The Bolshevik women, who had years of experience in making propaganda and agitation, fought off accusations of “feminine weakness” to take a full part in making propaganda in the civil war which followed the 1917 Russian revolution.
Alexandra Kollontai travelled to the front taking instructions from the centre, and making speeches. Nadezhda Krupskaya did the same on the Agitational Boat. For all the Bolsheviks the civil war was a continuation of the revolution.
In May 1918 the first Russian women’s conference was held. Just 130 delegates attended. But a Women’s National Congress held in November 1918 saw 1147 women attending.
In her speech Inessa Armand condemned the double burden of women — factory work and household slavery. The revolution had destroyed the capitalist economy, she said, now it was time to break up the household economy and free women to participate in party, soviet and other activities. This could be done by setting up communal nurseries, kindergartens, laundries and kitchens. She called for delegate-based meetings of women in all areas.
The main demands of Bolshevik women delegates were adopted. Prominent among these demands was protection and provision for motherhood. The first concern was to maintain and rebuild children’s homes in Petrograd and Moscow; they were to be converted into “angel factories”, homes for mothers and children. They decided to take control of all the existing crèches, consultation centres and children’s homes (very few in numbers) that had been founded before the revolution by charitable organisations.
Inessa Armand was made chairperson of a new Central Commission for agitation and propaganda amongst working women and was to be assisted by Kollontai and Konkordia Samoilova. The job was to raise political consciousness through meetings, schools and propaganda circles; they would encourage party membership and involvement in soviets, factory committees and the trade unions: they would set up communal facilities.
During the first months of soviet power decrees were passed aimed at improving the material conditions of life for working class women. One decree ordered all lying-in hospitals and all centres, clinics and institutes of gynaecology and midwifery be transferred to the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child. Medical services for expectant mothers would be organised on the basis of three new principles: 1. that medical assistance be available to all mothers in need; 2. that doctors be paid a state salary, thus abolishing the advantages enjoyed by more prosperous women able to pay the doctor for services; and 3. that expectant and nursing mothers, particularly the poor, be protected against the becoming “sacrifices to science”, being practised upon by unskilled midwives and medical students.
The decree also replaced one-year midwifery courses with two-year courses.
The next step was to bring together in one state organisation all the institutions caring for mother and child in the pre- and post-natal periods, and all institutions involved in child care, from children’s homes to village crèches. The same decree ordered the creation of a model Palace of Motherhood, the conversion of all the lying-in hospitals and children’s homes in Moscow and Petrograd into one general institution known as “The Moscow Children’s Institute” and “The Petrograd Children’s Institute”. Children’s homes were renamed young children’s palaces.
The revolution released a burst of optimism and aspiration for a society built on socialist principles. Discussions raged among young people on sexual relations, child rearing and the nature of the family in the transition to socialism. Creative energy gripped cultural fields as well. Priorities and tasks changed to reflect the widely held view that the family would soon wither away.
A month after the revolution, two decrees established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner. The divorce rate soared in the following period.
A complete Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship, ratified in October 1918 swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical law, and established a new doctrine based on individual rights and the equality of the sexes. The Bolsheviks also abolished all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity.
“Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle: It declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.”
The new Family Code was drafted by a committee was headed by A. G. Goikhbarg, a former Menshevik law professor. They described their code as “not socialist legislation, but legislation of the transitional time,” just as the Soviet state itself, as the dictatorship of the proletariat, was a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism.
The code eliminated the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children. Now women could claim child support from men to whom they were not married. The code established the right of all children to parental support until the age of 18 and the right of each spouse to his or her own property.
In implementing the code judges were usually biased in favour of women and children on the grounds that establishing support for the child took priority over protecting the financial interests of any man.
Goikhbarg later said, “They screamed at us: ‘Registration of marriage, formal marriage, what kind of socialism is this?’” His argument was that civil marriage registration was a means to an end, crucial to furthering the struggle against the medieval grip of the Russian Orthodox church. Without civil marriage, the population would resort to religious ceremonies [e.g. to establish “security” for their children] and the church would flourish.
Women’s commissions were established for propaganda and agitation and in 1919 the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) was set up with Inessa Armand as director.
The Zhenotdel sent teams of women into the religious areas of eastern Russia, where Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist women were subjected to strict codes regulating sexual behaviour, unknown in the rest of Russia. The most severe codes were those imposed in the Muslim areas where women had no status other than as pleasure giver, servant, housekeeper and child bearer. Their isolation and untouchability was bolstered by the veil, the most extreme form being the paranja, a heavy horse hair garment worn from nose to floor.
Armand and Kollontai brought some of these women to Moscow conferences; once there they would tear off their face coverings as sign of emancipation.
Teams were sent out into mountain villages to meet and talk to women. When women came to the cities of the east they organised secret meetings in bath houses and women’s clubs.
In Baku the women’s club had thousands of members; it became a school and social centre. Women agitators toured central Asia showing films of a Muslim heroine refusing to marry an old man who had bought her.
Some men reacted with savage violence. In Baku the women were attacked with dogs and boiling water as they left the club. Some women were mutilated and many murdered — 300 in 1929.
Despite the dangers hundreds of women from these areas volunteered to be translators, assistants, agitators. Each May Day and on international women’s day thousands of women would assemble and tear off their veils.
The Zhenotdel was to provide child and orphan care, school service and inspection, food distribution, preventative medicine and public health, anti prostitution campaigns, education and housing.
In all her tasks Inessa Armand was diligent. She was contact for the maternity and infancy sections of the Commissariat for Health, for the Education Commission and for the struggle to end women being forced into prostitution; she organised courses and produced literature. She organised women to work in factories, join the medical corps, and fight in the Red Army.
In 1920 when the civil war was coming to an end the Zhenotdel organised delegate meetings. Those meetings discussed establishing crèches, literacy and educational courses and participation in soviets. Crèches were set up in factories; canteens to provide meals; communal kitchens and dining rooms. They set up communal laundries. Nurseries and kindergartens were created and 1,500 mother and child centres set up. The Zhenotdel popularised and administered these communal services.
By April 1919 Pravda had a regular women worker page as did local papers.
In 1920 a new paper Kommunista was produced aimed at more literate women and covered more theoretical issues. Again Inessa Armand was central to the work, working 14-16 hours a day. She was involved in the final preparation for the first international conference of communist women scheduled for July 1920. An international section was to be established which Inessa was to head but she died, exhausted and malnourished, before the conference took place.
Alexandra Kollontai became head of the Zhenotdel for the next two years.
All this good work, like much else that was inspiring about the Russian Revolution, was smashed up by the counter-revolution led by Joseph Stalin — the effect of the isolation of the revolution, the civil war and terrible economic hardship.
Some women, like Alexandra Kollontai, accommodated themselves to the Stalinist regime. Others supported the groups which opposed Stalin.
The new order — from the mid to end of the 1920s onwards — reversed the huge progress that had been made for example bringing in control over divorce and abortion and reinforcing the old family unit.
There is a lot to learn from the Bolshevik women and the events of the Russian revolution.
These women were agitators, organisers and educators equal to the Bolshevik men. They faced sexism, opposition and indifference from many members of the Bolshevik party. Even women like Krupskaya and Armand didn’t take a vocal or prominent role at party conferences and given the central political roles they undertook, the responsibilities they held and in all areas of party work this is difficult to understand and impossible to accept.
Women still constituted a small proportion of the Bolshevik party membership. Lenin wrote about how the party was refusing to take the work of organising working class women seriously and instead saw it as just the work of women comrades.
But the Bolshevik women fought against all pressures. Why would they not? They were dedicated revolutionaries. The stories of many of their lives are now forgotten, as are the sacrifices and heroism of the thousands of working class women in the Russian revolution. But by building a movement based on learning the lessons of their struggles, we will ensure that working class women liberate themselves and overthrow capitalism.
• Selected Writings, Alexandra Kollontai
• Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist, Ralph Carter Elwood
• “Bolshevik activity amongst the working women of Petrograd in 1917”, International Review of Social History, 1982, M Donald
• “The Bolsheviks and working women, 1905-1920”, in Soviet Studies, October 1974, Anne Bobroff
• The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930, Richard Stites