The revolutionary sex


For one shining moment, being a Russian woman meant sexual freedom and radical equality. Never seen before

‘We don’t have sex in the USSR, and we are categorically against it.’ When a female hotel manager said this on Soviet state television in 1986, the studio audience laughed. The line soon became a catchphrase, exposing the gap between official discourse and a reality that was markedly less pure. But Russia’s conservative self-conception, which continues to this day, conceals a more interesting and neglected period in its history: when, in the first decade after the October Revolution of 1917, high-ranking women in the Communist Party advocated free love as government policy, hoping to achieve the destruction of ‘bourgeois’ institutions such as monogamy and the nuclear family.

But the promise of sexual revolution did not last long. When Joseph Stalin rose to power in the mid-1920s, he promoted the opposite idea – that the nuclear family, and not sexual freedom, was the true basis of socialism. What might account for this political about-face? Does the episode represent a political path-not-taken, or was the government’s initial, emancipatory stance just an interregnum in the broader, more repressive arc of Russian history?

Shifting our historical gaze westward, by the 1920s the suffragettes had secured the franchise for many Western women with property rights (in the UK, women over 21 with no property could vote only from 1928). But in the Soviet Union, women’s rights were much more sweeping. In addition to universal suffrage, they had access to higher education and the right to equal pay. Abortion was legalised, a world-first, and freely available to factory workers. Children, whether born in or out of wedlock, were granted equal status in law. Marriage became secular, divorce was simplified and streamlined, sex outside wedlock was destigmatised, and male homosexuality decriminalised.

Where did the seeds of this radicalism spring from? Towards the end of the 19th century, the noble bourgeois and the socialist women’s rights movements were growing in parallel in Russia. Organisations such as the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, founded in 1895, fought for women’s equality in the workplace and improved conditions in orphanages, as well as establishing day-nurseries and canteens for poor, working mothers. The House of Diligence helped educated women find work as governesses; and the Society to Assist Young Girls sought to ‘protect girls, primarily of the working class, from the morally damaging conditions of their lives’, as the historian Cathy Porter writes in the biography Alexandra Kollontai (2013). At the same time, more and more women entered the workforce. Between 1904 and 1910, the number of industrial workers in Russia increased by 141,000, with more than 80 per cent of those being women.

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