The Bolshevik revolution was motivated not just by economic equality but the dream of radical social changes. Soviet social reforms of the 1920s aimed to improve the lives of ordinary Russians, particularly women, peasants and industrial workers.
To liberate women
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. The vast majority of Russians were illiterate or semi-literate at best. If citizens in the new Soviet republic were to be politically conscious and truly equal, being able to read and digest information was essential.
The Soviets made some bold and ambitious attempts at reform in both areas. Some of these reforms were successful. In general, however, Bolshevik efforts at reform were undermined by other factors, such as the Civil War and the use of terror.
Women under tsarism
In tsarist Russia, women had been oppressed for centuries, both by the patriarchal social values embedded in tsarism and the rising industrialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1914, Russian women comprised one-third of the industrial labour force. Female labourers toiled under the same egregious conditions as men but received lower wages.
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 workhorse. 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”.
The role of the church
It was almost impossible for women in tsarist Russia to escape this life of exploitation, mistreatment and drudgery. Tsarist social policy, which was 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 alcoholic, abusive or neglectful.
Abortion was a criminal offence and contraception was also discouraged. This resulted in unwanted pregnancies and children, as well as a significant trade in illegal abortions that were inherently dangerous to the mother.
Female Bolshevik leaders
These leading Bolsheviks demanded more than suffragette groups in Europe and the United States. Granting women the right to vote or better pay were only concessions, they argued. True gender equality would only come by abolishing private ownership of capital and dismantling the legal and social bonds holding back women.
The socialist state, they argued, must perform three roles with regards to women.
First, it must provide women with education and training, to allow them 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 that prevent 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.
Kollontai leads the way
Soviet women’s policy had several champions but the best known of these was Alexandra Kollontai. In late 1917, Kollontai 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 its controls over marriage, which became a civil contract rather than a religious ceremony.
The process of divorce was also 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.
Improvements for working women
There were also improvements to the rights and conditions of working women, particularly those with children. Women benefited from the introduction of the eight-hour day while female factory inspectors were appointed to investigate the working conditions of their fellow women.
The 1918 Labour Code banned pregnant women from working overtime and night shifts. Employers were required to allow nursing mothers a 30-minute breastfeeding break every three hours.
The Soviet government also 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.
Abortion was illegal under tsarism but thousands each year were carried out by private but unqualified practitioners, usually old women or midwives. Many women died or were rendered seriously ill or infertile by these procedures.
In 1920, the government legislated to remove abortion from the criminal code. Their aim was not to encourage abortion but to reduce deaths and complications from ‘backyard’ terminations conducted in unsanitary conditions.
From the following year, Russian women could receive free abortions at many state hospitals. Women in urban areas utilised this service extensively, though illegal abortions continued in rural or remote areas without access to hospitals.
The war on illiteracy
One of the most significant Soviet social reforms was the ‘war on illiteracy’. Many Bolsheviks were 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 it had a political purpose. Russia’s peasantry was obstinate, conservative and resistant to new ideas – but many believed this was chiefly because of its inability to read and learn more about the outside world.
“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.” If peasants could read, they could access party propaganda, develop class consciousness and come to support the revolution.
The ‘Literacy Cheka’
In late 1918, the Soviet government attempted to speed up this process by ordering the mobilisation of literate party members. As 19th-century populists had done before them, these volunteers journeyed 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. They began with small groups of party cadres venturing 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 to do so 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 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.
Understandably, Soviet propaganda and histories claimed victory in this war on illiteracy. Lunarcharsky, the Soviet commissar for education, made exaggerated claims 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 did receive 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 tried to achieve too much too soon. In many areas, these programs were disrupted or abandoned by the Civil War or economic deprivation.
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 finally approaching those of Western nations. By 1929, 68 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women were now able to read and write – a marked increase from 40 per cent and 16 per cent respectively in 1897.
A historian’s view:
“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.”
1. Soviet social reforms sought to facilitate gender equality by removing the legal and social bonds that restricted women across Russia.
2. Led by Alexandra Kollontai, the Soviet government 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, such as access to childcare.
4. The Soviet regime also declared war on illiteracy, conscripting thousands of teachers and setting up ‘literacy schools’ to educate the peasantry.
5. These social reforms of the 1920s did make some important advances – but amid the disruption of civil war, they failed to improve the lives of many people.