Friday 26 July 2013

The Bolsheviks Wage War on Private Life

I originally conceived that this selection would be part of a separate chapter in the Soviet selection of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 but for reasons of space it was excised. Note how the Bolshevik war on the family and privacy deployed Gothic imagery and rhetoric.

The best book on private life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Stalin
Bolsheviks believed that their goals could only be realized if they declared war on the past and on the institutions that fostered “egotistical” attitudes. One young journalist wrote in 1920 that because bourgeois manners and ways of thinking still existed, “we have to do away with this. We have to chop off the past from the future, to forget yesterday once and for all, and to make the human world truly communist.” Similar to Gothic novels in late nineteenth-century England that registered the fear of the atavistic past intruding on the present, cultural futurists during the 1920s repeated their visceral hatred of history referring to the “vampire past” as a spirit that might take possession of a Bolshevik and cause him to commit atrocious deeds. To avert that oppressive hand from reaching out and strangling their moral purity, the Party zealots sought to destroy the patriarchal family that they believed was exploitative and based on prejudice, along with its attendant private life that fostered individualistic instincts and material acquisitiveness. In its place the “selfless revolutionary” would emerge jettisoning all the old commandments and substituting service to the Party committed to the utopian goals of achieving international Bolshevism, the transformation of man and rendering money unnecessary. 

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
 The unravelling of the traditional family wrought changes that militated against the well- being of family relationships. During the 1920s the Soviet Union experienced the highest divorce rate in the world accompanied by the bourgeoning increase in casual relationships. Marriage was dismissed as a “bourgeois convention” to be replaced with “free unions of love.” In the early part of the decade, promiscuity was encouraged because it would diminish intimate attachments, a “bourgeois possession of the other” that threatened exclusive loyalty to the Party. Yet this hedonism in itself created tensions. Some within the Communist Party feared the danger of degeneration and the loss of the Party’s revolutionary dedication if its membership was corrupted not only by the Nepmen and the bourgeois intellectuals and specialists but also by the sexual promiscuity of the young Komsomol. As part of the campaign to gain greater control over private life, much of the public discourse during the 1920s focused on ways to sublimate those sexual energies into more productive channels.

 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 peopleand frequently of the adults tooseems 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
In one sense, the putrefying corpse of capitalism would be laid to rest by the end of the decade. In another sense, the landscape of the Soviet Union would be pockmarked for the next twenty-five years by the ubiquitous presence of very real corpses, human beings trapped in a netherworld where they were not certain they were alive or dead. That process was in part inspired by the Party’s intrusion into family in order for members to decipher the souls of loved ones and root out the ideologically unfit. If the bourgeois family had been a haven from public interactions, the Communists were convinced that the family became a site for public scrutiny. Wealthier families were forced to share their homes and apartments with poorer ones not only because of a housing shortage but also because the Party believed that the former bourgeois would shed the values of private property and privacy, and communal living would encourage greater scrutiny. Party members inculcated the values of the October Revolution into their children whom they treated as equal and regarded as “small
Nepman seen as evil capitalist, greedy and overweight
comrade[s].” Parents rarely saw their children and followed the impersonal advice of a Soviet educational thinker who warned parents in 1924 about the dangers of loving a child since it would turn him into an “egotistical being.” Parents complied by displaying no physical or emotional contact with them; only grandmothers whose values were shaped before the Revolution would offer them affection. A large number of these children would one day repay their parents, demonstrate good Communist values and inform upon them. In the meantime, the Communist leadership by the late 1920s discouraged promiscuity for sound pragmatic reasons: a declining birth rate that posed a potential labour shortage, the absence of contraceptives, and although abortion was legal, it was difficult to access and it was dangerous. Romantic love, provided it was “a union of two conscious souls,” came back into fashion but the family still remained a vital venue for mutual political education and surveillance. 

B M Kustovdiev: A Bolshevik 1920
The Bolsheviks were committed to forging a new human being that would eschew privacy. Ideological aversion to the traditional family and cultural stereotypes, combined with military and economic realities, ensured that the decrees from the October revolution worked against women. Attention devoted to gender issues would only divert energy from a class-based revolution. Culturally, women were perceived as babassuperstitious, gossipy and backwardideologically, as an impediment to revolution because of their illiteracy in both the usual and political sense. For one who had been pampered by womensisters, mother, wife and mistressand cared for by women when he suffered from nervous exhaustion, Lenin could be ungracious. He blamed, “woman’s backwardness and her lack of understanding for her husband’s revolutionary ideals [who] act as a drag on his fighting spirit, on his determination to fight. They [women] are like tiny worms gnawing and undermining imperceptibly.” The undercurrents of misogyny, reinforced by the entomological metaphor, illustrate how ideology bled into a culture that demeaned women. Yet Lenin recognized that men needed to purge their minds of the “slave owner’s point of view” and take on responsibilities within the home so that women could participate in the public sector. If a woman were not drawn out of her domestic isolation, she would vegetate, “her spirit shrinking, her mind growing dull, her heartbeat growing faint, and her will growing slack.” If this process were to continue, women’s passivity would threaten the revolution. Women needed to stand with their proletarian husbands in full support of a revolution that would end the injustices of the working people.  

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
Yet the economic and social realities of women could not be ignored. When women accounted by 1917 for 40 per cent of the work force in large-scale industries, the specific grievances of women, required some response. They threatened to place their prioritiesjob discrimination, sexual harassment overcrowded housing, and lack of day careabove the proletarian struggle. The decision to create a separate women’s section that would politically educate peasant and working women and elicit their support was a token effort to address these issues yet indicative of their limited power. Symbolically, the disdain was initially present when the women’s bureau moved into a remote corner of the Party headquarters so that a woman’s “jabbering” would not disturb the male comrades during their important tasks. Because of the association with reviled feminism, the women encountered condescension and ironical smiles from other Party workers. Setting up meetings with peasant women, publishing a department magazine and preparing pamphlets were dismissed as a foolish diversion. Moreover, they had difficulty getting support from some female activists because many of the latter had entered revolutionary activity to escape the female stereotype. Attempting to organize women was “feminism.” Marxists, including a leading female exponent such as the Polish-German Rosa Luxembourg, considered women’s issues to be tainted with a bourgeois colouration. Most likely these women activists had internalized this male view, and with their insecurities wanted the support of male comrades, who in turn paraded Marxist ideology about “feminism” as a cover for their own fears about independent women. Finally, they met with resistance from the peasant women themselves who felt discussion of “female matters” was a wasteful intrusion into the grinding chores they had to perform each day. By the-mid 1920s, the women’s bureau had become marginalized and by the end of the decade extinct.

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
Trotsky expressed a variation on this motif of the separation between the private and public when he excoriated Anna Akhmatova and other women poets for being too “burdened with the personal.” He compared their allusions to God with female sexual physiology when he disparagingly remarked that they limited their world to the inside of an apartment watched over by a “gynaecological god [who was] a friend of the house fulfilling from time to time the duties of a medical specialist in female ailments.” Trotsky’s book appeared in 1923 but chapters of it were published in September and October 1922 a few weeks after the government exiled some of the country’s most prominent intellectuals as counter-revolutionaries. Cultural critics correctly interpreted these publications as a warning. They had no doubt that his equation of the spiritual with the sexual was a veiled threat to poets, like Akhmatova; it would be in her best interest to desist in the parsing of intimate personal feelings, excoriated as feminine, and embrace masculine public issues to rally the masses. At a time when the Party consisted largely of Red Army veterans, who flaunted an aggressively macho image by sporting Mausers in their holsters, one literary critic challenged Bolshevik cultural hegemony in his response to Trotsky. “What if,” he asked, “Akhmatova put on a leather jacket or Red Army star, would she be relevant to October [the Revolution]? If so, this would be absolutely terrible.” From a humanist’s perspective, his point is well taken; from a Party perspective, it was unseemly, even philistine when the Party was engaged in the momentous struggle to liberate humanity from placing one’s private interests above that of the public. Akhmatova’s lyrical poetry was a threat to the utopians who believed that romantic passions should be co-opted by the Party in order to gird the individual to be a successful revolutionary. Softer feminine feelings made it harder to spill blood for political ends. Biographies of Lenin often referred to his comment that he could no longer listen to the music of Beethoven because it made him go soft in the head and “say a lot of sweet nonsense” when what was needed was “to beat [people] over the head, beat them mercilessly.”  

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.


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