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Op-Ed: Russian Revolution and its radical gains for gender and sexual equality

By Mikaela Nhondo Erskog 3 November 2017

The Russian Revolution was groundbreaking for sexual liberation and radical gender equality. By MIKAELA NHONDO ERSKOG.

Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!’ – Alexandra Kollontai, Bolshevik leader

Global images of “sexual liberation” and women’s emancipation usually conjure psychedelic scenes of American “free love” in the late 1960s or bourgeois women’s suffrage movements of the early 1900s clutching their underskirts. Seldom do we consider the significance of the 1917 Russian Revolution as one of the most radical departures from archaic, exploitative gender and sexual norms of its day (and ours). The Russian Revolution was groundbreaking for sexual liberation and radical gender equality.

Prior to the 1905-1917 struggles for human emancipation in Russia, like many societies all over the world, sexual practices were highly oppressive and violent. Sexual behaviours were dictated by the capitalist and patriarchal norms of the church and the Tsarist dictatorship. Women were the “second sex” and homosexuality was considered deviant.

Unlike the bourgeois women’s movements that dominated at the time (and continue to dominate), this struggle called for an overthrow of the structural organisations that thrived on gender-based domination and sexual repression – the overthrow of capitalism. As leading Bolshevik revolutionary Nadezhda Krupskaya clearly distinguished in the first issue of Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) in 1914:

Bourgeois women advocate their special ‘women’s rights’, they always oppose themselves to men and demand their rights from men. For them contemporary society is divided into two main categories, men and women. Men possess everything, hold all rights. The question is one of achieving equal rights.”

Yet, rights cannot be upheld if there exist no material conditions for the practising of those rights. These forms of sex and gender politics did not critique the fundamental role of capitalism as co-constitutive of patriarchal institutions that exploited women and demonised forms of sexual gratification that were not heteronormative.

Radical groups of the Russian Revolution understood the system of capitalism to be fundamental to the exploitation of women and that struggles for the liberation of women were intrinsically tied to destroying the system oppressing them. Krupskaya continued arguing that:

For working women the woman question becomes quite different. The politically conscious women see that contemporary society is divided into classes. Each class has its special interests. The bourgeoisie is in one, and working class the other. Their interests are counterposed. The division between men and women does not have great importance in the eyes of the working woman. That which unites the working woman with the working man is much stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common need, their common conditions which are the exploitation of their labour, their common struggle and the common goals. ‘All for one, one for all.’ This ‘all’ means members of working class – men and women alike.”

Another Bolshevik leader, Alexandra Kollontai, also aptly observed:

To be sure, a very strong bourgeois women’s movement was already in existence in Russia. But my Marxist outlook pointed out to me with an illuminating clarity that women’s liberation could take place only as the result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system.”

More so, the Russian Revolution was intimately tied to the presupposition that all persons have an equal role to play in society based on their fundamental position as equals. Yet, the undeniable role of women and the explicit attempts to reconfigure a social order based on gender and sexual equality is continually denied when we remember the Russian Revolution.

During the first two decades of the 19th century, different Bolshevik and working-class women insisted on the need to demoralise sexual norms and rather politicise the origins of those practices. Alexandra Kollontai authored The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman in 1936. As the title suggests, the Bolshevik approach to women and sexuality surpassed the bourgeois feminists of their time. In it, she explained how the society the Russian Revolution wanted to inaugurate was one committed to “the complete liberation of the working woman and the creation of the foundation of a new sexual morality”.

Approaches to achieving Kollontai’s ambitions were done in various radical ways that completely undermined the bourgeois reformist approaches to the “women question”. After 1917, the Bolshevik-led Soviet power attempted to produce equal opportunities for women’s participation in economic and political structures, through education and training programmes, legislature and public domestic infrastructures. Some of the earliest legislation dealt directly with structures that would free women of domestic labours and the patriarchal aspects of traditional marriage and family life. Women were assured “equal pay for equal work” and found new opportunities to enter historically male-dominated industries. There was an insistence on creating public institutions that socialised what was previously the domestic/private work among women, in the forms of public childcare facilities, dining halls, laundry houses, schools, maternity care etc. As Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1936 book,

The complete absorption of the house-keeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.’’

Women gained more bodily and social autonomy with the legalisation of abortion, divorce and the legal right to demand child support from the other parent of their children. In a 1932 interview, when asked if it was true that “a divorce may be had for the asking”, Trotsky answered:

Of course it is true. It would have been more in place to ask another question: ‘Is it true that there are still countries where divorce cannot be obtained for the asking by either party to a marriage?’”

During a conference of “Non-Party Working Women” in 1919, Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin discussed the novelty of Soviet Russia’s approach to the question of gender equality:

The Soviet power has implemented democracy to a greater degree than any of the other, most advanced countries because it has not left in its laws any trace of the inequality of women. Again I say that no other state and no other legislation has ever done for women a half of what Soviet power did in the first months of its existence.

Yet, Lenin was clear that laws alone would not change the position of women, noting that radical legal changes were “of course, only the beginning”. Unlike contemporary efforts such as South Africa’s Women’s Department, or the United Nations Women, it was understood that because the oppression of women is based on a constructed idea of them as inferior, having a governmental organ for women was but a transitional moment.

As Colin Wilson indicates, the post-1917 Soviet state signified huge gains for sexual liberation. In 1922, the Criminal Code removed all references to sex practices, describing it in terms of harm when acts violated the individual’s right to “life, health, freedom and dignity”. In so doing, any consensual sex practices were immediately decriminalised. Wilson also points to the importance, as explained by the then director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, Dr Grigory Batkis:

Soviet legislation… declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as no one’s interests are encroached upon… Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality, Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In a 1927 legal case, the Soviet state recognised a same-sex marriage between a woman and her partner who had been identifying as a man – ruling it as legal because it was based on mutual consent.

This radical momentum came to a halt with Joseph Stalin’s rule in the 1930s. Abortion was made illegal. Capitalist programmes were vigorously recreated. The likes of Krupskaya and Kollontai, who had led the charge for radical institutional approaches to sexual and gender liberation, continued to criticise the various ways in which Stalin’s rule was destroying not only the gains they had won for women, but the socialist policies and practices developed since the revolutionary period. They were politically silenced and sidelined.

Yet, the disintegration that came with Stalinism prove an equally important lesson: we cannot arrive at the revolution. Real revolutionary practices require sustained struggle for and commitment to a new world order.

The 1917 Russian Revolution brought with it an entirely new way of imaging the questions of women and sexuality. Its pursuit of the elimination of the capitalist structures of oppression (grounded in unequal social relations based on heteronormativity and patriarchy) was revolutionary in ways that we cannot deny. DM

Photo: Participant of the 19th International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties looks at photos of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the Tavrichesky Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, 02 November 2017. The centenary of the Bolshevik October Revolution will be marked on 07 November 2017, according to the Gregorian calendar. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV

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