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Mike Haynes

Brief encounters

(July 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sexual liberation is central to the idea of socialist revolution. Mike Haynes looks at how the Russian Revolution in 1917 challenged the morality of the old regime, but how the growth of Stalinism smashed the gains of 1917 and left a legacy of repressed and distorted sexuality that endures even today

Attitudes to sex can tell us much about a society. In the case of Russia the changing attitude to sex throws considerable light on the nature of the different regimes that have controlled that society in the 20th century.

Today Russia is a society drowning in sexual imagery. Pornography is rife. On the bookstalls, in the markets and subways, it is possible to find everything from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution to Mein Kampf and Lord of the Rings sitting alongside ‘erotica’. Even if you don’t have enough money to buy them, if you offer enough, the stallholder might let you look for a few seconds at the ‘Playmate of the Month’.

Yesterday none of this existed. But Russia was just as hung up on sex in the negative sense. Under Stalin it became, in the words of one sociologist, a society with a ‘pathological animosity to sex’. And yet in the period after 1917 socialists had seen Russia as the most free society on earth, eliminating not only exploitation and oppression but also sexual repression.

Conservatives have always accused revolutionaries of ‘immorality and free love’. And it is true that socialists do repudiate the hypocrisy of conventional society. But the socialist argument involves more than this. Marx and Engels argued that human relationships are distorted by class society. The relationships of men and women are moulded not least by the oppression of women.

By removing the material base of class, Marx and Engels argued, socialism can create the possibility of new human relationships developing. In particular by liberating women a real equality will be possible in which men and women face each other as real equals with the right to choose and say yes and no. A free choice of heterosexual or homosexual love would develop without the interference of society.

Russia at the start of the 20th century was like any other capitalist state. The subjection of women was reinforced by the law. The wife was required ‘to follow her husband as head of the family, to love and respect him, to submit to him in every respect’. Although a small but growing feminist and socialist movement challenged these ideas, most people lived lives set by the conventional world of male domination. The aristocracy and middle classes proclaimed the virtue of stable marriage but this was belied by the tens of thousands of prostitutes and the VD wards where servant women made up the biggest group. Among the peasants it was still common for a whip to be passed to the man in the marriage ceremony and sometimes this was hung above the couple’s bed. In the lower classes generally wife beating was endemic, and everywhere material poverty sapped the pleasure of human relationships.

Yet pressures for change developed both from the socialist movement and from the beginnings of a new self confidence from women as they moved into the workplace and found a collective strength. Revolution in 1917 boosted this. One soldier interrupted a women’s street meeting to ask, ‘Does this mean I can’t hit my wife?’ The crowd shouted, ‘None of that. You just try it. Nothing doing. Let ourselves be beaten any more? Not on your life. Nobody has the right now.’ In the factories too, women took revenge on the boss and foremen who had humiliated them. Of course, revolution was no magic wand that transformed everything but here was a process beginning from below where women especially asserted the right to their free development.

The Bolsheviks tried to reinforce this in the first days of revolutionary power by their decrees on women. The rights to free marriage and free divorce were established, distinctions in law between legitimacy and illegitimacy removed. Homosexuality was decriminalised. To help pregnant women a special department of the Commissariat of Health was established and in 1919 women in the Bolshevik Party created the Zhenotdel – a special women’s department.

The new spirit was expressed by one Zhenotdel worker in 1920: ‘Communism emancipates women, communism emancipates children, communism transforms the relations between the sexes into simply private relations, communism transforms the woman from “the wife of a person” into a person.’ In this sense a woman, said another member of the Zhenotdel, would ‘not be inferior to a man in anything’. The Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai identified what this meant for personal relationships, ‘a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of the communist society, both of them free, both of them independent, both of them workers.’

But these fine aspirations were undercut by the horrors of the Civil War which stretched the revolution almost to breaking point. As the cities starved and froze and resources were drained away to the military front it was impossible to turn the aspirations into reality. Human relationships were formed in the worst of times. At best they were brief encounters. ‘Love meant: I’m going to die, to die’, wrote Ilya Ehrenburg in a poem of the time. ‘Love meant: Go, leaping, fire, along the wind. Love meant: Where are you? Where?’ Some confused this rough enforced equality with a new morality but, as one socialist critic has put it, they were ‘simply glamourising the helpless situation of people fighting a war’. It was in this fearful context that an immense step forward was made in 1920 to decriminalise abortion as a way of relieving the pressures on women – the first time that this had happened anywhere in the advanced world.

But at worst in these years something else occurred. As the social facilities crumbled, children were abandoned and orphaned on a massive scale – half a million by 1922. In the undergrowth prostitution flourished and black market publishers still found paper to print pornography. The end of the Civil War in 1921 brought new opportunities but also new dangers. Bolshevik rule had just survived but much of the working class had been destroyed and with it the spirit of 1917.

The 1920s were therefore full of ambiguities. At one level it was a time of experiment and ferment, in sex as much as anything else. ‘What fun we had mocking the cult of virginity’, one woman remembered. A small gay culture developed. Nudists marched on the streets of Petrograd to celebrate the human body. Alexandra Kollontai wrote stories of the dilemmas of those freed from convention. But just beneath the surface was a different picture.

Even among the free spirits of the party freedom became twisted. ‘Any Komsomol woman or female student has to do the bidding of any man to whom she seems pleasing, otherwise she is “petty bourgeois” and does not deserve the name of proletarian student’, complained the head of the Zhenotdel.

Resisting the degeneration in this area of life, as elsewhere, was not easy. Some thought personal life unimportant. Others saw their chance to use their power. Bukharin attacked the case of a party official who was procuring girls in the resort of Sochi for other officials as a symbol of the revolution’s degeneration. Still others – notoriously Stalin – moved towards an acceptance of family values as the basis of the retreat from the high ideals of 1917.

As early as 1923 he can be found arguing that, ‘The female workers and peasants are mothers, the educators of our youth – the future of our country.’

So long as the uneasy balance of the New Economic Policy (NEP) remained, so did some of the earlier gains. One peasant woman said in 1927, ‘Yes, I think it is a little better. Men are ashamed to beat their wives so often ... I think they are also afraid. A woman in the next village got a divorce.’ But what remained of the earlier liberation was swept away by the victory of Stalin and the final overturn of the remains of the revolution.

The objective was rapid industrialisation and competition with the West. This needed women in the labour force on a massive scale but it also needed the family as the basic cell of society. Stalin pushed the Soviet Union towards one of the most sexually repressed societies in the advanced world in the 20th century.

Homosexuality was made a crime again in 1933 and abortion effectively banned from 1936. The family and ‘mother heroine’ were celebrated. Women had to be both workers and mothers. ‘I am ready to give birth every year’, wrote one woman joyously in response to the banning of abortion to stimulate population growth.

Discussions of sex simply disappeared. Naked bodies were not allowed in paintings. Sex could not be reflected in books and films. The first screen kiss was not seen until 1956. Unmarried couples could not stay in hotels. In the streets police whistles stopped courting couples and in private the Communist Party played the role of moral policeman.

People did struggle to find love and comfort in one another. ‘They think just because we have had Stalin we have never lived and loved like people’, said one woman. But it was difficult to keep the world out of your bed – not least if you lived in a communal room and feared that fleeting passion would bring another pregnancy.

After the death of Stalin there was a gradual relaxation in the discussion of sexuality. Women’s lives did improve – especially after 1955 when abortion was again allowed. But contraception remained uncertain. By the 1980s only 20 percent of need was being covered and Soviet women had as many as 10 million abortions a year.

Sex education continued to be taboo until it was gingerly broached in the 1980s. Overall attitudes remained trapped as the sexual revolution passed by the Soviet Union.

Ignorance and repression combined to produce bigotry. Sex was smut. Real men did it their way. Real men and women were not ‘queers’. In the early 1970s the film director Sergei Paradzhanov was sentenced to five years hard labour for homosexuality and many lesser known men suffered with less publicity.

People were told that this repressive society was one that had achieved socialism and women’s freedom. But if this was so then it is not surprising that people turned away from the ideas of both socialism and women’s emancipation in disgust. From the 1960s, generations developed which began to see unrestrained sex as a gesture of apolitical opposition to the regime. It was opposition because ‘they don’t want us to do it’. It was apolitical because it took place in an ideological vacuum and it pointed to a liberation no less false than the one that had been claimed to exist before.

When the system began to collapse at the end of the 1980s it opened up an explosion of repressed interest in sex and sexuality, and women in particular were cynically encouraged to celebrate their ability to serve man’s sexual needs as a form of liberation in the same way that they had earlier been encouraged to see the double burden of worker and homemaker as freedom.

In one sense this is not unusual. Russia today echoes the contradictions in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s when politically and sexually repressive dictatorships fell. Sexual images, pornography and politics jostle one another. But there is a vital difference. In these cases movements developed in which men and women could argue for a real emancipation.

In Russia the vacuum is continuing. It is reinforced by talk of putting women back into the home as beautiful wives. Small gay and women’s movements have developed but it is difficult for them to stand against the flood. The fascist Zhirinovsky has seen political potential in building on this pseudo liberation. He shocked many by deliberately suffusing his election speeches with sexual imagery. Some responded with disdain. It was a bad misjudgement. Zhirinovsky in this as so much else represents an outcome which derives from the legacy of exploitation and oppression which masqueraded as socialist freedom and so denied people the chance to explore a real path to freedom in both their politics and personal life.

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