From Russia, with Love
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Published in: July-August 2023 issue.


The Hidden History of Gay Oppression in the USSR
by Rustam Alexander
Manchester Univ. Press
265 pages, $26.95


IN 1932, a 25-year-old Russian-speaking journalist from Scotland named Henry Whyte moved to Moscow to take a job at an English-language newspaper called Moscow News—in part because he was a Communist, in part because he was a homosexual, and there was no law against homosexual acts in Russia like the one in his native country. At that time, homosexuals in Moscow found one another the way they had in the 19th century—in public parks, toilets, and bathhouses, which was how Henry met a man named Ivan. Attracted to one another, they began taking long walks together around the city, until one day Ivan disappeared. Upset, Henry tried to find out what had happened to him, and in his research discovered that the Soviet Union was no longer the lodestar of free love it had been under the Bolsheviks. Its new leader, Joseph Stalin, had secretly passed a law criminalizing homosexual acts after his secret police, the OGPU, raided a drag party in Moscow one night in 1933, and the head of the OGPU, Genrikh Yagoda, convinced Stalin that there was a homosexual underground in Russia that threatened the stability of the state.

            Until then, homosexuals had been tolerated in the government as long as they did their jobs well. Some Russian doctors were even ahead of the West in considering homosexuality a natural sexual variant, not the “mental illness” that American psychiatrists deemed it at this time. So, after discovering the new law, Henry Whyte wrote a letter to Stalin asking for clarification on the subject. (Lots of people wrote Stalin letters. His staff sifted through them and chose the ones Stalin saw.) “Dear Comrade Stalin!” it began. “Although I am a foreign communist, I think you, the leader of the world proletariat, will be able to shed light on the question, which is of great importance for a great number of communists both in the USSR and other countries of the world. The question is—can a homosexual be a member of the Communist Party?”

            This letter, one of the many fascinating documents reproduced in Rustam Alexander’s deeply researched book, Red Closet, went on to present Whyte’s reasons for answering in the affirmative.

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Andrew Holleran’s latest novel is The Kingdom of Sand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).