The Bolsheviks, who came to power in Russia in 1917, looked upon the family as a bastion of the old order, which they aimed to undercut as a social institution. This policy had far-reaching consequences for Russian society. A Dutch-Russian team of the IISH conducted research on this topic, and made an exhibition about it.
The Bolsheviks’ main misgiving about the family was that it oppressed women. Family bounds prevented women from taking up paid employment and thus from making their contribution to society. And this was at odds with Bolshevik ideas on equality. Women therefore had to be liberated from the straightjacket of the family.
The Bolsheviks were quick to take action. In December 1917, just a month after the revolution, divorce was legalised, followed by abortion in 1920, and in 1926 cohabitation was awarded the same legal status as marriage.
A final, crucial element of women’s liberation was the transfer of the family’s care functions to society. This gave rise to widespread experiments in communal living, with centralised laundry services, meals cooked and eaten together, and children raised collectively.
Of course the family did not cease to exist, but particularly the legalisation of divorce had far-reaching consequences. This was because of the shortage of men. Considerably more men than women had died in The First World War and the Civil War of the period 1914-1922 and in this situation the attack on the family proved counterproductive. It put a premium on opportunistic behaviour by men, who felt themselves less and less constrained by the bounds of marriage, and changed partners as they saw fit. Equality under conditions of an unequal balance of power thus produced insecurity for women, rather than emancipation.
In the mid-1930s policies were suddenly reversed. The family was rehabilitated and abortion was again made illegal. This new conservative turn appears to have been motivated by the desire to bolster social cohesion and crank up population growth. The collectivisation of agriculture and the famine of 1932-33 had taken millions of lives and birth rates had gone down as a result of industrialisation. The family now was called on to replenish the ranks. Reality had prevailed over ideology.
After the chaotic years of war and reconstruction from the 1950s on a new family form takes shape. The typical Soviet family consisted of three generations under one roof: grandmother, her children and her grandchildren. How this pattern emerged, is explained in this three-screen projection (in Russian) from the exhibition Together and Apart. The Family in Russia in the Twentieth Century.
Article by Gijs Kessler
* This is an abridged version of a lecture by Gijs Kessler at the Hermitage Amsterdam on March 2017