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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Homosexuality, Nationalism, and Imperial Anxiety in the Early 20th Century Caucasus

Anna Efimova


“Take my money and give me a kiss”


In July 1913, two individuals of Azeri descent[1] residing in Tiflis disseminated an illustration within the pages of a satirical periodical entitled Molla Nasreddin, published in Azeri Tatar vernacular for illiterate Azeri audiences in the Caucasus between 1906 and 1917.[2] Depicted therein was an angel beseeching the renowned prophet Abdul Bahi of the Baha'i Faith for a prayer.[3] However, the religious figure, engrossed in conversation with a youthful individual whom he gently grasped by the chin, lied to the angel and told them that he was already busy.


A poem surfaced in a subsequent edition of the publication, which condemned the amorous inclinations of a "pious Muslim man" towards a student of a gymnasium:


I'm driven crazy about being apart from you.

I came out... with love for you...

I'm burning in the fire of your love.

Come down to me

Come, don't upset me...

The Almighty created you for me...

And there is none like you in heaven...

I'd embrace you and you'd rapture with joy....

Accept some money from me and... give me... one kiss.[4]


Imperial investigators of the Tbilisi police department deemed these materials that were published in Molla Nasreddin as "repugnant to morality and decency"[5] and sought to pursue legal action under Article 1001, which was used to prosecute "offences against public morality."[6] Tsarist authorities employed this criminal article by the to prosecute people who produced or circulated pornographic materials (understood by the government to mean anything that could damage public morals). Towards the end of 1913, the Tiflis District Court listened to the criminal case concerning the dissemination of these two materials but failed to discern any evidence of the "corruption of morals within the reading public."[7]


The court's final verdict stipulated that although Abdul Bahi, the prophet, had deceived the angel, "this deceit does not substantiate an intent to engage in male sodomy with a young man."[8] Additionally, the court determined that the poem served an instructive and reformative purpose by satirically exposing within Muslim society "hypocrites and Pharisees [who] conceal, under the guise of piety, nefarious intentions to entice gymnasium students into acts of pederasty for monetary gain."[9]


Consequently, all charges against the magazine were dismissed, but not for long. In this blog post, I will trace how imperial authorities pursued legal action against Molla Nasreddin for disseminating pornographic materials. Specifically, I will demonstrate how an imperial prosecutor leveraged anxieties surrounding native sexuality to frame the prosecution leaders of the Azeri national movement as non-political.


Prosecutor’s argument

During the nineteenth century, Russia solidified its control over the Caucasus region through military conquests and political maneuvering.[10] As the fervor of battle subsided, however, the administration of local affairs increasingly relied on the application of law. An illustrative instance of this approach was the prohibition of publishing and disseminating pornographic materials, as stipulated by Article 1001 of the Imperial Criminal Code, first introduced in Russia in 1845.[11] 

For instance, a local medical professional of Polish origin, Erik Erikson, called materials deemed to be pornographic the “vestiges of the Turkish morals”. According to Erikson, they “arrive[d] to the [Southern] Caucasus, particularly to Baku, from Persia”[12] and maintained “sexual deprivations” in local populace, same-sex relations being the worst. As Erikson noted in his 1906 article, Turkish traders offered “the richest collection of the depictions of the Eastern sexual depravity in all possible forms and poses, [that of] pederasty, tribadism, and sodomy”.[13]


Figure1. Granberg Corporation between 1904 and 1917. Tatarskaya mechet’ i most na Majdane [Azeri Tatar Mosque and a bridge on Maidan in Tiflis]. Retrieved from the Russian National Library, https://vivaldi.nlr.ru/lo000071112/details. Accessed: 28 February 2024.


As early as the beginning of 1914, public assistant prosecutor V. Nazarov filed an appeal against the 1913 decision made by the Tiflis District Court to dismiss all charges against the editors of Molla Nasreddin. Nazarov framed his appeal as a matter concerning public morals and urged the Tiflis Trial Chamber to prosecute the editors of Molla Nasreddin under Article 1001.


According to Nazarov, Molla Nasreddin had disseminated "indecent" materials pertaining to male sodomy, thereby corrupting the morals of "the Asiatic masses".[14]  Since 1836,[15] the Russian civil Criminal Code had indeed prohibited same-sex relations between men.[16] However, in the late imperial period, imperial authorities commenced to utilize this law to prosecute cases of male sodomy more intensively among native populations in the Caucasus than among any other in all other portions of the Empire.[17] Between 1904 and 1913, the proportion of registered sodomy convictions among Caucasian nationalities (including Georgians, Armenians, Tatars, and various North Caucasian ethnic groups) accounted for 78% of all cases across the empire, a stark increase from the 14% reported in 1905.[18]


Imperial professionals regarded the eradication of "rampant sexuality" as imperative to fulfilling Russia's civilizing mission in the region.[19] Russian imperial professionals viewed homosexuality among Caucasian natives as indicative of their "cultural depravity," influenced by centuries of Turkish and Persian governance and cultural influence, within which same-sex relations were allegedly perceived as normal. 


While imperial professionals perceived same-sex eros among locals along cultural and ethnic lines, they normalized similar behavior by European Russian male subjects as a medical or biological deviancy, drawing inspiration from contemporary Western European sexology and psychiatry.[20] By portraying itself as bringing civilization to the culturally deprived peoples of the Caucasus, the Russian imperial government and intellectual elites sought to reconcile the identity of the Russian Empire as a space that existed between West and the East.[21]


Furthermore, in his argument, Nazarov sought to discredit the moral grounds for the acquittal granted by the Tiflis District Court during the initial hearing. He argued that the "philistines from Nakhichevan in the Yerevan district”, who published Molla Nasreddin, lacked the authority to comment on "offences against public morality." Such a privilege, according to Nazarov, was reserved for the Tsar or his representatives in the Caucasus. Nazarov contended that it was not the role of satirical journalists to publish content contrary to prevailing notions of decency and morality, thereby asserting the symbolic imperial authority over morality and native sexuality in the Caucasus.[22]


Imperial anxieties

Nazarov referred to Molla Nasreddin as a "humorous Muslim" magazine and labeled its editors as "philistines from Yerevan district." The publication was indeed produced in the Azeri vernacular, often described as the "language of the common people".[23] In fact, the literary-educated Azerbaijani individuals who managed Molla Nasreddin endeavored to unify the Azeri people dispersed throughout the Caucasus by utilizing print media and satire, regardless of their social status or linguistic background.


The magazine aimed to be accessible even to illiterate individuals residing in rural areas and provincial towns as it consisted mostly of caricatures and satirical drawings, supplemented with simple signatures and short texts occasionally translated into Russian.


Figure 2. Oskar Schmerling's "Free love" caricature from the issue of Molla Nasreddin." Wikipedia.org. Accessed: 28 February 2024,


The decision to publish the magazine in the Azeri vernacular represented a deliberate political choice.[24] While many educated Azeri elites embraced the Ottomanization of Azeri identity, adopting a modern Ottoman literary style and speaking Istanbul Turkish, the editors of Molla Nasreddin diverged from this trend.[25] Instead, they advocated for the unification of the Azeri people through Westernization and the adoption of liberal Western values.


Through a series of simple caricatures, poems, and short proverbial sayings, Molla Nasreddin sought to challenge the authority of the Muslim clergy by exposing their vices and hypocrisy opposite to these values. The publication denounced acts of infidelity, marriages to underage girls, and sodomy.[26] For example, one caricature hinted at sexual relations between elderly Muslim men and boys, depicting a school caretaker, an elderly man, expressing affection to his female companion by comparing it to the affection he holds for young Muslim schoolboys. “[I] love you as much as Muslim [boys] studying at this school”, he says.[27]



Figure 3. Ioseb Rotter's caricature from the issue of Molla Nasreddin. Wikipedia.org. Accessed: 28 February 2024.


Despite sharing a desire to challenge the influence of Ottoman culture, Russian imperial authorities and Westernized Azeri elites were far from being allies. While the Westernized Azeri elites held the Muslim clergy responsible for impeding the national awakening amongst rural and uneducated Azeri Tatars, concerns over local nationalisms reached a peak in the late Russian Empire.[28] From 1906 to 1914, the imperial authorities pursued legal action against Molla Nasreddin on two other occasions. In a 1914 case, the court fined each editor 200 rubles and ordered the destruction of the entire print run of two 1913 issues.[29] Consequently, the editors suspended publication of the magazine in October 1914, marking its second suspension within a span of two years, only resuming after the February Revolution of 1917. Soviet-era literary historians attributed this prosecution to Molla Nasreddin's dissemination of ideas related to "national liberation and revolution".[30]


Public prosecutor Nazarov framed the conviction in moral and religious terms, aligning with the provisions of the imperial criminal codes. In doing so, he obscured the association of the magazine with the Azeri national movement and its political significance in the case materials, which was the true motivation behind the prosecution. The final verdict of the Tiflis Trial Chamber which followed Nazarov's appeal report largely echoed the points emphasized by the prosecutor.

I contend that imperial authorities instrumentalized their anxiety over native male sexuality to frame the prosecution of local nationalist activists as non-political. In this case, the prosecution of Molla Nasreddin falls into Russian and European trends in dissemination and policing of pornography. For instance, tsarist authorities deployed anti-pornography registration to prohibit the circulation of politically contentious material in a similar way in the Baltics between 1905 and 1914.[31] 


Moreover, four years before the prosecution of this prominent Caucasian publication, in 1910, the Russian Empire signed the Agreement for the Suppression of the Circulation of Obscene Publications.[32] It pursued this policy along with other Western European empires, such as Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, for which gender, sexuality, race, and class became major elements of power relations in colonies. In the case of Molla Nassredin, as the educated Azeri elite sought to establish moral parameters for a future Azeri nation, they espoused a gender order based on Western bourgeois morality, a perspective shared by European-educated Russians. However, the regulation of native sexuality remained exclusively within the purview of Russian imperial power, imperial administrators insisted. From their perspective, the transgression of symbolic boundaries of tsarist authority at its southern frontier by any "philistine" was intolerable. The act of disobedience not only heightened imperial anxiety over local nationalisms but also challenged Russia's civilizational mission in the Caucasus.

 

Conclusion

The prosecution of Molla Nasreddin underscores an implicit connection between the regulation of sexuality and Russia's nation-building efforts in the Caucasus. Within the framework of the Russian imperial context, state administrators perceived themselves as the sole agents entitled to impose discipline and civilization upon the region. In contrast, Molla Nasreddin advocated for an alternative civilizing agenda, aligning with perceived Western European sexual ethics as part of a broader initiative aimed at uniting socially, economically, and politically diverse Azeri Tatars around the idea of Westernization.


The Russian imperial authorities specifically targeted the magazine for transgressing the boundaries of Russia's symbolic authority in the domain of sexual governance within the Caucasus. This was due to the implicit incorporation of sexual management into assimilationist nation-building endeavors, evident in discourses surrounding Russia's civilizational mission in the Caucasus, as my research suggests. Russian imperial authorities sought to safeguard their civilizing mission and nation-building process in the Caucasus. Any deviation from their prescribed methods posed a threat to their authority and the legitimacy of their civilizing endeavors in the region.

 

Anna Efimova holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies from Central European University (2023) and an International Masters from the University of Glasgow, University of Tartu, and Jagiellonian University where she studied within the Erasmus Mundus Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies programme (2021). Her work has appeared in the New Eastern Europe magazine, Meduza, and Forbes Russia.


[1] Aliyev Mammedguluzadeh Jalil (1866–1932) and Ali Kuli Nadjafov.

[2]  Mammedguluzadeh Jalil and Kuli Nadjafov published Molla Nasreddin in Tiflis between in 1906 and 1914, and also in 1917. In 1921, a few issues saw the light in Tabriz in modern Iran before its editorial office eventually relocated to Baku in the newly created Transcaucasian Social Democratic Federative Soviet Republic.

[3] Abdul Baha”, or Abdu’l-Baha was the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. It emerged in the mid-19th century in Persia from Ithna- ‘ashari Shi ‘ism (Twelve Shiites), the main branch of Shi’a Islam in Iran. While Islam teaches that “Muhammad was the seal of the prophets”, the Baha’i Faith proclaims that two post-Muhammad messengers will appear to bring new religious laws. See: Todd Lawson, Todd “Baha’i Religious History,” Journal of Religious History 36, no. 4 (2012): 465–466.

[4] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 3 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[5] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 3 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[6] “The Criminal Code” (St. Petersburg: 1876). Available at: https://rusneb.ru/catalog/000199_000009_003545631/ [Уложение о наказаниях уголовных и исправительных 1866 года]: 431. (Accessed 29 February 2024).

[7] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 40 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[8] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 41 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018): 37–53.

[11] “The Criminal Code” (1876): 431.

[12] Ernst Erikson, “O polovom razvrate i neestestvennich polovich snosheniach v korennom naselenii Kavkaza” [On the sexual perversions and unnatuaral sexual relations among the native population of the Caucasus], Vestnik obshestvennoi gigeny, sudebnoy I prakticheskoi meditsiny 12 (1906): 1868–1893.

[13] Ibid., 1885.

[14] Original wording is “азиатской массы”. In Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, lists 3-4 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914-1915)

[15] Arkadiy Eremin and Oleg Konstantinovich Petrovich-Belkin, “State Policies Regarding Sexual Minorities in Russia: From Russian Empire to Modern Day Russian Federation,” Sexuality and Culture 26, no. 1 (2022): 290–293.

[16] “The Criminal Code” (1876): 429.

[17] Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001): 96-97.

[18] Ibid., 297.

[19] For instance, see: Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Laura Engelstein, The keys to happiness: sex and the search for modernity in fin-de-siècle Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Ann Laura Stoler, ed. Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006; Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri, eds. Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[20] Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: 94–96.

[21] Madina Tlostanova, “Postsocialist≠ postcolonial? On post-Soviet imaginary and global coloniality.” In Postcolonial Perspectives on Postcommunism in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by V. Tismaneanu and S. Nedelsky (London: Routledge, 2017): 28–40.

[22] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 4 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[23] Slavs and Tatars, Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve (San Diego: Christof Keller Editions; JRP|Ringier, 2011): 8.

[24] Ibid.: 8–11.

[25] Tadeusz Swietochowski, “The politics of a literary language and the rise of national identity in Russian Azerbaijan before 1920,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 59–60.

[26] Molla Nasreddin: 165–167.

[27] Media.az. "[Caricature from the issue of Molla Nasreddin]." Media.az, https://media.az/interesting/1067771473/zhurnalu-molla-nasreddin-segodnyaispolnyaetsya-114-let-foto/. (Accessed: 3 September 2023).

[28] Firouzeh Mostashari, On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus (London: Bloomsbury, 2017): 93–111.

[29] Nazarov v. Mammedguluzadeh and Nadjafov, list 22 (Tiflis Trial Chamber, 1914–1915).

[30] Molla Nasreddin, Kratraya Literaturnaya Ensiklopedia [Brief Literary Encyclopedia], vol. 4. (1967). In: Fundamentalnya Elektronnaya Encyklopedia “Russkaya Literatura i Fol’klor” [Fundamental Electronic Encyclopedia “Russian Literature and Folklore”]. Available at: http://feb-web.ru/feb/kle/kle-abc/ke4/ke4-9251.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[31] Siobhán Hearne, “An Erotic Revolution? Pornography in the Russian Empire, 1905–1914,” Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 30, no. 2 (2021): 196–197.

[32] Ibid.: 196.

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atewayoleander
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I disagree with your conclusions. I believe there is evidence to support a different viewpoint. fireboy and watergirl

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