As regards sex education, the Soviet Union is probably best described as having none. Zero. Utter bupkis.
One observer opines: “There is no doubt that communism in its Soviet version has been one of the most repressive sexual systems that ever existed, worse than most religions, and on a par with nazism.” Here is a recent reminiscence by someone from a Soviet member state:
Indeed, no one ever discussed how babies were born. My sister believed our dad found her in his vomit. For some reason he thought that was the most suitable explanation. I had a better story. I was purchased by my older sister at a diamond store. It is fun to reminisce about such stories but there is a deeper question to address in the former Soviet Union. How to encourage people to both use contraceptives and to have babies? First of all, schools and families should raise awareness.
My anatomy teacher in ninth grade did not want to deal with students giggling. So for the sake of discipline in class, she skipped chapters that talked about sex and reproduction. Some of us bothered to skim through them on our own. It was the closest we ever got to the topic.
(The reason she mentions encouraging people to have babies is that Russia and some of the other former Soviet Republics are undergoing a dramatic demographic crash at the moment.)
From another discussion of Soviet sex ed (originally from the English-language Moscow Times):
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 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.
From everything I’ve heard, it is nearly impossible to overstate the lack of coherent discourse about sex in the Soviet Union. People simply abstained from talking about it. In a 1991, survey as many as 87 percent reported that their parents had never discussed sex with them1. One of the reasons that abortion became the chief method of birth control was that there was no social context where it was possible to discuss contraception. (Another reason was that contraception was virtually unavailable during the Soviet era, and even afterwards — though I imagine the lack of discussion contributed to that.)
The fog of prudery never extended to all corners of Russia. There has always been a segment of urban intelligentsia which maintained an active, almost frenetic, sexual culture. As one journalist puts it, “Russians take pride in sleeping around, and the possibility of heterosexual transmission [of AIDS] raises few real qualms. Sex is freedom, risk is joy, and hygiene or sanitation are not always the highest priorities.” While this observation is recent, my impression is that something similar has been the case since at least the sixties.
At the time of the Revolution in 1917, the situation was rather different. Upon seizing power, the Bolsheviks passed quite progressive laws for the time. Before cultural attitudes had time to change much, however, Stalin provided his distinctive stamp (KR, 2):
[T]he Russian Revolution of October 1917 opened up discussion of sexuality, including ‘free love’, and introduced the most liberal legislation in the world at the time (for instance, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and legalisation of abortion, which became free and available on demand). The ‘sexual revolution’, however, did not extend beyond a relatively small group of ‘liberated’ intellectuals and young workers in European centres. Nor did it last. In the early 1930s the situation began rapidly to deteriorate. Sex surveys were banned, together with sociology and social psychology as academic disciplines. Command-administrative control of sexual affairs replaced social-moral regulation. In 1934 the authorities recriminalised male homosexuality (which became punishable by up to eight years’ deprivation of freedom); abortions were banned two years later (the ban lasted till 1955) [and it did include some kind of exception for the health of the mother]; all forms of erotic art were censured; and schools ceased to teach sex education. The public was sexually illiterate and society officially became sexless, even genderless.
Society “officially” becoming genderless, of course, does rather little to ameliorate most patriarchal attitudes — indeed if the state declares the status quo to be “freedom” and everyone to be officially “equal”, questioning social arrangements presumably becomes more difficult rather than less. (Our right wing seems to be pretty much using this strategy at this point, but then some of their strategists have long had their own uses for some of the methods of Communist leaders.)
After the fall of the Soviet regime, a general mistrust of the West and the re-emergence of the Orthodox Church has tended to ensure that the sexual ignorance of the Russian populace plays itself out in disastrous ways:
[M]easures taken to inhibit the implementation of sexual health and HIV prevention programs are justified by the government on account of a fundamental mistrust of all-things Western, including the moral impetus behind the efforts of international organizations on either end of the political spectrum. The most notable defeat suffered by sexual education advocates is generally considered to be the blocking of a 1996 UNESCO project, undertaken at the request of the Russian Ministry of Education and in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund, due primarily to pressures from the recently-allied Communist Party and Orthodox Church. The project, which sought to evaluate the attitudes and knowledge of students and develop a workable, nationally tailored sexual education curriculum over a span of three years, quickly became a highly contentious political issue. Noted Russian scholar Igor S. Kon describes his dismay at the project’s fate:
Before it was even born, the project came under fire and was labeled as a “Western ideological plot against Russian children”. An aggressive group of Pro-Life activists filed a complaint with the communist-dominated Parliament’s National security committee. In some Moscow district towns people were asked in the streets: “Do you want children to be taught in school how to engage in sex? If not, please, sign the petition to ban this demonic project”. Priests and activists told their audiences that all bad things in Western life were rooted in sex education, that Western governments are now trying to ban or eliminate it, and that only the corrupt Russian government, at the instigation of the “World sexological-industrial complex”, was acting against the best interests of the country. All this was supported by pseudoscientific data (for example, that in England boys begin to masturbate at 9 years of age, and at 11 they are already completely impotent) and other lies.
According to a paper by Kon from 2001 (or so), the Orthodox Church (which has apparently learned well from the Soviets (and Putin) to use the actual iniquities of Western history to justify their more lunatic ideas) proclaims that:
the main danger for Russian children and their parents are not abortions, HIV or syphilis but the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which expresses the interests of the contraceptive industry, and the United Nations Population Fund, which is interested in the depopulation of Russia, so that the West can appropriate its natural resources. Parents are being taught how to sabotage any attempts to introduce sex education, even including taking their children out of the schools. They are told that condoms are inefficient against both HIVor STDS, and also againt pregnancy.
Moscow Patriarchy [i.e. the Church leadership] published a special formal address to adolescents, which is formulated in words which would be more appropriate for the General Staff or State Security than for a Christian Church:
Children! The enemies of God, enemies of Russia for hundreds of years have tried to conquer our native land with the help of fire and the sword, but each time they were shamefully defeated and sent to their graves in the borderless fields of Russia. Now they have understood that is impossible to conquer Russia by military force… Now they want to annihilate our people with the help of depravity, pornography, drugs, tobacco and vodka – by the same means by which THEIR forfathers annihilated American Indians.
These attitudes have a predictable effect on any effort to halt the now rampant spread of AIDS, and to reduce a sometimes violent homophobia. A prominent Russian liberal has even been quoted as saying: “AIDS might be a good thing, in a way, because it is killing people who only destroy the country anyway” (referring to drug addicts).
In any discussion of sexual issues in Soviet and Russian culture, the name of sociologist Igor Semyonovich Kon is ubiquitous. Since at least the mid-70s, when he wrote ???????? ? ?????????? (Introduction to Sexology) (which was banned by the Soviets until 1988), he has apparently been the most sane and courageous voice in Russia on such matters (including LGBTQ issues), and has indefatigably attempted to bring informed science and meaningful ethics to an arena of repressed ignorance, distorted morality, and willful paranoia. As far as I can tell, he is as much a hero on this front as anyone has been in any country.
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A note to ???:
In my earlier post, you asked about the denial of education to women. I never finished my reply to that (though this post is an offshoot of it), but while I’m still on the topic of the Soviets, I wanted to note the Soviet Union was comparatively good about educational equality — it is one arena where their (mostly) theoretical commitment to egalitarianism actually had an effect. Now whether or not women could get, say, academic jobs, on par with men is a different question, but women did have access to the education. Most physicians (the GPs, not the surgeons and specialists, IIRC) in the Soviet Union were women, but then ordinary doctors were accorded neither prestige nor high pay. It is also necessary to keep in mind that the Russian Revolution took place only two years before the visit Emma Goldman recounts in the quotes I used, and thus, at that time, obviously, no children had attended Soviet-run schools for any longer than that. There was also still a large measure of chaos in the country at that point. For that era, with regard to education and ignorance, I imagine it is difficult to separate out the effects of Soviet policy from the lingering elements of the Tsarist regime from the mess caused first by World War I and then by the troops (including Americans) sent by the Allies to thwart the Bolsheviks.
- See: Igor Kon and James Riordan, Sex and Russian Society (1993), p 4. Hereafter cited as KR. [back]