Back and Forth on Abortions in 1930s Soviet Union

In 1936, abortion was outlawed by the Soviet government. Though it had been legalized in 1920, by the 1930s, there was a need to combat declining birth rates as well as a need to preserve the “family unit.” The above photo is an example of propaganda directed at women in the Soviet Union. The text reads “children are our future” and “don’t deprive yourself of the joys of motherhood.”

Naturally, many women objected to the reversal of the abortion law, though not for the reasons one might assume. Autonomy over one’s body, though an important issue in later years, was not so much a factor for women in the controversy over the new law. “Their objections,” writes Lewis Siegelbaum, “typically were not based on a woman’s right to control her body but rather on the impossible strains that bearing and raising children would impose on their pursuit of a career, on available living space, and other quotidian concerns.”

There are several images of propaganda available to see how the Soviet government attempted to influence young women. They display the family unit as the most important thing in a woman’s home life, and, as we can see in the above picture, show children as miracles to be treasured. For those women who did not want to see the end of legal abortion, the propaganda was not as effective. Having children was seen as a burden for those who wanted a career or a place to live.

As we can see in the history of the United States, banning abortions does not limit the number of abortions, it simply reduces the safety of the procedure for those women who get them. Furthermore, it impacted the children who were born in a negative way. According to Siegelbaum, “the rate of infant mortality rose from 146 per thousand newborns in 1935 to 162 in 1938.”


Anatolii Chernov, Children are our Future, 1946, New Gallery, 2000.

Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 361.

Lewis Sieglebaum, “Abolition of Legal Abortions,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

Women’s Sexuality and the Changing Culture of the 1980s

Much like in the West, the Soviet Union experienced a “sexual revolution” – of a sort. By the 1980s, female sexuality had become a topic of interest, though it still was seen by many as taboo. The beginning of “glastnost,” or openness, led to more awareness of the female body; yet as with any sexual revolution, no matter how small, there was the inevitable push-back that came with female liberation.

According to James von Geldern’s essay “Female Sexuality,” glasnost began around 1985 and began peeling away at the many layers – both physical and mental – of the female body. It began with discussions of prostitution and was helped along by the media, like books, films, and talk shows. Yet von Geldern notes that it was still difficult for Soviets to discuss sex, as exemplified by the American talk show host Phil Donahue asking questions about sex and receiving the response “we have no sex here.” Despite their reticence on the topic of sex, “the ways that women appeared and talked in public had altered radically by the end of the 1980s,” writes von Geldern. Yet not everyone was satisfied with the changes occurring in Soviet society.

In a article published in April 1985, Sergei Chuprinin laments the changing roles of women. “The notion of a reversal in the traditional roles of men and women has been showing up in fiction as well as nonfiction,” Chuprinin writes. He examines the way that women being sexual aggressors in fictional stories has spilled over to real life, and how it affects men and their marriages to their wives. Women taking the initiative sexually is a temptation to all men, no matter how upright he may be, and this change is leading to a shifting power dynamic between men and women. Chuprinin quotes another author, Leonid Zhukovitsky, who writes that “matriarchy is not [just] approaching, we’re already living under a matriarchy.” Whether this is a good or bad thing, Chuprinin leaves to the reader, but it is clear that many were unsettled by the sexual liberation of Soviet women.

Glastnost led to a new conversation about women: their bodies, their sexuality, and their role in the world. As we’ve seen through our own sexual revolution, however, many were unhappy with women becoming more open about their sexual experiences. Ultimately, as von Geldern notes, whether someone was happy about the destruction of taboos or not, there was little satisfaction in a woman “liberating” herself. Too often it meant degradation rather than freedom.


James von Geldern, “Female Sexuality,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

Sergei Chuprinin, “Ladies’ Tango: Women as Sexual Aggressors in Recent Popular Fiction,” Current Digest of the Russian Press 11, no. 37, April 1985, 12.

The End of Stalin’s Regime: A Thaw?

After the death of the Vozhd’, Joseph Stalin, the future of the Soviet Union seemed unclear. Who would rise to power in his stead, and how would they lead? Through primary sources, we can see that those within the Communist Party mourned Stalin while still internally clamoring for a change. Once Khrushchev rose to power, his “Secret Speech” showed a definitive break with Stalinism, though his reign and attempts at reform would not last long. The age of Khrushchev was an important one, in terms of the changes that were implemented and the thaw that occurred during his leadership.

An ode to Stalin, written after his death by the Secretary of the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee, J. Kalnberzins, is an reference to Stalin’s great work for Communism. Titled “Stalin Taught Us to be Vigilant,” Kalnberzins refers to Stalin as a “warmly loved, wise teacher and great leader” and “the man whom the Soviet people lovingly called their father.” Through this work, Kalnberzins memorializes Stalin and lauds the Communist system. Being that this was written by a Communist Party member, he is of course very sympathetic to Stalin’s regime. Throughout the country, however, many people were ready for a change.

Soon after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Through his “Secret Speech,” he breaks with Stalin in several key ways, condemning his “cult of personality” and the Terror of the 1930s, which he claimed were unlawful. It was shocking to many Communists, and caused fear to those within the party. Yet it was necessary for Khrushchev to declare himself as someone different to Stalin, and signal a softening after the harshness of Stalin’s government.

Though Khrushchev would eventually be removed from power and exiled, his reign was an important shift away from Stalin’s policies. Though we can see through works like “Stalin Taught Us to be Vigilant” that not everyone was so open to these changes, they were necessary for the development of the country. Moving away from Stalin’s “cult of personality” was the best way for Khrushchev to signify to everyone that he was the new ruler of the Soviet Union.

Works Cited:

Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History (Oxford University Press, 2009).

J. Kalnberzins, “Stalin Taught Us to be Vigilant,”

Lewis Siegelbaum, “Khrushchev’s Secret Speech,”

Harvesting Tea by Prokudin-Gorskii

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii’s photo, “A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea,” is a clear example of Russia’s changing economic structure and strange contradictory nature. The photo, taken between 1907 and 1915, depicts workers picking tea in a field on the outskirts of the Russian empire. They are dressed in light, loose-fitting clothing and are tasked with harvesting tea from the field where they work. The caption of the photo indicates that this type of work could be grueling, and the photograph makes it obvious that picking tea is a thankless job; yet, it was necessary to the Russian empire that agrarian work be done. Even though in the past one hundred years, Russia had attempted to industrialize, neither the government attempting the industrialization nor the workers adapting to the change reaped much benefit from this new economic type.

The photo was taken early in the Twentieth century, on the eve of the Russian revolution. Despite planned changes and improvements to the Russian empire – like industrialization and freeing the serfs – the photograph seems like it could have been taken a hundred years prior. The workers in the tea fields are stuck in time, lost between the old agrarian Russian empire and the new, industrialized, modern Russian empire. With this obvious disconnect, it is unsurprising that the Russian people would rise up and overthrow their government in a few short years’ time. The unhappiness shown on the workers’ faces makes it clear that a change was necessary, and would happen with or without the government’s consent.