Breaking with repressive Stalin-era morality that made homosexuality a crime, Russia's legislature has revoked a law that punished sex between consenting males with a prison term of up to five years.
"It's a grandiose event. We have long been waiting for it," said Vladislav Ortanov, 40, editor of the gay periodical Risk.
An underground nightclub near a park in northeastern Moscow that caters to gay men and lesbians geared up to celebrate the legal change.
The 1934 law adopted under Josef Stalin that sent gay men to prison or labor camp "was an outright violation of human freedom," Russian legislator Oleg V. Plotnikov declared. Canceling it "brings this part of our Criminal Code into accordance with the norms of international law," he said.
"The only thing that may surprise one is why we didn't do it three years ago," Plotnikov added.
For almost 60 years, Article 121.1 of the Russian Criminal Code stipulated that "sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years."
"That article's existence in the Criminal Code made male homosexuals criminals. Anyone who engaged in homosexual acts knew it," Ortanov said.
The legislation was part of Stalin's mania for regulating the behavior of Soviet citizens, even in its most intimate details.
Yet the law stayed on the books in Russia long after the demise of the Soviet Union. Ukraine decriminalized male homosexuality last year.
In the first half of 1992, according to statistics made available to Westerners by the Justice Ministry, Russian courts sentenced 10 men to prison for homosexual relations. Two Muscovites were given three-year terms but were released after Amnesty International intervened on their behalf.
Lesbianism, while not banned by law in Russia, is frowned upon as unnatural.
Almost on the sly, the Supreme Soviet struck down Article 121.1 on April 29, as lawmakers liberalized a large section of the code. Even the change had to take into account a widespread Russian hostility to homosexuality, Plotnikov said.
The change was carefully worded so that it didn't say outright that it was deleting the article's existing wording--and thereby decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adult men.
"Those who might have objected to the change obviously didn't bother to look up the existing article in the code," Plotnikov said. "That explains why this law was passed quietly, without headlines in the mass media or opposition in Parliament."
Moscow's gay community heard rumors of the change two weeks ago but couldn't obtain solid proof. It only became official Thursday when the Supreme Soviet's official Russian Gazette published the Criminal Code amendments. They went into effect at the moment of publication.
"That it took a month for this to become known just goes to show you the lack of clout of the gay community here," said Kevin Gardner, 28, a San Francisco activist who heads the Moscow chapter of the United States-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin last October proposed lifting the longstanding ban on male homosexuality as part of a complete overhaul of the penal code to bring Russian law into line with Western standards of privacy and civil rights.
According to Nikolai K. Baranovsky, chairman of the court in Moscow's Tushino district, Article 121.1 "was all but dead anyway." He said he could not recall a single prosecution in his court in the past two years. But that is not how Russian homosexuals see it.
Gays, both men and women, have been reluctant to turn to the police if they are the target of attacks lest they become victims of blackmail attempts by police and other officials.
For decades, the KGB used Article 121.1 as a threat to ruin reputations, coerce citizens into becoming stool pigeons or punish dissenters.
But the law, public hostility and now widespread hysteria over AIDS have all combined to force Russian gays to keep a low profile.
As recently as 1990, 30% of Russians believed that gays should be "destroyed," according to a poll conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion.
Another 30% argued for isolating homosexuals from society; only one-third thought gays should be left alone.
For reasons of safety, most Russian gays still keep their sexual orientation hidden.
"A million gays demonstrated in Washington, but we couldn't get 1,000 together in Moscow for a rally celebrating the changing of this law," Ortanov said.
The editor himself uses the pseudonym "Ortanov" for fear of being tracked down by gay bashers.
Lev Ivanov, a lawyer on the parliamentary Committee on Legislation, was quoted by Gardner's organization as saying that the Supreme Soviet vote means gay men now in prison under Article 121.1 will be released immediately.
How many convicted gays are still serving terms is unclear. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is gay, visited Moscow last December to lobby for repeal of Article 121.1 and emerged from talks with Justice and Foreign Ministry officials saying the number of prisoners could run into the hundreds.
What the Supreme Soviet did, however, left some of the old anti-gay bias of the Stalin-era law intact, gay activists charge. As altered, it still outlaws sex between an adult male and a male minor, homosexual relations committed with the use of physical force or threats, and homosexual acts by a supervisor with a subordinate. People convicted of such activity can be punished with up to seven years in prison.
Gardner said he has no quarrel with the law's content but objects to the fact that a single piece of legislation should deal with sex crimes regardless of whether men or women are involved.
Sergei L. Loiko, a reporter in The Times' Moscow Bureau, contributed to this story.