What Sex in the Soviet Union?

Alexey Golubev

Rereading Vera Sandomirsky, “Sex in the Soviet Union,” The Russian Review 10, 3 (July 1951): 199-209.


A young couple in the Yekaterininskii Park in Moscow, mid-1950s, photographed by Semyon Fridliand. Courtesy of the Dalbey Photographic Collection at the University of Denver.


Vera Sandomirsky Dunham (1913–2001) was one of the most prominent American Slavists of the second half of the twentieth century. She was born into the family of a prosperous Russian engineer employed by the International Harvester Company (his portrait was printed in a long article discussing the possible supply of its equipment to the Russian Provisional government in, ironically, the November 1917 issue of its magazine, The Harvester World).[1] This position helped the Sandomirskys move from Soviet Russia to Europe, which happened most likely at some point in the latter half of the 1920s. After earning a doctorate from the University of Bielefeld in 1935 and immigrating to the United States in 1940, Vera Sandomirsky briefly served with the Office of Strategic Services in Washington (1944–45), before taking a position at Wayne State University, where she taught from 1945 to 1976 while publishing extensively on contemporary Soviet literature. In addition to literary scholarship and translations, she was particularly interested in using Soviet literature as a tool to understand changes and developments in Soviet culture and society. In 1976, she published her magnum opus, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction, with Duke University Press, which summarized her ideas about the Stalinist instrumentalization of literature for social control. Many of these ideas had been discussed in earlier articles, including her “Sex in the Soviet Union,” published in the July 1951 issue of The Russian Review.[2]


“Sex in the Soviet Union” is a remarkable article in terms of its composition. It begins with a brief excursion into the radically changed landscape of sexual and marital relations after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It then narrates the Stalinist “turn” back to strict state control regarding family and sexuality. Halfway through the article Sandomirsky formulates her main research question: why did the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union need such strict control over the private lives of its subjects? To answer it, in the second half of the article she turns to two anti-utopian novels, We by Evgenii Zamiatin and 1984 by George Orwell, bringing the argument into a hermeneutical circle: “the Politburo” sought to control sexual lives of its citizens for the sake of social and political control and in order to render them as more loyal and productive subjects. Yet on the very last page Sandomirsky admits that her entire argument belongs to the domain of representations rather than actual sexual practices, concluding that “men and women over there sleep together, or fall in love, or get married for reasons other than successful mastery of Michurin’s agricultural theories.” This conclusion raises a question: if the article does not really cover the subject it claims to address (“sex in the Soviet Union”), then what is it about?


If we look at the postwar birth statistics, the figures hinting at the spread of extramarital relations in the Soviet Union at the time are striking: for example, in 1950, 11.5% of all newborn children in Soviet Belarus were born to single mothers, while in the Komi Republic this rate reached a staggering 47.9%.[3] Contemporary memoirs also suggest that “Stalinist Virtue,” a term introduced by Sandomirsky, was largely a literary figure. Vladimir Goliakhovskii, who worked as a general practitioner and surgeon in North Russia in the early 1950s, wrote of extramarital sex as a social and cultural norm both in his own professional group and among the general population.[4] These pieces of historical evidence provide a very different perspective on Stalinist efforts to promote rational forms of family life and sexuality: they might be seen not so much a shift to total control, but rather as a desperate reaction to avert a perceived danger to the national body. In this manner, the state’s didactic approach to sex was continuous with the prewar trends superbly detailed by Wendy Goldman in her social history of Soviet family and gender policies in the 1930s.[5]


Unsurprisingly, Sandomirsky struggled to find empirical evidence to substantiate her argument that a “Soviet person cannot ‘simply’ love someone without criticism, without political and moral watchfulness.”[6] She refers to the famous 1946 resolution of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party authored by Andrei Zhdanov on the magazines Zvezda and Leningrad as proof that “that love – or rather love for love’s sake – is treasonable… in the Stalinist framework of thinking,” even though the resolution does not contain a single reference to private life.[7] Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and their literary apologists were, indeed, criticized for producing the “wrong” emotional regimes for Soviet audiences, but using this critique as evidence that the Politburo was engaged in a conscious campaign aimed at “the moral and emotional castration of the human individual” is a stretch.[8]Sandomirsky’s statement that the only love poetry available to Soviet readers at the turn of the 1950s was productivist poetry, which reduced personal affections to the ability to meet production plans, is especially weak. It was in the 1940s that Samuil Marshak translated William Shakespeare’s sonnets, an achievement that earned him a Stalin Prize in 1949. Marshak’s translations were part of an extensive program of translation of European classics funded by the state and held to justify the Stalinist claim of Soviet cultural superiority vis-à-vis capitalist nations.[9] A by-product of this claim was that, in addition to Shakespeare, the educated Soviet public got access to such texts as François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, and many others. The complete works of Alexander Pushkin were also in production in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The second volume of his poetry (covering the years from 1817 to 1825 and including many poems with sexually explicit content, such as “Czar Nikita and His Forty Daughters”) was published in 1947, right after Zhdanov’s resolution on Zvezda and Leningrad. Another example: a volume of selected works by Sergei Yesenin came out in 1952 with his “decadent” (a term that, according to Sandomirsky, Soviet ideologists applied to all forms of non-civic feeling) love poems, such as “On such a night…”:


And we ceased loving long ago.

You loved not me, I loved another.

We nothing prize, but make a show

Of love we neither feel nor suffer.


Enfold me though within your arms,
Caress and kiss me, sweet and clever,
That I may dream of spring-month charms
And of the one I love forever.[10]


And, while not exactly poetry, nothing could shake the position of Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement as the foundational classic of socialist realism, despite its controversial scenes of rape and the fact that its protagonists failed in their relationship and eventually separated, despite being heroically productive socialist subjects. The contemporary cultural production of late Stalinism could, indeed, be almost puritanical, as Sandomirsky noted in her article, but Soviet readers had access to explicit sexual content through the works of earlier authors that were reprinted and easily available through libraries or bookstores.


Although inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, “Sex in the Soviet Union” does not employ Kinsey’s sociological methods.[11] Sandomirsky did not have access to any sociological, ethnographic, or statistical data other than birth rates. Nor does she address the differences and variations in sexual cultures among Soviet regions as well as between urban and rural areas. To understand her subject, Sandomirsky primarily analyzes representations in contemporary Soviet literature. In contrast to Kinsey, for whom human sexuality was a product of biological instincts and psychological factors and thus an innate characteristic of any given individual, Sandomirsky’s focus is on the texts that mediated sexual experiences and prescribed new norms. While her article does not explain much about the sexual lives of Soviet people in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it does provide rich material about the literariness of sexuality.


A typical plot twist in a Russian bylina (epic song), brings a bogatyr (knight) to a crossroads representing different story developments and life choices. A turn to the right leads to marriage (or losing one’s horse, depending on the story), a turn to the left leads to wealth (or losing one’s sword), and going straight means losing one’s life (something that most stories agree on). In her literary approach to studying sex in the Soviet Union, Sandomirsky faced a choice not unlike an epic Russian bogatyr. Her discovery of the literariness of sexuality had immense heuristic potential. Yet Sandomirsky chose a very different interpretation of her material, borrowing a conceptual framework from Orwell and Zamiatin to analyze postwar Soviet society. Neither Orwell nor Zamiatin knew anything about the particularities of Soviet everyday experiences in the late 1940s, far less about sexual life in the Soviet Union at the time, yet their writings provided scholars with powerful literary tropes to explain Soviet society. In this regard, “Sex in the Soviet Union” represents an important trend in the making of American Sovietology in the wake of the Second World War, a time when the literary logic of conspiracy theory captivated the popular and scholarly imagination and led to interpretations of Soviet history as driven by a cynical master plan of Communist ideologists to subjugate Soviet society. Poems in which romantic feelings depend on one’s ability to successfully meet production quotas fit this interpretative scheme well; the high rate of extramarital pregnancies and the popular translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets did not. Appearing at the early stages of the Cold War, Sandomirsky’s article played into the totalitarian framework of Soviet studies.


Yet the bogatyrs of Russian epic songs were also known for coming back to the crossroads and rethinking their choices. It would be too easy to discard “Sex in the Soviet Union” as simply an ideological construct of the Cold War. Instead, it is more productive to think of this article in terms of its heuristic potential: as a crossroads for nascent studies of Soviet sexuality that had the potential to lead to more productive destinations than the monoliths of totalitarianism. By focusing on how Soviet literary works discussed the intimate aspects of life, Sandomirsky laid the groundwork for future scholars to examine Soviet anxieties about sex and its centrality for visions of the Communist future – an approach that, over time, would result in exemplary scholarship in our field.[12] Whereas Kinsey established the physiological, sociological and psychological approach to understanding human sexuality, Sandomirsky noted that it was also a literary construct. The models of marital and sexual behavior prescribed during late Stalinism had a rather limited impact on immediate Soviet postwar realities, as the statistical data cited from the Komi ASSR suggests, but they influenced understandings and performances of sexuality in later periods.[13] With its interest in the literary negotiation of what was appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior for Soviet people, “Sex in the Soviet Union” represents an important step towards the understanding of sexuality as a discursive construct. Perhaps we can even place this article in a continuum of scholarly research that would eventually lead to Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.


Alexey Golubev is an assistant professor of Soviet history at the University of Houston.


[1] C. S. Stilwell, “With Harvester Men in Russia,” The Harvester World 8, 11 (1917): 5.

[2] Vera Sandomirsky, “Sex in the Soviet Union,” The Russian Review 10, 3 (July 1951): 199-209.

[3] G. V. Iakovlev, Okhrana prav nezamuzhnei materi (Minsk: Izd-vo BGU, 1979), 7; N. P. Beznosova, “Estestvennoe dvizhenie naseleniia Komi ASSR v 1945–1959 gg.,” Etnograficheskie protsessy na Severe Evrazii: Sbornik nauchnykh trudov, Vyp. 2, ed. A.F. Smetanin et al (Syktyvkar: IIaLI KomiNTs UrO RAN, 2005), 79.

[4] Vladimir Goliakhovskii, Put’ khirurga: Polveka v SSSR (Moscow: Zakharov, 2006).

[5] Wendy Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[6] Sandomirsky, “Sex in the Soviet Union,” 201.

[7] Sandomirsky, “Sex in the Soviet Union,” 206.

[8] Sandomirsky, “Sex in the Soviet Union,” 209.

[9] Katerina Clark, Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931–1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10–11, 23, 184–185.

[10] Sergei Yesenin, “Kakaia noch! Ia ne mogu…,” in Sergei Yesenin, Izbrannoe (Moscow: Goskhudizdat, 1952), 251. I am using Peter Tempest’s translation from Soviet Literature 9 (1975): 154.

[11] Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1947).

[12] Eric Naiman, Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Lilya Kaganovsky, How the Soviet Man Was Unmade: Cultural Fantasy and Male Subjectivity under Stalin (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

[13] I.S. Kon, Klubnichka na berezke. Seksual’naia kul’tura v Rossii (Moscow: OGI, 1997), 171–173.