Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia


The ideals of the present tend to become the facts of the future. This is a generalisation which any enthusiastic student is liable to forget, and it is such an easy thing to forget when studying Soviet Russia, especially if one is a social worker, and feels that at last a group is working on a solution to those problems which have confronted society since time immemorial. We wax enthusiastic over Marxianism, and, by so doing, we forget that the world is not yet organised into a Soviet and so we find fault with what the present-day exponents of Marx are doing. To my mind, it is necessary before judging the U.S.S.R., to know a little of its history, its mores, its geography and, above all, the mental functions of its people, which means their reaction to Communism and the other religions which have so far touched them. To understand the effects of Communism, we must at this stage of its development consider the city people, the proletariat, for is not Communism striving to make the worker an efficient being and then to model all men after him, which means to make all persons workers in the proletarian sense? When speaking of Social experiments to the layman in capitalistic countries, it is necessary for him first to realise that a man is not revolutionary because he is down and out. You will find more die-hard conservatism in a doss house than in the drawing-room of the richest capitalistic family. Karl Marx told us the reason when he said, "Communism was conceived in the womb of Capitalism." Then, to quote Bonar Thompson, one of the most outspoken British Socialists, "Capitalism must therefore have been a very healthy mother, or Communism would have been an abortion." It would take a whole book to explain and expound that philosophy: but, in a word, it means simply that the highest form of Communism, functioning anarchy, will evolve from the acme of capitalism, and not from the seething dissatisfaction of those who are down and out -- if, indeed, they are seething with dissatisfaction. We find that the person who is economically and socially inferior will say with complete conviction, "I believe in equality, but not for the likes of him." No financially secure person will make such a statement, or even dream of doing so, for, to him, all men are equal. He believes whole-heartedly in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and tells you so on every possible occasion. In so doing he proves himself to be even more of a snob than his class-conscious inferior. For why should anyone be inferior today when the world belongs to the self-made man? A man is inferior only because he is either pathologically deficient, or because he has not been diligent, for ill fortune as an insurmountable barrier is not admitted by the successful man. If he is pathologically deficient, he is to be pitied -- if he is lazy, he deserves what he gets.

Russia, in common with all countries, has had its brilliant moments in history, but, on the whole, it is considered to be backward. This is not solely due to its geographical remoteness, but rather to its inclination for seizing and toying with Western ideas long after the Western World has discarded them. So far, its successes and also its failures have been due to the exploitation of its common people. Russian history can only concern itself with the history of the achievements of its ruling class, since the history of the people is darkened with that obscurity which always veils the unimportant. In the past, Russia has been Dark Russia; and we only know that, until 1917, it was a clumsy subdivided mass which had its lack of unity to blame for its unimportance. We know that at times it was overrun by invaders, and that it numbed and absorbed those conquerors until they too became other phases of dark Russia. Someone once said that Russia was like a great sponge: it absorbed but for all practical purposes it seemed to be always the same. But would it not be better to say: that Russia remained much the same and really absorbed very little; but rather, it starved out all those new ideas with which it came in contact, not because it was unfertile, but because it was unable to cope with such ideas, due to the all-pervading illiteracy of its people, the difficulty of transport, and the backwardness of the selfish governing class.

When civil war came to Russia, it came because the people no longer needed to be exploited, divided and subdivided in order to get the best out of itself. Now the Revolutionary Movement has control of Russia, and its greatest problem is not getting the new Government recognised by the rest of the world, but combating the deficiencies of its native supporters. It is hard to instill friendship and co-operation between races and classes of people who have been trained by tradition to look down upon each other. It is especially hard in Russia, where the distances are so great, where transportation is so little developed, where languages vary so much, where illiteracy is almost universal and where consequently, ideas are so crude. The first two things, therefore, with which the Soviet has to concern itself before Communism can become universal in the U.S.S.R. are transport and education. Establishing both is a difficult and arduous task, but popular education is the more difficult of the two, for transportation means simply the surmounting of economic and physical barriers, while mass education means the surmounting of financial as well as physical barriers, plus a terrific fight against centuries of deadening social traditions. Neither of these can be achieved in a day (there are many who doubt whether they can ever be achieved) and this we must remember when speaking of Soviet Russia, of which we are always inclined to ask too much. We must weigh twelve years of the new experiment against a thousand years of social inertia, and, if those twelve years weigh anything at all, they are worth considering.

The methods employed in the U.S.S.R. to ensure the protection of women and children are simple, with the simplicity characteristic of the first steps taken in the carrying out of any new experiment. I have endeavoured rather sketchily to develop in the previous chapter, the processes of thought which led to the concept that women and children should be protected by the State. Using, as a working hypothesis, the concept that they must have protection or the social system under which they live will destroy itself, it is natural to conclude that social and, as far as possible, physical equality for women (which includes the efficient protection of children) are economic necessities and therefore inevitable. In a regime such as that of the Russian Bolsheviki which holds these views, the question of feminine rights is a paramount social problem which justifies any expenditure of time or energy.

When the Bolsheviki came into power, they formed the Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child, an organisation whose function is to maintain and promote in a practical way Communist theories regarding the rights of women, an organisation which was formed in order to enable women and children to enjoy their theoretical, legal, and social freedom. Although naturally much of the care of women and children must of necessity be done by other government organisations such as the Commissariat of Public Health, still they are responsible to the Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child for the work they do regarding women and infants. This Institute is divided into three sections:

a) A section for caring for the medical phases of women's and children's rights.

b) A section which deals with the social phases of their rights, and

c) A section caring for the legal phases of their rights.

The medical section occupies itself with those medical organisations which are necessary to present-day society and which are usually seen in the cities. There are hospitals of all kinds, maternity homes, neighbourhood clinics (for general as well as special ills), and there are numerous local clinics known as Points of Consultation, which deal exclusively with all medical matters concerning women and also concerning children under three years of age. There are also many medical research laboratories which experiment with those ideas which are thought to be of some value to women and children.

The section which deals with the social phases of women's and children's rights is by far the largest, for it comprises not only the liquidation of illiteracy, but the providing of all women with instructive pastimes. Its duty is to give them books which will not only have a practical significance for them in their care of themselves, their homes, and their children, but to see to it that these books are suited to the various mentalities and educations of the women for whom they are intended. It also must provide for women's meetings, lectures, and discussions, both formal and informal. It must organise groups for showing women easier methods of home, child, and self-care. Museums and exhibitions of all types which concern women come under the direction of the social section of the Institute, which is an important contributor to the propaganda schemes of the Soviet for furthering, by means of advertisement, the practical benefits of Communism. Explanations in meetings and literature on the theories and benefits of the methods employed by the Soviet Women's Trade Union also comes under the social section of the Institute for the Protection of Women and Children.

The section dealing with the legal rights of women and their children provides judicial councils, where women can go to obtain free legal advice regarding themselves at any time they may need it. Such legal consultation is usually given by a special department in the clinics which care for the health of women and children. In this way the women can, if they so desire, be in constant touch with expert legal advisers. This section of the Institute is also in constant contact with the Marriage and Divorce Courts, and has advice sections concerning them and other legal phases of women's rights.

Certain functions of the Institute require the combined attention of the Social and Medical sections, and some of them even come, in part at least, under the Commissariat for Education. For example, children's nurseries combine the two sections and the Commissariat of Education. Gynaecological Clinics which deal with Birth Control and Abortion and pregnant women are not only medical and social in that they care for the physical well-being of the women who attend them, but they also educate them to take care of themselves. The material which is given them to read in the clinics, though on medical subjects, is composed and compiled under the direction of the Commissariat of Education. Clinics, etc., dealing with after-birth care of women and children are also not merely medical and social since they too require the aid of the Education Department. They also have as one of their functions the dispensing of milk in the milk kitchens, some of which is received without payment by those women who hold, or whose husbands hold, social insurance. Home visits by nurses from the Points of Consultation are not merely social, nor are they solely medical, for home visitors are carefully chosen so that the Commissariat of Education can know that the people visited are being influenced in the best possible way, especially regarding their private lives. The creche, a day nursery where working women may leave their very young children, combines most admirably all the functions of the Institute, since the creche occupies itself not only with the children but also with the mothers and their care of their children. The children receive expert physical care, and, at the same time, are educated not only to meet the requirements of kindergarten and school, but they are from the very first trained to fit into a Communist society. Co-operation, a purely social function, and a very difficult trait to be instilled into very young children, is the one outstanding concept which is maintained throughout the entire creche regime. All Institutions dealing with the unwell and the abnormal, as for example, Hospitals for the Diseases of Women and Children, Institutions for the care of the mentally deficient child or woman, Institutions which are concerned with prostitution and other factors, such as dope addiction, which render persons socially unfit, are at least partially under the guidance of the Institute for the Protection of Women and Children, as are also hospitals and institutions and propaganda dealing with the curtailing of venereal disease.

The practical significance of Communist theories on the ensuring of equal rights for men and women and on the care of children, is that organisation of definite social importance has arisen which cannot help but affect the technique of social work all over the world; since for the first time, such work has been organised and is under direction of State supported and non-profit organisations. Medical, social, and educational work under this Institution must also benefit by being organised into groups responsible to a single organisation whose purposes are clearly defined by necessity, tradition, and law. The details of the work of the Institute of Protection of Women and Children are so many and so involved that they justify the most minute study. The Institute's work follows to a great extent, especially in the application of its ideas, those methods used by the most advanced social workers of all countries. In some aspects, of course, it is behind Germany and the United States, but in many it is far ahead of any other country, especially in its experiments, since it is less hampered by tradition and can profit by being a unit and being responsible to the Soviet Government only, and not to various groups of philanthropic supporters, who are always inclined to ask for things of which they know nothing.

Twelve years of work on the protection of women and children have been completed: One half while conditions were normal; the other half during a time of war, famine, and disease. In troubled times, most of which occurred before the foundation of the Institute, the function of the Government in this respect was rather of a different nature than it is now, for then it was necessary to give shelter to thousands of homeless children [Note: Contrary to a widespread idea. very few of these homeless children are to he seen at the present time, for the Government has provided occupations for all of them.] and a considerable number of adults. The combating of hunger was, at that time, a very difficult matter since the whole country was starving; also, it was necessary to attempt to check the numerous epidemics which were then raging over the country.

Only recently has the Institute been able to lay foundations for constructive work, and to make their organisation one which will be of use in case there should ever again be a repetition of those hardships which were experienced directly after the Revolution. To take only one example to show how even in so short a time the Institute has proved its worth, child mortality has decreased thirty per cent during the last ten years in the entire Soviet Union. There is an increasing popularity for the various departments of the Institute, and every year more Points of Consultation are established, more creches, more hospitals of all sorts, more night schools for women factory workers, more social organisations available for the married woman who is working and more museums dealing with the needs of women and children, etc., etc. Above all, these departments are not neglected by the women who patronise them freely as soon as they find that they, themselves, are the ones to profit by them in the end, and that they soon discover. In 1929, 108,000,000 rubles were spent in the protection of Women and Children in the U.S.S.R., which means about $54,000,000, or about L11,000,000. The sum is tremendous but it can easily be seen that it would not be nearly enough were the Government accomplishing in the entire U.S.S.R. what it is doing in certain centres, for that would require not only infinitely more money, but also an intricate machine with which to carry out the work. The Soviet Government is obviously too poor now to attempt any such complete scheme, and must content itself with slowly working on until it finally reaches the place where it covers the whole country, not only in this matter but in all matters relative to improving social conditions. The mere matters of letting the people of the entire U.S.S.R. know that the Government is a communal organisation, and of explaining the aims and purposes of the new politics is such a tremendous task that one can scarcely expect it to be accomplished in one year, and not even in ten years. It would be impossible, therefore, to hope that what applies in this line to the women and children of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Karkov, Stalingrad, etc., and co-operative farms and villages, would apply to the whole of the Soviet Union.

Jessica Smith, in her book, Women in Soviet Russia, writes :

Certainly their plans far exceed their capacities for fulfilling them. Lack of means prevents the realisation of many of them. Children's Institutions in smaller cities are sometimes a dreary travesty of the Moscow models. There are villages where the Mothers and Infants Department (that organisation the title of which I have translated as the Institute for the Protection of Women and Children) has never been heard of.

It will be interesting to watch the progress of this line of Soviet endeavour, for its development is the forerunner of new type of social work. The bare beginning, all that we can see now, is already of such social significance that more than one book has been written on it by the outstanding thinkers of Western countries, and we can but expect that as the experiment continues it will grow more and more valuable and interesting.