Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

9. Revolution and counter-revolution in Russia



“Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order.” (V.I. Lenin)

The international movement of working women, as well as of the working class as a whole, reached unprecedented heights in the Russian revolution of 1917. It was a milestone in the emancipation of women: the first occasion on which the complete economic, political and sexual equality of women was put on the historical agenda. With workers’ control over production, the question of women workers’ control over the conditions of reproduction entered the arena.

New political, civic, economic and family codes aimed to wipe away centuries-old inequalities at one stroke. The new government granted women the full right to vote, passed divorce and civil laws that made marriage a voluntary relationship, eliminated the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, enacted employment rights for women equal to those for men, gave women equal pay, and introduced universal paid maternity leave. Adultery, incest and homosexuality were dropped from the criminal code. In July 1919 Lenin could write, with justifiable pride:

Take the position of women. In this field, not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic, has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power. We really razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it with disgusting formalities, denying recognition to children born out of wedlock, enforcing a search for their fathers, etc, laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilised countries. [1]

On the second anniversary of the revolution Lenin proudly announced:

In the course of two years of Soviet power in one of the most backward countries in Europe, more had been done to emancipate woman, to make her the equal of the “strong sex”, than has been done during the past 130 years by all the advanced, enlightened, “democratic” republics of the world taken together. [2]

And nineteen years after the October revolution Trotsky, looking back, could write:

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called family hearth – that archaic, stuffy, and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death ... The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters. [3]

Six weeks after the revolution civil marriage replaced the rule of the church, and before a year was out a marriage code was produced based on complete equality of rights between husband and wife, as well as between legitimate and “illegitimate” children. The decree of 19 December 1917 made divorce very simple: if the divorce was by mutual consent, dissolution took place on the spot; if a single claimant requested it, there was a brief court hearing. No grounds were needed, no contest, no evidence or witnesses, and no bitter, painful recommendation in public. Thus Soviet Russia became the only country in the world with full freedom of divorce. As regards the name of the married couple, a Code of 17 October 1918 stated: “Married persons use a common surname ... On the registration of marriage they may choose whether they will adopt the husband’s (bridegroom’s) or wife’s (bride’s) surname or their joint surnames.” [4] Trotsky took the name of his wife, Natalia Sedov, for citizenship requirements, and their sons also received her name. The new code went on:

Actual descent is regarded as the basis of the family, without any difference between relationships established by legal or religious marriage or outside marriage. Children descended from parents related by non-registered marriage have equal rights with those descended from parents whose marriage was registered. [5]

From the beginning the Bolsheviks thought that for women to be emancipated some limitation of the size of the family by birth control was necessary. Lenin had attacked laws against abortion or against the distribution of medical literature on methods of birth control as hypocrisy by the ruling classes. “These laws do not cure the ailments of capitalism, but only serve to render them more harmful, more difficult for the oppressed masses.” [6] A Decree on the Legalisation of Abortions was issued in November 1920. [7] Soviet Russia thus became the first country in the world to legalise abortion. To protect the health of women the decree stipulated: “... such operations to be performed freely and without any charge in Soviet hospitals, where conditions are assured of minimising the harm of the operation.” [8]

But the laws alone were far from enough to gain women real equality. The economic foundation of the traditional family had to be assaulted. This was attempted in a set of decrees abolishing the right of inheritance and transferring the property of the deceased to the state, which was to take over “women’s work” through its communal institutions: maternity homes, nurseries, kindergartens, schools, communal dining rooms, communal laundries, mending centres and so on. Lenin explained:

Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins. [9]

Kollontai, in a book titled Women’s Labour in Economic Development, published in 1923, stated:

... communal feeding has established itself with the town populations as an inevitable element in life. In Petrograd during 1919-20 almost 90 per cent of the entire population was fed communally. In Moscow more than 60 per cent of the population are registered with the feeding-halls. In 1920 twelve million town-dwellers were served in one way or another by communal feeding centres.

“Separation of kitchen from marriage” is a reform no less important than the separation of Church and State, at any rate in the history of woman ...

The new housing conditions created by the Workers’ Republic also played their part in the change in the living conditions of women. Hostels, communal quarters for families and especially for single people are multiplying. No other country has as many hostels as has the Workers’ Republic. And it is to be noted that everyone is eager to join communal quarters ... Communal houses are always superior in their fittings to private flats; they are supplied with light and heating; they often have constant hot water and a central kitchen; they are cleaned by professional cleaners; some are provided with a central laundry, others with a creche or nursery ...

Family households will inevitably die a natural death with the growth in number of communal houses of different types to suit different tastes ... Once it has ceased to be a unit of consumption, the family will be unable to exist in its present form – it will fall asunder, be liquidated ...

But ... care of children and their upbringing was no less a burden, chaining her to the house, enslaving her in the family. Motherhood is looked at from a new angle: the Soviet government regards it as a social obligation. With this principle in mind the Soviet government outlines a number of reforms tending to lift the burden of motherhood from woman’s shoulders and to place it on the state. [10]



The Zhenotdel

To communicate to women the new values embodied in the new legal and civil code, which proclaimed the equality of women in economic, political and family life, the Bolsheviks launched a major campaign for the political mobilisation of women. In September 1919 Lenin declared that “the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.” [11] In similar vein Inessa Armand wrote: “If the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.” [12]

Lenin expanded further on the theme in a talk with Clara Zetkin:

We cannot exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat without having millions of women on our side. Nor can we engage in communist construction without them. We must find a way to reach them. We must study and search in order to find this way ...

We derive our organisational ideas from our ideological conceptions. We want no separate organisations of communist women! She who is a Communist belongs as a member to the Party, just as he who is a Communist. They have the same rights and duties. There can be no difference of opinion on that score. However, we must not shut our eyes to the facts. The Party must have organs – working groups, commissions, committees, sections or whatever else they may be called – with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women, bringing them into contact with the Party and keeping them under its influence. This naturally requires that we carry on systematic work among women. [13]

The first conference of women convened by the Bolsheviks after the October revolution took place on 19 November 1917. Five hundred delegates representing 80,000 women from factories, workshops, trade unions and party organisations attended. The conference was called specifically for the purpose of mobilising support for the Bolsheviks in the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

A year later, on 16 November 1918, the Bolshevik Party convened the first all-Russian Congress of Working Women. It was organised by a commission which included Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollontai, Klavdiia Nikolaeva and Yaakov Sverdlov (secretary of the Bolshevik Party), who sent agitators to the provinces to arrange for the local election of delegates.

In the Kremlin Hall of Unions there gathered 1,147 women, including workers and peasant women from distant regions of the country. The programme presented to the congress was impressive: to win the support of women for Soviet power; to involve women in the party, government and trade unions; to combat domestic slavery and a double standard of morality; to establish communal living accommodation in order to release women from household drudgery; to protect women s labour and maternity; to end prostitution; to refashion women as members of the future communist society. Nikolaeva chaired the congress. Sverdlov welcomed the delegates. The main speeches were delivered by Kollontai and Inessa Armand. Lenin addressed the congress on its fourth day. After outlining the measures already taken by the Soviet government to improve women’s conditions, he called on women to play a more active political role. “The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.”

The congress led to the creation of Commissions for Agitation and Propaganda among Working Women. Their special methods of political work were elaborated by Kollontai at the Eighth Congress of the party in March 1919. She explained that because women were politically backward, the party had really not had much success in trying to approach and recruit them on the basis of general political appeals. Furthermore, she argued that it was women’s oppression which led to their lack of involvement in political life; the cares and concerns of the family and the household robbed the woman worker of her time and energy and prevented her from becoming involved in broader political and social pursuits. Kollontai proposed that the way to attract women to Bolshevism was to draw them into socially useful projects, such as day nurseries, public dining rooms and maternity homes, which would serve to liberate women in their everyday lives.

We have to conduct a struggle with the conditions which are oppressing the woman, to emancipate her as a housewife, as a mother. And this is the best approach toward women – this is agitation not only by words, but also by the deed. [14]

This principle of political organisation, which became known as “agitation by the deed”, was the distinctive feature of the activities of the Bolshevik women’s organisation in this early period. [15]

In September 1919 the Bolshevik central committee changed the Commission for Agitation and Propaganda among Working Women into the Women’s Section or Department of the Party (zhenski otdel, or zhenotdel), part of the central committee secretariat, under the leadership of Inessa Armand. Local branches of the Zhenotdel were attached to the party committees at every level, staffed by volunteers recruited among party women, and charged with conducting activities among the unorganised women in factories and villages, drawing them into public affairs.

Inessa Armand drew up a list of guiding principles for the Zhenotdel which she submitted to the first International Conference of Women Communists which took place in Moscow in July 1920. The Zhenotdely, by aiming to involve women who were not members of the Bolshevik Party, attempted to overcome the shortage of women party members: the total number of women in the party in 1920 was only 45,297, or 7.4 per cent of all members. [16]

The basic organising unit was a Delegates’ Conference of Worker and Peasant Women. The conference was modelled on the soviets. Elections were organised among women workers and peasants to select delegates – one for every five workers or twenty-five peasants – who would attend meetings and courses of instruction under party guidance and then be assigned to a variety of state, party, trade union and co-operative agencies. The delegates were involved in organising communal institutions for dining, hospitals, maternity homes, children’s homes and schools. Delegates also served in the people’s courts, sometimes in the capacity of judges. Delegates served for short terms – usually two to three months. The number of women actively involved was large. In the latter half of 1923 the Zhenotdely reported that the total number of delegates was about 58,000. [17]

In addition the Zhenotdel campaigned to mobilise women for support work in the civil war. Women performed medical services, served in the political departments of the Red Army, worked on communications, served in Saturday and Sunday work brigades, organised campaigns against desertion and epidemic diseases, and provided aid to the families of Red Army soldiers and to homeless children. [18]

One of the most important activities of each Zhenotdel was the spreading of literacy. “An illiterate person,” declared Lenin, “stands outside politics. He must first learn his ABC. Without that there can be no politics; without that there are rumours, gossip, fairy-tales and prejudices, but not politics.” [19] The literacy schools did not limit themselves to instruction in reading and writing, but became important vehicles for the dissemination of political, cultural and general educational work.

One of the leaders in the movement for women’s literacy was Nadezhda Krupskaia. Before the revolution, she had taught workers in evening schools. Now she devoted even more attention to this activity.

The director of Zhenotdel, who was answerable to the party secretariat, supervised not only all the internal affairs of the Zhenotdel proper, but extended her influence into every corner of life where women were involved. Bolshevik women leaders with their own particular responsibilities and interests such as V.P. Lebedeva (maternity), Krupskaia (education) and Mariya Ulyanova (journalism) interlocked their activities with those of the Zhenotdel. The Bolshevik women’s movement thus extended even beyond the national network of Zhenotdely. [20]

The Zhenotdel had a monthly paper of its own, Kommunistka (Woman Communist) with a print order in 1921 of 30,000. Its editorial group included Bukharin, Inessa Armand and Kollontai.

Inessa Armand drove herself to exhaustion, working sixteen hours a day or more. She was ordered by the party to the Caucasus for a rest. There, in October 1920, she caught cholera and died. Kollontai was chosen to succeed her. Her role ended after a year when she joined the Workers’ Opposition. Then in 1922 she was assigned to a diplomatic post in Norway.



The harsh reality

It is clear that the traditional work of women – nursing, rearing children, cooking – continued to be the lot of women during the civil war. On the other hand, the central task of the time – the military struggle – was largely confined to men.

In the Red Army women served in medical capacities. They also took part in propaganda, espionage and police work. A small minority served as riflewomen, armoured train commanders, gunners. They performed police work in the towns, and combat duty in time of enemy siege. A few acted as partisans, the most well-known and colourful being Larissa Reissner. Women played an important part in the propaganda work of the army. Thus Kollontai, after a brief period serving the government, threw herself into the work of propaganda in the army with great energy. She roamed the front on a specially equipped agitational train. The political work in the Red Army was carried on through the political sections in each unit. These were centrally co-ordinated by Varya Kasparova.

But the total number of women fighting in the civil war was comparatively small. According to one account for 1920, it was 73,858, of whom 1,854 became casualties. [21] The total number of soldiers in the Red Army in 1920 was about three million, of whom probably two million were to be casualties.

The sexual division of labour, like the division between manual and mental labour, could not be overcome in the society emerging from the barbarism of Tsarist Russia, stamped with the hallmarks of centuries of backwardness. The harsh conditions of the civil war were certainly not conducive to overcoming this inheritance. As Marx said:

Men do not build themselves a new world with “earthly goods” as vulgar superstition believes, but with the historical achievements of the old world which is about to go under. In the course of evolution they must begin entirely by themselves to produce the material conditions for a new society, and no effort of the human mind or will can release them from this fate. [22]

The mighty sweep of idealism, the courage and soaring hopes of the Bolsheviks, crashed against the terrible backwardness of Russia. Cruel history brought about a sharp contradiction between the grand aspirations of the workers and their actual material and cultural poverty. This was much aggravated by the seven years of war and civil war. Russia emerged from the civil war in a state of economic collapse “unparalleled in the history of mankind”, as an economic historian of the period writes. Industrial production was about a fifth of the 1914 level and the city population had shrunk. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920 epidemics, hunger and cold killed nine million Russians. The world war as a whole had claimed four million victims of all nations. [23]

The industrial working class suffered a catastrophic decline in morale and political consciousness. The dream of women for emancipation, as embodied in the decrees of the government and the activities of Zhenotdel, ran into the sand. First it was necessary to survive.

During the period of War Communism (1918-1920) it was taken for granted that full employment would prevail. If unemployment did arise, it would be temporary and on a small scale. With these assumptions the fight for a woman’s right to work was straightforward. And to start with, immediately after the October revolution, the unions dealt very equitably with women’s right to work. In April 1918 the Petrograd Council of Trade Unions addressed the following appeal to all workers and factory committees:

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 places ... The only effective measure against unemployment is the restoration of the productive powers of the country, reorganisation on a socialist basis ... We must decide each case individually. There can be no question of whether the worker is a man or a woman, but simply of the degree of need. [24]

This attitude was upheld by the other unions and government organisations.

The New Economic Policy (192 1-8), however, brought about widespread unemployment, rising from 175,000 in January 1922, to 625,000 in January 1923 and 1,240,000 in January 1925. [25] Since unskilled workers were the first to be laid off, and women were for the most part unskilled, they were the worst hit by unemployment.

In March, 1923, women constituted 58.7 per cent of the unemployed in Petrograd and 63.3 per cent of the unemployed in the textile-producing centre of Ivanovo-Voznesensk. In the textile industry itself they constituted from 80 to 95 per cent of the unemployed in Moscow, Petrograd, and Ivanovo-Voznesensk. At the urging of the Zhenotdel the Commissariat of Labour decreed that in instances where men and women had the same level of skills, women should not be the first fired, but the Zhenotdel admitted that it was impossible to enforce quotas for the retention of women in the labour force. Even Communist Party members argued that it was unprofitable to employ women under the principle of equal pay for equal work, because the extensive laws protecting female labour made it more costly to hire women. (In early 1924 the Zhenotdel agreed to lift the ban on night work for women, in order to give employers as little excuse as possible to lay off women workers.) [26]

The principle of equal pay for equal work, and the laws protecting female labour, were not being observed even in state enterprises.

Unemployment delivered a severe blow to attempts at women’s liberation, and the economic dependence of women on men got a boost. Oppressive, reactionary trends were strengthened, as the state sought to cut expenditure, and the extensive communal institutions of War Communism – communal kitchens, dining halls, children’s homes and creches – were run down. It was estimated in November 1925 that “public dinners” were served to only 20,000 workers in Moscow, 50,000 in Leningrad, and 67,000 in the provinces, a total of 137,000. Only three out of a hundred children were provided with places in creches. All the rest were reared entirely in individual families.

Women were pushed back into domestic slavery. The plight of children added to the woman’s burden. Dislocation and poverty resulting from the war and civil war produced a massive army of abandoned children, the so-called besprizorniki, many of whom took to crime. In 1922 it was estimated tht the number of homeless children was as high as nine million. [27] The numbers were constantly increasing as parents failed to provide for their children. The pressure, on women above all, to preserve the family hearth as a haven for children was overwhelming. Because of the economic circumstances of the time, the freedom of divorce, when children were involved, meant “the woman remains tied with chains to the ... ruins of the family hearth. The man, happily whistling, can leave it.” [28]

Divorce therefore came to appear to women not only, or even mainly, as a harbinger of freedom, but of destitution. Men were far more willing to divorce their wives than wives their husbands. A sample of 500 questionnaires about broken homes which was discussed at a Viborg district conference showed that 70 per cent of separations were unilaterally initiated by men, and only 7 per cent by mutual agreenient. [29]

The question of divorcees’ entitlement to alimony, not even mentioned in the 1918 Family Code, became crucial for women in the 1920s. A long public discussion during 1925 convinced the government that a new Family Code was needed, to include the guarantee of alimony. If men could be forced to support their families, they might not abandon so many women or father so many unwanted children. The proposed law also entitled the spouse in common law marriages, those that had not been registered, to alimony. Furthermore, it asserted the right of the wife to share the property which the couple had acquired during their marriage.

The strongest pressure for the preservation of the traditional family came from the peasantry, who made up some four-fifths of the country’s population. They looked to stability of the family to protect the farm. Thus in the debate on the newly suggested family code, one woman stated:

There are many of these divorces, but consider: do they benefit us in any way? Every one of us, every man or woman, will agree, they do not. For example: a man and a woman get divorced. They own a little house, a cow, and they have three children. And here they are, splitting their little property in two. The mother of course will not leave the children with the father, for children are always dearer to the mother. What is the woman to do now, with her children? There is no danger for the husband. He will find another woman to live with. But for the wife life under such conditions is terribly difficult. The result of it all is poverty, and we have too much of that as it is. [30]

Another woman complained:

Burdening the entire family with the payment of alimony is naturally liable to interfere with our agriculture. I consider it unfair, and I think it will lead to nothing but a campaign of ill-feeling against women. If, for example, three brothers live together and possess one cow, and the court decides that alimony is to be paid by the whole family, is the cow to be divided into small pieces? No good will have come from such a decision, but the farm will have been ruined. [31]

In the harsh economic conditions of the 1920s the greater freedom of sex and marriage entailed the exploitation and abuse of women (and children). Taking the real circumstances into account, Trotsky supported the Family Code of 1926 as a necessary evil, a form of protection for women, although it was a great retreat from the 1918 Family Code.

The drastic deterioration of the position of women in the 1920s expressed itself also in a resurgence of prostitution. During the period of War Communism prostitution almost completely disappeared. In 1921 the number rose to 17,000 in Petrograd and 10,000 in Moscow, according to official statistics. In the next year the Petrograd figure climbed to 32,000, grimly signalling the fact that the problem was again reaching pre-revolutionary proportions. In the course of a single year, from April 1924 to April 1925, 2,228 procurers and proprietors of brothels were arrested for crimes connected with prostitution.



The counter-revolution

The massive industrialisation and forced collectivisation of agriculture which was launched in 1928-9 was a turning point in the history of Russia, transforming the country into a state capitalist regime. [32] The regimentation of the working class brought about a number of radical changes in working women’s conditions. Millions of women were rapidly mobilised into the labour force.

Female Workers and Employees 1922-1941 [33]


Number of Female Workers and Employees

Per cent of Total













The massive employment of women represents the potential for their liberation, but in itself is no liberation, it may indeed impose a double burden. The following facts in an article entitled Socialism and the Family, published in 1936 in a serious Soviet journal, deserve severe deprecation rather than congratulation:

Women play a very negligible role in capitalist mining industry. The proportion of women to the total numbers employed in the mining industries is, for France (1931), 2.7 per cent; for Italy (1931), 1.8 per cent; for Germany (1932), 1.0 per cent; USA (1930), 0.6 per cent; and in Great Britain, 0.6 per cent. In the USSR women represent 27.9 per cent of the total number of people working in the mining industry. [34]

The pattern of Stalinist industrialisation, with its extreme concentration of investment in heavy industry, led to the neglect of precisely those economic sectors of activity that might have lightened the burden of working women, such as housing, consumer goods and services.

The Stalinist regime also strengthened conservative attitudes. Now the authorities found the family useful, not only because it provided what the state did not – domestic work and child care – but also because it reinforced the bureaucracy’s need for conservative supports throughout society. As Trotsky so aptly put it in 1936 in Revolution Betrayed: “The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations ...”

In 1934 homosexuality was made a criminal offence, punishable with up to eight years imprisonment, and an energetic nationwide campaign was launched against sexual promiscuity, quick and easy marriage, and adultery.

Motherhood became a central theme of propaganda. “A woman without children merits our pity, for she does not know the full joy of life. Our Soviet women, full-blooded citizens of the freest country in the world, have been given the bliss of motherhood.” [35]

In 1936 legal abortion was abolished, except where life or health were endangered or a serious disease might be inherited.

The laws of l935-6 also provided some sanctions against divorce: fees of 50, 150 and 300 rubles for the first, second and subsequent divorces. Probably more important, it required entry of the fact of divorce in the personal documents of those involved. [36] Sexual freedom was virulently attacked and puritanism extolled. A British observer who stayed in Russia for a long period wrote:

Soviet sex morality today demands of young people continence until marriage and associates sex with children and family. Woe to the young factory worker or college student, man or woman, who is discovered to have had an affair outside marriage. The event is publicised and all the ignominy that stinging rebukes or Komsomol (Young Communist League) resolutions can evoke is levelled at the guilty one. [37]

He tells the sad tale of Galina, accused of “immoral” conduct with a young married man. The factory Komsomol organiser, whose assistance she sought to get the rumour scotched, could only suggest that she “go to a clinic, get a certificate of virginity, and show it around.” [38]

The regime trumpeted the sanctity of the family. “Marriage is ... a lifelong union ... Moreover, marriage receives its full value for the State only if there is progeny, and the consorts experience the highest happiness of parenthood.” [39] Scapegoats were found for sexual laxity and the instability of marriage:

The enemies of the people, the vile fascist hirelings – Trotsky, Bukharin, Krylenko and their followers – covered the family in the USSR with filth, spreading the counter-revolutionary theory’ of the dying out of the family, of disorderly sexual cohabitation in the USSR, in order to discredit the Soviet land. [40]

A further step in the sexual counter-revolution was the abolition of co-education in 1943. A. Orlov, director of the Moscow Municipal Department of National Education, wrote on the subject on 10 August 1943:

... the programme of education and the curriculum for boys’ schools and girls’ schools can be and must be differentiated. It is essential to introduce in girls’ schools such additional subjects as pedagogics, needlework, courses in domestic science, personal hygiene and the care of children. In boys’ schools, training in handicrafts must become a part of the curriculum.

Another Russian writer explained that co-education was harmful, as it led to “covering up of masculine and feminine traits which are of social value.”

... what we must have now is a system by which the school develops boys who will be good fathers and manly fighters for the socialist homeland, and girls who will be intelligent mothers competent to rear the new generation. [41]

Stalinist reaction as regards the family reached its climax with the law of 8 July 1944 which introduced heavy sanctions against divorce. A judicial process of divorce was instituted, and the fees raised to high levels – between 500 and 2,000 rubles. Such sums were prohibitive to all but the most affluent. In the judicial process the lower court was required to make every effort to effect reconciliation. If this proved impossible, the case was to be taken to a higher court, which could actually grant the divorce. A fundamental innovation was that the court could reject the suit. The law re-established the legal differences between a child born in wedlock and one born out of wedlock. The latter could not claim the surname (patronymic), the support or the inheritance of his or her father. [42]

A scale of cash payments was introduced to encourage mothers to have more children. Mothers with a large number were also awarded special decorations: “Motherhood Medal, First Class and Second Class for those with five to six children; Motherhood Glory, First, Second and Third Class, for those who produced seven, eight or nine children; Heroine Mother for those who bore and brought up ten children.” Bachelors, single citizens and citizens with small families were penalised by having to pay a special new tax. [43] The ideal of motherhood was associated with the newly triumphant Great Russian nationalism and the idea of the “Motherland”.

With the transformation of Russia into a state capitalist regime, reference to the “Woman Question” as a distinct subject of political and ideological concern ceased. An index of party resolutions and decrees over the years 1917-1967 lists 301 entries on the subject Women for the period 1917-1930, and only three for the next 37 years. [44]

Stalinist counter-revolution did not limit itself to the field of sexual relationships, but engulfed the whole of society. It established a massive, exploiting, highly-privileged state bureaucracy. In the 1940s the phenomenon of “Soviet millionaires” was reported in the Russian press. Autocratic one-man management was established in the factories. Generals receiving fat salaries and entitled to large pensions commanded soldiers who earned a pittance. Millions of peasants were expropriated and forced into collective farms. Millions were incarcerated in slave labour camps. Mass purges culminated in the frame-ups of the Moscow Trials during 1935-8, which led to the murder of a whole generation of old Bolsheviks. The death sentence for theft was introduced for youths. [45]

The subjection of women was but one aspect of the Stalinist counter-revolution.



The radical feminist interpretation

In complete contrast to the above analysis is the radical feminist interpretation of these events. Thus for instance Shulamith Firestone writes:

... the failure of the Russian Revolution to achieve the classless society is traceable to its half-hearted attempts to eliminate the family and sexual repression. This failure, in turn, was due to the limitations of a male- biased revolutionary analysis based on economic class alone, one that failed to take the family fully into account even in its function as an economic unit. [46]

The well-known sexologist Wilhelm Reich had a different interpretation. He argued that if the Soviet Union had only not reversed its early plan to change family organisation and liberate sexuality, socialism would not have been defeated.

Here consciousness is endowed with more power than economic, social and military realities. For such writers Russia’s backwardness, the industrial losses during the Civil War, the numerical weakness of the working class, the failure of the European revolution, these are nothing compared to the sexual policies of the rulers of Russia. But what are the roots of the sexual and family policies of the rulers of Russia? What shaped them? What made them change?



Into the desert ...

The defeat of the Russian working class at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy led to catastrophic defeats of the international working class. For a whole historical period not only did the working- class movement as a whole retreat, but even more its women members. If social advance, as Marx pointed out, can be gauged by the advance of women, so also can retreat. The question of women’s liberation was pushed right off the agenda for half a century.

At the same time, bourgeois feminism was dead. Once the bourgeois women achieved the vote, they stopped their agitation against male privilege. In the face of the general crisis of capitalism, they became a prop of reaction.


1. V.I. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women (Moscow 1977), p.65.

2. V.I. Lenin, Soviet Power and the Status of Women, in Works, Vol.30, p.40.

3. L. Trotsky, Women and the Family (New York 1974), p.61.

4. R. Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family in the USSR (London 1949), p.35.

5. Schlesinger, p.37.

6. Quoted in Schlesinger, p.310.

7. Schlesinger, p.44.

8. Schlesinger, p.44.

9. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp.65-6.

10. Quoted in Schlesinger, pp.48-53.

11. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, p.72.

12. Quoted in B.E. Clements, Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai (Bloomington 1979), p.155.

13. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp.111 and 110.

14. Quoted in C.E. Hayden, The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party, in Russian History/Histoire Russe III:2 (1976), p.156.

15. Hayden, p.157.

16. T.H. Rigny, Communist Party Membership in the USSR 1917-67 (Princeton 1968), p.36.

17. Hayden, p.168.

18. Hayden, p.159.

19. Lenin, Works, Vol.33, p.78.

20. Stites, p.335.

21. Stites, pp.32 1-2.

22. K. Marx, Die Moralisierende Kritik und die Kritische Moral. Beitrag zur deutschen Kulturgeschichte, Gegen Karl Heinzen, Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Marx, Engels und Lassalle (Stuttgart 1902), Bd.2, p.456.

23. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.4, p.121.

24. J. Smith, Women in Soviet Russia (New York 1928), pp.15-17.

25. Cliff, Lenin, vol.4, p.146.

26. Hayden, p.169.

27. K.H. Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1968), p.73.

28. Geiger, pp.61-2.

29. Stites, p.371.

30. Schlesinger, p.99.

31. Schlesinger, p.140.

32. See the development of this argument in T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London 1974) especially chapter 4.

33. G.W. Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society (Berkeley 1978), p.166.

34. Quoted in Schlesinger, p.287.

35. Quoted in Schlesinger, p.254.

36. Schlesinger, p.278.

37. Quoted in D. and V. Mace, The Soviet Family (London 1964), p.86.

38. Mace, p.87.

39. Sotsialisticheskaya Zakonnost (1939) No.2 quoted in N. Timasheff, The Attempt to Abolish the Family in Russia, in The Family (New York 1960), p.59.

40. Geiger, p.104.

41. Quoted in Schlesinger, pp.364 and 393-4.

42. Schlesinger, pp.3734.

43. Schlesinger, pp.367-73.

44. R.H. McNeal, Guide to the Decisions of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union 1917-67 (Toronto 1972).

45. For a documented analysis see Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia.

46. S. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York 1970), p.198.


Last updated on 29.8.2002