Very few people talk of freedom and its relationship to responsibility. Over the centuries, family has revealed itself to be this kind of freedom; one that takes dedication, commitment and self-sacrifice. Family takes responsibility and even a level of self-restraint to hold back your own pleasures for the sake of others. This is what it means to be a loving father and mother. Yet what the family unit receives in return is an even greater freedom.
Our culture today that celebrates ‘free love’, denies this wisdom. Freedom becomes enslavement to wanton lusts, selfish ambition and emotional gratifications. In this way, freedom can become its own form of tyranny. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, wrote:
“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils: for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
Freedom requires wisdom and is built on virtue. Folly, vice and madness without restraint is tyranny in disguise. True freedom is found in the family unit. Nowhere has this been displayed with greater potency than in the Soviet Union.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Bolshevik party in the name of ‘freedom’ got rid of the family and responsibility in favour of freedom without restraint. After implementing free abortion, free love, free divorce and free childcare policies, the Soviet Union realised the devastating effects of destroying the family and reverted back to religious values.
Freedom in theory
Marx and Engels’ Origin of Family (1884) articulated a new vision of family responsibility. Engels argued that the traditional family unit oppressed women into a bondage of servitude.1 In the same way, leading Bolshevik feminist Alexander Kollontai in her Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle asserted that sex was a form of economic oppression that expressed the property rights of men over the female body.2
For the Bolshevik party, the liberation of women from domestic inferiority and social servitude was only the beginning.3 The Zhenotdel — the commissariat for women — emancipation would pave the way for a revolutionary reversal of gender and sex in a rapidly evolving Russian culture. Bolshevik theory moved past egalitarianism towards the ideals of a pure communist women. For party officials such as Lenin, abortive rights were part of the working-class struggle. Monarchy and the Church had fallen, and Bolshevik theory became the new paradigm.
Freedom without Wisdom
What followed was a call to free love and socialised sex championed by the first director of the Zhenotdel, Inessa Armand (who left her husband in 1902 to have an open relationship with his younger brother). The 1918 family code6 eradicated the bourgeois conception of marital property and hence ecclesiastical subservience.7
Along with no-fault divorce, they legalised illegitimate marriage and did not recognise marriages bonded by religious ceremony. Single mothers received monetary support8 and illegitimate children were legally validated. Abortion was legalised as standard practice, with women being allowed three weeks of paid leave when terminating a pregnancy.9
In an effort to encourage communal living and collective families, Russian social architects designed the Narkomfin.10 This apartment complex used shared living areas and limited border delineations to free women from bearing the sole responsibility of raising children. As a result, wives were catapulted into the workforce and were supported by the state as industrial labourers, freeing them from the traditional labour of childbirth.11 The family became replaced by the state. What follows are the severe consequences of unrestrained freedoms.
Freedom and its consequences
The following years were a metaphorical hydra. Like the heads of the mythical dragon, each time a restriction against women was cut off, two grew back in its place.
The liberations of the revolution mostly affected children and mothers. The conditions of family were underscored by filial instability, child delinquency and rampant divorce. By 1924, for every 10,000 people there were 109 registered marriages and approximately 70,000 to 100,000 de facto marriages every year nationwide,12 leaving over 7 million children on the streets after the civil war.13 Russian writer and politician Ivan Stepanov captured this reality in his writings:
“We thought we could create institutions which the development of harmonious, beautiful, and communist marriage would be possible. But what has happened? Women remain tied to the ruined family hearth, and men, whistling gaily, walk out.”14
Party leaders realised this “collapse of morality” devastated society, only making the plight of women worse.15
The problems women faced from these changes to family were compounded by legalised abortion. Although this was presented as an immense step forward in women’s rights,16 other historians have linked the breakdown of family structure to abortive practices.17
Comparative studies show the weakening of family ties and sexual mores exacerbated by abortion, which provided an easy solution to the burden of children.18 Even though the party targeted the economic problems women faced which often led to abortion,19 they could not slow down the proliferation of these practices.
By 1924, for every 100 births in Moscow, there were 75 abortions compared to the 6.4 in 1911.20 In 1935, abortions became so prevalent that the birth rate could not replace the urban population, as the 57,000 live births were dwarfed by the 157,000 abortions that year.21
C) Sexual Nihilism
One of the freedoms which had the most dramatic consequences was the free love movement. The revolution generated a socialisation of sex, eradicating its privatisation.22 Men could now impregnate women and take advantage of abortion and divorce to keep a clear conscience while the state provided support.23
A comprehensive survey done by Israel Gelman in 1922 commissioned by the commissar of health outlined the effects this had on women’s well-being.24 In one poll, he found that only 14.3 percent of young women and 21.4 percent of young men believed marriage was an ideal, as most preferred “short-term romantic liaisons”.25
In an interview, Gelman recorded one man saying “I don’t believe in marriage, only sexual intercourse like two dogs together”.26 Gelman made two conclusions: both genders were in bondage to sexual nihilism27 and women were ironically more unsatisfied by sex after the revolution.28
A survey done by David Lass in 1928 reported one respondent who had no time for love, because prostitution was provided by the government through public brothels.29 One American writer observed:
“Talks of sex with no more reserve than of music, the theatre, the weather.”30
As a result, party intellectuals began to question the new social order, as Lenin argued the revolution came before the sensuality of the new age.31 Gelman showed 10 percent of women reported a healthy sexual life, and only 6 percent saw men’s behaviour as moral.32
Historians also uncovered a similar portrait of depravity in Russian literature.33 In response to this cultural fixation on pleasure, Boris Chetverikov’s Russian play Aftergrowth (1924) observed,
“Sex is the supreme commander.”34
The title of the play captured the vegetative struggle for women to live amidst the ruins of the revolution. Other writers described the Russian context as a “hellish barbarism”,35 and “immorality flourishing as nowhere before in the world”.36
In an ironically grotesque fashion, Russian writer Finogen Budnev wrote about the appalling portrait of abuse.37 He described a culture which encouraged domestic violence, alcoholism, demeaning attitudes towards women, changing marriages “like gloves”,38 acquaintance rape, venereal diseases and illegitimate children.39
In response to the plethora of problems facing the population and women individually, Stalin inaugurated a ‘Great Retreat’40 to marital fidelity and family reconstruction.41 Stalin even remarked upon the destructive nature of abortion to the communist cause and the humanitarian values of life.42
After his amendment to the family code in 1936, the number of divorces in Moscow went from 2,214 to 215,43 and the rates of juvenile delinquency fell, while “most of the homeless children were off the streets and back with their families”.44 Two surveys record on average, women were happier with a husband and children living together.45
The painful paradox of the Soviet experiment was that women were free to divorce, terminate pregnancies and receive government welfare incentives. This placed blame and burdens46 on Soviet women, which encouraged the sexual permissiveness of male abdicators, replacing familial stability with chaos.
The Family as Freedom
D. H. Lawrence, writing in his apologetic essay to the novel, Apropos Lady Chatterley (1932), made these observations:
“It is marriage perhaps, which has given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the State, given him his foothold of independence on which to stand and resist an unjust State. Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects and a few square yards of territory of their own: This, really, is marriage. It is true freedom because it is a true fulfilment for man, woman and children.
Make marriage in any serious degree unstable, dissoluble, destroy the permanency of marriage, and the church falls. Witness the enormous decline of the Church of England, the reason being that the Church is established upon the element of union in mankind… the marriage-tie, the marriage-bond, take it which way you like, is the fundamental link in Christian society. Break it, and you will have to go back to the overwhelming dominance of the State, which existed before the Christian era. The Roman State was all powerful.”
The moral, sexual and even political decadence that is in our culture comes back to the folly of modern liberties. Free love, free sex and free expression have become liberties without wisdom. This is not to say freedom is a bad thing, but accompanied with folly, it has devastating effects.
If history can teach us one thing from the Russian period, it is that the sanctity of life, marriage and sex are the backbone of civil society. Although the sweet-tasting fruits of freedom may seem gratifying, true freedom is found in the security of loving relationships that selflessly reflect a higher moral calling.
The reminder that evil is most seductive when sold as freedom is best put by the words of the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians,
“And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
So, it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.
Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
- Marx, K and Engels, F. Selected Works in One Volume (International Publishers, New York, 1968), p. 38.
- Kollontai, Alexandra. Selected Writings: Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle, trans. Alix Holt (London: Allison and Busby, 1977), p. 245.
- Stites, Richard, Zhenotdel: Bolshevism and Russian Women, 1917-1930. Source: Russian History, 1976, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1976), published by: Brill. p. 180.
- Calverton, Victor. The Bankruptcy of Marriage (New York: Macaulay Co., 1928, rpt. by Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972), p. 241.
- Lenin. R. Dagli, The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism, Pravda (Moscow), June 1913, translated in 19. V.I Lenin: collected works, p. 235.
- Becky L. Glass and Margaret K. Stolee, ‘Family Law in Soviet Russia’, 1917-1945 Journal of Marriage and Family, Nov., 1987, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Nov., 1987), National Council on Family Relations, p. 897-99.
- Lapenna, Ivo. The Illegitimate Child in Soviet Law. Source: The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Jan., 1976, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), p. 178. Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
- Farnsworth, Beatrice. 1977. “Bolshevik alternatives and the Soviet Family: The 1926 marriage law debate”, pp. 139-166, in Dorothy Atkinson, Alexander Dallin, and Gail Lapidus (eds.), Women in Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Field, Alice. The Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia, p. 241. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1932.” The annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 163, no. 1 (September 1932), pp. 59-63.
- Buchli, Victor. “Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57, no. 2 (1998): pp. 160-81.
- Wood, Elizabeth A. The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1997, p. 166.
- Stevens, Jennie. Children of the Revolution: Soviet Russia, p. 9. 1988, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Apr. 1988), Published by: Stanford Law Review pp. 1027-1117.
- Goldman, Wendy, p. 367.
- Stepanov, Ivan. “Problema Pola,” in E. Iaroslavskii, Voprosy zhizni i borbi (Moscow, Leningrad: Molodaia gvardiia, 1924), p. 205.
- Trotsky, Leon, Women and the Family (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), p. 20-22.
- Fanina Halle, p. 139.
- Suny, Ronald Grigor. (1998). The Soviet experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 300.
- Blitsten, Dorothy. 1963. The World of the Family: A Comparative Study of Family Organisations. New York: Random House. Also see, Grigorov, G., and S. Shkotov, 1927, Staryi i Novyi Byt [The Old and New Way of Life]. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia.
- Savage, Mark. The Law of Abortion in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China: Women’s Rights in Two Socialist Countries, Apr. 1988, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Apr. 1988) pp. 1027-1117.
- Savage, ibid., p. 1044.
- Coser, Lewis. 1951. “Some aspects of Soviet family policy.” American Journal of Sociology 56, pp. 424-437.
- Jurij Lotman, The Decembrist in Everyday Life, trans. C R. Pike, in Ju. M. Lotman and B. A. Uspenskij, The Semiotics of Russian Culture, ed. Ann Shukman (Ann Arbor: Dept, of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan, 1984), p. 83.
- Carleton, Gregory, p. 34.
- Gelman, Israel. Sourced from Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press. Polovaia zhizri sovremennoi molodezhi. Opyt sotsial nogo-biologicheskogo obsledovaniia (M-L: Gosudarstvennoe izd., 1923), p. 115.
- Gelman, ibid., p. 85.
- Gelman, ibid., p. 86.
- Gelman, ibid., p. 65.
- Gelman, ibid., p. 62.
- Lass, David. Sourced from Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press. Souremennoe studenchestvo (M-L: Molodaia gvardiia,1928), p. 56.
- Hindus, Maurice. Humanity Uprooted (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1919), p. 93.
- Clara Zetkin, p. 50.
- Gelman, op. cit., p. 32.
- Bogdanov, Nikolai. Pervaia devushka (Nizhnii-Novgorod: Molodaia gvardija, 1928), pp. 164-65. Sourced from Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press. One Bolshevik writer described the new relationship women had with men, “If desire awakens in you, tell a girl… If she wants to satisfy you then no one is going to judge you… if she does not want to satisfy you, then look for another. Is it not all the same?”
- Chetverikov, Boris. Aftergrowth, 1924. Quoted by Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press, Preface, p. 1.
- Baker, Royal. The Menace Bolshevism (Detroit: Liberty Bell Publishers, 1919), p. 28.
- Jessica Smith, p. 99.
- Budnev, Finogen. (1924): p. 243-49. Sourced from Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press, Chapter 2. Also see Vera Ketlinskaia and Vladimir Slepkov, Zhizn bez kontrolia (polovalazhizn i sem ia rabochei molodezhi) (L: Molodaia gvardiia, 1929).
- Pogodin, Nikolai. Moskatov, Sourced from Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia (2005), University of Pittsburgh Press. Chapter 2. “Samoubiistvo v Ulu-Teliake,” KP, June 13, 1926, p. 1.
- Budnev, Finogen. (1924): pp. 243-49.
- Suny, Ronald Grigor. (1998). The Soviet experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 300.
- Becky L. Glass and Margaret K. Stolee, p. 898.
- Suny, Grigor, p. 302.
- Mace, David and Mace, Vera. 1963. The Soviet Family. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- King, Beatrice. 1937. Soviet Russia goes to school, New York: Viking Press; Makarenko, Anton. 1939. Children in the Land of Socialism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
- Berman, Harold (1946): p. 53: See Boshko, The Conception of Marriage in Soviet Socialist Family Law (1939) Socialist legality (in Russian) p. 54. Also see Sverdlov, On the Object and System of Socialist Family Law (1941) 1 Soviet state and law, pp. 61-3.
- Wood, Elizabeth A. The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. (Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1997.
– featured photo: A Soviet family out for a walk, c. 1970s.]