Soviet Russia and women’s emancipation

Just how much progress was made in the fight for equality? Anne McShane focuses in particular on central Asia

The early Soviet republic is well known for introducing wide-ranging and unprecedented equality for women. However, far less is known about the efforts made to realise this equality. My own understanding until relatively recently was that actually not a great deal had been achieved in material terms. It was not until I began to study the Zhenotdel, the women’s bureau of the Communist Party, that I became aware of how wrong I had been.

Discovering the Zhenotdel’s journal Kommunistka was like finding buried treasure. It opened a unique window on the Soviet experience and the challenges facing it. For the first time I saw that the fight for women’s emancipation had been a real and living experience. The debates on women’s rights in the Soviet republic are hardly known outside academia, unlike those on the Workers Opposition and the Left Opposition. This gap in our knowledge means that we have an incomplete understanding of the revolution and the society which followed. It leaves this extraordinary experience - the apex of the struggle for women’s rights within revolutionary history - to feminist academics. That needs to be rectified.

Formation of the Zhenotdel

I have written already this year about the women’s movement in 1917.1 Firstly I want to repeat that, contrary to the claims of some academics, the Bolshevik Party did have mass support among the female working class. And in the heady days after the revolution these women looked to the Soviet government for radical transformation in their lives.

By summer 1918 it was evident that in reality little had changed. The burden of domestic labour and childcare had not shifted and discrimination in the workplace was endemic. In response, a conference of working and peasant women was convened in November 1918 under the leadership of Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollontai and Konkordiia Samoilova. At a similar event the previous year a proposal from Kollontai to set up a special women’s organisation had been rejected. It was argued at that time that such an initiative was superfluous and would become a feminist deviation. By 1918 this view had changed and leaders of the movement recognised that there would be little progress unless action was taken by those with a vested interest. Special commissions were created to represent working class and peasant women. These commissions began immediately to set up crèches and public canteens, and to agitate for maternity and other rights. Their existence led to the central committee taking a decision to set up the Zhenotdel in September 1919.

With the exception of Kollontai, the leaders of the Zhenotdel were all long-term Bolsheviks. Nadia Krupskaya was appointed editor of Kommunistka and Inessa Armand the first national secretary. These women were united by a view that revolutionary change necessitated action to transform traditional relations within the family. Important influences on this layer included the writing of Frederick Engels and August Bebel on the family under primitive communism. Klara Zetkin - trailblazer for women’s rights both in the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Second International - was a major inspiration, friend of the bureau and contributor to Kommunistka. As editor of Die Gleichheit, the women’s journal of the SDP, and one of the leaders of Frauenbewegung, the women’s movement, Zetkin believed that all communist parties needed a special women’s section. She drafted theses for the Second Congress of the Third International in 1921 to commit all parties to create their own Zhenotdel.2

The immediate question for the Zhenotdel was the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare. This had been put forward by Engels and Bebel as a necessary step for a workers’ state and was therefore an accepted part of Bolshevik orthodoxy. However, the stumbling block was whether immediate measures should be taken or whether socialisation would develop at a later, more productive, stage of socialism.

The leaders of the Zhenotdel very much supported the former view. They believed that, unless women were drawn into the project at the beginning, an extremely distorted form of socialism would result. Armand, Samoilova and Krupskaya had been involved for many years in pursuing women’s rights: in the Bolshevik women’s journal Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) of 1914 and 1917, in writing pamphlets and in organising among the working class in St Petersburg and Moscow. Kollontai worked closely with Klara Zetkin in the SDP and the women’s secretariat of the Second International. She was known as a leading advocate and had written a number of pamphlets and books, many of which were republished after the revolution.

For them feminism was a bourgeois ideology, which did not deal with the need to transcend the oppression implicit in class society - Kollontai in particular had been a fierce opponent of the reformist women’s movement in Russia. They shared the belief that women’s emancipation would be realised in a successful transition to a stateless society. However, this did not imply passivity. It meant ensuring that women’s rights were closely interconnected with all aspects of building socialism. The journal featured articles from the international struggle for women’s rights and sought to organise these struggles within Comintern.

The Zhenotdel was a bureau of the central committee and considered itself a loyal and committed part of the Russian party. Delegates from factories, government workplaces and collectives attended meetings several times a month, where they “heard reports by Zhenotdel instructors on political issues, on the work of local soviets and on practical issues, such as establishing crèches in factories where women worked”.3 The aim was to facilitate women’s full involvement in the civil war effort by setting up support systems. Delegates divided up the tasks of approaching organisations to seek help in setting up canteens and nurseries.

Also an internship scheme was connected to the delegate meetings, and women would be sent to various government departments, soviets, trade unions and party organisations to train for a period of three-six months in administration. The interns would then report back and replacements would be chosen. There was a particular emphasis within this model on being flexible and accountable and on working closely with other Soviet organisations.

Problems with acceptance

There are many reports that delegates found it impossible to convince male comrades and trade unionists of the benefits of their work. Interns were often treated as a nuisance or made to carry out menial duties. Samoilova complained that male comrades “still exhibited a lot of prejudice towards the Zhenotdel”, most feeling that “it was beneath their dignity” to associate with it.4 This was despite the bureau being a department of the central committee.

Lenin admitted in an interview with Zetkin in 1920 that “unfortunately we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the communist and a philistine appears’. To be sure, you have to scratch their sensitive spots - such as their mentality regarding women”, which was that of the “slave-owners”.5 Despite formal commitment to women’s emancipation, many Bolshevik men, including leading members, still saw women as inferior and women’s issues as trivial or irrelevant.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921 exacerbated the difficulties of the Zhenotdel and profoundly weakened the organisation. It also lost two of its leading members within a year, with Armand falling victim to the cholera epidemic in September 1920 and Samoilova following her in June 1921. Kollontai succeeded Armand as national secretary and began a struggle against the negative impact of NEP on working class women.

Female unemployment spiralled in this period, as men returned from the civil war and reactionary attitudes on the role of women re-emerged with a vengeance - Kollontai’s novel Love of worker bees captures well the deep alienation felt by revolutionary women at that time. The Zhenotdel launched a campaign to form collectives and artels (cooperatives) among working women and to fight the mass redundancies taking place. Kollontai herself was immersed in the struggle of the Workers Opposition against the NEP throughout 1921.

In February 1922, following its defeat and the controversy which surrounded her attempts to bring the issue before Comintern, Kollontai narrowly escaped expulsion from the party. Instead her punishment was to be removed from her position as leader of the Zhenotdel and sent abroad in disgrace. This was a huge blow for her and for the bureau itself. It continued under the more conservative leadership of Sofia Smidovich, then Klavdiia Nikolaeva and Anna Artiukhina. All three had been active Bolsheviks and would never have considered themselves feminists in any way, despite being described as such by academics today. Their commitment lay in facilitating women’s emancipation as part of building socialism.

In March 1930 the bureau was closed down on the orders of Stalin. He claimed at the time that the woman’s question had been solved and that they would be liberated through the five-year plan. Instead of a special organisation, all comrades would fight for women’s equality. Of course, the opposite proved to be the case. Divorce, which had been made freely available in 1918, became virtually impossible under a 1936 decree. Abortion, which had also been legalised after the revolution, was banned, also in 1936. Homosexuality, which had been decriminalised, was recriminalised in 1933. Stalin’s project of Mother Russia pushed women back into forced childbirth and domestic drudgery, while not relieving them of their place in the Soviet industrial machine. The history of the rise and fall of the Zhenotdel is therefore crucial to an understanding of the character of the revolution and its demise.

My study of the Zhenotdel is focused on its work in central Asia in the 1920s. This experience throws light in particular on its attitude to working with veiled women within a traditional Muslim society. In contrast to the working class women of Moscow and Petrograd, the lives of their central Asian counterparts had remained largely untouched by events of 1917.

The Zhenotdel directed its main focus of work in the Uzbek region, where women remained largely secluded from the outside world. Here the entire strategy of the bureau was dictated by a belief that it was necessary to work with indigenous women in a safe and non-confrontational way. At the All-Russian Conference of Organisers among Women of the East in April 1921 Alexandra Kollontai put forward a resolution stating that the “best way to gather the isolated mass is through the creation of women’s clubs. Women’s clubs must act as models of how Soviet power can emancipate women in all aspects of their lives, once they engage with it”. They “should be schools where women are drawn to the Soviet project through their own self-activity and begin to cultivate the spirit of communism within themselves”.6

Women’s clubs

Women’s clubs in central Asia could not by their very nature have the same direct relationship with Soviet organs as delegate meetings. There could not be internship schemes, at least initially, because of seclusion and the cultural barriers that prevented men and women working together. Instead women would become involved in economic activity, education and cultural activities through the club.

The April 1921 conference stated that the bureau itself would provide the link to the soviets. It pledged to lead a campaign within the party “to strengthen the struggle against prejudice toward women, which has deep roots among men in the population”. The Zhenotdel committed itself to “assist the party to educate the male proletariat and peasantry in the spirit of communism and an acknowledgement of the shared interests of men and women”.

With the crisis in the bureau following Kollontai’s removal and the slashing of funds to it resulting from the NEP, work in central Asia virtually collapsed. Then in 1923 Serafima Liubimova, a supporter of Kollontai, was appointed regional secretary and relaunched the organisation at a conference in March of that year. Delegates agreed to “organise women’s clubs within which there will be artels, trade schools, elementary schools, libraries, crèches and other facilities to support women”. The model put forward was the Ali Bairamova club in Baku. According to a report from June 1922, this establishment provided a wide range of facilities for indigenous women, including medical consultations with a female doctor, a canteen, a crèche and kindergarten. Women were employed as trainees in book binding, weaving, sewing, shoe making and wool spinning artels on site. A school within the club offered classes in literacy and elementary education, as well as political propaganda. Finally there were social activities, including a drama group, a choir and dance classes.

Progress in central Asia began to be made in 1924 with the opening of a club in Tashkent by Nadia Krupskaya. The club, named after her, had an initial membership of 500 and was claimed to be popular with indigenous women - “every day hundreds of Muslim women stream into the club, to attend the medical consultations, the schools, the reading library and the children’s nursery”. Similar clubs were opened in Samarkand and Bukhara in August of that year. Writers in Kommunistka argued that “the creation of Muslim women’s clubs needs to be a core aspect of work to liberate the women of the east”.

By April 1925 the reported number of clubs in central Asia had increased to 13 and by September to 15, with the vast majority in the settled region of Uzbekistan. They were supplemented by women-only ‘red corners’ and ‘Lenin corners’, where there were insufficient resources to set up a special club. By 1926 it was reported that the number of clubs in central Asia had risen to 34 and the number of red corners in Uzbekistan to 90 - there were far fewer in the nomadic region of Turkmenistan. Club work also brought about major improvements in the health of women and children - a report noted that 71,000 women had attended medical consultations with a female doctor in Uzbekistan over a six-month period in 1925.

The centrality of clubs for secluded women was stressed very often in articles up to 1927. They “allowed women to move from an enclosed way of life into social and economic life within the club and then through links between the club and cooperatives, trade unions and soviets” into a role within society. Clubs “responded to the aspiration of the eastern woman awakening to revolution by allowing her to be involved in education, economic work and social activities while at the same time not putting her on a collision course with the local customs and way of life”. In November 1926 Liubimova was adamant that “it is beyond question that women’s clubs are an essential and unique form of party work among women”, being

distinct above all in that they organise eastern women through providing practical assistance to them and by closing entry to men. Therefore they provide the possibility for secluded women to go freely to the club, to uncover her face and to feel as comfortable as she would in the women’s quarter.

It was essential for indigenous women to be in a safe environment. Unfortunately there was little real support from the central committee and “the majority of clubs huddle in old buildings needing repairs, with others only half built”. For Liubimova it was very clear that “the only reason the clubs are not better is lack of finance”.


Economic independence was agreed to be a central issue. In a resolution to the women’s secretariat of Comintern in 1921 on work among eastern women it was asserted that a woman must “be convinced through her own experience that the household economy and the old form of the family enslaved her, whereas work in the social sphere liberates her”. The April 1921 Eastern Conference adopted a strategy of setting up artels among women who had previously been producing handicrafts within the home. These artels would be based in clubs or be closely connected to them. Other women would be drawn into the clubs and given the possibility of becoming economically independent of their families.

Liubimova wrote in 1923 that initial efforts to set up artels had met with success, with a reported 4,000 handicraft women organised in Tashkent in 1921. However, the introduction of the NEP had resulted in “a loss of working capital and raw materials, which led to the frequent collapse of existing artels”. She claimed that, “while there has been a reduction in the number of women involved in production in Russia, in countries of the Soviet east the thin layer of proletarian women which had been present is now virtually non-existent”.She argued that from “the government’s point of view women’s artels do not justify themselves, as they need financing”. However, this narrow and short-termist view did not recognise the long-term benefits of involving women in the economy.

Despite problems of funding and opposition from local party members, the Zhenotdel fought to push forward and at a conference in 1924 delegates pledged “to set up an artel in every uyzed (district) over the summer period”. Plans were made to focus on carpet-making in Turkmenistan, cattle-herding in Kazakhstan, silk production and market gardening in Uzbekistan. There were also efforts to set up farming cooperatives in 1925. One fundamental, continuing problem was isolation, and the bureau tried to set up links with the General Cooperative Bank, the department of trade and trade unions. In an article for Women’s Day 1927, Liubimova demanded that “questions of ‘results and tasks’ of work among women be placed before all party cells and meetings, the Komsomol, trade unions and peasant meetings”. This would facilitate the “cooperation of women in silk-weaving, dairy farming and market gardening, with which women are already familiar”. However, by May of that year a comrade Bolshakov complained that “there has been no real attempt by the general cooperatives to do work with women. The situation is very bad despite there being a clear foundation on which to develop this work”.

All responsibility for work was left to the Zhenotdel, which was handicapped by underfunding, disorganisation and a lack of skilled workers. The inability of the artels to become financially viable meant that women were less likely to become involved. The perception of handicraft work as an inferior form of production also plagued artels. There was “a view that this is not equal to men’s work, as it is considered to be women’s work in the home. And women then do not have the ability to go to the market and sell their goods”. This last issue was, of course, a key obstacle to the project. Without an income from sales, both the women themselves and the artels remained penniless.

In the context of this extraordinarily difficult battle to make progress, the launch in late 1925 of the first women-only shop in Uzbekistan was an important breakthrough. Opened in Tashkent, it reportedly drew in 400 Uzbek women in its first weeks of operation, with a further eight shops being opened in the Tashkent district in the following weeks. Liubimova contended that the crucial reason behind the success of the initiative lay in the exclusion of men from the shops - “The absence of men means that a woman can remove her veil and talk with the staff, while at the same time selecting the goods she needs.” Formally part of the general consumer cooperative, the Zhenotdel was able to announce that there were 1,500 Uzbek women organised in cooperatives as of June 1926. By May 1927 there were 27 shops in Uzbekistan. The shops provided credit facilities to peasant women on favourable terms, with long-term instalment repayment schemes.

A conference of women’s shop managers was held and there were regular meetings in the shops to develop the cooperatives around them, together with ‘mother and baby corners’. The shops were successful in a way that clubs and artels had not been, because a real connection had been established with indigenous women. Women could now shop, sell their own goods and socialise in a comfortable and safe environment.

A comrade Butusova described in September 1927 how

Uzbek men look on the women’s shops with approval. They can freely allow their wives to go there, as it does not disrupt their traditional ways and they are not afraid that their wives will meet men. A woman can buy the goods she wants by viewing them unhindered by the veil. Thus women’s shops are the only public place where Uzbek men can freely allow their wives to visit.

In July 1926 Liubimova described a visit to a Tashkent shop where “women freely removed their veils, sold their own produce and selected the good they wanted to buy”. Also “there are readings and discussions of the journal Yangi Yol” - the Turkic-language journal of the Zhenotdel. She argued that the project should be extended to Turkmenistan: “women-only markets could be held, where women can bring their produce to sell and buy the goods they want for themselves”. Staff were either indigenous women or Russians who spoke the native languages.

The Hujum

In late 1926 the Central Asian Bureau of the Communist Party made a decision to launch a mass unveiling campaign, beginning on March 8 the following year. There are various analyses of the reasoning behind this campaign, known as the Hujum, meaning ‘Attack’. There is no doubt that it was in many ways a precursor to the five-year plan launched by Stalin. It aimed to eliminate the cultural norms of traditional peasant society, including religion and the seclusion of women ... at a stroke. Meetings of central Asian party members were held from December 1926 to unveil their wives. On March 8 1927 thousands of women took part in mass unveilings and demonstrations in cities and towns all over Uzbekistan. But despite promises of a new revolution led by women, it soon became clear that a deep wave of reaction had been provoked. The male indigenous population, led by the Muslim clergy, attacked, raped and killed thousands of unveiled women in the following weeks - and then again after a second campaign to coincide with May 1.

It is noteworthy that the first mention of the Hujum in Kommunistka was an article in August, which took the bureau to task for failing to respond adequately. Klavdiia Nikolaeva, an erstwhile supporter of Kollontai and by then a member of the Central Asian Bureau, argued that the Zhenotdel had “failed to act immediately to consolidate work with unveiled women and to draw them into its orbit”. Of course, the Zhenotdel’s strategy up to 1927 had not been focused on unveiling women. It also seems, based on Nikolaeva’s criticism and the lack of coverage of the Hujum in Kommunistka, that members had done little more than take part in the demonstrations on March 8 and May 1. And even these were not reported in the journal. In January 1928, Anna Artiukhina, national secretary of the Zhenotdel, admitted that the Hujum had not succeeded - “although more than 90,000 women removed their veils from March to May 1927, now between 80% and 90% of those women have reveiled”. She criticised not the Zhenotdel, but the Central Asian Bureau, for “treating the fight with the vestiges of patriarchy as a short-term project, within which it was only necessary to direct the energies of the party to March 8 and May 1”. Its effect had been to destroy the existing work of the Zhenotdel. Now “every club is empty and neglected, with no attendance at meetings”.

The most serious harm had been inflicted by the closure of the women’s shops. Artiukhina reported that “without the knowledge of the Zhenotdel leadership they were changed into general shops, allowing the involvement and entry of men on the orders of the cooperative organs”. They had given these orders using the excuse that there was no longer any need for separate shops, as women no longer wore a veil. In reality “the liquidation of women-only shops took place during the period of reveiling after May 1927”.The collapse of the clubs and the closure of the shops were major losses for the bureau and for the indigenous women who had gone to them. Artiukhina pointed out that many women were no longer able to go out for fear of attack and many previous supporters now harboured a deep distrust of the Soviet authorities.

A debate was launched by Krupskaya in the pages of Kommunistka in the run-up to the December 1928 all-union Conference of Workers among Women of the East. This was an unprecedented move, with meetings and conferences organised across Turkestan. There were plenty of criticisms of the way in which the campaign had been run. Liubimova was one of the leading voices pressing the Soviet government to pass a decree banning the veil. She believed that a decree would give women the confidence of knowing that the Soviet government defended them. It was

an urgent necessity, so that the eastern woman knows that she is not alone in the struggle against the vestiges of past slavery. It would provide her with all the support and benefits which came with Soviet power.

Conversely if no there was no legal ban, Islamic law would be used to direct women to veil and to direct that their husbands take action to force them to do so. While this view can be criticised, it must be understood as emanating from a perspective that saw the safety of indigenous women as the key priority.

The most significant contribution to the debate was a speech given by Nadia Krupskaya at the December conference. She criticised the ghettoisation of the woman question and the fact that it had become seen as the responsibility of the Zhenotdel alone. Male education was essential, so that there would be a united, “fully conscious struggle, aimed at the tasks on the way to full liberation”. She made clear that she was completely opposed to the Hujum - “I, of course, want the veil to go to hell like everybody else. But we don’t always get what we decree”. There must be no extreme actions like “imposing bans on christenings or religious weddings”. She argued that confronting religion in this way “would not produce anything good” and would only result in a backlash. We cannot “simply be anti-religious”. We need to see that “the church is very influential”. Direct “confrontation with it will produce no positive results”. If we see this struggle as a war then we should conduct a “step-by-step battle, rather than an all-out fight with the forces of reaction”.

Thus Krupskaya set out her opposition to change forced from above. In careful yet clear terms she argued against all simplistic notions. She made clear that there could not be a dead level applied to the peoples of the east. Conditions varied and so should tactics. Fundamentally tactics should be applied on the basis of winning over the population rather than alienating it or forcing it into submission. This, as she argued, could only produce negative results.

A new pressure on the Zhenotdel from 1928 was the first five-year plan, announced by Stalin at the 15th Party Congress in December 1927. Anna Nukrat, who had taken over the leadership of the Central Asian Bureau from 1926, was a Stalin loyalist. She demanded that all conservative attitudes had to be overcome forthwith. For Nukrat the failure of the Hujum could all be put down to the “enemies of the revolution” and a lazy response from the Zhenotdel. Now, however, there would be no more slackness. Nukrat argued that the seclusion of women was “the main obstacle to women applying to the labour exchange to look for work. It means that they are unable to work in the factories or workshops, be part of collectives or undertake technical courses”.

Women had to unveil and become part of the general workforce, rather than have special artels and shops created for them: “Komsomol members, party members, workers, pioneers and soviet members “all need to be drawn into the task of defending ‘courageous’ unveiled women”. To assist with the safe transition of unveiled women to their workplaces, “special groups of men should be selected from the youth”, who could supervise districts, factories and other establishments to prevent any attacks on these women. Indigenous women had to fit into this new society and no concessions would be made.


In this article I have attempted to provide a glimpse of the efforts made to take the emancipation of women forward in the Soviet republic. I believe that many of the issues involved in this struggle are extremely important for us today. The attitude to unveiling, the question of women-only organisation and the attitude of men to women’s questions remain highly relevant in 2017.

Discussion of the experience of the revolution has to go beyond analysis of debates between Lenin, Trotsky and other male members of the central committee. Examining the efforts to make progress on the woman question and other cultural and social questions will provide valuable new insights into the nature of the Soviet state.

For those of us who see this revolution as the highpoint of human struggle this approach is essential.



1. ‘The inferno erupts’ Weekly Worker March 2 2017.

2. C Zetkin, ‘Guidelines for the communist women’s movement’ (translation by Ben Lewis of ‘Kunst und Proletariat’) Revolutionary History No1, 2015, pp 42-61. For the theses adopted by the Third Congress see also ‘Methods and forms of work among women’ in A Holt and B Holland (translators) Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980.

3. RC Ellwood Inessa Armand: revolutionary and feminist Cambridge 1992, p247.

4. CE Hayden, ‘The Zhenodel and the Bolshevik Party Russian History Vol 3, No1, 1976.

5. C Zetkin, ‘Lenin on the woman question’: www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1920/lenin/zetkin1.htm.