Did the Bolshevik Revolution improve the lives of Soviet women?

Debate #3: Did the Bolshevik Revolution improve the lives of Soviet women?
Compared with life under the czars, life for women after the Bolshevik Revolution was certainly characterized by
greater variety and freedom. The Romanov dynasty had ruled Russia for 300 years and the Orthodox Church
for a much longer period. Both had reinforced a world of patriarchal authority, class structure, and patterns of
deference. While the revolution overthrew the power of both church and monarch, the new communist state
had a power and authority of its own. Between 1917 and 1920 Soviet women received equal rights in education
and marriage, including the choice to change or keep their own names and the opportunity to own property, the
rights to vote and hold public office, access to no-fault divorce, common law marriage, maternity benefits,
workplace protection, and access to unrestricted abortion. They were the first to gain these rights, ahead of
women in France, England, and the United States, but the question is whether these legal rights translated into
improvement in their day-to-day lives.
A feminist movement had developed in urban areas as early as the 1905 workers’ revolution and women
joined men in leading strikes and protest demonstrations. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917,
however, the goals of the leadership were primarily economic, and feminism was dismissed as bourgeois or
middle class. In a workers’ revolution, women and men were to be equal. Housework and child care were to be
provided collectively, and the family, like the monarchy, was to be replaced with something new. Giving women
access to economic independence, making them workers, was supposed to provide them the basis for equality
within marriage.
Karl Marx had argued that the family reflects the economic system in society. Under capitalism, the
bourgeois family exists to reproduce workers and consumers; it exploits women by unfairly burdening them with
full responsibility for housework and child care. If similarly exploited workers, what Marx called the proletariat,
overthrew the capitalist system that allowed factory owners to grow rich from their workers’ labor, Marx
believed the family would undergo an equally dramatic transformation. No one would be “owned” by anyone
else. Prostitution would disappear and as the state took responsibility for childrearing and education, women
would be free to work and become economically self-sufficient. People would then be free to marry for love or
sexual attraction rather than economic considerations.
The man who emerged as leader and architect of the new order, V.I. Lenin, was committed to women’s
rights. First and foremost, however, he was committed to a socialist revolution. When the struggle to make legal
changes in women’s lives came into conflict with the goals of the revolution, there was no question about which
would have to be sacrificed. In this early period, a fascinating group of women briefly held highly visible
leadership positions and had the chance to put their ideas into practice, at least during the first decade.
Alexandra Kollontai was one of the most articulate and effective leaders of the Zhenotdel, or Women’s
Department of the Communist Party, whose purpose between 1919 and 1930 was to educate and mobilize the
women of the Soviet state to participate fully in the revolution.
Former Georgetown University historian Richard Stites (Source 1 below) focuses on what he calls the
“idealistic foreground” of the revolution—the part that is so often overlooked. Although poverty, cynicism,
bureaucratic resistance, rural superstition, and urban blight ultimately thwarted many early dreams of reformers
such as Alexandra Kolluntai, bold efforts undertaken by the Zhenotdel and experiments in sexual equality raised
the consciousness of women and men. A brief glimpse of what might be possible in a stable society kept the
dreams and experiments alive—at least for a time, Stites concludes. The work of Zhenotdel as an offficial arm
of the Party during its brief 11-year existence was able to improve significantly the lives of Soviet women
especially in the cities. However, as Stites points out, its abolition in 1930 reveals that political equality for
women had not yet been achieved.
Russian scholar Lesley Rimmel (Source 2 below) uses the contrasting images of the baba—an ignorant
peasant woman—and the comrade—a full-fledged human and citizen, to describe how Russian women were
targeted as workers in a class revolution while gender roles remained firmly in place. Rimmel sees the longdelayed gender goals, articulated during the Russian Revolution, including the right of women to define
comradeship on their own terms, as finally being addressed in contemporary Russia. Although Soviet women
were granted unprecedented legal rights, almost without a struggle, the real task was to translate these rights into
a new way of life.
It is one of history’s ironies that Soviet women were granted, with the stroke of a pen, all the legal and
political rights that women in Britain and the United States were struggling to achieve. First to win the rights to
vote and hold public office, Soviet women struggled to translate those paper rights into improved lives for
themselves and their children. It has been a conviction of Western feminism that legal and political equality pave
the way for full emancipation of women. The Soviet case raises interesting questions about the confusion that
arises when there are conflicting revolutions. Real political power belongs to those who can assure the goals of
their revolution receive first priority. It was the socialist revolution, not women’s emancipation, that the party
leadership worked to achieve.
- Helen Buss Mitchell and Joseph R. Mitchell, Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World History, Vol. 2, 4th ed.,
McGraw Hill, 2013, pp. 121-122.
NOTE: After Documents 1 and 2, which set the stage for this debate, I have placed the remaining documents (a combination of
primary and secondary sources) in chronological order.
SOURCE 1: Richard Stites, “The Russian Revolution and Women,” Connecting Spheres: Women in the Western
World, 1500 to the Present, April 16, 1987, pp. 246-255.
Note: The excerpts below references Richard Stites in the first line, which would be odd if Stites wrote that part
of the text. This excerpt comes from Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World History, Vol. 2, and thus it seems that
the editors made a few adaptations to contextualize the excerpt.
Background information: Richard Stites (1931-2010) was a historian of Russian culture and professor of history at Georgetown
Based on his wide experience researching and writing Russian history, Richard Stites offers a broad synthesis of
women’s place in the Russian revolutionary tradition and post-revolutionary society. His story begins with the
reforming sentiments of the 1850s and 1860s, at a time of debate over the nature and course of the emancipation
of serfs. He identifies mid-century as the first phase of women’s participation in the reforming movements and
identifies three influential, if distinct, approaches: the feminist, which was essentially a movement by women for
women; the nihilist, which was a countercultural current stressing the personal values of equality; and the radical,
which sought total emancipation of all through socialism. The second phase was inaugurated by the tsarist
government’s commitment to industrialization and shift to parliamentary politics. It saw the growth of political
parties, and many on the left, including the Marxists, feared the feminist revival as diversionary. In 1917,
however, the significance of the half-century debate over the woman question became clear. Women’s equality
was among the many promises made by the new Bolshevik leadership, as were workers’ control over factory
production, educational advances, and ethnic self-determination. Despite the regime’s public commitment to
women’s rights, however, the persistence of older notions of women’s subordination hampered greater strides
toward gender equality, as did continuous priority dilemmas that placed women’s issues secondary to other
societal and developmental goals. Besides, the regime was poor and could not afford extensive social support. It
was only in work—as wage earners in social production—that the possibility of individual independence was
extended to Russian women. There was less success in transforming family relationships and role divisions
within the family.
The participation of women in the Russian Revolution was conditioned—both in its successes and in its
failures—by a long and interesting prehistory. The explosive events of 1917 can be explained only partially by
the physical, military, and social environment of the moment; to this picture must be added a legacy of images,
beliefs, feelings, and attitudes shaped in the two generations preceding the Revolution: the Populist Revolt
(1860-1881), an almost purely upper-class affair; and the Revolution of 1905 (1890-1914), a nationwide, all-class
uprising. Recent scholarship on peasants workers, nationalities, soldiers, sailors, and other groups has
demonstrated clearly that long-standing attitudes and circumstances of life are as important as any other factor in
the molding of revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) behavior. The same applies to the history of women:
although deep study of the social structure of women’s lives among the working class has just begun, research on
the development of women’s consciousness and women’s movements in the major revolutionary episodes of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indicates the main peculiarities of women’s political activity in the great
Russian Revolution of 1917.
Though there is evidence of the growth of various forms of “women’s consciousness”—that is, a refusal to
accept traditional social roles—in early nineteenth-century Russia, it is generally accepted by Western and Soviet
scholars that the woman question as a social issue burst onto the public scene in the late 1850s and early 1860s.
There is no consensus as to why this happened. Some have stressed the general atmosphere of a political “thaw”
under a new, reforming tsar, Alexander II (r. 1855-1881), the deep shame over the Russian defeat in the Crimean
War (1854-1856), and a sense of euphoria connected with the imminent emancipation of the serfs (1861). Some
have also suggested that social and economic factors were at work: the specter of serf emancipation and the
prospect that dependent females might now be thrown into the economy might have awakened an impulse to
prepare for economic and personal independence. Bu no less important than these was the emergence of a new
generation of intelligentsia males whose social outlook—often described as “nihilism” or a sweeping negation of
accepted values—included egalitarianism, an attack upon elitist manners and conventions, and a determination to
practice their beliefs in everyday life. From such males, many of whom became radicals of the 1860s, came the
first important writings on women’s equality. The Russian radical scene was almost unique in its inclusion of a
demand for equal opportunity for women among its earliest political and social programs. This appeal by nihilist
and radical males coincided with a new stage of women’s perception and self-perception and set the stage for a
movement for the emancipation of women.
But just as the motivations and impulses were complex and diverse; so were the responses of the women
themselves. Almost simultaneously, there arose three distinct approaches to the woman question: feminism,
nihilism, and radicalism. Though there was much overlapping, shifting, and interlocking of these three currents
at first, they eventually sorted themselves into separate ways. The feminists of Russia were in many ways similar
to Western feminists. They sought not revolution or even personal sexual emancipation but rather a legal and
moderate movement led by women on behalf of women. By social origin, the leaders and founders were upperclass—mostly of the nobility. One should not be tempted to construct a deterministic sociology of their
mentality because of this: the early nihilists and radical women came essentially from the same background. If
the feminist leader Anna Filosofova was the wife of a tsarist general, Sofya Perovskaya, assassin of the Tsar in
1881, and Alexandra Kollontai a Bolshevik Commissar in 1917, were daughters of generals—all of affluent and
successful families. But the feminists chose very consciously to define the needs of women as something
separate from the general social struggle and the liberation of all the people. Their aims were modest and their
achievements impressive: charity for poor girls, mutual assistance to themselves, experience in self-directed
activity in a land where this was in short supply, and educational and professional opportunities for those women
possessing the talent and the energy for careers. Largely through their efforts, universities and medical courses
became available to Russian women in the 1870s, a notable feat for any European country at the time.
Nihilism was not a political or a formal intellectual movement in the 1860s—it was rather an ethos and a style of
personal liberation. Like their male colleagues, nihilist women stressed their independence, their modernity, and
their contempt for the established order by means of physical appearance and symbolic gestures: short hair, plain
(sometimes dirty) clothes, a defeminized manner, cigarette smoking, and brusqueness in speech. This was part
of a countercultural revolt like those of nineteenth-century European bohemians, fin-de-siècle decadents, or
American hippies of the 1960s. Their values were equality, science worship, a general belief in progress, and a
moralistic disdain for old Russian ways and customs—including religion, the family, and the highly stratified and
visible class system. Wives and daughters broke with their families, migrated to the big capital cities—St.
Petersburg and Moscow—enrolled in courses, joined circles and communes, and in general scandalized polite
society. Many women who went through this counterculture moved on to political radicalism and even
terrorism. But many of them did not. Nihilism was not coterminous with revolution for people of either sex.
Even among women who admired Nicholas Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1862)—a political novel and a
utopia about women’s emancipation—were those that remained deaf to its radical message and contented
themselves with borrowing its devices (fictitious marriages, women’s cooperatives, communes) for personal,
social, and sexual emancipation.
Nihilist and radical women are often linked in the study of the revolutionary movement of the 1860s. But as far
as women are concerned, radicals had more in common with active feminists than with those nihilists (often
accused of egoism) who defined emancipation as a personal affair. Both the feminists and the radical women
had larger goals; for the former, emancipation of women of their own class and assistance to many women of
the urban lower orders (prostitutes, orphans, shopgirls); for the latter—emancipation of all the people, especially
in the toiling peasants, through socialism. They also seemed to share an almost religious sense of service and
self-sacrifice. In a brilliant book on the subject, Barbara Engel has analyzed the sense of religious devotion and
service among radical women of this generation and shown how their strategy of sacrifice and martyrdom—
while extremely valuable in giving the revolution a symbolic halo—diminished their feminist sensibilities and led
them to downplay or ignore special problems of the female population. This does not mean, however, that the
feminist impulse was absent among radical women. Engel has shown in detail how many of the most active
women in the populist movement of the 1870s went through an important phase of turning the “personal” into
the “political.” Female revolutionaries also maintained what we now call networks of moral and psychological
substance, a phenomenon that has survived strongly into the present.
But who were the radical women and what did they do? Most of the several thousand females who participated
in the revolutionary movement between the 1860s and 1880s were from privileged Russian families—gentry,
professionals, government officials, and military officers—with an increasing admixture of merchants’ and
priests’ daughters, women of the lower classes, and Jews, Poles, and other nationalities. In the miniscule circles
of the 1860s, women acted as adjuncts, recruiters, messengers, and were sometimes treated by radical men—such
as Sergei Nechaev—in a rather manipulative way. In the 1870s, with the “Movement to the People,” women
came into their own, migrating into factories and into villages in search of the “socialist” peasant,
propagandizing, and falling into police dragnets. Hundreds were arrested and incarcerated or sent into Siberian
exile. An era of assassination was inaugurated when Vera Zasulich fired a short at a high police official in the
capital in 1877. When disillusionment with peasant revolutionary potential and fear of open exposure led a
branch of the movement—the People’s Will—to a campaign of terror in the years 1879-1881, women were even
more prominent numerically, constituting about one-third of that body’s all-powerful Executive Committee. It
was Sofya Perovskaya, after the arrest of her comrades, who led the final assault on the Tsar that took his life in
March 1881, after which she and her co-conspirators were hanged. But failure attended the symbolic victory: no
revolution occurred, peasant socialism did not emerge, and the People’s Will gradually disintegrated.
The Populist episode left a dual legacy for radical women: it encircled them with the aureole of martyrdom and
revolutionary honor and it endowed them with a myth of moral courage and indomitable power. But it often
left their followers to continue the “pure radical” notion of the Great Cause, to the detriment of feminist
concerns; and it also failed to win women a place of equal power and creativity in the revolutionary movements.
The second phase of the revolutionary movement in Russia occurred in an altered social context. Russia’s rapid
industrialization added dramatically to the number of urban factory women, prostitutes, and domestic servants.
Peasant women followed their menfolk—and sometimes went independently—into the work force in the cities,
the slums, and the proletarian working-class quarters. Female domestics were the most ignored by social critics
(and the least studied to this day), though they were very prominent in the urban housing revolution that erupted
in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. The prostitutes became a veritable symbol—in the eyes of cultural
observers—of the moral decadence that was overcoming Russian society. Factory women, as Rose Glickman’s
superb new study has shown, had to face hostility and abuse on two fronts: in the exploitativeness of the factory
system itself; and in the home where male “proletarian virtue” did not always include decent treatment of wives
and daughters.
The partially successful Revolution of 1905, which produced civil rights, a free press, a parliament, and dozens of
new public institutions, also thickened the social and political texture of Russia. Into the maelstrom of
revolutionary politics rushed peasants, workers, the middle classes, and national minorities of many levels of
cultural development. To represent their interests and those of the forces of order and stability, a whole
spectrum of political parties appeared, most of which deliberated openly in the Duma, or parliament, created in
1906. As might be expected the parties that inscribed fatherland, faith, and tsar on their banners were wholly
opposed to feminism and woman suffrage. Conservatives sometimes fudged the issue but were generally hostile.
The Liberal Party (Kadets) divided at first—thinking other matters more important than votes for women—but
grudgingly came round to support them. The parties of the left—the Marxist Social Democrats (both
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the anarchist groups supported equal rights for
women in principle, though only the Marxists proclaimed it publicly and unambiguously. But in practice many
leftists often ignored the woman question or were simply hostile to it, seeing it (as did the Liberals) as a luxury, a
special cause that should be subsumed under a grander perspective of all-Russian liberation and the destruction
of the tsarist system. The radical generation of 1905 was distinctly less interested in living sexual equality in part
because its cohort rested comfortably on the radical myth that these things had already been decided in the
While women were accepted as equals in the parties of the left, as individuals they were much less prominent in
the leadership than they had been a generation earlier. This steady influx into the socialist parties of workers
whose attitude toward women was not as advanced as those of the intelligentsia may also have been responsible
for a certain downgrading of the role of women. It must be kept in mind, however, that for many women who
sought a role in political life, the socialist parties seemed the only genuinely hospitable home.
One development—but not the only one—that made some Marxists suspicious of what they called “feminist”
concerns was the emergence of the Russian women’s suffrage movement around 1905 outside the context of
socialism and large-scale revolution. The feminist movement of 1905 was very complex. In one sense it was a
continuation of “classical” feminism of the 1860s—a movement of women for women and emphatically not
simply the female component of one of the opposition movements, and consequently, not ready to bury its
separate causes under some larger cause as defined by men. This focus on women as a constituency that cut
across class lines and the willingness of some feminist groups to accept a limited (property) suffrage was quite
enough to besmirch it in the eyes of most Marxists as bourgeois. The charge was not wholly accurate (quite
aside from the utter meaninglessness of the work “bourgeois” in any Russian context).
In the first place, almost all feminists—conservative, liberal, or “social”—saw women’s emancipation as part of a
larger cause also: the liberation of all oppressed peoples, but not via a simple formula of “proletarian” revolution
or neopopulism. They upheld the revolution and supported a whole range of reforms that benefited everyone.
Secondly, an important component of the feminist movement was specifically interested in the labor movement,
working-class women, factory conditions, the right to strike, and so on. Some of these feminists were even
socialist party members. But they usually found themselves rebuffed by party leaders who frowned upon
“separatist” tendencies. By 1906, the feminists—rearranged and reshuffled several times—had parted company
with the revolutionary movement and continued their fight for the vote. They did not get it until 1917, but in
the course of their campaigning they continued what their mothers had started—building self-confidence,
gaining organizational experience, and winning valuable reform for women in matters of education, law, and
social protection.
The Populist tradition of “pure radicalism” and devoid of organized feminism continued into this era. It was
very strong among those women who shared with radical men the belief that everything about the emancipation
of women had already been said and that there was, therefore, no need for a special movement for women. For
Maria Spiridonova, a fiery schoolteacher from Tambov province, the hallmark of a political woman was personal
valor and action: during the 1905 Revolution she avenged the scourged peasants of her province by shooting
dead the General who had led the punitive expedition against them. After ten years in exile she returned to
European Russia in 1917 and became a leader of the ultra-radical left Socialist Revolutionaries. Through it all,
she evinced no interest whatsoever in organized feminism, seeing herself as already the equal of men and seeing
the Revolution as the focal point of her life. Vera Zasulich, ex-terrorist and now a Menshevik Marxist, shared
this opinion: special meetings and organizations for women within Social Democracy were unnecessary. In
many ways these women (and there were many more) harbored some of the short-sightedness of successful
women of the past (monarchs and writers, for example) who viewed their own record as “proof” of women’s
ability and who thought that there was nothing more to be done about the matter. The multitude of professional
revolutionary women of all parties in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 who shied away from the suffrage
movement distinguished the Russian experience from that of England where violence found a place inside the
feminist movement itself. It also reinforced male notions that attention to women’s problems was provincial
and harmful.
The “proletarian women’s movement” in contrast was an attempt to synthesize one brand of radicalism—
Marxism—with feminism. Formulated by the German Marxist, Clara Zetkin, and adapted to Russian conditions
by Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife), this synthesis rejected “bourgeois” feminist movements of
women for women, reaffirmed the alliance of men and women in the class struggle for a proletarian revolution,
but insisted on the special needs and concerns of women within the proletarian movement. Working-class
women in particular were beset by problems of illiteracy, low political consciousness, unequal pay, absence of
maternity benefits, sexual harassment on the job, and even abuse from their proletarian husbands. The Marxist
feminists believed that these concerns were real, that organized feminism—with its suspected class bias—could
not alleviate them, and that male socialist leaders poorly understood them and gave them insufficient attention.
In 1905, Kollontai, still a Menshevik, helped to launch a special campaign to enlist women workers in the Social
Democratic labor movement and to fight the feminist organizations in Russia. This struggle culminated at the
first Women’s Conference in 1908 when the two currents confronted each other in a mood of hostility.
Thereafter, feminism in all its parts declined rapidly. The Marxist women’s movement revived on a very modest
scale, in 1912-1914, when the Bolsheviks launched a newspaper called The Woman Worker and began celebrating
the European Marxist holiday, International Women’s Day.
Three years of bloody European war (1914-1917) threw many of these controversies into the shadows, reduced
old organizations to shambles, and kept many revolutionary leaders out of touch with Russian reality. Thus, on
the eve of the 1917 Revolution, the woman question, having won important successes in the last years of the
monarchy, was practically dormant.
The revolutionary year 1917 was actually only eight months along. It began with the overthrow of the
monarchy, was followed by an uneasy and undefined alliance of the “bourgeois” parties in the Provisional
Government and the moderate socialist leaders in the Soviets (workers’ councils), and ended in October with the
Bolshevik seizure of power and the creation of a new revolutionary regime under Lenin. At no time did the
women’s struggle dominate the proceedings, but a struggle there was nonetheless. All the old factions went to
war again. The urban uprising in the capital that caused the collapse of the monarchy was begun by a
demonstration in support of International Women’s Day; and both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks attempted to
organize and recruit women workers throughout the year. The feminist organizations came out of the doldrums,
united, and petitioned the Provisional Government for the vote—which they received along with sharpened
barbs from the Bolshevik women’s organizers for presuming to speak for lower-class women. All the rhetoric
and the insults of 1905 were trumpeted again by both sides.
But the feminists found a fresh cause with an ironic twist: the Women’s Batallions of Death. If women of the
revolutionary tradition could shunt feminism aside in favor of the Great Cause of social revolution, other women
could do the same for another Great Cause: defending the fatherland. In the summer of 1917, while regular
troops were melting away during the Provisional Government’s last and ill-fated offensive against the Central
Powers, Russian women volunteers, organized into batallions, were trying to stiffen the lines against the invaders.
In the last act of 1917, the dramatic but anticlimactic storming of the Winter Palace, headquarters of the
Provisional Government, a unit from the Women’s Batallions defended while the Bolshevik Red Guards, some
women among them assaulted and took the palace.
For the Bolsheviks the moment had at last come when, after generations of postponement of “smaller”
questions for the sake of the larger, these questions had to be faced and solved: “the day after the Revolution.”
But the day after the Revolution never came. As there had been in the past, there were always good reasons why
certain things had to wait—equality, harmony, cooperation, abundance, social justice, all the furnishings of the
utopian dream. The first inkling that the “revolution” was not over but only beginning was the Civil War (19181921), where perhaps as many as 80,000 women served in combat, medical, support, espionage, partisan, and
administrative roles. For these women the Great Cause arose once again as the all-embracing mission in life, and
not the rights of women. They fought, they suffered, and they died—sometimes horribly—as they had done in
the struggle against autocracy, once again projecting an unparalleled image of nobility and sacrifice, an image
reflected in the posters and stories of the Civil War. It was in fact one of the greatest sagas of women at war in
modern times—a saga to be repeated in excruciating and terrible detail when Nazi Germany invaded Russia in
1941. But as in all the previous episodes of the revolutionary tradition, the women were more often deputies,
auxiliaries, assistants, nurturers, and teachers, than the possessors of raw power and monumental stature.
This is not to say that the Marxist-feminist synthesis of the prerevolutionary years was forgotten or abandoned.
Lenin proclaimed again and again the complete equality of the sexes in all realms of life—and was the first
political leader in power ever to do so. His regime, with the assistance of women advisors, promulgated a series
of measures that legalized equal pay for equal work; proclaimed full political, juridical, and educational equality;
legalized abortion and liberalized the divorce system, making woman a full partner in the family. More
important than this, recognizing that laws do no make a social revolution and that the best arbiters of women’s
affairs were women themselves, Lenin blessed the launching of a new experiment in women’s self-activity—the
Zhenotdel, or women’s section, of the Communist Party (1919-1930). Under the general leadership of Inessa
Armand and Kollontai, the Zhenotdel attempted through a national network of women organizers to spread the
news of the Revolution, to enforce its laws (especially against errant and brutal husbands), to give political
education and apprenticeships to working-class and peasant women, to launch literacy classes to campaign
against prostitution (which was now outlawed), and to life the veil physically and metaphorically from the faces
of Muslim women of the eastern regions of the Soviet republic—groups that had been all but untouched by the
currents of women’s liberation thought before 1917. The energy of Zhenotdel leaders was prodigious and their
social ambitions vaulting; but their organization always remained weak, their efforts underfinanced, and their
aims held in dubious repute by many male Bolshevik leaders, especially after the death of Lenin. Why?
All Bolshevik leaders proclaimed in principle the equality of the sexes, but most of them had no interest in the
rapid emancipation of women. Those who did often thought in terms of what one scholar has called
“mobilization for modernization”—the deployment of women’s energies in modern productive labor for the
sake of the regime or of society (the Great Cause once again). It would be easy and natural to attribute this to
the “treachery” or “hypocrisy” of the Bolsheviks, but name-calling does not add much to historical
understanding. All revolutions, in a sense, cheat their supporters and mass participants, just as almost all
societies exploit their poorest and weakest members. The communist revolutions of our time in Yugoslavia,
China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other places that have gone back on their promises to women are hardly different in
this than previous revolutions, except that perhaps they promised more and thus found it more difficult to keep
their word. Like many revolutionaries in Russia before them, the Bolsheviks interpreted “equality” as
complementarity, specialization, or division of labor. Since there were no titles or rules of entry that mentioned
gender, Bolsheviks came to assume that theirs was a community of equals even though some had more power,
did more writing or, after coming to power, had bigger rations. Bolshevism could not break—and to this day
has not broken—with the deep conviction that women, though “equal” in valor and revolutionary
consciousness, were by nature better at support, sustenance, nurturing.
In their public statements and symbols, Bolsheviks neither demeaned women nor put them on a pedestal (there
is no equivalent to the French Marianne, symbol of the Republic, in Soviet heraldry). The posters, medallions,
and symbols of the Revolution show man and woman, side by side, apparent equals in struggle and in labor. But
a closer look at those symbols of the earliest months and years often shows (sickle in hand) depicted as
representing rural life, agriculture the peasantry, fertility, while men (hammer in hand) represent the city,
industry, workers, production. In a subliminal way, early Bolshevik symbolism reflected a view of women as
passive, pliant, and reproductive. Although the Bolsheviks proclaimed from the very outset a moral and social
alliance between peasants and proletarians, between town and country, the alliance was always an unequal one in
favor of the urban over the rural.
From 1917 to the end of the 1920s Bolshevik men and women tried through public statements and institutions
to reduce this dichotomy. But with the emergence of Stalinism in the 1930s, all but the thinnest of ideological
pretenses were laid aside. Conservative divorce and abortion laws were issued, the Zhenotdel was abolished with
the explanation that women were now actually equal to men and that its work was no longer needed—a palpable
misstatement; wives of engineers and managers were publicly exalted for their work in beautifying the home and
adorning their husbands’ offices. The old ideal of the ascetic, thin-lipped, and determined women
revolutionaries gave way to gushing images of supermothers and heroines of domesticity. If the early Bolshevik
male leaders were conditioned by a cultural block to renege on the promises of women’s equality, some of them
at least had made an effort to recall these promises. With Stalin, an unabashed repudiation of old intelligentsia
norms of political respect for women took place, and Soviet Russia reverted to many of the patriarchal attitudes
and life patterns of the old regime. The heavily authoritarian style of politics under Stalin, the brutal warlike
atmosphere of strife, and the economic imperatives set during the five-year plans were partly responsible for this;
but so also was the industrial revolution of the early 1930s that pushed peasants into the cities and workers and
lower-class urban elements up into positions of power and responsibility. With them came still unreconstructed
attitudes toward women, the family, and sexuality. The result can only be called a counterrevolution in women’s
Post-Stalinist reform in the status of women was, like much else after 1953, partial and selective. On the one
hand, the divorce and abortion laws were altered and certain legal and educational disabilities and inequalities of
women were removed. But attitudes and structures remained as in Stalin’s time: women were to work in the
economy and were expected to work a second shift as well in the home; they were segregated into lower-paying
professions and into lower-paying ranks in all professions. Nothing except pallid and formulaic statements
about male responsibilities and the ritual claims of equality was done to remove or diminish the strong Russian
patriarchal attitudes toward women on the part of males. In recent years patriarchalism has even been expressed
in official and semi-official journals.
In retrospect, the Revolution—and the revolutionary movement that preceded it—seems a failure in respect to
women’s position in Russian society. This is not wholly true. Until a few years ago, Soviet women enjoyed
certain rights and wide opportunities in science, technology, medicine, and other professions that were rarely
found in the West. That gap has almost closed and women’s activism in Europe and the United States has—to
use a favorite Soviet expression—“caught up and overtaken” that of Soviet women. Yet there is ferment. Some
of it is quiet and indirect—newspaper campaigns and lobbying for an upgrading of facilities that are central to
women’s lives. More recently, there are signs that a genuine independent feminist movement has arisen among
dissident women, one group of whom has published an almanac of grievances and aspirations that is truly
moving and reminiscent of bygone feminist currents in Russian history. For any new feminist movement that
may emerge from this ferment, the lessons of the Russian Revolution are quite clear: “larger” issues and
causes—however noble—cannot be permitted to swallow the women’s issue per se or to dismiss the purely
feminist emphasis; males will have to look hard at the reality of women’s lives, a reality that is clearly visible
behind the tatter of overused slogans and symbols. Ultimately everyone will have to recognize—as painful as
that may be—the fact that revolution and revolutionary movements and regimes, however lofty and libertarian
their ideals, often generate their own kind of authoritarianism in their solution to the ills of social history.
SOURCE 2: Lesley A. Rimmel, “The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia,”
from The Women’s Review of Books, Sept. 1998, vol. 15, not. 12.
Background information: Lesley A. Rimmel is an associate professor in the department of history, School of International Studies at
the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
During the nearly two years that I lived in Palo Alto, California, I translated several grant proposals from Russian
into English for the Global Fund for Women, based nearby. As a longtime student of the USSR and Russia, I
was fascinated to see how even in the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union, women had organized on
their own behalf and were writing to this explicitly feminist foundation for support. While all of the groups
understandably focused on the need to counter the detrimental effects of recent economic changes on women,
how they understood “feminism” and women’s “nature” and role in society, varied considerably. This is not
surprising, as the idea of gender is contentious in most societies. But what is most encouraging is that in Russia
and the Newly Independent States, the issue of gender itself is being seriously grappled with for the first time.
As these … books … indicate, women in Soviet times were defined as “the same as” or “different from” men
according to the current needs of the regime, with gender-specific or gender-neutral policies then applied as the
particular situation (war, peace, labor shortages) warranted. Only recently have post-Soviet women begun the
difficult but necessary work of claiming agency and making themselves their own first priority.
These … books – … written or edited by scholars of distinction—diverge in their approaches and intended
audiences. The one that addresses the earliest period of Communist Russia, Elizabeth A. Wood’s long-awaited
and richly documented The Baba and the Comrade, is also the most explicitly scholarly. Nonscholars should not be
put off, however, for the book is clearly written and organized, and mostly free of jargon.
The Baba and the Comrade takes as its central theme the question that confronted Bolshevik (after 1918,
Communist) activities: were women and men the same or different? Could a baba, generally defined as an
ignorant peasant woman, become a comrade, a full-fledged human and citizen? Wood notes how reluctant the
Bolsheviks were to target women separately in their propaganda and organizing efforts; only the competition
with feminist groups and other socialist parties forced them to do so in the last years before the February and
October 1917 revolutions and for several years thereafter.
The dilemma for the Communists was that their revolution was to be class-based, and “any special efforts on
behalf of women threatened [the revolution’s] class nature.” Nadezhda Krupskaya, partner and wife of
Bolshevik leader Lenin and usually a stalwart defender of women’s interests, illustrated this reluctance (and some
typical Communist condescension) in a draft editorial for the party paper Rabonitsa (“Woman Worker”) in 1913:
The “woman question” for male and female workers is a question [of] how to draw the backward masses of women workers
into organization, how best to explain to them their interests, how best to make them into comrades in the general struggle.
Solidarity among the male and female workers, a general cause, general goals, a general path to that goal—that is the solution
to the “woman” question in the working class environment. … The journal Rabonitsa will strive to explain to unconscious
woman workers their interests, to show them the commonality of their interests with the interests of the whole working class.
Yet, for practical and historical reasons, women, who were less literate than men and who were charged with all
household and childcare duties, in addition to whatever work they might have outside the home, could not be
reached by Communist activists as easily as men. Many women could not or would not attend meetings with
men, nor would they speak out with men present. But the Communists needed to appeal to women in order to
mobilize their support (especially during the crucial years of the civil war, from 1918 to 1920). And if the
backward baba was not made to support the new regime, then she might hinder the revolution and even become
a source of counterrevolution (defined in practice as any opposition to Bolshevik policy). And as women would
be raising the next generation, it was critical that they understand and support the new order. The spectre of the
baba who would harm the revolution if not won over became the justification for focusing activism on women
Wood concentrates on the period from 1918 to 1923, when woman-centered activism was most pronounced,
but she begins by placing Communist ideas and stereotypes about women and reform in their Russian historical
perspective. Beginning in the late [seventeenth] century under Tsar Peter I, who attempted to orient Russia to
the West, women were viewed as surrogates for the backwardness of Russia; integrating them into male society
would be a step toward “civilizing” Russia and turning women into human beings. The Bolsheviks basically
continued in this vein, giving the tsarist interpretation a Marxist gloss. On the one hand, the Communist regime
enacted legislation mandating sexual equality, with the only “special treatment” being pregnancy and maternity
leaves for women in the workplace. On the other hand, the culture’s traditional gender essentialism remained, to
be resurrected when needed.
This dialectic of gender became evident during the civil war, when the Communists appealed to women’s
supposedly inherent traits as caregivers and homemakers to take on work as nurses and inspectors, to use their
“sharp eyes and tender hearts” to care for wounded soldiers and root out any corruption or misdeeds. At the
same time, local women’s sections of the Communist Party were established, as well as a national organization,
the Women’s Department of the Party, the Zhenotdel.
Theoretically, the women’s sections were to be “transmission belts” (a favorite Bolshevik metaphor) for bringing
party policy to ordinary women. They did indeed function this way. However, as the civil war gave way to the
era of the New Economic Policy, a time of some economic privatization with greater political centralization
(somewhat like the situation of China today and economically similar to present-day Russia), many women lost
their jobs and their healthy benefits, and the women’s sections began lobbying the government on women’s
behalf. Labor and enterprise leaders, seeing women more as mothers than as workers, were unsympathetic, and
the state continued to curtail its “social programs.” Zhenotdel activists countered by bringing out the threat of
the baba: the NEP was forcing women into “domestic slavery” or prostitution in order to survive (a not untrue
contention), and in their regression from comrade to baba, they would take men down with them.
If there was any regression, however, it was on the part of the government in general and men in particular, who
by 1923-24 feared not that women would be a drag on the revolution, but that the housework would not get
done. Women’s section activists, whose political and material support from authorities was being cut, strove to
assure men of the party that female comrades would not desert their posts—at the stove. Thus Bolshevik
backlash against gender transformation began long before Stalinist family values became institutionalized in the
1930 and 1940s—a time often referred to as the “Great Retreat.”
Wood’s convincing work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the gender-role traditionalism the
Communists reinstitutionalized with their revolution. Women’s opportunities—and workload—may have
increased after 1917, but the culture’s skepticism about women’s “essential nature” did not. For those of us who
for years have attempted to point this out (and were vilified, by some on both the Right and the Left, for doing
so), Wood’s readable narrative and copious examples bring further validation.
How did women in the Soviet Union negotiate their country’s contradictory gender expectations? Mostly, it
seems, they ignored them and concentrated on survival. Historian Barbara Alpern Engel and demographer and
feminist activities Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck have collected eight interviews with women whose only
commonality was (with one exception) that they were born before the Bolshevik Revolution, and survived to see
the USSR’s demise. The title of their book, A Revolution of Their Own, is [somewhat misleading], since it seems to
imply that women actually got “their” revolution. In fact, as their stories indicate, most of these women did not
benefit from the revolution, and for many the Soviet experience was a largely negative one.
Most interesting, however, is that neither then women’s experiences nor their attitudes can be predicted from
their backgrounds—a clear retort to the Communists’ near obsession with people’s “social origins.” The
interviews took place not just in Moscow but in Siberia but in Ekaterinburg in the Urals; the women themselves
were born in a variety of places. While the eight are not a representative sample demographically, their
experiences are varied enough to make for a rich and provocative portrait of a generation that lived through one
of history’s greatest dramas.
Each chapter consists of a thorough introduction to the woman being interviewed, complete with a description
of the physical setting, followed by a portion of the interview (edited for length and variety), including
abbreviated versions of Posadskaya’s questions. The latter reveal Posadskaya’s ability to prod the woman being
interviewed—for example, on their views on abortion, which was not a topic these women normally discussed.
(One area where Posadskaya did not prod was that of lesbian rights, which may have been an issue for one of
the women.) Sometimes the questions illuminate more about Posadskaya and her generation’s concerns than
about her interviewees’: when she asks Anna Dubova about who decided how the family income would be spent
in the 1930s, Dubova responds, almost with surprise, “we had so little money, there was nothing to decide.”
Neither family background nor individual efforts can totally explain each woman’s fate or her orientation toward
the Communist regime. Among those interviewed, the women with peasant backgrounds shared little except
unpromising beginnings. Elena Ponomarenko was the youngest of seventeen siblings (from the same mother),
and could rarely attend school because she did not have shoes and had to work. But joining the party gave her
life structure and helped her to get a start in journalism, for which she repaid the regime with her consistent
loyalty, even to the point of defending the Terror and leaving her dying mother to go on an assignment. Irina
Kniazeva, on the other hand, knew nothing but hardship in her peasant life from the father and husbands who
mistreated her, the constant hard labor that was never rewarded, and even the burden of “sin” she carried for
years for having stolen a handful of grain to feed her children during the famine of the early 1930s. Reading this
woman’s words, and seeing her careworn face (each interview includes pictures of the women, usually at various
stages of their lives), I was moved to tears.
All the stories are dramatic and even novelistic—Communist activist Sofia Pavlova’s nighttime escapes on
horseback during the civil war, Ponomarenko fighting off wolves in her travels, Vera Malakhova’s experience as
a frontline doctor during World War Two—and it’s no wonder that they can be disdainful of today’s younger
generation and its seeming worship of luxury. Nearly all the women had difficult family lives—drunken and
abusive husbands, wonderful but brief relationships with lovers or second husbands who suddenly disappeared
in one of the convulsions of the Stalin era, and long periods of single motherhood in conditions of extreme
In fact, as Engel and Posadskaya observe, “the ‘new Soviet family’ essentially consisted of a mother who ‘saved
the children,’ […] raising one or two by herself, often with the help of her own mother or a nurse but with no
evident support, financial or otherwise, from the government.” (At the end of World War Two there were 26
million more women than men in the Soviet Union.) Some of these women had to renounce their families of
origin in order merely to survive, while others found it necessary to marry men of “correct” backgrounds so as
to “lose” their pasts—or even just to gain a place to live. But no amount of “family values” legislation, which
the Stalin regime provided in abundance during the 1930s and 1940s, could overcome the problems of hunger,
crowded housing, fatigue, and policies that separated people from their loved ones and mined “family”
happiness for so many.
What did give meaning to most of these women’s lives was a love of work. Only a few of them, when prodded,
complained about the limited opportunities for women; but even party loyalist Pavlova had to admit that women
could not get any farther than she had, as head of a department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (its
second-highest decision-making body): “There was a ceiling. It’s the tenacity of tradition, and unfortunately, to
this day, we haven’t broken its hold. I don’t know how long it will take to overcome it.” Under the personal,
economic, and political conditions that these women lived through, however, their survival and the survival of
(most of) their children seems nothing short of miraculous—they were truly “heroes of their own lives,” to use
Linda Gordon’s phrase.
That these women tend to downplay any long-suppressed resentment at limitations they experienced because of their sex—
the overt discrimination and the practical obstacles engendered by single motherhood and poverty—is probably because class-
based discrimination affected them more deeply, for better or for worse….
Russian history is full of ironies, and nothing is more ironic than the fact that women’s freedom to discuss and
protest their situation arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just as most women’s lives really began to
worsen. The contradictions of gender essentialism that were never really addressed by the Soviet Union bore
fruit. Because, for example, parental leave and childcare had been associated with women only, women were and
are the ones most likely to be fired as workplaces have to cut costs. With gender roles at home never questioned
and with housework being so extraordinarily time-consuming in Russia (which does not have enough wellsupplied, conveniently located shops or labor-saving devices), women, with no more “reserved seats” (few as
they were) in government bodies, are at a disadvantage in trying to compete as political players. Old-fashioned
male chauvinism also plays a part in keeping women out of politics, and out of business as well.
Not all of this is news; the Communist Party and other powerful institutions had long been affirmative action
programs for sons of party leaders. But along with the new opportunities of the post-Soviet era have come new
obstacles for Russian women.
Yet the women in this book seem equal to the challenge. The larger groups they founded or reorganized all have
Soviet roots, in some cases quite strong ones. One of the best-known is the Center for Gender Studies, the
Soviet Union’s first center for research on women, and its sister umbrella group, the Independent Women’s
Forum, which organized the first countrywide, independent gatherings for women’s groups. The Center and the
Forum have been very successful in publicizing their critiques of Russian society. They are less involved in
politicking to get women into positions of power, although their members often serve as consultants to
government bodies. Although the Center is associated with the venerable Academy of Sciences, it has been
outspoken in its feminism, as has its founding director, Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck.
Posadskaya early on found the Soviet system to be sexist and hypocritical, once she saw underqualified but wellconnected men getting into academic programs for which she was rejected although she had passed the exams.
She comes across in this book as less comfortable being interviewed than being the interviewer; she calls herself
a “reluctant activist,” saying she would have preferred to be a full-time scholar, but felt impelled to fight for
women to “have their own voice, to speak independently, to speak not from a position of class or of one-half
the population, which has been rescued by somebody else, but to set up their own agenda.” …
What, then, has women’s activism accomplished? There is not a lot of information here on specific
achievements, and those interested will have to do further research elsewhere. What clearly has been achieved,
however, has been a revolution of consciousness. Although Women’s Activism leaves us with questions about
the future of feminism in Russia—indeed, the future of Russia itself is always a big question—it also leaves us
with hope. While some women have chosen to become active in far-left or far-right splinter groups in the belief
that resurrecting the old Stalinism or traditional patriarchalism will restore some imagined women’s paradise
(although it should be noted that it was the post-Soviet Communists who first organized around women’s
disproportionate unemployment), there is no going back for Russian women. Too many now know their
history, or are being forced to acknowledge it.
The challenges are truly daunting, especially with regard to women’s economic situation, to which the growth in
sex trafficking of Russian and other women from the Newly Independent States provides eloquent testimony.
But activists won’t get fooled again; there will be no more “mobiliz[ing] women’s support for men’s political
agendas,” for women to be only “producers and reproducers” for the state. There may be a few babas left, but
“comradeship” will be defined on women’s terms. And then women will truly have a revolution of their own….
SOURCE 3: V.I. Lenin, Letter from Afar (abstract), Zurich, March 11, 1917
If we do not draw women into public activity, into the militia, into political life; if we do not tear women away
from the deadening atmosphere of household and kitchen; then it is impossible to secure real freedom, it is
impossible even to build democracy, let alone socialism.
SOURCE 4: 1918 Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic
Article Four: The Right to Vote
64. The right to vote and to be elected to the soviets is enjoyed by the following citizens of both sexes,
irrespective of religion, nationality, domicile, etc., of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, who shall
have completed their eighteenth year by the day of election:
(a) All who have acquired the means of livelihood through labor that is productive and useful to society, and also
persons engaged in housekeeping which enables the former to do productive work, i.e., laborers and employees
of all classes who are employed in industry, trade, agriculture, etc., and peasants and Cossack agricultural laborers
who employ no help for the purpose of making profits.
(b) Soldiers of the army and navy of the soviets.
(c) Citizens of the two preceding categories who have in any degree lost their capacity to work.
SOURCE 5: V.I. Lenin, Speech at the First All-Russia Congress of Working Women, November 19, 1918
(Comrade Lenin is greeted by the delegates with stormy applause.) Comrades, in a certain sense this Congress of the
women's section of the workers' army has a special significance, because one of the hardest things in every
country has been to stir the women into action. There can be no socialist revolution unless very many
working women take a big part in it.
In all civilised countries, even the most advanced, women are actually no more than domestic slaves.
Women do not enjoy full equality in any capitalist state, not even in the freest of republics.
One of the primary tasks of the Soviet Republic is to abolish all restrictions on women's rights. The Soviet
government has completely abolished divorce proceedings, that source of bourgeois degradation, repression
and humiliation.
It will soon be a year now since complete freedom of divorce was legislated. We have passed a decree
annulling all distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children and removing political restrictions.
Nowhere else in the world have equality and freedom for working women been so fully established.
We know that it is the working-class woman who has to bear the full brunt of antiquated codes.
For the first time in history, our law has removed everything that denied women rights. But the important
thing is not the law. In the cities and industrial areas this law on complete freedom of marriage is doing all
right, but in the countryside it all too frequently remains a dead letter. There the religious marriage still
predominates. This is due to the influence of the priests, an evil that is harder to combat than the old
We must be extremely careful in fighting religious prejudices; some people cause a lot of harm in this
struggle by offending religious feelings. We must use propaganda and education. By lending too sharp an
edge to the struggle we may only arouse popular resentment; such methods of struggle tend to perpetuate
the division of the people along religious lines, whereas our strength lies in unity. The deepest source of
religious prejudice is poverty and ignorance; and that is the evil we have to combat.
The status of women up to now has been compared to that of a slave; women have been tied to the home,
and only socialism can save them from this. They will only be completely emancipated when we change
from small-scale individual farming to collective farming and collective working of the land. That is a
difficult task. But now that Poor Peasants' Committees are being formed, the time has come when the
socialist revolution is being consolidated.
The poorest part of the rural population is only now beginning to organise, and socialism is acquiring a firm
foundation in these organisations of poor peasants.
Before, often the town became revolutionary and then the countryside.
But the present revolution relies on the countryside, and therein lie its significance and strength. 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 Soviet government is doing everything in its power to enable women to carry
on independent proletarian socialist work.
The Soviet government is in a difficult position because the imperialists of all countries hate Soviet Russia
and are preparing to go to war with her for kindling the fire of revolution in a number of countries and for
taking determined steps towards socialism.
Now that they are out to destroy revolutionary Russia, the ground is beginning to burn under their own feet.
You know how the revolutionary movement is spreading in Germany. In Denmark the workers are fighting
their government. In Switzerland and Holland the revolutionary movement is getting stronger. The
revolutionary movement in these small countries has no importance in itself, but it is particularly significant
because there was no war in these countries and they had the most "constitutional" democratic system. If
countries like these are stirring into action, it makes us sure the revolutionary movement is gaining ground
all over the world.
No other republic has so far been able to emancipate woman. The Soviet Government is helping her. Our
cause is invincible because the invincible working class is rising in all countries. This movement signifies the
spread of the invincible socialist revolution. (Prolonged applause. All sing the "Internationale".)
SOURCE 6: Alexandra Kollontai, from The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, 1926
Background information: Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) grew up in an educated, affluent, and fairly liberal Russian family.
She married young, but left her husband and son to study political economy in Switzerland, where she became actively involved in
socialist organizing. Originally a Menshevik, Kollontai became a Bolshevik in 1915, largely because of the Bolshevik opposition to
the war, and entered into a friendly correspondence with Lenin.
After the October Revolution, Kollontai was named People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, becoming the only woman to hold a
cabinet post in the new Bolshevik government. As director of the Women’s Bureau (Zhenotdel), she agitated in favor of economic
liberty for working women and state welfare benefits for mothers. Her advocacy of women’s rights and free love was not universally
popular, and in the years following the revolution she found herself increasingly at odds with the Communist Party leadership. In
1922, Kollontai was assigned a diplomatic post in Norway—a gentle form of exile—and she spent much of the rest of her life
outside Russia. In memoirs written in 1926, she recounted the heady early days of the revolution, when a total transformation of
Russian society still seemed possible.
When one recalls the first months of the Workers’ Government, months which were so rich in magnificent
illusions,1 plans, ardent initiatives to improve life, to organize the world anew, months of real romanticism of the
Revolution, one would in fact like to write about all else save about one’s self. I occupied the post of Minister of
Social Welfare from October 1917 to March of 1918. It was not without opposition that I was received by the
former officials of the Ministry. Most of them sabotaged us openly and simply did not show up for work. But
precisely this office could not interrupt its work, come what may, since in itself it was an extraordinarily
complicated operation. It included the whole welfare program for the war-disabled, hence for hundreds of
thousands of crippled soldiers and officers, the pension system in general, foundling homes, homes for the aged,
orphanages, hospitals for the needy, the work-shops making artificial limbs, the administration of playing-card
factories (the manufacture of playing cards was a State monopoly), the educational system, clinical hospitals for
women. In addition, a whole series of educational institutes for young girls were also under the direction of this
Ministry. One can easily imagine the enormous demands these tasks made upon a small group of people who, at
the same time, were novices in State administration. In a clear awareness of these difficulties, I formed,
immediately, an auxiliary council in which experts such as physicians, jurists, pedagogues were represented
alongside the workers and the minor officials of the Ministry. The sacrifice, the energy with which the minor
employees bore the burden of this difficult task was truly exemplary. It was not only a matter of keeping the
work of the Ministry going, but also of initiating reforms and improvements. New, fresh forces replaced the
sabotaging officers of the old regime. A new life stirred in the offices of the formerly highly conservative
Ministry. Days of grueling work! And at night the sessions of the councils of the People’s Commissar (of the
cabinet) under Lenin’s chairmanship. A small, modest room and only one secretary who recorded the
resolutions which changed Russia’s life to its bottommost foundations.
* * *
My main work as People’s Commissar consisted in the following: by decree to improve the situation of the war-disabled,
to abolish religious instruction in the schools for young girls which were under the Ministry (this was still before
the general separation of Church and State), and to transfer priests to the civil service, to introduce the right of
self-administration for pupils in the schools for girls, to reorganize the former orphanages into government
Children’s Homes (no distinction was to be made between orphaned children and those who still had fathers and mothers), to set
up the first hostels for the needy and street-urchins, to convene a committee, composed only of doctors, which
was to be commissioned to elaborate the free public health system for the whole country. In my opinion the most
important accomplishment of the People’s Commissariat, however, was the legal foundation of a Central Office
for Maternity and Infant Welfare. The draft of the bill relating to this Central Office was signed by me in
January of 1918. A second decree followed in which I changed all maternity hospitals into free Homes for
Maternity and Infant Care, in order thereby to set the groundwork for a comprehensive government system of
pre-natal care. I was greatly assisted in coping with these tasks by Dr. Korolef. We also planned a “Pre-Natal
Care Palace,” a model home with an exhibition room in which courses for mothers would be held and, among
many other things, model day nurseries were also to be established. We were just about completing preparations
for such a facility in the building of a girls’ boarding school at which formerly young girls of the nobility had
been educated and which was still under the direction of a countess, when a fire destroyed our work, which had
barely begun! Had the fire been set deliberately? … I was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. I
rushed to the scene of the fire; the beautiful exhibition room was totally ruined, as were all the other rooms.
Only the huge name-plate “Pre-Natal Care Palace” still hung over the entrance door.
My efforts to nationalize maternity and infant care set off a new wave of insane attacks against me. All kinds of
lies were related about the “nationalization of women,” about my legislative proposals which assertedly ordained that little
girls of 12 were to become mothers. A special fury gripped the religious followers of the old regime when, on my own
authority (the cabinet later criticized me for this action), I transformed the famous Alexander Nevsky monastery into a
home for war-invalids. The monks resisted and a shooting fray ensued. The press again raised a loud hue and
cry against me. The Church organized street demonstrations against my action and also pronounced “anathema”
against me….
I received countless threatening letters, but I never requested military protection. I always went out alone, unarmed and without any
kind of a bodyguard. In fact I never gave a thought to any kind of danger, being all too engrossed in matters of an utterly different
character. In February of 1918 a first State delegation of the Soviets was sent to Sweden in order to clarify different
economic and political questions. As People’s Commissar I headed this delegation. But our vessel was shipwrecked;
we were saved by landing on the Aland Islands which belonged to Finland. At this very time the struggle
between the Whites and the Reds in the country had reached its most crucial moment and the German Army
was also making ready to wage war against Finland.
* * *
Now began a dark time of my life which I cannot treat of here since the events are still too fresh in my mind. But
the day will also come when I will give an account of them.
There were differences of opinion in the Party. I resigned from my post as People’s Commissar on the ground of total
disagreement with the current policy. Little by little I was also relieved of all my other tasks. I again gave lectures and expoused muy
ideas on “the new woman” and “the new morality.” The Revolution was in full swing. The struggle was becoming
increasingly irreconcilable and bloodier, much of what was happening did not fit in with my outlook. But after all there
was still the unfinished task, women’s liberation. Women, of course, had received all rights but in practice, of
course, they still lived under the old yoke: without authority to family life, enslaved by a thousand menial
household chores, bearing the whole burden of maternity, even the material cares, because many women now
found life alone as a result of the war and other circumstances.
* * *
A flood of new work was waiting for me. The question now was one of drawing women into the people’s
kitchens and of educating them to devote their energies to children’s homes and day-care centers, the school
system, household reforms, and still many other pressing matters. The main thrust of all this activity was to
implement, in fact, equal rights for women as a labor unit in the national economy and as a citizen in the political
sphere and, of course, with the special proviso: maternity was to be appraised as a social function and therefore
protected and provided for by the State.
* * *
A serious illness tore me away from the exciting work for months. Hardly having recovered—at that time I was
in Moscow—I took over the direction of the Coordinating Office for Work among Women and again a new
period of intensive, grueling work began. A communist women’s newspaper was founded, conferences and
congresses of women workers were convoked. The foundation was laid for work with the women of the East
(Mohammedans). Two world conferences of communist women took place in Moscow. The law liberalizing
abortion was put through and a number of regulations of benefit to women were introduced by our
Coordinating Office and legally confirmed. At this time I had to do more writing and speaking than ever before…. Our
work received wholehearted support from Lenin. And Trotsky, although he was overburdened with military
tasks, unfailingly and gladly appeared at our conferences. Energetic, gifted women, two of whom are no longer
alive, sacrificially devoted all their energies to the work of the Coordinating Office.
At the eighth Soviet Congress, as a member of the Soviet executive (now there were already several women on this body),
I proposed a motion that the Soviets in all areas contribute to the creation of a consciousness of the struggle for
equal rights for women and, accordingly, to involve them in State and communal work. I managed to push the
motion through and to get it accepted but not without resistance. It was a great, an enduring victory.
A heated debate flared up when I published my thesis on the new morality. For our Soviet marriage law, separated
from the Church to be sure, is not essentially more progressive than the same laws that exist in other progressive democratic countries.
… [A]lthough the illegitimate child was placed on a legal par with the legitimate child, in practice a great deal of
hypocrisy and injustice still exists in this area. When one speaks of the “immorality” which the Bolsheviks
purportedly propagated, it suffices to submit our marriage laws to a close scrutiny to note that in the divorce
questions we are on a par with North America whereas in the question of the illegitimate child we have not yet
even progressed as far as the Norwegians.
The most radical wing of the Party was formed around this question. My theses, my sexual and moral views, were
bitterly fought by many Party comrades of both sexes: as were still other differences of opinion in the Party regarding political
guiding principles. Personal and family cares were added thereto and thus months in 1922 went by without fruitful
work. Then in the autumn of 1922 came my official appointment to the legation of the Russian Soviet
representation in Norway. I really believed that this appointment would be purely formal and that therefore in
Norway I would find time to devote myself, to my literary activity. Things turned out quite differently. With the
day of my entry into office in Norway I also entered upon a wholly new course of work in mu life which drew
upon all my energies to the highest degree.
1 By
1926, it was already necessary to be cautious about how one described one’s involvement in the revolution, and Kollontai censored
her own writing. Italics indicate passages in the original manuscript that were not included in the published version of her memoirs.
SOURCE 7: Boris Eremeevich Vladimirski, Miner and Female Worker (1929), oil on cardboard
SOURCE 8: Chapter X of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR
Background information: The 1936 constitution, also known as the Stalin constitution, redesigned the government of the USSR.
ARTICLE 118. Citizens of the U.S.S.R. have the right to work, that is, are guaranteed the right to employment
and payment for their work in accordance With its quantity and quality.
The right to work is ensured by the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the
productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of
ARTICLE 119. Citizens of the U.S.S.R. have the right to rest and leisure. The right to rest and leisure is ensured
by the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution
of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria,
rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.
ARTICLE 120. Citizens of the U.S.S.R. have the right to maintenance in old age and also in case of sickness or
loss of capacity to work. This right is ensured by the extensive development of social insurance of workers and
employees at state expense, free medical service for the working people and the provision of a wide network of
health resorts for the use of the working people.
ARTICLE 121. Citizens of the U.S.S.R. have the right to education. This right is ensured by universal,
compulsory elementary education; by education, including higher education, being free of charge; by the system
of state stipends for the overwhelming majority of students in the universities and colleges; by instruction in
schools being conducted in the native language, and by the organization in the factories, state farms, machine
and tractor stations and collective farms of free vocational, technical and agronomic training for the working
ARTICLE 122. Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state,
cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them
an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state
protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision
of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.
ARTICLE 123. Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or race, in all
spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect
restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on
account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and
contempt, is punishable by law.
ARTICLE 124. In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the U.S.S.R. is separated
from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious
propaganda is recognized for all citizens.
ARTICLE 125. In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to strengthen the socialist
system, the citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed by law:
a freedom of speech;
b freedom of the press;
c freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
d freedom of street processions and demonstrations.
These civil rights are ensured by placing at the disposal of the working people and their organizations printing
presses, stocks of paper, public buildings, the streets, communications facilities and other material requisites for
the exercise of these rights.
ARTICLE 126. In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to develop the
organizational initiative and political activity of the masses of the people, citizens of the U.S.S.R. are ensured the
right to unite in public organizations--trade unions, cooperative associations, youth organizations,' sport and
defense organizations, cultural, technical and scientific societies; and the most active and politically most
conscious citizens in the ranks of the working class and other sections of the working people unite in the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), which is the vanguard of the working people in their struggle
to strengthen and develop the socialist system and is the leading core of all organizations of the working people,
both public and state.
ARTICLE 127. Citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed inviolability of the person. No person may be placed
under arrest except by decision of a court or with the sanction of a procurator.
ARTICLE 128. The inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence are protected by law.
ARTICLE 129. The U.S.S.R. affords the right of asylum to foreign citizens persecuted for defending the
interests of the working people, or for their scientific activities, or for their struggle for national liberation.
ARTICLE 130. It is the duty of every citizen of the U.S.S.R. to abide by the Constitution of the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics, to observe the laws, to maintain labor discipline, honestly to perform public duties, and to
respect the rules of socialist intercourse.
ARTICLE 131. It is the duty of every citizen of the U.S.S.R. to safeguard and strengthen public, socialist
property as the sacred and inviolable foundation of the Soviet system, as the source of the wealth and might of
the country, as the source of the prosperous and cultured life of all the working people.
Persons committing offenses against public, socialist property are enemies of the people.
ARTICLE 132. Universal military service is law. Military service in the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army is an
honorable duty of the citizens of the U.S.S.R.
ARTICLE 133. To defend the fatherland is the sacred duty of every citizen of the U.S.S.R. Treason to the
country--violation of the oath of allegiance, desertion to the enemy, impairing the military power of the state,
espionage is punishable with all the severity of the law as the most heinous of crimes.
SOURCE 9: Alexandra Kollontai, “The Soviet Woman – a Full and Equal Citizen of Her Country,” first
published in Sovetskaya zhenshchina (Soviet Woman), No. 5, September-October, 1946
It is a well-known fact that the Soviet Union has achieved exceptional successes in drawing women into the
active construction of the state. This generally accepted truth is not disputed even by our enemies. The Soviet
woman is a full and equal citizen of her country. In opening up to women access to every sphere of creative
activity, our state has simultaneously ensured all the conditions necessary for her to fulfil her natural obligation –
that of being a mother bringing up her children and mistress of her home.
From the very beginning, Soviet law recognised that motherhood is not a private matter, but the social duty of
the active and equal woman citizen. This proposition is enshrined in the Constitution. The Soviet Union has
solved one of the most important and complex of problems how to make active use of female labour in any area
without this being to the detriment of motherhood.
A great deal of attention has been given to the organisation of public canteens, kindergartens, Young Pioneer
camps, playgrounds and creches – those institutions which, as Lenin wrote, facilitate in practice the emancipation
of women and are able, in practice, to reduce the female inequality vis-a-vis men. More than seven thousand
women's and children's consultation centres have been established in the USSR, of which half are in rural areas.
Over 20 thousand creches have been organised. It should be pointed out here that in tsarist Russia in 1913 there
existed only 19 creches and 25 kindergartens, and even these were not maintained by the state, but by
philanthropic organisations.
The Soviet state provides increasing material assistance to mothers. Women receive allowances and paid leave
before and after the birth of the child and their post is kept open for them until they return from leave.
Large and one-parent families receive state allowances to help them provide for and bring up their children. In
1945 the state paid out more than two thousand million roubles in such allowances. The title 'Mother-Heroine'
has been awarded to more than 10 thousand women in the RSFSR alone, while the order of 'Maternal Glory' and
the 'Medal of Motherhood' have been awarded to 1,100 thousand women.
Soviet women have justified the trust and concern shown to them by their state. They have shown a high degree
of heroism both in peaceful, creative labour before the war, during the years of armed battle against the Nazi
invaders, and now, in the efforts to fulfill the monumental tasks set by the new five-year plan. Many branches of
industry in which female labour is predominant are among the first to fulfill their plans. Equally worthy of
mention are the enormous achievements of the Soviet peasant women, who bore on their shoulders the greater
part of the burden of agricultural labour during the war years.
Our women have mastered professions that have long been considered the exclusive domain of men. There are
women engine-drivers, women mechanics, women lathe operators, women fitters, well-qualified women workers
in charge of the most complex mechanisms.
The women of the Soviet Union work on an equal footing with men to advance science, culture and the arts;
they occupy an outstanding place in the national education and health services.
In a country where, 30 years ago, out of 2,300 thousand working women 1,300 thousand worked as servants in
the towns and 750 thousand as farm labourers in the countryside, in a country where there were almost no
women engineers, almost no scientists, and appointment to a teaching post was accompanied by conditions
insulting to female dignity, in that country there are now 750 thousand women teachers, 100 thousand women
doctors, and 250 thousand women engineers. Women make up one half of the student body in institutions of
higher education. Over 33 thousand women are working in laboratories and in research institutes, 25 thousand
women have academic titles and degrees, and 166 women have been awarded the State Prize for their
achievements in science and work.
The women of the Soviet Union are implementing their political rights in practice. The Supreme Soviet of the
USSR has 277 women deputies, while 256 thousand women have been elected to rural, urban, regional and
republican organs of state power...
The women of the Soviet Union do not have to demand from their government the right to work, the right to
education, the right to the protection of motherhood. The state itself, the government itself, draws women into
work, giving them wide access to every sphere of social life, assisting and rewarding mothers.
During the years of invasion by Nazi aggressors, Soviet women, and the women of other democratic countries,
saw with their own eyes the need to wage a tireless battle against Nazism until every trace of it had been
removed. Only this will spare the world the threat of new wars.
The struggle for democracy and lasting peace, the struggle against reaction and fascism, is the main task we face
today. To cut women off from this basic and important task, to attempt to confine them within 'purely female',
feminist organisations, can only weaken the women's democratic movement. Only the victory of democracy can
ensure women equality.
We, the women of the Land of Soviets, are devoting all our energy to creative labour, to the fulfilment of the
monumental tasks set by the five-year plan, knowing that in so doing we are strengthening the bulwark of peace
throughout the world – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
At the same time we must be on the alert for intrigues by the reactionaries and expose their plans and intentions,
their attempts to divide the ranks of democracy.
The unity of all the forces of democracy is our most reliable weapon in the struggle against reaction, in the
struggle for freedom and peace throughout the world.
SOURCE 10: Barbara Evans Clements, “Working-Class and Peasant Women in the Russian Revolution, 19171923,” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter, 1982), pp. 215-235
http://sites.bu.edu/revolutionaryrussia/files/2013/09/3173897.pdf (also available in JSTOR)
Scholars studying the history of women in revolutions, especially in twentieth-century Marxist revolutions, have
usually begun by examining the ideology of the revolutionary leaders and the programs they established to
accomplish women's emancipation. This is a logical and easily justifiable approach. But crucial also is an analysis
of the attitudes and behavior of women themselves. The female masses play an often overlooked part in shaping
a revolution's course and results; and, equally important, women's responses to revolution reveal much about
their beliefs, loyalties, and fears and about their position and roles in the social system.
The period of the Russian Revolution was for women, as for men, a time of paradox, in which the lavish
promises of the new government were accompanied by enormous deprivation and frightening social
disintegration. However, the chaos of revolution held a particular danger for working-class and peasant women,
because it threatened to strip away all their traditional defenses, leaving them—often illiterate and burdened with
children—to cope with a world at war. Whether these women chose to preserve traditional institutions as a
defense against the chaos or to accept the Bolshevik vision of emancipated womanhood was of consequence to
the final outcome of the revolution itself. Only a small minority of women, motivated by conviction or by the
lack of defenses in traditional society, followed the Bolsheviks. Most women preferred to cling to the timehonored patriarchal forms of the family and village.
[Author discusses events of the February revolution, 1917.] Having seized the landlords' property, most peasants were
then satisfied to see the revolution go no further. They had little interest in changing the customs and
organization of village life. The village, with its communal, patriarchal values, was the only world the majority of
peasants knew. … To cope with poverty and an oppressive ruling class, the peasants had developed strong
communal values. Submissiveness to the group supported the collective labor system considered essential to
village survival and produced the solidarity needed to deal with the landlord and the tax collector. Faced with
constant insecurity and hardship, the peasants had built a society which, often defensively, clung to its collective
identity and to all its other traditions.
Central to these traditions was the division of power between the sexes. The peasant woman worked with the
men, doing all but the heaviest chores, such as plowing the fields. She also tended the household vegetable
garden, made milk into butter and cheese, cooked, cleaned, made and washed the clothes, manufactured small
articles for sale in town, bore and reared children. Her endless labor, essential to family survival, was valued by
the peasants, but the labor of men was valued more. A woman was taught from childhood to submit to the
power of men, to accept their right to command obedience as heads of the family and leaders of the village
commune. It was God's will that she do so, she was told, just as it was God's will that she endure the privations
of her life. If she accepted her lot, if she was hardworking and married to a hardworking man, a peasant woman
had the most she could expect from her society: food, family, and a respectable place in the village.
[I]n October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and Moscow. The relationship between the new
rulers and the peasants was difficult from the first, in part because neither group trusted the other. The
Bolsheviks considered the peasants to be backward and conservative, the peasants saw the Bolsheviks as city
folk, outsiders. … [peasant] suspicions were heightened in the summer of 1918 when civil war erupted, and the
Bolshevik government began requisitioning grain and drafting peasant men into the Red Army.
To this scene of social disintegration and peasant distrust came word of the Bolshevik goal to grant women full
equality; newspapers and pamphlets, pro-Bolshevik speakers, Red Army soldiers, and city dwellers returning to
their native villages began to announce the party's commitment to and plans for female emancipation. Shortly
after seizing power, the Bolsheviks had instituted civil marriage and no-fault divorce and had declared the full
legal and civil equality of women. They were also promising to provide equal educational and job opportunities
for women, as well as publicly funded maternity care and day care.
How quickly news of this Bolshevik program reached the countryside is difficult to determine, since the party's
penetration of rural areas was generally haphazard, especially in the first months of its rule. One of the earliest
indicators of peasant awareness that the Bolsheviks were proposing to change the position of women in society
is a letter that a group of peasant men wrote to Maxim Gorky in the spring of 1918. The peasants asked the
writer to tell them "by registered letter or in detail in a newspaper, how we are to understand the proclaimed
equality of women with us and what she [sic] is going to do now. The undersigned peasants are alarmed by this
law from which lawlessness may increase, and the village now is supported by the woman. The family is
abolished, and because of this the destruction of farming will follow." … These men were probably not alone in
fearing that women's emancipation would "abolish" the family and lead to the "destruction" of the village.
Peasant men no doubt also felt that any change in the position of women threatened male power and status; in
their view they had much to lose and little to gain from these Bolshevik proposals. Thus the negative response of
peasant men, of which this letter is but one example, was to be expected. More perplexing is the reaction of
many peasant women: they too rejected the message of female equality. The best evidence of this response is
their refusal to attend meetings organized by the Bolshevik Woman's Bureau (the Zhenotdel) in 1919, 1920, and
1921. The women were told that the meetings were held to inform them about Bolshevik plans to improve their
lives, and yet they would not come. For example, in 1921 only 14,709 peasant women attended Woman's Bureau
meetings in fifteen of the central provinces of Russia, where the population numbered in the millions.
Admittedly, this low attendance can be explained in part by the small number of organizers from the Zhenotdel
working with peasant women. But those workers who were active in the countryside freely acknowledged that,
despite their best efforts, they were able to persuade very few women to come to the meetings. Occasionally a
group would show up to protest against government policies, but more commonly women stayed away and
ostracized those who did go.1
This resistance suggests that many peasant women agreed with village men that talk about female emancipation
threatened morality, religion, and the survival of village life. And in fact it did. The Bolshevik party was
committed, at least on paper, to the root-and-branch destruction of the patriarchal structure of the peasant
family, Orthodox Christianity, and private land ownership-in short, to the abolition of the traditional village. The
peasant women who criticized the revolutionaries may have understood few of the specifics of the Bolshevik
program, but their hostility indicates that they grasped, or at least suspected, the ultimate purpose. Thus they
responded to any attempt to draw them into organizational meetings or into other nontraditional activities by
raising their traditional defenses: staying at home, censuring association with outsiders, and accusing the
outsiders of immorality and godlessness.
Realizing that women were frightened by talk of emancipation, the Woman's Bureau organizers tried to reassure
them that the party was not planning to destroy Village life. Zhenotdel workers were instructed to avoid
speeches on communist ideology, which, in the words of Konkordiia Samoilova, a leader of the Woman's
Bureau, peasant women feared "like the boogeyman." The organizers were told to concentrate instead on
"practical" measures of immediate, tangible benefit, such as teaching the women more efficient farming
techniques. They were also to promise that when the civil war was over, the party would bring schools, hospitals,
and manufactured goods to the countryside. Any possibility of winning the women over by giving them social
programs, however, foundered on the Bolsheviks' inability to finance even the most modest projects during the
crisis of war. The new leaders were reduced to promises, and the suspicious peasants had heard promises before.
Sometimes peasant women would quote for Bolshevik organizers a Russian proverb: "Don't promise us a crane
in the sky, give us a titmouse in the hand." Bolsheviks soon learned that they should never announce a project
they could not see through to completion, for any failure only strengthened peasant women's hostility. The few
organizers working in the countryside kept trying to break through what one called "the Chinese wall" of
women's resistance," but the Woman's Bureau as a whole concentrated its attention on city women. Its leaders
did not want to squander their meager resources on the rural women who were so difficult to reach, both
physically and spiritually.
In contrast, one might expect that working-class women would have been more open to the Bolshevik calls for
emancipation. They lived in the cities, where modernization had weakened traditional values and where deep
indignation against the old regime had stirred the working class to revolution. The urban world accepted change
more readily than did the village. Furthermore, after the revolution had brought the Bolsheviks to power, the
party expended far more effort on winning over proletarian women than it did on peasant women. The
Bolsheviks had reason to believe, therefore, that working-class women would look on them as liberators and
would flock to support them.
Censuses from the period 1897-1914 indicate that there were approximately 20 million women in the paid labor
force of the Russian Empire. Large numbers of women were employed as day laborers in agriculture and a few
more in semiprofessional and professional jobs, but almost half of all women working for wages were domestic
servants (approximately 10 million), and one-fifth were industrial workers (approximately 4 million before 1914).
This category of industrial workers included women working in factories, in sales and service industries, and in
communications and transportation. During the decade before 1917 and especially during the war, the number
of women in industry grew steadily, until by 1917 the 7.5 million women so employed made up 40 percent of
that segment of the labor force.
Work in the new enterprises of Russia's industrialization and life in the urban milieu had not been enough to
destroy the peasant values of working-class women. Many were originally from the countryside, and, like many
new factory workers during the early stages of modernization in Western Europe, remained very much under the
influence of the traditional society they had left. Thus, for the most part, these women workers did not
participate in the political parties and trade unions that were the organizational expressions of working-class
radicalism, because politics was considered men's business. As in the village, women's business was to work for
the family. …
Then in February 1917, as inflation and food shortages made life increasingly difficult, the poor women of
Petrograd grew angry enough to hurl rocks at the closed door of a bakery or to join a demonstration. As these
protests swelled, many women found a new, exhilarating, somewhat frightening freedom. …
The euphoria of March subsided somewhat in April, but working women seem to have continued to support the
destruction of the old regime. They avoided full-time absorption in politics, attending instead to their work and
their children, but they were willing to join demonstrations. Some women also began to seek higher wages
through organizing. For example, thousands of soldiers' wives in Petrograd held a march to demand an increase
in military allotments, and laundresses launched a strike that won them higher wages and better working
conditions. Women also voted in elections for the soviets and municipal dumas, but in lower percentages than
men, for voting still seemed to many of them a venture into the male sphere of politics. The women had
changed their lives with the revolution by ending their submission to the upper class and scrambling for their
share of the food, but they shrank from political parties and continued to work for their families.
Unlike noblewomen and peasant women, working-class women became the object of great Bolshevik solicitude.
They were, after all, members of that proletarian class which held the starring role in Marxist ideology—and on
which Bolshevik survival actually depended. The support of working women was important; so the government
gave them, and their men and children, rations of the best food available, promised them publicly funded
medical care and child care, and encouraged them to organize cooperatives and work for the soviets. In 1918
Aleksandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand organized the First All-Russian Conference of Working Women and
Peasant Women; the next year they established the Woman's Bureau within the Communist Party to coordinate
work among women. Motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of the working-class woman, Kollontai,
Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaia, Konkordiia Samoilova, and the hundreds of Woman's Bureau workers under
them sought to involve the working-class woman in her own emancipation, which they believed required the
transfer of all housekeeping and child rearing to public institutions, the legalization of divorce, and the education
of women to work as men's equals.
Thousands joined the projects organized by the Woman's Bureau. But millions more did not, still intent on
private concerns that they saw as unrelated to, or unalleviated by, Bolshevik promises. What little they
understood of the Bolsheviks' plans for their emancipation, they often did not accept. Like the peasants, some
women of the proletariat muttered that the Bolsheviks were godless people who wanted to take babies away
from their mothers and encourage men to abandon their wives. Embracing the Bolsheviks' vision of
emancipation meant renouncing religious beliefs and social traditions more deeply rooted than their faith in the
tsar and the nobles had ever been. To take that step, a woman needed courage—and a new Bolshevik faith to
replace the one she rejected. Increasingly in 1918, working-class women, like the peasants, were more and more
critical of the Bolsheviks. The distrust many felt initially was increased in 1918 by the steadily worsening
economic conditions.
A small minority of women did respond favorably to the appeals of the Bolsheviks. They attended the meetings
organized by the Woman's Bureau, sent their children to day-care centers, joined factory committees, served as
"delegates" working in government offices, and did volunteer work to aid the army. There were thousands of
such women in 1918, tens of thousands by 1921. They were primarily industrial workers—factory hands and
those employed in transportation and communication. The other working-class women of the cities-housewives
and the few remaining domestic servants proved more resistant to Bolshevik overtures. By comparison, factory
women were exposed to revolutionary ideas in a milieu where such ideas were accepted. They were also the
women that Zhenotdel organizers made the greatest effort to reach, by working in the factories themselves and
addressing most of their meetings, conferences, speeches, and written propaganda to these working-class
In order to win the support of proletarian women, the Woman's Bureau's pamphlets and articles stressed that the
party had already given women a great deal-political equality, equal pay for equal work, protection from
dangerous working conditions, and legalized divorce so that they could escape cruel husbands. In the future,
after the war was won, the party would make widely available the social services-day care, public dining rooms,
laundries-which would free women from housework.
Despite the moderation of the Bolshevik appeal, most factory women avoided Zhenotdel projects.
Some working-class women took the Bolshevik call for women to emancipate themselves so seriously that they
organized female unions. Evidence about these groups is very fragmentary, so it is impossible to say how many
there were, or how many women participated. However, a number of women's unions are known to have existed
in 1919 and 1920, probably in provincial cities away from Moscow and Petrograd. … A representative of one
such group in the city of Tsivilsk, in Kazan province, explained the complaints of women in her locality to a
soviet congress in 1919. Although the revolution had declared female equality, she said, women were still not
being treated as equals: "We don't have the strength [as individuals] to throw off such views of men and the
habit of some women to humiliate us and consider us untalented creatures." …
If this woman's speech and her union were typical, then these unions represented a spontaneous effort by
working women to set up their own representative organizations to defend their interests. Such democratic,
liberationist activity was common in the revolution; men of the lower classes had been establishing such
organizations—factory committees, soldiers' committees, and the soviets themselves—since February 1917.
Independent, grass-roots groups did not find favor with the Bolshevik government, however; the party was
attempting to harness the revolution's spontaneity by establishing control over such organizations. Furthermore,
women's unions were particularly objectionable, because the Bolsheviks had always condemned female
separatism. Women were told to find equality by participating with men in working-class organizations, not by
setting up separate groups to pursue their own self-interest. Separatism was also undesirable from the party's
point of view because it encouraged women to view men as the source of their oppression. This was seen as
wrongheaded and self-defeating, for the enemy of women was not men, but the class system, which would only
be overcome by the cooperation of both sexes in the construction of socialism. Many Bolsheviks, because of
their opposition to separate women's organizations, distrusted the Zhenotdel, even though the bureau's official
purpose was to draw women into the proletarian movement. The party certainly had no intention of allowing
women to set up segregated, autonomous unions.
When the Central Department of the Woman's Bureau in Moscow learned of the women's unions in 1919,
Inessa Armand, then head of the bureau, sent out instructions that the groups were to be disbanded. Exactly
what happened next is as uncertain as the number and strength of the unions themselves. The only solid
evidence of their existence presently available is the series of announcements in Pravda that the unions had been
abolished. The first such announcement appeared in June of 1919, the second in October of the same year, and
the third in June of 1921. Apparently some women's unions survived two years of party pressure. They probably
did not survive much longer, however, for by 1921 the Bolsheviks had established control over the cities, and
had either repressed or brought under party leadership the most independent proletarian organizations. The
response to the women's unions demonstrates the limitations of the Bolshevik conception of female
emancipation and, indeed, of the party's emerging vision of the emancipation of all Russian society. If women
wanted to change their position in Russia, they would have to do so in ways approved and controlled by the
Communist Party.
Thousands of women welcomed that opportunity and became communists. Most working women who
participated in Bolshevik-led projects probably did so in hopes of receiving desperately needed government help.
They got very little, primarily because the government had so little to give them. There were few day-care
centers, and those that were established were badly supplied and run. The public dining rooms served execrable
food, and the employees of the government laundries stole as much as they cleaned. Thus the privations of the
civil war could be mitigated for working women only by Bolshevik promises of a better future.
The women who profited from the Russian Revolution were those who were willing to reject tradition and join
the Bolshevik Party. Of the 30,000 women who were party members in 1923, 19,000 (62 percent) were from the
central, Great Russian region of the empire. Most of these women (80 percent) were of lower-class origin,
although they were more likely than male Bolsheviks to come from the skilled, better-educated ranks of the
proletariat and from the sluzhashie, or clerical and semiprofessional lower-middle class. Only 5 percent of female
Bolsheviks in 1923 were peasants. Ninety-five percent had joined the party after February 1917.
The civil war years were difficult for female Bolsheviks, as they were for all Russian women. … Only the women
of the Woman's Bureau ever reached party leadership positions, because the party made no genuine effort to
promote women within its ranks and because the women themselves shrank from political leadership.
Nonetheless, after the civil war Bolshevik women were better off than the masses of Russian women. They
enjoyed material benefits—the best food, clothes, housing, and transportation available. Ambitious women also
now had the opportunity to make careers for themselves, an opportunity which many of them eagerly seized.
After attending secondary school and university at government expense, they became physicians, scientists,
engineers, academicians, and industrial managers. Their lives were hardly glamorous, but they had the best that
Soviet Russia could provide, and they had the very real satisfaction of participating in a movement they believed
Thus the women who benefited most immediately from the Russian Revolution were those with the daring and
the opportunity to move into the new elite. Most Russian women had little of either. Instead, they coped with
revolution by relying, when they could, on old, protective institutions …
… in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks had the opportunity to provide women with education and with services that
would have enabled them to revolutionize their family roles. Yet in that decade the party began to retreat from
its commitment to abolish patriarchal institutions. The leadership came to believe that the family could
contribute to the preservation of social stability in a time of rapid modernization. …
Women constituted 10 percent of those voting in village soviet elections in 1924, 1-2 percent of those elected to these soviets, and .5
percent of those elected to the executive committees of the soviets. Figures for the civil war years were even lower.
SOURCE 11: Excerpts from Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Since 1300, 9th ed. (Cengage Learning,
2015). This is one of the popular AP European History textbooks.
Bolshevik Revolution
The new [Bolshevik] government also introduced a number of social changes. Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952),
who had become a supporter of revolutionary socialism while in exile in Switzerland, took the lead in pushing a
Bolshevik program for women’s rights and social welfare reforms. As minister of social welfare, she tried to
provide health care for women and children by establishing “palaces for the protection of maternity and
children.” Between 1918 and 1920, the new regime enacted a series of reforms that made marriage a civil act,
legalized divorce, decreed the equality of men and women, and permitted abortions. Kollontai was also
instrumental in establishing a women’s bureau, known as Zhenotdel, within the Communist Party. This bureau
sent men and women to all parts of the Russian Empire to explain the new social order. Members of Zhenotdel
were especially eager to help women with matters of divorce and women’s rights. In the eastern provinces,
several Zhenotdel members were brutally murdered by angry males who objected to any kind of liberation for
their wives and daughters. Much to Kollontai’s disappointment, many of these Communist social reforms were
later undone as the Communists came to face more pressing matters, including the survival of the new regime.
(pp. 784-785)
Stalinist Era
Disturbed by a rapidly declining birthrate, Stalin also reversed much of the permissive social legislation of the
early 1920s. Advocating complete equality of rights for women, the Communists had made divorce and abortion
easy to obtain while also encouraging women to work outside the home and liberate themselves sexually. After
Stalin came to power, the family was praised as a miniature collective in which parents were responsible for
inculcating values of duty, discipline, and hard work. Abortion was outlawed, and divorced fathers who did not
support their children faced heavy fines. A new divorce law of June 1936 imposed fines for repeated divorces,
and homosexuality was declared a criminal activity. The regime now praised motherhood and urged women to
have large families as a patriotic duty. But by this time, many Soviet women worked in factories and spent many
additional hours waiting in line to purchase increasingly scarce consumer goods. Despite the change in policy,
no dramatic increase in the birthrate occurred.
The Stalinist era did witness some positive changes in the everyday lives of Soviet citizens. To create leaders for
the new Communist society, Stalin began a program to enable workers, peasants, and young Communists to
receive higher education, especially in engineering. There was also tremendous growth in part-time schools
where large numbers of adults took courses to become literate so that they could advance to technical school or
college. Increasing numbers of people saw education as the key to better jobs and upward mobility in Soviet
society. One woman of peasant background recounted: “In Moscow I had a burning desire to study. Where or
what wasn’t important; I wanted to study.” For what purpose? “We had a saying at work: ‘Without that piece of
paper [the diploma] you are an insect; with it, a human being.’ My lack of higher education prevented me from
getting decent wages.” (pp. 818-819)
World War II
Soviet women played a major role in the war effort. Women and girls worked in factories, mines, and railroads.
Women constituted between 26 and 35 percent of the laborers in mines and 48 percent in the oil industry.
Overall, the number of women working in industry increased almost 60%. Soviet women were also expected to
dig antitank ditches and work as air-raid wardens. In addition, the Soviet Union was the only country in World
War II to use women as combatants. Soviet women served as snipers and also as aircrews in bomber squadrons.
The female pilots who helped defeat the Germans at Stalingrad were known as the “Night Witches.”
Soviet peasants were asked to bear enormous burdens. Not only did the peasants furnish 60 percent of the
military forces, but at the same time, they were expected to feed the Red Army and the Soviet people under very
trying conditions. The German occupation in the early months of the war resulted in the loss of 47 percent of
the country’s grain-producing regions. Although new land was opened in the Urals, Siberia, and Soviet Asia, a
shortage of labor and equipment hindered the effort to expand agricultural production. Because farm tractors
and trucks were requisitioned to carry guns for the military, women and children were literally harnessed to do
the plowing, and everywhere peasants worked long hours on collective farms for no pay. In 1943, the Soviet
harvest was only 60% of its 1940 figure, a shortfall that meant extreme hardship for many people. (pp. 856-857)
In 1970, fully 92.5 percent of all women in the Soviet Union held jobs, compared to around 50 percent in France
and West Germany. (p. 894)
Additional Resources
 Alexandra Kollontai wrote a great deal and a huge selection of her writings can be found here:
 Lenin’s works on women: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/subject/women/
 Books with essays on the lives of women in this period: Women in Soviet Society, ed. Gail Lapidus
(University of California Press, 1978) and Women in Russia, ed. D. Atkinson, A. Dallin, G. Lapidus
(Stanford University Press, 1977)