The Great Retreat- Women in Stalin's Russia


Change from the 1920s into the 1930s

The 30s marked a change in Communist understanding of the family. Previously, Communists had proclaimed the family to be a 'bourgeois institution'. This attitude was reflected by by experiments into communal living and free love to replace the traditional family with a new Communist lifestyle. By the 1930s this had changed to a 'great retreat', where traditional gender roles and sexual attitudes were reasserted.

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In the 1930s, Zhenotdel, the Women's branch of the Communist Party closed down due to the fact that the Communist Party believed that complete equality had been achieved. However, this assumption showed how little attention senior male members of the Party paid to the role of women. Although during the 1930s many women entered the workforce, the Communist Part continued to reassert traditional gender roles.

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Women joined the industrial workforce in large numbers due to the demands of the FYPs. In 1928, only 3 million women were employd in industry but by 1940, this had risen to 13 million and 41% of workers employed in industry were women. The Soviet authorities recognised the contribution made by women and increased the allocation of places in higher and technical education to women. However, they continued to pay women less than men.

Women were also important in agriculture and 80% farm workers were female. They represented the Stakhanovite movement in the countryside, including Pasha Angelina, the organiser of the first Women's Tractor Brigade and Maria Demchanko, who pledge to harvest 4x the avergae yield of sugar beet.

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The truama of industrialisation and collectivisation led to a dramatic decline in the birth rate in the early 1930s and the government introduced policies to combat this trend. Rewards were offered to mothers who had large families, women who had more than 6 children qualified for state help and mothers with 7 children recieved 2000 roubles per year for 5 years. Immediately after the law was passed it was declared a success. 

In 1936, the authorities banned abortion in all cases except where it was nessesary to save the life of the woman. Doctors who performed abortions on 'undeserving' women could be sentenced to 2 years in prison and husband's who put pressure on their wives to terminate a pregancy would face the same penalty

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In addition to working on collective farms or in industry, women were also expected to be responsible for housework and raising children. Although men had been liberated from their duties of chopping wood or carrying water due to mechanisation, women had none of these advantages. They spent 5x as long on domestic duties as men.

Wives of Communist Party officials were not expected to work, but to devote themselves to managing a 'well-ordered Communist home'. In the 1920s, it had been acceptable for a Communist family to employ a nanny so the wife could be involved in political work but by the mid-1930s female Communist Party members were encouraged to do their duty at home.

They were also expected to be involved in the wife activists movement which aimed to create solidarity between the women who were devoted to being mistresses of the Soviet home. The movement organised nurseries and activities for seriously ill children, set up schools, libraries and factory canteens and did charitable work. The wives of senior officials of Magnitogorsk organised a masked ball, the proceeds of which were given to the needy. The members of the movement were still expected to be ideal mothers and partners

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The family was seen as the 'primary cell of society' and it became the government's favourite metaphor for itself and its people. The working class were described as 'one big family' and Stalin was portrayed as the nation's father. In 1935, the Soviet press started a campaign to show Stalin with his family, including a highly publicised visit to his mother. They also published photographs of Stalin and his children; his faithhfulness to his wife was shown as an example that all Communists should follow.

Propaganda also stressed that men were undermining the family. Posters and films showed them as responsible for family break-up, neglect of children and abadonment of their wives. Women were shown as responsible, nobel and self-sacrifising. The aim of this was to stress the importance of family and stigmatise the men who were the cause of so much family break-up.

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The value of marriage was re-emphasised and the government undertook to reintroduce romance and glamour into the institution. For example, wedding rings were no longer banned and marriage certificates were printed on high-quality paper to show the importance of the union. Married Party members were given spacious accomadation and their own dacha, they were encouraged to take family holidays in Party holiday resorts.

Communist husbands were expected to be the main income earners in the family and were expected to be devoted to their families. They could be expelled from the Party for having an affair.

The results of marriage propaganda were impressive, the 1937 census showed 91% of men and 82% of women in their 30s were married.

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After the 1917 Revolution, many within the Bolshevik Party looked forward to a new era of sexual freedom. In practise, free love led to divorce and family break-up. In the 1930s, therefore, Stalin introduced a more traditional perspective on sexual morality. In 1934, the government launched a campaign promoting sexual abstinance, this was supported by police action against young women who had an 'immoral appearance'. Collective farm chairmen ordered 'medical virginity checks' on young women. Incest, bigamy, adultery and male homosexuality were recriminalised in 1936. One man was sentenced to 2 years in prison for being married to 4 women.

Soviet policy makers also turned against contraception and no money under the FYPs was allocated to production of contraceptive aids. Consequently, they all but vanished in the 1930s and the government supported this by officially ending the sale of all birth control resources in 1936.

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The experiments with free love had ended in spiralling divorce rates, by 1927, 2/3s of marriages were ending in divorce. This led to horrendous social problems as marriages broke down, families split up, the number of orphans increased and women were impoverished.

In 1936, laws were passed which made divorce a more complex and expensive procedure, it cost 50 roubles, the equivelent of a week's pay, for the first divorce and triple for the second divorce. Additionally, men were expected to pay 1/3 of their earnings to support their children.

The Party also took steps to prevent family break-up, women who could get no help from Russia's courts turned to Party bosses. Some local Parties tracked absconding husbands and forced them to make regular payments to support their ex-wives and children. The Siberian Party organised a conference to encourage young women who were encouraged to discuss ways in which their lives had been ruined by men.

The press hounded men who had deserted their wives. A trade union newspaper reported a story of a bank manager who moved from city to city to escape his responsibilities.

 Thus, there was support for women but only for those willing to conform to the role of wife and mother.

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