroika came around, the AIDS menace was gathering momentum in the West. With the gradual opening-up of our society we could no longer afford to ignore such a terrible danger. And so it happened that the AIDS scourge acted like a magic wand on our country, since any struggle against the disease was inconceivable without sexual enlightenment.

And off came the lid. Under the flag of this struggle, strange as it seems, prostitution was virtually legalized, pornography appeared and sexual liberation flourished. If in the West the appearance of AIDS was the end of the sexual revolution, here it was only the beginning.

Irina Glushchenko is a theater critic who writes for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Dom Aktyora. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.

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1 Comment

Well...well...'There is no sex in The USSR'?...It wasn't official. I grew up in Moscow of The Sixties and the beginig of The Seventies in artistic circles. Sextual freedom was such that I shock my well educated American friends when I tell stories about that freedom. Actualy after 30 years in The West I can tell that it was crazier than anything I saw in US or Europe. In The West people talk a lot about it, Russians did a lot, but didn't talk.

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