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Double Life, a Short History of Sex in the USSR

A film by Ināra Kolmane

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film still

film stillThe October Revolution that ushered in the creation of the Soviet Union wasn’t just about politics—it was also about sex.

DOUBLE LIFE tells the story sex in the USSR, from the libertine 1920s, through Stalin’s Soviet-style puritanism, all the way to the sexual revolution of the late 1980s under Gorbachev. Writer-director Inara Kolmane is our guide to the weird and often troubling world of Soviet sexual mores. A world where young women were taught nothing about sex but learned how to strip down a Kalashnikov, and where nearly every copy of a tame sex manual for young married couples wound up being fed into a giant furnace. Kolmane travels across the former USSR—from Riga to Siberia and from St. Petersburg to Kiev—meeting sexologists, historians, doctors, artists and ordinary citizens. They share intimate personal stories and shed light on the way attitudes towards sex shaped everything from birth control policy to fashion to employment prospects.

The early years of the Revolution saw the overthrow of bourgeois morality: workers in the new communal homes shared everything (from sexual partners to underwear). The “glass of water” theory held that satisfying sexual desires should be as easy as having a drink of water to quench your thirst. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky made appearances with naked women draped only in sashes reading “Down with shame!” But it didn’t take long for this libertinism to lead to the policing of women’s sexuality. The new Soviet Man had the right to fulfill his sexual desires – and any proletarian woman who refused him risked being branded a member of the petty bourgeoisie. 

It all ended under Stalin. Homosexuality, adultery, abortion, masturbation, and pre-marital sex all became illegal. When Khrushchev denounced the Stalinist cult of personality he also began a thaw in sexual policies; adultery might cost you your job, but it would no longer get you sent to a work camp in Siberia. (Highly placed party members, of course, could pretty much do what they wanted.)

In the post-Brezhnev era, legal constraints on sexual activity might still be on the books, but young people were doing it at beaches, on stairwells, in the bathrooms of communal houses, and elsewhere. By the late 1980s, a Russian model would be on the cover of Playboy.

What makes DOUBLE LIFE stand out is the conjunction of historical overview and personal stories. A judge who presided over the trials of gay men reveals his own homosexuality in his journals. A journalist pores over the minutes of party members’ meetings about his father’s affair with the woman who would become his mother.

The film uses beautiful stop-motion animation to illustrate key moments in the story, along with remarkable and candid photos by Siberian photographer Nikolai Bakharev, the rarely seen pornographic drawings of legendary director Sergei Eisenstein, and archival footage from seven decades of sexual life in the USSR.

"Amazing! Kolmane tells the history of the USSR through the angle of sexuality ... From Riga to Kiev through St. Petersburg, Moscow and Siberia, she talks to eye witnesses, historians, filmmakers, researchers." Le Monde

"Dizzying and unprecedented insight into the intimacy of a people who lived a secret but very eventful double life during the 70 years of the communist regime." RTBF 

"Revisits the history of the Eastern Bloc ... and not from the usual political, geopolitical or economic angle." Télérama

Official Selection, 2018 World Convention, Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)
Official Selection, 2018 Western Psychological Association (WPA) Film Festival

52 minutes / Color/B&W
Closed Captioned
Release: 2017
Copyright: 2017

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Subject areas:
Communism, Eastern Europe, History, Human Sexuality, Russia, USSR

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