Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 3, March 27, 2000


Book Review

Eros and Pornography in Russian Culture.

Edited by Marcus C. Levitt and Andrei L. Toporkov.
In the Series “Russkaia potaennaia literatura.” Ladomir Publishers, Moscow, 1999.
700 pages; 39 color illustrations, 165 b/w illustrations. ISBN 5-86218-177-6.
$25 (plus $3 postage and handling and taxes if applicable). Hard cover.

Reviewed by Annette Fuglsang Owens, MD PhD

  Available from:
  Prof. Marcus C. Levitt
  Department of Slavic Languages
  University of Southern California
  Los Angeles, CA 90089-4353

  Thirty-one authors contributed to this volume, which compiles papers originally presented  at the “Conference on Russian Pornography,” held at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in 1998. Editors are Dr. Marcus C. Levitt and Dr. Andrei L.Toporkov. Dr. Levitt is professor of Russian Literature at the University of Southern California, and the author and editor of several books related to Russian literature. He has written many articles on 18th and 19th century Russian literature and is currently working on a book about the visual arts under Catherine the Great. Dr. Andrei L. Toporkov, doctor [PhD] of philology, is a leading researcher at the Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and professor at the Russian State Humanities University.  He specializes in Slavic folklore, ethnography, and the history of Russian literature.  He is the author of the books: "The Origins of Etiquette: Ethnographic Essays” (1990, with A. K. Baiburin), "The Theory of Myth in Russian Literary Scholarship of the 19th Century" (1997), and he has edited a whole series of books.

  The other contributors include professors in Russian and Slavic languages, literature, history, and political science, and librarians from Russia, Europe, and the United States. The wide field of expertise represented by these contributors is reflected in the book, which covers topics from early Russian literature to political and social developments in the former Soviet Union.

Why a book on Russian pornography?
   Since glasnost and the political changes in Russia over the past few years, strict censorship has been replaced with free speech, allowing pornographic literature to appear in public. Not only has contemporary pornography become a new freedom, past Russian erotic literature, hidden away for decades, has been revealed. This volume is part of the series “Russian Forbidden Literature,” shedding light on previously inaccessible literature.

  Several chapters in “Eros and Pornography in Russian Culture” describe the recent pornography boom in Russia and some unsettling developments that may or may not be related. Post communist society has been afflicted with violence, crime and rape, and incidents of syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV/AIDS are on the rise. Communists and nationalists blame demoralizing influences from Europe and America. Russian and Western feminists associate the explosion of Russian pornography with domestic violence, trafficking of women, and the sexual exploitation of Russian women in the workplace.

Changing times
  I have personally witnessed parts of the fall of communism as reflected by the length of the line in front of the Lenin mausoleum at Red Square. In the summer of 1988 the line was endless. Many Russians and a few tourists waited for hours to view the mausoleum. I had come to run the Moscow Peace Marathon, and Western influences were already visible at the time. A Tina Turner sound track greeted us as we ran through Gorky Park, and after the race Westerners passed sneakers on to thankful Russians who had completed the 26 miles bare-footed. Others traded their shoes, jeans, and other parts of their Western  wardrobe in for Rubles. The black currency market was vibrant.

  On a visit five years later, I found the city of Moscow transformed. The line in front of the mausoleum was gone, and I managed a view of Lenin. Russians trading Rubles for Western goods were no longer visible. I exchanged my money legitimately in a Moscow bank now offering exchange rates equal to those available on the street. The classic Russian department store Gum near Red Square had been transformed into a Western style shopping mall with Elizabeth Arden on sale and a well equipped business center, and a few blocks away the world's largest MacDonald attracted locals as well as tourists.

  This time I had arrived in Moscow by Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing, an eventful trip that clearly demonstrated new trends in Russia. Our main excitement was not, as I had initially thought, being stuck in the Mongolian Gobi Dessert in a 24 hour sand storm. The highest excitement began when we finally crossed the Russian border. A spirit of “free trade” befell our train, which was suddenly transformed into a busy marketplace. At every stop Chinese passengers sold women's silk underwear, leather jackets, and other products to cheerful Russians. In turn, locals came on board with champagne and caviar, and Russian prostitutes offered their services to Chinese men. Some of the changes in Russian society over the past decade are now evidenced by the fact that this book exists and by its contents.

  The orientation of the layout would be enhanced by positioning the bi-lingual table of contents at the beginning of the book instead of at the end. English chapters are followed by brief summaries in Russian and vice versa, and all illustrations have captions in Russian with English translations in the back. Unfamiliarity with the Cyrillic alphabet is not a handicap.

  The volume contains numerous never before published illustrations from Russian archives and private collections. Some of the fine black and white illustrations with sexual contents date back to the late 17th Century. Some of the 39 color illustrations by I.S. Efimov (1878 – 1959) are outstanding. These are not hard-core literal pornographic images, but imaginative, striking illustrations.

  The contents of this volume span a wide range of topics, including 1) early erotic and pornographic Russian literature, 2) the history of Russian pornography laws, and 3) contemporary social, political, and literary developments with a focus on sexuality and pornography.

       1) Early erotic and pornographic Russian literature: Like other Western European countries at the time, the Russian state developed a governmental system in the late 18th Century to regulate the distribution of sexually explicit material. By the 19th Century, strict censorship was imposed in Russia, forbidding the publication of a variety of materials deemed to be corrupting to public morals. Even though the circulation of printed sexually explicit material was forbidden, this did not prevent oral transmission of folk tales and incantations.

       The first few chapters of “Eros and Pornography in Russian Culture” describe early Russian Eros, followed by a number of chapters devoted to Catherine the Great who was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, and who's erotic reputation has become a legend. “…all the Empresses of Russia had had lovers, but none raised the number of them so high as Catherine the Second. She changed them every twenty-four hours, or oftener. The position of a lover was a public office: the highest, most lucrative, and withal the most entertaining – at least so long as Catherine retained her beauty – which existed in Russia. The qualifications for the office were a handsome face, a fine figure, and above all great physical vigor…” (Stern, B. 1896 – The Private Life of the Romanoffs, trans. Seth Traill. Washington, DC: National Publishing Company).

       Several chapters highlight erotic components in Russian and Western European literature by Tolstoy, Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Rudolph Erich Raspe (Baron Munchhausen) amongst others. Catherine the Great inspired several of these literary works and was in direct communication with some of the authors.

       2) The history of Russian pornography laws: The chapter “Pornography and the Law” by Paul W. Goldschmidt provides a detailed analysis of Russian legislation with respect to pornography from early tsarian legislation until recent changes in pornography laws over the past decade. This section of the book also deals with political developments with respect to sexual health. Whether the facts that divorce was legalized in 1918 and that the “First All-Union Congress for the Struggle Against Venereal Disease” was held in 1923 are related or not remains questionable. Nevertheless, this was the first time that sex education with lectures on hygiene was implemented on an official and programmatic level. Somewhere along the way sex education got lost, and today apparently only a minority of Russians use contraceptives, probably contributing to the explosion of the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS in Russia.

       3) Pornography in Russia today: The final section of the book, “Pornography in Russia Today,” provides an analysis of various Russian men's magazines and Russian gay porn and several pornographic literary texts from the past two decades. One common denominator throughout these texts is that rape is often described in terms of the woman enjoying being raped. This is also reflected in contemporary Russian humor, to which a whole chapter is devoted. Rape in these texts appears to be an assertion of male sex-rights, and primarily a sexual act, which the assaulted woman encourages. This unsettling presentation clearly has repercussions on many aspects of Russian life.

  Readers interested in previously censored Russian literature, or in learning more about the past and present situation in Russia with regard to pornography, may find this book extremely interesting. I certainly enjoyed reading it, and I consider the illustrations of exceptional quality.