To free or not to free?

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Women went through several phases during the Soviet period in which they were encouraged to leave the home, then discouraged, and so on. With each decade that went by, the flip-flopping continued. The emancipation of women can be viewed in two ways: either as the constant progression of women’s rights or as a series of reversals.

Women at the Wheel (1957)

Women at the Wheel (1957)

When Lenin came to power, he emphasized freeing women from “domestic slavery”. As I discussed in my week three post Social Women: This one’s for the Girls, Lenin focused on not only creating a revolutionary society, but on liberating women from their traditional roles in the house. One of Lenin’s most important contributions to the liberation of women was the Family Code of 1918, which legalized abortion, gave women property rights, and the right to divorce. Many of these reforms had the added benefit for Lenin of providing him with more workers. These changes did not make for immediate equality for women, but they did set society in the right direction.

In 1924, when Lenin died, the hope for women to become liberated from the home did not die, but it was pushed to the back burner. In 1936, Stalin enforced a ban on abortions, and publicly spoke about women doing their duty by having and taking care of children. The consumer economy also began encouraging female values that were centered around the home by selling ways for women to “pretty up” their apartments and selves.


An example of the advertising aimed at women from 1954

An example of the advertising aimed at women from 1954

The war also had a significant effect on the relationships between men and women, as I talked about last week in For the Motherland?. Traditional roles crept back up in a society that was supposed to have disappeared due to socialism. In a way, this period froze progress for women until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Part of the “Thaw” that happened after Stalin’s death was the re-ignition of the women’s civil rights movement. May 8 was declared International Women’s Day in April 1956, and the announcement declares that over 50% of doctors, teachers, and scientists are women. Other improvements include the ban on abortions being repealed, and journals began to write about the rights of women, including an article called It Is Her Right in Literaturnaia gazeta, which showed the first glimmers of the idea of the “double burden” of women, which became a more accepted idea in the 1960s. In this article, the author argues through case studies of women workers that they have the same burdens as men in the workplace and the added work of taking care of the home.

Video on women’s role in the Women’s Work Collective.

Some other interesting views of women’s rights in the USSR in the period directly after Stalin’s death come from A Poor Attempt, an article written in Oct 1956. This article refutes an article written in “Free Labor World” which accused the USSR of violating labor laws by making pregnant women work in mines until a month before their delivery. It does not say that the women do not work in the later stages of pregnancy, but it argue that the capitalist system is more detrimental to the rights of women by laying them off when they become pregnant.

These are the three big reversals for women: the start of Lenin’s policies, the start of Stalin’s policies, and the death of Stalin. In another way, women were constantly progressing in society. Even under Stalin, there were periods of brightness in which women were allowed to shine, such as the recruitment of women pilots during WWII.

For the Motherland?

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Women made great strides toward equality in the first twenty four years of the Soviet regime. They gained the right to divorce, to own property, and to work outside of the home. However, these gains did not mean instant equality. Beginning in 1941, the nation began mobilizing for war.

The country had not been at war since before the October Revolution, and so the basis for the war effort was heavily influenced by old ideas. The old call went out: “For the Motherland!” This image of Russia was a symptom of the general return to pre-revolution gender roles that happened during the war. Men were fighting for not just the image of Mother Russia, but more concretely the women in their lives: wives, mothers, and daughters who could not defend themselves. And women were expected for the most part to passively rely on their men to defend them (Love and Romance). These ideas were seen in popular culture in such places as the songs of Klavdiia Shulzhenko.

Her song, “Blue Scarf” is a good example of a song that deals with women’s role waiting for their lovers to return from the front.

However, this was not the only story of the war for women. Much like the situation for American women in World War Two, women in the USSR found many benefits to the absence of men from society. The labor shortage allowed women to take over men’s jobs in the factories, and while a number of women had already joined the work force, the amount of jobs opened by the mass conscription of men let women work than ever before.


"We'll take your place!"

“We’ll take your place!”

Some movies also dealt with the increased presence of women on the front lines, such as “Frontline Girlfriend”, pictured below.

Movie poster for "Front-line Girlfriends" from 1941

Movie poster for “Front-line Girlfriends” from 1941

While some of the old stereotypes of women came back during the war, there was not a total reversion to the pre-revolution state of women. They made great strides to join the work force during this period of time.


Don’t Drink the Kool-aid, Comrade

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An expressionist piece depicting Stalin in an armchair.

An expressionist piece depicting Stalin in an armchair.

Stalin’s Cult of Personality:

By the end of the 1930s, the cultural war against bourgeouis culture was still in full flower. The Writers’ Congress in 1936 set a new style for literature. Although the Congress allowed professional writers to be part of this new movement as opposed to the party line worker-writers, there was still widespread censorship and government control.

The Party controlled who could write, what they would write, and what they would publish through the Writers’ Union. Later on, an Artists’ Union, would also be created. The entire goal of the Party was to encourage a new style in art and literature. This style was called Socialist Realism, and it encouraged the “realistic” depiction of the revolution, and the evolving society. However, since the government would censor anything that did not adhere to the Party’s optimistic version of reality, this effectively meant that the literature and artwork became overly optimistic too.

The restraints on writers and artists left them little room to choose their material. One of the safest things that people could discuss was Stalin. I know this sounds far-fetched, after all, if the man with the mustache did not like the way you depicted him then you were sure to end up somewhere bad, probably in a ditch somewhere. However, as long as you adhered to the Party line, it was fairly easy to get your work published.

This led to a slew of artwork and literature with Stalin as the subject. In fact, by the end of the 1930s, the famous Cult of Stalin had developed. This included not only party propaganda, but also histories that were rewritten to show Stalin and socialism at the forefront. getimage-idx (1)

This poster shows Marx, Engels, and Lenin next to Stalin, emphasizing his connection to the Party. In this picture, the order of the people shows that Stalin is only the latest in a long line of venerated men taking up the Communist vision. By connecting himself to history and claiming the inheritance left to him by these other men, Stalin became much like the Tsar had been in imperial Russia: a loving father figure of the communist revolution.

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Other pictures, like this one, showed Stalin with his two children. The image of Stalin as a father was a powerful one because it furthered his reputation as the caretaker of the people of the USSR. It also shows the glory of the Revolution, by emphasizing the children’s role in the new world.

There was dissent within the literary community, however, it was heavily censored. Osip Mandelshtam’s Ode to Stalin is heavily critical of the dictator, saying that “each execution for him is raspberry sweet”. Mandelshtam only read this piece to a small circle of friends, but it still led to his arrest and exile from the USSR in the next year.

Overall, the cult of Stalin developed because of the overwhelming censorship of anything negative about Stalin and the amount of propaganda glorifying him.


Stalin in Armchair

Political Poster

Stalin’s family