Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia

Women in Soviet Russia; Marriage and Divorce

EVERYWHERE in our travels we saw illustrations of the general fact that sex differences do not count in the outer life of Soviet Russia. There were women conductors of tramcars, and often women did the switching at intricate junctions. Women worked at roadmending, and in factories they were doing heavy work alongside men. Many women engage in occupations usually regarded as suitable only for men, as, for instance, following the sea, and in underground mining. We met more women doctors than men doctors.(1) We all know that Russian women soldiers distinguished themselves in the Great War.

At one of our meetings with local authorities a woman acted as head and chief spokesman of a deputation of public health officials. Women, like men, become citizens at the age of eighteen. The industrial rule is to give equal pay for equal work, and no distinction is made between men and women in sickness insurance benefits; although women receive in addition maternity benefits. Women have actively promoted such institutions as public laundries, public dining centres, and public nurseries, which help to release them from household cares and free them for industrial and political activities. This political activity of women is not new; women played an important part in the "Nihilist" and other revolutionary activities. Moreover, women in Russia have always engaged in heavy labor, working side by side with men, but the control over their life and labor was entirely in the hands of men before the Revolution. Women in Russia have been completely emancipated. They enjoy complete political and economic equality.

Sex differences were swept away by an early act of the Soviet Government, except a few regulations to protect women in industry; and the equality is carried into the marriage relation. Either partner is free to dissolve it at his or her own free will or caprice.

This new order of things carries with it the implication that the husband is no more the family's provider of means than is the wife; and every capable wife is expected to earn her own living, barring special circumstances.

Clearly the relative position of woman has greatly changed under the new regime. Prior to the Revolution she was illiterate; now she has an equal opportunity with men for education and for work, and, as we have said in the preceding chapter, 90 per cent of Russians aged from eight to fifty have received at least a primary education. When she marries she is not deprived of her job. She has special privileges as regards care during pregnancy and after it (see page 192) ; but she is eligible for all occupations undertaken by men.

We do not propose to discuss the marriage laws presented in the following pages, as to their influence on the integrity of the family and the sum of happiness of married life. Evidently they must affect family life and communal welfare as we view it to an extent and in ways which cannot yet be measured.

On our visit to a marriage bureau in Moscow we observed that the walls of the waiting room were covered with diagrams and notes of advice. Thus :

A child should not be born in the midst of bad conditions.
Don't handle a child too much. [Pictures shown of right methods of handling.]
Every family. should have a medical emergency outfit.
If the family is crowded a child cannot be well reared.
The mother as soon as she leaves the Maternity Hospital should go to the special Consultation Clinic of her district. [At this she is allotted to one doctor continuously]

Here is the complete translation of the marriage particulars which are entered by the cleck:

Marriage Registration

Incidentally, we may note that each person has an identification book which he obtains at the age of eighteen from his local Police Office. This is always obtained. It can be checked from the Apartment House Register, and each person needs the identification book for all social purposes. Many carry it about with them. A second identification book is the trade union book, and a man can be married with this as identification.

We watched a double event, in which a divorce was secured and the person obtaining the divorce was remarried in the course of from ten to fifteen minutes. The man was about thirty years old and had married in 1922. He is a musician. There sat beside him facing the clerk, a young woman, who is a telephone operator. She watched the details of the divorce with interest and then proceeded to marry the man.

From the official Register of Divorce we obtained the following blank form:


At this point we may recall an interview with a Russian jurist during our voyage down the Volga. He said that bigamy is practicable only if a man or woman produces false identification cards, and this may mean five years' imprisonment. Apart from this there is little more limitation to marriage than to irregular sex relations apart from marriage. If, however, a man marries at frequent intervals with obvious disregard of future life, he may be prosecuted for seduction. Some restriction on frequent remarriages by a licentious man arises from the possibility of his prosecution if unworthy motives can be proved.

The children, if any, complicate divorce. The marriage registrar's duty is to record any agreement of the husband and wife as to the maintenance of the children; and in the absence of such agreement the amount of alimony for the children is settled by an ordinary lawsuit.

The same obligation can be enforced for unmarried couples with children who separate. Thus cohabitation and marriage are made synonymous in their legal consequences.

When the new divorce laws were introduced, divorces were very numerous. No general statistics are available, but the figures were undoubtedly high. The number of divorces has now decreased, but one cannot view the freedom to marry and divorce at the caprice of one person without questioning its influence on the continuity and integrity of the family in Russia, as in other countries in which similar conditions prevail.

Further, while Russian laws favor early "marriages," the married condition appears likely sometimes to be a subject of anxiety for women over thirty years of age. The danger is not of sexual promiscuity; but the shadow of possible separation may cloud the life of many women whose physical charms are passing. Thus it is possible that often "the odds are stacked" not only against the family, but even more so against the wife as she ages and loses her confidence that she can "keep her man."

Among the many conversations we had on the subject of marriage and divorce we may cite two or three.

The lawyer son of a distinguished biology professor in a capital city said to us that when the new law facilitating divorces was passed, divorces became much more numerous. This was the first impulse, in accord with psychology. As the experience of greater freedom became general, this excessive impulse exhausted itself, and now "divorces were only used when needed." The "formal fictions" of former illregulated and miserable life had been reduced, and there was now relatively little misapplication of the new freedom. The hypothetical case of a married woman who had ceased to be attractive was put to him. He regarded this as an abstract case, not fitting in with experience. Women were citizens like men, and there were strong inhibitory forces in custom and public opinion against inequitable action on the part of husbands.

An interview with an English tutor who has lived some years in one of the two chief cities of Russia elicited the opinion that it was a gain that as regards marriage everything is perfectly open and free. There is no furtiveness. The Russians are much less sexconscious than most peoples. He regarded the freedom from furtiveness as a great gain. Russian marriage laws, he said, are chaotic: but this gives the advantage of a start ab initio. It is the great virtue of Communism, he held, that it faces the facts.

An interview with a lady coming from an Englishspeaking country who has done social work in Russia for some years was even more interesting. She stated that in the old days divorce was almost impossible, even for those who were not Roman Catholics. Although this is not now so, millions of "misfits" continue to be linked together. It has to be remembered that people who were over thirtyfive at the time of the Revolution are practically unaffected by the change in national policy. In western countries problems are regarded from the personal standpoint, she pointed out, and chastity is a supremely important thing. The Russian does not take the same view. Chastity is admirable; but a girl who "slips," and still more a boy, is regarded as merely foolish. The feeling of shame is said to have nearly disappeared. The same was suggested in regard to the United States, but whether this is so to the same extent as in the U.S.S.R. is extremely doubtful. On the contrary, she declared, you will not see in Russia the fondling common elsewhere; and especially there is nothing analogous to the "parking out" of amorous couples in other countries.

We were ourselves struck by the complete absence of such manifestations in the many public parks and other centres of resort visited by us. A further illustration is that in railway trains a man and a woman who are strangers often sleep in the same compartment. No objection is taken to this; and we were informed by a Russian doctor that of course no advance is ever attempted "unless the woman shows that she desires it." There is, in fact, a large amount of camaraderie between Russian men and women which is innocent of sex impulses, but which in Anglo-Saxon countries would be otherwise viewed.

On the subject of divorce the lady interviewed was equally explicit. She regarded the dissolution of an unsatisfactory union as always desirable.

We may add a few instances which show how the divorce laws may work.

One is the story of a wife who ceased to love her husband and transferred her affections to a younger man. The husband was informed and the wife obtained a divorce and married the younger man. As it was extremely difficult for the former husband to secure a place to live, his exwife informed him that he might share the single room of the newly married couple; and the offer was acceed!

A recent play at a Moscow theatre had a didactic plot which is shortly summarized as follows: Two young men lodging in the same single room were embarrassed one evening, and eventually each of them informed the other that he had married and that his wife would join him that night. Amicable arrangements were made for screening the two halves of the room. It soon appeared that each of the men had married the wife who was more suitable by temperament, etc., for the other. They kept silent and a somewhat unhappy menage was maintained, until an old friend of both couples visited them. He diagnosed the situation, advised them accordingly, and soon there occurred a double divorce and a double marriage; and presumably they lived happily ever after!

A story occurring in real life touches another aspect of married life. A middleaged man married a young wife; no children came, much to the disappointment of both and especially of the husband. Then the wife announced that she was pregnant, and in due course a son was born, to whom the ostensible father was devoted. But the wife's conscience accused her, and eventually she confessed that the previous summer while on a holiday, which her husband had insisted on her taking, she had received the advances of a young man, with the sole purpose of supplying her husband with the child he so ardently desired. A reconciliation occurred and the family was not broken up.

As our aim in this and other chapters is to record rather than to judge, we refrain from general comments.

(1) According to Dr. Roubakine, in 1930 there were about 30,000 female and about 39,000 male doctors in the U.S.S.R. He states that in 1930-31 about 75 per cent of the students in the Institutes of Medicine were women.