Women at the Heart of the Revolution

Alexandra Kollontai and her comrades founded the Zhenotdel in 1918 in order to ensure women’s full participation in Soviet society. Its efforts to liberate women in Muslim Central Asia showed the revolution’s emancipatory promise — and the dangers of imposing change without the active support of the oppressed.

Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952).

The ten-year history of the Zhenotdel — the women’s department of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) — is the history of a struggle to put women’s emancipation at the heart of the Soviet project. Created in December 1918 by Bolshevik women like Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, it provided an unprecedented platform for working-class and peasant women to participate in social and political life, taking the revolution directly into their own hands. Yet this experience remains little-known even among those who consider themselves well-versed in Soviet history.

The Russian Revolution’s claim to advance women’s rights is often considered a matter of proclamations of principle which didn’t deeply change women’s real conditions. Doubtless, the legal codes introduced in the first two years of the revolution promised unprecedented changes to women’s role in society, as in the Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship introduced in 1919. Ending religious sanctions on marriage and confirming the availability of divorce on demand, this code pronounced men and women equal under the law and guaranteed equal pay for equal work. It moreover legalized abortion and abolished illegitimacy, set the minimum marriage age at eighteen for males and sixteen for females, and required the consent of both parties to marry.

It is widely assumed that the limitations of an isolated revolution meant that these legal rights remained on paper — that is, there was no serious project to translate them into real women’s emancipation. Yet such a perception is inaccurate. The Zhenotdel was a very serious project — not least for the hundreds of thousands of women who benefited from it. It initiated the participation of women in social and political life right across the Soviet Union. In 1920 it went further and launched the Communist Women’s International — a project which lasted until 1930, when both it and the Zhenotdel were closed down under Stalin’s regime.

The Zhenotdel’s range of activities was vast. It opened public canteens, laundries, nurseries, and crèches, and organized schemes to recruit women into workplaces on an equal footing with men. It set up delegate meetings to represent working-class women within their workplaces and communities, which in turn ran an internship program to train women for new roles in factories and government departments. It set up factory and workplace inspections to enforce compliance with laws protecting working women’s health and safety, and even beyond the workplace, organized unemployed women and set up cooperatives. In Soviet Asia, the focus of my own research, the Zhenotdel adopted innovative forms of work to draw peasant and urban women out of traditional seclusion and toward independent activity in collective economic and cultural projects.

But, while these initiatives made Zhenotdel popular among working-class and peasant women, the same cannot be said of most male party members, including within the leadership. Indeed, leading Bolshevik women created the Zhenotdel in 1918 precisely because they saw how passive the latter were about the question of women’s emancipation, considering it secondary to the major economic and military challenges facing the besieged state. Faced with this situation, in December 1918 women like Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Konkordiia Samoilova, Klavdiia Nikolaeva, and Nadezhda Krupskaya took the initiative in organizing a congress of working-class and peasant women.

This event attracted delegates from right across the young Soviet state, who agreed on the need to set up a dedicated organization. Commissions were formed which were then brought together as the Zhenotdel by the Bolshevik central committee in August 1919. Some academics have argued that this was a cynical move by the central committee so as to keep control of the women’s movement. However, it was welcomed by Bolshevik women as evidencing a recognition of their arguments. The December congress had forced the central committee to take action. But it did not mean the argument for the centrality of the woman question had been won within the party — anything but.

Bolshevik Conservatism

Leaders of the Zhenotdel argued that the success or failure of Soviet socialism depended on the woman question. Far from a matter that could be postponed until after the imperialist threat to the Soviet state was defeated, the recognition of women’s rights was crucial to overcoming the crisis. After all, for women to be mobilized to defend the revolution, they first needed to be won to identifying with it as a liberatory force. Writers in Kommunistka, the Zhenotdel journal, argued constantly that without the incorporation of this understanding into every area of party work there was no real prospect of advance for Soviet socialism. But despite the support of some men on the leadership, deep-seated changes in women’s role continued to be seen as something for the future. The Zhenotdel, with its demands for immediate action and changes in attitude, was often viewed as a nuisance, diverting from dealing with the serious “male” challenges of civil war and economic survival.

Such conservatism ought not simply be dismissed as Russian backwardness: this was, after all, the country whose working class had made the most advanced steps. But the revolution did have many weaknesses in this regard. One key problem lay in the lack of theoretical work on the family question among the Bolsheviks before the revolution. Women’s emancipation had been marginal to the party’s political discussions before 1917, outside of its opposition to bourgeois feminism, which was considered as a sectional and divisive movement. Even canonical proposals on overcoming women’s oppression under socialism, as put forward by August Bebel in 1879 and Friedrich Engels in 1884, appear not been to have been widely discussed. There were initiatives — reliant on women’s activism — to organize women workers, to campaign against the Russian feminist movement, to produce and circulate the journal Rabotnitsa (“Woman Worker”), and to organize events for International Women’s Day. But if Bolshevik men did not see women’s rights as a crucial issue before the revolution, it was inevitable that they viewed them as a diversion in its aftermath.

There were exceptions — notably Lenin himself. In an interview with Klara Zetkin in 1920 he expressed enormous pride that the revolution was “bringing women into the social economy, into legislation and government,” as well as “seriously carrying out the demand in our program for the transference of the economic and educational functions of the separate household to society” through such advances as “communal kitchens and public eating houses, laundries and repairing shops, nurseries, kindergartens, children’s homes, educational institutes of all kinds.” But his own views were not always the norm — indeed, in this same interview he complained, “unfortunately we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the Communist and a philistine appears,’” for  “their mentality regarding women” was that of the “slave-owners.” For Lenin, it was politically crucial to “root out the old ‘master’ idea to its last and smallest root, in the party and among the masses,” as well as form “a staff of men and women comrades, well-trained in theory and practice, to carry on party activity among working women.”

The Ideas of the Zhenotdel

In contrast to the majority of their male comrades, leading members of the Zhenotdel had studied and discussed the ideas of Engels and Bebel on the origin of women’s oppression. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels had posited his understanding that early human society had been matriarchal and communistic, with a collective approach to all forms of labor. The emergence of private property had destroyed these communal bonds and concentrated property in the hands of a minority, ultimately leading to state rule, the privatized family, and the supremacy of men over women. Women became marginalized from civil society and enslaved by childcare and domestic labor. Thus the collapse of early communism had brought about the “historical downfall of the female sex.”

As leading Zhenotdel members understood, the monogamous family of the nineteenth century was just the most recent example of a repressive family form within which women were themselves treated as property — what Bebel called “a place of darkness and superstition.” Achieving socialism meant transcending this institution and reasserting women’s central role in all areas of society. Engels believed that female involvement in “social production would transform sexuality” and challenge the hold of the patriarchal family. Freedom from the drudgery of domestic labor and childcare would lead to sexual liberation. Both he and Bebel argued that it was imperative for a workers’ state to take immediate action to free women from these burdens along with legal and political changes.

While Lenin made various speeches on the subject of women’s rights, Kollontai was the only one to attempt to build on the ideas of Engels and Bebel. She is often justifiably criticized as utopian in her views about what could be achieved within the parameters of post-revolutionary Russia: as her biographer Cathy Porter put it, Kollontai tended to conflate the communist commune of the future with the existing Soviet state. Kollontai was, at first glance, making a dogmatic, intrusive policy when she claimed in an article in Kommunistka in October 1920 that “our job is to decide which aspects of our family system are outdated and to determine what relations between the men and women of the working and peasant classes and which rights and duties would best harmonize with the conditions of life in the new workers’ Russia.”

But Kollontai did have a point — one she developed in Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle when she argued that “All the experience of history shows us that a social group works out its ideology, and consequently its sexual morality, in the process of its struggle with hostile social forces.” What she meant was that the struggle should be approached in a conscious way and not just left for the future — without action, more conservative forms would triumph. In this reference to “hostile social forces,” Kollontai was no doubt alluding to the introduction of market forces with the New Economic Policy (NEP) that year and its negative impact on women, both in the workplace and the family. Women who had been recruited to industry during the Civil War lost their jobs to men returning from that conflict. Indeed, with female unemployment surging to 70 percent of the overall figure, many women were left without financial independence and the respect accorded to them as workers. NEP was also a massive setback for the Zhenotdel’s capacity to act, as its funding and staff were slashed. Kommunistka in the NEP period is full of articles protesting that it was indeed important to retain a commitment to women’s equality in the new conditions. It is often argued that NEP was a necessary evil to allow the young Soviet project even to survive. But survival came at a heavy price for women and changed the nature of Soviet society for the worse.

Women’s Emancipation in Soviet Central Asia

Under Kollantai’s leadership, Zhenotdel also sought to spread its work beyond European Russia into Soviet Central Asia, and into the towns and cities of Uzbekistan. This was a society profoundly divided along lines of gender, where women were secluded, veiled, and not allowed contact with men outside their immediate family. The Zhenotdel showed imagination and cultural sensitivity in deciding to set up women-only initiatives to draw women into social and economic activity. Women-only clubs and cooperatives were established, with childcare facilities, medical consultations, and cultural activities organized around them. In an article for Kommunistka, Kollontai described these as “schools where women are drawn to the Soviet project through their own self-activity and begin to cultivate the spirit of communism within themselves.” The aim was for women to move onto more public participation once they and society around them became more open.

Such efforts were, however, hampered by the lack of leadership and direction from the party. This created obstacles to indigenous women being allowed to attend clubs and cooperatives — opposition which came often from indigenous party men. One Kommunistka writer pleaded with her male comrades to recognize that “drawing women into work and providing them with wages is of social and political importance because they will then consider themselves equal members of society and put their efforts into developing the economy.” Still in September 1925, another writer complained that “even now practically nothing has been done to organize women handicraft workers. We must put our work on a systematic footing or it will fail.” Some success came later that year with the launch of an Uzbek women’s journal, Yangi Y’ol, and the recruitment of Uzbek women from the Jadid (Muslim secular) nationalist movement, which aligned itself with the Soviet government. Women-only shops were set up in the main cities, around which producer and consumer cooperatives were formed. Women could sell their produce directly to other women rather than relying on the main cooperatives to help them. Interestingly, these initiatives were reported as enjoying the approval of nonparty indigenous men, who no longer had to accompany women to shops and markets. The number of Uzbek women in cooperatives rose from 225 in October 1925 to 1,500 in October 1926. Though this was clearly a small number, it showed that there was potential to provide women with economic independence in a culturally sensitive way.

There were political and practical activities within the shops. Mother and baby corners were set up, and there were readings and discussions of the journal Yangi Y’ol, along with literacy classes. A comrade Butusova described a “sense in which Uzbek women are finding their own answers to questions about their own lives which they could never obtain within their home environment.” Thus a form of organization which was of practical use to indigenous women would also facilitate their self-empowerment. By late 1926 there were a reported thirty-four women-only clubs in Uzbekistan and ninety “red corners” where women met in temporary facilities, along with forty-three women-only shops. Seventy-one-thousand women attended medical consultations over a period of six months that year.

The Hujum and the Five Year Plan in Uzbekistan

Yet if the first years of Zhenotdel secured major advances for women in Soviet Central Asia, these positive developments were to be completely obliterated by the events of 1927. International Women’s Day that year saw the onset of infamous “Hujum” campaign, one of whose central aims was to achieve the mass unveiling of indigenous women by October — to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the revolution. The order came from the Communist Party’s central committee and was led by the Sredazburo — the party organization in the East. The Zhenotdel was ordered to devote all of its energies to the success of this campaign, but the response was mixed. Serafima Liubimova, a leading Russian Zhenotdel member who had been at the heart of work in Uzbekistan, viewed the Hujum with antipathy. She and other Russian activists argued that it would stoke hostility to the party’s work among women. Indeed, the Zhenotdel had never promoted mass unveiling: women-only clubs, cooperatives, and shops had been set up precisely to provide a protective environment conducive to change. Mass unveiling would, instead, put these women in direct confrontation with their families and communities. Liubimova was removed from her position as head of the Uzbek Zhenotdel and Antonia Nukhrat — an individual more amenable to the new line — was put in charge. But despite the pressure from the party leadership, Kommunistka barely mentioned the Hujum during the main campaign – March to May 1927. Indeed, the first article to refer to it came in August 1927 when Klavdiia Nikolaeva, by then a leading member of the Sredazburo, wrote a strongly worded rebuke to Zhenotdel members on behalf of the party leadership for failing to carry out instructions.

In contrast to Kommunistka, the Uzbek journal Yangi Yo’l campaigned enthusiastically for the Hujum. Many indigenous Zhenotdel members believed that mass unveiling would precipitate their emancipation by confronting conservative forces within Uzbek society head-on. These women took part eagerly in the demonstrations on March 8, 1927. However other women — the wives and daughters of indigenous Communist Party members — were also forced to unveil. There are reports in Kommunistka of women even being forced to unveil at gunpoint.

That March 8, a reported seventy-thousand women took part in the mass burning of their veils. The backlash which followed was immediate and terrible. Zhenotdel members and indigenous women were physically attacked, intimidated, and even murdered. The streets of Uzbek towns and cities became no-go areas for women. Reports confirm that the vast majority of those who had unveiled were forced to reveil. Women only clubs and cooperatives fell into disuse as women were either forbidden or too afraid to attend. The forty-three women-only shops were closed down by the general cooperative movement on the pretext that they were no longer needed now that veiling had been abolished. Of course, the opposite was true. Another mass unveiling declared for May 1 was met by another wave of violence. Uzbek society was plunged into violent conflict — and the Zhenotdel’s initiatives were in tatters.

Of course, the Hujum was never about women’s liberation. Coming in the same year as the launch of the first Five Year Plan, it was instead a cynical, preemptive strike by Stalin on Central Asian society. The Turkic word Hujum, translated as nastuplenie in Russian, means “attack.” And this was an attack on the Islamic clerics of the East and on the social and cultural fabric of that society. The period of cooperation with nationalists was at an end and all potential enemies of forced collectivization were to be eliminated. Anna Nukhrat, the central committee representative, had reassured Zhenotdel activists that the Hujum was evidence that the party leadership was finally and decisively on their side. The opposite was true. Women’s rights were trampled underfoot as they became martyrs for a cause that was not their own.

Kommunistka editor Nadezhda Krupskaya launched a debate on the Hujum in the journal in the lead-up to a conference of Zhenotdel activists in the East in December 1928. In the course of this debate, contributions from activists condemned the campaign for the destruction it had wrought on their work. Male party members were criticized for either refusing to defend unveiled women, or for forcing them to unveil. In her speech to the conference — published in full in Kommunistka — Krupskaya condemned the attacks on religious practices. She argued that it had been politically dangerous to “impose a dead level” on every member of society and to force them to forfeit important cultural practices. But the rebellion she led was stifled quickly. Kommunistka in 1929 was reduced to stilted articles and reports. The January issue published the conference speech of Yaroslavsky, a close supporter of Stalin and the leader of the anti-religion campaign. As against Krupskaya’s demand for patience and cultural sensitivity, Yaroslavsky demanded even more forceful action to prosecute those who objected to unveiling and demanded that Zhenotdel members assist in the cleansing of “alien elements” from the party.

The fact that unveiling had nothing to do with liberation and everything to do with submission to the Five Year Plan became very evident in 1929. With opposition from the Zhenotdel quelled, even loyalists like Anna Nukhrat were forced to admit that unveiled indigenous women were assigned the most dirty and derogatory tasks in the newly established collective farms and factories. In January 1930 Pravda announced that the Zhenotdel was to be closed down, as a separate women’s department was no longer necessary. Instead of a dedicated department, women’s rights would be taken up by the party as a whole. This was anything but true. The next decade saw women’s rights stripped away, as abortion was banned and divorce made far more difficult. Women were forced along with men to submit to the brutalizing authoritarian regime of Stalinism. The concept of women as loyal mothers and workers replaced the Zhenotdel program for autonomous liberated women. Those vestiges of that program — like workplace crèches and public canteens — were, in general, those which could be harnessed to the bureaucratic plan. But after 1930, the idea of “women’s equality” was a complete misnomer for the conservative reality.


Here we can only touch on the work of Zhenotdel and the women’s experience of the first decade of the Russian Revolution, hoping to show something of the rich and imaginative heritage of communist work among women.

But this history is an important one, which needs to be critically engaged with. It shows how the lack of a clear theoretical understanding facilitated the conservatism of men within the Bolshevik party — and led to continued opposition to the work of the Zhenotdel. It also shows that we do not need to add the label “feminist” to stand for women’s rights. Bolshevik women who founded the Zhenotdel opposed the sectionalism of feminism. They refused to describe themselves as such because they wanted to forge a collective working-class approach which put the struggle to supersede oppression at the heart of socialism. That is also the position I adopt.

Our movement must reclaim the Soviet women’s movement and the Communist Women’s International. It is only by doing so and by learning from those experiences that we can make progress on the woman question today.