Women in Russia Before and After the Revolution (Part II)


Continued from Part I. 

Alexandra Kollontai became notorious as one of the defenders of sexual freedom. In fact her ideas were quite different from the "glass of water" theories described in novels like Without a Bird-Cherry Tree by P. Romanov, and The Dog’s Lane by Lev Gumilevsky. Instead she followed the tradition of the young Marx and Engels in The Origin of the Family in imagining that love would develop rather than disappear under communism:

In the achieved communist society, love, ‘the winged Eros’, will appear in a different, transformed, and completely unrecognizable form. By that time the ‘sympathetic bonds’ between all members of the new society will have grown and strengthened, the ‘love potential’ will have been raised, and solidarity-love will have become the same kind of moving force as competition and self-love are in the bourgeois order.36

Rather later she said in a letter to a young comrade that she hoped in the future proletarian morals would be based on:

1. Equality; disappearance of the overpowering masculine self-sufficiency and the servile submission of women.
2. Mutual and reciprocal recognition of rights, and disappearance of all feelings of property.
3. Fraternal sensibility, together with an art that will allow the assimilation and comprehension of the psychic developments taking place in the soul of the beloved. [In bourgeois ideology, the woman alone was expected to possess this sensibility.]37

What is really important about Kollontai’s approach is the attempt to relate changes in sexual relationships to the total social emergence of women. In the preface to Free Love she wrote:

This novel is neither a study in morals nor a picture of the standard of life in Soviet Russia. It is a purely psychological study of sex relations in the post-war period. Many of the problems presented are not however exclusively Soviet Russian; they are world-wide facts which can be noted in all countries. These silent psychological dramas, born of the change in the sexual relations, this evolution, especially, in the feelings of women, are well known to the younger generation.38

It is this "purely psychological study of sex relations," this interest in the "silent psychological dramas," this connection to an international sexual revolution, and the examination of the "evolution, especially, in the feelings of women" — young women, too — which made Kollontai unusual and necessarily suspect Left communists who wrote about the withering away of the family in a far distant society upset no one. Communist feminists who concerned themselves with what particular women were experiencing at that moment upset many.

The plot of Free Loveis simple. Vasillissa, a knitter, forms a free union with Volodia, an ex-anarchist, who becomes a member of the party and takes on a job as director of a large industrial concern. He has an affair with Nina, a non-political ex-bourgeois woman who is very beautiful. Eventually Vasillissa leaves him. However, the real interest of the book is in the four conflicting themes which run through it, and the tensions behind them. At one level there is a political clash. The first signs of a break betwen the two appear in their very different ideas about politics, not in their original argument about centralism which was only superficial, but a much deeper difference about the extent to which commitment to the revolution penetrates the way you live. Vasillissa was distressed by her husband’s liking for a grand style of living, which involved dubious deals during the N.E.P. period with non-party bourgeois. This explodes with particular intensity when some of the workers under her husband complain about working conditions. They come to the great house of the director and start talking to Vassillissa. She forgets her role as his "wife," becomes her old Bolshevik trade union bargaining self again, and begins excitedly to plan ways for them to fight back. He returns, sees this, and furiously drags her inside. At another level, as they move away from one another the relationship becomes increasingly dishonest When she finds he has secretly slept with Nina she feels he has done wrong, not in going to another woman but in deceiving her about it. At the same time she is jealous of Nina, who possesses the traditional attributes of women — beauty and elegance. She begins to feel that her union with Volodia is a charade:

There was no longer comradeship, no longer affection, between them.… She was wife in the house merely to serve as hostess, to act as a cover. I live, she said, in wedlock with a Communist, but another woman is the wife for delectation, for love in a secret little house.

At the same time Kollontai explores the way in which it is impossible for Vassillissa to retain her old independence. She has only a borrowed existence as his wife, she no longer has her work, especally her political work in the factory and the party. When she tries to leave him she says, "I have panted enough in this cage, I have played the Directress enough.… Take for a wife one of those who value such a life."39 When she finally goes she throws off "a skin which did not fit me."40

But in fact the skin held her to him for a long time. Kollontai brings out the clash between the struggle for identity and the ties which had developed over the years when they were together, as well as the very real sexual passion. At first her sexuality was in harmony with the other ways she communicated with him. But ultimately there is opposition between the desire he can still arouse in her and their obvious incompatibility. It is as if her sexuality might swamp her separate identity. The political, emotional, intellectual and sexual factors combine. The only solution is to leave him. But Vasillissa’s choice simply ignores the basic causes of tension. She goes away, and is able to rid herself of her jealousy of Nina the traditional feminine, in an understanding mixed with compassion. She has a child and plans to rear it "in the communist way," cooperatively. She finds her identity thus only by denying the existence of the man and her own sexuality. The only solution possible is no real solution.

But this was precisely what Kollontai meant in Free Love. She wanted to

… teach women not to put all their hearts and souls into the love for a man, but into the essential thing, creative work. When I look through my works I can see that it was this aim that inspired most of my writing on the sexual question. Love must not crush the women’s individuality, not bind her wings. If love begins to enslave her, she must make herself free, she must step over all love tragedies, and go her own way.41

It was a negative freedom: a freedom of non-attachment which tended to appear in feminist thought in the period. There was a sense in which very strong personal emotion almost inevitably appeared in opposition to the liberation of the women because traditionally such emotion bound women. But this tended to force women to accept that emancipation meant denying part of themselves. When Kollontai was writing it seemed as if this was the only way out. Unfortunately the tendency could result in a dismissal of the personal and sexual dimensions in relationships. There is a trace of the stiff upper lip. Just as Kollontai could share the easy optimism characteristic of communists in the period — that "intelligent educators" would somehow escape the taint of the past and teach the values of solidarity and comradeship in their revolutionary purity — she shows a hint of that self-denying strain which simply cut itself off from awkward emotion very common in the revolutionary movement. The rejection of the cellular individualism and the passionate egotistic possessiveness of the bourgeois family came to imply the necessary superiority of external social activity to the inner personal life. Such a rejection, which arose naturally from the need for intense political commitment in the revolutionary period, was elevated into an impossible and restricting moral principle.42

It was not that Vassillissa should have continued a relationship which became only formality, but that the points of tension, the struggle of the woman for independent identity in relation to the man and the apparent contradictions between her intellectuality and her sexuality, are too facilely resolved. Such questions were and are still crucial.

In Love of Three Generations, the young communist Zhenia tries to solve the problem by divorcing strong emotion from her sexuality. She slept with two men, and was in love with neither. The situation was complicated by the fact that one of them was her stepfather. She told her mother, "But I liked them and I felt they liked me.… It’s all so simple. And then it does not tie you down to anything." She argued with her mother, who was shocked, that there could be nothing wrong in this as "I did it voluntarily and willingly. As long as we like each other we remain together; afterwards we part. No one is the loser." She points out that her mother would not be so critical if Zhenia were a boy.

In fact Zhenia’s case is ostensibly eminently reasonable. But on the question of her relationship with her stepfather her justification becomes immediately glib and insensitive. Her mother asks if she has considered her feelings. Zhenia claims the sexual act is only an extension of her friendship for her stepfather: it takes nothing away from her mother:

As to our kissing.… Well, you have no time for kissing anyway. And then, mother, you can’t want to tie Andrey exclusively to yourself and not let him have any pleasure apart. That would be a nasty proprietary attitude. It’s this grandmother’s bourgeois upbringing coming up.43

Zhenia is described honestly. She undoubtedly expressed feelings which were shared by many young communists. She was to be denounced as the symbol of depravity by innumerable party moralists. But it is important to keep her situation in perspective: Zhenia presents the statement of the dilemma and attempts a particular way out.

Kollontai makes her own position clear: "Many of the opponents of my writings tried to impose on me an absolutely false postulate that I was preaching 'free love'. I would put it the other way. I was always preaching to the women, Make yourself free from the enslavement of love of a man." Alexandra Kollontai never solved the dilemma in her own life. She said she "tried to combine romance and work. But it was and still is difficult for a woman to combine a profession and married life." After an early unsuccessful first marriage she entered a civil marriage with a man much younger than her, Dubenko, because he put pressure on her by saying she felt too superior to marry him. This also collapsed. A friend, Zoja, who shared her ideas, called her "la dernière grande amoureuse."But Alexandra Kollontai said her "love affairs always ended in the breaking down of romance. The hour of separation was inevitable." She concluded that friendship was a more sociable emotion than sexual love.44

She wrote, in The New Morality and the Working Class:

The longer the sexual crisis lasts, the more difficult it becomes, With every attempt at a solution things become more and more difficult.… The frightened people fall from one extreme into the other, and the sexual problem remains unsolved. It would be a tremendous error to assume that only members of the economically secure classes are caught in its toils. The sexual crisis creates dramas among the working people which are no less violent or tragic than the psychological conflicts of the refined bourgeoisie.45

Instead of presenting people with a new formula, she thought always in terms of growth. She saw the new morality being created, not imposed, in the process of development toward a communist society. Communism was about the releasing of the potential for responsibility; it implied widening the scope for the practical self-activity of masses of people. The new morality could not be mugged up from ethical manuals of do’s and don’ts. It had to come from people experiencing each other in totally new surroundings.

By the end of the twenties a strong counter-tendency had emerged which questioned this way of defining the areas which had to be left to individual responsibility. Instead of emphasizing human liberation, social usefulness became the moral criterion. Zalkind produced a way of apparently solving the contradiction which Lenin had hinted at in his conversation with Zetkin. He was concerned to prevent the diversion of energy for social reconstruction into sexuality. He borrowed selectively from Freud to produce a theory which justified the redirection of sexuality into social reconstruction. The embarrassing passages about individual sex love in Engels were hustled out of history. There was no place any more for clouds in trousers — or skirts for that matter. Now "every joy must have a productive purpose."46

As the practical difficulties multiplied ideas like this became more popular — not because they were profound but because they were made to measure. The opposition was always on the defensive. It became easier to dismiss the demand for individual freedom as petty-bourgeois. There were powerful practical short-term factors which came from the old authoritarian regime which gave their arguments an added force. The understanding of the connection between the authoritarian state and the patriarchal family, strengthened by religious and legislative sanctions, tended to be implicit in revolutionary thinking. But at the point of affirming positively a cultural revolution in sexual relationships the revolutionaries’ theory broke down. There was a drawing back, a concern. Significantly, in a discussion of doctors in 1927 about the effects of the law of 1920 which had legalized abortion, the case for legal abortion was nearly always made in terms of social poverty. Only one doctor, Selinsky, accused them of failing to distinguish "the real socio-economic and mass-psychological conditions under which abortion has become epidemic." He stated:

No one of us men would accept a decision by some commissioners as to the social interest in his being married or not. Do not prevent women from deciding for themselves a fundamental issue of their lives. Woman has a right to a sexual life as freely realized as is that of a man. We need no mass-produced class of spinsters which would be merely harmful to the community.47

In 1929 the Genotdel was abolished. The official explanation was that an independent women’s movement was no longer necessary. In reality, quite the reverse was the case. Gradually new moral authorities were imposed, In the 1930s official policy rehabilitated the family. Concern to stabilize Soviet society, the threat of war, operated as further incentives. Nobody talked any more about the family withering. Instead the official attitude was that it should be as secure as possible. Legal abortions were abolished in 1936 rather than merely discouraged. Referring to the new law a Pravda article stressed the responsibility of parents for their own children:

The State in no wise relieves the mother or the father as the social educator … parents’ responsibility for the education of their child will be increased and a blow will be dealt at the lighthearted negligent attitude towards marriage.48

The whole series of legislation which constituted "the new family policy" was a complete reversal of the laws passed in the 1920s which had concentrated on women’s emancipation rather than strengthening the "socialist family." The right of an unwed mother to appeal to court for the child’s support from the child’s father, without being legally married, was stopped. Divorce was made more difficult and more costly. It was not a coincidence that homosexuality was made a criminal offence in 1934. Non-reproductive sexuality came to be seen as a deviation from socialist reconstruction. Individual pleasure had to be subordinated to the needs of the state. Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed noted:

The triumphal rehabilitation of the family taking place simultaneously – what a providential coincidence! – with the rehabilitation of the rouble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, ‘We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim’, the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.49

The new family policy was justified not on the grounds of necessity, but elevated into a communist morality. This was a very serious distortion of the original commitment to try to seek a means of liberating women despite the economic obstacles. Wedding rings and marriage ceremonies reappeared in the mid 1930s, articles appeared in the papers praising marriage, elevating the family and encouraging fertility. Inevitably these affected the position of women.

Under Stalin it was as if a new place was being given to women. Just as the Victorians combined the spiritual elevation of "womanhood" with an institutional framework which made her powerless, in the Soviet Union under Stalin the elevation of Soviet motherhood, the praise of the wives of the engineers in heavy industry, who set about organizing canteens and child care centres in the mid-thirties not for their own efforts but for their possible influence on their husbands’ productivity, provided a new form of paternalist containment. As one Moscow woman commented, "He wanted us to work hard and fulfil the Plans. But he kept us in our places, never appointed women to high political office." While Pravdadenounced "free love" along with all "disorderly sex life" as "bourgeois," and claimed that the enemies of the people had introduced "the foul and poisonous idea" of "liquidating the family and disrupting marriage," Stalin visited his old mother in Tiflis, and the Soviet papers carried articles on his children’s reaction to the jam their grandmother made.50

The result was considerable ambiguity. The mere statement of equality and its legislative existence meant a fundamental transformation for millions of women. The unquestioned patriarchal right could exist no more:

Bit by bit Father stopped beating Mother, but sometimes he threatened her that he would be put in prison for it. He would shout: ‘If they put me in prison I will not rest there from you.’ But even at such shouting she would say ‘We are equal.’51

Young women were brought up with strange aspirations. "At meetings, at lectures they constantly told us that women must be fully equal with men, that women can be flyers and naval engineers and anything that men can be."52 Many women had been educated, had become skilled workers. Village women had got a nursery — they didn’t take the children into the fields. There were improved facilities for pregnant women. Some women too were undoubtedly pleased with their wedding rings — they were glad to have a marriage ritual again. But all this was very far from the hopes of the early years of the revolution when so many women had started suddenly to be able to imagine a completely different way of being women.

The Second World War forced an elite of women out into public life but it completed the reversal of women’s position in the family. Large families were encouraged because there was anxiety about the birth rate. A change in the inheritance laws in 1945 gave greater influence to the father as the head of the family. Women lost their rights in the family: no longer could they choose to limit the number of children they could give birth to. Women who were not legally married enjoyed none of the rights which had been won with the revolution. They no longer had their own organizations through which they could put their case and press for change. The new consciousness which had been developing, of real equality between human beings and the possibility for women of not knowing themselves subordinate and dependent in relation to men, was eroded and almost extinguished. The only kind of emancipation was one which served the interests of the state, and those interests were unquestionably defined by the men in power.

In 1932 an incident occurred which symbolized most precisely the nature of female containment. Stalin’s wife, Nadia Alliluyeva, the daughter of the workman Alliluyev:

hitherto blindly devoted to her much older husband, began to doubt the wisdom and rightness of his policy. One evening, in November 1932, Stalin and his wife were on a visit at Voroshilov’s home. Other members of the Politbureau were there too, discussing matters of policy. Nadia Alliluyeva spoke her mind about the famine and discontent in the country, and about the moral ravages which the Terror had wrought on the party. Stalin’s nerves were already strained to the utmost. In the presence of his friends he burst out against his wife in a flood of vulgar abuse. Nadia Alliluyeva left Voroshilov’s house. The same evening she committed suicide.53

Indeed, the fate of ideas about the liberation of women and the slow retreat is a sensitive barometer of the revolution itself. How could you demand equality when "equality mongering" had been declared "leftist" by the party and denounced, and when differences in income and power were approved? How could you demand the right to control the circumstances of your own reproduction when coercion at work was open and accepted? How could you demand the liberation of women when the possibility of human liberation had been indefinitely postponed? Why should the revolution extend to women when it had failed to become international? The space within which people could define themselves slowly decreased. Authority and repression closed in. The public world of the state penetrated the private world of the human spirit with armed force, torture and death. Why should women expect equality or love?

Russia was groaning under epidemics, famine, forced collectivization, political terror, the trials, the loss of twenty million men in the Second World War. The effects of such devastation inevitably possessed the lives of women. Meanwhile people were given new shrines to worship at, baubles, badges, medallions to value themselves by. The mummified body of Lenin became an object of cult veneration, socialist realist workers dwarfed and humbled actual men and women. People wanted a place to hide. The family became somewhere to go to escape from the horror of the world outside. The dummy "happy Soviet family" rang like a slogan, reconstructed from the shell of frightened childhood. The liberation of women was submerged, the notion of female activity pressed down. "Woman" was resurrected instead — as the heroine of motherhood, under the benign whiskers of Uncle Joe.

Later, when people were trying to eradicate Stalin and the cult of his personality, they superimposed a new myth — that of suffering Soviet womanhood, the earth-mother rocking the cradle threatened by the man of steel:

Everybody weakened. Women didn’t –
Through hunger and sickness, war and drought
Silently they rocked the cradles,
Saving our sons.54

Where had all those honest Leninists gone?

Out of this slowly came modern Russia. Women’s conditions are not those envisaged by the revolutionaries in the twenties, nor are they those which developed under Stalin. In 1955 abortion became legal again — a tacit recognition that its legal prohibition did not affect the birth rate and an attempt to prevent back-street abortions. In 1964 divorce was made rather easier and some of the disability of illegitimacy removed. Similarly birth-control advice is freely available now — though not the pill. As it became easier to criticize the ways in which Stalin’s laws did not relate to the needs of daily life, some of the submerged issues surfaced. One aspect of family policy which has often been attacked, along with the difficulty of getting a divorce, is the provision in the 1944 law which made unmarried women completely responsible for bringing up children. The right of men not to be accused wrongfully of being fathers had been protected by this law but it meant that the label "unmarried mother" carried all its old stigma along with some of the old economic and social disability. 

Women have clung on to the two aspects of emancipation for which Russian women are noted in the west — the right to work and welfare facilities for the children. Indeed, emancipation has come to be defined as the right to work — a narrow definition but still an important one. The editor of the journal Soviet Woman, Olga Ushakova, said in an interview in The Times in 1966,  "Work is so important to us, we cannot imagine life without it." Another member of the editorial staff, Rodkina, said, "None of us want to stay at home, not even if our husband earns a million."55

Round the fact of a female labour force and the encouragement of large families a whole network of welfare and community services have developed: leave for both mothers and fathers, arrangements for jobs to be held open during pregnancy, part-time work in factories, crèches on the premises and breaks at work for seeing the children, as well as other extensive nursery facilities and shopping hours arranged for working women. With half the working population women the need for these is apparent. Indeed, the demand exceeds the supply. They are still not adequate. Some children can’t get into the nurseries and mothers are forced to make private arrangements. Facilities for dry cleaning and laundries too don’t exist in some small towns and villages.56

Related to the work situation too is the improvement in the education of women. This is partly at the level of literacy, but there has also been an impressive rise in the numbers of women who receive higher education. The proportion of women to men varies by occupation. Women predominate in the health services and in education.57 They have also invaded the "masculine" domains of engineering and science. Some have penetrated into the most complex and highly sophisticated forms of scientific work. Alla Masevich, for instance, chairman of the sputnik tracking group of the International Committee for Space Research, received a symbolic passport at a congress of astronomers recently: "A place has been reserved for you on one of the astro-ships which will be sent to the moon. In view of your services to science you will be allowed to move freely about cosmic space and to visit any planet."58

Although the revolution is able to grant access to the moon to its women it is still not able to eradicate many of the features of the old inferiority. They are prominent in jobs which reflect "women’s role," and a high proportion of women are in the unskilled sector of industry. The importance of piece-work makes equal pay a reality on paper only. In some factories the average rate for female turners and machine-operators works out considerably lower than that for men on the same jobs. In the last few years there has been discussion about this, and the difficulty of women in industry in being promoted. While men argue that the system operates according to merit and regardless of sex differences, women point out that this tends to reinforce itself. A writer in Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1967 maintained that women reached managerial and supervisory posts six or seven times less frequently than men: "This practice means, apart from everything else, that a woman’s average earnings are less than a man’s, her creative development is arrested, and she acquires a 'female inferiority complex,' a lack of self-confidence."59

Evelyne Sullerot in Histoire et Sociologie du Travail Feminin, describes how this process is reflected too in the relatively small percentage of women in positions of leadership in the party, the unions and in industry, though even these are high compared with the west.

Undoubtedly, despite welfare facilities many women hesitate to try for jobs which demand total commitment and carry important responsibilities, for in the family Soviet women find themselves in an ambiguous situation. Often they are doing two jobs. Four mothers who work in a ballbearing factory in Sarutov wrote to a Russian paper in 1960 complaining about just this: "In the factory we work like our husbands often in the same shop. But in the house the duties are unequally divided.… And when you ask a husband to help the answer is always the same, 'Do you want me to do a woman’s work? Why, the neighbours would laugh at me.'"60Although the revolution in Russia has brought women into the external economy as workers it has not been particularly effective in breaking down the division of labour between men and women. This applies to the home as much as work outside. A recent study of 160 Leningrad working-class couples showed that in 69 families the wife did the housework, in 26 the granny, in 17 the wife plus children, and in 48 the husband helped. An analysis of several such studies done before 1961 indicated that a woman with a family who also has a job will be busy for three more hours, have two hours less leisure time, and one and a half hours less sleep. Undoubtedly the effects of this will build up over the years. Though comparisons with workers’ families in the twenties show there has been some shift in the division of labour — men are now more likely to do the shopping and look after the children — the revolution has apparently not really entered the household.

In other ways it has. Male dominance still persists in the older peasant families but the patriarchal pattern has been much weakened. Some of this is just the normal impact of industrialization on peasant society. But there is something more, a consciousness that women have some official support on their side. A peasant woman describes this:

I am your wife. You say, 'You will not go there. I don’t want you to go there.' But I say, ‘You have no right. I’ll go where I please. The husband does not have the right to tell his wife what to do.’ There is a law … they call it equality of rights. The wife may want to go into the Komsomol or do something, and she does what she wants, not what her husband wants.61

But the fact that the Soviet Union is not a society based on equality, that it is probably not any longer a society struggling to become more equal, has affected women’s inequalities. There is not just inequality between men and women at work, in education, in the home; there is also inequality between women. Because some women have become privileged they think the liberation of all women is completed. They also use other women to maintain their superiority. Trotsky noted this even in the thirties:

The situation of the mother of the family who is an esteemed communist, has a cook, a telephone for giving orders to the stores, an automobile for errands, etc., has little in common with the situation of the working woman who is compelled to run to the shops, prepare dinner herself, and carry her children on foot from the kindergarten – if indeed a kindergarten is available.62

This has continued. Not surprisingly in a meritocratic educational system, professional women value themselves higher than the uneducated and the unskilled. A woman who is a teacher remarks, "I wanted to get away from the hard thankless work at home. With my pay I could have been able to hire a houseworker."63 There is no question about the attitude of the women who have to choose between unskilled work in industry or being the houseworker for someone else. She obviously is at a disadvantage all round. In industry she will on average have a worse position than male workers, at home she carries most of the load, or she can do the "hard thankless work" which a more privileged woman can escape.

For women who can compete successfully though, there is a definite possibility of turning the normal economic dependency of the female upside down: they earn more than their husbands. Some women are rather embarrassed about this. But this individual dependence in a period of prosperity is having cultural effects. "The concept of man as a breadwinner for the family is falling by the wayside. A tendency is growing for women to have children outside wedlock, so that they can fulfil their maternal instincts without taking on wifely chores."64Husbands have become a bad investment. Developments like this immediately raise very fundamental questions about the nature of the liberation of women within socialism. Because although having a child without a man could be seen as a gesture towards liberation, in practice it could be in fact women simply taking over the responsibility of being both parents. There has been an economic change which has resulted in a shift rather than a transformation of male/female roles, which has probably also been affected by practicalities like the difficulty of getting a divorce. It would seem from the Russian experience that the existence of a large female labour force, improvements in women’s education and the welfare facilities for children, have not been able really to overcome other features of Soviet society in which inequality and competition are marked.

However, these also came under attack in the late sixties. In 1967 a series of letters appeared in the Literary Gazette, a writers’ paper, in which women readers criticized very strongly the nature of the work they could do. They not only objected to women being pushed into the worst jobs, they challenged the idea of women doing heavy industrial work. The sight of women on the roads has always been a horror theme of observers in the west. In the twenties communists tended to argue that it was not so much the kind of work but its physical effect. But in order to make sure that no workers of whatever sex are employed in a way which makes them suffer physically or mentally, it requires a society which is completely geared to the health of its people rather than to efficient production. As yet the Soviet Union would not appear to be such a society. The reaction of these Soviet women is to assert the separation of male/female work. In terms of its implications this is obviously not going to create a new society for women as a whole, though it may mean that a particular group will benefit.

A very similar response is emerging within Soviet sociology in the last decade. There has been much discussion about the effects of institutional care on young children who have tended to become more backward than those in more direct contact with adults. Instead of leading to a questioning of the type of nursery facilities and trying to improve them this has developed into an attempt to convince mothers that they should stay at home — not, note, fathers. Behind this is also concern for the birth rate. Russian women determinedly have small families despite inducements from the state.

It is hard to predict what women in Russia will do: whether they will try to extend the areas of emancipation and structure them according to their needs, or whether they will simply allow everything to be eroded. It could be that because they have been brought up in an economically fundamentally different society from ours, and because they inherit a rhetoric if not a reality of equality and democratic control, they will be able to envisage and force a way through. The questions raised by the efforts of the revolution in Russia to liberate women are of course indistinguishable from the possibility of human liberation. But the vantage point is different. Women as a group remain in a different material situation from men — they have babies. For them therefore the relations of reproduction are as important as those of production. If the revolution has not solved the second problem, it has barely begun to understand the first.

The only people who could create such a possibility are women themselves. Only they know how they feel, how the external shape of society touches them. A journalist, Larisa Kuznetsova, commented recently on the need for women to define themselves what they wanted. "If we imagine the 'female question' in the form of a sphere, then the women would be looking out from within, while the men would see only the external surface."65

The "correctness" of what women say they want is not the case. Correctness anyway is subject to alteration and cannot be separated from who has power to say what is correct. The right to make your own mistakes and become responsible to history is an essential, if costly, part in the process of the emergence of the oppressed. The demand by women for control over all aspects of their lives in a society which has not yet solved the problem of combining the socialization of all the means of production with effective means of social and political control for all human beings on an equal basis, would have tremendous implications. Such a demand has not appeared from Soviet women. In the meantime the discovery of what they feel they want now is vital for any attempt to understand the nature of Soviet society. This is not because women possess some mysterious power to solve problems better than men, but because they speak for a section of Russian society which was awakened and then silenced by the revolution, and because their subordination in the external and internal structure of that revolution still continues.

This extract is taken from Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World by Sheila Rowbotham's - first published in 1973, and reissued as part of Verso's Radical Thinkers series in recent years.

See all our Russian Revolution reading here.


1. L. Trotsky, Problems of Life, London, 1924, p. 99.

2. Jessica Smith, Women in Soviet Russia, New York, 1928, p. 6.

3. Quoted in R. A. J. Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family, London, 1949, p. 328.

4. Smith, Women in Soviet Russia, p. 16.

5. ibid., p. 16.

6. ibid., pp. 53–4.

7. ibid., p. 57.

8. Louise Bryant, Mirrors of Moscow, New York, 1923, pp. 120–21.

9. Fannina Halle, Woman in the Soviet East, London, 1938, p. 181.

10. Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family, p. 91.

11. V. I. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, Moscow, 1967, p. 79.

12. A. Kollontai, Communism and the Family, Plato Press, London, 1971, p. 15.

13. L. Trotsky, Problems of Life, London, 1924, p. 48.

14. ibid., pp. 59–60.

15. ibid., p. 68.

16. ibid., p. 94.

17. Quoted in Halle, Woman in Soviet Russia, pp. 376–7.

18. See W. Reich, The Sexual Revolution, Part II, New York, 1967, pp. 153–269.

19. A. Kollontai, Free Love, London, 1932, p. 124.

20. Halle, Woman in Soviet Russia, p. 372.

21. Smith, Woman in Soviet Russia, p. 1.

22. ibid., p. 56.

23. Trotsky, Problems of Life, p. 90.

24. Smith, Woman in Soviet Russia, p. 170.

25. Reich, The Sexual Revolution, p. 214.

26. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 59.

27. ibid., p. 59.

28. Quoted in Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family, p. 140.

29. ibid., pp. 99–100.

30. Trotsky, Problems of Life, p. 45.

31. David and Vera Mace, The Soviet Family, London, 1964, p. 68.

32. Reich, The Sexual Revolution, p. 173.

33. ibid.

34. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 66.

35. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp. 105–8.

36. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 63.

37. Isabel de Palencia, A. Kollontai, New York, 1947, p. 146.

38. ibid., p. 142–3.The following description of Kollontai’s novels originally appeared in ‘Alexandra Kollontai: Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Love’, by Sheila Rowbotham, The Spokesman, summer 1970.

39. Kollontai, Free Love, p. 237.

40. ibid., p. 243.

41. De Palencia, Alexandra Kollontai, p. 137.

42. Kollontai, The Revolution of Life and Morals, in Schlesinger, p. 59.

43. Kollontai, excerpts from Love of Three Generations, in Schlesinger, pp. 73–4.

44. De Palencia, Alexandra Kollontai, pp. 137, 132, 160–66.

45. Kollontai, The New Morality and the Working Class, quoted in Reich, p. 170.

46. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 86.

47. Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family, pp. 186–7.

48. Quoted in Erica Dunn and Judy Klein, ‘Women in the Russian Revolution’, in Women: A Journal of Liberation, summer 1970, pp. 25–6.

49. L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, New York, 1937, pp. 151–2.

50. David and Vera Mace, The Soviet Family, p. 101.

51. ibid., p. 90.

52. Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 130.

53. Isaac Deutscher, Stalin, Penguin Books, London, 1966, p. 333.

54. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 304.

55. The Times, 18 December 1966.

56. These statements are based on:Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, pp. 187–93. Evelyne Sullerot, Histoire et Sociologie du Travail Féminin, Paris, 1958, p. 208. N. V. Popova, The Part Played by Women in Socialist Society, Moscow, 1967, pp. 28–36. A. Didsusenko, Soviet Children, Moscow, 1967.Ludmilla Pavlova, Women in My Country, Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, Moscow. Agnes Shackleton, ‘Life in Russia Today’, in Peace and Freedom, November–December 1964.
Dr John Fry, ‘Soviet Health Service’, Guardian, 19 July 1967. Donald Gould, ‘Russia’s Health Service’, New Statesman, 9 June 1967. Kyril Tidmarsh, ‘Russia Plans More Shopping Centres’, The Times, 14 September 1967. Alexander Werth, ‘Fifty Years After’, New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

57. N. V. Popova, op. cit., pp. 11–17.

58. L. Pavlova, Women in My Country.

59. Valerie Albert, ‘It’s the Women who have Saved Russia from Collapse’, in Pulse, 30 December 1967.

60. Mace, The Soviet Family, p. 104.

61. Quoted in Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 226.

62. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 157.

63. Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 185.

62. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 157.

63. Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia, p. 185.

64. Marcelle Bernstein, ‘The Hard Hat Girls’, Observer Colour Supplement, 31 January 1971.

65. Quoted in Albert, ‘It’s the Women who have Saved Russia from Collapse’.