A barometer of progress

NEP had profoundly negative results for the struggle for women’s emancipation, writes Anne McShane.

At Communist University last year I spoke on the status of women as a barometer of social progress in the early Soviet Republic. I mapped out the breakthroughs that had been made in terms of equality, the challenges to the traditional role of women within the family and society, and the chasm between legal equality and reality.

In particular I argued that the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 marked a major retreat in terms of previous commitments to emancipation. It reversed many of the gains that had been made and created a divergence between the stated progressive aims of the revolution and the fact that soviet society was in fact moving backwards. This was reflected in particular in the contradictory operation of family law and the shifts in emphasis from 1918 to 1926.

There is no doubt that the laws introduced after the revolution were unprecedented. The 1918 code on ‘Marriage, the family and guardianship’ was a revolutionary document. It was designed to create the space for the development of new social relationships in the transition to communism. It had its roots in the ideas of August Bebel and Friedrich Engels on the need for socialist society to supersede the patriarchal family and collectivise all forms of social activity and need.

The code deprived religious marriage of any special legal standing and introduced civil registration. It opened civil marriage up to monks and nuns, including the Catholic clergy. It also provided for divorce on the request of either partner. Abortion was legalised and adoption banned. A newly married couple could use the surname of either husband or wife. Either spouse was entitled to alimony if he or she were incapacitated for work and in a state of need. The code stated that husbands and wives had no obligation to live together. There was no legal property of the marriage and each were entitled to retain their own possessions.

The code contrasted sharply with the previous position of women under tsarist laws, which required wives to love, respect and obey their husbands as the head of the family. Women had been the property of the marriage. Now their legal equality would be reflected in the new relationships they could enter into. The 1918 code abolished illegitimacy as a legal category. All children were entitled to the same rights, whether they were born within or outside a registered marriage. A pregnant, unmarried woman could register the name of her child’s father three months prior to birth. If the father did not appeal, he was held responsible for the child’s future support. In cases where paternity was not clear, all the men involved were jointly responsible for the child’s support. The latter regulation, along with the abolition of adoption, was aimed at introducing the concept of communal responsibility for children.

The drafters of the code believed it would clear the way for profound changes within the family, by providing new rights and freedoms and undercutting the power of the church. And there is certainly evidence of success, as civil marriage proved immediately popular with the urban working class, with a large take-up in 1918, which then doubled in 1919. By 1924, the declining number of religious marriages, along with the increase in civil registration, revealed the diminished power of the church. The new civil procedures in family law also made inroads in rural areas. By 1925 11,500 family registration offices had been established in urban areas and 525 in the countryside.


The establishment of the Zhenotdel (women’s section) of the Russian Communist Party in September 1919 was critical in popularising the new code. As I have previously written, Zhenotdel leaders had a collective commitment to the supersession of the traditional form of the family as an integral part of developing socialism. And this meant that its members actively fought to make the 1918 code and other liberatory legislation a reality for soviet women.

In 1908 Alexandra Kollontai had written in the Social basis of the woman question:

To become really free woman has to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of the family, which are outmoded and oppressive. For women, the solution of the family question is no less important than the achievement of political equality and economic independence.

In her view “Only a whole number of fundamental reforms in the sphere of social relations - reforms transposing obligations from the family to society and the state - could create a situation where the principle of ‘free love’ might to some extent be fulfilled.”1

It should be noted that Kollontai’s concept of ‘free love’ was love free from legal and economic dependency. It meant that men and women could live apart if they so wished and that women did not have to depend on men as wage-earners to maintain themselves and their children. It meant that women were not enslaved by domestic labour and childcare. It did not mean, as is often alleged, that she was promoting promiscuity or a sexual free-for-all. It must be said that Lenin’s reported rather narrow and prissy criticism of her views has done her reputation a great disservice.

Kollontai’s commitment to developing the means to achieve the supersession of the family was evident in her actions, when she was appointed commissar for welfare after the October revolution - the first woman in history to become a member of a government. She introduced a series of measures to socialise supports for women and children, including setting up mother-and-baby homes, crèches and medical consultation centres. The Department for the Protection of Mother and Child was created in December 1917. Kollontai reported in 1918: “The soviet government is the first government in the world to officially and legally recognise maternity as one of the social functions of women and, basing itself on the fact that in a republic of working people women will always have this particular labour obligation towards society …”2 While her view that women were fulfilling a social obligation by having children seems a little rigid, there is no doubt of the progressive implications of the soviets taking collective responsibility for maternity, public health and childcare.

Women had entered the workforce en masse during the war and by 1917 constituted nearly half of all workers. During 1917 a large number of initiatives were taken by Bolshevik women to set up workplace nurseries and canteens and to campaign for protections for working women. The journal Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) became the organising centre for work and set up factory and district meetings. However, in the first year after the revolution it became clear that insufficient attention was being directed towards developing the socialisation of domestic labour and women’s rights. In order to address this problem the first all-Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women was organised in November 1918. Almost 1,200 delegates attended from newly formed women’s commissions, set up right across the soviet state. It discussed the major questions facing women at that time. These included mobilisation of women for the civil war, the participation of women in the party, trade unions and the soviets, education, social welfare and the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare. This congress created women’s commissions, which were consolidated in the Zhenotdel the following year.

A decree had been issued in late 1917 for public canteens to be set up. Leaders of Zhenotdel encouraged women to take advantage of these new amenities. At the 1918 congress Kollontai argued that these canteens had to be extended and made use of. Now, “instead of bothering with cooking, of wasting one’s last free hours in the kitchen preparing suppers and dinners, in the communist society, public cafeterias and central kitchens will be widely established”. She concluded: “Communism will liberate woman from domestic slavery, so that her life can be richer, fuller, happier and freer.”3 The women’s commissions and Zhenotdel put considerable energy into making public nutrition a reality. By 1919 there were 3,000 public canteens in Moscow and Petrograd. By 1920 more than 12 million members of the urban population ate in public canteens. Work was also focused on housing and in Moscow 40% of all housing was communal.

Inessa Armand, the first director of the Zhenotdel, took an active role in developing women’s participation as equals within the workplace and soviets. She created delegate meetings as a unique form of organisation for working women. Delegates were elected from meetings to serve for short periods as apprentices in government and factories, and also to perform ‘useful work’ in constructing soviet society. Therefore delegates were very involved in setting up crèches, schools, public canteens, hospitals, maternity provision, children’s homes and adult literacy classes. Delegates were also sometimes seconded to the people’s courts and even served as judges. The aim was to educate women in administration and the running of soviet society alongside men, as well as to develop forms of organisation necessary to socialise tasks previously undertaken by women within the domestic sphere. Delegate meetings were prohibited from being permanent forms of organisation in order to prevent the women’s movement from becoming isolated from the rest of the working class. The aim was for working class women to become integrated as equals into soviet society.

Zhenotdel also issued an instruction for all workplaces to have at least one delegate included in the factory inspectorate, to ensure that women’s working conditions were safeguarded. It mobilised women to support the soviet government in the civil war, where they played an integral role. Women joined the Red Army, primarily in the political departments, although some also took part in military combat. Women were involved as medical personnel, in communications, in campaigns against desertion and epidemics. As men were mobilised, women took their places in factories and broadened their participation in differing parts of the workforce. With the introduction of labour conscription at the 9th Congress of the Communist Party in 1920, Zhenotdel began to convene broad-based women’s conferences to organise women’s contribution and representation more effectively. Its leaders demanded that women could not be expected to participate without full workplace protections, childcare facilities and socialised domestic labour. In order for women to be part of the collective effort, they had to be treated as equals.

Kollontai took over as director of Zhenotdel in September 1920 following the death of Inessa Armand. She aimed to build on the achievements that had been made in the first year of the organisation’s existence and in fact to push the agenda for women’s rights more aggressively. In particular Kollontai prioritised the greater socialisation of childcare and domestic labour, giving working women the freedom to take part in all aspects of political and social life alongside men. A pledge to fight for the mass development of socialisation and women’s rights was endorsed by Zhenotdel in late 1920.

However, that pledge was never acted upon. Kollontai had battled against the introduction of NEP and played a leading role in the Workers’ Opposition, which launched a factional battle against Lenin’s leadership. The defeat of the Workers’ Opposition at the 11th Party Congress in 1921 led to Kollontai’s political and personal humiliation, her removal as Zhenotdel director and banishment abroad to the diplomatic corps. Her successor, Sofia Smidovich, was a far more cautious and pragmatic individual, whose main role was to defend vulnerable women and fight for Zhenotdel’s survival in NEP conditions.


Soviet society was in severe crisis, as the civil war came to a close in 1921. Seven million homeless children roamed the towns and the countryside. The huge increase in war orphans was something that was unforeseen and the soviet government was at a loss as to how to cope. Zhenotdel activists and others campaigned to set up children’s homes in that period, but the problem was not easily solved in a situation where the economy was in ruins. There was also a major breakdown in family structures. Husbands and partners had left for the war and never returned, leaving women to cope as single parents. Kollontai and her supporters had argued that there should be no retreat from the commitment to women’s emancipation in these new conditions. However, their calls went unheard in the rush to find stability.

NEP, whereby market forces were introduced to some parts of the economy, alongside a scaling down of state welfare and subsidies, was a major setback for Zhenotdel and for the mass of working women. With the partial restoration of the market, many factories closed, swelling the numbers of unemployed. Men returning from war demanded their jobs back and women found themselves out of work. Seventy percent of initial job cutbacks involved women. The government withdrew its support for childcare facilities and children’s homes. Massive poverty, disruption and dislocation suffused every area of social life. Prostitution re-emerged as a serious social problem with mass female unemployment.

The pages of Kommunistka - Zhenotdel’s activist journal - contained numerous articles bemoaning the re-emergence of reactionary attitudes toward women, their expulsion from the workplace, and the undervaluing of the Zhenotdel’s local initiatives, such as the canteens and cooperatives referred to above. Zhenotdel activists argued that by prioritising NEP the party leadership had sent out a signal that women’s rights would not be defended. They struggled to cope, as the sense of making progress receded quickly with the mass expulsion of women from factories. Zhenotdel tried to fill the gap with its own initiatives to provide economic independence. It set up small cooperatives, known as artels, to employ women and campaigned for jobs for women through labour exchanges. Yet even these were hampered by cuts in funding for communal facilities, such as childcare and public canteens. Lack of state subsidies meant that Zhenotdel had to rely on its own efforts - made even more difficult by serious cuts in staff and funding.

Zhenotdel activists also engaged in a ceaseless fight against liquidation. Regional and factory party committees continuously decreed the closure of Zhenotdel branches. Smidovich finally resigned in 1924, no doubt demoralised by the impossibility of her task. Her successor, Klavdiia Nikolaeva, a former supporter of Kollontai, became involved with the anti-Stalin Leningrad Opposition, led by Grigory Zinoviev. In a purge of all Zinoviev supporters after 1925, Nikolaeva was removed from her position as director. The last director of the organisation, Anna Artiukhina, continued the fight for the survival of Zhenotdel until Stalin closed it down in 1930, with the declaration that a separate national organisation for work among women was ‘no longer necessary’. The status of the organisation in the eyes of the leadership of the party by this time was clearly extremely low. It was also seen as a danger, because its members continued to make calls for the formal commitment to women’s rights to be honoured in practice. There were also moves towards more autonomy among some sections. All of this had to be clamped down on by the leadership under Stalin.

While it is easy to criticise Stalin for his part in the dismantling of women’s rights and the Zhenotdel, it is often far harder to blame Lenin’s party of 1921 for its role in undermining the organisation. However, it is undeniable that the introduction of the NEP was a huge defeat for women’s rights. The reactionary ideological shift which accompanied it is clear in Kommunistka, which set itself the task of fighting against what it described as a new threat to the revolution. In Love of the worker bees - written in Norway, where she had been dispatched to prevent her organising any further opposition - Kollontai expressed her deep anger at the Nepmen, the profiteers and the growth of prostitution. Her characters are independent women, factory and party workers, who had busy and fulfilling lives in the first years after the revolution, but who found themselves dragged back to the boredom and oppression of the family with NEP, which was a complete disaster for women.

Family code

Along with the growth of registered marriages in the early 1920s, there was also an upsurge in the number of what were described as unregistered marriages. These were either fleeting relationships or situations where the parties had not decided to register their union. There was some discussion about whether de facto marriages were an indication of the movement towards socialism, of new freedoms being embraced by the country’s citizens. However, the reality was far more contradictory. A key problem was that under the 1918 code women in unregistered marriages did not have the same rights to alimony (spousal maintenance) from their former partner as those in registered marriages. This created a serious social problem in circumstances of high female unemployment, and led to high levels of poverty and prostitution. A study of claims for maintenance by women in 1925 revealed that 45% of them had been in unregistered marriages.4

A decision was made to reform the 1918 code in order to deal with this crisis and a debate took place in 1925 on what reforms were needed. The end result was a piecemeal attempt to bring stability to the family situation and shift responsibility for maintaining the unemployed and needy from the state to the individual - usually a male worker. Although divorce was made easier than it had been under the 1918 code, all other measures were far more conservative.

The 1926 code provided for state recognition of de facto marriage as the juridical equal of registered marriage, especially in regard to property and alimony. This caused some controversy, especially among the peasantry, as it was seen as creating onerous obligations on families to care for women who were not officially part of the household. Some radicals proclaimed it as an indication of marriage as an institution becoming obsolete. However, in reality the decision to give legal recognition to unregistered marriage was an attempt to recreate marital bonds, not remove them. If it had been the Soviet government that had taken responsibility for women and children in unregistered marriages, then it would have been a very different matter. But the responsibility was on the individual - usually a man. And women now had to seek maintenance from men.

There was also a shift away from the principle of separate property set out in the 1918 code and the establishment of joint ownership of property acquired in the course of marriage. This reintroduced concepts of marital property that had been done away with as one of the first acts of the revolution. It made divorce far more difficult for both men and women. The alimony provision was expanded to cover unemployed spouses. This was directly aimed at meeting the needs of the jobless, the abandoned de facto wife or the woman who had been unemployed during the period of her marriage, enabling these women to claim part of their husband’s earnings in case of divorce or abandonment. The 1926 code overturned the doctrine of collective paternity and made it necessary to prove sole paternity for child maintenance. It also reversed the 1918 code on adoption and actually promoted adoption as a way to care for the homeless war orphans. It also expanded those entitled to claim alimony to include grandparents, parents and siblings of the worker concerned.

Kollontai returned briefly from Norway to take part in the debate on the 1926 code. She opposed the increased obligations to pay alimony and argued instead for the establishment of a state insurance scheme, which would be contributed to by all workers. This scheme would help fund childcare facilities and also provide economic support to women who could not work. Kollontai was completely opposed to the concept of alimony and argued that it reinforced women’s dependence and economic weakness. A national insurance fund would remove the friction between separating couples and be a collective solution for those in need. Her proposal was widely discussed, but not adopted.5

Kollontai was in a battle not only against the party leadership over the 1926 code, but also against the Zhenotdel leadership. Former director Sofia Smidovich led a campaign of support for the extension of obligations on men to pay alimony. She believed that men who walked away from relationships were irresponsible and had to be forced to pay for it. And, with many thousands of women left abandoned, her view was understandable. The new rights afforded to women under the 1918 code had not protected them from life under NEP. Her motivation was to protect these women.

The 1926 code was an act of pragmatism, designed to assist those most in need as a result of the civil war and NEP. However, it undermined the principle of collective responsibility that was at the core of the 1918 law and was a clear retreat from revolutionary principles. It put responsibility for women and children back with the institution of the family and thus signalled a change in direction for family law. It appears to me that Kollontai’s proposal for a state insurance scheme was not a utopian one. However, the political environment had clearly become far more conservative and her views were very much out of kilter.

The 1926 code strengthened conservatism and paved the way for even greater retreats: Stalin’s 1936 code was, of course, qualitatively worse from the point of view of women. It banned abortion, making it a criminal offence. It also placed tight restrictions on divorce. It stiffened criminal penalties for men who refused to pay alimony or child support. It set minimum levels for child support at one-third of a defendant's salary for one child, 50% for two children, and 60% for three or more, increasing the penalty for non-payment to two years in prison. It was part of a longer and larger public campaign to promote ‘family responsibility’. But the concept of family responsibility had its roots in the legal retreats of a decade earlier.

Balance sheet

My talk at Communist University and this article are not aimed at putting the Bolsheviks on trial for their failures on the woman question. I am also not attempting to rewrite history or to suggest that this or that scheme would have ensured that the aim of transcending the family and emancipating women remained at the heart of the soviet project. There is no doubt that the revolution was in serious difficulties from the beginning, as it took place in such an underdeveloped country with a small working class. Its weakness became compounded by its isolation. The courageous fight of its working class in the civil war led to its decimation and huge social dislocation and suffering. It was inevitable that there would be retreats.

But these retreats were hugely damaging in terms of the nature of society. NEP may have been the only option and it did have some limited success in regenerating the economy. But its effects were to exclude women from the workplace and society at large and to demoralise and ultimately destroy the Zhenotdel. If Marxism is about social and political transformation, then this must be seen as a major issue.

And there were alternatives to the mass expulsion of women from the workplace. There was the possibility of part-time work to keep both women and men in employment, of developing cooperatives and other forms of social production. There was the possibility of promoting women’s involvement in work and public life. Instead Zhenotdel found itself shut out of the key debates and its proposals for collective forms of production and socialised forms were ignored. Equally the 1926 code did not have to reverse the 1918 version so comprehensively, and in particular to put so much emphasis on individual responsibility.

The decisions made by Lenin’s party in 1921 had profound negative implications for the struggle for women’s emancipation. I believe that we need to examine those implications to understand in particular how the NEP affected the soviet project. We need to be critical in order to understand the experience more profoundly and in particular to understand the importance of the woman question for socialism.

  1. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1918/steps-motherhood.htm.↩︎

  3. A Kollontai, ‘The family and the communist state’ in Bolshevik visions: first phase of the cultural revolution in Soviet Russia Michigan 1990.↩︎

  4. W Goldman Women, the state and revolution: Soviet family policy and social life 1917-1936, Cambridge 1993, pp133-34.↩︎

  5. Much of the information about the 1926 code is taken from Wendy Goldman’s ‘Freedom and its consequences: the debate on the Soviet family code of 1926’ Russian History Vol 4, No11, winter 1984.↩︎