Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia


The Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child has formed a fairly unique institution for the care of those women who have just had children, and who have no homes or money and no prospect of getting either. In addition, the inmates must be untrained in any kind of work, so that the chances of their getting jobs would be slim. The recruits come from the streets and are in a penniless condition.

The primary function of this Hostel is to get both the mother and her child in good mental and physical health. (Only women whose mental ages are above fifteen years are allowed to stay in the Hostel.) If they are mentally deficient they are sent to the appropriate institution for special care. In addition to receiving food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their children, they are taught a trade which they themselves select from the small variety of occupations offered by the Hostel.

There is only one of these Hostels in all the U. S. S. R. and it is located in Moscow. It was founded in 1923 and a creche was added in 1927. This institution takes care of about eighty-five mothers and ninety children. The majority of these women, before they became pregnant, were household servants or came from the country. In either case, they have nowhere to stay and no work to do. Very few of them are widows, since most of them were deserted by their husbands after the consummation of unregistered marriages. In spite of the fact that a good many of them only stayed with their husbands for a very short time, they have the status of legally married women, and according to the laws of the U. S. S. R. the children are not illegitimate, even though their fathers may be legally married to other women and have in reality taken advantage of their mothers. In the Hostel there is a resident lawyer who attends to the legal rights of the inmates, attempts to discover who the husbands were, and tries to get alimony from them for the children, whenever possible. In addition to taking care of such destitute women and their children, one of the main duties of the Hostel is to discover those men who have deserted their wives, and to see to it that they do not harm other women in the same manner. The Hostel, therefore, is an organ for the proper carrying out of the marriage laws in Russia, for, whenever possible, it makes the men concerned understand that they cannot live with a woman without paying for it because a man is responsible for every child he brings into the world, no matter what the circumstances may be.

The women come from the maternity hospitals after it has been proved that they are really destitute and otherwise eligible to the institution. They stay about six months with their children, and during that time are trained in some useful work at which they can earn their livings for the rest of their lives. No woman is ever sent away from the Hostel unless she has received definite employment which makes her immediate future economically secure.

The women themselves take care of the children, clean the rooms, do the laundry work and the cooking. Those who are especially intelligent, and who show an aptitude for and the desire to care for children are allowed to take a special course in child nursing. Student nurses stay longer than six months in the Hostel, for they do not leave until they are fully qualified. The women are not paid for the work they do, nor are they required to pay for their board and keep. All the clothing is given by the State to both women and children unless, of course, they want to wear their own clothes, which is very seldom the case as they are usually in rags when they arrive. When they leave the Hostel, which is after they have received outside employment, they are given ten rubles (about five dollars) with which to buy themselves new clothing.

All the work of the Hostel is done under the direction of experts, and their equipment is up-to-date. The inmates are divided into working units in which they learn the most modern and efficient methods of cleaning, cooking, nursing, and caring for children. No woman works in the Hostel more than seven hours a day, and most of them much less than that. Therefore, those women who have spare time and who desire to do so are allowed to go out of the Hostel into a neighbouring workshop where, for half a day, they learn machine sewing. They are not paid for this work either, since any earnings they might have had from the workshop go to the maintenance of the Hostel.

During the first four to five weeks of residence, before they are physically able to do full-time work, and before they have had a chance to decide which kind of work they would like to do, most of their instruction is in the classroom. It is natural to suppose that scarcely any of these women are really literate, and none of them are well educated. Therefore, during these first few weeks they are taught to read and write, and this type of education continues while they stay at the Hostel. It is interesting to note here that many Russian people are what is known as half-literate, which means that they can read but cannot write. No matter what the educational standing of the women in this Hoste1 may be, they try to improve it. As always in Russia, when adults are taught to read and write they are not given books on childish and unimportant matters, but their instruction is based on the reading of subjects which naturally would be interesting to them. In this case, the women are given books on the care of themselves and their children, their new social advantages under the Soviet Government, etc., all phrased in the simplest language. After the women begin doing regular work during the day, they are encouraged to receive such instruction in the evenings, which are free to be used as they like, but which, in the circumstances, they usually spend in their clubroom where they have every convenience to enjoy and educate themselves.

The medical care in the Hostel follows that usual to all Russian social institutions, and for that reason is less outstanding than the unique social experiment which is being carried on there. The duty of the institution is to make good proletarians out of women who do not work, perhaps because they do not know how, but certainly because they did not try to learn. The difficulties are especially overwhelming because the women, as soon as they enter the Hostel, are insured at least six months of good care, and they have the advantage of living in the Hostel only because they are so poor. With women in this class it is difficult to keep the advantages of the Hostel from seeming to be rewards for poverty, thereby killing incentive to work. On the whole, they are very hard to reach, not only because they are nervous, suffering from malnutrition but because most of them have little inclination to live, and therefore no desire to work. The only possible way of approaching them when they first arrive is to teach them to make the clothes that their children require. Sewing also gives a very good opportunity for the instructors to acquaint themselves with the inmates, for it naturally leads to conversation regarding the children. It is very difficult to make these mothers, most of whom are anemic and all of whom are nervous, enjoy themselves and take an interest in their clubroom and the cultural and educational advantages offered there. Their state of health makes it impossible for the instructors to treat them as children and force them to work, and for that reason every time they try to approach a woman, it must be by means of her child.

Everything possible is done to make the Hostel attractive. It is a beautiful building, having formerly been an abandoned monastery and a church. The light, airy monks' cells are used as bedrooms, since they are large enough to accommodate from two to three women and their babies. Beside each woman's bed is a crib where her baby may sleep at night. The walls of these rooms are brightly coloured and decorated with pictures, and the furniture is arranged according to the tastes of the women. In the hall outside the rooms, each woman has a large locker of her own. During the daytime newly born babies are put in the former Abbot's room, which is a beautiful large place absolutely secluded from the rest of the monastery. That room remains the infants' nursery until they are six weeks old, after which they are transferred to the second group whose nursery is in the church itself. This creche does not differ from any other which I have seen, except that the mothers themselves do the work of the creche under the guidance of a doctor and six trained nurses. One of the chapels is now a shower room, and another serves admirably as a bathroom.

The monastery and church are well adapted to the needs of the Hostel, for in the beginning it was built as a luxurious residential institution. The former kitchen and pantries are in excellent order, and are as fine as any I have seen. The monks' dining-room accommodates exactly the number of women who live in the Hostel, and nothing could serve better as bedrooms than the well-equipped and luxurious cells. The Abbey's library and the choir room adjoining it are put to good use, for the library serves as a classroom and music room, and the choir room as the clubroom. In the clubroom are chess tables, a radio, a piano, piles of newspapers and magazines, sewing machines, and materials for handicraft work. As is always the case in Russian institutions, there is a "Red Corner" in the clubroom, where there is a large portrait of Lenin, surrounded with red bunting; and under it, a small table on which is all manner of Communist propaganda literature. The rest of the room is decorated as the women desire. They do a great deal of embroidery work from original designs, the best examples of which are hanging on the wall of the clubroom. The health and propaganda posters were all painted by the women; in fact, they had made everything in the room but the furniture. From time to time visitors buy some of their handicraft work, the proceeds of which go to buy new materials. However, the visitors to this Hostel are few, and so the women are not using their talents with an eye to selling their products, which means that everything they make is a reflection of their personal experiences and a gradually awakening desire to make their surroundings beautiful. The women's bedrooms also contain examples of their handiwork and their babies sometimes wear elaborately embroidered and brightly coloured garments.

It is distinctly paradoxical that it has been found necessary to approach these women by teaching them to make articles for themselves and their babies, in order to convert them to Communism. On the surface this method of proselytism seems paradoxical to Communistic principles, but no one can doubt its wisdom in this case, for its effectiveness is witnessed by the fact that after the women have stayed in the Hostel for a few months it is almost impossible to get them to leave. Considering the type of institution and the youth of most of the inmates, a surprising amount of freedom is allowed for they can always stay out until nine o'clock at night and can get permission to remain out as late as they like. The director told me, however, that the women seldom desire to leave the Hostel after the first month except to take walks or go to concerts, the theatre or opera. Inside they are allowed almost as much freedom: the place not only reflects the tastes of the women but it is never inspected as to cleanliness, etc., for such things are considered a function of the individual and should not be ritualised. Consequently it does them credit that everything is clean, and that the women as well as their surroundings are very neat.

There are, of course, many things lacking because the budget allowed by the State is small. When this Hostel was founded, it was hoped that within five years it would become self-supporting, but at the moment only one-third of the expenses are covered by the women's work. Should this experiment be a success, it is hoped that more such Hostels will be founded, and that the Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child will feel justified in organizing similar institutions for different types and classes of women. The Hostel is now on a budget which allows from the State one ruble a day for each mother and child, plus whatever the earnings of the women may be, if any.