What Happened in Russia

Part Two: Strategies for Change

3. What happened in Russia?

Alexandra Kollontai was a member of the Bolsheviks, the party which in 1917 led a revolutionary mass movement of workers and peasants to overthrow capitalism and landlordism and introduced a workers’ state in Russia. This was a momentous historic event which inspired working class people around the world, raising their confidence that an alternative to the horrors of capitalism existed and that a socialist transformation of society was possible.

The subsequent rise of a Stalinist bureaucracy undermined many of the gains that the revolution had achieved. It strengthened the argument of those who maintained that a socialist revolution is bound to degenerate, and of those who claimed that women’s oppression and patriarchy would still continue to exist in a socialist society.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European states at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s unleashed a further barrage of propaganda against socialism in favour of capitalism as the only viable and credible economic and social system.

Gains of the revolution

The real gains of the Russian Revolution for the working class as a whole, and for women in particular, have consequently became obscured or distorted out of all recognition. Yet women’s liberation formed a key component of the Bolsheviks’ programme and the revolution paved the way for radical reforms which went far beyond those achieved by women in the more economically-developed capitalist countries at that time.

Marriage, for example, became a mere civil procedure, while the right to divorce was granted on request by either partner. Legal, free abortions were available to all women who needed them and homosexuality was legalised. The principle of equal pay for equal work was introduced and legislation passed to protect women in the workplace. This included 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, the right for nursing mothers to work no more than four days a week and to have regular time off for breast-feeding.

However, important as these gains were, the Bolsheviks recognised that women’s domestic burden within the family had to be lifted in order that they could become economically independent, form free and equitable personal relationships and play a full and equal role in society.

The 1919 Programme of the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks renamed themselves) declared that “not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, and nurseries, etc”. Housework and childcare would not just be the individual, private responsibility of women within the family but would be socialised and provided publicly by the state.

Day nurseries, kindergartens, public laundries and restaurants were set up and free lunches introduced in schools. In 1920, 90% of the population of Petrograd, the most industrialised city in Russia at that time, were choosing to eat in communal restaurants.


Transforming attitudes

But the workers’ government also had to take account of the existing consciousness of both men and women. Women constituted a significant proportion of the workforce (40% during the First World War) which increased their economic independence and influenced how they viewed their own position in society. Nevertheless, most women (and men) lived in the countryside where the peasant family was still structured on a patriarchal basis – with a male head of the family exerting power and control over his wife – and backward attitudes prevailed. Many peasant women opposed the idea of communal nurseries, terrified that the government wanted to take their children away from them. They were suspicious of anything which they thought would undermine the family and their role within it.

The 1919 Programme, therefore, also stated that “the party’s task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality or prejudices”. A conscious campaign was needed to change the backward and reactionary attitudes towards women which were deeply ingrained within society. This included a concerted effort to engage and involve women as active participants in building the new social order.

Women had played an important role in carrying out the revolution itself. In fact, it was female workers who sparked the February 1917 Revolution when, on International Women’s Day, thousands marched to the factories demanding peace and bread and the overthrow of autocracy. Now their self-activity was vital for transforming society and achieving their own liberation.

In 1919, a special women’s department, the Zhenotdel, was established to conduct work amongst women. Women’s ‘commissions’ were set up at every level in order to involve women in the party and in the construction of the new society. The Zhenotdel was involved in tackling issues such as childcare, housing, public health and prostitution. It organised delegate conferences of working-class and peasant women, seconded women to government departments and party work, and young working-class women enthusiastically and energetically participated in outreach work with women in the countryside and remote parts of the country.

As well as producing newspapers and journals, the Zhenotdel organised discussions, exhibitions and developed innovative methods to raise the consciousness of women, most of whom were illiterate. There were particular problems reaching Muslim women in Central Asia where female volunteers were sometimes physically attacked and even horrifically killed. Despite these extremely dangerous conditions, they continued to seek out women in these areas, meeting secretly in bathhouses, for example.

The revolution itself unleashed enormous creative forces which affected every aspect of people’s lives, including sex and personal relationships. Young people in particular questioned existing personal arrangements, experimenting with new ways of living and relating to each other.

Limits to liberation

Despite the best intentions of the leaders of the Communist Party, their programme for socialist transformation and women’s liberation was constrained by the cultural and material backwardness of Russia. This had been exacerbated by the war, which left the country in ruins, and then further reinforced by a brutal civil war and imperialist intervention aimed at overthrowing the new workers’ state.

Kollontai acknowledged that the socialisation of ‘women’s work’ could not be easily implemented in an underdeveloped country devastated by war and civil war. Between 1919 and 1920, seven and a half million Russians died from famine and epidemics alone. In 1920, production of manufactured goods in Russia was just 12.9% of its 1913 level.

So, for example, while many communal eating places were established in the capital, the number of facilities in the rest of the country varied greatly and was often non-existent. Frequently the food was of such bad quality that workers turned their backs on public dining rooms preferring to eat in their own homes, falling back on the family and the traditional division of labour between men and women.

These material conditions also undermined attempts at transforming personal relations. Following the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, which was viewed as a temporary measure to revive production by introducing some market measures into the planned economy, unemployment skyrocketed with women hit particularly hard. In 1923, women constituted 58% of the unemployed in Petrograd. Formally women had the right to divorce but unemployment and economic hardship meant that in reality most were denied any real choice, forced to remain in unhappy relationships through economic necessity.

Those involved in the Zhenotdel carried out extremely effective work in raising the consciousness of women, ensuring that their concerns were addressed by the party and the government, and encouraging women to participate in the government and running of society. But the functioning of the women’s department was hindered by the civil war, by staff shortages and by the fact that women themselves were exhausted and burdened with work and family responsibilities.


The Bolsheviks had always argued that it would be impossible to build genuine socialism in a single country, particularly one as economically and culturally backward as Russia. The revolution would need to be extended internationally to the advanced capitalist countries like Britain and Germany.

Any reforms that the workers’ government managed to introduce were, therefore, not only in the interests of the Russian workers and peasants themselves but to set an example to the working classes internationally, and to encourage them to also organise for a revolutionary change in society.

While workers in many countries were inspired by events in Russia, and revolutionary movements broke out in Europe and elsewhere, unfortunately none were successful in overthrowing capitalism because of the weakness of their revolutionary leaderships. The defeat of these revolutions and Russia’s subsequent international isolation reinforced the demoralisation which had already set in amongst a working class decimated, exhausted and weakened by war, starvation and long working hours.

Economic backwardness and international isolation laid the basis for the rolling back of workers’ democracy and many of the gains of the revolution, together with the rise of a bureaucratic elite, concerned primarily with ‘managing’ society and maintaining its own privileged position. The state-owned planned economy remained in place but workers’ control and management through the soviets were replaced by bureaucratic centralised command from above. The economy developed but at an enormous cost to the lives of workers and peasants and to the environment.

Women’s gains undermined

The interests of workers, including women, became subordinated to those of the bureaucracy, with Stalin at its head. In 1928, fearing that strengthening pro-capitalist forces within Soviet society could threaten the continued rule of the bureaucracy, Stalin moved empirically to force through the industrialisation of the country and the collectivisation of land. As part of this process millions of women were coerced into the workforce. But this was against a background of a deliberate running down of communal facilities such as nurseries, dining rooms and laundries which went much further than economic constraints dictated. This was because it was in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy to re-establish and bolster the patriarchal family as an instrument of social control.

Mirroring the hierarchical structure of the bureaucratic state, it became a place where young people in particular could be disciplined to accept the power and authority of those at the top of society. As a consequence, much legislation was orientated towards strengthening the family as an economic and social unit. This was reinforced by the need for a growing labour force, with the bureaucracy launching campaigns glorifying and extolling the joys of ‘motherhood’ and urging women to increase their birth rate.

Many of the legal gains which the revolution had granted women were now reversed. Access to divorce became more difficult and abortion was made illegal in most cases. By 1938-39, 12.7% of every 100,000 deaths amongst urban women were caused by illegal abortions.

In 1930 the Zhenotdel was formally abolished in a situation where the original aims of the revolution, including the full economic, political and sexual equality of women, were far from being realised.

Genuine socialism

Nevertheless, bureaucratic degeneration is not the inevitable outcome of a socialist revolution, as many capitalist commentators argue. Nor is it the case that women’s oppression will always be with us, even under socialism. The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its undermining of the gains of the revolution were rooted in the specific conditions which prevailed in Russia and internationally at that time.

Clearly, a democratic workers’ government in a more economically advanced country today would not face the same economic and cultural problems that the Bolsheviks did after the 1917 revolution. However, although socialism will lay the basis for a transformation in economic and social relations, it will require the active participation of working-class women and men in the planning and running of society, as well as the transformation of ideas and attitudes. At the same time the threat from capitalism internationally would remain a real one, underlining the absolute necessity not just for workers’ democracy but for the struggle for socialism to be an international one.