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What was Life Like for Women in the USSR?

Women’s rights have come a long way in the last century. At the start of the 20th century, women were not allowed to vote in most countries; today, there are democracies with around 50% of their legislative bodies being women, such as Spain. While there is still work to be done, it can be said that there has been a great deal of progress.

But that progress has come in different forms, and in different ways. Take, for example, Communism. How’s that for a transition? At the time of the establishment of the Soviet Union, communism wasn’t just radical for its economic views – conservatives also took issue with its social views, as well. If there’s no distinction between class, why need there be a distinction between things like race, or gender? Philosophically speaking, communism endorsed legal equality between people, regardless of who or what they were – man or woman. Of course, whether that actually happened… well, we’ll get to that later. For now, though, let’s talk about women in the USSR.

A Revolution in Russia

Even in the time leading up to the establishment of the Soviet Union, women were a major force in the end of the Russian Empire. On February 23, 1917, International Women’s Day, mass demonstrations took place in the city of Petrograd, a.k.a. St. Petersburg. The First World War was in its third year, and Russia was running out of food, soldiers, and patience.

These initial demonstrations were led by a huge number of women factory workers, and the protests would spread quickly in the following days; at the same time, Russian soldiers were not exactly keen on shooting the protestors like they had done many times before – partly because the situation in Russia had gotten so bad that they rather agreed with them, and partly because opening fire on women was not something they were willing to stomach.

And so the protests continued, and attracted ever more people. By February 25, Petrograd entered a general strike, and two days later, crucially, the soldiers joined them. The army wasn’t exactly willing to rescue Tsar Nicholas, who was generally considered by most people to be a boob, and so he was forced to abdicate. That’s right, International Women’s Day ended the Russian monarchy.

Following the end of the monarchy, Russia entered a brief period of liberal democracy that wasn’t really liberal, or democratic. The socialists and communists had established so-called Soviets, or worker’s councils, and there was a general uncertainty about who was actually in charge. This is not exactly a recipe for stability, especially when a guy named Vladimir Lenin comes in on an armored train and starts throwing bombs around the place. Actually, he just gave speeches, but considering the outcome, he might as well have been throwing bombs.

Lenin made a number of moves that ultimately established his Bolshevik faction as the supreme power in the government. But not everyone was happy with the extreme positions of the Bolsheviks – in fact, most people weren’t happy with it. Even many self-professed communists weren’t happy with it, including one Fanny Efimovna Kaplan. A Russian Jewish woman, she was originally a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, an outfit that competed with the Bolsheviks before they banned it for being “counterrevolutionary”. Fanny wasn’t happy with that, and so on August 30th, 1918, she approached Vladimir Lenin as he was leaving a Moscow factory, and shot him twice – once in the neck, and once in his arm. During her subsequent interrogation by security forces, Kaplan was quoted as saying, “I shot Lenin because I consider him a traitor. Due to the fact that he lives for a long time, the onset of socialism is postponed for decades.”

Now, as easy as it would be to take that quote and run a few jokes with it, there is some interesting history to dig into here, that makes Kaplan sound more correct than she ever realized.

After the Revolution

Following the end of the Russian Civil War, Lenin realized that building his communist utopia on strictly socialist grounds was going to be, frankly, impossible. Describing the situation to the 10th Party Congress in 1921, Lenin compared Russia to “a man beaten to within an inch of his life”, and as such, it was going to take some special departures from socialist orthodoxy to make it work. One of those departures was the New Economic Policy, or NEP, which basically reinstated a market economy in the Soviet Union.

That might make a few heads explode if you’ve never heard it before; a market economy, in the Soviet Union? Well, yes. But the context was less about Lenin’s being a moderate, and more about him having almost literally no other option. For Lenin was right about one thing – Russia was absolutely devastated. Between 1913 and 1921, nearly one in ten people had died during World War I and the Civil War; a particularly wrenching statistic said roughly 5% of the Russian population consisted of orphaned children. Cities were devastated, with Moscow and Petrograd losing two-fifths of their populations, and the economy was in shambles. And as if that weren’t all bad enough, the rest of the world basically shunned the Soviet Union and refused to help or do business with it, because communism was still, pardon the pun, a red line for monarchies and democracies.

So, Lenin had the Soviet government ease up, if only slightly. Things did start to improve, although things could hardly have gotten worse at that point. Still, violence dropped, the economy improved, and food supplies returned to some semblance of normal. There was also, as a result of this relaxation, a cultural shift as well. During this period, jazz was brought to Russia by the artist Valentin Parnakh, and the Soviet people went a little manic over it. In fact, the American Sam Wooding did a tour through the USSR in 1926, and his band got a much bigger reception there than they did in Western Europe.

Both men and women participated in this culture. The men became known as the “NEP men”, cutting a figure as professionals, businessmen, and speculators, operating in a sort of gray market economy. The women, meanwhile, created their own identities: so-called “modern girls”. They went to dance and jazz clubs, explored the consumer culture offered by the NEP men, and just generally flouted traditional norms and expectations in favor of asserting their independence, whether from family – or the state.

This gets into how the (almost entirely male) leaders of the Soviet Union viewed gender differences. Marxist thinkers generally placed some value on feminism, and saw no reason to deny equality in that sense. However, gender was typically a lower priority than, say, class, and even if socialist doctrine preached equality, the rather conservative Russian population probably wouldn’t have agreed, to say nothing of the non-Russian populations in Central Asia and elsewhere. Bolshevik leaders were typically not much better, often being personally conservative on the issue of family, and the state itself didn’t try too hard to carve out positions for women.

That’s not to say there was no effort made – the state did legalize divorce and abortion, and also provided funds for childcare. But even through the NEP and “modern girl” period of the 1920s and 30s, it was not to last because of the ascendancy of one man.

A Change in Course

Josef Stalin had been a member of the Bolsheviks for decades, before Lenin’s death presented him with the opportunity to take power in the Soviet Union for himself. After doing so, he arrested, jailed, exiled, or murdered all of his political opponents, and that hardline attitude would trickle down to his social views as well. He proceeded to thoroughly dismantle the NEP, and what little cultural freedom the Soviet Union had was stamped out. He also suppressed ethnic minorities, and generally adhered to a conservative, conforming cultural vision for the country. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically exactly what China has been doing for the last decade or so.

There were silver linings – mass education was implemented for both young boys and young girls, for example, and adult education was expanded as well. But those highlights were few and far between, and under Stalin, the rural peasantry in particular suffered heavily under his policies of collective agriculture. For adult women in particular, it was a tough time – despite the real and nominal advances, there was still a great deal of pressure on women, particularly from their families. Divorce rates shot up, which could be seen as a positive – fewer toxic relationships – but in many cases, divorce left women impoverished and solely responsible for their children. A grim joke from around this time captures the problem:

“You really abandoned your wife and left her all alone?”
“What do you mean? I left her with the baby.”

Childcare and domestic life continued to be seen as “women’s work”, perhaps proving that you can make a country communist, but you can’t make a people communist. And the Communist Party, which had morphed into the main ladder of social mobility, had quite the glass ceiling to contend with, leaving women with little chance of getting prestigious, high-paying jobs.

To make matters worse, in 1936, Stalin took much of the liberal policies introduced under Lenin and went the complete opposite direction, outlawing abortion and cutting access to divorce. He did this in an attempt to raise birth rates, which… yeah. Stalin was not exactly known for his empathy.

But if the Soviet government wasn’t making things difficult enough, in 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. Tens of millions of men were pressed into the Red Army to fight the invasion, and as such, the backbone of the Soviet war economy became women workers. By 1945, over half of factory workers and 80% of farmers were women. The work was brutal and endless, as a total-war situation tends to be, but many accounts from Soviet citizens from this time describe an oddly liberating sense of purpose. Said one individual: “Strange as it may sound, 1941 was more of a liberation than 1945.”

The war brought another change for women – serving in the Red Army. Around 800,000 women served in the Soviet armed forces during World War II, around 5 percent of the total. Often, this involved supporting roles, such as medical personnel, but many legends were made through the combat exploits of women soldiers.

Take, for example, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who left university and volunteered to join the Red Army after the German invasion. She was pushed to become a nurse, but refused and insisted on joining the infantry instead; her wish was granted, and she was enlisted as a sniper. She would go on to become to most successful female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills over the course of just one year of fighting, earning her the nickname “Lady Death”. Pavlichenko also has the distinction of being the first Soviet citizen to be received by an American president, when she was welcomed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, where she developed a friendship with his wife, Eleanor. Mrs. Roosevelt invited Pavlichenko to tour the United States, and relate her experiences as a soldier to the American public.

Not everyone was as impressed with her, however. The press, in particular, didn’t take her seriously, asking her questions like whether she used makeup on the front line. She clapped back, saying, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She certainly did not pull punches.

Another area where female soldiers shined was in aviation. The most famous individual in this sense was Marina Raskova, one of the first professional female aviators in the Soviet Union, breaker of multiple aviation records, and tireless advocate for women in aviation. In particular, Raskova is credited with helping to create several all-female air regiments in the Soviet Air Force, including the famous 588th Night Bomber Regiment, terror of the German army and subject of a well-known Sabaton song. Raskova herself died in a crash in 1943, and she earned the distinction of having the first state funeral of the war. Two years later, the Red Army would march into Berlin, built on the sacrifices of people like her. But even in victory, there was a cost.

An Echo of the Past

To say the Soviet Union “won” World War II is to leave out just how devastated the country was following the war’s end. If you thought the statistics sounded bad after the Russian Revolution, well, it’s about to get worse, if you could imagine that.

In total, around 27 million people in the Soviet Union had been killed, or around 1 in 7 persons in the country. This loss fell disproportionately on young men; after the war, in the 20-44 age range, there were 3 women for every 2 men. In addition to this, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were badly injured from combat, and as such would need support. This is all to say nothing of the psychological trauma, which we would recognize today as horrifically bad. The first half of the 20th century was not a fun time to be Russian.

In the face of these difficulties, the basic functions of the state were more or less directly dependent on the work done by women, who continued to be a huge majority of farmers and industrial workers. Despite this, traditional views remained in place, with their contributions going largely unrecognized. Once again, the state was no better: no woman would serve on the Politburo until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

And, strange as it sounds, that’s largely how things remained until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 – with women contributing heavily to the workforce, yet remaining largely in the background. As the century played out, other historical events took precedence; even so, there were some breakthroughs, such as the women to women “Citizen Summit” that saw citizens of the US and USSR speaking with each other about life in their respective countries.

Following the collapse of the USSR, life became incredibly difficult for the average Russian, and women in particular saw their opportunities collapse. Today, they still face significant cultural hurdles in Russia, only without the legal and doctrinal protections they nominally enjoyed under socialism. So, to wrap up the 20th century, what was life like for women in the USSR? Well, as with most things in the Soviet Union, it was complicated. From Lenin’s revolution, to World War II, to the end of communism, the status of women was often unclear and contradictory. What cannot be denied, at least, is that regardless of that status, many women rose to the challenges, overcame stigmas, and made it work anyway. In that sense, they embodied socialism better than Lenin or Stalin ever did.

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