Soviet social reforms

soviet social reforms
“What the October Revolution has given women”, a 1920 Soviet poster.

The Bolshevik revolution was not just concerned with the development of a socialist economy. It also promised to deliver long-awaited improvements to the lives of ordinary Russians, particularly women, peasants and industrial workers. These Soviet social reforms were idealistic, ambitious and extensive. Initiated by Bolshevik leaders like Alexandra Kollontai, they aimed to liberate women by removing traditional restrictions on marriage, divorce, abortion and contraception. Instead of gender inequity and exploitation, the state would support female workers by breaking down discriminatory barriers and providing welfare services, such as maternal services and childcare. Literacy and education were also important components of the new socialist society. If citizens were to be politically aware and truly equal, then being able to read and digest information was essential. The Soviets made some bold and ambitious attempts at reform in both areas, though their efforts were undermined by the disruption, deprivation and suffering caused by years of opposition and civil war.

In tsarist Russia, women were oppressed for centuries, both by capitalist exploitation and chauvinistic and patriarchal social values. In 1914 Russian women had comprised one-third of the industrial labour force, working under the same egregious conditions as much but receiving lower wages too. Peasant women were exploited in different ways, treated as a source of unpaid labour for their husbands. One rural wife claimed that “in the countryside, they look at a woman like a work horse. You work all your life for your husband and his entire family, endure beatings and every kind of humiliation, but it doesn’t matter, you have nowhere to go – you are bound in marriage”. It was almost impossible for women in tsarist Russia to escape this life of exploitation, mistreatment and drudgery. Tsarist social policy, dictated almost entirely by the Russian Orthodox Church, was traditionalist, conservative and restrictive. Divorce was rare and was generally only granted to husbands. Marriage was considered a lifelong contract, even if the husband was drunk, abusive or neglectful. Abortion was a criminal offence and contraception was discouraged, resulting in unwanted pregnancies and illegal and dangerous abortions.

“The ‘new Soviet woman’ is a familiar figure to most students of Soviet history. Born in the revolution and civil war, the Soviet heroine first appeared in periodicals as a nurse, as a political leader in the army, even as a combat soldier. She was modest, firm, dedicated, sympathetic, courageous, bold, hard-working, energetic and often young. She gave no thought to her personal welfare… believing that her sacrifice contributed to the building of a better world. Initially she was drawn from life. In 1920, 66,000 women were serving in the Red Army, comprising two per cent of that force… Basing their portraits on these real women, Soviet publicists created the selfless revolutionary who was the first incarnation of the new Soviet woman.”
Abbott Gleason, historian

All this was abhorrent to Bolshevik social reformers, especially leading female revolutionaries like Alexandra Kollontai, Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and his alleged mistress, Inessa Armand. But these leading Bolsheviks demanded more than feminist and suffragette groups in Europe and the US. Granting women the right to vote or improved pay were mere concessions; true gender equality could only be achieved by abolishing private ownership of capital and dismantling all of the legal and social bonds that held back women. The socialist state must perform three main roles with regards to women. First, it must provide them with education and training, to allow women to reach their full potential and achieve equality with men both as workers and intellectuals. Second, the state must dismantle and remove all legal and bureaucratic barriers preventing equality between men and women. Thirdly, the state must support women in their roles as mothers and carers. Prohibitions on contraception and abortion were also necessary, so that women could enjoy reproductive freedom.

The champion of Soviet women’s policy was Alexandra Kollontai, who in late 1917 was elected to Sovnarkom as commissar for social reforms. Kollontai and other female Bolsheviks convened a ‘Soviet women’s congress’ in late 1918, which led to the 1919 formation of Zhenotdel, the world’s first government department exclusively concerned with the affairs of women. A series of decrees, passed between 1918 and 1920, gave Russian women political and legal equality with men. All adult women acquired the right to own property, to own or manage a business and the right to vote (a right not granted to American women until 1920 and British women eight years after that). The Bolshevik Family Law, passed in October 1918, codified changes to marriage, divorce and parenting. The church was stripped of controls over marriage, which became a civil contract rather than a religious ceremony. The process of divorce was simplified and made easier, particularly if women were abandoned, abused or neglected by their husbands. The rights of children and the obligations of parents were also enunciated.

There were also improvements to the rights and conditions of working women, particularly mothers. Women benefited from the introduction of the eight-hour day, while female factory inspectors were appointed specifically to investigate the working conditions of their fellow women. The 1918 Labour Code banned pregnant women from working overtime and nightshifts. Employers were required to allow nursing mothers a 30-minute breast-feeding break every three hours. The Soviet government introduced a paid maternity leave program, designed by Kollontai before the revolution, that provided working mothers with eight weeks paid leave and other benefits. It also set up Matmlad, a government department “for the Protection of Mothers and Infants” that provided maternity clinics, creches and homes for single mothers in Russian cities and large towns. In 1920 the government legislated to remove abortion from the criminal code. From the following year Russian women could receive free abortions at many state hospitals, a move intended to reduce the high number of deaths and medical complications caused by ‘backyard’ terminations.

soviet social reforms
“Literacy is the road to communism”, a Soviet poster from 1920

Many in the Bolshevik movement were also determined to improve literacy and education, particularly amongst the peasantry. The first Bolshevik decree on education (November 1917) ordered the formation of a commissariat to work towards “universal literacy”. This was an idealistic goal but there was also a political imperative. The peasantry was obstinate, conservative and resistant to new ideas because it was unable to read. “The illiterate person stands outside politics,” Lenin said. “First it is necessary to teach him the alphabet. Without it there are only rumours, fairy tales and prejudices – but not politics.” Peasants who could read could access party propaganda, develop class consciousness and come to support the revolution and its leaders. In late 1918 the Soviet government attempted to speed up this process by ordering the mobilisation of literate party members who could go into remote areas to read aloud important decrees, news reports and political developments. The party also increased its output of visual propaganda, highlighting the importance of literacy and education.

The first concerted attempts to improve literacy were launched spontaneously in 1918, as small groups of party members ventured into rural areas to teach peasants how to read and write. In December 1919 the Soviet government issued a Decree on Illiteracy that ordered all illiterate Russians aged between eight and 50 to learn to read and write; to refuse was a criminal offence. In July 1920 the government formed the ‘Literacy CHEKA’ (the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Eradication of Illiteracy, a sub-department of Narkompros, the Commissariat for Education). Armed with the power to conscript personnel and arrest refusers, the commission drafted more than 100,000 literate party members as teachers, the majority of them from the ranks of Komsomol, the Bolshevik youth organisation. These activists moved into areas of significant illiteracy where they set up likpunkty, or literacy schools. The commission set up around 30,000 likpunkty in total, as well as 33,000 libraries or reading rooms. The Bolsheviks also printed more than six million textbooks to support their literacy programs.

soviet social reforms
A 1918 postcard promoting Soviet literacy programs for peasant children.

Understandably, Soviet propaganda and histories claimed victory in this war on illiteracy. Lunarcharsky, the Soviet commissar for education, made the exaggerated claim that seven million Russians had been taught to read and write, many in just a matter of weeks. In reality the gains in literacy were both modest and shallow. Millions of Russian peasants may have received a rudimentary introduction to reading, however the program was not sustained or well resourced enough to bring about lasting changes or improvements. In sum the Soviet literacy campaign of 1919-21 was an example of trying to achieve too much too soon – and in many areas, amidst the disruption and suffering of Civil War. There were no significant advances in literacy until the relative peace and prosperity of the mid-1920s, when the government revived its anti-literacy programs. By the end of the 1920s Soviet literacy levels were approaching those of Western nations, with 68 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women now able to read and write (up from 40 per cent and 16 per cent respectively in 1897).

1. The Bolsheviks wanted to facilitate gender equality by removing the legal and social bonds that restricted women.
2. Led by Kollontai, the Soviets set up a women’s bureau, Zhenotdel, and introduced several progressive reforms.
3. Female workers were given equal pay and conditions, while mothers were supported with state services and benefits.
4. The Soviet regime also declared war on illiteracy, conscripting thousands of teachers and setting up ‘literacy schools’.
5. These programs made some advances but amid the disruption of civil war they failed to have a significant impact.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Soviet social reforms” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].