It’s one of the most famous phrases ever uttered about the USSR: “There is no sex in the Soviet Union.” But American film director Chad Gracia wants to disprove that outlandish claim. He is filming a new documentary on the what was, perhaps, the Soviet Union’s biggest taboo.
Gracia is not new to Eastern Europe. He shot his first film, The Russian Woodpecker, in Ukraine during of 2013-2014’s Euromaidan revolution. The documentary, which follows an irradiated Ukrainian artist as he explores a conspiracy theory about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, received critical acclaim and won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Now, Gracia has returned to Ukraine to investigate a new “hidden” topic: sex in the USSR. Looking back to the Soviet Union’s revolutionary roots, Gracia explains that “the revolution was not only in politics and economics. It was a sexual revolution as well.”
Influenced by everything from official policies to sexual violence, popular attitudes toward sex evolved throughout the Soviet period. Traditional sexual morality, which the Soviet Union initially sought to overthrow, returned with a vengeance under Stalin’s conservative rule. Sex became a taboo subject about which few spoke openly.
And while a lack of sexual education caused problems for the population at large, Gracia discovered that some people were learning about sex from an unexpected source – the Soviet secret police (KGB).
According to the director, the recruitment and training of “sex spies” played a key role in the Cold War for both the Soviet Union and the United States. “To this day, the programs continue. It’s very hard to find information. We’re still searching and I hope that in our film we will have actual people who worked in these programs,” he says.
To find out more, Hromadske spoke with Chad Gracia about what he learned from working on his new film about sex behind the Iron Curtain.
How would you describe the Soviet Union as a country, in terms [of] how they treated sex? What kind of country was it?
I think, there are three main ways in three main spheres. There was the official sphere, and during Stalin times and not long after, there was the official description of what sex should be; and we know exactly, it should be two minutes once per week. And no longer. And it should be between a man and a woman in marriage. Full stop. This was the official sex. Then we have the sort of sex of the ordinary people. And I would say that probably it resembles sex anywhere else in the world. We’re animals and many people had normal sex lives maybe not a lot of sexual education but still they had no complaints, [the] people we’ve talked to.
And then there is the third category. And that's the category that I would call “Soviet sex.” That's the category where the structures of totalitarianism entered into people's lives and that is where all the pain and lies and evil manifested itself. And that is seen everywhere from prohibition against homosexuality, against abortions, lots of different problems in different decades depending on where you were and what time you were living in. People were afraid. People were afraid that if they did something wrong with in their career, they would be accused of a sexual crime that they didn’t even commit by a neighbor who wanted their apartment. On the other hand, people were able to commit sexual crimes as long as they were a powerful member of the party. They could rape young girls, and it happened very often, even here in small towns in Ukraine. And that’s what I think of as the evil, the dark side of the Soviet sex. And really it’s what happens under totalitarianism. When there’s [no] free press, when there’s no free courts, when someone is raped there’s nowhere to turn.
You just said that there was no sexual education, why do you think it was such a taboo in Soviet times ? Why was sex such a taboo? Why was it such a repressed subject?
I think, that there’s a relationship between how free a society is and how freely it speaks about sex. And the less free society, the more control the government wants to have over every individual. In a totalitarian society the deepest form of control, [and] this is a subject of Orwell, is the bedroom. And even your unconscious thoughts and your desires. And so, in the Soviet Union sex was so highly controlled that people were afraid to even speak about it because maybe they might say something wrong, or maybe their words could be used against them. We know the teachers weren’t allowed to speak about sexual education. The hero of our film tried to get schools in Vinnytsya and across Ukraine to teach about sexual education because he was seeing already 14-15 year old girls and boys with sexual diseases and he was seeing young girls who were pregnant and coming and saying “But I didn’t kiss him when we were in bed.”
So, saying “I don’t understand why I got pregnant”?
Yes, exactly! So he, Doctor Mikhail Stern, he saw the suffering of this closed society and he tried to open it up. He failed of course and ended up in jail. But for me and for people working on the film, he is a hero, because he was trying to fight against a totalitarian system that made sex a taboo and instead to speak about it closer to how we speak about it today.
Ok, you just mentioned these people who after the revolution said that we want to have sexual freedom. And I know you that you researched the Soviet Union [and] how the treatment of sex changed during those times, so can you talk about that? How did it actually change?
Yeah, this was something that I didn't know about. And that was that the revolution was not only in politics and economics, it was a sexual revolution as well and there were some...it was a crazy time. There were parades – “down with virginity.” Virginity was considered to be a bourgeois concept and so in schools 17 or 18 year old kids were organized to march against to virginity. In one small town, in several small towns, there was an idea that all boys and girls should register and if they don't have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they can choose from a list and have sex just like drinking a glass of water as Aleksandra Kollontai put it.
So there has been a long history throughout time, of people going into this extreme sexual openness. So in Russia it took the form of women and boys, but mostly women, [who] were pressured into having sex because if they said no, it was a sign that they didn’t support the ideals of communism. They were not sharing themselves. And that was used mostly against women, and within a few years this kind of faze died out. [Then] in 1933 all of this openness towards sexuality, all of this was closed by Stalin.
Why do you think that happened?
I think that Stalin wanted order. Stalin wanted to control the citizens in every way. He also realized that in order to build a big army and lots of workers, you need marriage and no birth control and no abortion and lots of babies. So I also think that he did everything that he could to create those circumstances. But I also think that he had a sick fear of the non-traditional.
Was there a kind of sexual revolution in the Soviet Union? Because [back then] even in the United States, there were no gay rights and problems with women rights. And in the 70s it became better in the United States. So can we see anything like this in the Soviet Union? Can we see any kind of warmth in the way that sexual relations were treated, or not?
Well, certainly, certainly there is the Stalinist era which is tied up with the war era, which is tied up with sexual atrocities committed. Again, mostly against women both by German troops [and] Russian troops. This was decade plus of sexual horror which, I think, left a wound on the Soviet mind, the Soviet psyche, up until the late fifties or early sixties. I think that by the sixties after Stalin had died and there was the beginnings of a thaw, there was a little bit more openness.
Okay, I know that one of the stories that you have in your film is about a sex spy. So what did you learn about sex spies? And why is it still efficient nowadays? Because we have these sex scandals. This year and last year we’ve talked about politicians sleeping with this [person] or that [person], assaulting [people] like Donald Trump [on[ this audio tape when he was bragging about grabbing some woman “by the pussy.” So why do you think it’s still efficient? But first, what have you learnt about sex spies?
Well, first thing I would say about Donald Trump is that he recorded himself basically doing that. He was his own worst enemy by just speaking the truth and it was on tape. It’s not hard to trap Donald Trump in saying something stupid or something illegal because he does it every day on his own Twitter account. But if you are a smarter politician, throughout history [and] in the Cold War one of the best ways to trap them was through sex, both in the US and in the Soviet Union. I thought that maybe it was a myth, when the Trump tape came out, with this idea there may be some video – and we don’t know if it’s true – of Trump with prostitutes. I started to research could it be possible and I discovered that starting from the sixties there was a serious large scale program to find young boys and girls – “Swallows and Ravens,” they were called – and recruit them into the KGB, train them in how, first, they had to train them in sex. So, ironically, one of the few places in the Soviet Union...
Where you could learn about sex was [the] KGB?
Yes! In school they didn’t teach you about sex. But if the KGB thought you could be a good sex spy, the first thing they did, they brought one hundred students into a class. And we know this from several memoirs, one in particular of a woman who was able to escape and she’s in our film, in one of our reconstructions. They took 100 to 200 students and they showed them pornography. And most of them were totally freaked out but that’s how they introduced them to sex. And they talked about sex openly. Again, probably nowhere else in the Soviet Union was talking about this as openly. And then, they actually had these students watch people have sex and then they themselves had to have sex with either other students or visiting army cadets. And they would, according to the memoir of our hero, the army cadets, these [were] young boys of 17,18,19. Their job was to say “no” and the girls had to seduce them.
There were up to 10,000 sex spies working in Moscow, Petersburg, across Eastern Europe and in places, like London, Paris, throughout the world. And they were extremely successful. In fact there was a special branch of sex spy, it was 40-50-year-old men who focused on the secretaries of important NATO strategists, generals, colonels in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe. And these male spies would find the secretaries who mostly were, you know, either widowed or didn’t have husbands. They pretended to fall in love with them. In many cases they actually married them for many years and [then] asked them to start to bring home materials from their boss. And when the cold war ended, and the wall fell and the archives were open, they realized that the Soviet Union knew everything that NATO was doing, everything that NATO was planning and almost half of the secretaries the older ones without husbands were sleeping with, or married to, or having affairs with Russian, Soviet male sex spies.
And to this day the programs continue. It’s very hard to find information. We’re still searching and I hope that in our film we will have actual people who worked in these programs. Right now we have reconstructions based on a memoir of one of the only female sex spies who was able to escape. And she did it by seducing her KGB officer and it’s an amazing story. But, I think, we will find people who worked in this field because so many people did, and it continues until today.
Do you think is there a remedy for that? I mean, we had 70 years of the Soviet Union and we had all these taboos, and we have generations and generations of people [who are] afraid [of] talking about sex, they had no sexual education. Is there a remedy for that? Because nowadays we see [that] here in Kyiv, in Ukraine, we have Pride where we have thousands [of] people coming out to parade through the streets but they have to be guarded by five thousand police officials. So what do you think, can we take the American experience, European experience? Is there a remedy for that?
There are two remedies. One is legal, I think, and governmental and policy. People, I think, as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, if sex is consensual, I don’t think personally that it should be illegal. And I think those societies that make, let’s say gay marriage, for instance, illegal, they suffer from that. In America we already see: the states where gay people aren’t welcome, these are the states that suffer culturally [and] economically because you’re losing a percentage of your people.
/Interview by Oleksiy Tarasov
/Text by Gaby Kurkov & Eilish Hart