Women in Russian Revolution

Dutiful Daughters: Women in Revolutionary Russia


By Cheryl Adams Rychkova

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

A small minority of Russian women entered into the emerging revolutionary movement of the mid to late nineteenth century. They were almost but not entirely from the nobility and the new intelligentsia class and all had received at least some secondary education. A few women even possessed a university education (Engel 61). The women became revolutionaries for a variety of reasons. Their involvement initially focused on women’s rights, but over time evolved through political pragmatism to become a rebellion not only against traditional gender roles but a fight for equality for all people. They filled many roles within and without the movement, usually involving skills and methods traditionally attributed to women, and almost always preferring non leadership positions and deferring to male leaders (Clements, Bolshevik Women 2). Despite their small numbers – officially only 2,500 at the eve of the October 1917 Revolution – the results of their efforts changed and reshaped the lives of Russian women for generations.

Following the revolution, the Bolshevichki (female Bolsheviks) both benefited and were harmed by the reforms for which they had fought so hard. Many chose to revert to the traditional, familiar modes of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Once again, they took this decision for various and many times a combination of reasons, the most prevalent among them a strong desire on the parts of both men and women to seek a “return to normalcy” following the upheaval of revolution and the horrors and deprivations of the Russian Civil War (159-60). Most Russian women returned to traditional roles with the newly added burden of state-mandated public employment, with few of the benefits they had fought so hard for, and which had been promised to them, coming to pass. A brief look at Russian social history goes far to explain both how and why women became interested in revolutionary ideas and why they retreated, and in some cases were forced to retreat, during the early years of Soviet rule. A stern patriarchy dominated Russian society for many centuries. Law and custom demanded unconditional obedience of women to their male relatives (Engel 5).

There existed in Russian culture the dichotomy of woman as inferior being and woman as vital and superior to men in matters of household management as well as in morality. Indeed it was the male acknowledgment of those two qualities that created a climate in which women could begin to demand equal rights (Engel 5). Those qualities also help to explain why Russian women were more inclined to become revolutionaries than their Western sisters. One-third of the leadership of “The People’s Will” – the group that assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 – were women, and female membership far exceeded western revolutionary or even socialist organizations. A major reason for the higher numbers of female Russian revolutionaries had to do with the late arrival in Russia of a different “revolution,” specifically, the Industrial Revolution. Until the industrialization programs led by Stalin in the 1930s, Russia “…resembled pre-modern Europe at virtually every level of the social hierarchy” (7). Outside of the major cities, Russia possessed little to no infrastructure and even the humblest peasant home was in fact a production center. This situation required women to perform a far larger number of roles than their nineteenth century Western counterparts.

In the West an ideology of domesticity had emerged, with women serving as the “angels of the household;” their time devoted to bringing up children, maintaining a pleasant home, and serving as the family and community moral compass. Russian women of the same era, whether they were the mistress of a large estate or a small hut, were responsible – either directly or through supervision -- for the manufacture and maintenance of everything that the family ate, used, and wore. This awesome charge gave to women of all classes a sense of confidence in their abilities. In Russia, a woman’s place was wherever her responsibilities led her, be it market, field, or fireside, and never as the more sheltered western household “angels” (7). Russian women’s role in religion and morality also provided a rationale to rebel against traditional female roles (3). Once again the tendency to rely on traditional methods and qualities to forge new modes of living was employed. Women had always been closely associated with Russian Orthodoxy (4). While men served as the leaders in the church, it was women who attended and practiced a level of piety not often observed in men outside of the priesthood.

Women came to be seen as more spiritually elevated, possessing a “sanctified endurance,” and a devotion to self-sacrifice which allowed them to feel and others to see them as morally superior (5). Historian Barbara Alpern Engel wrote, “In the nineteenth century, the belief in women’s moral superiority served to justify demands for greater rights for them in public life as well as in private life” (5). That sense and acknowledgment of moral superiority, coupled with the confidence that came from running the home production center, were inspirational in developing an interest in revolutionary thought and action.

Education played a major role in attracting women to the revolution movement in Russia (6). Education for noblewomen officially began during the reign of Catherine II (the Great) in the eighteenth century. She saw education as a way to improve Russian society “by educating wives and mothers,” and opened schools for young noblewomen, such as the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg (Smith 83). Educated noblemen actually sought cultivated women as wives, as a “veneer of culture enhanced a woman’s marriagability” (Engel 16).

Catherine’s reforms did not include nor address the vast majority of the Russian female population, who over time became even more alienated from their noble sisters because of the educational gap. This became a problem during the latter half of the nineteenth century when educated Russian women attempted to encourage working class and peasant women to join the cause of women’s rights. What Catherine’s reforms did accomplish was the planting of the seeds of an entire new and educated class – the intelligentsia -- that would come to fruition and impact Russian society during the mid-nineteenth century (Engel 20).

Part of that impact came from the minority of Russian noblewomen during the years between 1860 and 1880 who had attained at least a secondary education. While many of the women who became involved in revolutionary activities actually were born into families who possessed that mindset and instilled it in their sons and daughters, they grew up in a society that taught them both to be subservient to their male relatives, while at the same time they were expected to become educated.

Learning how to think and question being a natural part of the process of education, some of the young Russian women of the 1860s and onwards became frustrated over the duality of their existence (16). Having obtained an education, they were then expected to use it only to instruct their own children, converse with their husband, or in a few rare cases, host a salon where her primary role was that of muse to male visitors (Goscilo 229). A book often debated and discussed in salons, parlors and classrooms during the mid-nineteenth century was a novel about the plight of Russia’s women, entitled, What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky (Engel 72). The book was so popular among the literate (still a tiny minority of the Russian population) that the “woman question” – for centuries a debate in western Europe – at long last was voiced in Russia. The same issue had been discussed in various ways in the West since the sixteenth century (Norton 2051), and especially since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (Smith 100-01). As the nineteenth century progressed more educated Russian women became schoolteachers and a few even graduated medical school or law school and became physicians and attorneys (61).

Some of the women who entered professions within acceptable society did espouse notions of major societal reforms. These women believed they could help make improvements to society by teaching the young, defending the powerless, or by caring for the sick. That such professions involve a level of self-sacrifice indicates that these women were staying with the traditional Russian notion of female self-sacrifice. This same tendency is observed in the women who rejected not only the “despotism of the family,” but also the newly acceptable careers in favor of lives as revolutionaries and radicals (Clements, Bolshevik Women 12). Women who entered that edgy, undercover world became so emotionally and mentally devoted to their cause that they were willing to renounce their families (including in some cases, their own children), their education, their sexuality and any semblance of a personal life. Indeed, many were willing and some did make the ultimate sacrifice of their very lives. Women radicals displayed a type of dedication that bordered on obsession and far exceeded the devotion of the average male radical (Engel 5).

This won them high praise from their male comrades and promises of future equality between the sexes; yet the women were really only putting a new twist on a familiar role that would be played by most Russian women throughout the years leading up to the October Revolution in 1917 and beyond. It was the role of the self-sacrificing martyr. During the 1860s and 1870s a number of reform-minded women attempted to reach the female peasant population by encouraging them to participate in the fight for women’s equality. Commonly referred to as “going to the people,” educated young radicals served as teachers, nurses, or simply attempted to live as a simple peasant (Porter 9). The peasants were not fooled, and most were suspicious that the outsiders would make trouble for them with local authorities. Though there were exceptions, overall the peasant women expressed no interest in joining the movement during the 1860s-1880s. Had there not been the enormous gulf between the educated minority of women and the masses of illiterate and unconcerned peasants, feminism might have had a fighting chance in Russia. The gulf was, at least until the final few years of the nineteenth century, too wide to broach.

Not only was there the difficulty of engaging in useful dialogue, peasant women were intimidated and even insulted by the well dressed, poised ladies attempting to convince them to fight for improvements that they could not even imagine. Added was the simple fact that peasant women were almost always too exhausted and busy to care about anything beyond mere survival (10-11). Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had brought even more problems and work to peasant women, as their men traveled to the cities seeking wages with which to make land payments and taxes. This left the women with full and overwhelming responsibility for field, home, and children (5). There was also the fear of retribution from family members (male and female), the community, and the government. Peasant women knew they led miserable lives but what little they had was their own and not worth risking. Working class women were nearly as difficult to reach, as they were universally overworked and largely illiterate. Women reformers who went to work in the factories discovered a disinterest similar to that found in the peasant woman. By the 1890s and certainly after the 1905 Revolution, many working class women and even some peasants joined the equal rights movement.

In the case of the urban workers, exposure to protesters in the streets proved convincing. The few peasants who became revolutionaries did so out of anger at the horrific, poverty-stricken lives they lived and observed around them. Due to the 1917 success of the Russian revolutionaries, many biographies and other written documents exist that bring the struggle for equality to light. It is important to note that the large amount of surviving records does not indicate that the majority of Russian women during the period of 1860-1930 were in any way associated with the revolutionary and radical movements. No matter their social status, great risks were involved. The majority of Russian women chose the route of pragmatism, making the most of whatever opportunities could be found in their own personal situation, without openly questioning the status quo (Accommodation and Resistance 7).

By the 1880s, revolutionary and radical women had also embraced pragmatism, albeit a different sort. As the revolution movement evolved during the decades of the 1860s and 1870s, more and more people involved in the movement realized the importance of unity against what they saw as the symbol of all that was wrong with Russia.

According to Russian revolutionaries at the time, the tsar and his government represented nothing but the oppression of all Russians. Nothing short of total dismantling of that government and society would result in freedom for the entire nation. The arrests, imprisonments, and executions of a number of revolutionaries (including Sofia Perovskaya, who helped orchestrate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II) during the 1880s made firm the resolve of revolutionary leaders. Some of those leaders were women, such as Nadezhda Krupskaia, Inessa Armand, and Alexandra Kollontai. They and most other revolutionary women realized that the movement faced a formidable foe and therefore all women and men must join together for the common cause of equality for all people, including but not especially, women. Serious revolutionaries henceforth scorned feminism as a bourgeois ideology associated with the concept of private property (Clements, Bolshevik Women 18). Russia was unique in this concept due to the long history of – and only recent dismantling of – serfdom. In a country accustomed to viewing people as property, it is not hard to imagine why revolutionaries regarded singling out one segment of society as worthy of special rights. In the eyes of Russian revolutionaries, to do so would be unjust to the rest of the population.

They believed that with a completed socialist revolution and implementation of a full Marxist government all class and gender distinctions would fall away. Patriarchy would crumble (Clements 178). All people would be treated fairly and equally. Male and female leadership and most of the rank and file revolutionaries of both sexes jumped onto the socialist utopian bandwagon, with few considering the reality that women had needs specific to their gender which had never been properly addressed before, and would not fall under the socialist agenda of equal rights under the law. Particularly from 1905 until 1917, women revolutionaries in Russia set aside gender-specific issues crucial to women’s safety, autonomy, and health for what was then perceived as the common good. The 1905 Revolution encouraged a number of political parties and reformist groups to put aside differences in agenda and unite under the common cause of freedom and rights for all (Bolshevik Women 18). It was not until 1917, on the eve of the October Revolution, that women would return to formal discussion of female-specific needs and rights.

During the years between 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutionary women again turned to the notions of female self-sacrifice and moral superiority that their upbringing had inspired. Many of them joined the Bolshevik party at this point, and turned to revolutionary activity with fervor and devotion bordering and sometimes reaching levels of martyrdom. Much of their enthusiasm was rooted in traditional modes of the Russian female role, but their diligence was also a way to prove to revolutionary men that they were willing and capable to work just as hard as males in order to achieve rights and freedoms for all Russians. In order to convince men – and themselves – that they were worthy of such rights, the Bolshevichki adopted a demeanor known as tverdaia, which meant “hard,” and “steadfast” (19). To possess the qualities of tverdaia a woman had to not only be tough, but also rational, unsentimental, and if need be, merciless. Her loyalty had to be to her comrades and the Party; not to herself, her family, or other women (19). For many of these women, this meant postponing or ruling out marriage and children (19). Some brought children along to the revolutionary underground, where they hid with their mothers and sometimes even assisted in their work.

Overall though, Bolshevichki believed that to make themselves “hard,” they would be perceived as more like men, and therefore worthy of equal status and inclusion in the Bolshevik party (19). They had come into the revolutionary movement from a position of weakness, and their efforts in projecting a tough, masculine image were the only ways they believed they could oppose and even infiltrate the patriarchy (19).

The Bolshevik propaganda machine recognized the potential in promoting Bolshevichki activities and churned out magazine and newspaper articles expressing the opportunities of equal treatment for women in the Party. Male Bolsheviks generally responded with praise, cheering the heroism of tverdye Bolshevichki in a manner similar to the way men were praised (179). They were hailed in newspapers of the time as “bold, decisive, resourceful, courageous” and devoted to the revolutionary cause” (179). Reports of such personal empowerment and recipients of male praise served to encourage other women from all classes to join the struggle. Much of the praise was only lip service. Beyond the propagandistic efforts, there was a “smear campaign directed against the emancipated Bolshevichka” (179). Rumors and stories detailing supposed wild their behavior abounded.

Any quality traditionally suited to males was portrayed as deviant in females. The Bolshevichki were suspected of dressing in a rough manner, drinking and smoking, and perhaps even lesbianism (or at least heterosexually promiscuous) (179). Many of these stories came from political camps that were opposed to the Bolsheviks, but even some supporters and members of the party engaged in the telling and spreading of tales that suggested the Bolsheviks were allowing society’s “imbecile element” to take over politics and the military, which would lead to the “destruction of civilization” (180). In reality, the overwhelming majority of revolutionary women were far more conventional, sustaining monogamous relationships with men, and at least forty-five percent of the Bolshevichki were married to male revolutionaries (85). Once the revolutionary years had passed those marriages became even more conventional. Amid all the praise (sincere and otherwise) and the criticism (informed and otherwise), Russian revolutionary women from the nobility to the working classes and peasantry were busy pursuing their goals with enthusiasm and in a wide variety of roles. Most of them saw their involvement as a calling, drawing on the traditional feminine attributes of duty and sacrifice (138).

Though the 1905 Revolution had stirred greater numbers of women from the lower classes to action, as early as the 1870s women textile workers (who were between twenty-five and fifty percent of that industry’s work force) were involved in strikes for better working conditions (Porter 11). In 1895, fifteen hundred women workers in a cigarette factory led a violent strike against unfair treatment, destroying machinery and windows, followed by demonstrations outside the factory (11). While it was significant that working class women were at last willing to stand up and fight for their rights, their influence made a major impact on revolutionary leaders, including women. Until the 1890s many revolutionaries from the nobility or intelligentsia class had worked underground, not entirely sure of themselves or of what “the people” really wanted in the way of personal freedoms (12). Witnessing or hearing the stories of the striking women, revolutionary leaders began to more openly and actively participate in the movement. They collected money to help the striking women and their families, organized and led meetings that included speakers from the leadership and the workers, and distributed revolutionary reading materials (12).

Most of what they did was illegal, but their courage and belief in the coming revolution, along with the rise of the striking workers, encouraged further risk (12). Revolutionary leader Alexandra Kollontai was particularly impressed to see uneducated, fearful women, “despised by all”, rise up to fight “…for the rights of the working class and the liberation of women”(12). It was indeed a great leap on the parts of working women, though the revolutionaries among them were –as in other classes – a very small minority. Most of them were illiterate and ashamed of demonstrating that fact by openly speaking out. What was still more remarkable about the female working class becoming involved in revolutionary activity was that they did so despite the physical and mental exhaustion brought on not only by their physical labor (almost always in wretched conditions), but also by the backbreaking traditional household role, which they were still expected to perform. Just as the female revolutionary leaders, working women recognized the need to address the female “double burden,” but also like those leaders they agreed that the time to discuss those matters would be after the revolution was won for all. The notion of female self-sacrifice did not discriminate between social classes.

Neither did most revolutionary women. Both the female leadership and workers discovered ways to help each other in their common cause. One way the female leaders could get the message out to help improve working conditions in the factories was through publishing. The newspaper Iskra, due to its illegal content, could not be published in Russia, and so was published in Geneva, Switzerland. Even though copies had to be smuggled into Russia and read in secret, Iskra went far to inform readers of the poor condition of the Russian worker and what should be done about that and other reforms. Revolutionary women led the way in the writing, publishing, and distribution of Iskra, demonstrating great skill in administrative matters, skills that would be noted by the male revolutionary leaders and that would be performed by women throughout the revolutionary and Soviet periods. The women who edited and produced Iskra were known as Iskrovka and were noted for their attention to detail. Many of the women who became prominent Bolshevichki honed their skills during the production of the paper, including Nadezhda Krupskaia and Elena Stasova.

Both women were highly skilled in name memorization and messages, in the creation and cracking of codes, use of invisible ink and organizing secret meetings (Porter 14). Their efforts allowed them to make contact with women working in factories. Even though most women workers could not read, revolutionary-minded men and the few women who could read aloud to others, though always in secret.

In 1901 Krupskaia researched the plight of female factory workers and published her results in the booklet, The Woman Worker. The women workers were worn out and miserable, but not to the point that they were incapable of now questioning why they should not have a better lot in life. Articles from Iskra served as encouragement to women workers that a better life was possible, and that there were people in the world – including women – who were eager to assist them in that endeavor. By 1902, the year the Bolsheviks took control of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party at the Party Congress in Brussels, revolutionary actions were taking place all over Russia. Workers and even peasants participated in uprisings and protests, and the strike movement (crushed by the Tsarist government in the late 1890s) began to grow again.

Working class and peasant women joined in the protests, while the female working population in factories increased. Articles in Iskra and other revolutionary publications painted a picture of women throwing off centuries of oppression but failed to point out that not only did women represent a tiny minority of Russian revolutionaries, many of those who did participate did not have confidence in the movement. Alexandra Kollontai observed, “…most women were still avoiding life and struggle…believing their destiny to be the cooking pot, the washtub, and the cradle” (15).

Within a few years, Kollontai was reporting a very different attitude observed in Russian women. It had to do with the disastrous Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), which led to the 1905 Revolution. When the men were sent off to fight the war, thousands of women were left to support themselves. Working class women who had never worked outside the home joined peasant women who had never been out of the village in seeking work in the cities. Their illiteracy and low self-confidence allowed for only the most degrading, low-paid work.

The specters of the sweatshop and prostitution loomed over the destinies of many women. The experiences of many of these women broke their hearts, steeled their spines, and raised their ire. As Kollontai wrote in 1904, “They returned to the villages in a sober, hardened mood” (16), and then organized and led violet uprisings against landlord and government. For many of these women, this was the first time they had openly demanded rights for themselves. They had done so largely through the encouragement of leading revolutionary women such as Kollontai and Krupskaia.

Both the protesting women and the female leaders were taking great risks, as they were all daring to cross over the mutual agreement of maintaining the status quo of female self-sacrifice. Even as factory women began to demand paid maternity leave and time off for laundry and housework, a group of St. Petersburg society women organized the Union of Women’s Equality. Both classes clearly wanted equal rights and were willing to fight for them, but old class fears and jealousies kept the women from working together towards a common goal. The Bolshevik Party only encouraged this by promising working women equal rights.

Kollontai, one of the handful of noble women who supported equal rights for all women and who genuinely cared about the plight of working class and peasant women, encouraged women to join with the Bolsheviks and work for total societal change. She continued to demand discussion of women’s matters, but had to be extremely careful to avoid being accused of favoring women’s rights over the common good. Most revolutionary women agreed with the pragmatism of Kollontai, believing if they remained patient and dutiful, they would be rewarded with the equality they sought. Indeed, the male leadership continued to promise this, even if their actions indicated different intentions. Such was the case in 1905, when Kollontai and other revolutionary women began to form women’s discussion groups. One of these, the Mutual Aid Club, had to fight male Bolshevik disapproval, especially when the latter discovered that the group’s discussions often dealt with issues specific to women. On many occasions the group was denied use of meeting places in favor of meetings that included only men (Porter 22), strongly suggesting to the women that the Party was determined they do nothing on their own (23).

It was not only male Bolsheviks that discouraged Bolshevichki meetings and projects. The women themselves, still split by class and education, continued to fight against one another (24). The organizers of the “First All-Russian Women’s Congress” in 1908 sought to prohibit working class women from participating, resulting in an embarrassing riot led by working women who infiltrated the congress (24). Published accounts of the chaos and arrests only further encouraged male Party leaders to disparage women’s involvement in anything political, one even commenting that the congress was only “an assembly of whores” (24). The fighting and sabotage that took place within and without their ranks made it impossible for women to become involved in the revolutionary movement at the political levels of men.

Despite their lip service to the contrary, Bolshevik men, from the rank and file to Lenin himself, did nothing to challenge the status quo. Such an attitude, coming from those who had always held the power, is not surprising. That women often shared the same attitude is an interesting observation. The evidence for this is found not in their rhetoric and devotion to the ideas of revolution, but in the types of groups they formed.

While Russian women had every reason to demand gender-specific rights ranging from divorce to maternity care to better working hours, the groups and organizations they formed shifted the focus from the Bolshevik “common good” to the “female good,” and almost always using female approaches to problem-solving. This included discussions that were light on the revolutionary rhetoric, ideology, and theory approach favored by male revolutionaries and more emphasis on what direct action could accomplish for women. The female revolutionary was more inclined to either the gentle approach of “going to the people,” organizing childcare centers, and caring for the sick and needy, or – the other extreme – riot, destruction, and protest. By taking one or both of these approaches to reform, revolutionary women alienated themselves further from potential political leadership. Bolshevik men might praise or scorn their efforts, but women would never be invited to take a seat on the Politburo except in an administrative capacity.

Only five years before female revolutionary leaders were hopeful that World War I would bring about reforms helpful to women. Certainly early in the conflict it appeared that women had attained a higher level of respect as they filled thousands of jobs vacated by fighting men. The rate of pay for women was considerably lower than the one for men, but it was at least a step in the right direction. Hopes for more improvements quickly faded when it became evident that Russia would fare poorly in the war. By 1915 more than one million Russian soldiers were dead, and the economy began to collapse. Food shortages led some women to riot and loot, but the Tsarist police always crushed these protests. On one occasion thirty women were killed while protesting. This was followed by a backlash from middle class Russian women who still supported the war. On International Women’s Day in 1916, Bolshevichki put up posters encouraging female solidarity against the war. The posters made bold statements such as, “Enough blood!” “Down with War!” and “Bring the Criminal Government to Justice!” The pro-war women tore the posters down as fast as the Bolshevichki could replace them. Even in dire economic circumstances – their husbands fighting a losing battle far from home and their children hungry – women continued the pattern of disunity.

Just one year later, again on International Women’s Day, March 1, 1917, the story was very different. A protest involving female workers from a single factory turned into what became known as the February Revolution of 1917. Ever-worsening economic conditions led women from all social classes and all over Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was known during World War I, to avoid the German connotation of “burg”) to take to the streets, bearing banners that read, “Bread!” and “Our Children Are Starving” (Porter 26). By the next day more than 197,000 women and men were protesting in the streets, in front of the Winter Palace, and even the city garrisons. The soldiers refused to turn against the crowds, and did not object when bold and angry women physically seized their guns. Within days Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated.

Most Bolshevik leaders were still abroad in exile and had not expected a revolution so soon. At long last, the Bolshevichki approach – direct, emotional, and sacrificing – had triumphed over the rhetorical approach of male Bolshevik leadership. A climate of the triumph of the average Russian man and woman prevailed, and despite the efforts of the conservative Provisional Government, the Bolshevichki were hopeful that the day of equal rights for all, including women, was around the corner.

In May 1917, Kollontai and other Bolshevichki revived an earlier revolutionary newspaper, Rabotnitsa, staffed entirely by women and included a school, which trained working class women the art of public speaking, so that they could inspire and educate other women when they returned to work. By September of 1917 Russians of all political stripes could practically taste revolution in the air. Peasant uprisings continued, and most soldiers had been swayed to join the Bolsheviks in what would become the Red Army. Witnessing the rapid and radical changes taking place, women revolutionary leaders realized they needed to act on the behalf of women before the Bolsheviks seized control of the government. A woman’s congress was held shortly after the October Revolution, led by Bolshevichki leaders Kollontai, Konkordia Samoilova, and Klavdia Nikolaevna. They expected around eighty women to attend, but more than five hundred women arrived to participate. Kollontai led the discussions, encouraging women to look out for their own interests and demand rights for paid maternity leave and child care, as well as fair working hours and safe working conditions (Porter 38).

There were no suggestions nor demands for women to share political leadership roles with men, and the fact that this did not take place at the most opportune time for women to make and have their demands met, boldly demonstrates that for all their revolutionary fervor, Russian women greatly desired to maintain their traditional roles. What they truly wanted was not change of status, but an improvement of the status and roles they were already fulfilling. When Kollontai presented the women’s demands to Bolshevik leaders one month later, most of the proposals were turned into law. As the Bolsheviks swept to power and began to form what would become the Soviet Union, women leaders who might have jockeyed successfully for powerful political positions -- or at least encouraged the political participation of women – reinforced the example made by the November Women’s Congress and showed no interest whatsoever in political ambition. Most of the rank and file Bolshevichki shared that attitude. This was largely due to the physical and emotional exhaustion that followed the years of revolutionary work and concerns over an uncertain and unfamiliar future.

Most revolutionary women desired a return to normal life, which meant a combination of basking in what they perceived as gender and class victories, and the comforts of home and family. Their revolutionary husbands agreed, many of them insisting that now that the Revolution was won, wives should return to their traditional roles and let the men handle the politics. This was true even in the upper ranks of the Bolshevichki. Some of the women leadership was indeed highly placed, including Lenin’s wife, Krupskaia, Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollontai, and others. All of these women remained in or assumed various leadership positions – positions that most historians regard as inferior to what they might have attained had they been willing to ask or possibly fight for, but to the minds of the women leaders, they could have no higher calling than to continue to work in areas traditionally defined as of interest to women. For example, Krupskaia had long maintained a strong interest in education. The Bolshevik male leadership approached her to lead the development of universal public education in Russia, which in 1917 was indeed a revolutionary concept. They turned to Krupskaia to take on this awesome task not because she was a woman, but because she was the only individual in the revolutionary movement who possessed the background and expertise.

What was unique about Krupskaia’s position was that due to her close ties with Lenin, it was she among all Russian women who was in the best position to request or demand a major leadership role. She simply was not interested (indeed she abhorred politics), and was happy to turn her hand to a familiar female leadership role in education. She believed that it would be through the education of the masses that the concept of equal rights for men and women would be understood, desired, and attainable. Kollontai fulfilled another traditional female leadership role, though hers was more visible than that of Krupskaia. The male Bolshevik leadership agreed that Kollontai and Samoilova – who had spent most of their lives working directly with women and their needs – should establish the Zhenotel, or Women’s Bureau. Samoilova traveled across the vast land of Russia helping women set up sections that would assist on a local level. The Zhenotel assisted women in a myriad of ways, from counseling to job placement to lobbying the Soviet government for more rights and protection for women under the law. Kollontai and those who worked with her were able to achieve a number of goals for women during the 1920s.

Great strides were made in education for women (including the university level), maternity leave and benefits, access to more types of employment, a straight forward divorce process (impossible before the October Revolution), child care, and even collective dining halls and laundry services. If Russian women saw the new benefits as too good to be true, they were not wrong. Their new rights and benefits looked impressive on paper – and some of them were successfully implemented – but the reality was something more akin to the old proverb, “Careful what you wish for.” Soviet equality demanded that all people must work at a public job. Women who had previously worked at home caring for house, garden, and family joined the ranks of women who had carried the “double burden” for centuries. With the implementation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) in the mid 1920s (necessary to restore the country’s crumbling post-Civil War economy), collective laundries, child care centers, and cafeterias – few of which had ever lived up to expectations in the first place -- were shut down, and women’s burdens only increased. The new, easy divorce laws became more a burden than a help to many Russian women, as some men took advantage of the law to marry and then abandon a woman and any children resulting from the marriage.

While divorce laws became stricter by the 1930s, and women continued to benefit from greater educational and employment opportunities the die had been cast with regard to Russian women’s equality, and by the very women who had fought so hard to better the lives of women. The Bolshevichki had gambled that the traditional Russian female tools of acquiesce, self-sacrifice, and duty would eventually lead to the realization of their goals. That they fell short is not an indication of failure. They worked, as all humans do, with the tools and knowledge available to them. They fought against a patriarchal system that remained entrenched long after the promise of October 1917 was broken. When Stalin shut down the zhenotel in 1930, claiming that it was unnecessary as women had achieved equal status with men, few Russians – male or female – were fooled. The Soviet government continued over the next sixty years to pay tremendous lip service to women’s equality, through propaganda posters and films, by bestowing gold medals on women who produced the most (in the factories and the nurseries), and with grand parties on each International Women’s Day. Russian women accepted it all with good grace, bearing the double burden they had carried for centuries, and to this day.


Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh edition, Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2000.

Bisha, Robin, et al, eds. Russian Women, 1698-1917: Experience & Expression. Indiana, 2002.

Chernyshevksy, Nikolai. What Is To Be Done? 1886. Trans. N. Dole and S.S. Skidelsky. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1986.

Clements, Barbara Evans. Bolshevik Women. Cambridge, 1997.

Clements, Barbara Evans. Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the U.S.S.R. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1994.

Clements, Barbara Evens, et al. Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation. University of California, 1991.

d'Encausse, Helene Carrere. Lenin. Trans. George Holoch,. New York: Holmes and Meier, 2001.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth Century Russia. Cambridge, 1983.

Engel, Barbara Alpern and Rosenthal, Clifford N., ed. and trans. Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. "The Bolsheviks' Dilemma: Class, Culture, and Politics in the Early Soviet Years." Slavic Review, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Winter, 1988), 599-613.

Goscilo, Helena, and Holmgren, Beth, eds. Russia, Women, Culture. Indiana, 1996.

Gorsuch, Anne E. "'A Woman is Not a Man': The Culture of Gender and Generatio in Soviet Russia, 1921-1928." Slavic Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Autumn 1996), 636-660.

Keenan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. Bolshevik Culture. Indiana University Press, 1989.

Krupskaya, Nadezhda. Reminisces of Lenin. London: International Publishers, 1970.

Lenin, Vladimir I. What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. New York: International, 1929.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: De Capo Press, 1989.

McNeal, Robert H. Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin. University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Pipes, Richard, Ed. The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive. Yale, 1996.

Pearson, Michael. Lenin's Mistress: The Life of Inessa Armand. New York: Random House, 2002.

Porter, Cathy. Women in Revolutionary Russia. Cambridge, 1987.

Smith, Bonnie G. Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1989.

Stites, Richard. The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism 1860-1930. Princeton, 1978.

Trotsky, Lev. The History of the Russian Revolution. Trans. Max Eastman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937.

Valentinov, Nikolay. Encounters With Lenin. Paul Rosta, Brian Pearce, trans. London: Oxford, 1968

  • Return to Home Page
  • 1