Alexei Lalo, Nikolai Schitov

Sexualities in Belarus: Some Major Patterns of Sexual

Behavior in Society and Their Cultural Background

Paper presented at the International Social Science Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia, June 12-16, 2001

The Authors
Gender Roles and Images
Sexualities and "Witch-Hunts"
Post-Soviet Sexual Discourses and Western Influences
Issues of Domestic Violence. Controversial Role of Physicians
Sex-Related Prejudices. Sex Crimes. The Orthodox Church and Homophobia

Alexei Lalo (born 1971) is a senior instructor of cultural studies and American studies at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk. He has taught at EHU, one of the first private liberal arts colleges in the ex-USSR, since 1994. He completed a Ph.D. project on contemporary US literature (Thomas Pynchon) which he will be defending in 2002. Mr. Lalo’s research and pedagogic interests include American intellectual history and literature, comparative literature, and cultural studies. He has published one monograph, two book-length translations and about 10 articles and translations in American and Belarusian periodicals. From 1998 to 2000 Alexei Lalo was a visiting scholar at NYU and Columbia University. Postal Adress: 24 Francisk Skaryna Prospekt, Minsk 220030 Belarus, Email:

 Dr. Nikolai Schitov (born 1954) is Associate Professor (docent) of Sociology at the Psychology and Social Work Department, Far Eastern State University, Vladivostok, Russia. He received his M.D. with Honors (1980, Vladivostok State Medical Institute) and Ph.D. (Moscow State University). Schitov’s pedagogic and research interests include sociology of medicine, sociology of deviant behavior, sociology of punishment and sexology. He has published one monograph (on the sociology of punishment) and more than 30 articles. Dr. Schitov has been a visiting scholar at NYU and Albert Ellis Institute in New York City.


In this paper we consider the current status of the issue of sexualities in Belarus (and to a considerable extent in Russia as well) from both a sociological and cultural perspective. As sexualities remain a nearly unstudied area in Belarus, the paper will inevitably be fragmentary and loose-jointed. The authors intend to continue their studies and present a comprehensive text in a book or essay collection format.

Before drawing on some concrete examples and trying to analyze various social and cultural phenomena pertaining to the issue of sexualities, we would like to give a brief overview of the political and social factors providing for gender inequality, deep-seated sexist distrust between men and women, and overall hostility between the sexes and different sexualities in the Republic of Belarus. We do not aim to argue that there are no successful and mutually respectful interactions between the sexes in Belarus, or that everybody here is necessarily a sexist, homophobe and/or «sexophobe». Rather, we would like to express our concern with the distorting and silencing of sex-related discourses in this culture and society. Unfortunately, sexual matters are either bashfully giggled about, spoken of elliptically and in half-words, or derided in a vulgar and bawdy way of popular jokes usually retold by males in the company of other males. While we may, at some points, be overstating our case in this essay, our goal is to highlight the problems that are seldom discussed openly and non-hypocritically.

Belarus is a typical post-Soviet country with a dubious national identity[1] and little appreciation of democratic values (a so-called «illiberal democracy»). The majority of the population is incapable of rationally interpreting the often destructive policies of the «charismatic» political leader currently in power (Mr. Sasha Lukashenko). In our point of view, authoritarianism and lack of freedom of expression entail a distortion of sexual discourse in society. This discourse has largely become part of a state-inspired «witch hunt», which was dramatically escalated on the eve of the presidential election (fall 2001): according to both «popular wisdom» and governmental propaganda, THE major enemy of the Belarusian people is, as ever, «American imperialism». Ironically, the most important «weapons» deemed to be used against the Belarusian people by the Americans are, of course, prostitutes, homosexuals, pornography, and sexuality as such[2].

Unfortunately, the historical inclination toward xenophobia and the urge to locate external enemies - to be held responsible for our internal problems - are, in our judgment, characteristic of not only Belarusians, but all East Slavic peoples (Ukrainians and especially Russians). The politicians in power are therefore interested in maintaining gender inequality and sexual hostility as a tool for reinforcing their authority and charisma. This is precisely why there is no state policy and sufficient legislative measures for confronting sexual discrimination in Belarus. It is our major argument that the nourishment of sexism and gender stereotypes and biases is part of the strategic policy-making in most countries of the former Soviet Union.

A good example of this joint effort to discredit any healthy developments in the sphere of sexual relations is the joint activities of the liaison between the Orthodox Church and the State. The church has, in the last decade, become a genuine ideological substitute to the communist party doctrine of the ex-USSR in that it has fully merged with the state and become responsible for «ideological work» both in Russia and Belarus. We are going to touch upon the reactionary stance of the church regarding homosexuality later as it is crucial to point out its immersion in an anti-western hysteria and anti-sexual discourses typical of almost all the New Independent States (NIS).

 Gender Roles and Images

It must be pointed out that Belarusian demographic trends were seriously impacted by World War Two, during which a significant part of the population perished (about one-fourth). Most of the victims were men. In the pre-war and first post-war years there occurred a constellation of numerous factors that led to a decrease in the male population (Stalinist repression, the victims of which were for the most part men; the war, in which mainly younger men died), which brought about an unbalanced sex ratio (in 1959, 14 years after the war, women constituted 56% of the populace – see Table 1). It was under these conditions that a vehement competition for men started among Belarusian women. Most of those who «came home alive» were either invalids or alcoholics. Therefore, as an aftermath, Belarusian women were prone to obsess in taking care of their looks. In trying to ameliorate their appearances they went as far as they could afford and did so in the accordance with the existent ideal of «the attractive woman». For instance, they have been known for their immoderate use of «loud» cosmetics and they dress up in provocative attire at work and for many other seemingly «irrelevant» occasions[3]. This «obsession» could be related to the fact that the probability of not finding a sex partner or the difficulty of finding a «father for one’s children» was very high. The USSR produced mainly low-quality makeup and women started to resemble easy-going «quick lays» (which is certainly not true of most of them). This culturally constructed notion of «sex appeal» and «accessibility» of Russian (and Belarusian) women has been noticed and thoroughly mythologized by foreign visitors ever since the notorious youth festivals in Moscow in the late 1950’s. Their «sexiness» is related to the fact that they are afraid of, and preoccupied with, the prospect of remaining unmarried for a longer time than is allowed by traditional values and «popular wisdom» (even doctors discouraged women over 35 from bearing children in ex-USSR and thus the assumed «ideal» age for getting married was the early twenties). The urge to obtain a “full-time” male partner was aggravated by the fact that the state provided virtually no support for single mothers.

An American investigator of Russian-American couples wrote: «Since competition for available men is fierce, the tactics for attracting one, such as good grooming and taste in clothes, are extremely important. A Russian woman journalist was surprised at how American feminists disdained Russian women who enjoyed dressing up for men».[4]

Today the male mortality rate is so high that in some areas of Russia and Belarus by the age of 40 there are 10 women for every 9 men, or less. Despite a seeming improvement in the sex ratio in some age cohorts, the situation is aggravated by the fact that alcoholism has considerably increased in the male population. Currently, the consumption of beer by the younger generations has grown drastically, in part thanks to TV commercials. Therefore a significant percentage of men drop out of “marriage competition” due to their alcoholism.

We think that this leads to a significant advantage for men in terms of “dyadic power” and thus intensifies unequal conditions between the genders: research done by M. Guttentag and P. Second demonstrated that enhancing the dyadic power of men has consequences for gender inequality[5]. In other words, there are two major reasons for male hegemony in society. On the one hand, men are numerically fewer than women (which infers that men have a larger choice of marital and adultery partners). On the other, men possess political power and use it for their own ends. The sex that becomes a «scarce resource» gains a considerable upper hand. The inequality in dyadic power is balanced by “structural power”, i.e. the ability to effectively form political institutions. In Europe of 17-18th centuries, when there were fewer women than men (as was also the case with ancient Athens) men surmounted their weak dyadic power by using efficient political institutions of male superiority. Western feminism today may be seen as a reaction of women to a reduction in their dyadic power (there are more women than men in Western societies now). Hence, one would suggest, their critique of «compulsive heterosexuality», their struggle against the «beauty myth», and the like: it is obvious that “compulsive heterosexuality” urges one to look for a partner of the opposite sex, while the “beauty myth” reduces the value of an average woman.

Western women aspire to create superiority (or, at least, equality) in structural power and rid men of an opportunity to use the principle of «lesser interest» (a party less interested in an ongoing relationship possesses more power). In the ex-USSR countries we have no skills and habits for creating lobbying groups in parliaments and governments, which would not be backed by industrial or agricultural «leaders» or the so-called «oligarchs» (most NIS countries have, for instance, agrarian or gas and oil lobbies in their respective parliaments), which is why women have found themselves in an absolutely disadvantaged position. They are confronted with a striking imbalance in dyadic power and total absence of structural power—men are such a rare resource that the very fact of having a «hubby» or a stable «mate» is valued.

As seen from Table 1, in 1999 women constituted 53.4% of the populace in Belarus or 5,458,000 people. This leads to a very significant advantage in dyadic power for men. For instance, in the age range between 30 and 50 there are almost 1,100 women per 1000 men in Belarus.

Women have very little percentage of participation in all the three major branches of power (executive, legislative, and judicial). For instance, in 1996 their percentage in government was 2.6% in Russia and 6.6% in Belarus, which is considerably lower than in most Central and West European countries[6].

One would recall that in the ex-USSR many women traditionally always performed men’s work (tractor drivers, miners, railroad monitors, etc.), which is why the feminist discourse of women’s «right to men’s work» might appear absolutely alien to them. 56.9% of unskilled manual laborers at the Minsk tractor plant in 1989 were women but they only made up 1.2% of the assembly line operators and 2.3% of machinery adjusters.[7]

According to our observations, unlike their western emancipated peers, many Belarusian women would like to have a chance NOT to work (this circumstance would be considered as a «culture lag» by some feminists). As L. Visson wrote, «The writer Tatyana Tolstaya commented that while American feminists were fighting for the right to work in coal mines, Russian woman were fighting not to do so».[8]

Many women in the NIS are thus simply frightened or appalled by feminist slogans. If an ordinary Belarusian woman today does not take care of her looks, she would deprive herself of any chances to get started and/or settled in life[9]. It is important to note that average monthly income in both Russia and Belarus ranges between $70-80, whereas in neighboring Poland it is almost 10 times higher. We would argue that the demographic and economic parameters and variables do not create any niches for feminist discourses in Belarus (in any event, those discourses are mainly represented by radical feminism, which, as suggested above, seems totally inappropriate to most Belarusian or Russian women).

We have found a very characteristic and apt (although somewhat «darkly humorous») description of sexual differences between men and women in a Belarusian opposition newspaper Narodnaya volya. The journalist Andrei Syarzhan shares his impressions of visiting a Belarusian village and watching a crowd of «muzhiks» and «babas» (slang terms for men and women) on their way back home from farm work:

All the women were powerful, wide boned, as they say, quadrangular. As for the men they were, accordingly—every single one of them—thin, skinny, hollow-cheeked and wasted.

They were a living illustration of our twisted history. In this history the best, strongest, most lively and capable men were destroyed first of all, either in wars, or in the camps, if there was no war at that point. The best women were left alone. No wonder they had to bear children (one cannot go against nature) not from the best men but from the available ones. The latter were skinny and juiceless. Who could have been borne of this?

Exactly the ones who have elected this sort of life and this President [the author means Mr. Sasha Lukashenko – A.L., N.S.][10]


Since any efficient policy requires understanding possible limits of acceptability of this or that ideology, we would like to provide a number of feminist discourse samples that are unacceptable for the current condition of Belarusian society, which are provided by some chapters of the aforementioned Report on Women published by the United Nations in 1997. Several sections are absolutely «radical»: for instance, in a chapter on the causes of sexual violence the authors define all «mercenary sexual activities» (i.e. prostitution and, maybe, marriages of convenience?) as «voluntary rape». There is no corresponding legal term, and this is, it seems to us, a product of an exaggerated imagination that might prove difficult to translate to Belarusian women who increasingly tend to treat themselves as merchandise (which is a desperate sign, as there are not too many «customers» for this latent prostitution anyway). If we adopt this logic, we may eventually conclude that any penetration of the penis into the vagina is a form of rape and end up following Leo Tolstoy’s logic and taking to «tolstovstvo» (i.e. thinking and acting like Tolstoy) in sexual matters[11]. In a situation when a significant part of male populace suffers from chronic alcoholic intoxication and is sexually inactive, this discourse looks simply like a thinly veiled sneer to the majority of Belarusian and Russian women. This is a frightening inadequacy that may be described by some as a manifestation of «cultural imperialism».

 Sexualities and "Witch-Hunts"

As we have hinted at the beginning, an important indirect impact upon sexualities in Belarus has been produced by President Lukashenko and his team’s urge to enhance social solidarity, especially on the eve of the September 2001 election campaign. At that point the aspiration to strengthen social solidarity was accompanied by a more rigid drawing of the arbitrary «moral boundaries» within society (the term belongs to Kai Erikson).

Erikson argues that a society has not only geographical boundaries (occupies a certain physical territory) but also occupies a cultural territory (a moral space). These moral boundaries infer that societal members are subjected to some central moral values providing an individual with a certain life trajectory and thus render his/her life meaningful (in fact, these secure a justification of his/her existence in this world). Any violation of these moral boundaries will be interpreted as a threat to the society’s moral integrity. Erikson claims that:

 A human community can be said to maintain boundaries, then, in the sense that its members tend to confine themselves to a particular radius of activity and to regard any conduct which drifts outside that radius as somehow inappropriate or immoral.[12]

 The rituals of punishment, in which the deviant is confronted by the community’s wrath, serve as means for preserving the boundaries, via drawing the line between morality and immorality[13].

It is this line-drawing that usually marks the emergence of a new «witch hunt». The following theoretical scheme is at work here: boundaries – solidarity – struggle for unity within the «party of power» – witch-hunt. This scheme needs to be briefly explicated.

Bergesen developed the concept of moral boundaries via adding a notion of «political boundaries». While Durkheim and Erikson deem a crime to be an attack on moral boundaries of society, in his analysis of a «witch hunt» Bergesen introduces two supplementary points.

1.      He claims that the attacked boundaries are not only of a moral but also of a political character.

2.      The boundaries constitute the community’s identity not only as a cultural entity but also as a political one, viz. that of a nation-state.[14]

Hence in the period of a «crisis of political and moral boundaries» the more politicized a given society is, the more ritually fabricated crimes will be disclosed in an increasing amount of fields of social life, including even those that are not immediately relevant to the state’s real interests. In our opinion, such a crisis has been obviously manifest in Belarus lately. If we take the ideas of Erikson and Bergesen seriously, we will see that certain political pressure upon sexual minorities and different «sexual reformers» is obviously inevitable. Feminism will certainly be (and has been already) proclaimed a western «agent of influence». This sort of attack has so far been curbed or moderated by Russian «supervisors» of the Belarusian authorities (however hypocritically, Russia is much more interested in projecting an image of success and democracy on the West than Belarus, its most faithful ally). Once Russian relationships with the West have deteriorated, Belarusian authorities will feel free to embark upon a real, big-time witch-hunt.

As it was hinted above, in this scheme sexual minorities (homosexuals and lesbians) and all sorts of sexual deviants (prostitutes, consumers of pornography, etc.) begin to be treated as political opponents and thus severely persecuted. The populace readily supports this scheme of political developments as due to the above-mentioned absence of free self-expression, homosexuals, prostitutes and other deviant groups are treated as both «perverted», «insane» and, last but not least, «socially dangerous». It is common for the «official» Belarusian TV reporters, for instance, to deliberately mention homosexuals and lesbians as participants at anti-government rallies and protests in Minsk. When the two major Russian TV channels had to discredit Mr. Grigory Yavlinski, head of a reform-oriented party «Yabloko», during the parliamentary campaign of late 1999, he was repeatedly reported to have taken part in a conference of a Russian gay and lesbian association. The opposition leaders in Belarus and Russia are in this regard not too much unlike their opponents in power: for example, they are in the habit of calling Mr. Lukashenko and his Kremlin allies «integrasts», which is, of course, vaguely reminiscent of «pederasts» (a pun on their adherence to Belarus-Russia integration and their assumed pederasty).

The Orthodox Church seems prepared and fully equipped for an attack on sexual minorities. Having, perhaps, no empirical evidence that gays are really going to burn in hell in the afterlife, they would like to create a kind of hell for them in this world. Several years ago one high-rank Belarusian church official suggested at a university-based conference that gays should undergo compulsory medical treatment with the use of electroshock. This medieval torture is euphemistically labeled «therapy» by the ardent practitioners of heterosexual lifestyles cloaked in cassocks.

 Post-Soviet Sexual Discourses and Western Influences

In the absence of an articulate program against sexual discrimination, the state is meanwhile eagerly promoting «quasi-biological» assumptions about sex and gender roles (e.g., «all men are, or should be, soldiers and all women are, or should be, mothers»). This imposition of traditional gender stereotypes is evident not only in the political rhetoric («be a man», «you must be manly», «the manhood/manliness of the Russian people», etc.) but also in the secondary school education.

Apart from imposing the naive quasi-biological assumptions about gender roles, Belarusian educators have lately taken to silencing sexual matters altogether: in the current textbooks for a 3-year-long high school course «Man and Society» the word «sex» is simply not mentioned: the chapter on «moral foundations of love and family» is absolutely «sterile». At the same time, there is a lot of pompous and shallow rhetoric about the supposed differences between male and female «familial duty»: women must be submissive, humble, feminine, are unable to survive without relying on their husbands, etc.; men should be ready for «self-sacrifice», must understand women’s «special role in maintaining mankind» and other hypocritical banalities that mean absolutely nothing to a contemporary teenager who oftentimes has full access to pornography and sexual violence on the Internet and is immune to the moralistic slant of his school teachers.[15]

It appears relevant to say a few words at this point about the very unfortunate impotence and total failure of Western-trained radical feminists to ameliorate the gender-related discourses in Belarusian society, i.e. to politicize those via rendering them attractive to a certain part of the population (at least, part of the intellectual elite). In the early 2001 one of us happened to see a Belarusian TV talk-show devoted to the role of women in Belarusian society. It was rather disappointing to watch a renowned Belarusian academic feminist and her female student totally «suppressed» by both the hosts and the audience, as they were utterly unable to relate their ideas to their interlocutors. They could not articulate anything convincing in terms of a counter-argument for the audience’s traditionalist belief in «woman’s predestination» and other banalities, which are usually so easily refuted by their western feminist colleagues. When the discussion turned to the controversial question of using female images in advertising industry and TV commercials, the feminist and her colleague provoked merry laughter from the audience when they passionately argued that women would not like and do not need men’s attention at all. From our perspective, this story reveals not only a «culture lag» (lack of cultural and communicative sophistication—they can not persuade their audience because they are out of touch with the methods and styles of discourse of most people although they could be convincing—this is a problem in academia in general and more acutely problematic for radical feminists) but also unfeasibility and even futility of some radical feminist discourses in present-day Belarus. We may recall at this point that in the West there exist a variety of types and versions of feminism, while radical feminists have (or, rather, used to have) certain influence only within the fences of the academy. Interestingly, those American researchers who are well acquainted with Russian culture understand this well:

 Despite the changes wrought by glasnost, Russian women do not accept the feminist notion of total equality between the sexes or the need for women to do everything men do. «In Russian, the word feministka is a pejorative, meaning a bossy man-hater», commented Elena Khanga[16].

 There can be different answers as to why local «feminists» insist on using the term. Why do they not use a different approach and call themselves something else, using a more persuasive discourse to advocate political, social, economic, and cultural equality without simply erasing gender differences, which are culturally necessary such as sex appeal, heterosexual coitus («penetration»), etc.? We wonder what they gain by this imitative discourse of radical feminism (which is, we must repeat, certainly outdated and no longer influential in the West). Does it aid them in acquiring a status of victims, and stigma in a moral economy, defining them as martyrs to a cause? Or does this discourse give them access to feminist funding agencies in the West, or make them look more academic and sophisticated within universities despite their ineffectiveness to generate political changes in society?[17]

A similar case is the situation surrounding pornography and prostitution. It is crucial that Westerners and western-trained radicals realize that for many people in ex-USSR those are symbols of democracy and freedom of expression (previously, only 10 odd years ago, suppressed and persecuted by the authorities). Even Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita was quite recently considered to be pornographic: in the late 1980’s (!) in Moscow a young man was brought to court and convicted of disseminating pornography simply because he made a photocopy of the book[18]. This is the reason why we think that opponents of pornography are inevitably siding with petty dictators, populists and plutocrats currently in power both in Russia (not just in the Kremlin but elsewhere, at the regional level) and Belarus. Minsk is a good example of a city where one cannot buy pornographic products, either openly in retail stores or «under the counter». At the same time Minsk is also a place where one does not have an independent TV channel or a single decent magazine or newspaper promoting democratic values.

In addition, the recent experience of Canada has demonstrated that suppression of pornography (inspired by the local feminists headed by Andrea Dworkin) brings about and enhances homophobia in the given society. In many cases some absolutely «innocent» gay and lesbian publications are treated and even labeled as pornographic and/or erotic simply because homosexual relationships are usually deemed to be «dirty», «unhealthy», etc. Most recent Belarusian history tells a similar story: in the late 2000 the only existing Belarusian gay periodical «Forum Lambda», an official organ of the Belarusian gay and lesbian association, was almost closed by the authorities at the Ministry of Justice who claimed that the journal was explicitly erotic (instead of being merely «culturological» as it is licensed to be – it is ironic that the two parties’ understanding of «culture» is diametrically opposed). What is curious here is not, of course, an obvious connection between homosexuality and pornography in the ill-educated mind of a Ministry official but the fact that the hypocritical anti-pornographic stance – however unintentionally – results in aggravating the condition of gays in a country where their voices are increasingly silenced and suppressed anyhow (a high-level Belarusian government official Mr. Zametalin is reported to have argued that there are virtually NO gays in Belarus and we therefore do not have to deal with this issue. This is not true because after Alfred Kinsey’s report and subsequent research was conducted and published it is considered to be a plain fact that about 4% of men in any culture or society are fully homosexual.)[19]

It is unfortunate that some western-funded programs in Belarus are reportedly acting in a vein similar to the government’s efforts. Here is an excerpt from a recent newsletter disseminated by the Belarusian association for gays and lesbians:


[…] At the same time the administration of Belarusian affiliate of International Research & Exchanges Board- IREX suggests that the Forum Lambda Review site should find another web-hosting within the next 2 weeks and change its e-mail address «IREX has reviewed its policy as to the hosting of Belarusian mass-media and stopped the hosting of public organizations» – stated in letter of Director of IREX Technical Support Service Dmitry Egipko, forwarded to us.


Unofficially, a reliable source in IREX informs us that administration was made decision about rejecting in web-hosting and e-mail service under pressure from the Belarusian government. It’s connected with the decree #8 of Belarusian President Lukashenko, which limits the financing of any social or other events from foreign sources. The IREX administration also thinks that our site contains pornography.[20]


These examples help us understand that Western radical discourses on gender and sexuality are not always appropriate and well-adapted to our realities, especially when used uncritically. It is observable that some Russian and Belarusian gay and lesbian groups (by no means all of them though!) have been growing less and less interested in turning themselves into a political force and standing up for their rights: rather, they feel that they would prefer to be left alone by society and quietly live without any political involvement (their message to society could be, perhaps, expressed in the following way: «Please leave us alone and we will quietly make love the way we want»). Needless to say, this approach is not going to work in Belarusian or Russian society, or elsewhere. In this we disagree with Professor Igor Kon who in his fine account of gay and lesbian culture in Russia («Lunny svet na zare») argues that the Western experience of gay and lesbian struggle for their rights, their political and social «visibility» and involvement in lobbying activities is irrelevant to Russian gays and lesbians who prone a more «intimate» and less «open» sexual culture[21]. As long as gays remain «invisible» and without political influence, they will be easily victimized and scape-goated for various societal problems and misfortunes, especially, as we argued above, in periods of «enhancing solidarity» on the part of the authorities. Unlike Professor Kon, Laurie Essig, an American researcher of Russian descent (she has a good command of the Russian language), discovered a rather intense political activism of gays in Russia, which was represented by a wide spectrum of political orientations – from pro-Western liberalism to national-socialism.[22]

Issues of Domestic Violence. Controversial Role of Physicians

As it has already been argued, in Belarus there is no state policy of intervention into the problems of sex-related domestic violence (appropriate regulations for the militia, state-employed social workers who would deal with these issues, and any programs for domestic violence prevention simply do not exist). One of us has once witnessed a militia patrol officer encouraging a tipsy husband to be «tougher» on his wife who was trying to stop her bleeding nose (the alarmed neighbors must have called the militia) and then consoling the wife with arguments like «he probably loves you very much if he hits you that bad» and the like. Furthermore, several militia officers we have interviewed are convinced that a woman can actually «cause» or «provoke» a rapist’s assault via openly «promiscuous» behavior, «loud» makeup colors, and «frank» clothes. It is conspicuous and symptomatic that certain aspects of victimology are very popular with intellectuals in humanities, psychologists and culture scholars in post-Soviet countries, including a belief that there exist certain special types of people – in this case, special women – who are apt to «provoke» violence. One would be drawn to a blasphemous conclusion that some women are to blame for rapes as well: if they dressed and behaved asexually (whatever is usually meant by this), they would be «left alone».

In the UN Report on Belarusian Women published in 1996 it is claimed that:

One of the reasons leading to violence is society’s tolerance. The results of the same 1996 survey show that women are not at all tolerant when it comes to violence. They are more often against violence in the home than men. The majority of women (68.0%) and 50.0% of men consider violence at home to be inadmissible. There are half as many women who consider the use of violence at home to be admissible as there are men (14.0% and 26.0% respectively). These men and women often believe in physical force when bringing up children.

Men also permit the use of physical force against women (1 in 4, or 1 in 5 men, and 22.0% with no particular opinion). It is worth noting that 12% of Belarusian women also consider it permissible for a man to use physical violence against her in certain situations.[23]

Usually the law-enforcement authorities are the ones who are scape-goated for not interfering with domestic violence (this is also the case with the just quoted UN Report). They are denounced for inaction, indifference and «double standards»: from both the common sense and legal perspectives it does not matter where and by whom a person is attacked and injured. The US criminologist D. Black discovered the following correlation: the interference of the police is inversely proportional to the degree of kinship between the assailant and the victim.[24] In other words, the police are much more willing to intervene into cases of violence between total strangers. In some states of the US the special legal regulations compelling a police officer to instantly arrest a domestic assailant have been adopted. In Belarus everything seems to be still taking «the natural path of things», as some Russian-language people like to phrase it.

Alan Horwitz thinks that victims of low status (Belarusian and Russian women, of course, belong to this category) are coerced to endure battering, rapes, mental violence (direct verbal insults and abusive language), the reason being that an effective response of the law-enforcement authorities is hardly probable. This mode of behavior is called «inaction» (Horwitz). He argues that this endurance (or tolerance) leads to a shift of aggression:

Yet it is not likely that people can endure structured patterns of victimization over long periods of time without taking some sort of remedial action. The quiescence of morality in the face of victimization of low-status people may be a powerful fomenter of lasting, albeit unexpressed, injustice and aggressive feelings. Forced tolerance may lead victimized in such situations to displace hostility toward superiors onto themselves through psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or guilt or onto minorities such as witches, Jews, blacks. Such symptoms everywhere predominate parties who are dependents in hierarchical relationships.[25]


This explains, among other things, the increasing homophobia of East Slavic women who feel that homosexuals will «corrupt» their children (i.e., seduce and turn them into homosexuals).

Now let us return to the issues of sexual and domestic violence. At a Civic Education Project student conference in Kharkiv in the spring of 2001, one of us spoke with a young social worker from a family violence crisis center in Saratov, Russia. Although she knew what a "domestic rape" is, she was very surprised that one would be referring to such a problem of secondary importance. She said that her center was mainly «dealing» with cut-off fingers, axed skulls and mutilated genitals and had never had the luxury to even think about whether these people (husbands, wives, relatives, concubines, etc.) rape each other or not before (or after) getting to physical violence. It is obvious that (as already suggested above) some Western discourses and stances in this area are somewhat «untimely» and, in our view, oftentimes inapplicable to the Russian or Belarusian economic and social realities.

An important aspect of the domestic violence problem in Belarus (and elsewhere in the NIS) is that physicians (viz. «traumatologists») are absolutely indifferent to the existence of this problem, although they are legally required to report to the militia all instances of violence (in reality they almost never do so, unless vehemently compelled by the patient or if the injury is really hazardous to the patient’s life[26]). We have interviewed several leading traumatologists in Minsk, including Dr. Ye. Beloyenko, Director, Belarusian Research Institute for Traumatology and Orthopedics, an official who is expected to be at the forefront of all innovations and progressive developments in his field. The latter informant claimed that he «does not care about what happened to his patient», that it is «none of his business whether a person fell down from a stairway or got battered by someone». Only in case he is officially asked to do so by a court will Dr. Beloyenko conduct an expertise and try to disclose the cause of his patient’s trauma. In all other instances he is prepared «not to intervene into irrelevant issues» and to cooperate with his patient on making up imaginary explanations (and not necessarily credible ones): «I have fallen down from a chair and broken my jaw and nose» or «I have cut myself across the face with a kitchen knife». There do exist special traumatic commissions but they are extremely idle and uninterested in helping the victims.

Aiming to investigate the attitudes of various categories of people to family violence, we have conducted a sample survey of four social institutions dealing with the issue of family violence located in the city of Vladivostok, Russia: education, medical care, law enforcement agencies, and social work services. Our initial hypothesis was that the doctors are unwilling to assume any serious responsibility for resolving the problem of family violence. It is quite obvious that the results thus gained would be analogous to the overall Belarusian and Russian realities.

128 respondents («experts») took part in the survey, 110 of whom were interviewed via a questionnaire, whereas 18 «experts» responded to the questions orally. The four categories of «experts» were distributed in the following way: 21% represented the medical profession (traumatologists, neurosurgeons, ophthalmologists, sexopathologists, pediatricians, surgeons, and court medical experts); 26% were related to law enforcement agencies (militia/police officers, judges, prosecutors, and court psychologists); 28% were education workers (specialists in the rights of children under guardianship, school psychologists and social pedagogical workers) and the final 25% represented social work (volunteer workers for the «hot line», lawyers, psychologists, and social workers employed in municipal psychological centers, social services and NGOs). The interviews involved 17% experts of law enforcement agencies (1 judge, 1 prosecutor, and 1 court psychologist); 11% representatives of educational sphere (1 child guardianship specialist and 1 school psychologist); 55% (10 persons) representatives of social work structures; 17% (1 sexopathologist and 1 neurosurgeon, and 1 traumatologist) of medical profession.

Our primary hypothesis was that due to the character of their professional activity the physicians would manifest the least interest in the family violence issues and little readiness to deal with this problem efficiently compared to the other categories.

To verify this, the respondents were offered to prioritize (from 1 to 5) the importance of the following entities in handling the problem of family violence: social work services, mass media and education sphere, medical sphere, militia, courts and prosecutor’s offices.

The results showed that the respondents from medical institutions did not deem themselves responsible for resolving this problem as almost none put himself or herself on the top. And no other category put medical workers on the top either.

In the process of analyzing the respondents’ answers to this question we were interested in what role they attributed to their own service or institution in resolving the problem of family violence. Most medical workers (66%) ascribed the leading role to social work and militia (20%); mass media, education, courts, and prosecutor’s received 7% each. As regards the representatives of law enforcement agencies, 14% of them gave priority to militia, courts and prosecutor’s office, which actually comprise the system of law enforcement. According to most of them (60%), social work services are the most important institution for resolving domestic violence issues. 27% of the law enforcement «experts» ascribed the leading role to mass media and education sphere. It is crucial to note that only 18% of education system respondents quoted mass media and education sphere on top of the list, while 47% argued for the leading role of social work services. Finally, the majority of the social service workers themselves (62%) deemed themselves responsible for resolving the given problem. The other part of the sample (38%) quoted mass media and education.

As a result of analyzing the acquired data, it is possible to conclude that our initial hypothesis that the physicians are unwilling to actively help the victims of family violence has been confirmed.

In other words, the doctors and other medical workers are not willing to help unveil the real causes of domestic violence and have to be denounced for inaction along with the law enforcement authorities. This fact demythologizes the medical profession in the ex-USSR, traditionally hailed as the «most humane» or «humanistic» profession in the world. A truly alarming circumstance is that physicians do not feel willing even to discuss this issue, to think about it as they deem the problem of domestic violence to be totally out of their competence and concern. For the sake of comparison let us notice that it was the physician who was the first to pay attention to the phenomenon of domestic violence.

In 1962 an American child roentgenologist named Dr. Henry Kempe published his findings about some multiple traumas of children, which could not be a result of an accident. Those traumas were numerous bone fractures, dislocations, etc. He observed those while studying roentgenograms of injured children. This is how the «battered child syndrome» was discovered[27].

After Kempe’s publication the legislation of almost all the developed countries was altered. Physicians were made responsible for reporting all «suspicious» cases. At first those were mainly child abuse, later – spousal violence. Kempe launched a brilliant career upon this publication.

 Sex-Related Prejudices. Sex Crimes. The Orthodox Church and Homophobia

So, as we see it, Belarusian doctors are both self-confidently hypocritical and cynically indifferent. Furthermore, it must be once and for all emphasized that in the ex-USSR the physicians do have «a finger in the pie» as to the mentioned distortion of sexual discourse in society. Let us cite two vivid examples.

The doctors are oftentimes responsible for spreading false assumptions about sex hygiene and sexuality in general. For instance, in a recently published newsletter of a Belarusian health institution called the Research Institute for Motherhood and Childhood (located at one of the major Minsk clinics) it is claimed that the risk of uterus cancer is increased 10 times for those women who have had more than 6 (probably, some magic or mystical number) sex partners and if sexual intercourse was started at the age of under 15. The population is expected to take this «delirium» seriously and be guided by it in their everyday life. In our judgment, this could result in growing sexual bashfulness, sexophobia, frustration, and sex-related conflicts.

Another issue is that many physicians are still convinced that homosexuality is a disease (they are usually dubious as to the degree of its curability and a methodology involved in curing it). Needless to say, this ignorant position sides them with the Belarusian Orthodox Church and plutocratic government and contributes to the aforementioned «witch hunt» and homophobic hysteria. An interesting example of Russian high-rank psychiatrists’ and other physicians’ aggressive homophobia is a recent book by Prof. A. Tkachenko, chief sexologist for the Russian Center for Court Psychiatry (sic!), entitled «Sex Perversions-Paraphilias» (Moscow, 1999), wherein the author claims that homosexuality is «alien to human nature» and that the American Psychiatric Association was coerced into excluding homosexuality from the diagnosis list in 1973 by «dirty political machinations». Dr. Tkachenko condemns Russian psychiatrists as well for not recognizing it as a psychiatric disease since 1999.

Any Belarus-focused gender-related field study is jeopardized by the total absence of any meaningful statistical data on family violence and violence in general: only grave crimes are registered (murder, rape, heinous mutilation) and the statistics on those are certainly not gender-sensitive. All we could figure out from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ official statistics was that of murders and rapes (see Table 2) and the fact that, of 68,225 crimes committed in Belarus in 2000, 12,064 were committed by women. This lack of objective information is especially true for rape as most of cases are not reported to the militia (i.e. the police) and thus not registered (among other reasons for that, women are usually condemned for filing a legal suit against the assailant by their neighbors, work associates, even relatives, which exerts an intimidating influence on the victim and prevents her from suing the assailant). To calculate the percentage of these «concealed rapes» is virtually impossible. One would also be led to suppose that there is an extremely high level of «rape latency» (this is a Russian legal term for unreported crimes of this sort) in both Belarus and Russia. In the US there are about 4 registered rapes per one murder[28]. In Russia, however, even in the most «violent» 1994 32,286 murders and 13,958 rapes were registered. The ratios for registered rapes and murders in Belarus are similar to Russian ones – mostly about 1 rape per 3 murders (see Table 2). If we take into consideration that the US population is twice as large as that of Russia, we must conclude that violence potential in Russia is 4 times higher. Rapes are always proportional to the overall level of violence (excluding some African countries, where rape occurs enormously frequently).

Yet another striking circumstance is that in Belarus up to 40 people are still tried and sentenced every year for «sodomy» (see Table 2). Apparently, in some instances this may also refer to consensual homosexual intercourse. Interestingly enough, «sodomy» is defined in the Criminal Code as some kind of a «homosexual rape»: even the terms of imprisonment for both straight and queer rapes are identical. The legislation is similar in Russia. We think that it is yet one more indicator of the ubiquitous homophobia of some post-Soviet societies nourished by the politicians and the dominating church.

The Russian Orthodox Church published an extremely revealing memorandum in August 2000. It is suggested therein that gays and lesbians should turn to prayers, intense church going and repentance as a cure for their terrifying «spiritual disease». It is claimed in this document that the Church considers homosexuality a sinister damage done to human nature that can be surmounted only by a spiritual effort leading to the healing and personal growth of man.[29]

It goes without saying that the church patriarchs would like to prohibit homosexuals to work at universities, in the mass media, government, etc. Strange as it may seem, this standpoint receives no criticism or even discussion either in Russia or Belarus; the opinions of the church are not, for some reason, openly challenged, or questioned, by mass media or general public.


To sum up, we would like to try to formulate several tentative concluding remarks. Firstly, in contemporary Belarus, despite all the democratic changes, sexual issues remain largely a taboo subject. The absence of any sexuality-related programs, courses, or other curricular elements in secondary schools and universities causes the omnipresent domination of sexual illiteracy. This is true not only for the general public but also applies to the case of the physicians.

Secondly, little or nothing is being done to reform the social institutions carrying out and, in fact, promoting sexual discrimination (those include the family, economy, law enforcement agencies, and health care).

Thirdly, Belarusian society is characterized by deep-seated homophobia, which is being escalated by the authorities and the Orthodox Church.

  • List of References
  • Antonov, A.I. (1995) Strategy of Familial Research and Policy of ‘Family Privatization’. Journal Semia v Rossii 1995. #1-2.
  • Bergesen, A. (1984) Social Control and Corporate Organization: A Durkheimian Perspective, in D. Black /Ed./ Toward General Theory of Social Control. New York: Academic Press, Vol. 2.
  • Bierne, P., J. Messerschmidt (1995) Criminology. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  • Black, D. (1980) The Manners and Customs of the Police New York: Academic Press.
  • Bogolyubov, L. et al, editors (1993) Lichnost, Moral’ i Pravo. Educational aid for 9th form of secondary school // Minsk.
  • Erikson, Kai (1966) Wayward Puritans. New York.
  • Essig, Laurie (1999) Queer in Russia. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Guttentag, M. and Second, P. (1983) Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, Beverly Hills, Calif., Sage.
  • Horwitz, A. (1990) The Logic of Social Control. New York: Plenum Press.
  • Kempe, C. H., Silverman, F. N., Steele, B. F., Droegemueller, W., & Silver, H. K. (1962). The Battered Child Syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 181.
  • Kinsey, A. Pomeroy, W., Martin, C. (1948) Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia & London: W. B. Saunders Company.
  • Kon, I.S. (2000) Lunny svet na zare (12.05.2001).
  • Kon, I.S. (1997) Sexualnaya kultura v Rossii, Moscow.
  • Russian Orthodox Church, All-Russian Sobor (August 2000) The Problems of Bioethics. (12.03.2001).
  • Syarzhan, A. (2001) One Thousand Years of Standing on Our Knees: Fragments of the Provincial Life. Newspaper Narodnaya volya, Minsk, 15 May 2001.
  • Tkachenko, A. (1999) Sex Perversions-Paraphilias. Moscow.
  • UN Report on Women in Belarus (1997) (12.03.2001).
  • Visson, L. (1999) Wedded strangers. New York: Hippocrene Books.

  • Table 1. Men/Women Ratio in Different Age Cohorts (women per 1000 men)[30]





    All population

    The age cohorts, years old













    70 and older














































    Table 2. Certain types of crimes in Belarus from 1996 to 2000, registered cases in absolute numbers[31]







    Murders (including heavy bodily damage causing victim’s death)

    Rapes (including debauch, compulsion to sex and sex with minors)

    Sodomy («muzhelozhestvo»)































    [1] Only 4-5% of the population considers the Belarusian language to be their native tongue and have a working command of it, while most people are in the habit of positioning themselves as part of the Russian nation. In the observable past there has been little or no difference between Belarusian and Russian mentalities, lifestyles, and systems of values in general, and this trend continues today. Nor is differentiation aided by the fact that the Belarusian language is rather close (in script, grammar and lexicology) to Russian.

    [2] We are trying to explicate this statement below, as we discuss the role of sex and sexualities in the political discourses of the former USSR countries. It is obvious that both as a legacy of the cold-war mentality and as a manifestation of their characteristic xenophobia, many Russians and Belarusians tend to distrust Americans and blame them for some post-Soviet misfortunes (e.g., the very collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is thought to be a successful mission of the CIA). It is a widely spread assumption that while Americans «have the money», we, Russians, «have the Truth». This overall animosity has slightly softened since the September 11 attacks, but a large part of Russian and Belarusian society remains suspicious and biased.

    [3] It should be noted that the problem of sexual harassment at work remains fairly unimportant (compared, for example, to its current status in the United States) in nowadays Russia or Belarus. Most working women would prefer to dress provocatively when at work simply because this is one of the very few venues for them to attract and meet a would-be sexual partner. This is specifically true for unmarried or adulterous women over 30 as there are virtually no affordable «pick-up bars» or other leisure facilities, whereat they could strike into an erotic affair. «Night -clubs» are either too expensive or geared toward considerably younger, teenage visitors.

    [4] Visson, p. 47.

    [5] Guttentag and Second, p. 4 – 65.

    [6] These figures were released by the Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations, based on January 1996 information from the Worldwide Government Directory 1996, Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.A.

    [7] We are quoting the UN Report on Women in the RB (1997)

    [8] Visson, p.48

    [9] It needs to be emphasized that we are not talking about ALL Russian or Belarusian women: the more independent, intelligent, and highly-skilled of these are perfectly «self-reliant» and self-sufficient individuals who are not at all desperate to improve their economic status through a convenience marriage, or a merely «mercantile» companionship with a sex partner. However, we are trying to mark the overall tendency, which is sometimes ignored or underestimated by Western researchers of Russian society and Russian scholars.

    [10] Syarzhan (newspaper resource).

    [11] We are discussing the heritage of this «titan» in a sequel to this paper, in which we dwell on some literary and cultural backgrounds of Belarusian and Russian ubiquitous sexophobia. It is to be published elsewhere.

    [12] Erikson, p. 10.

    [13] ibid., p. 12.

    [14] Bergesen, p. 141 – 170.

    [15] Bogolyubov et al., ed., p. 46 -53

    [16] Visson, p.48. A meaningful example of quoting «radical feminism» as a destructive and dangerous discourse is lent by A.I. Antonov, who in his study of «strategies of familial studies» in Russia, argues that in the «period of reforms» (i.e., 1990’s) «radical feminist views and moods have drastically increased and caused growing aggression of women against men, wives against husbands, which, in essence, has become an extension of the official Soviet and Bolshevik anti-family ideology of destroying a ‘petty domestic economy’». It is not really important here whether we agree with Antonov’s equation of communist and radical feminist ideology but his understanding of the latter‘s possible impact on aggravating domestic conflicts seems rather insightful to us: Antonov, p.45.

    [17] We would like to thank Professor Jeffrey Smith, Visiting Lecturer at the European Humanities University in 2000-01, for helping us formulate these remarks.

    [18] Kon (1997), p. 212.

    [19] Kinsey et al, p. 610 – 666.

    [20] Quoted from an unofficial newsletter emailed to certain «subscribers», italics added.

    [21] Kon (2000) (web resource).

    [22] Essig, p. 123 – 157.

    [23] We are quoting the UN Report on Women in the RB (1997)

    [24] Black, p. 24 – 32.

    [25] Horwitz, p. 111.

    [26] However, the Criminal Code stipulates that it is only «minor battering» that could be left unreported (it is fully up to the victim). This is a matter of filing a «personal suit». All the instances of «medium and severe damage» to the victim’s health MUST be reported to the law enforcement authorities. Unfortunately, no one is monitoring the execution of this law.

    [27] Kempe et al, p. 17 –24.

    [28] Bierne & Messerschmidt, p. 105 – 122.

    [29] Russian Orthodox Church, All-Russian Sobor (August 2000) «The Problems of Bioethics» (web resource).

    [30] We would like to thank the Center for Gender Information at the Belarusian Ministry for Social Protection for sharing these statistics with us.

    [31] Our sincerest gratitude goes to the very professional and helpful officers at the Belarusian Ministry for Internal Affairs. We understand that the dubious truthfulness of these data is none of their fault but has to do with a huge number of unreported rapes and other crimes in Belarusian society.