Women and the Russian Revolution


Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936
By Wendy Z. Goldman
Cambridge University Press, 1993. 351 pp., $39.95
Reviewed by Pip Hinman
Wendy Z. Goldman has done a great service: she has filled a gap in the history of the struggle for women's liberation, and, just as importantly, has documented the relatively hidden history of the Bolshevik's ground-breaking affirmative action policies, which were subsequently reversed in the 1930s.
Few realise how far the Bolshevik government's revolutionary program on women's rights went and the struggle it led from 1917 to the late 1920s to break with the overwhelming backwardness and prejudice of Russia.
The Bolsheviks borrowed from the work done by earlier socialists such as August Bebel and Friedrich Engels. But, as Goldman documents, they also drew from a range of radical social thinkers, including the Adamites of the Middle Ages, who criticised marriage, advocated free sexual relations and opposed the wealth and power of the church; and the Ranters, another radical religious sect which, during the 16th century in Britain, preached "casual sexual relations with a variety of partners" and the abolition of the family.

Capital's needs

While the English and French bourgeois revolutions rekindled libertarian ideas of free union and "compassionate" marriages, the emerging capitalist ruling class moved quickly to ensure that the tasks associated with raising the next generation of labourers were privatised within the family. Consequently, while marriage and patriarchal authority came in for heavy criticism from Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, among other thinkers of the time, real reforms for women were limited.
Despite the fact that women marched, rioted, formed women's clubs and joined the army during the French Revolution, ultimately the new legal freedoms — including simplified divorce, rights for illegitimate children and expanded property rights for women — were swept away by the Napoleonic Civil Code in 1804. Goldman points out that "At no stage had the Revolution enfranchised women politically or granted them civil rights".
By the mid-1800s, Marx and Engels had outlined their materialist conception of history, explaining the relationship between production, reproduction, and property and positing that the family was more than a set of biological relations. This represented a dramatic break with previous thinkers.
The Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 with a revolutionary approach to women and the family. They argued that for women to be liberated, they would have to be relieved of their semi-slave status within the family. This would happen, they said, only if the state took on the major responsibilities for meeting people's material needs. (The outspoken women's rights leader Alexandra Kollontai suggested that the state could eventually meet people's emotional needs, though she didn't receive much support for this view.)
Once people's material well-being was satisfied, the Bolsheviks reasoned that the family would "wither away", and women would be free to participate in constructing socialism as equals with men.
Goldman's detailed research confirms the revolutionary government's ideological commitment to, and optimism in, the ability of ordinary people to transform their lives, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Family Code

To this end, the Bolsheviks introduced a range of far-reaching reforms, specifically the 1918 Family Code, which established civil marriages (to reduce the power of the church), simple divorce (which could be requested by either partner) and the legalisation of abortion, which was also made free on demand. Such far-reaching legislation was unheard of in North America or Europe.
The incredible speed at which these new reforms were put into effect, including in the countryside, gives an insight into their popularity. In January 1918 in Moscow, there were eight civil marriages; in February, nine; March, 77; and April, 120. By November, the Moscow registry had recorded 1497 civil marriages. While many towns and districts lacked registry offices, civil marriage and divorce were taken advantage of by people throughout Russia.
Women, initially fearful at being disadvantaged by the new social and sexual freedoms (which men had traditionally enjoyed) gradually became more confident as subsequent laws on alimony for deserted mothers and land ownership were passed.
The code, which ensured that all children were entitled to parental support until the age of 18 regardless of whether their parents were married, gave rise to the alimony provisions, which in practice came to advantage women as judge after judge ruled in favour of women who had been abandoned or divorced.
Between 1923 and 1925 the Family Code was redrafted several times, and publicly debated in a manner which law makers today would find incomprehensible.
New provisions to recognise de facto relationships were particularly contentious, as were other moves to further reduce the role of the state and church in people's private lives. Goldman groups four main views which loosely represented the main concerns. They were: the peasants who opposed the new code on the basis that it would undermine the household's economic stability; the women's groups which, while disparate, generally opposed the code on moral grounds; the protectionists, who believed that marriage and the family were important while the means of production were not yet socialised; and the progressive jurists, who argued that the new laws were there to protect women and not the traditional family.
Four versions of the new Family Code had been published and discussed by 1925, giving an insight into the seriousness with which the Bolsheviks viewed women's liberation.
But despite their best intentions, the Bolsheviks were only partially successful in getting their visionary program implemented. The civil war, 1921 famine and the introduction of controlled market forces in the New Economic Policy combined with the backwardness of Russia's economy and its overwhelmingly peasant population to slow their ambitious reform program.

Ideological shift

Nevertheless, as Goldman argues convincingly, and her detailed research bears this out, the reversal in Soviet family policy by the mid-1930s was not primarily the result of Russia's backward economy, or the lack of state facilities (many more child-care centres and communal dining halls were set up in the early 1930s). The turnabout was primarily due to the ideological shift which went hand in hand with Stalin's reactionary policies in other areas.
Some Bolshevik leaders may have had a somewhat idealistic notion about the speed at which the family would "wither away". Nevertheless, the laws they eventually enacted balanced between what could be and what is.
The final version of the new Family Code, for instance, was a product of those who hoped to free marriage from all constraints and those who sought to protect women. It reflected a confidence, driven by the Bolsheviks, that it was possible to solve social problems without resurrecting traditional family bonds.
This was not the view of the Stalinist clique which ensconced itself in power. Stalin's forced march to industrialisation, combined with a social conservatism, meant that the more enlightened social reforms were replaced with a "family responsibility" ideology. No longer were homelessness and juvenile delinquency the result of hunger and poverty; now they were blamed on "the break-up of old life and continuing absence of any stable form of a new life".
In 1936, abortion, the main form of birth control, was outlawed, divorce went back to the courts, and the family unit was rehabilitated. The forced march to creating a new industrialised Soviet Union required workers, and women were encouraged to reproduce. Official policy told the "worker-mother" to accept her double burden for the sake of mother Russia. However, statistics show that repression proved useless in raising the birth rate or eliminating abortion.
The Soviet Union had been the first country in the world to give women a legal, cost-free opportunity to terminate unwanted pregnancies, though abortion was seen as a health issue rather than a woman's right. Even Kollontai, a passionate advocate of women's rights, believed that motherhood was "not a private matter" and argued that the need for abortion would disappear once child-care was available and women understood "that childbirth is a social responsibility".
Stalin turned this sentiment on its head. According to Goldman, "The 1936 law had its roots in the popular and official critiques of the 1920s, but its means and ends constituted a sharp break with earlier patterns of thought, indeed with centuries-long tradition of revolutionary ideas and practices".
Propping up the family unit was the least expensive alternative to care by the state. The "socialist family", the law and the state became "the holy trinity of the Party under Stalin".
The tragedy, according to Goldman, was not just the destruction of the radical new social order, but that "the Party continued to present itself as the true heir to the original socialist vision and that subsequent generations of Soviet women, cut off from the thinkers, the ideas and the experiments generated by the authentic revolution, learned to call this 'socialism' and to call this 'liberation'".

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.