Family in the Soviet Union

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The view of the Soviet family as the basic social unit in society evolved from revolutionary to conservative; the government of the Soviet Union first attempted to weaken the family and then to strengthen it. According to the 1968 law "Principles of Legislation on Marriage and the Family of the USSR and the Union Republics", parents are "to raise their children in the spirit of the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, to attend to their physical development and their instruction in and preparation for socially useful activity.

The Bolshevik vision of family

Marxist theory on family established the revolutionary ideal for the Soviet state and influenced state policy concerning family in varying degrees throughout the history of the country. The principals are: The nuclear family unit is an economic arrangement structured to maintain the ideological functions of Capitalism. The family unit perpetuates class inequality through the transfer of private property though inheritance. Following the abolition of private property, the bourgeois family will cease to exist and the union of individuals will become a “purely private affair”.   The Soviet state’s first code on marriage and family was written in 1918 and enacted a series of trans-formative laws designed to bring the soviet family closer in line with Marxist theory. [1] [2]

1918 Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship

One year after the Bolsheviks took power, they ratified the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship. The revolutionary jurists, led by Alexander Goikhbarg, adhered to the revolutionary principals of Marx, Engles, and Lenin when drafting the codes. Goikhbarg considered the nuclear family unit to be a necessary but transitive social arrangement that would quickly be phased out by the growing communal resources of the state and would eventually “wither away”. The jurists intended for the code to provide a temporary legal framework to maintain protections for women and children until a system of total communal support could be established.[2]

The 1918 code also served to recognize the legal rights of the individual at the expense of the existing tsarist/patriarchal system of family and marriage. This was accomplished by allowing easily obtainable “no-grounds” divorces. It abolished “illegitimacy” of birth as a legal concept and entitled all children to parental support. It abolished the adoption of orphans ( Orphans would be cared for by the state to avoid exploitation). A married couple could take either surname. Individual property would be retained in the event of divorce. An unlimited term of alimony could be awarded to either spouse, but upon separation each party was expected to care for themselves. Women were to be recognized as equal under the law; Prior to 1914, women were not allowed to earn a wage, seek education, or exchange property without the consent of her husband.[2][3]

Evolution of the Soviet family

The early Soviet state sought to remake the family, believing that although the economic emancipation of workers would deprive families of their economic function, it would not destroy them but rather base them exclusively on mutual affection. Religious marriage was replaced by civil marriage, divorce became easy to obtain, and unwed mothers received special protection. All children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, were given equal rights before the law, women were granted sexual equality under matrimonial law, inheritance of property was abolished, and abortion was legalized.[4]

In the early 1920s, however, the weakening of family ties, combined with the devastation and dislocation caused by the Civil War (1918–21), produced a wave of nearly 7 million homeless children. This situation prompted senior party officials to conclude that a more stable family life was required to rebuild the country's economy and shattered social structure. By 1922 the government allowed some forms of inheritance, and after 1926 full inheritance rights were restored. By the late 1920s, adults had been made more responsible for the care of their children, and common-law marriage had been given equal legal status with civil marriage.[4]

Reconstruction of a typical 1950s Soviet living room.

During Joseph Stalin's rule, the trend toward strengthening the family continued. In 1936 the government began to award payments to women with large families, banned abortions, and made divorces more difficult to obtain. In 1942 it subjected single persons and childless married persons to additional taxes. In 1944 only registered marriages were recognized to be legal, and divorce became subject to the court's discretion. In the same year, the government began to award medals to women who gave birth to five or more children and took upon itself the support of illegitimate children.[4]

After Stalin's death in 1953, the government moved in a more revisionist direction and rescinded some of its natalist legislation. In 1955 it declared abortions for medical reasons legal, and in 1968 it declared all abortions legal, following on from Western European policy. The state also liberalized divorce procedures in the mid-1960s but in 1968 introduced new limitations.[4]

In 1974 the government began to subsidize poorer families whose average per capita income did not exceed 50 rubles per month (later raised to 75 rubles per month in some northern and eastern regions). The subsidy amounted to 12 rubles per month for each child below eight years of age. It was estimated that in 1974 about 3.5 million families (14 million people, or about 5% of the entire population) received this subsidy. With the increase in per capita income, however, the number of children requiring such assistance decreased. In 1985 the government raised the age limit for assistance to twelve years and under. In 1981 the subsidy to an unwed mother with a child increased to 20 rubles per month; in early 1987 an estimated 1.5 million unwed mothers were receiving such assistance, or twice as many as during the late 1970s.[4]

Family size

Family size and composition depended mainly on the place of residence—urban or rural—and ethnic group. The size and composition of such families was also influenced by housing and income limitations, pensions, and female employment outside the home. The typical urban family consisted of a married couple, two children, and, in about 20% of the cases, one of the grandmothers, whose assistance in raising the children and in housekeeping was important in the large majority of families having two wage earners. Rural families generally had more children than urban families and often supported three generations under one roof. Families in Central Asia and the Caucasus tended to have more children than families elsewhere in the Soviet Union and included grandparents in the family structure. In general, the average family size followed that of other industrialized countries, with higher income families having both fewer children and a lower rate of infant mortality. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, the number of families with more than one child decreased by about 50% and in 1988 totaled 1.9 million. About 75% of the families with more than one child lived in the southern regions of the country, half of them in Central Asia. In the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Moldovian, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian republics, families with one and two children constituted more than 90% of all families, whereas in Central Asia those with three or more children ranged from 14% in the Kyrgyz Republic to 31% in the Tajik. Surveys suggested that most parents would have had more children if they had had more living space.[4]

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the government promoted family planning in order to slow the growth of the Central Asian indigenous populations. Local opposition to this policy surfaced especially in the Uzbek and Tajik republics. In general, however, the government continued publicly to honor mothers of large families. Women received the Motherhood Medal, Second Class, for their fifth live birth and the Mother Heroine medal for their tenth. Most of these awards went to women in Central Asia and the Caucasus.[4]

Reproduction and Family Planning

The primary form of contraception practiced in the early USSR was coitus interruptus. Scarcity of rubber made condoms and diaphragms unavailable, and contraception was rarely discussed by political figures. [2]

The U.S.S.R. was the first country in the world to legalize abortion. For many years prior to the October Revolution, abortion was not uncommon in Russia, although it was illegal and carried a possible sentence of hard labor or exile. [5] After the revolution, famine and poor economic conditions led to an increase in the number of “back alley” abortions, and after pressure from doctors and jurists, the Commissariats of Health and Justice legalized abortion in 1920. Abortions were free for all women, although they were seen as a necessary evil due to economic hardship rather than a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system. [6]

Through the 1930's, a rising number of abortions coupled with a falling birthrate alarmed Soviet officials, with a recorded 400,000 abortions taking place in 1926 alone.[5]  In 1936 the Soviet Central Executive Committee made abortion illegal once again. This, along with stipends granted to recent mothers and bonuses given for women who bore many children, was part of an effort to combat the falling birthrate. [2]

Family and kinship structures

The extended family was more prevalent in Central Asia and the Caucasus than in the other sections of the country and, generally, in rural areas more than in urban areas. Deference to parental wishes regarding marriage was particularly strong in these areas, even among the Russians residing there.[4]

Extended families helped perpetuate traditional life-styles. The patriarchal values that accompany this life-style affected such issues as contraception, the distribution of family power, and the roles of individuals in marriage and the family. For example, traditional Uzbeks placed a higher value on their responsibilities as parents than on their own happiness as spouses and individuals. The younger and better educated Uzbeks and working women, however, were more likely to behave and think like their counterparts in the European areas of the Soviet Union, who tended to emphasize individual careers.[4]

Extended families were not prevalent in the cities. Couples lived with parents during the first years of marriage only because of economics or the housing shortage. When children were born, the couple usually acquired a separate apartment.[4]

Function of family

Soviet people of mixed ages queuing to a Kharkov cinema. 1981.

The government assumed many functions of the pre-Soviet family. Various public institutions, for example, took responsibility for supporting individuals during times of sickness, incapacity, old age, maternity, and industrial injury. State-run nurseries, preschools, schools, clubs, and youth organizations took over a great part of the family's role in socializing children. Their role in socialization was limited, however, because preschools had places for only half of all Soviet children under seven. Despite government assumption of many responsibilities, spouses were still responsible for the material support of each other, minor children, and disabled adult children.[4]

The transformation of the patriarchal, three-generation rural household to a modern, urban family of two adults and two children attests to the great changes that Soviet society had undergone since 1917. That transformation did not produce the originally envisioned egalitarianism, but it has forever changed the nature of what was once the Russian Empire.[4]

The Bolshevik Woman in the Soviet Household

The role of the Bolshevik woman has been of much controversy, particularly at the beginning of the post-revolutionary Russian era, Prior to this revolution, the role of the Bolshevik woman was to tend to the household. Making sure the children were brought up in the traditional Soviet way of life was of up most importance in the household of the average Bolshevik. In Bolshevik folklore the mother had the influential role of raising the children in the household; specifically about the household, values and the culture that would be represented amongst family members. The success and the rise of the Bolshevik regime, and the downfall of Czar Nicholas II and essentially his entire family, would subsequently leave a unique opportunity for the women of Russia. The Revolutionary War, and the large number of soldiers necessary to have an adequate defense left a void in the industrial sectors of the workforce, and that void was filled with hundreds of thousands of women, who had to assume the role left absent, by soldier fathers. As a platform Bolshevism advocated for the evolution of traditional gender roles; instead offering opportunities for women inside of the party when the Department for Work Among Women was created in 1919[7]. Despite this strong push for change by the Zhenotdel, the immensely patriarchal society that had existed for thousands of years prior, would supersede these efforts. The feminist movement was seen by the majority peasant and workforce population as bourgeois, and therefore represented something opposite of the Bolshevik idea. The emphasis on the immediate household as priority was pertinent, especially to the 1930s era of Soviet Russia. Since the Paleolithic era of Russia, there has been a fascination with the immortalization, of the mother figure. "The Motherland Calls", statute spoke up about the unrealistic expectations that the Soviet Union had on their female mothers.

Motherhood, they posited, was not some divine consciousness, but instead something inherently learned as a result of being of being a woman. Some argued that the traditional role of the mother should be challenged, and that it was not like it had been in years passed. In many instances the domestic work was piled onto the female head of the house, despite promotion of equality between genders. This left in unequal workload on the woman, who would also have a job outside of the home to help provide in a particularly difficult economy where food and adequate housing was often scarce. However, despite this argument, the role of the Bolshevik woman remained static. In the 1960s, it was expected of the Russian woman to fall in line with the patriarchal leadership of her husband [1]

See also


  1. ^ 1818-1883,, Marx, Karl, (2012). The Communist manifesto. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895,, Isaac, Jeffrey C., 1957-, Lukes, Steven. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300163209. OCLC 794670865. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Z., Goldman, Wendy (1993). Women, the state, and revolution : Soviet family policy and social life, 1917-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521458160. OCLC 27434899. 
  3. ^ Quigley, John (1979-01-01). "The 1926 Soviet Family Code: Retreat from Free Love". The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review. 6 (1): 166–174. doi:10.1163/187633279x00103. ISSN 1876-3324. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Text used in this cited section originally came from: Soviet Union Country Study from the Library of Congress Country Studies project.
  5. ^ a b Avdeev, Blum, Troitskaya, Alexandre, Alain, Irina (1995). "The History of Abortion Statistics in Russia and the USSR from 1900 to 1991". Population: an English Selection. 7: 39–66 – via JSTOR. 
  6. ^ Kiaer, Naiman, Christina, Eric (2006). Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside. 601 North Morton Street, Bloomington, IN, USA: Indiana University Press. pp. 61–70. 
  7. ^ "ASURITE Sign-In" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-04-18. 


  •  This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website
  • Clements, B., & Lanning, R. (1999). Bolshevik women. Science and Society, 63(1), 127-129.
  • Wieczynski, J. (1998). Bolshevik Women. History: Reviews of New Books, 26(4), 191-192.
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