One of the under-appreciated achievements of the Soviet Union, especially in the 1930s, was what may be called the domestic state. By this term, I mean that the state sees itself as very much involved in what were traditionally regarded as domestic roles centred around the care and nurturing of children. This of course entails active efforts to reconstruct a whole gamut of human relationships, relating to marriage, divorce, guardianship, preparation for childbirth, medicine and education. I will discuss these developments in a moment, but first I need to address a feature of works that do analyse these developments: the suggestion that the (legal) achievements of the 1920s were systematically undone in the 1930s in what constitutes a ‘great retreat’.  According to this narrative, the Soviet government instituted a range of stunningly progressive measures in the 1920s relating to marriage, divorce, abortion and childcare, only to repeal them by the end of the 1930s. I beg to differ. The actual situation requires two distinctions. The first is between legal and economic developments. Legal prescriptions may be one thing, but they have little effect without the economic means to carry them out. In the 1920s, the state simply did not have the resources to carry out the measures needed for domestic state. By the 1930s, with the massive industrialisation and collectivisation campaigns of the ‘socialist offensive’, the state finally had the economic resources to do so. This development leads to the second distinction, between reshaping domestic roles within families and taking on those domestic roles. The prescriptions of the 1920s attempted the former, with limited success and unexpected consequences, while the measures of the 1930s sought to address such shortcomings by becoming in effect a domestic state. Not only did this approach arise from the awareness that human families are not so good at raising children, but also from the basic assumption concerning the role of the state in taking over domestic matters.


The idea of a ‘great retreat’ in the 1930s, a giving up or even betrayal of the radical socialist policies of the 1920s, was first propagated 70 years ago by Timasheff (1946 [1972]). Others have followed suit (Reichman 1988, 74, Fitzpatrick 1994, 148-72), not least with regard to marriage and the closely connected role of women (Goldman 1993). Indeed, the various government laws from 1917 to 1944 may give such an impression. The first was actually comprised of two brief decrees in December 1917 and ratified by the Supreme Soviet in 1918 as the Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship. It swept away centuries of practice, tore control away from the Churches, and made marriage a purely civil procedure. Divorce could be requested by both partners or by either spouse, which entailed a simple court hearing. No guilt had to be established, no grounds, no witnesses and no evidence. The notion of illegitimacy for children was abolished and the maintenance of children was decided by the courts. At the same time, the code preserved elements from earlier tsarist times, such as age of consent, alimony, child support and other features of the family unit.

The code of 1918 was always seen as a temporary measure, for the underlying drive was nothing less than the ‘withering away’ of the family (as with the state) as a repressive institution. A significant feature not addressed by this law was the status of de facto spouses, which was a common practice among revolutionaries. This the 1926 code – of the same name – sought to address.[1] If the 1918 code was already ahead of its time, the 1926 version was even more so. De facto couples were given legal status, with a beginning (coming to live together), sexual content (cohabitation), economic content (joint household), and economic outcomes of divorce (division of property and support). Indeed, a de facto relationship also entailed the issue of divorce, which was further simplified. Thus, if one partner did not appear at the Office of Civil Registry (ZAGS), he or she would be sent an official notice – which became known as the ‘postcard divorce’. The results of this radical law were somewhat unexpected and even unwelcome. Divorces skyrocketed, reaching at times a ratio of 4 divorces for every 5 marriages. Many were the women who were finally able to escape oppressive marriages, but many more were the men who transferred serial sexual relationships into legal form, even when child support and alimony were a crucial part of the law. Indeed, it was men who made the most of the new laws and stretched them as far as possible. The joke was that one could go to work married in the morning and return home divorced in the evening (Stites 1978, 370).

The narrative of retreat usually lists the 1926 code as the highest achievement of socialist marriage law, with a downhill path from here. Following a sustained campaign against the irresponsibility of divorced men, especially those who avoided paying alimony, a new law was passed in 1936. It made divorce somewhat more difficult (higher costs and an end to ‘postcard’ divorces), increased the punishment to prison for non-payment of alimony, prohibited abortion, and – this will become important – increased the number of childcare facilities. Those who see this law as a step backwards typically focus on the question of abortion, with its prison sentences for doctors who performed abortions and even more for non-medical abortions. By contrast, women who undertook abortion received censure for the first and a 300 rouble fine for the second. The law also provided considerable support for women: increase in insurance for birth, increase of child support from 5 to 10 roubles a month, four months of paid pregnancy leave, and harsh penalties for employers who refused to hire a pregnant woman or lowered her pay. And the law significantly increased the number of maternity clinics, day-care centres, crèches and milk kitchens. The narrative of retreat concludes with the Family Code of 1944, which withdrew the recognition of de facto marriage, banned paternity suits, reintroduced the notion of illegitimacy, and returned divorce proceedings to the courts (rather than the Office of Civil Registry).


The problem with this narrative is that the 1930s constituted not a ‘retreat’ from the breakneck remaking of Soviet economy, society and culture but a consolidation of the achievements made and an opportunity to address the significant new problems that had arisen. As Martin writes, ‘in the political and economic spheres, the period after 1933 marked a consolidation, rather than a repudiation, of the most important goals of Stalin’s socialist offensive’ (Martin 2001, 415, see also Priestland 2007, 245-49).[2]

So what was happening? The 1930s actually witnessed the most profound transformation in Russian history, perhaps even more momentous than the October Revolution. This was the ‘socialist offensive’, embodied in the dual industrialisation and collectivisation drive of the two five-year plans from 1928 to 1937. The much studied details of this drive are not my direct concern here,[3] except to note that they were generated out of the backwardness of Russian economics, the internal contradictions of the rapidly changing economic situation and the effort to construct socialism from scratch. The outcome was astonishing, with the Soviet Union emerging in a breathtakingly short period of time as an economic superpower, albeit with significant social disruption and not a little violence.

This situation was both enabled by and produced a profound bifurcation in economic and social life.[4] Many, if not the majority, were those who enthusiastically embraced the production of a new life, even among the rural population (Siegelbaum 1988, 17, Scott 1989 [1942], Kuromiya 1990, Thurston 1996, 137-98, Buckley 1999, 300-2, Tauger 2005, 66, Buckley 2006, 321-36),[5] but many were those who dragged their feet, with some actively resisting (Danilov, Manning, and Viola 1999-2004, Viola et al. 2005). So we find that employment exploded and unemployment disappeared (and with it unemployment insurance), a full range of social insurance and retirement pensions became universal, free health-care and education also became universal, cultural institutions from libraries to cinemas became relatively widespread, women flooded into the workforce, and the material standards of workers and farmers generally increased (Kotkin 1997, 20-21, Allen 2003).[6] The result was a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in the birth-rate. Life expectancy increased by 20 years and the new generation was the first one with universal literacy. At the same time, the ground-shaking disruptions had their negative effects: rapid industrialisation produced myriad new contradictions and the massive shift in agricultural production led to unanticipated problems and new agricultural shortages in the early 1930s. Those who opposed the process found themselves subject to purges, deportation and enforced labour. In short, huge were the gains (enabling the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler), huge were the mistakes, and huge were the disruptions.

In terms of marriage and the status of women, the most significant change was economic. Women entered the workforce in huge numbers, reaching 42 percent of the total number of industrial and rural workers. This reality had profound ramifications for relationships and marriage, not least because the state promoted women as champions of labour. Here we find the Stakhanovites Maria Demchenko, Natal’ia Tereshkova and Pasha Angelina (Buckley 1999, 301, 2006, 253-86). A woman became a worker first and a partner, wife and mother second.

Towards a Domestic State

This economic shift had significant repercussions for domestic life. Two factors are important here. The first concerns the distinction between legal prescription and economic reality. Legal provisions are useless unless the state is actually able to enact them through proactive structural change. Thus, the legal provisions of 1918 and 1926 may have seemed wonderful on paper, but they struggled to be realised on the ground. It may be all very well to recognize de facto relationships and attempt to enforce alimony and child support, but if male workers were simply not earning enough, then such measures were useless or even detrimental. The authorities also found that men tended to manipulate them for their own benefit, abandoning women and children and slipping out of responsibilities.

The economic situation leads to the second factor: the shift from laws focusing on traditional family units – seeking to reshape domestic relations and the nurturing of children within that framework – to the active role of the state in taking over many of those roles. The previous laws had attempted the former, with limited success. The later laws (especially 1936) tackled the latter, with greater success. This possibility was of course enabled by the improved economic condition of the state. While the Soviet Union in the 1920s was still trying to recover from years of civil and international war, as well as persistent international blockades and sabotage, by the 1930s and as a result of the socialist offensive the economic situation had improved considerably.

Let me return to the law of 1936, which stipulated maternity leave, increases in insurance for birth and child support, as well as mandating an increased number of maternity clinics, day-care centres, crèches and milk kitchens. In the 1920s, it was simply impossible to instigate such laws, since they could not be supported at an adequate financial level. By 1936, all of this became feasible. Instead of seeing the measures as ‘pro-natalist’ and designed to conscript more women in the workforce (Goldman 1993, 332), they were actually the state enacting a desire long held but unable to enact: the role of the state in nurturing children rather than the traditional family (as Alexandra Kollontai had imagined when she was director of Zhenotdel[7]). Significantly, the feedback from women to the 1936 law was that they viewed the limitations on abortion as a step back (although favouring the focus on contraception), but they viewed favourably the more stringent requirements on divorce and alimony, and they welcomed above all the significant expansion of nurturing and childcare facilities.

As Chatterjee points out (2002, 129), the idea of welfare and the welfare state – or what I prefer to call the domestic state – was integral to the socialist vision. It was certainly not seen as a temporary measure for difficult times (as with the Great Depression in the United States), but as a fundamental right of Soviet citizens, in this case especially Soviet women. Indeed, so attractive was this approach that Western European states found they had to institute versions of it after the Second World War to prevent workers from longing for a Soviet model, although it was distorted into a version distinguishing between the deserving and underserving, with significant xenophobic implications now seen with the narrative that immigrants and refugees seek to ‘sponge off’ such welfare states.[8]

As for the origins of this approach in the Soviet Union, again and again measures for day-care and crèches were enacted, each time with increases. I have already mentioned the 1936 law, which was met with wide approval. An earlier law of 1931, by the All-Union Soviet of Housing Cooperatives, stipulated that 20 percent of kitchen space in communal housing be devoted to communal dining, while housing cooperatives were to provide sixteen-hour crèches. Further, the Central Committee ordered that 100 percent of children in large industries should be in crèches and kindergartens by 1932. The first Five-Year plan strengthened these measures further. Finance was by now no problem and, despite delays and innumerable problems, by 1934 the number of crèches increased 20-fold in six years to 5,143,400, while the number of kindergartens for children increased 12-fold to 25,700 (Chatterjee 2002, 130). By the early 1940s, the number was considerably higher again.


All of this has a profound bearing on the development of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing for all is the basic right. But I would like to close with four quotations, focusing on the dramatic changes in the place of women in socialist society. The reason of course is that the measures of the domestic state primarily affected women, who were now seen as workers first, and mothers second.

The first quotation comes from a woman with a new collective farm, who says to her husband: ‘You always said you supported me. Now you see I am earning as much as you. So I have as much to say as you have don’t I? You had better not say anything more to me’ (Chatterjee 2002, 131).

The second also relates to the collective farms, now from 1935 by none other than Stalin (the architect of much of this) in an address to female collective farm shock workers:

We had no such women before. Here am I, already 56 years of age, I have seen many things in my time, I have seen many labouring men and women. But never have I met such women. They are an absolutely new type of people [sovershenno novye liudi] … Only the collective farm life could have destroyed inequality and put woman on her feet … The collective farm introduced the work-day (trudoden’). And what is the work-day? Before the work-day all are equal – men and women … Here, neither father nor husband can reproach a woman with the fact that he is feeding her. Now, if a woman works and has work-days to her credit, she is her own master … And that is just what is meant by the emancipation of peasant women; that is just what is meant by the collective farm system which makes the working woman the equal of every working man (Stalin 1935 [1978], 85-87).

Some men may continue to laugh at the new woman, but the economic changes were crucial. The new Soviet woman was released from the restrictions of pre-revolutionary social and economic life and was now involved in everyday working life, in the factories, collective farms and management of Soviet work. All of this was captured in article 122 of the 1936 Constitution:

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 is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, pre-maternity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.

The final quotation comes from Alexandra Kollontai’s earlier vision from 1926:

What – the new woman? Does she really exist? Is she not the product of the creative fantasy of modern writers of fiction, in search of sensational novelties? Look around you, look sharply, reflect, and you will convince yourself: the new woman is certainly there – she exists (Kollontai 1971, 51, see also Kollontai 1980, 29-74, 201-92).

International Women's Day 02


Allen, Robert. 2003. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Boobbyer, Philip. 2000. The Stalin Era. London: Routledge.

Buckley, Mary. 1999. “Was Rural Stakhanovism a Movement?” Europe-Asia Studies no. 51 (2):299-314.

Buckley, Mary. 2006. Mobilizing Soviet Peasants: Heroines and Heroes of Stalin’s Fields. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Chatterjee, Choi. 2002. Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Clark, Katerina. 2011. Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Danilov, Viktor Petrovich, Roberta Manning, and Lynne Viola, eds. 1999-2004. Tragediia Sovetskoi derevni: Kollektivizatsiia i raskulachivanie. Dokumenty i materialy v 5 tomakh, 1927–1939. Moscow: Rosspen.

Davies, Robert William. 1980-2003. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. 5 vols. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, Robert William. 2005. “Stalin as Economic Policy-Maker: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1936.” In Stalin: A New History, edited by Sarah Davies and James Harris, 121-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, Robert William, Mark Harrison, and Stephen Wheatcroft, eds. 1980-2003. The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. 5 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, Sarah. 1997. Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia: Terror, Propaganda and Dissent, 1934-1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deutscher, Isaac. 1967 [1949]. Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 1994. The Russian Revolution. 2 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Wendy Z. 1993. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Hirsch, Francine. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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Kollontai, Alexandra. 1980. Selected Writings. Translated by Alix Holt. New York: Norton.

Kotkin, Stephen. 1997. Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. 1990. Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 1928–1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, Terry. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Priestland, David. 2007. Stalinism and Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-war Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Scott, John. 1989 [1942]. Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

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[1] It was prefaced by the 1920 decree on abortion, which enabled women to obtain free abortions in hospitals. This was the first such law in the world.

[2] Hirsch goes further and argues for an intensification of revolution in response to the Nazi threat, while Clark argues that the 1930s constituted the adoption of an ‘even grander narrative’, which she calls ‘cosmopolitan’ (Hirsch 2005, 268, Clark 2011, 7).

[3] The most balanced works are by Davies et al and Tauger (Davies 1980-2003, Davies, Harrison, and Wheatcroft 1980-2003, Tauger 1991, 2001, 2005). A relief from the ritual denunciations of the failures of the program (Deutscher 1967 [1949], pp. 317-32, Davies 1997, p. 23-58, Boobbyer 2000, p. 29-64, Davies 2005, Gregory 2004) is Allen’s arresting reinterpretation of the significant gains made (Allen 2003).

[4] For fascinating insights into the varying positions taken by people in everyday life, see the documents collected by Siegelbaum and Sokolov (2000).

[5] Tauger argues that ‘resistance was not the most common response, and that more peasants adapted to the new system in ways that enabled it to function and solve crucial agricultural problems’ (Tauger 2005, p. 66). Retish (2008) shows how in the earlier period (1914-1922), the majority of peasants opted for the Bolsheviks and the effort to construct a new society.

[6] This was in the context of a massive shift by peasants to cities to work, which placed immense strains on, and thereby frequent time-lags in, the state’s ability to provide such facilities (Siegelbaum 1988, p. 214-22).

[7] Short for zhenskii otdel, the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).

[8] I would add that the dismantling of welfare states even in Scandinavia is a direct result of the ‘collapse’ of communism in Eastern Europe after 1989. By contrast, China with its long view of history is gradually introducing a comprehensive welfare system for 1.3 billion people.