| No revolution without womens liberation | MR Online

Sex, liberation and the Russian Revolution

Originally published: Rupture on March 8, 2024 by Jason Yanowitz (more by Rupture) (Posted Mar 16, 2024)

All Russia was learning to read and reading; politics, economics, history. Because the people wanted to know. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water. Insatiable.

There was another limitless appetite Russia had at the time. It could be considered the lubricant of the revolution. Pamphlets, magazines, manuals, and novel after novel after novel about sex. Literally tons of publications poured forth from the presses. Between 1917 and throughout the 1920s, sex debates, explorations and experiments spread across the country. Even Pravda printed articles on sex and carried huge debates in its letter pages with opinions that were all over the place. The paper didn’t usually weigh in, although in 1926 it did note with some disapproval,

Women’s underwear occupies an unnaturally large place in our literature.

In this debate there was a generational split. Although there were exceptions, the “old Bolsheviks” often took what today we would call a sex negative position, and younger comrades, the future of society, were much more interested in exploring their sexuality to its fullest. One student, Burakova, contributed to this debate. In a 1927 letter to the journal Red Students, she explained:

I feel that girls like us, while we still haven’t achieved full equality with guys, still have sense and vision. The Cinderellas are all gone. Our girls know very well what they want from a guy without any particular worries, many of them sleep with guys because of a healthy attraction. We are not objects or simpletons that guys should court girls, see and know whom they choose and with whom they sleep.

This is an extraordinary statement in a country where just ten years prior, abortion was outlawed, divorce almost impossible, gay men criminalised, gender identities fixed, and sex a shameful abomination unless you were rich. Suddenly, almost all of society could explore their sexuality. But just a few years after that letter was written, the Stalinist counter-revolution defeated almost every advance of those hopeful early days.

This article is about those advances, their limits and their rollback. My main argument is: On balance, the fledgling socialist country did more to liberate human sexuality and gender in a shorter period of time than any society since the rise of classes. Despite the serious political errors the country made, I believe those errors would have been corrected had there been the time and space for the organized voices of oppressed groups to develop and assert their rights. Stalinism destroyed that possibility. Before that, though, the Bolsheviks ensured that there was a wide, free ranging debate on these questions, even as they struggled to hold out for world socialist revolution. That came directly from their philosophy of the self-emancipation of the working class because they knew that future generations had to work out for themselves questions of everyday life and that the role of the state was to create a space for that process.

There are three areas this article will cover:

1. Women’s Liberation and its effect on people’s sex lives.

2. Queer Liberation with all its joy and limitations.

3. Counter-revolution destruction as the logic of Stalinism meant tearing it all back down.

| No revolution without womens liberation | MR OnlineNo revolution without women’s liberation

On 16 December 1917, just seven weeks after forming the world’s first workers’ state, the Supreme Soviet issued a proclamation abolishing religious marriage and allowing for easy divorce. The next month, they passed an even more comprehensive act, the Family Code of 1918. Prior to this, the only recognized marriages in Russia were performed in churches and the only way to get a divorce was if the church allowed it. One criterion to get a divorce was adultery. But in order to prove adultery, one had to have at least two additional witnesses, which raises a set of interesting questions (see page 49 & 50 of Women, the State and Revolution for more) .

The Soviet issued this proclamation at the very same time they were trying to end World War I, prevent a civil war, free the peasantry and kickstart industry. To understand why, we have to step back and look at their basic theory of women’s liberation. Socialists in Russia were building on the work of Marx, Engels, Babel, Zetkin and others (pg. 45 of the above). From its earliest days, Russian socialist propaganda argued for female equality (see pg. 277 of ‘The Bolsheviks and the Family’ for more on this). Of course, exactly what that meant and how to achieve it changed over time, particularly as working women began to assert themselves and make their own demands. However for almost all Russian socialists, the linchpin for the oppression of women was their virtual enslavement in the family (see page 210 of Bolshevik Women for more). Women were supposed to get married, stay monogamous and raise children. They would have no role in public life; their happiness and pleasure, irrelevant. In contrast, the Bolsheviks argued for relationships built on intellectual and emotional compatibility, not dependence and habit.

The head of the women’s department, Anessa Armand, explained in 1918 “As long as the old forms of the family, home life and child rearing are not abolished, it will be impossible to destroy exploitation and enslavement, it will be impossible to build socialism” (quote taken from page 489 of ‘The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel’). Enormous debates raged over how fast to move, what regulations to prioritize, and the precise role of the workers’ state in delivering liberation (see pg. 276 of the above). Among all debaters there was an amazing level of optimism. They truly felt they were storming the heavens. One of the biggest dividing lines was “how long will this take?” with the opposing sides disagreeing over a few months versus a few years!

The Family Code of 1918

It’s in this context that the workers’ state passed the Family Code of 1918, which, among other provisions guaranteed legal equality for women, eliminated legal status for religious marriage, granted divorce at the wish of either party, provided alimony for either sex, and abolished illegitimacy—all children were entitled to parental support. It separated familial responsibilities from marriage.

Today, this legislation looks incredibly progressive, but at the time, many thought it was reactionary. They thought it was a betrayal of the revolution. Some felt that there should be no concept of marriages. Roslavets, a Ukrainian woman delegate to the 1918 Supreme Soviet, said during the debate over the code “In the final analysis, we are moving the population away from a basic socialist understanding, [and] from the freedom of the individual and from the freedom of marriage relations as one of the conditions of individual freedom…[Marriage] is very significant for the capitalist state but [because] the interference of the state in the business of marriage, even in the form of registration which the Code suggests, is completely incomprehensible, not only in a socialist system, but in a transition.”

Others responded that it was an incremental step in the right direction, that one of the key next steps for liberation was to undermine the authority of the Church. And regardless, this was not a permanent state of affairs. A generally held opinion was that laws would not be around for too much longer. One of the authors of the code, Gokbach, said at the time, “Proletarian power constructs its codes and all of its laws dialectically, so that every day of their existence undermines the need for their existence.” Another jurist wrote “This is not socialist legislation, but legislation of a transitional time” (quoted on pg. 52 of the above). And throughout the 1920s there were minor and major revisions of the Family Code, all of which were accompanied with major debates. Throughout these debates, there’s a commonly held assumption: our main goal is to reduce the role of the state in people’s private lives.

The first year after the Code was passed, there was a massive spike in divorces. In Moscow went from essentially zero to 7,000 in 1918 (versus 6,000 marriages). A leading Bolshevik, Alexandra Kollontai, defended the changes that were happening at a women’s conference in March of 1918 (later published as a pamphlet), saying:

“the old family in which the man was everything and the woman nothing, the typical family, where the woman had no will of her own, no time of her own, and no money of her own, is changing before our very eyes. But there is no need for alarm. It is only our ignorance that leads us to think that the things we are used to can never change. Nothing could be less true than the saying; as it was, so it shall be. We only have to read how people lived in the past to see that everything is subject to change and that no customs, political organizations or moral principles are fixed and inviolable. In the course of history, the structure of the family has changed many times. It was once quite different than the family of today.”

You can see her articulating an uphill cultural battle that the Bolsheviks knew they were fighting with a layer of society, but they were committed to doing so. Part of what they were trying to do was drag along a segment of the population that had not yet been one to these ideas.

| Changing relationships | MR OnlineChanging relationships

These changes to the family and family structure led to many people completely changing how they approach their relationships. Among peasants, where the marriage rate was almost 100% courtship rituals started changing. One example: There used to be gatherings of young men and women to find their life partners and at those there were short folk songs called chastushki that would get sung, and the songs that people sang changed dramatically in just a couple of years. Instead of songs about hoping for a husband who’s a good farmer with a nice mother, women would sing things like this:

Time was when my husband used his fists and force, but now he is so tender, for he fears divorce’ and ‘I no longer fear my husband. If we can’t cooperate, I will take myself to court and we will separate.

In a 1922 survey of Communist youth, only 21% of men described marriage as “ideal”, and among women the number was even lower—14% (survey details discussed on pages 271-2 of article and pages 37-8 of this book). Tellingly, 31% of the women in that survey had been or were currently married. While 66% of the women preferred long term relationships based on love, 10% sought sex with a string of partners. In a series of state funded sex surveys, women explained what they wanted in place of marriage. One woman: “I don’t want to be subordinate to a husband or become his slave, so I prefer short term romantic liaisons.” Others said, “sex, I’m afraid, plays the major role in my life, it usually doesn’t interfere with my work, but that’s a big struggle. “and “for me, sex is extremely important, its absence ruins my whole mood.”

People began experimenting with alternative family structures, with Kollontai famously writing about “marriage in threes and even the complicated marriage of four people”. She felt that while the bourgeoisie might need to couple for life, partner off forever for inheritance reasons, the proletariat should seek out multiple partners, practicing what today we would call polyamory. She argued “the more [emotional] strands are stretched from soul to soul, from heart to heart, from mind to mind, the more lastingly will a spirit of solidarity be inculcated, and the more easily will the ideal of the working class comradeship and unity be realized.”

Now I should underscore she, along with most older Bolsheviks, were against casual sex, seeing it as men using women. The Communist Youth, on the other hand, had different opinions about these things. The Communist Youth League, or Komsomol, had lots of public meetings, and many of them discussed sex. In analysing which meetings were most successful, a Komosomol journalist noted that: “every speaker must have the problem of sex in his repertoire. All other questions of social life are perceived as supplementary material that must inevitably be listened to along with the ‘hit’.”

| Socialising Reproduction in a Civil War | MR OnlineSocializing Reproduction in a Civil War

Even as they debated these issues, all Bolsheviks took it as axiomatic that people had to work out these matters on their own. The state should not intervene. They didn’t even have laws against incest, thinking that the individuals should make such decisions. This debate, of course, was tied to a broader set of initiatives to remake society. All sides knew it wasn’t sufficient to simply declare new forms of relationships based on easy marriage and easy divorce. The economic shackles of the family had to be broken.

Moirova, a delegate to the Women’s Congress from the Narpit factory, explained at a Congress meeting,

we cannot consider the construction of socialism a success if we do not make a basic revolution in our own families. We are accustomed to associating stoves, kitchens, pots, cradles and crying babies with the family. In a socialist society, these parts of the family should not be. The family should consist of loving, equal comrades, each of which works where they are useful to the whole society.

In 1918, in the cities, this meant taking on the major pieces of organizing consumption and raising children. That included opening daycare centres, communal restaurants, public laundries, conducting public education campaigns on many aspects of daily living, including sex. But the demand for these services far outstripped the fledgling worker state’s abilities.

So far I’ve discussed some of the incredibly radical and rapid changes, however we must also be aware of the material limitations they faced and the impact that had on women’s rights and people’s lives, including their sex lives.

Scarcely had the laws changed when the forces of reaction launched a civil war that took a country already ravaged by World War I and plunged it further into misery. I can’t go through the whole civil war here, but one piece is worth mentioning; shortly after the war began, the Soviet founded the Women’s Bureau, and its mission was specifically to prepare the self-emancipation of women. Inessa Armand explained, “all the interests of women workers, all the conditions for their emancipation, are inseparably connected to the victory of the proletariat, are unthinkable without it. But this victory is unthinkable without the women’s participation, without their struggle.” This meant that, despite brutal war shortages, the army ensured that the Women’s Bureau had a dedicated train and access to the railways to move around the country, helping to build local Bureau chapters wherever they could.

Thousands of women ended up joining the Bureau. By 1921, the war was over, the Bolsheviks had won but the price was incredibly high in terms of lives lost, industries ruined, peasants alienated. Among revolutionary men and women, 13% of Old Bolsheviks died, and 8% of those joining after the revolution died between 1917 and 1921. That was a decimation of the ranks of revolutionary women. Then a new famine hit which affected 25 million people in 34 provinces. In the spring of 1921, hunger and disease killed 90% of children under three, and almost 33% of those between the ages of three and 16. Town after town sent telegrams to the capital begging for help as they were overrun by thousands of orphans and abandoned children.

| Struggling services Child Support | MR OnlineStruggling services & Child Support

With famine spreading and production collapsing in March of 1921, the government voted to allow a limited set of market mechanisms to operate in the hopes that they could just hold out long enough for relief from a revolution in a more advanced country like Germany.

This New Economic Policy (NEP) succeeded in reviving the economy and restoring production. However, it was also devastating for wide swaths of the population, particularly working-class women who were the last hired and the first fired. Most state-run institutions for socialised reproduction at the time were slashed; communal restaurants, the laundries, etc. By 1927, for example, there were only enough state-run preschools for one and a half percent of children. In a society dedicated to the idea that it is the collective responsibility to raise children, 98.5% of children did not have access to preschool. Those cuts combined to further immiserate single mothers who had no place to put their young children while they were at work. Given the reality that the state couldn’t provide for children, but it was also easy for men to abandon women, the courts began issuing lots of alimony and child support orders. From a socialist perspective, this is a step backwards, as it reinforces privatized reproduction, but immediate need was paramount at the time, and their approach did have a red tint to it.

In terms of child support, the State printed pamphlets to make sure women knew their rights. They distributed them all over the country, and women won 99% of their cases. The victories were regardless of the reason for divorce, marriage wasn’t even required for child support: 45% of support cases went to unmarried women. I read through some of the court cases, and as far as I can tell, there was no slut shaming going on. In one case, a woman was seeing three men at the same time, so the court didn’t know who the father was, and ordered each man to pay three roubles a month until the child was 18 (more about these cases in Women, the State and Revolution pages 135 to 142). However, many men didn’t pay, and the state didn’t have the resources to chase them down—less than half were ever found

The issue of child support raises the larger question of reproductive rights, because today we understand that a necessary precondition for women’s liberation, sexual and otherwise, is that they exercise complete control over their bodies. This means access to birth control, freedom from sexual violence, expressing gender however they see fit, sleeping with whomever they want, and of course, the right to terminate a pregnancy or carry it to term.

However, at the time, there was no social movement that clearly asserted this set of important rights as part of a total vision of women’s liberation. While the Soviets embraced pieces of this view, in many ways far in advance of what exists in so-called ‘developed’ capitalist countries today, their politics lacked a comprehensive approach. For example, Kollontai went as far as arguing that for women, “motherhood is not a private matter, but a social obligation.” Here, she blends a left position— society has the obligation to raise children—with what we now consider rank reactionaries—women have an obligation to be society’s breeders.

It wasn’t just bad ideas, though. The country suffered from poverty. In terms of birth control, the pill was not yet been invented and a persistent rubber shortage throughout the 20s made condoms and diaphragms almost completely unavailable, which left ‘coitus interruptus’ (early withdrawal) as the most common method (see pg. 259-250 of the above). As many have learned, it’s not that effective.

That raises the question of abortion. In 1920, the state officially legalized abortion, making it available to any woman who wanted one at any time in pregnancy. We should celebrate this advance, but we should also understand they did it for public health reasons, not women’s liberation. Women were getting abortions whose hazy legality was causing injury. And as a public health matter, the Bolsheviks felt abortion should be available through the state. That’s obviously vastly superior to misogynistic abortion bans and restrictions in many places today but it’s also not sufficient. Regardless, the results were dramatic with abortion soon becoming the second most common form of birth control. When women had abortions, most asked their doctor for contraception to avoid pregnancy in the future, which they didn’t have on hand (pg. 260 of the above). And they were forced to deal with horrible doctors who moralized against their patients and withheld anesthesia. Most had trained during Tsar’s reign there was not yet a new generation of doctors.

Abortion was free, but it wasn’t always available on demand. Women had to queue for abortions and assemble a number of documents to show the priority they should get. Women workers got the highest priority, formerly bourgeois women the lowest. Tanya Matthews described her first abortion during the NEP (on page 264 of the above), where she paid for faster access to a doctor. She watched the doors of the Operating Room open every 15 minutes as women were wheeled out.” Their faces looked like greenish white masks with beads of perspiration on their foreheads.” Then it was her turn.

“The doctor said, ‘well get on the table… be a good girl and don’t scream. Nobody screams here.’ My legs were tied… I heard the voice of Peter Illyich giving orders to the assistants… The nurse stood at my side holding my hands… Acute, piercing pain stabbed me. I screamed without realizing it. ‘Quiet! quiet!’ [came the] voice of Peter Ilyich. ‘You hinder my work. Take a deep breath… It will soon be over,” he commanded, not interrupting his work. I felt the horrible scratching movements of some instrument inside me. My limbs became weak and moist with cold, sticky sweat. I clenched my teeth, counting minutes seemed like an eternity.” When over, she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you would do it without anaesthetic?” He replied, “We are saving ether for more important operations. Abortion is nothing; women stand it easily. Now that you know it’s a good lesson to you too.”

Despite its drawbacks, many women had abortions. In 1926, more than 6% of women workers had one, compared to an annual rate of around 2% in the USA today. By the end of the 1920s, abortion was more common than birth. It was also safer. The chance of dying was anywhere from 60% to 120% higher giving birth, depending on your location in the country. However, for women that did get abortions, 15% to 30% experienced bleeding, inflammation, fever, and greater risk of future miscarriage (stats from pages 263, 267 and 290 of the above). I think that’s all very important to keep in mind. It’s equally important to state that there were those at the time who had a more radical vision. One of them was the head of the Department for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy, Vera Lebedeva who argued for full reproductive freedom in pretty much the way we would conceive it today, pushing for, “the rationalization of sexuality, where a person wants to be a master, just as in other areas.” But those views didn’t have adequate time to generalize before the victory of Stalinism.

Tackling sexual assault

Any discussion of sexual freedom and sexual liberation is incomplete without looking at its total negation, sexual assault. To date, no scholar that I know of has done a widespread study of rape in the Soviet Union, but we can get a limited picture. The law itself was reasonably progressive. For the time, rape was defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse obtained using either physical or psychological force. There were also laws against statutory rape, but they weren’t age based. It was based on whether a person had reached sexual maturity, a term left undefined by the law, which ended up meaning that doctors defined it The historian Dan Healy explains the laws generally on page 28 of “Bolshevik Sexual Forensics”:

Bolshevik sex crime law was distinctive in its gender neutrality, its rejection of the language of traditional morality, and in its biomedical view of sexual life. It was also relatively terse…Sex crime… ranked in the minds of the drafters as a form of harm which, while seldom life-threatening, was injurious to the ‘health, freedom and dignity of the individual’ in a specifically sexual way. The sexual development of the youngster, the sexual inviolability of the individual (at risk because of physical, psychological, or economic weakness), and the sexual autonomy of the adult were counted as aspects of the human personality meriting protection in the new socialist state.

The codes that did exist were applied unevenly. The main difference was between town and country; the closer you were to a city, the more likely authorities were to be trained in the new laws (see pages 67-9 of the above). Many rape investigators treated survivors horribly. Of course, they didn’t even have the category of survivor and used “accusers.” Investigations were handled by doctors who generally lacked a liberation perspective. On the one hand, it was progressive that forensic science was now part of medicine, taking it away from the cops. But recall that the available doctors were largely reactionaries from the old Tsarist order. For statutory rape doctors made up their own standard of sexual maturity: virginity (but only for women) (see page 102 of the above). To apply this “standard” they subjected survivors to pelvic exams, building huge handbooks of different hymen shapes and other pseudo-science nonsense (pages 93-4). For adult rape, if a woman was sexually active, she was presumed to have consented unless she was heavily injured. Doctors made the ‘psychological coercion’ part of the law a dead letter (pgs.).

Sex Work

In addition to physical coercion, let’s spend a moment looking at ‘materially coercive’ sex. Sex work was explicitly decriminalized in 1922 when the first criminal code was passed in the Soviet Union (pg.). We don’t know if there were sex workers who viewed it as liberatory labour. Many certainly did not. One study found that, 84% tried to leave the profession but were unable to find alternative work. Others had jobs, but they used sex work to supplement their wages (studies referenced on pages 119-120 of the above).

The Bolsheviks were against sex work, which they saw as a more naked form of the social relations that existed in most marriages. But their analysis saw it as a social problem, not a moral failing of sex workers. They opened centres to treat STIs, provide sex education and other job training.

Queer Rights

Under the Tsar, lesbianism, along with most aspects of women’s sexuality, was completely ignored, both in law and in writing. Sodomy was illegal. By the 1870s, a subculture for gays emerged in some Russian cities. For gay men, the bathhouse became a site of sexual exploration. In fact, tales of Russian bathhouses made it back to New York and San Francisco in the early 20th century, inspiring similar developments there. The Russian revolution transformed the situation of what we now call ‘queer rights’, starting with the repeal of anti-sodomy laws. After 1917, all of the Tsar’s law books were tossed into the trash and it wasn’t until 1922 that the state enacted the first comprehensive criminal code. After some debate, they deliberately left out the antigay statutes that have been in the Tsar’s code. This made Russia only the second European country to repeal bans on sodomy, the first being France after its revolution. The overriding principle was that the state should stay out of the bedroom.

This attitude percolated throughout society. In 1927, a Soviet jurist, Frankel, explained, “[Sodomy was decriminalized because] science, and much legislation following from it…had taken the view that the commission of the act of sodomy with adults infringed no rights whatsoever, and that [adults] were free to express their sexual feelings in in any form, and the intrusion of the law into this field is a holdover of church teachings and of the ideology of sinfulness.” According to a few surviving memoirs, many gays and lesbians took the revolution as an invitation to live open lives (see page 11 of the above). Same sex marriage was legal. I don’t know how widespread it was, but there was at least one court case that established its legality. The standard was the “mutual consent” of the marrying parties, which essentially means saying, “I do.” In 1926, the government started allowing people to change the sex that was listed on their passports. Intersex folks received medical treatment and were not demonized. Research on these issues was funded by the state, and various doctors sought permission, which was granted, to perform sex reassignment surgeries at the patient’s request (discussed on pages 2, 11 & 141 of ‘Bolshevik Sexual Forensics’. Now, obviously, it’s the 1920s and it’s in Russia, so the surgery is somewhat crude, but it was available.

Abroad, the Soviet state celebrated its sexual progressiveness. In 1923, the Commissariat of Health Samashko led a delegation to visit the Institute for Sex Research in Berlin. There he explained the new laws around homosexuality, and he framed them as being deliberately emancipatory, that they had been widely accepted in society and no one was looking to repeal them or change them. The state also related to the World League for Sexual Reform Kollontai attended some of their conferences in the late 20s (both of these are discussed on pages 131-2 of the above).

| Theory lagged practice | MR Online

Theory lagged practice

Theory lagged practice

That’s a quick overview of some of the positive changes, which, if you think about the time frame when this was happening, are somewhat stunning. But I want to look a little bit more about what people were saying at the time, because as is often the case, theory lagged practice. On questions of sexuality and gender, this was particularly sharp. On the one hand, the state embraced science and decision making in all areas, including sex. But on the other hand, the doctors and scientists they had to work with around these questions were all trained under the Tsar, and few were socialists. Many were jockeying for position in the new social order, and their science was crude at best. Learning from this Soviet experience is further complicated because we have limited sources to understand queer life at the time. For example, we don’t know how working class attitudes were changing, what the levels of gay bashing were or what all the varieties of sexual identity and practice were. What we do know is that most people believed in a strict gender binary; one should either be male or female. They didn’t have an analysis of the gender binary as a historically specific outgrowth of the rise of class and private property relations (see page 11-12 of the above). They considered that to be a superhistorical fact. If an individual wanted to live as a gender other than the one, they were born with, that was fine. There was a fluidity that was allowed, and science was going to help out, but what was missing here was any notion of genderqueer, allowing for gender identities that aren’t reducible to a binary label.

We know that people assigned male at birth lived as women and vice versa. In one case, I was reading the notes of a researcher struggling to find language to describe their observations: women serving in combat positions in the Red Army that dressed “as men” and rose through the ranks, leading men into battle in “all male” units, but not identifying as men. There were other reported cases of men assigned female at birth which was generally considered more acceptable than the reverse. Here we run into some of the limits of the gender binary and the underdeveloped gender theory of the state which celebrated “male” traits like being a strong, good worker etc (see page 66 and 168 of the above for more). For gay men, scientists were obsessed with the top-bottom binary. Case notes comment on one person ‘D’ who “offered himself as a woman”, and “generally prefers to be in the women’s position”. Similarly, many psychiatrists saw some lesbians as just being temporarily seduced by the mannish women with whom they slept. Some considered gays and transvestites to be psychopaths. In general, researchers considered male tops and female bottoms less authentically gay (see pages 145, 147 and 164 of the above).

Trans folks were sometimes referred to as “psychic hermaphrodites” (page 166), and most sex researchers at the time considered homosexuality to be biologically perverse. That attitude, by the way, wasn’t limited to queer issues, but basically any sex that didn’t involve one penis in one vagina was considered deviant. The researchers felt that even this should only happen in moderation. The idea of sex for fun basically doesn’t appear in most writings, let alone any discussion of women’s pleasure, which is an amazing blind spot given the state funded sex research because it was a key part of people’s lives. Women were cautioned to avoid sexual activity until they were at least 20, men until they were 22 or even 25, and then no more than once a day or three times a week (more on pages 130-1 of ‘Sex in Public: The incarnation of early soviet ideology’).

Pledging abstinence for the revolution?

Some went further arguing one should simply remain abstinent for the good of the revolution: You don’t want to use up that valuable energy having sex that we should be using to build the workers’ state. Dr. Golomb argued “[H]ere in our land after the October Revolution, when young Soviet Power has established itself on the ruins of the old regime, life has begun to make the highest demand on the energy essential to the development and strengthening of the new order. That is why abstinence has acquired such special value now as the key to the source of great reserves of social energy.”

If you are going to be sexually active, whatever you do, do not be attracted to the bourgeoisie. One prominent sex writer, Dr. Zalkend, explained, “sexual attraction to a class-hostile, morally repugnant object is as corrupt as being sexually attracted to a crocodile or orangutan.” You know, you can’t help what you’re attracted to, though, so if you just can’t stop thinking about sex another doctor suggested some sublimation techniques, which may sound familiar to comrades,

The constant motion until you drop, the meetings, discussions, councils, commissions, and assemblies—all of this helps sexual discharge, that is, energy is expended..

If sex with someone else was bad, though, doing it to yourself was horrific, it encourages individualism. The 1925 page turner ‘Sexual Education in the Context of Marxist pedagogy’, said, “all auto erotic processes, moments of self-satisfaction that do not require contact with another occasion a pathological increase in egocentrism and produce shy loners impressed in themselves and unconcerned with the life of society.” These entreaties unfortunately had an effect on people. One student (quoted on page 267-8 of this article) explained “When I think about [masturbation] my hair stands on end. It rises before me like a gigantic monster clutching me in its claws. As a result of ten years of daily masturbation, I myself have turned from a man into a monster. . ..”

Some sex educators tried to counter all this nonsense with polemics against these kinds of ideas throughout the 1920s. Note: none of this was suppressed or censored. It was all allowed to happen, for good or for bad. And all of these theories of excessive sex, be it straight, gay or self-inflicted, flowed from a crude understanding of the new science of hormone research (endocrinology), which some saw as a hope to “cure” homosexuality and other “perversions”. In some cases, there were various disastrous experiments that I’m not going to go through the details of, performed with sex gland transplants (see pages 134-5 of the above if you must know). In general, novel theories, including psychiatric ones, got more money from the state, which was trying to further the project of the revolutionary mastery of nature with the hope for medical breakthroughs that could raise the international stature of Soviet science.

We don’t know all the effects that the prevalence of these bad theories and backward attitudes had, from the developing identities of teenagers to the ability of people to live safe, full, open lives. However, in general, bad political theories led to horrible political decisions. For example, as part of a campaign to undermine the authority of the church the state ended up using homophobic messaging. They correctly exposed child sexual abuse by clerics, priests and bishops but the propagandizing they did around this relied on painting gay sex as perverse (see pages 155-9 of the above) in order to connect with people’s backward ideas. If the Bolsheviks had a better theory of sexuality and oppression, they never would have pursued propaganda in this way.

What might have been…

At one level, the contradictions of Soviet attitudes to sex reflected the contradictions of an isolated, impoverished revolution. Given more time, we could have seen oppressed groups fighting on their own behalf and those struggles would likely have been successful. An example of where this did happen was with sexual harassment.

Today the political importance of combatting sexual harassment is obvious to revolutionaries and others but the demand did not materialize out of thin air. Our current thinking in the U.S. is most recently linked directly back to the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s with the provenance going far longer than that, all the way to American slavery. In Russia, striking women workers from 1913 on raised ending sexual harassment as a demand in Russia, and the Bolsheviks incorporated it into their perspective (see pages 541 and 551 of ‘The Bolsheviks and Working Women’ for more on this). So once in power, they made it illegal to sexually harass women. The punishment matched second degree murder. Which means in the span of less than 15 years, sexual harassment went from not being part of the socialist movement to becoming law because women raised it as a demand.

Unlike sexual harassment, though, when it came to queer liberation issues, there was no cohesive movement of oppressed people at the time anywhere in Europe. There were glimmers but there wasn’t something cohesive. The biologist Koltsov wrote in 1923 in Russia, “of course, there is no intermediate sex, but rather an infinite quantity of intermediate sexes.” One can easily imagine a different set of circumstances when reading the words of Yevgeni Federanova, who was a transgender man married to a woman and sought gender-affirming surgery. He also pushed doctors to understand that this was just one possible choice, one possible outcome, one variation of sexuality. Just like same sex love was of sexuality and identity. He argued that once members of the intermediate sex were,

no longer oppressed and smothered by their own lack of consciousness and by petty bourgeois disrespect, they could live full, happy lives.

He continued,

In sleep a person does not govern themselves, and if during involuntary erotic ecstasy the image of a woman and not a man appears to a woman, it means that such is her nature, which she is incapable of overcoming. These women are unable to reverse this attraction in themselves, which from their point of view is natural, even if they wanted to. Once we come to accept that along with the usual love there exists same-sex love as well, as a particular variation, then we must make the logical conclusion and permit person of the intermediate sex access to their form of sexual satisfaction… Prof Freud justly points out that people who are in a sexual sense perverted ought not to be considered degenerates… No one can consider people of the intermediate sex physically or mentally ill… One may count among the number of men with a normal deviation of sexual desire leading writers (Oscar Wilde, Whitman, Verlaine), artists (Michelangelo), and musicians (Tchaikovsky), and this clearly proves that it is impossible to dismiss people of the intermediate sex to the category of the mentally and psychically disturbed.

Stalinist Counter-revolution

Tragically such powerful visions did not have time to generalize and become a movement before the rise of Stalinism. Stalinism was more than just a continuation or extension of the more backward ideas of the 1920s; it was a wholesale rejection and a rollback of all the positive gains. As part of its accelerated development drive, Stalinism needed to strengthen the family and increase the birth rate.

Here is just a short list of what Stalin’s state changed after 1929 (when the first Five Year Plan began):

  • Censoring and tight regulation on all writing about sex (pg. 3)
  • In 1931, psychiatry texts argued that homosexuals were bad at labour. (pgs 174-5)
  • By the end of the 1930smentions of sexuality disappeared from literature and psychiatry texts. (pg. 173)
  • Abolishing the Women’s Bureau (pg. 495).
  • Recriminalizing sodomy (pg. 4)
  • Eliminating easy divorce (pg. 6)
  • Outlawing abortion and tight control over what little access to birth control remained (pg. 197)

Unlike the Family Code debates of the 1920s, every single one of these changes was accompanied with no substantive debate. They were just rammed down from the top (for more see pages 332-3 of the above). The state began heavily propagandizing the idea of the new ‘Soviet Woman’ who worked in the factory all day, bought bacon on the way home, fried it up in a pan and fed it to her seven children (see pg. 198 of the above). All of this combines to create a qualitative break with the policies of the 1920s.

| Learning lessons | MR OnlineLearning lesson

The biggest lesson of the Soviet experience is that when you upend existing social relations, almost every element of how we live our lives gets thrown into question, including, of course, our sexuality. Future generations are the ones that are going to have to ask, grapple with and answer the next questions. What immutable “facts” of human sexuality will they upend?

I’m going to end with the words of Kollontai just a few months after the founding of the workers’ state, when optimism was the order of the day, and everything seemed possible:

The workers’ state needs new relations between the sexes, just as the narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand until it extends to all the children of the great, proletarian family, the indissoluble marriage based on the servitude of women is replaced by a free union of two equal members of the workers’ state who are united by love and mutual respect. In place of the individual and egoistic family, a great universal family of workers will develop, in which all the workers, men and women, will above all be comrades. This is what relations between men and women in the communist society will be like. These new relations will ensure for humanity all the joys of a love unknown in the commercial society[;] of a love that is free and based on the true social equality of the partners. Communist society wants bright healthy children and strong, happy young people, free in their feelings and affections. In the name of equality, liberty and the comradely love of the new marriage we call upon the working and peasant men and women, to apply themselves courageously and with faith to the work of rebuilding human society, in order to render it more perfect, more just and more capable of ensuring the individual the happiness which he or she deserves. The red flag of the social revolution which flies above Russia and is now being hoisted aloft in other countries of the world proclaim the approach of the heaven on earth to which humanity has been aspiring for centuries.

Key resources

  • Gregory Carleton, Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia
  • Eric Naiman, Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology
  • Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution
  • William Rosenberg, ed., Bolshevik Visions
  • Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia
  • Dan Healey, Bolshevik Sexual Forensics
  • Babara Evan Clements, Bolshevik Women
  • Elizabeth Waters, The Bolsheviks and the Family, Contemporary European History, Vol. 4, No. 3, Theme Issue: The European Family and Politics (Nov., 1995), pp. 275-291
  • Anne Bobroff, The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905-20, Soviet Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 540-567
  • Anne E. Gorsuch, “A Woman is Not a Man”: The Culture of Gender and Generation in Soviet Russia, 1921-1928, Slavic Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 636-660
  • Isabel A. Tirado, The Village Voice Women’s Views of Themselves and Their World in Russian Chastushki of the 1920’s, Carl Beck Papers, #1008, Dec 1993
  • Anne E. Gorsuch, Flappers and Fox trotters Soviet Youth in the “Roaring Twenties”, Carl Beck 1102, March 1994
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick, Sex and Revolution: An Examination of Literary and Statistical Data on the Mores of Soviet Students in the 1920s, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Jun., 1978), pp. 252-278
  • Barbara Evans Clements, The Utopianism of the Zhenotdel, Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 485-496
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