"There is no sex in the USSR."
Lyudmila Ivanova wanted to say that there is no sex on Soviet television. But this scandalous statement, which broke from Ivanova's tongue during a video bridge between the women of Leningrad and Boston in 1986, very strongly and for a long time distorted the ideas of foreigners about intimate life behind the Iron Curtain. To help promote this myth, George Orwell, in his novel 1984, portrayed a totalitarian state where the party banned non-reproductive sex because the enjoyment of intimacy should not rival the love of Big Brother. Many Americans, reading this work, still regard it as an introduction to the nightmare of Stalinism.
But there is one book that debunks these persistent and pervasive stereotypes. It is called “Man and Woman. Intimate Relations”and is the most successful socialist instruction on sex in the Eastern Bloc. This book, published in 1969 in spite of restrictions on explicit content, shows us that socialist countries in the 20th century did not ban tumbling in the bedroom at all, but even actively encouraged it.
I found a copy of this book in Bulgarian. There, on the cover, a naked couple kissing behind a giant fig leaf. Flipping through the pages of this cheap newsprint book with its simple black and white drawings, I wondered how such an outspoken book could have been published in such a large circulation under an authoritarian regime.
The original was written in German by psychologist and family counselor Sigfried Schnabl. "Man and Woman" has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Russian, Lithuanian, Romanian and Bulgarian. From 1970 to 1990, it was reprinted 18 times in East Germany alone. In the German Democratic Republic, this book has become one of the two top bestsellers in history.
"Man and Woman" also infiltrated the homes of neighboring West Germany and hit the bookshelves of Cuba, covering a distance of half the world. In what was then Czechoslovakia, it was reprinted four times from 1975 to 1985. In societies that banned all pornography and erotic writing, this book was open about everything from puberty and pregnancy to sexual pleasure.
“Schnabl’s calm and serious advice on achieving female orgasm formed the basis of his campaign for the pleasure and importance of heterosexual sex, which was considered separately from the potential reproductive consequences,” writes historian Dagmar Herzog. In countries that lost huge populations during World War II and needed additional labor to implement plans for rapid industrialization, promoting intimacy for pleasure rather than childbearing was, in the full sense of the word, a revolutionary step for the conservative and mostly peasant societies.
According to the Bulgarian writer Georgy Gospodinov, the book "Man and Woman" at that time "could be found in almost every Bulgarian home, although it was carefully hidden in the back rows and on the upper shelves of bookcases."
“And every child, as soon as his parents left home, would climb on a chair and start looking for her,” a 54-year-old acquaintance of mine from Bulgaria told me in May. "It was the only such book in the whole country."
The first print run in Bulgarian came out in 1979 and 160 thousand copies were sold rapidly. The state publishing house for medical and physical education, which published this book, specialized in medical textbooks and scientific literature. The choice of the state, which fell on this publishing house, testified to the confidence of the authorities that accurate and truthful information about a person's sexuality would improve the physical and mental health of the population, especially young people. Seeing the great demand for this book, the government lowered the price, and the publishing house in 1981 printed an additional 210 thousand copies. In 1985, another 15,000 copies were published. It was a huge circulation for such a small country with a population of about eight and a half million people, where printers were constantly short of paper.
What is the appeal of this book, other than the obvious? For the author, it was a book about solving social and psychological problems. In the introduction, Schnable explained that dissatisfaction in the bedroom can lead to the development of "an inferiority complex, depression and nervous breakdowns." He considered his work to be a service to society and wrote that sexual satisfaction "must become a reality for every citizen of our country." According to him, this is a task for those who "are obliged to help others with their professional and scientific knowledge."
At the beginning of the book, Schnable presented statistics on orgasms experienced by men and women in the GDR (based on their surveys), and told his readers that socialist morality requires a fairer distribution of sexual pleasure in the bedroom.
At first, the censorship of East Germany allowed only simple schematic drawings to be published, but later editions had anatomically correct images of the female body, including the location of the clitoris and its appearance at different stages of arousal. Schnable also urged men to take their time and show more emotion towards their partners.
This book was special due to the fact that Schnable had a wealth of practical experience as a family doctor and deeply understood human sexuality. "There are exactly as many sexual characteristics as there are people on Earth," he told Stern magazine in 2007 in an interview on his 80th birthday. Schnable also believed that same-sex attraction was natural, and thanks to his work, gays and lesbians in the GDR gained increasing recognition.
From today's perspective, there are many flaws in this book, including its exclusive focus on heterosexual sex and its disregard for the broader social and political context in one-party East Germany. Reflecting on why the Politburo allowed his book to be published in such large print runs, Schnable said: "When people are happy with each other in bed, they don't have stupid political thoughts." Sex was, he said, a cheap way of appeasing the masses for the Politburo.
Perhaps the communist leaders also hoped that the officially approved sex instruction would destroy the black market in smuggled Western erotica. Most socialist states believed that pornography humiliated women. Their leaders believed that the commodification of sex was a symptom of bourgeois decline. The Bulgarian version of Men and Women has a clumsy preface written by the director of the Institute for Medical Education. According to him, the state published this book because it sees its duty in "social modeling" of correct sexual behavior, so that young people do not get "incompetent information" through "illegal channels."
However, the motives of the state do not diminish the social significance of this book for ordinary people. Schnable didn't just claim sex for pleasure; he also taught men and women (mostly men) how to become more generous and capable lovers.
Historians today find a myriad of examples of sexuality education in all countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Poles had their own popular sex manual, The Art of Loving, which has sold seven million copies since its first publication in 1978. The Yugoslavs had real erotic magazines, including "Chik", for which the audience was young people, and a Yugoslav version of "Playboy" called "Start". Soviet citizens lived in a rather conservative sexual atmosphere, but East Germans and Czechoslovakians were more positive about sex, and their leaders believed that improving intimate relationships was a unique advantage of living in a non-capitalist society. Basically, such differences reflected the characteristics of attitudes towards human sexuality from the pre-socialist era, as well as the relative balance between conservative rural morality and freer urban morality in each country. But the non-aligned Yugoslavia, which became a model of "socialist self-government", allowed more political freedoms than the hard-line Warsaw Pact countries.
So, it turns out that there was also a lot of sex on the other side of the Iron Curtain, although the degree of openness of public discussions on this topic was not the same in different countries and in different periods of time. But even in the Soviet Union, with its puritanical views, people found their own ways to enjoy life. When the BBC found Lyudmila Ivanova in July 2017, this woman, who said there was no sex in the USSR, was happily living with her fifth husband.
Kristen Godsey is Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism.