By Lev D. Zilbermints


In this, the third part of the series about life in Soviet Russia, I will be writing about the life of women. The materials I use are taken from interviews with Russian emigrants, the Internet, books, personal experiences and other sources. Where necessary, I will be citing sources, such as scholarly books, articles, interviews and the like. My goal is to show that the life of women in Soviet Russia was much different from those in Western Europe or America.

The history of women during the Soviet era had its ups and downs. For instance, in 1920, abortion was legalized, and divorce was simplified. According to Wikipedia, women were given equal rights in regard to insurance in case of illness, eight-week paid maternity leave, paid holiday leave and a minimum wage standard. In 1922, marital rape was made illegal in the Soviet Union. 

The rights that women received were offset by the massive unemployment women faced after the end of the Russian Civil War (1918-1923). According to Pickard (1988), the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was introduced as a temporary measure to revive production - had serious consequences for women workers. A rise in unemployment hit unskilled women the hardest. 

In 1923, 58 percent of the unemployed in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) were women; in the textile industry between 80 and 90 percent of the unemployed were women. With divorce made easier, women faced more problems. This was because, per Pickard, without economic independence and a job, divorce only added to the insecurity and hardship of women, rather than giving them a choice. 

There was still a double standard, however. If a man left his de facto wife, she was left unable to secure assistance. Men could easily leave their de facto wives without being punished. If a woman became pregnant, the man could leave and not be legally responsible to give assistance to the woman or the child. As a result, this led to an increase in homeless children. According to Wikipedia, in 1926, the Soviet regime passed a marriage law that gave registered and unregistered marriages equal rights and specified the obligations that came with marriage.

Between 1922 and 1937, out of 4 million new workers 82 percent were women. However, having a job did not mean financial security and liberation. According to Martine Mespoliet (Women in Soviet Society, 2006) between 1929 and 1935, nearly 4 million women took up a paid job, 1.7 million of them in industry. They were mainly recruited to non-qualified posts.

By 1937 they represented 42% of the industrial workforce. This meant that certain professions, certain jobs, even entire economic sectors, became domains that were largely reserved for women. According to Mespoliet, the establishment of this sexual segregation at work was thus organized and planned by the state.  

In the 1930s, with the regime changing tactics and laws, things changed for women. In 1934, homosexuality and prostitution were declared crimes with penalties up to 8 years imprisonment. In 1935, the production of contraceptives ceased. The following year, 1936, abortions were made illegal and divorce made more difficult. The state provided material help to those giving birth and women with more children. Maternity hospitals increased, and women with many children were actually awarded a medal, “Mother - Heroine.”

Also in 1936, there were over 1,000 women arrested for prostitution in Moscow alone. According to Pickard (1988), “the fact that out of economic necessity thousands of women, many born after 1917, were resorting to prostitution - which represents the extreme degradation of women - was a crushing refutation of the myth of the bureaucracy that ‘socialism had been achieved’.”

Civil unions were treated as extramarital affairs and did not get state support. Motherhood was seen as the socialist duty of the woman. In addition to being a mother, the woman was obligated to work along with man. This meant that the woman had to bear a double burden, one which great complicated her life. This fact was suppressed in social discussions and was not acknowledged.

According to Pickard (1988), legal abortions were abolished except on health grounds, and women were instructed that they had no right to deny the “joys of motherhood.” From now on, only the wealthy and the elite could afford abortions. As for ordinary women, per Pickard (1988) “out of necessity, were forced to procure illegal abortions without adequate sanitation and facilities. Many women suffered mutilation and medical problems.” 

The Great Purge affected women greatly. According to Melanie Ilic (2001), from 1934-1940, the number of women that were gulag prisoners rose from 30,108 to 108,898. Unlike men, women were not sent to hard labor camps, but rather worked at camps that were textile or sewing factories, and were only forced to perform hard labor as punishment. While in the camps, women were often subjects of violence or sexual slaves, states Ilic.

Once World War II began, women showed their worth as warriors and leaders. According to West Point History of World War II (2015) a total of 800,000 women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during the war. This was about 3% of total military personnel. The number of women in Soviet military in 1943 was 348,309, 473,040 in 1944, and finally 463,503 in 1945. 

Women made up 40% of paramedics, 43% of surgeons, 46% of doctors, 57% of medical assistants and 100% of nurses in the Red Army. Of these, close to 200,000 received medals, and 89 ended up receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union’s highest award. Women served as pilots, snipers, partisans, machine gunners, tank crew members, heads of factories and enterprises.

In 1943, separate education for boys and girls was again instituted. Its purpose was to bring up boys and girls according to different roles in society. The boys were supposed to be warriors and fighters of the rear, the girls, mothers and tutors. However, the Soviet leadership did not go back on making women socially equal. This created obvious contradictions in Soviet female policy. The problem began to be actively worked on and solved after Stalin’s death. The state attempted to cultivate the woman as a personality that had the possibility of taking active participation in social production. The idea was that this personality would have a sense of duty with others before society and be united with it.

By 1944, divorce could only be made in court. Men found it more difficult to get a divorce than women. Also, the more times one received a divorce, the more money had to be paid. This obstacle was another way the state tried to prevent women from leaving their husbands. 

Ordinary women who did not have connections were left to struggle as best they could. The average women had to do the shopping, cook dinner, carry children to kindergarten and have a full-time job. Not every woman was lucky enough to have their child accepted into kindergarten. There were no private kindergartens, and those sponsored by the state were few. Moreover, women had to stand in lines for food and hard-to-get items.

After Stalin died in 1953, things changed. In 1955, abortion was again legalized. The 1936 laws were repealed, and a new abortion law passed. Education ceased to be separate for boys and girls and became mixed. In 1965, the divorce process was again eased. In 1967, the woman obtained the right to receive alimony of at least 25% wages from the family that she left. By 1968, there were paid vacations for pregnant and those giving birth. Single mothers received assistance for children, as did divorced women.

The new laws in general significantly improved the woman’s situation. However, the new laws did not solve the problem of social inequality, the difficulty of professional growth, far lower pay. The state refused to acknowledge the inconsistencies caused by the new laws. The ideology of the time (1960s - 1980s) positioned the ideal woman as a working mother. Her image was increased by the responsibility to care for the husband in the house and the couple’s health. This created a triple burden for the women, with the result being that women were gradually pushed out of the leadership and prestigious professions.

According to Mespoulet, in the 1970s, despite improvement in their education, women continued to do the least qualified and least paid jobs. In the 1980s, sectors such as health, education, retail sales and catering were dominated by women. Wages in these sectors were 20% - 30% below the national average. Women, states Mespoulet, were over-represented in the lower levels of all sectors of activity and all branches of industry. More than 90% of the least well paid workers were women.

In spite of laws that declared equality of sexes, the opposite was true. Women workers had protection, generous maternity leave, and obligatory breaks to breastfeed their children. Still, because of the way society and government perceived them, the Soviet woman did not have the same rights as men. Women were paid less than men. In the Soviet Union, there was the adage that it was the woman who was actually the male!

Child rearing and the procuring of supplies, spending time in lines, fell on the woman. Controlling the household budget, sending children to school and buying food was the responsibility of the woman. The woman also had to keep her spouse happy in bed, juggle work (and sometimes studies) and personal life. All this meant that women were under-represented in political bodies. 

According to Mespoulet, women made up 20.9% of the Communist Party in 1967. At the end of the 1980s, women represented 7% of the secretariats of regional Party committees, although they made up 29% of Party members. The Politburo and the Secretariat of the Central Committee were exclusively male bodies.


By Lev D. Zilbermints


The educational system of the Soviet Union was born out of the horrors and privations of World War I (1914-1918), the Russian Civil War (1918-1923) and the early years of Joseph Stalin’s rule (1924-1939). According to William Farquhar Payson’s book, Russia U.S.S.R. A Complete Handbook (New York 1933), the Russian Civil War and the War Communism years led to a sharp drop in the number of schools and enrolled students. Just before World War I began, 91% of the children were receiving instruction in schools. Four years later, in 1918, the number of those receiving instruction dropped to 62%, then to 49% in 1919 and to 24.9% in 1920. 

One major reason why literacy rates fell was because the Soviet regime killed, exiled, and robbed the old classes of the Czarist regime. The intelligentsia, the aristocrats, the priests were killed, banished, and had their property confiscated. Many of the most educated people went into exile rather than live under the Soviet regime. Others died fighting against Germans, Austrians, Ottomans and Bolsheviks in the difficult years of World War I and the Russian Civil War (1914-1923). Religion was destroyed, along with its educated class of monks, bishops and seminarians.

It was necessary to grow a new generation of people who respected communism and obeyed its ideology. New textbooks, new schools, a new curriculum had to be created to replace that of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Thus, when the new education system was created, workers and peasants were given priority over other people. 

Textbooks were the same for all students in regular schools. Everything was centralized. From Moscow to Kamchatka and Vladivostok, students used the same textbooks, with the same texts.

From the first and to the last grade, the pupil was a screw in a huge state apparatus. Technical disciplines were taught quite well, but everything else depended on what the state needed. History was rewritten anew; religion did not exist.

According to Barbara Anderson, Brian D. Silver and Victoria Velkoff’s article in the Soviet Studies (July 1987): 468-488 the Soviet education system had three levels: beginning, incomplete secondary education, and complete secondary education. The elementary or beginning level, was 4 and later 3 classes. Secondary schools were 7 and later 8 classes and required complete elementary school. This level was called incomplete secondary education. This level was compulsory for all children since 1958-1963 and optional for under-educated adults who could study in so-called evening schools. Since 1981, state Anderson et al., the complete secondary education level (10 years or in some republics, 11 years) was compulsory.

According to Anderson et al., 10 classes (11 classes in the Baltic republics) of an ordinary school was called secondary education. Translated from Russian, it meant “middle education.”

From elementary school to university, the totalitarian Soviet system instilled in students the idea that Marx, Engels Stalin and Lenin were the greatest gifts that humanity ever received. Books written by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were required reading in the Soviet higher education system. University students were required to memorize materials written by the founders of communism and totalitarianism. Not knowing the material could get a student in big trouble. The student could be called before the entire class and publicly reprimanded for dishonoring the Soviet system.

The course “A Brief History of the Party” was mandatory in all colleges and universities, schools, organizations, etc. If a student wanted to attend university, he or she had to pass the course. Otherwise the potential student would be rejected and not allowed to attend university.

Various organizations had clubs that studied “A Brief History of the Party” and “Questions of Leninism,” both written by Joseph Stalin. 

Nigel Grant, in his 1979 book, Soviet Education, states that Soviet education in the 1930s – 1950s was inflexible and suppressive. Research and education, in all subjects but especially in the social sciences, was dominated by Marxist-Leninist ideology and supervised by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Entire academic disciplines, such as genetics, cybernetics, and others were declared pseudoscience and abolished. Many scholars were declared bourgeois and non-Marxist, and purged. It was not until the 1960s-1990s that many of the abolished disciplines were brought back. 

According to Marc Ferro’s 2003 book, The Use and Abuse of History: Or How the Past Is Taught to Children, many textbooks, such the history ones, were full of ideology and propaganda, and contained factually inaccurate information.

For decades, children were taught that everything progressive in science came not from Europe, but was made in Russia. Radio was invented by Popov, not Marconi. The first printer of books was not Jonathan Gutenberg, but Ivan Fedorov. He was even called “The First Book Printer.” Even X-rays were invented not by Roentgen, but by a Russian scientist!

When my mother was a girl, everyone liked to buy rolls which were called “French.” But when in 1948 the government started rejecting everything foreign, those rolls were called Russian. In all bakeries, the name labels were changed.

Students were free to choose whichever university they wanted. However, Jews were not accepted into a number of universities. It was not discussed openly, but a “five-percent norm” existed for Jews. Many excellent universities had a competition for the available spots. Those that did not have a competition, could accept more Jews (e.g., maritime institute, forest institute, little-known departments of the food institute). My father was not accepted to the prestigious Baumann Institute only because he was Jewish.

The way this happened was as follows. My father received a “D” for an essay, but the essay itself, despite all efforts, could not be found. So, what my father did was take the exams again. He passed brilliantly and registered at a different university. Baumann Institute did not accept a single Jew.

When my mother was attending university, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no bribes involved. Bribes were in Asian republics, such as Georgia and Armenia, but not in Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

Where the Soviet system differed from the American was emphasis on schoolwork. In Soviet Russia, there were 10 grades, not 12 like in America. This meant that Russian students were ahead of their American peers in education. I recall learning multiplying three-digit numbers in third grade in America. In Russia, this was learned in first grade.

There were no school buses in Russia, so students had to walk to school. Boys and girls wore uniforms. The author of this article actually had to wear a uniform to class between September 1974 - January 1975. Uniforms had to be kept clean.

Children were taught party ideology from an early age. At the age of 9, they had to become Pioneers. This was the Communist equivalent of the Boy Scout organization. Prior to that they had to be “October Kids,” young Leninists. The October Kids were similar to Cub Scouts, but with an ideological bent.

Once they turned 14, children joined Komsomol, or the Communist Youth Union. Children had no right to attend church. It was considered a disgrace if someone was baptized and wore a cross on the neck. Such a person was called to a general meeting of Pioneers, mocked, and forced to recant his religion. The larger cities had Palaces of Pioneers where children attended dances, physical education, making aviation models. The state spent considerable money to maintain programs of this type.


Originally Capitalist, Russia Became Socialist

By Lev D. Zilbermints

This article is the first in a series of articles that will focus on what life under socialism in Russia was like during the years 1917 - 1991. The series, proposed by “Local Talk” founder Dhiren Shah, will focus on different aspects of socialism: education, economy, politics, emigration, military, society and religion. Sources for the series will include interviews with people who lived under socialism, as well as books, websites, and other information. The first article will focus on what socialism is, and how it is different from the Czarist, capitalist system.

According to Friedrich August von Hayek, an Anglo-Austrian economist, all forms of collectivism, even those theoretically based on voluntary cooperation, could only be maintained by a central authority of some kind. In his book, The Road to Serfdom (1944) and other published works, Hayek made the argument that socialism required central economic planning and that this in turn led to totalitarianism.

According to the famous historian and sociologist Ludwig von Mises, the government should not intervene in the economy, the way socialism did. Rational economic activity is impossible in a socialist commonwealth, wrote Mises.

At its heart, socialism is all about controlling every aspect of human life, from the cradle to the grave. Economy, education, emigration, politics; everything is controlled by the government. There is no private enterprise, and religion is persecuted. All the decent qualities of the human race, such as honesty, kindness, honor, compassion, truthfulness, and hard work are all washed out by the socialist monster which tries to mold everybody in the same form.

Consider the differences between Communist Russia and Imperial Russia. Under the Czars, Russia had a capitalist system. People worked hard, earned money and moved up and down the social ladder. If someone had no job, that person was not arrested or called a parasite on society, as under Communism. The Czarist system had many flaws, but it could in no way compare to the evils of the socialist/communist system that came in 1917.

One key difference between the Czarist system and the socialist system was how the economy was viewed. Under the Czar, private ownership was the staple of the capitalist system. Competition among different producers and manufacturers meant that high quality was maintained. The economy operated on a free-market principle. Unlike under socialism, the economy was not planned or highly centralized.

Under socialism, the economy was highly centralized. There was no private ownership. Everything belonged to the state Since there was no competition among manufacturers and producers, the quality of goods being made suffered. Compared to goods made outside the Soviet Union, Soviet goods were of an inferior quality. The reason for this lay in the state, not free market, imposing economic controls and standards!

Let me give an example of private ownership. Under the Czar, Russians could own houses, apartments, horses, etc. No one cared if a man owned one cow or a hundred. A man could own property and not worry that someone would take it. The Czarist regime encouraged private ownership. In fact, if a man were successful, he could move up the social ladder. The pre-Revolutionary Table of Ranks, first passed by Peter the Great in the 1700s, was made of fourteen different social ranks. Thus, a person could, by way of hard work, move from a lower rank to a higher rank.

Under socialism, the main owner is the state and its bureaucrats. Everything is tightly controlled, from birth to death. A man is not his own master under socialism. Instead, the state and its bureaucracy, the ruling elite, control the individuals.

Under socialism, anyone who works hard, makes a profit and owns a business is called an exploiter of the proletariat. The socialist system believes that everyone should own everything. Thus, in the Soviet Union there existed the kolkhoz, a collective ownership. In a village, there was one or two tractors for 150 people; 15 cows for 300 people. Everyone used the cows and the tractors, and other attributes. There was no private ownership.

When my mother, Raisa Silver, was a young girl, she had two dresses. My father, David Zilbermints, had two pairs of suits. When I got sick, he had to sell one suit for my treatment.

Under the Soviet regime, there was no such thing as private property. Everything was, in theory, owned by the state. It was called collective ownership. For example, a woman could have owned a seven-room apartment before the 1917 Revolutions. The apartment belonged to her family alone. After the 1917 Revolution, the apartment was taken over by the communists. This meant that an entire family would be settled in one room, which had the size of 20 square feet. Thus, a seven-room apartment had 3-35 people lining there, four or five or even six people to a room. Thus, there was no longer any private ownership or even privacy.

Another example is cited by the famous Russian singer Galina Vishnevskaya (1926 - 2012) in her memoirs. Vishnevskaya writes about how people lived in communal apartments. There was only one bathroom, with 35 people waiting in line to use it. Men had to ride to work on an overcrowded train or bus while their wives waited three or four hours in line to buy food for the family. Meanwhile, Communist party bosses rode to work in limousines, had their own special stores to buy food, and elite cafeterias to eat in. Ordinary Russians were forbidden to use the same stores and cafeterias that were used by the elite.

Under the Czar, people could buy food without waiting in line for hours. It was not until World War I (1914 - 1918) that Russians began standing in line for food.

According to Vishnevskaya, things became difficult when it was time to go to a sanatorium for vacation. In order to get a pass to make the trip down south, the potential traveler had to have the right connections. He had to spend a lot of time running around making arrangements for the trip. If this was not possible, the traveler had to hitchhike on his own. 

Then, after spending a day in the hot sun, the traveler finally rents a bed in a small room with several other hitchhikers. In the morning, the traveler ran quickly to the beach in order to obtain 1.5 meters of space. When hungry, the traveler stood for hours in line to a restaurant, just to eat once a day. And when he needed to use the beach restroom, the traveler had to squeeze his nose, jumping around piles of excrement left by others. There was a long line of people ahead of him!

Full disclosure: Lev D. Zilbermints lived in Soviet Russia from 1967-1975. His family came to the United States in 1975.