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The Russian Revolution and the emancipation of women: a multiperspective history

The TEH21 project is based on the idea of “multiperspectivity”.[1] In this blog, Kim Ligtenberg applies this concept to the history of the Russian Revolution.

 

In 2017, Russia was celebrating. It had been a hundred years since the famous March and November (O.S. October) uprisings, which later became known as the Russian Revolution (1917).[2] All throughout the year, the Russian state broadcaster (RT), reenacted the Revolution on twitter, with historical characters such as Trotsky and Lenin tweeting in real life as if it was 1917.[3] A tweet from ‘Lenin’ on the 17th of December states: “Soviet state to become the first to introduce guaranteed maternity leave and benefits! Instructed Labor Commissariat to elaborate bill #1917LIVE”.[4] This tweet is connected to the emancipation of women that was on the agenda of the Bolsheviks. However, the aspect of emancipation is often lost in the way the Russian Revolution is taught to many Western students. History textbooks such as Western Civilization. Beyond Boundaries and Traditions and Encounters. A Global Perspective on the Past, which is used in the US and many Western countries,  teaches students about the Russian Revolution.[5] They both mention the March and October Revolution, Communism, the Bolsheviks, and of course its leader Vladimir Lenin. In explaining the policies of the Revolutionaries, Noble et al. state in Western Civilization that “the Bolsheviks began actively seeking wider support by promising peace, land, and bread”.[6] But what the textbook does not mention is that female emancipation was also embraced by the Bolsheviks in their search for national support. Beatrice Farnsworth states: “Revolutions generate myths”. One of these myths is that the Bolsheviks were interested in female emancipation from the start.[7] In fact, Anne Bobroff believes that the Bolsheviks only started to recognize the women question as important after many working women, from the 1910’s onward, became more aware of their own needs. “When working women began to demonstrate their own independent power, the Bolsheviks were compelled to relate to them: to develop ways of attracting this new source of energy to the party, and to prevent the possibility of its alignment with the ‘bourgeois feminists’ or other political tendency”.[8]

Thus, in 1913 the Bolsheviks became more focused on the position of the women in Russian society.[9] That the Bolsheviks strove for female emancipation is visible in this poster from 1920, titled: “This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women,”.[10]

 

The poster (see featured image) shows a woman that has embraced communism, visible by the hammer she holds and the corresponding sickle that is lying on the ground next to her feet: the symbols of Communism. The sun is shining, for Communism has brought women much to gain from: “a library, a cafeteria, a workers club, a school for adults and a “house for a mother and child.”.[11]

In a speech he gave in 1919 Lenin stated:

“Soviet power, the power of the working people, in the first months of its existence effected a very definite Revolution in legislation that concerns women. Nothing whatever is left in the Soviet Republic of those laws that put women in a subordinate position. I am speaking specifically of those laws that took advantage of the weaker position of women and put them in a position of inequality and often, even, in a humiliating position …We may now say proudly and without any exaggeration that apart from Soviet Russia there is not a country in the world where women enjoy full equality and where women are not placed in the humiliating position felt particularly in day-today family life. This was one of our first and most important tasks”.[12]

 

This speech shows that the Bolsheviks’ support for the emancipation of women was not an empty promise. In the new society that the Bolsheviks envisioned, there was no place for economic, social, ethnic or sexual exclusion. In this vision, the role of women was drastically transformed and they were to play a central role in the economic and political reconstruction of society. With this, women were no longer bound to “petty and stultifying domestic chores to which they had traditionally been confined”.[13] The burden of the household would shift from the individual to the collective. Children were to be raised in public institutions in which they could learn collective values and behavior. With the economic independence of the women, the relation between men and female would change. A degree from the Bolsheviks called de facto marriage made sure that women were regarded as equals within and outside of marriage. Marriage would be a free association of equal partners. The new Soviet government implemented “a series of decrees and proclamations that attacked the economic, legal, political, and social bases of existing institutions at one stroke and promised the racial reconstruction of Russian society on new foundations”.[14]

With the focus on the emancipation of women, this blogpost shows an aspect of the Russian Revolution that is not mentioned in the analyzed history textbooks. However, you cannot look at the Bolshevik vision of female emancipation without giving voice to women themselves. What did Russian women make of this ideal of the Bolsheviks?

 

“The period that women advanced”[15]

One of the best known ‘Bolshevik women’ was Aleksandra Kollontai. Kollontai came from an upper-class background and joined the party in 1898 because she believed that socialism would offer women their freedom. “The October Revolution gave women rights. Life authoritatively pushed the broad female masses to use them, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of the Soviet Union”, she proclaimed.[16] Kollontai was not the only women that could confirm this statement. One of the success stories of the Revolution is Sofia Pavlova. Her family was already connected to the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. So naturally, she explains, Sofia became attached to the cause as well and rapidly moved upwards in de party hierarchy. She states: “We assembled women, we told them what Soviet power was, what it did … They listened with interest. For the most part, listened with interest and responded with interest”.[17] With regard to women’s emancipation in the Soviet Period she continues: “it was precisely in this period that women advanced. It was in the Soviet period that this happened.”[18]

Elena Ponomarenko was born in Ukraine but moved twice to Siberia because her father did not have enough land to support his big family of 17 children. However, no matter what he did, the family did not seem to escape poverty. The story of Ponomarenko shows that the Revolution also offered possibilities for the less fortunate. Even though her family was victim of the new system, she was able to built a career for herself as a journalist.[19] For her the Russian Revolution saved her life: “When the Revolution came, there was this new order, and somehow we started to find work and started to live much better. Death was no longer at our door”.[20]

Elena Dolgikh was a Siberian teacher, mother of three kids and a member of the Communist party. Terrible poverty drove Elena in the arms of the party, for members were offered a chance of professional advancement and a higher salary. She explains that she eventually became “a school inspector for the lower grades. And you know how it was: In order to hold such a position, you absolutely had to be a communist … I wanted so much to keep the work. Look, I’d already been appointed an inspector! The head of the district office of education knew me in this job and valued me, and so I had to become a party member … They kept urging me to join. I would have held out, but then I wouldn’t have been allowed to remain an inspector, because you couldn’t hold that job if you weren’t a party member”.[21]

 

“The coming of the Antichrist”[22]

However, not all women were embracing the new ideals of the Bolsheviks when it came to female emancipation. Historian Barbara Evans Clements stated that the Revolution was recognized as dangerous for many peasant and working class women: “the period of the Russian Revolution was for women, as for men, a time of paradox, in which the lavish promises of the new government were accompanied by enormous deprivation and frightening social disintegration. However, the chaos of Revolution held a particular danger for working-class and peasant women, because it threatened to strip away all their traditional defenses, leaving them-often illiterate and burdened with children-to cope with a world at war”.[23] This often put them in a precarious situation.

Anna Dubova was part of a large peasant family that lived in the West of Russia during the Revolution of 1917. She was one of the many peasant women (and men) that left their village to be part of the Soviet Union’s great industrialization drive. Because her family was seen as enemies of the Revolution (Kulak) she had to marry someone in the party to gain a normal life. A Kulak was a wealthy or prosperous peasant, who owned a large farm, a lot of ground and was financially capable of employing hard labor. Kulaks were important figures in peasant villages before the Russian Revolution. After the Revolution the Kulaks were presented as capitalist class enemies of the new Socialist state.[24] Dubova believes that the opportunities that the Revolution offered to women were not enough to make up for the way of life she had to give up. If the Socialist Revolution had not occurred, she was sure that life would have been better. “I would have lived on the fruits of my labor. Our level of civilization would have been higher, and everyone would have been better off materially, too”, Dubova explains.[25] Her grandmother even proclaimed that a new tsar had come to power and that he was the Antichrist. [26]

These negative feelings were shared by many women. Especially the new degree of de facto marriage sparked fierce opposition by many peasant women. It was seen as an intrusion to the way of life they embraced. The household as it was, was an important economic unit and it depended on men and women all together. A peasant women proclaimed: “yes it is all very well to talk about divorce but how could I feed my children? Two is better than one when it comes to that. Alimony? Yes, I know about that – but what good would that do to me when I know my husband has nothing in his pocket to pay me. And if my husband goes away, or if I get land somewhere else, how can I work the land alone? Together we can manage somehow”.[27]

To educate people, training was given to those who could not read or write. When asked about this program, a peasant woman answered: “I didn’t have the time, I worked. They wanted me to come. I went there, two or three times. I learned the letters— A, B, C, D. That was enough. Well, I can scratch out my name”.[28] She explains her life was not easier after the Revolution. ” Then my husbands left me with kids to raise on my own. I was desperate, starving. I would gather rotten potatoes, mash them up, feed the children”.[29] When asked if her life would have been different without the Revolution, she answers: “I can’t say how. I don’t know whether things were good or bad under Nicky [Tsar Nicholas II]. It seems to me that things were good. We had animals, our barnyard was full, the granary was full of grain”.[30]

 

Conclusion

As stated above: “Revolutions generate myths”. The myth the Bolsheviks emphasized is that their new Socialist state benefitted all women. However, this blogpost shows that the Bolshevik version of female emancipation was a complex situation. Some women prospered, but eyewitness testimonies show that these were all women that were connected to the Communist party, voluntarily or forced. Women that were not connected to the cause did not all benefit from the new Socialist state. Especially working class and peasant women seemed to be victims rather than victors of the Revolution. The testimonies show that female emancipation by the Bolsheviks was only partly embraced and successful. This shows that the history of the emancipation of woman as the consequence of the Russian Revolution has many facets and the same goes for every historical event that is been taught to students. Adding multiperspectivity to a historical case shows this complexity. It shows that there are multiple actors within a historical event and all of them experience it differently. Historical events are always a cluster of multiple viewpoints and should be explained as this.

 

 

 

 

[1] Kim Ligtenberg, “What is Multiperspectivity?”, TEH21, Teaching European History in the 21st Century | What is multiperspectivity? (uu.nl).

[2] The Revolution took place, according to the modern Gregorian calendar, on the 7th of November. At that time in Russia, the Julian Calendar was being used and according to this calendar the day of the Revolution is 25th of October. That is why it is still called the October Revolution.

[3] Rhys Crilley, Marie Gillespie, and Alistair Willis, ‘Tweeting the Russian Revolution: RT’s #1917LIVE and Social Media Re-Enactments as Public Diplomacy’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 23, no. 3 (1 June 2020): 354–73.

[4] ‘Vladimir Lenin’ @VLenin_1917, Twitter, December 17th, 2017 (4) Vladimir Lenin on Twitter: “Soviet state to become first to introduce guaranteed maternity leave and benefits! Instructed Labor Commissariat to elaborate bill #1917LIVE” / Twitter.

[5] Thomas F.X. Noble et al., Western Civilization. Beyond Boundaries (Wadsworth: Cengage Learning, 2014) 722-25; Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters. A Global Perspective on the Past, 5th ed. (New York: Mc Graw Hill, 2011) 778-9.

[6] Noble et al., Western Civilization, 725.

[7] Beatrice Brodsky Farnsworth, ‘Bolshevism, the Woman Question, and Aleksandra Kollontai’, American Historical Review 81, no. 2 (April 1976): 292, https://doi.org/10.2307/1851172.

[8] Anne Bobroff, ‘The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905-20’, Soviet Studies 26, no. 4 (1974): 540–67, there 541.

[9] Bobroff, ‘The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905-20’, 542.

[10] International Museum for Women, “Emancipated Women – Build up Socialism! Propaganda Posters in communist Russia”. Emancipated Woman – Build Up Socialism! | International Museum of Women (globalfundforwomen.org).

[11] International Museum for Women, “Emancipated Women – Build up Socialism! Propaganda Posters in communist Russia”. Emancipated Woman – Build Up Socialism! | International Museum of Women (globalfundforwomen.org).

[12] Vladimir Lenin, “The task of the Working Women’s Movement in the Soviet Republic”, Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002.

[13] Gail Warshofsky Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society. Equality, Development, and Social Change (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) 55.

[14] Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society, 57.

[15] Barbara Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, UNITED STATES: Taylor & Francis Group, 1997) 169.

[16] Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society, 66.

[17] Barbara Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, UNITED STATES: Taylor & Francis Group, 1997) 136.

[18] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own, 169.

[19] Ibid, 278-80.

[20] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own, 183.

[21] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own, 345-47.

[22] Ibid, 53 .

[23] Barbara Evans Clements, ‘Working-Class and Peasant Women in the Russian Revolution, 1917-1923’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 8, no. 2 (December 1982): 215–35, there: 216.

[24] History Pod, ““27th December, 1929: Stalin calls for the ‘liquidation of the Kulaks as a class’”, December 2018, 27th December 1929: Stalin calls for the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’ – YouTube.

[25] Barbara Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder,Taylor & Francis Group, 1997) 55.

[26] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own, 65.

[27] Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society. Equality, Development, and Social Change, 92.

[28] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, A Revolution of Their Own, 267.

[29] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, 269.

[30] Engel and Posadskaya-vanderbeck, 271.