Love

Society

Love

"There is no sex in the Soviet Union.” Even out of context, that famous quote from a Russian woman on the first Perestroika-era talk show sums up the cliché well: dictatorship, oppression and shortages are hardly conducive to love. And yet, in the Eastern bloc, like the West, things became somewhat less straitlaced in the 70s and 80s. Heiner Carow’s film The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973) was a huge success in East Germany, despite censorship. The heroine was a divorced woman, raising her child alone, who is looking for love despite the obstacles. But this gradual withdrawal from the private sphere didn’t mean that the State stopped imposing norms. Since 1917, the USSR had been establishing guidelines on issues of secular marriage, monogamy, divorce, children’s legal status (equality of rights for legitimate and illegitimate children) and abortion. Having a lot of children had been considered meritorious since Stalin’s time ("Heroic Mother” medals and benefits), and even became an obsession to the point that abortions were banned in Rumania (Decree 770). Instituted under Stalin, the tax on the childless was maintained until 1990. These "revolutionary" principles were transposed more or less intact to the satellite states in the form of social legislation and state support for parents, especially mothers (birth clinics, free nursery schools and crèches, pay for housework). But this idealized “new life” (novyi bit) was often more theoretical than real. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, suppression of parental consent for marriage, which had been written into the law in 1917, couldn’t overcome the weight of tradition. Many young couples had to elope to the far end of the USSR in order to escape their fathers’ plans. And since marriage was synonymous with priority on apartment waiting lists, an, practical considerations often trumped love. Homosexuality, which was both a taboo and a punishable offense, made its "coming out" in Heiner Carow’s semi-clandestine film of the same name (1989). AIDS was not in fact stopped by the Iron Curtain; it infected hemophiliacs and orphans, and traumatized conservative ideologues. The conservative morals of political leaders (aging revolutionary men one and all) were counteracted by the development of nudism, the first steps towards a more open sexuality (aided by easy access to divorce and abortion, and Communist attacks on Christian morals), and petit-bourgeois eroticism.

Archive

Socialist Eroticism: Das Magazin

While pornography was Capitalist decadence that demeaned human beings, eroticism did have its adepts even within puritanical Socialism.

country: German Democratic Republic / year:

While pornography was Capitalist decadence that demeaned human beings, eroticism did have its adepts even within puritanical Socialism. Despite the Politburo’s reservations, nudism was common, especially in East Germany. Das Magazin, an East German monthly, was very much in demand (up to 560,000 copies!), essentially because of its cover illustration and its soft-core erotic stories and photos.

The happiest day of your life

Although divorce – relatively easy and quite inexpensive to obtain – was a right acquired in the Revolution, the institution of the family was nevertheless fundamental to Socialist society.

country: Soviet Union / year:

Although divorce – relatively easy and quite inexpensive to obtain – was a right acquired in the Revolution, the institution of the family was nevertheless fundamental to Socialist society. Families were formed at the ZAGS (the civil registry office), or at the “Wedding Palace” (a pleasantly decorated hall, much more cheerful than a coldly bureaucratic agency). Weddings combined festivities and formalities (stamping the date of their marriage into the bride and groom’s passports). Soviet society saw people who didn’t care about having “legally recognized” families as deviants, because they questioned the role of the State in their private lives. This discrimination hit single women the hardest, of course.

We don’t have sex

"We don’t have sex.... and we are totally against it” a Soviet woman speaking on a TV show on July 17, 1986, filmed simultaneously in studios in Leningrad and Boston.

country: Soviet Union / year:

"We don’t have sex.... and we are totally against it” a Soviet woman speaking on a TV show on July 17, 1986, filmed simultaneously in studios in Leningrad and Boston. During the show – one of the first public signs of East-West détente – an American woman mentioned the incessant references to sex on American TV and asked if it was the same in the Soviet Union. The Soviet woman’s reply, expressing the taboo on sex in the USSR, became a cult phrase. It wasn’t until much later that it became known that half of what she had said had been left on the floor of the editing room. Her full answer had in fact been, “There is no sex in the USSR... there is only love."

AIDS – a “plague from the West"?

For many years, the USSR thought it was protected from the West and its "plagues," including AIDS, which mostly concerned the "high-risk homosexual population.

country: Soviet Union / year:

For many years, the USSR thought it was protected from the West and its "plagues," including AIDS, which mostly concerned the "high-risk homosexual population.” This type of terminology was also used by East German AIDS expert. As both homosexuality and drug use were forbidden in the USSR, the country believed it was safe from AIDS. When 300 cases of HIV-positivity were discovered in children in the cities of Volgograd, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don in 1987, it unleashed a shock wave amongst government officials, who tried to put into place a system of mandatory universal testing. In Rumania, where AIDS was even more taboo than in the USSR, more than 7,000 children were infected through untested blood transfusions and unsterilized medical equipment.

Soviet condom wrapper

Condoms (neither colorful nor whimsical), were hard to find in State-run pharmacies.

country: Soviet Union / year:

Condoms (neither colorful nor whimsical), were hard to find in State-run pharmacies. They were known as "product No. 2," because the same factory that made them also made latex gas masks, i.e. “Product No. 1.” The Pill was also both hard to obtain and costly. Reintroduced in 1957 (well before many Western countries), legal abortion in a hospital setting was thus the most common form of "contraception" in both the USSR and many other Eastern-bloc countries, including Catholic Poland.

The Rumanian anti-abortion law

Rumanian pro-natalist policy

country: People’s Republic of Romania / year:

Obsessed with the idea of increasing the Rumanian population, the “Conducator,” Nicolae Ceaușescu, launched a stringent pro-natalist policy, banning both abortion and contraception in 1966 via decree 770, which also imposed strict restrictions on divorce. Childless couples had to pay extra taxes. Worse, village doctors were held responsible if a child died before he or she was a year old. The population did indeed increase in these circumstances, but the price to pay was that thousands of children were abandoned by families unable to provide for their needs, and placed in poorly managed government-run orphanages with high infant mortality due to chronic shortages of care and medication.