The Emancipation of Women in Russia before and after the Russian Revolution – Part Two

On March 8, International Working Women’s Day, we published the first part of this article. The second part deals with the negative effects of the Stalinist degeneration of the soviet state and how this led to the undoing of all the work the Bolsheviks had started in their attempts to achieve a genuine emancipation of women. (March 30, 2004)

The Bolshevik Party organizes women after the revolution

The Conferences and Congresses that were organised by the Bolsheviks through Genotdel, [see end of Part One] developed all over Russia. Such events became an attraction to the peasant women and lead them to support and become participants in the struggles of working women generally. In 1920, at the second congress of the Third International, guidelines for the establishment of both national and international organisations of women Bolsheviks were approved.

“Women members of the Communist Party of a given country should not be organised in separate associations but they should be full members – with equal rights and obligations – of the regional bodies of the party and they should be called on to take part in all the bodies and levels of the party. The Communist Party however should take specific measures and set up special organs whose task it is to carry out women’s agitation and the organisation and training of women.”(10) [Translated from the Italian]


A series of committees for ‘Women’s Agitation’ was created in each regional and local organisation, with the task of promoting activities and membership of women in the Bolshevik party, trade unions and other proletarian fighting organisations. These committees were given the role of providing political and theoretical education of party members. They also played a vital role in mobilising and organising for the conferences. Each committee was mandated to work in close contact with the party leadership, and all resolutions and decisions required the approval of the national party leadership. In order to further this co-operation the national leadership set up a national women’s secretariat, which had regular contacts with the committees at all levels. As far as the international organisation is concerned we quote the following:

“Within the executive of the International an international women’s secretariat is formed, mad up of between three and five female comrades, who are nominated by the International Communist Women’s Conference, and ratified by the Congress of the Communist International or, representing it, by the executive. The women’s secretariat works in agreement with the executive of the International to which it is bound by resolutions and measures adopted by this body. A representative of this [women’s] secretariat participates in all the meetings and deliberations of the executive, with a consultative vote on general questions, and with a deciding vote on questions which particularly concern the women’s movement.

“Its tasks are the following:

“1. Active links with the national women’s committees of the individual Communist parties and maintaining relations between the individual committees.

“2. Gathering together agitational and documentary material from the activities of the individual national committees for possible consultation.” (11)

The need to socialise housework and to organise services such as restaurants and laundries for the benefit of the whole working population was crucial. A further advance was the legalising of abortions in 1920. With limited social support it was difficult for working women to continue to raise a family, given the poverty then endemic in the country. Russia thus became the first country in the world to introduce the legal right to have an abortion. This measure alone brought to an end that most horrid suffering and even death, through clandestine abortions, of both mother and child.

Unresolved problems in post revolutionary Russia

The first years of the revolution were extremely difficult and the Bolsheviks had to fight on many fronts, in difficult conditions, to consolidate the revolution. The First World War itself caused great difficulty in obtaining commodities. Then a civil war was started, helped along by the aggression of the imperialists against the infant soviet state, which had been created amidst the general backwardness of Tsarist Russia. A successful revolution in one or more advanced European countries would certainly have reduced the suffering that the Russian people had to endure, but unfortunately we do not have the space to analyse in this article why the revolution was not successful internationally [for a more detailed analysis of this period see Russia, From revolution to counter-revolution, Part Two: The Rise of Stalinism]. That we must leave for another time. However, in truth the revolutionary wave of internationalism had been defeated, and during the winter of 1921 Russia was devastated by a food shortage and people went hungry.

The Bolsheviks, under Lenin’s leadership, took stock of the situation and decided to retrench. A policy of concessions to the laws of capitalist economy was introduced. Elements of private property, particularly in the countryside were allowed, in order to encourage the circulation of goods. This policy became known as the New Economic Policy [NEP], and unfortunately it also led to a slowing down in the movement towards women’s emancipation. The socialisation of housework was postponed and many women began to lose their jobs. The nurseries and public restaurants, because of their low returns, were not an attractive investment for the nascent bourgeoisie that was coming into being under the NEP. The period of ‘war communism’ had already left the public services in a precarious state, but the NEP was to condemn them completely. This was followed by the collapse of the tenant’s organisations, which were created to organise the socialising of housework and thereby promote a ‘communist spirit’ during a temporary lack of adequate housing. Then the old prejudices surfaced, finding fertile ground in the misery and the limited infrastructure then prevalent, with no means seemingly to solve all this.

This is how Trotsky described the situation:

“The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth”—that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theatres, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.

“(…)It proved impossible to take the old family by storm— not because the will was lacking, and not because the family was so firmly rooted in men’s hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its crèches, kindergartens and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the immeasurable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialization of the whole family economy. Unfortunately society proved too poor and little cultured. The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot “abolish” the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of “generalized want.” Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.” (12)

Many Russians fled from the communes in spite of the attempts by leading Bolsheviks (above all by Trotsky) to revitalise them. Now with the revolution confined within its own borders and international capitalism imposing isolation, and thus poverty, the revolutionary tide was brought to a halt, and a revolutionary running of the economy was put on hold. Unemployment was rife and 58% of these unemployed workers were women. At times this figure would reach peaks of 80-90%.

Although the bourgeoisie did not consider it was possible to end prostitution, the Bolsheviks had a firm commitment to abolish it, but in these conditions rather than diminish, it expanded. The selling of a woman’s body, a leftover from the capitalist past, now became an economic function for some women, where personal relationships were regulated by profit. The capitalist who bought the labour power of a woman worker, now considered that he could also buy her body. Under capitalism, the nexus between money and property does not allow the full flowering of an equal relationship between male and female; in many marriages often the wife will supply sexual services and housework in exchange for the security of a home. A cultural heritage and traditions that always saw the woman dependant on the man, in certain difficult economic circumstances, propel women to find a way out along the degrading path of prostitution. There is a close link between economic crisis and the growth of prostitution. As unemployment rises, historically also does the number of women on the streets.

Whilst covering with condemnation the women who are the victims of prostitution, the capitalist system itself promotes sex as an economic entity. Both Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg explained that a solution to this social plague was to be found in re-introducing these unfortunate women into productive roles, involving them in the trade unions and workers’ parties in the struggle against the root causes of their poverty. The exploitation of women that forced them to sell their bodies could only be abolished by the overthrow of the economic, social and cultural system that is endemic within capitalism. The only class capable of leading this process to a successful conclusion was the proletariat. However, in order to succeed it first had to free itself from that bourgeois cultural influence, which during this period still had a hold on many workers. Therefore for the prostitutes to achieve their own emancipation they first had to become aware of their revolutionary potential as part of the working class, and thus join the workers abandoning prostitution. This involved a rebellion against their own degradation and against their total submission to the laws of the market economy.

There are no legalistic shortcuts that can eliminate this phenomenon. The prostitute is not a criminal committing a crime but a victim of society and of the economic conditions imposed on women. In Russia a new society was being created and this had the potential to awaken the workers from the passivity that capitalist slavery engenders. A new society could (and should) have been built, based on the new cultural models that eliminate all discrimination between workers. Instead of this, because of the terrible economic conditions of the country, surrounded on all sides by over 21 armies fighting a civil war against the soviet state, the sad phenomenon of prostitution gained ground once more in the fertile climate of economic devastation.

“In the autumn of the past year Izvestia suddenly informed its readers, for example, of the arrest in Moscow of “as many as a thousand women who were secretly selling themselves on the streets of the proletarian capital.” (…) Here there can be essentially no question of “relics of the past”; prostitutes are recruited from the younger generation. No reasonable person, of course, would think of placing special blame for this sore, as old as civilization, upon the Soviet regime. But it is unforgivable in the presence of prostitution to talk about the triumph of socialism. (…) But the restoration of money relations which has taken place since then, abolishing all direct rationing, will inevitably lead to a new growth of prostitution as well as of homeless children. Wherever there are privileged there are pariahs!” (13)

The Stalinist degeneration

The soviet state struggled magnificently for the liberation of women. It saw this struggle as part of the vital necessity to involve directly the masses in the management of the state power. The new workers’ state could defend the revolutionary interests of the proletariat only if the workers controlled the economy. The Bolshevik policy towards women was thus part of a wider policy, aimed at improving the literacy and cultural education of the soviet masses, preparing them for the tasks history was imposing on them. In addition, because of the poverty and misery and the very low cultural level then existing, the Bolsheviks had to rely on other classes to run the state machinery. Lenin and his close collaborators realised that it was a battle against time for the life or death of the revolution. The fact was that the Russian proletariat was too underdeveloped and thus unable to control the state alone. It was vital that the working class raise its cultural level and also that the revolution be successful on an international level, by spreading the revolution to other European states. If this battle were to be lost so would the revolution in Russia!

In this situation, the death of Lenin in 1924 accelerated the process of bureaucratisation, already evident in leading soviet and party bodies. A whole layer of officials, headed by Stalin, whose main aim was to protect its privileges, had already abandoned the perspective of world revolution, and now came to the forefront. Famine and civil war had decimated the best elements of the proletariat and their presence within the soviets declined. Elements that used to play a secondary role now moved into a prominent position. Initially Stalin supported the NEP policy and allowed the ‘nepmen’ enormous political and economic liberties. In reality the NEP had been conceived as a necessary concession to capitalism to save the revolution while waiting for the success of a revolution in the West. It was intended as a temporary measure, and was recognised as a retreat because it re-introduced into the workers’ state elements of a market economy. From 1922, when the NEP was introduced, the number of crèches and sheltered homes for mothers started to decrease, until it quickly reached the absurd position of only 9.3 places for every 1000 women. There were many articles in the papers, particularly in ‘Kommunitska’, testifying to the fear of public service workers about the uncertain future of their employment.

With the turn by Stalin towards forced industrialisation after 1929, unemployment started to fall. However, the Left Opposition, lead by Trotsky, considered Stalin’s industrialisation plan an adventure, being conceived without taking into account the backwardness of the Russian economy, which at that time was still mainly based on agriculture. However, industrialisation was applied wildly and ruthlessly, at a rapid pace. Unemployment, which in 1929 was 1.74 million dropped to 1.08 million by April 1930 and down to a mere one third of a million by October 1930 (14). All this was undertaken without the development of adequate social services, which would have helped to ease the burden on women having to work long hours and also do housework. Stalin was to subordinate everything to strengthen soviet industrialisation, in order that the so-called ‘real socialist’ model being applied in Russia should demonstrate its superiority. The bulk of human and material resources was concentrated in building up soviet industry, without however creating for the workers the social and educational infrastructure that would have guaranteed productive quality and not only quantity. The industrialisation Plan, which mainly affected the heavy industrial sectors, involved very few women. Women at this time were mainly employed in light industry or at home doing housework. The Genotdel, which was the only institution at that time that could have been used to ameliorate the situation, was abolished, being now considered “useless”. In fact this institution had been responsible for many great conquests for working class women. It had promoted the spread of women’s newspapers, to the extent that by 1927 there were at least 18, with over 400,000 copies being distributed. Its work of organising political education among resulted by 1929 in the participation of two and half million women. In addition it had played a major role in increasing the number of women delegates to the soviets and the number of women joining the Bolshevik party. In the East the task of Genotdel had been particularly difficult. It had done enormous work in helping to free women from the oppression of the veil and seclusion inside the home. These tasks were not easy to carry out and in many instances the price the young women had to pay was often very high, with beatings being handed out merely for them having participated in meetings of the women’s circles. In 1928 in Uzbekistan, 203 cases were reported of women being killed by their fathers, husbands or brothers for having participated in the struggle for woman’s liberation.

In order to guarantee greater room for manoeuvre in the recruitment of women for heavy industrial work, it became necessary to abolish Genotdel. They did this while declaring at the same time that the emancipation of women had already been achieved. The Industrial Plan now had specific chapters dedicated to women workers, but with only minimal allocation of social services. This was so much the case that it meant re-introducing the historical division of labour based on gender. For example, in calculating the number of evening meals to be provided for workers by the state canteens, it was only possible to guarantee 700,000. The other 3 million workers had to rely upon their wives to provide a meal. Again, in Leningrad, where 74,000 women started to work outside the family, only one nursery was set up.

The effort to educate women became pointless, as they often had to leave lectures in order to do the housework. Women who entered the labour market during the first Five Year Plan were mostly assigned to the lowest category of work. In Leningrad in 1932, women comprised 58.6% of the least qualified layer of the workforce, with 70% of women doing such work in Moscow. Even higher percentages occurred in the more outlying areas.

The number of workingwomen was now to increase through compulsion, but without providing the necessary training that would have ensured a qualitative improvement in output. The Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky had committed itself to eradicate the double exploitation of women in society and within the family. The Stalinist bureaucracy, with its policies, was now to go the other way and accentuate such exploitation. The new soviet officials, who had by this time become separated from the masses and independent of them, found it necessary to have a firmer control over society. They found that the bourgeois family model was very useful to achieve this end. The bourgeois model divided the working class into their respective family units, having to seek from within the family what the state was now unable to guarantee. The family was now the place where the worker would be forced to seek to sort out his economic difficulties by such means as tightening up on the family budget, enslaving both his wife and children and isolating them within the family unit, making them unable to participate in political activity. Thus the bourgeois family model became a means by which to curtail dissent against the bureaucracy.

“The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands. To the objective causes producing this return to such bourgeois forms as the payment of alimony, there is added the social interest of the ruling stratum in the deepening of bourgeois law. The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of 40,000,000 points of support for authority and power.” (15)

The Stalinist bureaucracy now began to remove all the laws that had initially been introduced by the Bolsheviks to allow both males and females the full expression of their potential. Homosexuality and prostitution were declared criminal offences in 1934, and were made punishable with a minimum of 8 years in prison. In 1936 abortion became illegal and divorce became both more difficult to obtain and too expensive for ordinary workers.

“Having revealed its inability to serve women who are compelled to resort to abortion with the necessary medical aid and sanitation, the state makes a sharp change of course, and takes the road of prohibition. And just as in other situations, the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity. One of the members of the highest Soviet court, Soltz, a specialist on matrimonial questions, bases the forthcoming prohibition of abortion on the fact that in a socialist society where there are no unemployed, etc., etc., a woman has no right to decline “the joys of motherhood.”

(…) These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the “joys of motherhood” with the help of foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.

(…) The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously — what a providential coincidence! — with the rehabilitation of the rouble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, “We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim”, the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.” (16)

The bureaucracy now began to flood the press with peons of praise for marriage, the beauty of childbearing and the family, which became elevated to a communist moral principle, opposed to the degenerate ‘free love’ of bourgeois society. By 1945 ‘common law marriage’ was no longer legally recognised, in spite of the fact that this had been recognised as legitimate as far back as the 1920s. The new consciousness about the equality of the sexes that had been developing in that period, was now being severly curtailed.

The staggering victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany in the Second World War granted greater stability to the soviet state. In spite of the cancer of the bureacracy that soviet society was suffering from, the planned economy allowed for astonishing developement which would have been unthinkable in a market economy. This growth of the economy was to allow the system to acquire a certain degree of support amoung the masses, in spite of the enormous reversals in the political field. All the titanic efforts of the Bolsheviks to involve the masses directly in party and soviet work were now to be wiped from the memories of the masses.

Thanks to the planned economy introduced by the October revolution, despite the reactionary role of the Stalinist byreacracy, women began to play a more important role in society. By the 1960s and 1970s the number of women with a university education in the USSR was only surpassed by three western countries, France, Finland and the USA. Laws were passed improving the condition of women. Working in the mines and night work were abolished for women. Between 1960 and 1971 the number of places in ‘pre-school’ classes rose from half a million to over 5 million. These changes were to encourage and allow more women to seek employment outside the home. A telling statistic is that by 1971 the number of women in the paramedical field was 98% of the total workforce. Similarly, women in the medical and state school field comprised 75% of the total workforce, while 90% of librarians were women. The improvements in public health through the free national health service ensured that life expectancy for women, which had been as low as 30 in 1927 rose to 74 in 1970. There was also a massive 90% reduction in infant mortality. These results demonstrated the advantages of the planned economy. Although improvements were also made in standards of living in western countries during the same period, these in no way compared with the massive changes taking place in the USSR, especially if we consider that the western countries were starting from a far higher economic level.

The gradual elimination of all the benefits deriving from the growth in the economy in the post-war period follwed by the final surrender to the laws of the market economy, were to lead inevitably to the abandonment of all the conquests of the past, with the return to the social barbarism of capitalism. We quote directly from Ted Grant’s book on Russia:

“The movement toward capitalism has rapidly reversed the gains of the past, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the ‘family’. The biggest part of the burden of the crisis is being placed on the shoulders of the women. Women are the first to be sacked, in order to avoid paying social benefits, like child and maternity benefit. Given the fact that women made up 51 per cent of the Russian workforce a few years ago, and that 90 per cent of women worked, the growth of unemployment has meant that more than 70 per cent of Russia’s unemployed workers are now women. In some areas the figure is 90 per cent.

“The collapse of social services and increased unemployment means that all the benefits of the planned economy for women are being systematically wiped out.

“(…) Under the previous regime, women received 70 per cent of men’s wages. The figure is now 40 per cent. Keeping a family on one wage was difficult enough in the old USSR. Now, with the dramatic rise in poverty, it is virtually impossible. Thus, women are the main victims of this reactionary regime”. (17)

Never before have the words of Marx and Engels in the “Holy Family” been truer:

“The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.”(18)

The worsening of women’s conditions under capitalism highlights the need to continue the struggle to overthrow this social and economic system, not just in one country, but world-wide. Capitalism is now pushing society backwards and has become directly reponsible for the emergence of elements of barbarism within society. The socialist transformation of society is now the only solution.

July 18, 2002


(10) See La questione femminile e la lotta al riformismo [The Women’s Question and the Struggle Against Reformism] by Clara Zetkin, Gabriele Mazzotta editore, 1975.

(11) See Zetkin femminista senza frontiere [Zetkin, feminist without frontiers] by G.Badia, Erre emme edizioni, 1994

(12) See The Revolution Betrayed:What is the Soviet Union and where is it Going? (Chapter 7), By Leon Trotsky, 1936.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Source: “The Five-Year Plan for Women’s Labour: Constructig Socialism and the ‘Double Burden’, 1930-1932”, by T.G. Schrand in Europe-Asia Studies, Dec 1999.

(15) See Trotsky, Op.Cit.

(16) Ibidem.

(17) See Alan Woods’ IntroductiontoRussia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, By Ted Grant, Wellred Publications, 1997, page 32.

(18) See The Holy Family Chapter VIII, 6) Revelation of the Mystery of the Emancipation of Women, Or Louise Morel, by Marx and Engels (1845)


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