If You Like Tobogganing: Women in Russia Before and After the Revolution

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Detail from c. 1920s Soviet poster for International Women's Day.

First published in 1973, and reissued as part of Verso's Radical Thinkers series, 
Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World — Sheila Rowbotham's first book-length study, a landmark in feminist history — reconstructs the often neglected feminist currents in the English, American, French, Russian, Chinese, Algerian, Cuban, Vietnamese revolutions, and within European socialist movements. "This is not a proper history of feminism and revolution," Rowbotham writes, "Such a story necessarily belongs to the future and will anyway be a collective creation. Instead I have tried to trace the fortunes of an idea. It is a very simple idea, but one with which we have lost touch, that the liberation of women necessitates the liberation of all human beings."

In the chapter below, Rowbotham examines the changing conditions for women before, during, and after the Russian Revolution, as well as the political and social roles played by women during each period.

23 February 1917:
In spite of all directives the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support …

It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution …

The February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives. The overgrown bread-lines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, and encounters with the police. A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal Duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy or war. Women’s Day passed successfully with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had even guessed by nightfall.

L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution


The woman’s road — threshold to stove.

I thought I saw two people, but it was only a man and his wife.

Russian proverbs


To all citizens of the village of Verteyevka of the male sex who are married, from all citizens of the village of Verteyevka of the female sex who are married. Ultimatum.

Whereas all we married women, citizens of the village of Verteyevka, live under difficult conditions, our husbands beat us, we hear no decent words from them, they treat us like cattle, we therefore have no more patience to endure such insults, and we hereby write the present ultimatum. We agree to work at home and be our husbands’ helpers, but demand in return that we shall not be given over completely to our husbands’ wills, that they shall not be so free with their hands, and call us such names as ‘old hag’, ‘bitch’, ‘slut’, and other unmentionable ones. And this too we add – we shall not disperse, and not return to our husbands until they have all signed their names to this paper.

Reported by Aksinya Karaseva in the village of Verteyevka, Briansk Gubernia, mid 1920s



On all sides the men are being blamed. But it is often the women’s fault when the family breaks up.… Some young fellow comes along with his songs and his accordion.… They are always running to the Genotdel, and slandering their husbands. There a whole women’s commission gets together, the husband knows nothing of it – and he is disgraced.

Tovarish Motish, from Siberia. Congress, 1925


You are surprised that I live with men, not wanting to fall in love with them?… I have read many novels, and know how much time and strength it takes to be in love.… But when, these past years, has there been leisure for us?… If you are attracted to someone he is called to the front, or to another city, or you are so busy yourself that you forget – what harm to cherish the few minutes that may mean a little happiness to you both?

Genia, in Love of Three Generations, by Alexandra Kollontai


Love should make you build bridges and bear children.… Only textbooks on horticulture have anything about roses, and daydreams are dealt with only in medical works.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug


We do not like romance
In our present time – to us
It reeks of flowered screens
Over garbage cans, of pretty words
Bringing hollowness, not flesh,
To every skeleton …
But you are a girl
Your problem cannot be denied.
In the Russia of the past
Women once pinned flowers
To their shoulders, chained to lovers,
Flogged by snarling guards
In the exile of Siberia.
And in the Russia of today
Men and women, proud of working-hours,
Sturdy, far from blood-steeped tinsel,
Take their summer vacations
On the steppes, in cleaner games,
In flowers, pledges, loyalties,
Clear-growing, inevitable,
Deepening in their youth.
Steal, for an hour now and then,
To your time of violets, the hope
Of less impeded tenderness
In a freedom yet to come,
Then fold it in your heart for unapparent,
Secretly unyielding strength
On every picket-line throughout the world,
Revolutionary girl.

"To a Revolutionary Girl," Maxwell Bodenheim, in New Masses, U.S.A., 1934



Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the west behind
Moscow girls make me sing and shout
And Georgia’s always on my mind.

Beatles, "Back in the U.S.S.R."


The images of women which have come through to us from the Russian Revolution are arbitrary and distorted. Quite often they are descriptions of the women’s role which are completely constructed in manipulative terms. Men have given us their version of what women should be. There are pictures of those round, rosy Soviet Stalinist heroines of motherhood, all sunset and tractors and socialist realism. There are memories of an old Trotskyist lecturing on the "women’s role," and telling how the women fraternized with the troops. There are the women the right has created in the west, like the sinister butch Cheka women who inhabit spy novels — gnarled, stiff and unhandled in the night, sitting behind desks in uniforms and judging men mercilessly, their breasts hollowed with hatred. There are the beautiful women rescued from the grim stern discipline of the party or the horrors of revolution — Garbo in Ninotchka is delicately seduced and falls gracefully in elegant inelegance, or you see Julie Christie and the daffodils of Dr Zhivago.

Love and daffodils are always on the other side. The things a woman "really" wants come from the "free" west. Women are completely external to the revolution. Here the images of left and right merge. Women are regarded as too fragile or too backward, they lack the discipline necessary for serious politics. The revolution happened despite them.

It is true that the telephone girls John Reed describes in Ten Days That Shook the Worldrecoiled from the workers; true too that Louise Bryant met girls who fought for the whites. But other women came out in the spring of 1917, pushed not only by working conditions but by high prices. They wanted bread and peace, demands for the here and now. We know that much, but where they came from and who they were and how they felt and what became of them has vanished now. We inherit a kind of silence. All the stills have been faded out, some are substitutes. It’s hard to piece our own picture together because we have to see through layers of subsequent political interpretation, and because the story of what women did has been shuffled into the background. Many other questions have appeared to interpreters of the Russian Revolution as more important. Yet the effect of the revolution on women has implications wider than those of specific interest to women’s liberation. The world the revolution opened for women is inseparable from that which it opened for men. Because the Russian Revolution is described through the men’s eyes this has been forgotten:

It is quite true that there are no limits to masculine egotism in ordinary life. In order to change the conditions of life we must learn to see them through the eyes of women.1

Those women who came out on Women’s Day were not just crucial in terms of the political events which followed; their action has tremendous significance as a symbolic break from their own oppression. If we knew more about the history of the women workers’ movement we would be able to piece together the slow growth in consciousness and organization which enabled them to send for delegates and initiate the strike themselves. But it is possible now to understand the kind of stake poor women had in 1917, to grasp the odds against them and realize that we take for granted so much of what they were fighting for that we’ve forgotten the enormity of what they almost won.

Passivity and fatalism were particularly close to Russian women; their subordination was so absolute and bound up with the backwardness of the country, and their poverty was so extreme. They rose from such a long and deep sense of being nothing, of knowing no hope in change. It is not really surprising that in a society where serfdom had only ended comparatively recently, women should be regarded still, quite openly, as property. Nor that the physical contempt for all human life general in that society should be acted out almost ceremoniously on the bodies of the women. Russian proverbs read like hymns of social and sexual flagellation. Public oppression and indignity reproduced itself in the private part of living. The family was a little sanctuary of authoritarianism and suffering:

A chicken is not a bird – and a baba [peasant woman] is not a human being.
Beat your wife for breakfast and for dinner too.
I will love you like my safe and beat you like my fur coat.
A wife isn’t a jug – she won’t crack if you hit her a few times.

She had her own kind of vengeance:
It is easier to manage a sackful of fleas

The realities behind such ironies were grim. In peasant families it was customary for the bride’s father to give the groom a new whip so he could exercise his authority if he wished. It hung over the marriage bed and was eloquent of the way in which the young girl passed from the control of her father to the control of her husband. Tsarist family law declared the wife’s duty was "to obey her husband as the head of the family, to be loving and respectful, to be submissive in every respect and show him every compliance and affection." In practice this meant the wife had to follow her husband wherever he went. She could not get a passport or take a job without his permission. Resistance was almost impossible. The husband took over any property which she inherited. Divorce was very difficult because it was decided by the church and only on very limited grounds. It was moreover extremely expensive and quite beyond the means of the poor. In the eastern provinces women were still veiled and polygamy continued. But even in the rest of Russia peasant women were often sold to the highest bidder. They had little choice as to whom they married. To their husbands they were working hands, part of the livestock, as much as sexual partners. The young girls were soon worn down with work and childbearing. They cooked, carried water, washed clothes in the river, made fires, milked the cows, toiled in the fields, and did the spinning and weaving. In the winter the moujiks were often at home with nothing to do but drink vodka and have sex with their wives. There were no contraceptives. Secretly the women went to the local wise woman who operated with nails or buttonhooks or carrots. Childbirth was a kind of nightmare. Infant mortality was high, there were only a few midwives. "The mother lay among the cockroaches and pumpkins on the stove, and gnarled and dirty hands delivered her baby."2

In the city women worked long hours for less pay than their men, concealing their pregnancies until the last moment. Years later an old worker remembering these conditions told how as soon as anyone was pregnant they were sacked on the spot:

The women workers used to hide it until their mouths foamed and the child was born at the bench. And after the confinement – back to the bench. What could be more terrible than for a mother not to be glad to have her child? And there used to be many women workers who cursed their children.3

There was no legislation to protect women in industry, until a very limited social insurance scheme was introduced in 1912. Casual prostitution was part of the life of working women; the brothels were blessed by the priests — to protect the rest. Infanticide was common. On the other hand the world of middle- and upper-class women was very protected. But although they lived in comfort they were just as powerless as the others. Young women were meant to be accomplished, not educated. Higher education was regarded as almost synonymous with indecency. Secretly they pursued their affairs — discovery meant disgrace. When they were married any property they owned was managed by their husbands. Although a few women in the intelligentsia had broken away and joined the revolutionary movement, to the rest they were outcasts.

First the war and then the revolution shattered all this. Families were broken up. The women took over men’s work, they learned new skills. Some women from rich homes became nurses. But instead of this being simply reversed when the men came home, the revolution carried it farther. In April 1918 the Petrograd Council of Trade Unions issued an extremely significant declaration:

The question of how to combat unemployment has come sharply before the unions. In many factories and shops the question is being solved very simply … fire the women and put men in their place.4

The Petrograd Council maintained that such a solution was incompatible with the new manner in which the working class was going to organize the economy. They held that the only way to end unemployment ultimately was by increasing productivity on a socialist basis. In the meantime dismissals which were necessary because of the economic crisis should be related to each individual’s degree of need — regardless of sex. "Only such an attitude will make it possible for us to retain women in our organizations and prevent a split in the army of workers."5

Women were admitted with full rights into the working class. Thus an essential principle of women’s equality at work was established and a completely different criterion introduced for redundancy. Women benefited particularly from this assertion of the value of workers as persons rather than things, because single women with young children were regarded as among the most needy.

It was obviously necessary too to provide protection for pregnant women. Alexandra Kollontai had spent a considerable time before the revolution studying maternity provision. Partly as a result of her pressure the first working women’s conference was held in Petrograd within a week of the formation of the Soviet government and more than fifty thousand women were represented. Although her proposals for the new maternity laws were the basis of discussion, the working women formulated its actual outlines on the basis of what they themselves had experienced. The Decree on Insurance in Case of Sickness, 22 December 1917, was the first of a series of protective measures. An insurance fund was set up without deductions from wages and workers’ wives were covered as well as women actually in industry. In January 1918 the Department for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy was officially organized and functioned in close connection with the department of social welfare. It secured sixteen weeks’ free care for women before and after pregnancy. Expectant mothers did light work and could not be transferred or dismissed without the consent of a factory inspector. Night work was prohibited for both pregnant and nursing women. Maternity homes, clinics and advisory centres were set up. These seem like unspectacular and extremely fundamental reforms now, but in the Russian context they were an extraordinary achievement. Although women benefited from the general legislation for all workers, Jessica Smith says it was the maternity insurance law which they always mentioned as the most important change in conditions.

Most extraordinary was the legislative transformation of the family. Six weeks after the revolution the former ecclesiastical control of marriage was replaced by civil registration; within a year the new Matrimonial Code established before the law complete equality of rights between husband and wife, as well as dissolving the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. The husband’s legal domination in the family was ended and women could decide on their own names and citizenship. They were no longer obliged to go wherever their husbands went if they didn’t want to. Divorce was made easy and a relationship could become a marriage simply by mutual agreement between the two partners; equally, mutual agreement could end it. If both partners did not want the relationship to end it was left to the decision of the courts, until 1926, when both partners were able to get a divorce by applying to the Registrars’ Office instead. At first both partners were obliged to pay alimony for six months after they separated if one of them was unemployed or not able to earn a living. Property was at first divided equally. The 1926 Family Code changed this. It attempted to secure the rights of peasant women and housewives by regarding all property as jointly held. Women were thus entitled to remuneration for work during marriage. This code also made explicit provisions for women living in unregistered marriages. Although the marriage laws were not uniformly applied — the recognition of de facto marriages for instance never penetrated the eastern areas — combined with the industrial legislation they brought an extraordinary transformation in the lives of Russian women.

Nor were the women merely passive spectators to all this. The organizational results of the Petrograd conference was the setting up of special committees to instruct women in the use of their rights. These were found to be inadequate and in 1919 the Working and Peasant Women’s Department of the Communist Party was formed. It was known as the "Genotdel." There was opposition to this at first; some Bolsheviks were against it because they thought it was too feministic.

The Genotdel did not simply act as a means of educating women; it actually brought them into political activity. At first it mobilized women for the civil war and the famine. Thousands of emergency "red nurses" went to the front, did military service, dug trenches, put up barbed wire or carried on political and educational work along the firing line. There were women in the Red Army who fought as guerrillas; in some cases they were in charge of men. Vera Alexeyeva, a social revolutionary cigarette worker turned Bolshevik, was made captain of a guerrilla group and spent weeks in the saddle, day and night, hunting whites in the Ukraine. Later she became leader of a local Genotdel, and found herself organizing peasant women who had just started work in a textile factory. She told Jessica Smith how difficult she had found it to adjust at first:

When peace came they requisitioned me to work among women. Everyone laughed. They didn’t think of me as a ‘baba’ at all. I didn’t think much of the idea much myself at first — I was so used to chasing around like a man and wearing men’s clothes.… I remember the first women’s meeting I called, how I tried to draw the women out to discuss the problems before us. One after another got up and talked of her own troubles. Each one had to tell how she had suffered during the revolution and the famine. How could she get bread and clothing, how could she get work, why should so much misfortune have been visited on her? Now they are talking about our problems – how we can organize day nurseries to take care of our children and how we can improve our condition. That is a great advance, to have got the women to think and act collectively.6


The Genotdel drew women in often on a practical basis at first. "When we can’t get ’em one way, we try another!" said Vera Alexeyeva. "There are plenty of women we couldn’t get to come near a meeting — but when we give them something practical — look how they come."7 Sometimes they came to sew and heard lectures on politics or babies or sex. Discussion circles grew from these. Kollontai helped to organize a network of women’s clubs which penetrated even into the eastern regions. The women’s congresses brought members of the local groups together. The experience women gained from their separate organization helped them to assert themselves in trade unions, public debates and in the party. Kollontai told the American journalist Louise Bryant that the women’s congresses were important not simply for the direct political work they did, but also for increasing the confidence of the women themselves and preventing their needs from being ignored by the men.8A peasant woman who had been to one of these congresses returned home to her village with pamphlets, posters and a new important understanding of a world beyond the old boundaries. In 1925 Kayer Nissa, a girl of twelve from the Muslim East who had attended one of the women’s clubs, been cast out of home and supported by the other women, spoke as a delegate at a conference: "We have had enough of having our faces covered … of being imprisoned, in stuffy ichkaris, sold at the tenderest age to old men, maimed in body and soul, and degraded to slaves."9

Sometimes this new confidence meant that the women criticized the men. They felt insulted by attitudes they had not even noticed before. In the discussions which preceded the 1926 Family Law a peasant woman said:

We are still in the dark, we were enslaved for centuries. All we know is priests’ gossip – which we are only now beginning to forget about. ‘The wife must fear her husband.’ … Our men comrades, they know a bit more than we do. You must teach us, you must not just laugh and giggle; that is no use, particularly on the part of the enlightened comrades, the party men. I do not consider this the way of comradeship,… To us that is very insulting.10


Commitment among party leaders to women’s emancipation was real enough. But there was considerable confusion about how it was to be achieved. Theoretically specific reforms at work were fairly straightforward. The relationship between the sexes presented more problems. It was generally accepted that "The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women."11It was also apparent that liberty for women implied not merely change at work but in the family. The revolution had to reorganize at the point of reproduction as well as production. The need to free women from the drudgery of housework was a common theme. It was hoped that they would be able completely to collectivize these private tasks with public restaurants, communal kitchens, laundries, cloth-mending centres, collective housekeeping arrangements and facilities for children, crèches, nurseries, kindergartens, children’s colonies. By releasing women from this private work in the family, they could become involved in production. Lenin emphasized the effects of work on women’s consciousness. He believed they could discover a new active and public world in place of the isolation and fatalism of the little world of the family.

The involvement of women in production had another aspect though which tended to predominate after his death. Soviet economists did elaborate calculations to show the amount of labour hours spent in inefficient private housekeeping. It could be argued that the emancipation of women from the family was economically necessary if the material preconditions for socialism were to be created. The slogan "Abolish the Family" could thus be justified in terms of economic efficiency as much as of women’s liberation.

Kollontai tended to see the family more as a cultural institution which maintained the old values of authoritarianism and domination. While the family in its traditional form continued it was impossible for the workers to achieve full social emancipation. "The capitalists themselves are not unaware of the fact that the family of old, with the wife a slave and the man responsible for the support and well-being of the family … is the best weapon to stifle the proletarian effort towards liberty."12

Trotsky takes up the same argument in Problems of Life, lectures he gave to workers, and carries it farther with the sensible observation:

Unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down to the extreme.13


For all these reasons, in the early years of the revolution it was generally assumed that the family would wither along with other institutions which had persisted from capitalist society. The real argument was how long it was going to take, and how much effort you needed to put in to help yourself out of the transitional period. In the early twenties Trotsky was arguing that though new kinds of family could only develop after a more highly developed material base had been created, because economic backwardness continually held back the provision of public facilities, voluntary initiative in making cultural precedents was still important. He recommended that people should "group themselves even now into collective housekeeping units." These should be very carefully thought out and coordinated with the local Soviets and trade unions. He envisaged a new architecture — housing built round the needs of these communal associations. "We can escape the deadlock at present only by the creation of model communities."14 He saw these as one means of releasing the "creative imagination and artistic initiative"15 of the masses, through changing the "complicated net of inner relations in personal and family life."16

Very quickly, when people began to emphasize the liberation of women, they became involved in the cart before the horse, chicken before the egg dilemma of new culture versus material base.

Naystat in Youth Communes makes it all seem a simple problem, the delineations in theory of the transition to the transition seem clearcut:

The new byt, like the new family, will be able to grow up only when all the necessary economic conditions are fulfilled. For that reason it is not yet time to consider a complete reconstruction of life on a socialist basis.… We begin by building up the fundamental conditions of a socialized life, the commune is the model of the future socialist byt. But even now marriage in a commune is different from marriage elsewhere. For it anticipates the marriage of a socialist society in that the economic tie has ceased to play a part in the mutual relation of husband and wife. The same applies to the question of the children, although the communes have little experience in this matter at present. During their early years the communes did not desire children for material reasons. But now there are a considerable number of commune children.17

He glosses over the actual manner in which a new society is to be communicated through transitional institutions. As Reich points out, it was quite possible for the new families to revert to old values because of material scarcity and lack of any theory about the actual mechanism by which economic and social change connected with sexual liberation. In a youth commune which was formed originally in 1924 to solve the problem of the housing shortage, he describes how overcrowding led to the attempt to enforce sexual asceticism. Couples wanted a room of their own. The other communards resisted marriage which they thought would constitute a faction in the collective. Eventually they gave way but banned offspring because there wasn’t enough space for them in the commune. They struggled with practical circumstances but finally gave way on the issue of human, sexual liberation. It was regarded as wrong to want privacy to make love. They did not try to guarantee the prerequisites of sexual happiness; instead they made unhappiness into a virtue. Because it was not made an explicit and integral part of the revolution, sexuality was subordinated to immediate economic necessities. Reich asserts in The Sexual Revolution that it was no good saying "economic base!" then "new way of life!," as the forms of sexual and personal life could not simply be correlated with economic changes. He believed the original attempt of the revolution to create the external means for the liberation of women was on the right lines.18 But the revolutionaries faltered at the very moment when those external changes started to penetrate the inner consciousness.

Within the Communist Party conflict emerged about the means by which the new culture should be created. Kollontai describes this in her novel, Free Love, sometimes better translated as Red Love. The heroine Vasilissa, an ex-trade union organizer, tells a rather bureaucratic party member about the house-commune she has lived in.19 There had been great difficulties because the people living in it retained the old ideas of competition and selfishness. She says house-communes must be transformed from short-term solutions to the housing shortage into "schools, and foster the Communist spirit." This was in line with educational ideas at the time which saw education as completely integrated into social life and the specific educational institutions withering away. However, the other party member was completely bewildered; for him education was something that happened at school or in the university and had nothing to do with housing methods. People reverted to the old forms because it was the only thing they knew.

It was the same with the family. Externally everything had changed. Internally people’s attitudes remained the same. The women clung on to their individual pots and pans — communal substitutes were viewed dubiously. A communard complained in the day-book, "I have brought my electric kettle with me to the commune but they use it carelessly. Why did I bring it?"20 Sexual matters were less discussed but it was apparent that women still fell into the old relationship of submission. Yaroslavsky, a party official, commented, "It is one thing to write good laws, and another to create the actual conditions to bring the laws into life."21

Lack of any theory which could explain the personal and sexual aspects of life combined with persistent economic difficulties and the heritage of social and cultural backwardness. In the case of women these problems were magnified. For example, women did not become involved in industry in the way it had been imagined that they would. After the period known as War Communism, when ration cards were issued on the basis of employment, the drift of women into social production was slow. During the N.E.P. (New Economic Policy) period there were often simply no jobs. Nor was most women’s work much of an alternative to household drudgery. It takes time to train skilled workers, and most of the women were unskilled. New factories were built but the old continued, and with them the same bad old conditions. Although the law said equal pay for equal work, women were doing the same work as men in the 1920s for less pay because it was graded differently. In some cases the men workers ignored the official trade union directives and refused point blank to work with women at the same rates. Although officially again the women were meant to have the same say in trade unions as the men, in practice this was often not the case. Kollontai in Red Love describes how the women workers couldn’t express themselves, and how their needs were always dismissed by the men as trivial. Vera Alexeyeva told Jessica Smith of the problems of relating the Genotdel to the trade unions:

Originally all work among women in the factories rested on the shoulders of a woman organizer responsible to the Genotdel. At a result it often happened that the Factory Committee failed to take any initiative in work among women, and refused to put subjects of special interest to women on their programs. When the women did come to meetings they were met with, ‘Well, let’s hear what the babas have to say’, and were afraid to express themselves, which made it necessary to organize special women’s meetings. While that had some good effects in stimulating women’s interest, it also led to a ‘we’ and ‘they’ attitude, so we decided to change our method. The last Trade Union Congress voted to place the responsibility for the work among women on the factory committee as a whole and instructed the unions to include questions of special interest to women on their general program. That has had a very healthy effect, and the unions have since been much more active in drawing women into their work. There are still Genotdel organizers in every factory, but they concentrate on the delegates’ meetings and party work, while the union takes care of all general and cultural work. It’s the Genotdel, however, which prepares the ground for the union work.22


But if it was difficult to overcome economic problems, female passivity, and male contempt at work, it was even worse in the home, where traditions had a firmer hold, and public facilities were often quite inadequate. During the early period, War Communism, the communal houses were often grim and depressing, the shared kitchens chaotic, the crèches makeshift. In the N.E.P. years, when the need to produce efficiently was given priority, directors and managers were frequently very unwilling to spend money on crèches and allow the women time off with their children. It was a question of attitudes too. Trotsky describes how house communes collapsed:

Many homes which had been allotted to families living in communes got into filthy conditions and became uninhabitable. People living in them did not consider communistic housing as a beginning of new conditions. They looked upon their dwellings as upon a barracks provided by the state.23


In the villages the contrast between the old ways and the new ideas was even more extreme. Jessica Smith explains how peasant women responded to the idea of a day nursery in the late 1920s. Almost all the older women were against it. Children had never been brought up in nurseries before — why start now? They had heard they bathed the children every day and believed this would mean they wouldn’t grow up strong. The young women on the other hand, especially one girl whose child had been killed, were in support of the idea. They arranged for a house to be turned into a nursery and painted it white, hanging bright posters round the walls. The other women were shocked. "Surely they’re not going to let children into a clean place like that."24 Gradually they changed and accepted a nursery as a matter of course.

It was not only the women who resisted changes in the home. Even men who would accept reforms like equal pay were opposed to the emergence of women from the inner life of the family. In some cases their opposition was outright. Men were known to throw the papers of the Women’s Department on to the fire because they resented the time their wives spent on political activity rather than on housework. More serious was the resistance in the eastern parts of Russia.

"In 1928, a twenty-year-old girl, Zarial Haliliva, escaped from her parental home and began to call meetings for the sexual emancipation of women; she went unveiled to the theater and wore a bathing costume on the beach. Her father and brothers sat in judgement over her, condemned her to death and cut her up alive."25 Nor was this an isolated case. In Uzbekistan, for instance, in 1928 there were 203 cases of anti-feminist murder. Girls were also beaten and punished severely simply for attending the meetings of the women’s clubs.

There were many men in the party who were shocked at this kind of open persecution, but who were responsible in more subtle ways for keeping their wives in their old oppression. Lenin deplored how few men, even among the proletariat, would realize how much effort they could save their wives if they helped in the home. Some years later Lunacharsky wrote that he would shake the hands of a comrade, "an honest Leninist," who would rock the cradle so that his wife could go out to a meeting or study.26 More common than these honest Leninist cradle-rockers were the party militants who would make a great show of their revolutionary commitment to the liberation of women but wanted their own wives to stay under their thumbs. One woman described how her husband had put an end to her work and political activity:

And in those very meetings which he forbids me to attend because he is afraid I will become a real person – what he needs is a cook and mistress wife – in those very meetings where I have to slip in secretly, he makes thunderous speeches about the role of women in the revolution, calls women to a more active role.27


All these difficulties provoked intense discussion and argument. There has probably never been a time when great masses of people discussed openly questions which affected women so much. Naturally, in these public debates on alimony, or the divorce laws, women themselves played an important part Sometimes they criticized very freely. "If Comrade Ryazanov intends to abolish de factomarriages, why has he not in the sixty years of his life arranged matters in such a fashion that we begat children only after registration."28 It was apparent that certain questions evaded the party’s decrees and were beyond the competence of the most zealous of moral organizers — Comrade Ryazanov not excepted.

But equally by the mid 1920s it was clear that an approach which regarded relationships of men and women as a personal affair and which just secured equal rights by legislation could only provide an external guarantee for the free development of an internal process of liberation. The real contradictions existed in the contrast between the aspirations for the emancipation of women and the real situation of the women before freedom. The women in the harems of Turkestan who burned their veils and lost their homes and children as a result, or the peasant women suddenly deserted by their husbands, were in an impossible situation. It was clear that liberal freedoms were quite inadequate here. In a debate on the Family Code in 1925 one woman, Comrade Shuropuva, spoke about this:

What is the position of a peasant woman? She looks after the house, she sews, she washes and she helps her husband take in the harvest, while he – forgive me, comrades, for saying so – he will not go to bed alone and she has to obey his pleasure. And if she does not, he kicks her out. [Laughter.] We should think about these problems. The comrade just said: ‘Who forces him to take two wives?’ I can prove it to you. He took two wives, each gave him a baby so he must pay for them both. It is nobody else’s fault. If you like tobogganing you must like pulling your sledge uphill. But comrades here are saying that some women have three or four [men]. Maybe, but we peasant women have no time for that.29


Marxist ideas about the family assumed a completely different historical tradition from the cultural realities of Russia after 1917. In an underdeveloped country, traditionalism, superstition and the old authorities had a real hold. In a situation of economic crisis, post-war chaos, and revolutionary upheaval it would have been extraordinary not to find considerable psychological tension and familial insecurity. Experience kaleidoscoped, people moved away from one another. It was very difficult to hold fast to the original motive of complete liberation on the woman question while preventing the innumerable distortions which appeared within the existing situation. The struggle was herculean and tragic. Suddenly there were so many orphans. So many children’s homes were needed. Dandies were reported to be sponging off the well-paid working girls. The women from the old upper classes reappeared, were mysteriously well dressed, became secretaries to the ‘specialists’ in industry, and cared nothing for emancipation. It is in this context that the struggle against prostitution, the practical attempt to liberate women in the household, communal kitchens, house communes, cooperative playgroups, the improvements in women’s working conditions and the legislation protecting them appeared. The problem was of course to meet the immediate extraordinary situation of scarcity in a way that could ensure the growth and creation of a new liberation in women’s position and consciousness in the future. The very new is extremely frightening. People watched with apprehension.

In 1924 Trotsky commented on what seemed to be the move "from the old family to the new":

Some viewed it with great misgivings, others with reserve, and others still seemed perplexed. It was, anyhow, clear to all, that some big process was going on, very chaotic, assuming alternatively morbid or revolting, ridiculous or tragic forms and which had not yet had time to disclose its hidden possibilities of inaugurating a new and higher order of family life.30


It was difficult for people to keep their nerve throughout this process of sexual-cultural revolution. The original guidelines seemed inadequate. The belief that the creation of new economic forms would allow men and women to make their own communist culture, and that personal relations could not be subjected to the same kind of organization as the external affairs of life, gave way under pressure. Possessiveness, jealousy, and domination did not disappear with public ownership of the means of production, or even with communes and crèches. There was no alternative theory. Party officials religiously lectured on Engels as though circumstances had not changed. Or like Yaroslavsky they declared, "We don’t want to be forever looking under the bedsheets."31 There was an awkwardness and embarrassment about sexual questions, a feeling that they were somehow irrelevant to the serious work of the revolution. The liberation of female sexuality is such an important part of the politics of women’s liberation that this neglect of the mechanisms of sexual and personal transformation had serious consequences in allowing a great narrowing in the definition of what constitutes liberation. But the gap was obvious more generally to practical party workers.

The functionary Koltsov complains, "These questions are never discussed; it was as if for some reason they were being avoided. I myself have never given them serious thought. They are new to me. They are extremely important and should be discussed."32

Similarly a comrade called Tseitlin said:

In the literature, the problems of marriage and the family, of the relations between man and woman, are not discussed at all. Nevertheless these are exactly the questions which interest workers, male and female alike. When are such questions going to be the topic of our meetings? The masses feel that we hush up these problems, and in fact we do hush them up.33


In the first half of the twenties there was an implicit assumption that guilt and repression belonged to the old order, but sexuality was still euphemistically called "the family." It was often treated in a "scientific" no-nonsense manner like a cold bath, rather than in terms of how men and women experienced each other and how this affected their whole consciousness. There was little attempt to understand the conditions necessary for women to make love in active enjoyment The material circumstances of female orgasm received as little real attention as they did in the west.

Though the revolution rather avoided discussion about making love, there was a great deal of debate about "love." Some communists dismissed love as bourgeois mystification. A Komsomol organization circular announced it was a "physiological phenomenon of nature."34Human experience was thus reduced to physical sensation. There was a spurious radicalism about such an attitude, which went sometimes with opposition to attractive clothing and formal politeness like hand-shaking. It was popular with the younger communists. Their casual attitude to sex — described in one novel as similar to going to the cinema — shocked the older generation, who had come to their ideas of "free unions" painfully and earnestly in desperate and stark situations while they had been opposing the old regime. They recoiled from what seemed like the brashness of the young, the nonchalant way in which they trod over feeling.

Lenin spoke for the older generation of party members in his conversation with Clara Zetkin. He condemned the hypocrisy of the old bourgeois morality with its double standards, and he recognized the significance of the changes which the revolution had brought in personal relations. He stressed that "Communism should not bring asceticism." He told her, "New boundaries are being drawn." He did not elaborate on who was to have the power nor on how boundaries were to be drawn. He identified the young communists’ rejection of tenderness and feeling as simply a reversal of the old hypocritical romantic attitudes. He understood how they could impose their own kind of tyranny. He attempted to distinguish between what he called the "glass of water" theory which conceived "free" love as being simply the satisfaction of desire, and the "free" communist unions which implied deep feeling and comradeship. Not surprisingly he reacted impatiently to the accusation of young communists that his ideas on the sex question were "survivals of a Social-Democratic attitude and old fashioned philistinism." He snorted indignantly against "yellow-beaked fledgelings newly hatched from their bourgeois tainted eggs."35

His statements, though obviously not carefully thought out, expressed an important contradiction. Theoretically the revolution was committed to release, to the development of free, unrepressed human beings, but practically the immediate task of creating a communist society from the chaos of the Soviet Union in the twenties required a great effort of self-discipline — in fact the good old virtues of the bourgeoisie in early capitalism: hard work, abstinence, and repression. To ignore this was to take cover in fantasy. Communism perhaps should not bring asceticism, but communists certainly needed a strong dose themselves if it was ever to be brought into being at all. The chaos of an unruly love life seemed to be completely unproductive for socialist reconstruction, so the shutters started to come down.

Continue to Part II.


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