Subject essay: James von Geldern
Revolutions often write themselves on the bodies of their citizens, their female citizens in particular. If public pornography was an invention of the French Revolution, and the agitation that gripped western youth in the 1960s yielded a sexual revolution, the timid revolution taking place in the Soviet Union in 1985 in the name of glasnost, or openness, eventually led to a new openness about the female body. First by peeling away the veils concealing matters long obvious to any Soviet woman, and then unveiling her body, glasnost made women the object, and sometimes of the agent of a public debate whose ultimate goal was liberation. Although the ways that women appeared and talked in public had altered radically by the end of the 1980s, the final verdict on liberation was still out.
Changes in the discourse on sexuality could be registered year by year. Female sexuality first made its way into the press as criminality with the recently taboo subject of prostitution. The runaway best-seller and then film Intergirl (1987) dealt with foreign-currency prostitution, doubly taboo. Yet when American talk show host Phil Donahue created the ground-breaking TELEMOST, uniting audiences Soviet Russia and America to discuss weighty issues such as arms control and human rights, only one issue rendered Russians inarticulate. When the issue of sex arose, they could only sputter “We have no sex here,” using the foreign word “sex” for a concept totally absent in their own language.
When the first beauty pageant since the 1930s was sponsored in Moscow in 1988, commentators touted it as a victory over Soviet sanctimony. Yet for many people, even those who greeted the destruction of old taboos, revealing the female body spoke also of degradation, and degraded female body served many as an allegory for a degraded Russia. The fall of Russian women and of Russia with them, was a leitmotif of Intergirl; and it was a bitter theme of the 1989 movie Little Vera, who sad heroine, a resident of the urban blight of Mariupol, found no liberation or happy fate when she revealed her body for the first time in a feature film.