|The best book on private life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Stalin|
The process started in December 1917 when the Bolsheviks decreed sweeping, ostensibly the most progressive in the world at the time, changes in family, property and labour law. The centuries old patriarchal and ecclesiastical power was replaced with a code based upon individual rights and gender equality. The code included the legalization of civil marriages, easy and mutual access to divorce, assurance that both men and women could apply for alimony, women’s entitlement to their earnings, and elimination of illegitimacy thereby entitling all children to parental support. In the next year, labour changes decreed equal pay for equal work, maternity benefits, and prohibited women from working at night or in dangerous conditions that could threaten their health. These changes were in part motivated by the Party’s desire to undermine the power of the Orthodox Church, its chief rival for winning the hearts and minds of the people: the Orthodox Church. Those involved in formulating the transitional decrees stressed that they were a preliminary to the more socialist changes that would involve the withering away of the traditional family. In the short term, the most basic premise underlying these fundamental changes was the growing conviction that women had to be pressed into service as comrades of the revolution and “bury romance as a relic of the past.”
|Nepman and Nepwoman|
Lenin feared for the future of Soviet youth because he felt they were becoming the victims of depravity, dissipation, and unbridled passions. When he primly remarked that “this so-called ‘new sex life’ of young people—and frequently of the adults too—seems to me to be purely bourgeois and simply an extension of the good old bourgeois brothel,” he was suggesting that sexual excess was a by-product of commercial activities of capitalism. It was as if the graphic Gothic metaphor that he had employed when addressing a group of workers and deputies in 1918 had become a preternatural reality: “When the old society dies, its corpse cannot be shut in a coffin and placed in the grave. It decomposes in our midst; the corpse rots and infects us.” Through the deployment of these images, Lenin was suggesting that the moribund capitalist past, in which the rich had engaged in self-indulgent lifestyles of commercialized sex, threatened to reappear like Gothic monsters to feed off the living who were striving toward the creation of a new social order.
|This image is current but sharing apartments has a long history going back to the Revolution|
|Nepman seen as evil capitalist, greedy and overweight|
|B M Kustovdiev: A Bolshevik 1920|
During the Civil War, traditional gender relations were simply cast in a new idiom. Women were encouraged to become “mothers of the new revolutionary order” and serve as nurses at the front, to visit the infirmaries in the rear and to supplement their nursing skills and caring capacities with Bolshevik literature. Or they could place their “tender hearts” and “sharp eyes” at the service of the Party by becoming inspectors who rooted out corruption or misdeeds, and ensured that their husbands, brothers and sons went off to fight. When they shamed male deserters, women demonstrated their involvement in the revolutionary struggle and were worthy of the appellation of comrade or citizen. But none of these activities meant that women had achieved any improvement in gender status. Feminists failed to understand that economic advances and social amelioration were secondary to changing the consciousness of the Soviet citizen, a process that required public scrutiny.
|International Women's Day 1917|
If the Party zealots during the 1920s had to endure economic capitulation to the Nepmen, they could compensate with greater control over private lives through a shrinking personal sphere. To ensure that uncontrolled sexual energy was sublimated back into the revolution, they sought to make the regulation of sexual practices the business of government, thereby eclipsing any notion of the rights of privacy and turn sex into a forum for public discourse. Not only did they promote an ascetic model of sexual continence, one that served as an affirmation of ideological purity, but they sought to convert any discourse about it from the realm of the private, from intimate settings, to the larger public: the auditorium, the lecture hall, the courtroom.
Their distrust of individuality and their ideological desire to immunize men and women against the need for an inner private life went beyond sex to any area of personal response that emerged from the devastating years of the civil war, disease and famine: nightmares, psychosomatic illnesses, suicidal impulses, depression and anxiety. Although psychoanalysis was initially viewed as a tool useful to accelerate development of the vanguard, it was rejected as too costly, too slow and above all potentially subversive because it allowed for open-ended unstructured talk in a private space. Mental illnesses, therefore, attested to weakness. If a person suffered from depression, it became a source of shame: better to hide the symptoms, work hard and get on with life as best one could. For those whose illnesses were too severe for concealment, there were drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, and for the really fortunate, hypnosis. As one psychiatrist phrased it in 1997: “You went to the great man, the leader, you sat down and closed your eyes and he put you right.” For those who were so debilitated, whose nerves had completely shattered by what they had seen or done, there was the escape into alcohol and narcotic drugs. The only alternative for those incapable of work was confinement in hospitals where, given the limited resources and the lack of empathy for the afflicted, the only provision offered was physical restraint. Whatever the means, traumatized individuals were rarely given the opportunity to therapeutically work through their difficulties lest their self-awareness encourage a need to cast doubt on the achievements of the Bolshevik state. At any rate, the emergent culture stressed fitting in to the larger collective and offered no endorsement to those who attempted to sanctify private life itself.
|Portrait of Anna Akhmatova 1914 by Nathan Altman|
The spirit of thuggery intensified during the 1920s among the Party faithful in response to the fear that revolutionary feelings could be diluted or submerged into private life. By 1928 when Stalin launched collectivization and the first Five-year Plan, these anxieties appeared moot. The ideological terrain had seismically shifted; what remained at stake was not the legitimacy of the revolution to shut down the private lives of individuals but the safety and security of millions of lives. The image of society as the forum for public opinion vanished as serious intellectual exchanges on a range of issues curdled as the press parroted the boilerplate dictated by the inner cabinet or Politburo. The mere perception of dissent from the official Party line was tantamount to treason. The waves of terror launched by the man of steel ratcheted upwards the impulse to exterminate not only designated subversive targets but also their family members, including those of potentates within his inner circle who too were fed into the insatiable maw of the Stalinist juggernaut. The onslaught also vindicated the ideologues that feared the intimacy of family life would undermine Bolshevik hardness and commitment to the Party and its leader.