Lives of Women: Soviet Socialism versus Capitalism

May 15, 2024 0 By Yatharth

We are all witness to the barrage of vile propaganda spread about the Soviet Union by the capitalists, in history and even today. But the huge positive material change that took place in the lives of soviet citizens always trumps these filthy attempts. The winds of history have in the past and will always expose the truth to the people of the world. Every progress-loving individual, nay the whole of humanity, lay awestruck by the tremendous feats, especially in the sphere of ensuring progress of the society as well as the well-being of its citizens (something which seems antithetical under capitalism), achieved during the experiments done under Soviet socialism. The Russian masses, who had been suffering under the yoke of autocratic, reactionary and blatantly anti-people Tsarist rule for hundreds of years, achieved unprecedented success not only for their country but for the entire human race in just a few decades under Soviet socialism. Not only Soviet Russia, but one-third of the entire world was freed from the exploitative capitalist system and was brought under socialist rule. A lot of what we have achieved today, be it in the field of science or art, cultural, literature, etc, is either a direct result of or can find its roots in the experiments done under Soviet socialism. Of all these great achievements, one of the more important ones are the enormous positive changes that took place in various spheres of the physical and social life of women in the Soviet Union.

Before revolution of 1917, according to the Tsarist laws, women were considered the property of their husbands. It was legal for husbands to beat their wives. A wife’s ultimate duty was to obey her husband; disobeying him made her worthy of punishment. Before the revolution, only 13.1 percent of women were literate. Coming out of that dark, exploitative and deeply patriarchal era, after the revolution, women went from being illiterate to playing an indispensable role in the development of Soviet socialism in a matter of decades. As a matter of fact, the Russian Revolution itself would’ve been almost impossible if it were not for the women folk. When women were freed from that oppressive rule, they never looked back. For the first time on earth, mankind had achieved true emancipation and Soviet women seized this opportunity with both hands.

The Soviet state made many arrangements to bring about changes in women’s lives, not just in slogans and laws, but physically on the ground. These efforts were evaluated at every step and they were updated and improved as per the need. The result of all these conscious steps was that for the first time in the world, women truly took charge of their lives. Now she was not dependent on anyone. There was no longer any need for them to be financially or socially dependent on any man. She could decide her life, her paths and her partner freely, sans all the prejudices and pressures of the society. Here it is also important to note that the Soviet state developed women not only as supplicants, but also as co-drivers and co-creators of Soviet socialism along with men. They did not become a weak and helpless section of the society who one-sidedly only takes from the society, but actually became an actively contributing section committed to increasing their capacity and skills in order to build that beautiful land of the proletariat. Whether we take the record of increasing production in factories, or of collective farms, women were moving forward shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.

Behind all this was not only the benevolence of the Soviet state, but also the concrete material arrangements made to free women from the shackles of kitchen and motherhood. This enabled them to learn and improve in various spheres. For example, for the first time in the world, “factory kitchens” were established on a large scale where nutritious food was available to all for free or at very low cost. “Crèche” system was arranged on a large scale for new mothers so that they do not have to compromise with their work while fulfilling the indispensable responsibility of raising the future generations. Even today, in most capitalist countries, a major reason behind the decline in number of women in the total workforce, especially after marriage, is that the profit-based capitalist society does not pay heed to the safety and comfort of pregnant women and new mothers in the workforce. On the contrary, as soon as the employer gets to know that a female employee is pregnant, he fires her or deducts her salary for the leave taken during pregnancy. Instead of rewarding women for shouldering this indispensable responsibility of propagating and nurturing the future workforce, capitalism punishes them. In the Soviet Union, emphasis was laid on both these aspects – first, that women should be able to contribute to the workforce while still fulfilling the vital responsibility of taking the human race forward, and second, that they should not suffer because of any kind of prejudice or compromise as a result of becoming mothers. Under this, the Soviet Union legally implemented paid maternity leave for the first time in the world. As soon as the revolution took place, i.e. in 1917 itself, the Soviet state enacted a law which stated that pregnant women would be given a total of 16 weeks of paid leave, of which 8 weeks would be given before the child’s birth and the remaining 8 weeks after the child’s birth. Maternity leave had not been implemented in any capitalist country till then. Along with this, women were given the facility of crèches near their workplace. In 1918 there were only 4 crèches in Moscow, in 1928 their number increased to 104 and by 1931 it increased to 120, which was still considered insufficient according to the target set by the corresponding five-year plan and emphasis was placed on increasing it further. There was also a provision for leave for lactating mothers in case crèche was not available. Also, after the fifth month of pregnancy, women could refuse job-related trips or transfers without fear that it would result in them losing their job or any kind of biasness whatsoever. After the sixth month, there was a provision to assign only easy or light tasks to them.

Along with all this, in the field of medical science, special attention was paid to the health of pregnant women and infants and many treatments and methods were developed so that the process of labor becomes not only safe but also pleasant and easy for the mother and child. Also, these experiments were not limited to labs and scientific journals, rather it was an equally important aspect of this development to take it to the people. Thus, the arduous task of making these treatments available to every pregnant Soviet woman was also taken up with due diligence and Soviet Union achieved great success in this aspect too. Let us discuss this in more detail.

In the article ‘Painless Childbirth’ written by D. Agatova in the March-April 1951 issue of the ‘Soviet Woman’ magazine[1], she explains that at that time in Soviet Union doctors were trying to reduce the pain and suffering experienced by the pregnant women during labor and childbirth. There were separate hospitals for pregnant women where they were explained in detail about labor pain and other related concerns and issues so that they could mentally prepare themselves for it. Weekly discussions were held in these hospitals and maternity centres spread throughout the Soviet Union. Quoting a pregnant woman attending these discussions, Agatova writes –

“Here [in those maternity clinics] the doctor gave talks on childbirth, and what he stressed first of all—an amazingly logical idea and one that filled them with hope—was that childbirth is a normal, natural function for the women’s organism, and that whatever is normal should not and must not be accompanied by pain.” (bracket added)

She further writes that –

“The psycho-prophylactic method[2] of eliminating pain at childbirth is so simple and at the same time so effective that it cannot but evoke admiration. This method was initiated by a group of scientists headed by Docent I. Z. Velvovsky in Kharkov. The basis on which they worked it out was the same thesis that introduces the talks preparing expectant mothers for childbirth, namely: that pain is a concomitant only of complicated or pathological cases; that where there is no deviation from the normal, there should be no pain. The fear of pain serves to exaggerate unpleasant sensations, exhausts the woman, and makes her hypersensitive. To rid the future mother of this fear psychosis, influence must be brought to bear as strongly as possible on her nervous system, on the cortex of the brain. The cortex is the master and regulator of all processes in the organism, it sends its signals to the uterus too and can normalize and hasten parturition. The word is a powerful conditioned stimulus called upon to influence the cortex of the brain, inhibit and erase old conditioned reflexes, reduce the excitation in the subcortical region and thus lessen the birth pangs. Therein lies the value of “lessons” to prepare women for childbirth.”[3]

What a sensitive attitude science had towards women just after three-four decades of freedom from the centuries-long unscientific and conservative era of Tsarist rule! On the other hand, the situation in developed capitalist countries was deplorable. Ella Reeve Bloor deals with this in her book ‘Women in the Soviet Union’, 1938 in which she states that hundreds of scientific men and women attended a conference in Washington, DC on 17-18th January 1938 on ‘Better Care for Mothers and Babies’. A fact-finding report was published in this conference which stated that –

“Each year more than 14,000 women in the United States die from causes connected with childbirth, leaving at least 35,000 motherless children. … More than 75,000 infants are still-born and more than 69,000 infants die during the first month of life.” 

She further writes –

“The report, full of such statements, gives the cause of the terrible death rate of mothers and children in the United States, namely, “lack of scientific care,” “lack of nourishment,” etc., etc.—which all boils down to lack of “Social Security.””

This is the real difference between a capitalist state and a socialist state! On one hand we witness the stand of the Soviet Union, who, despite suffering tremendous loss of life and property in the Second World War, kept the question of providing the best medical care to women among its priorities. In that too, it did not limit its efforts to only securing the safety and well-being of the mother and child during childbirth, but the emphasis was also laid on going beyond this and devoting resources towards minimizing the pain experienced by women during parturition. On the other hand, in the United States, which was not at all behind the Soviet Union in terms of resources, thousands of women died during childbirth every year, scores of babies were stillborn or died within a month of being born – and the main reason behind all this was the “lack of social security” for the citizens, which simply meant that their government had pulled back its hands from addressing and fulfilling the needs of its citizens and left them to die at the mercy of private players in the market.

On the contrary, as we have mentioned above, in the Soviet Union, the first priority of the state was to take the new facilities and treatments, developed by the Soviet scientists, to every corner of the country. This was done through a wide network of maternity hospitals and clinics for women. In the context of such hospitals, Agatova writes in ‘Painless Childbirth’ quoting a female employee working in the Moscow telephone system –

““What great consideration and concern our government shows for us!” writes Valentina Smirnova, an employee of the Moscow telephone system. “Not only does it build such splendid institutions as Maternity Hospital No. 32[4], not only does it provide for us all kinds of medical aid free of charge, but it also sees to it that pain should not cloud the joy of the mother. It is a great happiness to become a mother in such a country.””

She further writes –

“The psycho-prophylactic method of painless childbirth is gaining wide recognition. It differs from many other methods by a feature that Soviet science values above all—its accessibility to the masses. This method is being employed with equal success in the clinics of Moscow and Leningrad and in rural hospitals and kolkhoz lying-in homes. The achievements of Soviet medicine are made available to every Soviet mother.”

If we compare medical science in Soviet Union versus the capitalist countries, we see not only indifference but also active patriarchy on the part of the capitalist state, the remnants of which are still seen. For example, in America and many European countries, till 1980, almost all diseases/symptoms suffered by women were categorized as ‘hysteria’ and ignored. Any woman complaining of any discomfort, pain, physical or mental distress would be declared ‘hysterical’ and denied treatment. Whatever treatment was given, it was done with the mentality that there is some defect in the anatomy of women (the uterus) due to which these problems arise and hence there can be no solution and women themselves were to blame for this. Or the other view was that women exaggerate their sufferings, or that they are weak and delicate and have a low pain tolerance. With this logic in mind, the mentality of dismissing or underestimating the health issues faced by women was prevalent among doctors. In many cases, when women pressed on for treatment, they were declared mentally unstable and sent to mental asylum or forced to undergo hysterectomy in which their uterus was removed believing that all these problems of ‘hysteria’ originate from the woman’s uterus.

Just a few decades ago, i.e. in 1980, ‘hysteria’ was finally removed from the list of mental diseases in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) published by the ‘American Psychiatric Association’. This attitude of medical science towards women is a reflection of the deep-rooted patriarchy in the society. Due to patriarchy, there was a severe lack of information on female anatomy among doctors till the 1990s because till then there was little to no research in this area because for a very long-time medical science persisted with the belief that all other organs and functions would operate the same in men and women, so there was no need to study women. Although later it became amply clear that the endocrine system varies greatly in men and women. But even after taking this in cognizance, researchers said that the menstrual cycle, and varied release of hormones throughout the cycle in rodents, introduced too many variables into a study, therefore females could not be studied.

Today, more than four decades after removal of the word ‘hysteria’ from the DSM, this terrible and shameful history still has its live and thriving remnants in society as well as in the medical field. For example, even today, in rural India, the horrifying practice of labelling women as ‘witches’ as an excuse of beating, insulting and raping them, divorcing them and ostracizing them from the village or even killing them in many cases continues unabated. The mentality behind this is almost the same as the ‘hysteria’ narrative prevalent among medical professionals a few decades ago. However, we can still, to some extent, identify this kind of mentality with the illiteracy, ignorance and conservative-patriarchal thinking prevalent in rural areas. But how to explain that in urban cities of India, even in many developed countries around the world, women are still facing discrimination by medical professionals because of their sex? Many women share their stories on social media in which they went to the hospital complaining of unbearable stomach pain and the doctor sent them home without proper examination with some basic pain medications. Many such cases have come to light where women kept wandering from one hospital to another for years complaining of terrible pain during menstruation, but almost everywhere they were ignored. Their pain was diagnosed as ‘nothing extraordinary’ and they were sent home with some pain medications and the ‘advice’ to increase their pain tolerance. After living with this terrible pain every month for many years, they discovered that they were suffering from endometriosis, which had worsened due to neglect or lack of proper treatment for so many years. This is not the story of a select few. In America, there is an average delay of 11.7 years for a woman suffering from endometriosis to get treatment. Patients have an average delay of 8 years in England and 6.7 years in Norway.[5] One third of the women had seen their general physician at least six times before endometriosis was detected. Keep in mind that this is the situation today in developed countries like America, England, Norway. In countries like India, where awareness about and access to proper medical care is low and, ignorance, illiteracy as well as economic disparity are rampant, women silently suffer excruciating pain all their adult lives in the absence of proper diagnosis and adequate treatment. In many cases, absence of proper and timely treatment leads to infertility subjecting women to dual suffering – firstly due to the mental and physical agony and secondly due to the related societal stigma of being infertile. On the other hand, there is another ugly aspect of this problem in rural areas where the practice of getting the uterus removed by women after a certain age is prevalent. There are numerous reasons behind it, the detailed analysis of which is altogether a separate issue. A study conducted in 2018 reported that out of every 1000 married women in India, about 17 women undergo hysterectomy. This number ranges from 2 to 63 per 1000 women in different states. Furthermore, it was found that hysterectomy ranks number one among all surgeries performed on women.[6] It has also been found that this surgery is more prevalent among women in rural areas. And due to the dire shortage of government hospitals, this surgery is mostly performed in private hospitals and clinics. Rural areas are full of such private clinics and hospitals run by quacks or severely ill-trained people who dupe innocent and needy patients for huge sums of money. Also, these places don’t have either proper arrangements or trained doctors required for this surgery. As a result, the risk of infections and other diseases increases manifold.

By studying the situation of the capitalist, developed or developing countries of the whole world including India, it automatically becomes clear that the speed at which the Soviet Union utilised its resources and developed its productive forces, not only in the field of medical science but in every other field especially given the fact that before 1917 Russia was a backward country with underdeveloped means of production, has not been matched by the capitalist countries after all these years. Not only was it making tremendous progress but it was also succeeding in making those new technologies, medicines and treatments available to every soviet citizen from the westernmost point near the Baltic Sea to the easternmost point near Cape Dezhnev stretching over 10,900 kilometres. This was possible because only in a socialist society, where the threshold of profit and private ownership has been crossed, can all the resources be devoted to the betterment of the people. Today we hear that low-cost and low-side-effect treatments of many deadly diseases like cancer etc. is possible but it is not being developed and made available to public because doing so will hurt the profits of multi-billion-dollar industries that are filling their coffers in the name of cancer treatment. We know that during the infancy stage of capitalism, the capitalists laid emphasis on and invested a part of their profits in research and development to gain an edge over their competitors in the price wars. This was the progressive side of capitalism which, although only to ensure its profit, led the society forward through new technological and scientific development. But this progressive side is a thing of distant past. In today’s era of monopoly finance capital where the wheel of profit is stuck due to a deep and irreversible crisis, capitalism has gone into a moribund state and there is a crisis of over-production, the need for such research and development facilitating the advances in commodity production or any other sector which fulfils the needs of the masses is no longer of use to the capitalists. In fact, today, providing cheap and good quality commodities or services to the public goes against it, so in an effort to keep its profit-wheels turning, it actively stops such research and development and, in many cases, even punishes it.

In Soviet socialism, mankind saw the birth of a new civilization, where equality was not a thing of the distant future or a tempting promise heard in the speeches of leaders, but felt by the people at large. Its reflection could be seen and felt everywhere as soon as Soviet socialism came into existence. The issue of women having equal status in society was addressed separately in the Soviet Constitution. Article 122 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union declared:

“Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life.

“The possibility of exercising these rights of women is ensured by affording women equally with men the right to work, payment for work, rest, and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, maternity leave with pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.”[7]

Regarding the implementation of these laws on the ground and their results, we get an insight from Betty Millard book ‘Women Against Myth’, 1948, –

“No job is barred to a Soviet woman on account of her sex. The only limitations are: (i) her physical ability (and the picture changes as rapidly as mechanization progresses and her muscular inferiority becomes irrelevant); (2) her educational and technical qualifications. Soviet women do not yet hold an equal number of skilled jobs or directorial posts, for they are still paying for centuries of ignorance. But that handicap is fast being overcome. Every factory and farm has become an educational center; trade unions offer courses on a variety of subjects right on the spot, and have built up a vast network of factory libraries and study clubs. As a result, women who were 80 per cent illiterate in 1917 already by 1939 formed half the student body in higher institutions of learning. By 1946 women constituted 21 per cent of the deputies in the Supreme Soviet; in the lower Soviets the proportion is much larger. In other fields they have forged ahead even more rapidly: today, for instance, over half of the Soviet Union’s doctors are women.”

Thus, the material changes that took place in the lives of women are proof that these claims were not limited to the pages of the Constitution alone. We have other examples to testify this too, such as – before the Revolution of 1917 there were only 2,000 women physicians in Russia and only two decades later, in 1937, their number increased more than twenty times. By 1937 the number of Soviet women scientists exceeded 1,000, and 90 percent of teachers in the city’s schools were women. This is in a country where, before the Revolution, women were considered inferior to men by law.[8] The Soviet state understood that merely giving legal rights to women who had been oppressed for hundreds of years was not enough, as a result, many programs, such as volunteer work programs, were run by the state where women were given the opportunity and encouraged to identify and develop their talents. Women not only became literate, but many of them got engaged in scientific and technical research work after necessary training and their tireless effort. Women who emerged from hundreds of years of slavery and oppression started compensating for those lost centuries in just a few decades and in this they got the full support of the Soviet state led by Comrade Stalin. Be it the task of building of Soviet socialism or strengthening its power in the peacetime, or the task of saving this land of workers and toilers from fascists and defeating Hitler’s Nazi army during the extremely dangerous period of upheavals of the Second World War, the part played by women is remarkable and unprecedented. The role of Soviet women in World War II is a separate topic in itself which we ought to discuss later. But for now, it can be said with complete certainty and confidence that without women taking up the role that they took, the responsibilities that they shouldered and sacrifices that they made, the Soviet Union would not have succeeded in both these tasks, i.e., building the Soviet society and defeating the fascists in the Second World War.

Dusya Vinagradova working on one of the machines in the textile mills.

Unlike bourgeois feminists, the Soviet women did all this not out of any resentment, spite or in competition against men but out of deep love and devotion to a land that had given them, for the very first time in human history, the opportunity to live life freely as a human being. It was this spirit which inspired the likes of Dusya Vinogradova to set a record in the textile industry for simultaneously operating the highest number of machines during production in the entire Soviet Union. For this she was awarded the highest honour of the Soviet Union – the Order of Lenin. It is with this spirit that Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a sniper in World War II, filled terror in the hearts of enemies by killing 309 Nazis. It would never be possible to mention in history all the countless soviet women and the feats that they achieved or the laborious and mundane tasks that they put their heart and soul into, on the foundations of which stood the great Soviet Union. But nonetheless, these women, and every soviet citizen, who built this great land and, in turn, paved way for the whole human civilisation has their name etched in the golden pages of history and it’ll stay there forever.

[1] ‘Soviet Woman’ was a socio-political and literary illustrated magazine founded in 1945 in Moscow by the ‘Committee of Soviet Women’ with the support of the unions. The magazine was published in several languages and distributed in different countries. Its publication stopped after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The introduction for this magazine in the given issue reads – “A magazine devoted to social and political problems, literature and art. Published by the Soviet Women’s Antifascist Committee and the Central Council of Trade Unions of the USSR. Seventh year of publication. Published bimonthly in Russian, Chinese, English, French, German and Spanish.”

[2] Under this method, the women listened to a clear and simple explanation of parturition, its stages, the causes of pains and travail, and how pain can be prevented by means of slight abdominal massage, together with digital massage of the region of the lumbar roots and by regulating respiration during the act of parturition. The doctor suggested these ideas after having induced a slight hypnotic sleep, for in this state suggestion is particularly effective and his words remain permanently engraved in the mind of his hearers.

[3] The Lamaze technique, also known as the psychoprophylactic method or simply Lamaze, began as a prepared childbirth technique. This is the same psychoprophylactic method discussed above. As an alternative to medical intervention during childbirth, it was popularized in the 1950s by French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze and is based on his observations in the Soviet Union. It is still prevalent in many countries including America.

[4] In the Soviet Union, a network of free maternity hospitals and clinics were built in rural and urban areas especially for pregnant women and new mothers. The number of hospital beds was increased in each five-year plan as per the requirement. For example, by 1939 the plan was to add a total of 11,000 beds in industrial areas, of which 2,000 in 1936; 4,000 in 1937; In 1938, 5,000 beds were to be installed. Similarly, under this plan, a total of 38,000 beds were to be provided in rural areas and areas with collective farms by 1939.

[5] Source: Pugsley Z, Ballard K (June 2007). “Management of endometriosis in general practice: the pathway to diagnosis” The British Journal of General Practice.

[6] Source: Prevalence and determinants of hysterectomy in India, published Sept 4, 2023

[7] Source: Article 122 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, 1936

[8] The figures are from a 1937 radio address that was broadcasted from Moscow to England and the United States on the night of 2nd November 1937. Source: Ella Reeve Bloor’s ‘Women in the Soviet Union’, 1938.