CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
Why is it not possible to control the birth rate in Soviet Bloc countries?
Because the means of production remain in private hands.
(Soviet joke from the 1970s)

1 In accordance with Marxist philosophy, the mission of Soviet social sciences was not only to “interpret the world,” but also to “change” it. [1] One of the most crucial components of this revolutionary social-engineering project was “the emancipation of women”, which was intended to contribute to “healthier relationships between the sexes”. [2] The Bolsheviks promised equality and harmony between men and women. What can be learned by studying Soviet social-science research relating to issues of gender and sexuality now, more than twenty years after the collapse of the USSR? How should that body of work be read at present?

2 During the Cold War, Western Sovietologists betrayed some ambivalence towards Soviet social sciences: on the one hand, insofar as westerners had limited direct access to their chosen field of study, they were dependent on the Soviet social sciences as sources of information; on the other, the Sovietologists approached the data with the utmost caution. These sciences would often appear to be both censored and instrumentalized. With the advent of perestroika, Gorbachev himself expressed indignation that “creative thought has been banished from the social sciences” in the USSR, and that “a gap has sprung up between words and deeds.” [3] After 1991, studying this discredited research may well have seemed all the less necessary in that access to archive material was becoming available, and new, unhindered research could be carried out. In fields of research concerning gender and sexuality, it was as though Soviet isolation and backwardness had to yield to imported Western approaches. But in 2003, the Russian sociologists Anna Temkina and Elena Zdravomyslova highlighted the ambiguity of this turning point:


The terms “gender “ and “gender studies” indicated demarcations from the Soviet tradition of sex-role research […] the “Western theory” entered as the “authority” by which to legitimize the field. All the same, continuity with the traditions of Soviet sociology is also preserved. [4]

4 In fact, it should not be forgotten that from the 1960s onwards, the topic of women and the family was one of the research fields that offered the most leeway in the USSR, as was shown in the 1980s by the work of such English-speaking scholars as Gail Lapidus, Mary Buckley [5] and Lynne Attwood. Paradoxically, Russian gender studies actually emerged late in the Soviet era, with the 1989 founding of a Centre for gender studies [gendernye issledovaniia] within the Academy of Sciences. [6] Work carried out before perestroika has not been entirely forgotten; its empirical evidence has been re-used within new analytical frameworks. [7] One way to read this work today is to set aside those aspects that can be construed as ideological, and to focus exclusively on the quantitative data. Still, other approaches are possible, as the historian Maya Haber has pointed out:


Rather than discuss the truth value of Soviet social scientific knowledge, historians should conceptualize these scholars’ work in their own terms. […] Their purpose was not objective description. Instead, they perceived themselves as social engineers with a mission to transform their objects of research. [8]

6 That is the approach – one which consists in not dissociating the history of the social sciences from the history of governmental practices

7 – which I am taking in the present article. In addition, it will allow me to complexify an issue that has long held sway in Western gender-studies research in the USSR. I am referring to the problem of the gap between “propaganda” and “reality”. Were the communists telling the truth about “women’s emancipation” in Russia? Did they really transform the family as radically as they claimed to have done? [9] Instead, the historian Choi Chatterjee suggests analyzing the resolution of the “women question,” as an “organizational fiction” since “Bolshevik ideology was essentially performative rather than descriptive.” [10]

8 The point is perhaps less to know if actual socialism did in fact match theoretical (textual) socialism, but rather to understand the “governmental rationality” operating in the USSR. Thus this article is based on an intuition formulated by Michel Foucault, and since confirmed by the work of a number of historians, such as Stephen Kotkin, [11] Dan Healey [12] and Martine Mespoulet: [13] the USSR did not invent “power-knowledge” that were radically different from those in the capitalist world: “there is no autonomous socialist governmentality.” [14]

9 This article will not attempt to offer an exhaustive history of Soviet research into gender and sexuality, but aims instead to suggest avenues for further research concerning this corpus. I will attempt to show, with significant examples, how Soviet social sciences, despite their firm intention to distinguish themselves from “bourgeois sciences”, in fact maintained a “thwarted dialogue” [15] with the latter, and indeed offered alternative, but “strangely familiar” [16] ways of interpreting and transforming gender roles. This article can also be read as an overview of current Western and post-Soviet interpretations of this research – interpretations that contribute, in particular, to a history of governmental practices in the USSR.

10 In the first part, I will show how the project of government regulation of gender and sexuality informed by the social sciences unfolded in the 1920s, before being sidelined during the Stalinist era, when the “woman question” [zhenskii vopros] and the “sexual question” [polovoi vopros] were declared resolved. The second part of the article will be devoted to the periods known as the “thaw” and “stagnation,” when research about women and the family was revived, as were social scientists’ hopes of contributing to the elaboration of well-adapted and efficient public policies.

Resolving the “sexual question” and the “woman question”?

Pre-revolutionary modernization projects

11 Rather than dating the history of the enrolment of social sciences in the revolutionary socialist project from 1917, it is (more?) enlightening to analyze it in a continuum with the commitment to modernization on the part of elites in Tsarist Russia. Right from the turn of the nineteenth century, we can see the development of a discourse influenced by the idea of progress entailing the responsibility of an enlightened, Europeanized minority towards the peasant masses. Even though the idea was to address the problem of Russia’s “backwardness,” the West was not held up as an unequivocal model. Intense East-West cultural circulation translated into selective importations and reappropriations. As the historian Peter Holquist has pointed out, among the pre-revolutionary elite, many “defended the idea that Russia could avoid the pitfalls that societies which had already experienced industrialization had fallen prey to, a theory which Trotsky later called ‘the privilege of historic backwardness’.” In addition, according to Holquist:


Such an agenda predisposed many activists to side with the Soviet state, even when they did not sympathize with Bolshevism as an ideology. […] Bolshevik étatisme, its emphasis on the state as the essential instrument for realizing an overarching enlightenment mission for Russia’s benighted masses, was situated within a broad current of Russian political culture. This preexisting current among Russia’s educated elites accounts in large part for the broad involvement of non-Bolshevik specialists […] in the Soviet state’s projects. [17]

13 In the decades following the abolition of serfdom (1861), an incipient form of industrial capitalism led to the birth of an urban proletariat, and rural community and family norms seemed to be deeply destabilized by migration – men’s authority over women, as well as the need for high fertility rates, seemed to become less and less obvious. Especially after the 1905 revolution, concerns about the personal and social mores of the potentially dangerous laboring classes sprung up: doctors and jurists, in particular, focused on births out of wedlock, abandoned children, infanticide, abortion, prostitution and venereal disease, all of which they observed to be on the rise in cities. [18]

14 These worries would lead to the “sexual question” [polovoi vopros], which was fundamentally inseparable from the “woman question” [zhenskii vopros] – both of which fell into the larger framework of the “social question,” in a comparable vein to what could be observed in western society at the same period. But it would seem that, unlike Western Europe, Russia was distinguished by the lack of a hegemonic bourgeoisie in which the doctrine of separate spheres – the public sphere for men, private for women – could have been rooted. According to the historian Barbara Alpern Engel, “Progressive opinion encouraged women to contribute their special energies to the regeneration of society as a whole,” [19] without fundamentally challenging gender norms: the idea was that their “feminine” virtues could, or even should, be expressed outside the home. According to the historian Laura Engelstein:


[…] Just as the critique of capitalism preceded the full appearance of capitalism itself on the Russian scene, so Victorian notions of sexual respectability and danger were questioned before they had a chance to take root. [20]

Theorizing a non-patriarchal social organization

16 While the corpus of European scientific and utopian socialism upon which Russian revolutionary discourse was founded does in fact offer an in-depth critique of gender and sexuality norms under capitalism, it does not give an unequivocal answer to the question of how they should evolve in the socialist future. So the debates that arose about this issue in the early twentieth century invaded the zone of indetermination offered most particularly in texts by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels [21] and August Bebel [22] – which remained, throughout the whole of the Soviet period, required references for any scientific study of women and families. The only fundamentally consensual premise was that the Revolution would undermine the bases of the capitalist family and its hypocritical sexual morals, i.e. on the one hand, marriage founded on women’s financial dependence, and on the other, prostitution – which were seen as the two sides of the same coin.

17 For the Bolsheviks, condemning the economic and sexual exploitation of women tended to go hand in hand with rhetoric about purification of the social body – i.e. “healthier relationships between the sexes,” [23] as Alexandra Kollontai (Minister of Health in 1917-1918) put it – yet this did not actually refer to an explicit, coherent theory of sexuality. Lenin’s distrust of bourgeois scientia sexualis in general and of Freud’s theories in particular, along with his reluctance to acknowledge the importance of the “sexual question”, [24] are not entirely unambiguous. His views on sexuality – which he considered in terms of “economizing energy” and wasting strength that would be better invested in building socialism – actually adhere implicitly to a long European tradition of pathologizing sexuality, in keeping with Samuel Tissot’s famous treatise on masturbation.

18 Thus, in the late 1920s, a great number of Soviet experts in “sexual hygiene” referred to Lenin’s comments when advising young people to aim for a happy medium: on the one hand, abstinence compensated for by sports and work; on the other, a responsible sex life, founded on love and aimed at procreation. Among them, the psychiatrist Aron Zalkind tried to synthesize Pavlov and Freud, and to propose a Socialist reinterpretation of the concept of “sublimation”. [25] It is worth noting however, that Kollontai, a member of the “World League for Sexual Reform” from 1928, subscribed to an entirely different school of sexology, one that focused instead on fulfillment through non-procreative sexuality. [26] While she was already completely marginalized from Soviet politics by then, her standpoint bears witness to the range of possibilities.

19 Nor, it would seem, were Soviet social sciences based on an original theory of differences between the sexes. The idea was rather to “[leave it to] the bourgeois scholars to absorb themselves in discussion of the question of the superiority of one sex over the other, or in […] the comparing of the psychological structure of men and women,” because “specific economic factors were behind the subordination of women; natural qualities have been a secondary factor in this process,” as Kollontai had put it in 1909, when she still had political legitimacy. [27] Thus over the long run of the Soviet era, while the distinction between biological necessity and social contingency in the definition of the feminine fluctuated, attracting more or less attention, the fundamental issue remained the search for a form of social organization that would allow for optimal fulfillment of “natural” – i.e. naturalized by social-scientific discourse – potential. So those sciences were led to develop an avant-garde social critique echoing “first-wave feminism,” although their goal was not to operate an epistemological break over the question of nature vs nurture, as it was posited under capitalism.

The art of governing

20 After the Revolution, the question of how to bring about the healthy equality between the sexes that was promised by the founding texts was raised. According to the historian Stephen Kotkin, it is best to avoid “exoticizing” the search for a socialist art of government in revolutionary Russia, by placing it in historical continuum with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which were both characterized by “the effort to establish a rational social order” and the goal of “using science to perfect society.” [28] In this sense, the 1920s should be seen as the “golden age” of social sciences: “No political or economic decision should be made without a preliminary study,” [29] the Soviet economist Stanislas Strumilin declared at that time. As has been shown, most notably in the work of the historians Alain Blum and Martine Mespoulet, [30] above and beyond the Marxist perspective, there was enormous continuity with the pre-revolutionary era in terms of scientific methodology. Sociology, even though it was officially banned from higher education in 1922 as a bourgeois science, would in fact continue to “irrigate” the entire field of “social statistics, [31] as well as public health (“social hygiene”). [32]

21 The case of research into the “social causes” of abortion, which has been studied by Alain Blum, Alexandre Avdeev and Irina Troitskaia, [33] is particularly enlightening. As far back as the 1913 Congress of the Pirogov Society, at a time when a significant drop in the birth rate had yet to be observed, Russian doctors had taken a stand for decriminalizing abortion, for the sake of women’s health. Taking their lead from that stance, Soviet authorities provided access to free abortion in public hospitals (as per a 1920 statute). Based on an exegesis of Marx’s critique of Malthus, the Bolsheviks theorized that abortion, an evil intrinsic to capitalism, would become obsolete with the advent of equality between the sexes, along with the improvement in living conditions. The theory of natural, continuous population growth under socialism became established as an inversion of theories of “racial degeneration.”

22 Yet the collection and analysis of detailed statistics about women resorting to abortion would undermine that doctrine:


Women from affluent households had more abortions than those from more disadvantaged ones. Two conflicting theories arose. One, in keeping with the tradition of the Pirogov Society’s congresses, demanded greater access to contraception in order to resolve the problem of abortion. The other, although further from the evidence, continued to postulate a direct correlation between fertility and improved standards of living. [34]

24 According to the historian David Hoffmann, experts and decision-makers “shared the same obsession with the decline in the birth rate as their counterparts in Western Europe. [35] Thus, in 1927, the Soviet statistician Sergei Tomilin declared:


The current abortion legislation is a temporary compromise, which will need to be reviewed soon […] [The risk is that] most families [will satisfy] their parental instincts with just one or two births […]. One cannot base reflections on the future of the race on the behavior of separate individuals whose main concern is their own creature comfort. [36]

26 So statistical studies from the 1920s could not announce the fast-approaching eradication of such “anomalies” tied to capitalism as abortion, infanticide, prostitution, etc. What’s more, they provide a sense of the scope of the challenges posed by gender inequality, thanks in particular to ambitious in-depth surveys of the gendered division of productive and domestic labor. [37]

Dismissing the social question?

27 In order to support the narrative of having completed construction of the foundations of socialism during the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1933), the political role of the social sciences was reoriented, and purges affected many fields of research. In 1932, that break with the recent past was incarnated in the “theory of the withering away of statistics in favor of national accounting”, viz.:


Statistics are necessary where fluctuation exists, that is, in capitalist régimes; where fluctuations do not exist, statistics are no longer useful; and that is one of the results of socialism. [38]

29 Since the Plan was already being perceived as a description of reality, social observation would have to conform to proclamations of the regime’s success.

30 The paradoxes of Soviet scientism are particularly apparent when it comes to the fate of research into sexuality. In the early 1900s, “social hygiene” surveys had been carried out in the form of questionnaires about students’ sex lives. They were absolutely unheard of for the times, and that dynamic continued and intensified in the 1920s. Doctors queried men and women from different social categories about their practices and representations. The subjects they analyzed included the decline in the tradition of men being sexually initiated with prostitutes, the spread of phenomena such as cohabitation, and contraception; they also worried about confessions of masturbation, or the notion that abstinence was petit-bourgeois and unhealthy. [39] Nevertheless although Russia had indeed been a pioneer in terms of studying the dangers of sexuality, the “sexual question” did not end up acquiring the same disciplinary function or importance as the Western approaches to sexuality analysed by Foucault. [40]

31 Indeed, while scientia sexualis might have been seen as to some extent relevant to deal with the evils of capitalism, it had no place in socialism, where sexuality should no longer have been problematic. By the early 1930s, in the same way that social classes were supposed to have been eradicated, the “woman question” and the “sexual question” were officially declared to have been resolved. Protected from all capitalist and patriarchal contamination, re-founded on new bases, the Soviet family was necessarily both stable and fertile. Society could no longer be explained by social sciences, because that would imply that the regime hadn’t lived up to its promises: “social problems” could only be addressed as examples of individual deviancy. That was the significance of the 1936 law, which banned abortion and made procedures for divorce considerably more complicated, inverting the legislation of the immediate post-revolutionary years. Social-science research was entering a fallow period.

Managing the “contradictions” between production and reproduction

Ideology and margins for maneuver

32 Destalinization allowed for a rebirth of social sciences: the idea of aiming for a sociologically enlightened art of governing came back on the agenda, in a context in which it became possible to acknowledge that the “woman question” had not in fact been entirely resolved. Studies in demography and “social hygiene” showing that the criminalization of abortion was counter-productive – although censored, such studies had continued to be pursued discreetly under Stalin – began to bear fruit in 1954: in the name of pragmatism, abortion was de-penalized once again. Likewise, during the 1960s, divorce proceedings were simplified considerably, in accordance with legal scholars’ recommendations. [41]

33 Nevertheless, the Soviet sociologist Boris Firsov now says that his generation of social scientists was characterized both by professional ethics that allowed them to work “under any regime whatsoever” and by “the bitter taste of futility”. [42] While the Party left them only the slimmest margins for maneuver, for many of them the real problem was not so much censorship per se, as the lack of attention paid to their work by political decision-makers. Superficially appearing to toe the official ideological line – sometimes with references to Marxism-Leninism reduced to nothing more than a hollow acknowledgement – was one possible strategy. In a similar vein, the “critique of bourgeois theories” sometimes took on the form of picking and choosing, in which the method was adopted without the ideology.

34 Research on women and the family now developed into a field where sociology, demography and economics overlapped. At the time, concerns about the drop in the birth rate in the more European regions of the USSR, were becoming a question of crucial importance, and became linked to questions about family stability and women’s dual role as both mothers and workers. Scientific research in this domain attracted attention in the press and was the subject of heated debate. While performing conformity with the party line, the social sciences were now actually proposing a certain flexibility in the exegesis of the founding Marxist texts, as well as in analyses of empirical data and practical recommendations. It is difficult to identify the precise moment at which the line was crossed, and when divorce and limiting family size for example were no longer systematically described as dysfunctions due to “vestiges” [perezhitki] of the past or Western influence, whose disappearance had to be facilitated. Nevertheless, it is clearly true that the organizational fiction surrounding the discourse of the social sciences gradually became considerably altered and even undermined from within.

Influencing reproductive decisions

35 The example of the birth-rate study reveals the tensions inherent in the role the social sciences were expected to play in establishing public policy. In 1927, Sergei Tomilin had justified the up-coming ban on abortion by declaring that public policy should not be based on, “the behavior of separate individuals […] whose main concern is their own creature comfort.” Yet after the Thaw, granting women the opportunity to decide for themselves the question of motherhood (the 1955 act legalizing abortion) could logically have led, on the contrary, to conceiving of “regulation based on and in terms of the course of things themselves,” (p. 344) “An apparatus [dispositif] that is connected up to a reality that is, as it were, acknowledged and accepted, neither valued nor depreciated, but simply recognized as nature” (p. 37). [43] In other words, precisely the type of regulation that is a key feature of modern western governmentality as Foucault analyzed it. So Soviet social sciences were affected by this tension.

36 In the late 1950s, a major survey directed by Elizaveta Sadvokasova was supposed to evaluate the possibilities for eradicating the causes of abortion, but only one-third of women pointed to “undoubtedly removable” material obstacles that might influence their decisions; most simply insisted that they “didn’t [want] a child.” [44] Those were in fact the only large-scale representative abortion data available until Perestroika, as the issue was considered too sensitive: the fact is that Russia displayed the world’s highest abortion rates. For that reason, even after de-Stalinization, the authorities might block awkward expert opinions, maintaining, for instance, an ambiguous wait-and-see approach towards contraception – which was neither banned nor encouraged – despite the recommendations of a number of demographers. [45]

37 Alongside that, in 1972, as an extension to what was by then a fairly institutionalized, pro-natalist discourse, the demographer Boris Urlanis stated in the mainstream press that families needed to have an average of 2.65 children in order to keep the generation replacement level. [46] That figure happened to be about equivalent to the “desired fertility rate” most women mentioned in surveys, even though the actual fertility rate was between one and two children per woman. That gap would lead to competing conceptualizations of reproductive decisions, and some studies emerged debunking the idea of trying to bring the birth rate back up by helping women to refrain from abortion. The demographers Valentina Belova and Leonid Darskii, borrowing Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices (KAP)” methodology from English-speaking scientists, acknowledged their respondents’ wish to control their own fertility as a given. According to them, if the goal was to increase fertility, it didn’t make any sense to try to influence decision-making about abortion; one could only intervene in the factors shaping “fundamental and authentic” reproductive decisions – as opposed to statements of reproductive intent made for the sake of sounding socially acceptable. [47] That challenge seemed to have stimulated methodological creativity to such an extent that the demographer Anatolii Antonov tried to analyze women’s reproductive decisions through “semantic differential.” [48] Invented in the United States in the 1950s, semantic differential – an empirical method designed to measure the emotional impact of certain words – was used for a wide range of applications, from the US Army’s “Field Manual for Psychological Warfare,” [49] to marketing.

Supporting working mothers

38 This is the context in which women’s “double burden” as both mothers and members of the workforce focalized the attention of scholars, who analyzed the tensions created between women’s economic and demographic roles in terms of “non-antagonistic contradictions in Soviet society.” Although the “emancipation of women” was seen both as a doctrine and as a benefit of socialism, more and more doubts were being expressed about it. Time-use studies showed that women still had less time to devote to “leisure activities” and to “improving their professional qualifications.” [50]

39 In 1977, Brezhnev acknowledged the continuing relevance of the “woman question” in the following terms: “We men […] are still far from having done everything that is in our power to ease the double burden that [women] bear both at home and in production.” [51] But above and beyond that issue, according to the American scholar Gail Lapidus writing at that time, “Three distinct orientations can be distinguished in current Soviet writing [in social sciences].” The first, and least innovative, “attempts to reconcile the need for high levels of female labor-force participation with the desire for a higher birth rate” by increasing state support for housework and child care. The second focuses not only on increasing male-female equality in the professional sphere, but also on couples sharing household tasks. The third and last, on the other hand, clearly prioritizes demographic goals, and the project of focusing on women’s role as mothers rather than workers. [52]

40 In the 1970s, the USSR’s policy could be described more as “hesitant pro-natalism.” [53] Looking beyond the speeches and the posturing, natalist measures were not in fact a given, partially because they would require a reallocation of resources – i.e. increasing the share of the budget going to welfare to the detriment of the military-industrial complex – and also because they would lead to arbitrating between the short-term need for the female workforce and the longer-term need for renewing the overall workforce. In 1977, a survey commissioned by the authorities aimed to evaluate more precisely what women needed in the way of part-time work. Measures catering for such needs were widely favored by respondents, but in the end the study had little impact. [54] On the other hand, in the early 1980s, as part of the scientific cooperation between socialist countries that the Party encouraged, demographers did manage to convince the authorities to follow the Hungarian model, in particular, and to offer women extremely long maternity leave. Although most women took advantage of the opportunity offered, in response to surveys conducted at the same time, “[when] we women were asked if they would rather stay at home with their children if their husbands earned the equivalent of both of their current salaries combined, the vast majority replied no.” [55] Whatever the case may be, rather than being seen as a step backwards, the relative reduction of women’s professional activity could be presented as a luxury that Soviet society could now afford.” [56]

Crisis or modernization?

41 At the end of the day, the social sciences’ discourse about gender, the family and sexuality became more diversified during the “Thaw” and the “Stagnation.” On the one hand, the media widely trumpeted the idea of a “gender crisis” (the “masculinization of women” and the “feminization of men”), which slipped effortlessly into the framework of Marxist analysis – all you had to do was to refer to the difficulties in adjusting the social superstructure to the economic infrastructure (“otstavanie soznaniia ot bytiia”). Similarly, from the 1960s onwards, a number of education specialists and psychologists, as well as some sociologists and demographers, began recycling the same discursive tactics in order to legitimize normative discourse about a hierarchical complementarity between the sexes: the source was an “obscure” quotation from Marx that had been “exhumed” from a “Confessions” questionnaire (a form of popular entertainment at the time) that his daughter got him to fill in, in which, to the question of “quality you like best in man”. He replied, “strength,” “in woman,” “weakness.” [57]

42 Nevertheless, what emerges from these discourses is that women, despite their unanimously deplored work overload, and their sometimes stigmatized increasing virility, were displaying a socially valued polyvalence, while men tended to be presented as being destabilized by the disappearance of patriarchy and the loss of their status as the household’s principal wage-earners, as though they had been forced out of family life, where women had already taken all the roles. The sociologists Elena Zdravomyslova and Anna Temkina are currently analyzing the development of this discourse about the “crisis of masculinity” and the “victimization of the Soviet man.” [58] Soviet sociologists like Anatolii Kharchev had explained, for instance, that most divorces were instigated by women, and that the most common reason given was “their husbands’ alcoholism,” which “led to [the men’s] […] adultery” as well as to their “impotence.” [59] The demographer Boris Urlanis regularly published alarmist diatribes about men’s health and their low life expectancy, pleading – in vain – that state solicitude and control should not be limited to women’s bodies, and recommending the creation of “men’s clinics” as a pendant to the “women’s clinics” (medical centers specialized in obstetrics and gynecology). [60] For the first time in Soviet history, a “man question,” can be seen emerging.

43 In 1984, classes entitled “Ethics and psychology of family life” were introduced into the school curriculum. Their purpose was to forge “feminine” girls and “masculine” boys, to dissuade teens from having pre-marital sex, to encourage married couples to have at least two or three children per family and to curb the tendency towards divorce. Their philosophy was, “Equality doesn’t mean similarity, and not everything that is traditional is obsolete.” [61] This was because of studies carried out since the 1960s, often with questionnaires, that revealed a relative erosion of gender stereotypes. [62] So some psychologists and education specialists came up with the idea of actively inculcating gender roles that they believed were more in line with family’s and society’s interests, based on a (re)invented “tradition.”.

44 But it was also in 1984 that the sociologist Sergei Golod declared that:


It is becoming more and more obvious that [phenomena related to the autonomization of the spheres of conjugality, procreation and sexuality] revealed in the 1960s and 70s, can no longer be unequivocally interpreted as deviations from the norm, but should be seen as signs of essential evolutions within the institution of the family […] [, which] can be described as revolutionary. [63]

46 An entire alternative academic discourse aimed at putting the idea of a “family crisis” or a “demographic crisis” into perspective did in fact spring up. In 1973, Anatolii Vishnevski formalized a watershed moment by publishing an article entitled, “The demographic revolution.” [64] It was the USSR’s first written legitimation of the theory of “demographic transition,” and it “allowed [social scientists] to reinterpret low fertility from a symptom of Russia's weakness to a sign of its progressive development” as anthropologist Michele Rivkin-Fish [65] analyzes it today. This proposed changing of the paradigm would concur with and reinforce the one that had been more cautiously raised in the 1960s and 1970s in Igor Kon and Sergei Golod’s sociology of sexuality. Those academics had in fact managed to find a way around the authorities’ hostility for the subject, which was supposed to be reserved to “sexo-pathology,” a branch of medicine. After disappearing in the 1930, the subject had developed modestly since de-Stalinization, and was supposed to deal with deviances and dysfunctions only. [66] Kon and Golod’s work descended both from early twentieth-century Russian sexuality studies – which supplied an empirical base of comparison – and 1950s-1960s American sexology, which legitimized the study of sexual pleasure as an element of individual and conjugal well-being. In this way, they did their best to provide both scholars and the general public with a glimpse of the work of Alfred Kinsey, and of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, which was otherwise confined to “special reserved sections” [spetskhran] in Soviet libraries, access to which was strictly controlled by the Party.


48 So both in the 1920s, and again in the 1960s to 1980s, Soviet social sciences produced a discourse about gender and sexuality that was not ideologically monolithic. While that discourse was sometimes in the vanguard, it often fed on the circulation and more or less acknowledged appropriation of elements from Western sciences – like a sort of distorting mirror, whether it was presented as a shared fate or, on the contrary, as a counter-example. Nevertheless, Soviet social sciences differed from their Western counterparts in certain key aspects. First of all, the selection of topics for research depended on the political context, which could prioritize or, on the contrary, exclude subjects at whim. Secondly, methodological orientations persisted over the long term, in particular the importance of quantitative data, which went hand in hand with the monopoly of Marxism – although as a theoretical framework, Marxism was in fact mobilized in exceptionally diversified and contradictory ways in the field of research that concerns us. Lastly, it is difficult to speak of a socialist science of gender and sexuality per se, insofar as there was an absence in the Soviet era of “specific theory, concepts and tools.” Instead, it was characterized by “a range of uses of all of the above,” as Martine Mespoulet has put it.

49 As far as government measures were concerned, Soviet social sciences, in the fields discussed here, never ceased to be haunted by the perspective of biopolitics that would, at the end of the day, be not unlike those in western societies, i.e. the perspective of a social “regulation”, “neither valued nor depreciated”, but simply “recognized” as “nature.” [67] After having been part of the range of possibilities in the 1920s, this model of governmentality was delegitimized under Stalin, but came back on to the agenda from the Thaw onwards. Thus sexual, reproductive and family behaviors seem to constitute one of the fields of social life in which the logic of planning was most severely tried.

50 In the 1970s and 1980s, some researchers analyzed the drop in fertility rates and the relative dissociation between sexuality, conjugality and procreation as an inevitable (demographic, sexual) “revolution,” which wa s part of a “modernization” comparable to the one taking place in the West. On the contrary, other researchers were talking about a “crisis” for demographics, the family and gender roles.

51 This was the context in which Gorbachev called upon social sciences to debate “how to fully give women back their true predestined roles, of wife and mother.” [68] At the same time that perestroika seemed to consecrate this new dominant discourse, it also broadly authorized a critique of it, and allowed for the emergence of “academic feminism.” [69] Within the research field of gender and families in Russia, a division continues to this day between, on the one hand, a sociology of “modernization” and of backwardness vis-a-vis the West and on the other, a sociology of “crisis” and of Russian specificity. [70] The sociology of “modernization” may have seemed triumphant in the 1990s, which were characterized by political gender-mainstreaming projects and the wider dissemination of birth control, both of them initiatives that were supported by international organizations. [71]. But it is “crisis” sociology that has influenced the natalist, “traditional family” policies of the 2000s and 2010s, and the goals for increasing the fertility rate set by presidential decree [72] have revived scientific debates inherited from the Soviet era.


  • [1]
    My thanks to Juliette Rennes and Arthur Clech, as well as to the Moscow Center for Franco-Russian Studies, particularly Alain Blum, Laurent Coumel, Hélène Mélat and Masha Cerovic, for their help in preparing this article.
  • [2]
    Kollontai 1979 [1909].
  • [3]
    Gorbachev 1988 [1987].
  • [4]
    Zdravomyslova & Temkina 2003.
  • [5]
    Buckley 1986.
  • [6]
    Zakharova, Posadskaia & Rimashevskaia 1990.
  • [7]
    See, for example: Rimashevskaia 2001; Golod 2005.
  • [8]
    Haber 2014.
  • [9]
    That is, for example, the approach adopted at the time in Histoire des femmes en Occident, cf. Navailh 2002 [1992].
  • [10]
    Chatterjee 1999: 16.
  • [11]
    Between the two world wars, the USSR developed “important similarities (as well as many important differences) both with liberal projects of modernization
    – such as those in the USA, Great Britain and France – and with anti-liberal forms of modernity – such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.” Cf. Kotkin 2001.
  • [12]
    Healey 2014.
  • [13]
    Mespoulet 2008.
  • [14]
    Foucault 2004a: 93-95.
  • [15]
    I have borrowed this expression from Schor 2013.
  • [16]
    I have borrowed this expression from Seriot 1995.
  • [17]
    Holquist 2001.
  • [18]
    Engelstein 1992.
  • [19]
    Engel 2004: 84.
  • [20]
    Engelstein 1992: 4.
  • [21]
    Engels 2012 [1884].
  • [22]
    Bebel 1891 [1879].
  • [23]
    Kollontai 1979 [1909].
  • [24]
    Zetkin 1926 [1925].
  • [25]
    Naiman 1997.
  • [26]
    Tamagne 2005.
  • [27]
    Kollontai 1971 [1909].
  • [28]
    Kotkin 1995: 6, 18.
  • [29]
    Strumilin 1964. Quoted by Markiewicz-Lagneau 1969.
  • [30]
    Blum & Mespoulet 2003; Mespoulet 2008.
  • [31]
    Mespoulet 2008: 219-220.
  • [32]
    Solomon 1990.
  • [33]
    Avdeev, Blum & Troitskaia 1993.
  • [34]
  • [35]
    Hoffmann 2003: 99.
  • [36]
    Tomilin 1927. Quoted by Avdeev, Blum & Troitskaia 1993.
  • [37]
    See the article by Martine Mespoulet elsewhere in this issue.
  • [38]
    Ploshko & Eliseeva 1990: 222. Quoted by Blum 1994: 39.
  • [39]
    Engelstein 1992: 248-252; Fitzpatrick 1978; Dalla Zuanna & Denissenko 1999.
  • [40]
    Foucault 1998 [1976]; Engelstein 1992; Bernstein 2007.
  • [41]
    Field 2007.
  • [42]
    Firsov 2012.
  • [43]
    Foucault 2009.
  • [44]
    Sadvokasova 1969.
  • [45]
    Avdeev, Blum & Troitskaia 1993.
  • [46]
    Urlanis 1972.
  • [47]
    Belova & Darskii 1972.
  • [48]
    Antonov 1980.
  • [49]
    Le Bourgeois 2010.
  • [50]
    Gordon & Klopov 1972. See Martine Mespoulet’s article elsewhere in this issue.
  • [51]
    Pravda, 22/03/1977, p. 1. As quoted by Lapidus 1978: 276.
  • [52]
    Lapidus 1978: 290-334.
  • [53]
    Desfosses 1981: 31.
  • [54]
    Kuleshova & Mamontova 1979 as quoted in Lapidus 1982.
  • [55]
    Holland 1980.
  • [56]
    Lapidus 1978: 327.
  • [57]
    Attwood 1990: 8.
  • [58]
    Zdravomyslova & Temkina 2012.
  • [59]
    Kharchev 1979 [1964]: 230.
  • [60]
    Urlanis 1978.
  • [61]
    Attwood 1990: 83.
  • [62]
    See, for example: Iankova 1978.
  • [63]
    Golod 1984 [translated from the author’s own translation into French]. This work is strikingly similar to the French sociologist Martine Segalen’s 1981 book Sociologie de la famille.
  • [64]
    Vishnevskii 1973.
  • [65]
    Rivkin-Fish 2003.
  • [66]
    Kon 2010 [1997]. Nevertheless, social-science studies were restricted to heterosexual practices. Relations between men, which had been de-penalized after the Revolution, were re-criminalized under Stalin, while relations between women were either ignored or dealt with in strictly pathological terms.
  • [67]
    Foucault 2009: 37.
  • [68]
    Gorbachev 1988: 16, 117, 125.
  • [69]
    Cirstocea 2010.
  • [70]
    Rivkin-Fish 2003.
  • [71]
    Including the ratification of the programs for action from the 1994 Cairo World Conference on Population and Development and the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing.
  • [72]
    “Concept of Demographic Policy of the Russian Federation for the Period up to 2025” approved by Order of the President of the Russian Federation No. 1351 of 9 October 2007.

In post-1917 Russia, state policies addressing “the woman question” and “the sexual question” were intended to be informed by the social sciences. These matters were declared resolved during the Stalin era, but partially reopened during the Thaw. This article explores how, in the long term, the supposedly “socialist” social sciences differed from “bourgeois” sciences not so much in their epistemology, as in the way they prioritized or excluded certain problematics as the political regime evolved. In the 1920s, Russian research on sexuality and birth control was groundbreaking, but it became relatively illegitimate after the Thaw. Between 1960 and 1980, the chief social issues were rather fertility decline and women’s “double burden” of work and home. Central planning seemed ill-adapted to family behaviour, and social science found itself facing the prospect of a governing approach closer to economic liberalism. This period witnessed the emergence of a division still relevant today, between two conceptualizations of social change: one in terms of modernization, both demographic and sexual – to be encouraged – the other in terms of a “crisis” – to be dealt with.


  • Soviet Union
  • communism
  • gender
  • sexuality
  • social science
  • public policies


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Mona Claro
Mona Claro is preparing a doctorate at the EHESS (Paris) and is attached to the Institut National d’Études démographiques (INED). A member of IRIS, her research has been supported by the Institut Émilie du Châtelet and the Centre d’études franco-russe. Her thesis will bring a gendered and generational perspective to the study of social change in post-Soviet Russia, with special reference to sexuality, conjugal relations and parenthood.
Translated by
Regan Kramer
Uploaded on on 22/03/2016
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