Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a leading Bolshevik and the earliest champion of women’s rights under the new Soviet government. From an aristocratic background, she was attracted to left wing ideas as a student and in 1899 joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, under which name the communists were first organized. Kollontai devoted her energies, in exile and in Russia, to develop strategies for the organization and education of women and their involvement in the struggle against tsarism and capitalism, in unity with and as an equal partner of men. She also sought to liberate women’s sexuality as part of the liberation of women in general and promoted ideas that may appear to be quite acceptable now but which were somewhat advanced for the immediate post-feudal era in Russia (‘sexuality is a human instinct as natural as hunger or thirst’). Although Kollontai encountered much resistance by her male comrades, she nevertheless persisted and earned the support by Lenin. While she was eventually banished to a diplomatic post because of her factional struggle against bureaucracy as a member of ‘The Workers Opposition,’ her ideas heavily influenced the Soviet agenda on women and family issues. It is believed that one of the reasons that she survived the Stalin purges was because of her popularity.
In an article, ‘Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism’ in the New York Times of August 12, by Kirsten R. Ghodsee, a Professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, recognition was given to the role of Alexandra Kollontai. The writer said: “After the Bolshevik takeover Vladimir Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai enabled a sexual revolution in the early years of the Soviet Union with Kollontai arguing that love should be freed from economic considerations.” The ideological foundation for women’s equality had been laid by earlier writers such as August Bebel and Frederic Engels. Thus, suffrage was extended to women in 1917, immediately after the revolution and three years before the US. This was followed by the liberalization of divorce laws and freedom being given to women over reproductive rights. Unwanted pregnancies were reduced by extensive sex education.
Policies in the Soviet Union after 1917 (although partially reversed under Stalin) and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, emphasized the role of women as workers and sought to alleviate domestic burdens so as to encourage women to join the workforce. This was partly due to the need for more workers to assist in the rapid industrialization of the economies. Major resources were devoted to the education and training of women. Women were provided with generous maternity leave and free child care. Laundries and canteens were established to alleviate the burdens of domestic work. Women therefore gained economic freedom as well as social freedom in many respects. Ghodsee said that liberal feminists in the West ‘grudgingly acknowledged’ all this but were critical of state socialism because it represented emancipation from above and the achievements did not emerge from independent women’s movements. Many of the achievements in these countries have been reversed since 1989 when socialism collapsed.
In addition to the achievements set out above, as early as 1952 studies were being conducted on sex and sexuality. Czechoslovakian sociologists conducted a study on the female orgasm in that year and in 1961 convened a conference devoted solely to that topic. But unlike in the West where the physiological aspects were emphasized, these studies focused on the social, namely, importance of the equality between men and women as the core component of female pleasure. In pre-1989 Poland, sexologists also did not limit sex to bodily experiences but stressed the importance of social and cultural contexts for sexual pleasure. They believed that the best stimulation would not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked or worried about her future or financial stability.
Ana Durcheva, who lived for 43 years under socialism in Bulgaria complained that the ‘new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to have more amorous relationships.’ She was a single mother for many years but said that her life before 1989 was more gratifying. “My life was full of romance,” she said and complained that all her daughter does is work and is too tired to be with her husband when he comes home.
A study of East and West Germans after reunification found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as West German women. Researchers marveled at the disparity especially since Eastern women suffered the double burden of employment and housework while West German women had all the advantages of labour saving devices and many did not work. But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex than women who had to line up for toilet paper.
Ghodsee attributed this to a better quality of life due in part to the fact that socialist countries saw women’s emancipation as central to advanced socialist societies which those countries saw themselves as building. (I am grateful to Professor Ghodsee for the most of the facts and some of the analysis herein. I take responsibility for the opinions, express and implied).