Family Code on Marriage, The Family, and Guardianship

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The Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets ratified the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship in October 1918, one year after the Bolsheviks took power. Alexander Goikhbarg, the young author of the Code, expected that family law would soon be outmoded and "the fetters of husband and wife" unnecessary. Goikhbarg and other revolutionary jurists believed children, the elderly, and the disabled would be supported under socialism by the state; housework would be socialized and waged; and women would no longer be economically dependent on men. The family, stripped of its social functions, would "wither away," replaced by "free unions" based on mutual love and respect. The Code aimed to provide a transitional legal framework for that short period in which legal duties and protections were still necessary.

Prerevolutionary jurists had attempted throughout the late nineteenth century to reform Russia's strict laws on marriage and divorce, but achieved little success. Up to 1917, Russian law recognized the right of religious authorities to control marriage and divorce. Women were accorded few rights by either church or state. According to state law, a wife owed her husband complete obedience. She was compelled to live with him, take his name, and assume his social status. Up to 1914, a woman was unable to take a job, get an education, or execute a bill of exchange without her husband's consent. A father held almost unconditional power over his children. Only children from a legally recognized marriage were considered legitimate, and illegitimate children had no legal rights or recourse. Up to 1902, when the state enacted limited reforms, a father could recognize an illegitimate child only by special imperial consent. The Russian Orthodox Church considered marriage a holy sacrament, and divorce was almost impossible. It was permissible only in cases of adultery (witnessed by two people), impotence, exile, or unexplained and prolonged absence. In cases of adultery or impotence, the responsible party was permanently forbidden to remarry.

The 1918 Code swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical power and established a new vision based on individual rights and gender equality. It was predated by two brief decrees enacted in December 1917 that substituted civil for religious marriage and established divorce at the request of either spouse. The 1918 Code incorporated and elaborated on these two decrees. It abolished the inferior legal status of women and created equality under the law. It eliminated the validity of religious marriage and gave legal status to civil marriage only, creating a network of local statistical bureaus (ZAGS) for the registration of marriage, divorce, birth, and death. The Code established no-grounds divorce at the request of either spouse. It abolished the juridical concept of "illegitimacy" and entitled all children to parental support. If a woman could not identify the father of her child, a judge assigned paternal obligations to all the men she had sexual relations with, thus creating a "collective of fathers." It forbade adoption of orphans by individual families in favor of state guardianship: jurists feared adoption, in a largely agrarian society, would allow peasants to exploit children as unpaid labor. The Code also sharply restricted the duties and obligations of the marital bond. Marriage did not create community of property between spouses: a woman retained full control of her earnings after marriage, and neither spouse had any claim on the property of the other. Although the Code provided an unlimited term of alimony for either gender, support was limited to the disabled poor. The Code presumed that both spouses, married or divorced, would support themselves.

The 1918 Code was very advanced for its time. Comparable legislation on equal rights and divorce would not be passed in Europe or the United States until the end of the twentieth century. Yet many Soviet jurists believed that the Code was not "socialist" but "transitional" legislation. Goikhbarg, like many revolutionary jurists, expected that law, like marriage, the family, and the state, would soon "wither away."

The Code had a significant effect on the population, both rural and urban. By 1925, Soviet citizens had widely adopted civil marriage and divorce. The USSR displayed a higher divorce rate than any European country, with fifteen divorces for every one hundred marriages. The divorce rate was higher in the cities than in the rural areas, and highest in Moscow and Leningrad. In Moscow, there was one divorce for every two marriages. Soviet workers, women in particular, suffered high unemployment during the 1920s, and divorce proved a special hardship for women who were unable to find work. Peasant families found it difficult to reconcile customary law with the autonomous property provisions of the Code. After extensive debate, Soviet jurists enacted a new Family Code in 1926 to redress these and other problems.

See also: family code of 1926; family edict of 1944, family laws of 1936; marriage and family life


Berman, Harold. (1963). Justice in the USSR: An Interpretation of Soviet Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goldman, Wendy. (1993). Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy, 19171936. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hazard, John. (1969). Communists and Their Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stites, Richard. (1978). The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism, 18601930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wood, Elizabeth. (1997). The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wendy Goldman

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Family Code on Marriage, The Family, and Guardianship

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