While going about her duties one summer evening in 1955, Tatiana Aleksandrova, a railway guard, noticed two males 'writhing' by the side of the tracks not far from Moscow's Kazan' Station. She sought a policeman and when they returned they found Mikhail Pokrovskii, 47, engaged in sexual intercourse with 16-year-old Sasha Borisov. Both men were found lying on their sides, with Sasha's back to Mikhail, their trousers round their knees. Tatiana testified she saw the older man's penis in the anus of the youth. That night in Moscow's police station No. 68, Pokrovskii and Borisov gave contradictory accounts of themselves.1
From the moment of arrest, the young man began loudly protesting his innocence, claiming he had been 'raped' by Pokrovskii. At the police station, he said he had met the older man at a beer kiosk near the railway, where Pokrovskii sexually propositioned him with an offer of 1 ruble. Borisov told police he walked with the older man along the tracks to a deserted spot. He admitted he allowed himself to be fellated, penetrated anally, and masturbated to orgasm, before being disturbed by Aleksandrova and the policeman. Pokrovskii meanwhile claimed he was merely sitting with the youth when they were arrested. A married man, he had been drinking vodka with two companions when the youth joined them. The lad allegedly offered the drinkers the use of a tumbler in exchange for the redeemable vodka bottle, once they had drained it. The transaction was agreed, the vodka drunk, and Pokrovskii's two drinking buddies then left. Pokrovskii denied any sexual act had been committed.2
Judging the 'truth' of these two conflicting claims from the handwritten, tattered file recording the criminal investigation, trial and appeal, all swiftly concluded within two months of the offense, is virtually impossible.3 Yet in many details, this obscure case neatly encapsulates the experience of men who sought sexual contact with other males in Moscow from the seventeenth century to the present day. Men's sexual misconduct was frequently associated with the consumption of alcohol, and, indeed, vodka provided not only an opportunity to socialize, but an excuse for whatever misdeeds might ensue. Sexual relations between males were also inflected by social hierarchies. Age, relative strength, wealth or command of resources determined the forms of exchange which accompanied sexual intercourse (if not always who performed insertive or receptive roles). The vexed question of where Muscovites of all sexual proclivities were able to make love is also laconically evident in this sodomy trial. None of the authorities associated with the case was surprised by the commission of sexual acts out of doors, in an ostensibly public place. As we shall see, for a significant proportion of the city's population, heterosexual as well as homosexual, public sex was a familiar experience. In tsarist Moscow private space for the poor had always been at a premium, while in the Soviet era, domestic space for all was squeezed by unprecedented pressures. In such conditions, Muscovites were accustomed to appropriating public spaces, and constructing privacy in them through various devices. The city's gay male subculture today, characterized by alcohol abuse, great social and economic disparities, and a habit of discreet public contact, is not the result of a sudden change of regime in 1991, although this circumstance certainly has contributed much. (Excellent introductions to Russia's gay male culture in English are Tuller 1996 and Moss (ed.) 1996.) It is rather the product of several centuries of evolution and, as might be expected, it reflects the history of Moscow's society and culture at large.
1 The case of Pokrovskii and Borisov is located in Tsentral'nyi munitsipal'nyi arkhiv Moskvy (TsMAM), Moskovskii narodnyi sud, fond 1919, (Zheleznodorozhnyi raion), opis' 1, delo 238. All names in criminal cases cited from TsMAM have been altered.
2 Ibid., 11: 9-12, 45.
3 The people's court sentenced Pokrovskii to five years imprisonment for aggravated sodomy (i.e. with the use of force). On appeal, his defense lawyer had the crime requalified as consensual sodomy by convincing a higher court that no force had been proven, but the court refused a shorter penalty. No action was taken against Borisov despite the implied shift from victim to consenting partner; ibid., 11. 46, 53-4.