Thinking of “free love” may invoke Woodstock imagery rather than early 20th century Soviet Russia, but it was the early communist regime that undertook perhaps the most ambitious attempt at unleashing human sexuality—with predictable results.
As soon as Communists took power in 1917 in Russia, they began systematically to enact policies following the doctrines of Karl Marx. Their dream of materialistic utopia could be attained “only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions,” Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto.
That not only included confiscating “means of production,” like factories and land, but also disintegrating the institution of the family. Communists saw commitment to family as an obstacle to people’s devotion to the pursuit of their utopia. Instead, people were to live in “free unions,” mating at will.
Masses of Russians, especially urbanites, were sold on the party line that moral restraint on sexual desire, rooted in family ethics, had no benefits and was instead harmful.
The Communists convinced women they were “slaves” in their own homes, cooking for their own families, and raising their own children. Women would have been much more “free,” they said, working in state-owned factories.
What about the children left behind? They were to be taken away from mothers as early as possible—herded into preschools, daycare centers, and later schools—to be raised by the state as the next generation of “liberated” cogs in the socialist machine.
Based on Russian law and tradition, wives were materially dependent on their husbands, while husbands had an obligation to care and provide for their wives and the whole family. At the time, Russia enjoyed a certain degree of religious freedom, and individual religions were left to govern the rules of marriage. Divorce was limited to resolving situations like infidelity, abandonment, or impotence.
Communists scrapped and denounced the laws and traditions wholesale, just as Marx dictated, and put in place the 1918 Family Code. The law was “nothing less than the most progressive family legislation the world had ever seen,” wrote Wendy Goldman, history professor at Carnegie Mellon University and expert on Russian history, in her book “Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936.”
Religious weddings were no longer considered valid. Instead, registry offices were set up, where people could come and simply register as married. Just as easily, at a request of either partner, they could request a divorce.
“The process of divorce is so simple that there is a loss of neither money nor time. Under the current law, the act of dissolving a marriage can be completed in fifteen minutes,” wrote P. Zagarin, a writer on the family, in 1927.
The idea was to “liberate” women from marriage and thus the family. And the idea caught on.
“Although Soviet citizens were slow to abandon church marriage completely, they availed themselves of the new divorce laws with striking alacrity,” Goldman wrote. “The crush of couples pushing through the doors of [registry offices] in search of divorce easily overwhelmed the first blissful pairs of newlyweds straggling out.”
By the end of 1918, almost 7,000 couples divorced in Moscow alone, while fewer than 6,000 married. In 1926, Moscow saw 6.1 divorces per 1,000 people—almost twice as many as New York City in 2014.
Countrywide, one Soviet couple divorced for every seven marriages in 1926. Three times the rate of Germany, more than 3.5 times that of France, and 26 times that of England and Wales. The only other country, at the time, with a comparable divorce rate was the United States.
Encouraged by the Communists’ teachings of unfettered sexuality, people increasingly stopped bothering with registering marriages altogether.
“The broad mass of people do not regard registration of marriage as the basis of marital relations. De facto voluntary unions are becoming ever more widespread,” wrote A. Stel’makhovich, chairman of the Moscow provincial court, in 1926.
Instead of liberating women, the regime gave men the perfect excuse to abandon their families. Many men suddenly found they had “nothing in common” with their wives, while, shortly after a divorce, discovering striking commonalities with younger, unburdened women.
If extracting alimony seems hard in the 21st century, it was more so in 1920s Russia. Courts became overburdened with child support cases and men found many ways to avoid payments, like changing jobs and moving.
Making things worse, after a decade of war, civil war, and Red Terror, men were in short supply, making remarrying easier.
The promise that government would take care of children fell devastatingly short. In 1926-27, preschools served about 150,000 children out of a population of 10 million.
At the time, Vera Lebedeva, the head of the Department for the Protection of Maternity and Infancy, said: “The weakness of the marital tie and divorce create masses of single women who carry the burden of child care alone. Imagine yourself such a woman, without support from your husband, with a child on your hands, laid off due to a reduction in staff, and thrown out of the dormitory … with no possibility to continue supporting yourself.”
Oftentimes, the women ended up on the streets.
“The contrast between the socialist ideal of free union and the conditions of the time was nowhere so starkly depicted as in the spectacle of women selling themselves on the streets,” Goldman wrote. “It made a mockery of the idea that women were free, independent individuals who could enter a union on the basis of personal choice.”
The concept of free union failed even more miserably in the countryside. Divorce meant dividing the already small farming plots between the exes, who may have remarried and divorced again and again, quickly leaving everybody with land too scattered to depend on for survival. On the other hand, if policies kept the farms whole, women were left with next to nothing after a divorce.
Some could have blamed the failure of “free love” on a lack of contraception, but natality was already low, not to mention massive war and Red Terror casualties. With a demographic disaster looming, Russia actually needed more children, not fewer.
Some could have argued the Soviets just needed more preschools and daycare centers. But even if the state could accommodate all children, it’s unlikely mothers would have found it desirable to give up their offspring completely to the state.
Some could have said women just needed more jobs, but that would have only made their situation less miserable. “Even if a woman worked, divorce signified a substantial drop in her standard of living,” Goldman wrote.
To reverse a society-wide chaos, by the 1940s the Soviet Union had abandoned the “free love” ideology and returned to pro-family policies, outlawing abortion, making divorce more complicated, imposing higher penalties for abandoning a family, and encouraging women to have as many children as possible.
“The idea that the state would assume the functions of the family was abandoned,” Goldman wrote.
Communism is estimated to have killed around 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been compiled and its ideology still persists. Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged.