- MONICA SHOWALTER
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‘The success of a revolution,” V.I. Lenin declared at the first all-Russian conference of working women in 1918, “depends on how much women take part in it.”
And based on his writings, there was little doubt he believed this. Problem was, most Russian women weren’t interested.
Unlike what was going on elsewhere in Europe, where the suffrage movement was under way and the Industrial Revolution had drawn many women into the workforce, industry in Russia was in its infancy and the female population was mostly rural and illiterate.
The focus was on family, not what Marxism could do for the working class. But unlike economic classes such as Kulaks or aristocrats who had fallen into his disfavor, women couldn’t be liquidated. Their favored institutions could, however, and that’s why Lenin specifically targeted marriage and family in his effort to build a “New Soviet Man.”
Five elements stand out in how Lenin and his Bolsheviks used propaganda to get women to support his revolution.
• Equating marriage with slavery. Lenin and his feminist lieutenants, particularly Alexandra Kollontai, the first female commissar in the Soviet government, considered much of what the suffragettes were fighting for, including voting rights and equal protection under the law, “bourgeois convention.”
What they had in mind was something far more radical: An all-out war on “old and outdated” institutions like marriage and family so dominance of the state could be achieved. Instead of marriage, there would be more disposable “unions of affection and comradeship.”
The first salvo in the “liberation” of the family was easy divorce, established almost immediately by the Bolsheviks. Abortion on demand — until then illegal in every country in the world — came in 1920.
“The family is ceasing to be necessary either to its members or to the nation,” Kollontai wrote that year. But capitalists, she said, “are well aware that the old type of family, where a woman is a slave and where the husband is responsible for the well-being of his wife and children, is the best weapon in the struggle to stifle the desire of the working class for freedom and to weaken the revolutionary spirit of the working man and working woman.
The Bolsheviks also allowed women to own land and vote. But these rights were rendered moot when the one-party state took over. The right to equal wages was also instituted, but largely ignored. And as women were ghettoized into state-chosen professions, their wages went down.
The idea behind breaking down the family was that women without husbands could be socialized more easily. In practical terms, this meant men were free to leave their wives and abandon their responsibilities, making women wards of the state.
During the Russian civil war, 90% of the female-dominated population of Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the capital of the Russian empire, was dependent on state handouts.
• Vive la sameness. Lenin’s Bolsheviks saw men and women as equal, but not in terms of opportunity. Instead, the imagery in their propaganda made modern Soviet women look like men — with thick necks, brawny shoulders, burly arms and army boots that blurred the lines between the sexes. The less distinguishable men and women were, the easier to manipulate them.
• It takes a village. The Bolsheviks believed communism would eliminate the need for families. The country, after all, would become “one whole family.” Hearth and home were viewed as potentially subversive.
Those who just wanted to look out for their own children were “selfish,” Kollontai wrote. Women should see all children as their own with duties shared. This made it easier to force wives and mothers into factories and gave rise to day-care centers, communal meals, even community laundries and clothing repair centers.
The idea was to sever natural ties between mother and child so the state could forge a New Soviet Man.
• It takes a community organizer. Lenin dispatched Kollontai to set up the Zhenotdel, a community organizing group financed by the Communist Party for agitation and propaganda of the new model.
Zhenotdel representatives not only had their own publication, “Kommunistka,” they also were tasked with going out into the rural villages to set up community centers and force women’s political participation. They also agitated for divorce, abortion and all the other agenda items that Bolsheviks touted as “liberating.”
As large numbers of women lost their families, particularly in the Muslim south where they were attacked and murdered for divorce, they rapidly became outcasts. Many ended up in brothels.
• When socialism fails, blame funding. The social wreckage resulting from these policies was so extensive, and left so many women impoverished and marginalized, that Josef Stalin reversed some “reforms” and disbanded the Zhenotdel in 1930, declaring women “free, equal and emancipated.”
Kollontai and her allies knew better, but didn’t blame the ideas. That went to the state for not distributing enough money for the day-care centers and soup kitchens.
Nevertheless, the effects of their propaganda testified to its effectiveness then, and its legacy of the social wreckage continues to this day. Russia still ranks No. 1 in the world in both divorces (54 per 100) and abortions (50 per 100 live births).
Next: Lenin’s Useful Idiots: The Comintern takes Lenin’s propaganda abroad. The first six installments of this series can be found at Investors.com.