The Family in Soviet Russia
The Family in Soviet Russia
By: Sidney Webb
Date: April 1933
Source: Webb, Sidney. "The Family in Soviet Russia." Current History. (April 1933): 52-60.
About the Author: Sidney Webb (1859–1947) was a British aristocrat who supported Socialism and the Soviet Union's shift from monarchy to a communist state. Webb served as a member of Parliament (MP) and was a member of the Fabian Society, which believed that capitalism had created an unjust and inefficient society. Other members included George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Edward Carpenter (1844–1929).
After the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917, the Bolsheviks gained power with the aim of turning Russia into a collective society. In 1918 civil war broke out between Bolsheviks—"Reds"—who sought to turn Russia into an ideal communist society and monarchists, conservatives, and more moderate socialists—"Whites"—who resisted the Bolsheviks' extreme approach. By 1922 the Reds had won, but at the cost of more than fifteen million dead Russians. An additional one million fled the country; more than seven million children were orphaned or abandoned, many malnourished from famine and neglect, and the weakened Soviet government faced the question of how to manage the children while building a new society.
Upper class and aristocratic or royal women in pre-revolution Russia as well as peasant women experienced dramatic changes in their social roles. While many wealthy Russians fled the country in 1917 and 1918, those who stayed were subject to the new Bolshevik rules. The Soviet government worked to redefine gender roles; women were considered to be men's equals, and expected to be educated and to work in the same manner as men. To this end women from all classes were given greater opportunities to attend university and to work as doctors, engineers, and teachers; those not selected for university or professional positions worked as factory laborers, farm hands, and in government offices. Child care was managed by the state, with the crèche system, nurseries designed to watch infants and small children while mothers and fathers worked. The crèche system performed another crucial role: to educate mothers on their new role as workers for the state, and on how to raise their children to be productive members who followed the Soviet ideal.
As industrialization proceeded, and factory work was concentrated near cities, the old multi-generational family unit gave way to simple nuclear families in urban centers with a small number of children. Initially women were given broad reproductive rights; abortion was legalized in 1920 with strict parameters for safe abortions. According to Alice Withrow Field (1909–1960), in her 1932 book Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia,
Out of every hundred pregnant women who come to the Moscow clinics, from eighteen to twenty ask for abortions. If the woman asking for the abortion is healthy, economically up to standard, living in good social conditions, is not burdened by a large family and is not mentally deficient (when she would probably not ask for the abortion), the doctors and social workers all try to prove to her that she does not need the abortion and that it would be a social crime if she did not bring her child into the world, and that she would be endangering her own good health by such a step. If they cannot persuade her, the abortion is performed and it is considered important to do so, since a woman who will stand out against all such persuasion really does not want a child and is therefore unfit to have one.
Under the Tsar, abortion was illegal and a crime equal to murder.
The institution of marriage changed after the revolution. Religious marriage was replaced with civil marriage, and inheritance rights—removed in the early years after the revolution and civil war—were reinstated in part by the late 1920s. Marriage was stripped of its former economic meaning, according to Soviet ideology. By providing women with greater rights under communism, the Soviet government claimed, marriages could be based on mutual respect and affection rather than status or financial need.
This excerpt, written by Sidney Webb, British supporter of the Soviet state, gives a foreigner's perspective on the Soviet family.
… On no part of the life of Soviet Russia is there in other countries so much difference of assertion (if not of opinion) as on what is happening to the institution of the family. On no subject, perhaps, is it so difficult to make either an accurate or a convincing statement covering either all aspects of the inquiry or all parts of the U.S.S.R….
We must begin by realizing the nature and the magnitude of the changes that the revolution has wrought in the position, first of the women of Soviet Russia, and then of the children and adolescents….
How much Russia has lost, on the disappearance of practically all its upper and middle class women of leisure with their standards of value and their refinement of manners, it would be hard to estimate. Of educated women engaged in professional work (as doctors, scientists, teachers or writers, or in music, dancing or the drama) the number was formerly relatively small; and of such of these as have not emigrated with the wealthier classes, a considerable proportion seem to have accepted, more or less sympathetically, the new regime, under which they promptly found their feet and continued their careers amid the rapidly growing number of women professionals.
What we have to concentrate attention on is, none of these relatively small groups, but the great bulk of the adult women of pre-war Russia, at least nine-tenths of the whole, who were either the hard-working wives, daughters or widows of peasants, fishers or hunters or of independent handicraftsmen, or else domestic servants in superior households, or (in relatively small numbers) factory operatives, chiefly in textiles. There is little information available as to what that mystic entity "the family" in fact amounted to among these vast hordes of hard-working women, but pre-war native literature gives a dark picture. The great majority of them were illiterate and superstitious and in complete subjection to their husbands or fathers. It is not usually remembered that a large proportion of them, possible as many as one-fourth, were Mohammedans, and were habitually veiled, with the status and ignorance that this implies….
Now let us see what changes have occurred or are in progress. The first thing that the Bolshevik revolution brought to the women of Russia was their complete legal and constitutional emancipation; the second was their education on an equality with men; and the third was such a planning of the social and economic environment as could be devised to lighten, as far as practicable, the exceptional burdens of the maternal and domestic functions incident upon their sex. Thus women over 18 were at once given votes on the same conditions as men, with equal trade-union and co-operative membership, and equal eligibility for promotion. All occupations and all positions were thrown open to both sexes. No distinction is made between the sexes in wages or salaries, holidays or insurance benefits. No woman is deprived of her job on marriage, though she may, and often does, prefer to abandon it, perhaps only for a term of years, for child-bearing and motherhood. The laws relating to marriage and divorce, and their privileges and responsibilities, have been made the same for women as for men. It must be added that women working in industrial factories have been accorded certain special privileges and protection in the interests of the children no less than those of the mothers, such as sixteen weeks' continuous leave of absence on full pay round about their confinements, the right of taking time off without loss of pay to nurse their babies every few hours and the provision of a crèche at every industrial establishment, at which the young children may be safely left throughout the working day.
These changes, which few would object to characterizing as reforms, were, unlike so many that we have heard of, not merely enshrined in legislation. The visitor to the U.S.S.R. cannot fail to see them nearly everywhere in operation. In the various technical schools he will notice nearly as many girls as boys, learning to be engineers or carpenters, electricians or machinists. In every factory that he passes through—and not merely in the textile and clothing trades—he sees women working side by side with men, at the lathe, the bench or the forge, often sharing in the heaviest and most unpleasant tasks as well as in the skilled processes. Women work in and about the mines and the oil fields equally with the men. On board the Soviet mercantile marine there is a steadily increasing number of women sailors, engineers and wireless operators, usually dressed as men, as well as stewards and cooks and cleaners. A large majority of the school teachers and more than one-half of all the younger doctors are women. In all the offices women swarm not only as stenographers but also as translators, confidential secretaries and responsible executive assistants….
It is universally taken for granted that, so far as pay is concerned, not only is there no distinction of sex but also no inquiry as to whether a woman is or is not married or the mother of children. There is, accordingly, in Soviet Russia no such discouragement of matrimony as exists in Great Britain and some other countries, where the hundreds of thousands of women who are school teachers, civil servants and municipal employees are, in effect, forbidden to marry, under penalty of instantly losing their employment.
All this concerns, however, in the main, the women of the rapidly growing cities and other urban aggregations all over the U.S.S.R., together with such of the vocations, like teaching, doctoring and administration, as have to be exercised in town and country alike. The great majority of the women of Soviet Russia, as well as of the men, are connected with agriculture (together with hunting and fishing) or essentially with rural pursuits. What has happened to the wives and daughters in the 25,000,000 families of individual peasants, fishers and hunters? To them the revolution has brought the same legal and constitutional emancipation as to the women in industry and the professions. Even in the extensive areas in which Islam prevailed, the women have been set free, and many millions have abandoned the veil and are themselves learning to read and write, while rejoicing in being able to send their children, girls as well as boys, to the local school, and in an increasing number of cases to the technical college or the university.
The Soviet Government, in fact, is undoubtedly bringing to the country dwellers, year by year, a steadily increasing measure of the opportunities in education, medical attendance and social insurance now enjoyed by the cities, although in all these advantages the country necessarily lags behind the town. Thus, while in the cities there are varied educational opportunities for all the girls as well as for all the boys, and nearly every child is at school, this is naturally not yet the case throughout all the vast area from the Baltic to the Pacific, and from the Persian frontier to the Arctic Ocean, including much that is occupied by primitive tribes or nomads. A steady stream of additional doctors, largely women, is, year by year, sent into the villages; while the number of maternity and general hospitals, large or small, accessible to at least a proportion of the villages, increases annually….
The greatest change in the social circumstances of the peasant women began only five or six years ago with the concerted movement for the substitution of the collective farm for the individual small holding. This movement is still in progress, and reaches different heights in different places, both the number of collective farms and the degree of their collective organization showing a steady annual increase. Down to 1932 about 18,000,000 peasant holdings, with about 70,000,000 of population, had been more or less merged in about 226,000 collective farms, in some districts occupying the whole of the agricultural land. We need not consider here the vicissitudes of the movement, or the mistakes and failures that accompanied its progress, often, it is to be feared, with great cruelty to the recalcitrant kulaks (the relatively wealthy individual peasants). Nor can we critically scrutinize the measure of economic advantage, in the way of mechanization and increased production which has, in varying degree, already resulted from the change. The very low level of efficiency, alike among the workers and in the management, plainly brings down the produce to terribly poor rations wherever and whenever the weather is unfavorable. Here we can deal only with its effect on the position of the women and children.
In a collective farm it is usual for the peasants to retain their own individual dwellings (or to erect new ones), each with its own garden ground, its own cow, and its own pigs and poultry. Only in a tiny proportion of cases does the collective farm take the form of a commune in which all the production is carried on in common and the whole proceeds are shared. Usually it is only the grain that is sown and harvested in common, the proceeds being divided between the government which has supplied the tractors (and often the seed and fertilizer), on the one hand, and the cooperating workers, male and female, each in proportion to the days or hours of labor actually contributed, on the other hand.
The collectivization does not usually stop at this point. The open meeting of adult residents, in conjunction with its elected committee, by which every collective farm is governed, presently begins to make such improvements as a modest grain store or a primitive silo, an improved dairy on modern lines, a new school building or a village hall, and presently a clubhouse, with its library, its dance floor and its cinema. Later there may be a crèche where the children can be safely left when the mother goes to work in the dairy or in the fields, a common kitchen and dining room in which such as choose may take their meals or purchase cooked food, and even a few bedrooms at a low rent for single men or widowers. Naturally, all this takes time, and the farms differ as much in the rate at which the collective amenities expand as in the order in which they are adopted. What delays progress is the sly skulking and neglect of work manifested by many of the sullen peasants, together with the inefficiency of the management, which naturally has to be overcome, very largely by painful "trial and error."
But almost from the start there beings, for the women, a social revolution. Life as lived in the old cluster of timber-framed mud-huts that used to be the peasant village and labor as spent in solitude on the scattered strips of each peasant's holding become alike transformed. No one can know by personal inspection what is happening on as many as 226,000 collective farms. But a significant confidential report was lately made, not by an transient visitor but by a well-qualified informant who had seen the farms repeatedly in many different provinces, to the effect that, whatever the degree of efficiency attained, while the old man peasant had only unwillingly come into the new organization and was still sullen about it, his wife and also his children almost invariably rejoiced in the change….
The resulting emancipation of the wife and mother, as well as of the children, cannot easily be estimated. This is what has been happening during the past seven years, in varying degrees and at very different grades of efficiency of collective administration, to two-thirds of all the village population of Soviet Russia….
In every form of propaganda, the main insistence is on respect for the emerging personality of the child and the utmost possible development of his or her individuality, having always in mind that the child is the future citizen and producer, whose individual capacity must be raised to the utmost. In the home, as in the school, there must be only the most sparing use of mere prohibitions. The child should always be induced to choose the more excellent way. To strike a child is, by Soviet law, a criminal offense. Parents are taught that punishment of any kind is felt by the child as an insult, and should as far as possible be avoided. Self-government must be aimed at in home and school, even to the discomfort of the elders, and even if there has to be some discreet "weighting of the alternatives" by parent or teacher in order to steer the choice.
To the child, even from tender years, in infancy as in adolescence, the incessant lesson is its obligation to serve, according to its powers, successively in the household, in the school, in the factory and in the State. To this end the children's needs are ceaselessly attended to. So far as government administration can insure it in so vast a country, whoever else goes short the child always has a full ration of milk, of clothing, and of schooling, together with hospital and other medical attendance. Making every allowance for the imperfection of vital statistics, all the evidence points to a great and continuous decrease in the infantile and child death rates.
There are toys and games in every institution and on sale within reach of every parent, with ample provision for play and recreation out of doors as well as indoors. But the toys are as deliberately planned as the curriculum or the books—no tin soldiers and few dolls, but abundance of bricks for building, miniature tools for actual use, and working models of locomotives, airplanes and automobiles, through which it is intended and hoped that the whole population may in time acquire "machine sense." The visitor may see, as the slogan on the gay poster decorating an infant crèche: "Games are not mere play, but preparation for creative labor." When the elder children go into camp in the Summer they are shown that it is immense fun not to "play at Indians," but to help the peasants in their agricultural work; one party of twenty was proud to be told that they were ranked, in the aggregate, as four grown men. The Pioneers find their joy largely in the voluntary "social work" that they undertake in groups, helping the younger or more backward children in their lessons, "liquidating illiteracy" among the adults of their neighborhood, clearing away accumulations of dirt or debris, forming "shock brigades" to reinforce the workers where production is falling behind the plan or when some special task has to be got through with a minimum of delay.
And these children stick at nothing! The Moscow Pioneers took it into their heads the year before last to wait upon many of the directors of the theatres and cinemas in order to give their own views upon the current productions, and to expostulate on their shortcomings and defects. In a small urban district some 200 miles from Leningrad the Pioneers undertook to "liquidate" the excessive consumption of vodka that prevailed. They got put up in every workshop the following appeal on posters manufactured by themselves:
We, your children, call on you to give up drinking, to help us to shut drink shops and to use them as cultural institutions, pioneer clubs, reading rooms …
The children whose parents drink are always backward at school
Remember that every bottle you drink would buy a textbook or exercise book for your child. Respond to our call and give us the chance of being well-developed, healthy and cultured human beings. We must have healthier home surroundings. (Signed) Your Children, the Pioneers of [the district.]
The school band then led a gaily decorated procession of children round the workers' quarters. They booed the men as they came out. A public meeting was held in which the children took the leading part. As an immediate result hundreds of workmen are reported to have promised to give up vodka.
This emancipation of children and adolescents, together with the constant encouragement of their utmost participation in social work of every kind, makes of course for a "priggishness" among the young and an attitude of criticism of their lax and slovenly elders which is not altogether pleasing to the bulk of their fellow citizens of mature age. Thus the new cult of hygienic living among the Pioneers may be excellent, but their irritating habit of "opening windows in other people's houses" is frequently complained of by elderly relatives. But as an instrument of lifting the people of Russia out of the dirt, disease, illiteracy, thieving and brutishness of pre-revolutionary days the self-governing democracy of Communist youth appears to be extraordinarily well devised.
There arises the interesting question: "What is the sexual morality that is being evolved among the 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 Pioneers and Comsomols?" For this widespread organization of the Soviet youth involves intimate social intercourse between boys and girls. They are constantly together. They meet continually, not only in school or college but also in the hierarchy of meetings, committees, representative conferences and executives that constitute the League of Communist Youth. They associate in sports and games, in "social inspections" and "shock brigades" and in all sorts of voluntary social work. Hygienic self-control seems to be the dominant note, together with full responsibility for any offspring, a responsibility enforced by the strictly administered law as to parental maintenance of children by father and mother alike, according to their economic capacity. Subject to this emphasis on personal hygiene and parental responsibility, there is undoubtedly considerable freedom in sex relationships according to choice, without any sense of sin, but with the constant reminder that efficiency in study or production must not be impaired. You must not waste time or strength on sex. To do so is like indulgence in betting and gambling, alcoholic drink and even the smoking of cigarettes—"bad form" among the Comsomols.
Now these great and far-reaching changes among the women, children and adolescents of Soviet Russia, paralleled, of course, by no less important changes among the men, must inevitably have caused changes of like importance in the institution of the family. These changes require analysis. We may note, to begin with, that there is no sign of any decay of the family group which mankind has derived from its vertebrate ancestors, and which doubtless owes its great survival value to the advantage to the offspring of maternal devotion and prolonged personal care. Not even the most hostile critic reports any deliberate abandonment of children by their parents. Mother-love seems to be the same in Soviet Russia as elsewhere, and Soviet fathers appear to be just as much interested in their children as British or American. The children form just as much a part of the family circle as with the American or British wage-earning class. The crèche, the school and the college take the young people out of the home just about as much as the same institutions, within comparable income grades and similar household resources, do elsewhere. Whether children and adolescents are less obedient to their parents or more than contemporary British or Americans, it seems impossible to compute. The answer to any such criticism is that the young people in all countries in the twentieth century are much less under their parent's thumbs, perhaps even less under their parents' influence, than was the case in the nineteenth century. There seems available no specific evidence that this particular emancipation has gone further in one country than in another….
There is undoubtedly in Soviet Russia a greater freedom than in many other countries in sexual intercourse, based on mutual attraction and friendship, among the unmarried of both sexes and all ages. Such unions, which are utterly without sense of sin, are condemned neither by law nor by public opinion, and they often turn into successful permanent marriages. Divorce is at the will of either party, but there is a strict enforcement of the legal responsibility of both parents for the maintenance of any offspring, according to their respective economic capacities. Anything like promiscuity, with or without marriage, is now seriously reprobated by opinion. "I do not want to inquire into your private affairs," Stalin is reported to have said to an important party member who was leading a scandalous life, "but if there is any more nonsense about women you will go to a place where there are no women."
We may perhaps sum up by saying that the great increase in personal freedom brought about by the revolution, together with the almost universal falling away of religious and conventional inhibitions, undoubtedly led, for the first decade or so, to greater instability of family life and to looser relations between the sexes based on mutual friendship….
During the past few years public opinion seems to have been moving strongly in favor of—to use a native expression—"stabilization," and any tendency to prompt, reckless or repeated divorce meets with condemnation. No general or centralized statistics permit of comparison between the number of divorces and those of marriages. Such figures as have been published for particular cities and years appear to show totals (and local variations) in Soviet Russia not markedly unlike those of parts of Scandinavia and different States of the United States.
As Webb notes, every facet of family life was changed by the Soviet regime: mothers, wives, fathers, husbands, and children alike were given new roles in society and even in the home as the new ideals were backed up with action.
The Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union, founded in 1922 and in place through 1990 when the Soviet Union began to disband, was an after-school organization similar to the Boy Scouts; in the USSR its mission shifted to support the state; as Webb observes, "a 'priggishness' among the young and an attitude of criticism of their lax and slovenly elders which is not altogether pleasing to the bulk of their fellow citizens of mature age." By using preteen and teenage children to monitor social rules and to pressure those who violated new norms, the Soviet government shifted the balance of power in family and neighborhood relationships.
Men under the new Soviet government were expected to absorb a great deal of change in gender roles; the Soviets characterized pre-revolution families as patriarchal, with too much power centered in the man. Alexandra Kollantai, the U.S.S.R.'s first Minister of Social Welfare, stated that once the new Soviet mores became part of society, "Family households will inevitably die a natural death with the growth in number of communal houses of different types to suit different tastes. Once it has ceased to be a unit of consumption, the family will be unable to exist in its present form; it will fall asunder and be liquidated." Fredrich Engels viewed the family as an agent of capitalism; private property and inheritance laws turned the family into an economic, rather than emotional, unit. By abolishing private property and placing children in the hands of the state as their mothers worked alongside men as equals, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and other political thinkers and leaders believed that the revolution would continue on.
By 1936, reproductive rights began to change; Stalin's government offered stipends to families with many children, and by the late 1930s the government began to restrict abortion. In the early 1940s single persons and childless couples were given an additional tax, and the state supported illegitimate children; the crèche system was intact though less pervasive, as more mothers were permitted to stay at home with children on a limited basis. The goal, in Stalin's view, was to produce more children to become workers in the system.
By the early 1980s, an article in New Internationalist, from December 1982, noted that "There are women cosmonauts, women street sweepers and women scientists in the Soviet Union today. In fact, two thirds of all Russian women work outside the home, though they are still only 45 per cent of the labour force. But because power relationships within the family have remained largely unchallenged women remain second class citizens." The gender role changes promoted in the early years of the U.S.S.R. incorporated the state's role in assuming child care, maternity care, and other functions to support the family and women's work; as the costs of such programs became overbearing, the USSR dropped or cut funding for such designs, leaving women with a double burden: child care and job. The revolution designed to free women from oppression gave women greater work opportunities but did not shift the classic gender role paradigm found in many societies.
Engels, Fredrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Hottzingen-Zurich, Germany: 1884.
Field, Withrow Alice. Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1932.
Goldman, Wendy Z. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.
Wood, Elizabeth A. The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, N.J.: Princenton University Press, 1994.
New Internationalist. "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back." December 1982 〈http://www.newint.org/issue118/two.htm〉 (accessed July 10, 2006).