Soviet roots of todays family law and divorce system

1. The 1918 Soviet Russian “Family Code on Marriage, The Family, and Guardianship” – WENDY GOLDMAN

The Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets ratified the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship in October 1918, one year after the Bolsheviks took power. Alexander Goikhbarg, the young author of the Code, expected that family law would soon be outmoded and “the fetters of husband and wife” unnecessary. Goikhbarg and other revolutionary jurists believed children, the elderly, and the disabled would be supported under socialism by the state; housework would be socialized and waged; and women would no longer be economically dependent on men. The family, stripped of its social functions, would “wither away,” replaced by “free unions” based on mutual love and respect. The Code aimed to provide a transitional legal framework for that short period in which legal duties and protections were still necessary.

Prerevolutionary jurists had attempted throughout the late nineteenth century to reform Russia’s strict laws on marriage and divorce, but achieved little success. Up to 1917, Russian law recognized the right of religious authorities to control marriage and divorce. Women were accorded few rights by either church or state. According to state law, a wife owed her husband complete obedience. She was compelled to live with him, take his name, and assume his social status. Up to 1914, a woman was unable to take a job, get an education, or execute a bill of exchange without her husband’s consent. A father held almost unconditional power over his children. Only children from a legally recognized marriage were considered legitimate, and illegitimate children had no legal rights or recourse. Up to 1902, when the state enacted limited reforms, a father could recognize an illegitimate child only by special imperial consent. The Russian Orthodox Church considered marriage a holy sacrament, and divorce was almost impossible. It was permissible only in cases of adultery (witnessed by two people), impotence, exile, or unexplained and prolonged absence. In cases of adultery or impotence, the responsible party was permanently forbidden to remarry.

The 1918 Code swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical power and established a new vision based on individual rights and gender equality. It was predated by two brief decrees enacted in December 1917 that substituted civil for religious marriage and established divorce at the request of either spouse. The 1918 Code incorporated and elaborated on these two decrees. It abolished the inferior legal status of women and created equality under the law. It eliminated the validity of religious marriage and gave legal status to civil marriage only, creating a network of local statistical bureaus (ZAGS) for the registration of marriage, divorce, birth, and death. The Code established no-grounds divorce at the request of either spouse. It abolished the juridical concept of “illegitimacy” and entitled all children to parental support. If a woman could not identify the father of her child, a judge assigned paternal obligations to all the men she had sexual relations with, thus creating a “collective of fathers.” It forbade adoption of orphans by individual families in favor of state guardianship: jurists feared adoption, in a largely agrarian society, would allow peasants to exploit children as unpaid labor. The Code also sharply restricted the duties and obligations of the marital bond. Marriage did not create community of property between spouses: a woman retained full control of her earnings after marriage, and neither spouse had any claim on the property of the other. Although the Code provided an unlimited term of alimony for either gender, support was limited to the disabled poor. The Code presumed that both spouses, married or divorced, would support themselves.

The 1918 Code was very advanced for its time. Comparable legislation on equal rights and divorce would not be passed in Europe or the United States until the end of the twentieth century. Yet many Soviet jurists believed that the Code was not “socialist” but “transitional” legislation. Goikhbarg, like many revolutionary jurists, expected that law, like marriage, the family, and the state, would soon “wither away.

The Code had a significant effect on the population, both rural and urban. By 1925, Soviet citizens had widely adopted civil marriage and divorce. The USSR displayed a higher divorce rate than any European country, with fifteen divorces for every one hundred marriages. The divorce rate was higher in the cities than in the rural areas, and highest in Moscow and Leningrad. In Moscow, there was one divorce for every two marriages. Soviet workers, women in particular, suffered high unemployment during the 1920s, and divorce proved a special hardship for women who were unable to find work. Peasant families found it difficult to reconcile customary law with the autonomous property provisions of the Code. After extensive debate, Soviet jurists enacted a new Family Code in 1926 to redress these and other problems.


  • Berman, Harold. (1963). Justice in the USSR: An Interpretation of Soviet Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Goldman, Wendy. (1993). Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy, 1917 – 1936. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hazard, John. (1969). Communists and Their Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stites, Richard. (1978). The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism, 1860 – 1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Wood, Elizabeth. (1997). The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

2. Soviet Russian Family Code of 1926—WENDY GOLDMAN

In 1926 the Soviet government affirmed a new Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship to replace the 1918 version. Adopted after extensive and often heated nationwide debate, the new Code addressed several social issues: the lack of protection for women after divorce; the large number of homeless orphans (besprizorniki); the incompatibility of divorce and common property within the peasant household; and the mutual obligations of cohabiting, unmarried partners.

The new Code promoted both individual freedom and greater protection for the vulnerable. It simplified the divorce procedure in the 1918 version even further by transferring contested divorces from the courts to local statistical bureaus. Either spouse could register a divorce without the partner’s consent or even knowledge. This provision removed the law’s last vestige of authority over the dissolution of marriage, circumscribing both the power of law and the marital tie. The Code recognized de facto marriage (cohabitation) as the juridical equal of civil (registered) marriage, thus undercutting the need to marry “legally.” It provided a definition of de facto “marriage” based on cohabitation, a joint household, mutual upbringing of children, and third party recognition. It established joint property between spouses, thus providing housewives material protection after divorce. It abolished the controversial practice of “collective” paternity featured in the 1918 Family Code. If a woman had sexual relations with several men and could not identify the father of her child, a judge would assign paternity (and future child support payments) to one man only. The Code incorporated an April 1926 decree that reversed the prohibition on adoption and encouraged peasant families to adopt homeless orphans, who were to be fully integrated into the peasant household and entitled to land. It set a time limit on alimony to one year for the disabled and provided six months of alimony for the needy or unemployed. It also created a wider circle of family obligations by expanding the base of alimony recipients to include children, parents, siblings, and grandparents.


  • Farnsworth, Beatrice. (1978). “Bolshevik Alternatives and the Soviet Family: The 1926 Marriage Law Debate.” In Women in Russia, eds. Dorothy Atkinson, Alexander Dallin, Gail Warshovsky Lapidus. Sussex, UK: Harvester Press.
  • Goldman, Wendy. (1984). “Freedom and Its Consequences: The Debate on the Soviet Family Code of 1926.” Russian History 11(4):362 – 388.
  • Goldman, Wendy. (1991). “Working-Class Women and the ‘Withering-Away’ of the Family: Popular Responses to Family Policy.” In Russia in the Era of NEP: Explorations in Soviet Society and Culture, eds. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Alexander Rabinowitch, Richard Stites. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Lapidus, Gail Warshovsky. (1978). Women in Soviet Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Quigley, John. (1979). “The 1926 Soviet Family Code: Retreat from Free Love.” Soviet Union 6(2):166 – 74.

3. Soviet Russian Family Laws of 1936—WENDY GOLDMAN

In 1936, the Soviet state enacted several laws that sharply departed from previous legislation. The Soviet Union had been the first country in the world to legalize abortion in 1920, offering women free abortion services in certified hospitals. In 1936, however, the Central Executive Committee outlawed abortion. Anyone who performed the operation was liable to a minimum of two years in prison, and a woman who received an abortion was subject to high fines after the first offense. The new law offered monetary incentives for childbearing, providing stipends for new mothers, progressive bonuses for women with many children, and longer maternity leave for white-collar workers. The criminalization of abortion reflected growing anxiety among health workers, managers, and state officials over the rising number of abortions, the falling birth rate, the shortage of labor, and the possibility of war.

The law also made divorce more difficult and stiffened criminal penalties for men who refused to pay alimony or child support. It required both spouses to appear to register a divorce and increased costs for the first divorce to fifty rubles, 150 rubles for the second, and three hundred rubles for the third. It set minimum levels for child support at one – third of a defendant’s salary for one child, fifty percent for two children, and sixty percent for three or more, increasing the penalty for nonpayment to two years in prison.

The law was part of a longer and larger public campaign to promote “family responsibility” and to reverse almost two decades of revolutionary juridical thinking. In April 1935, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) granted the courts sweeping new powers to try and sentence children aged twelve and older as adults; this resulted in mass arrests and imprisonment of teenagers, mostly for petty theft. In May 1935 the local Commissions on the Affairs of Minors were abolished, and responsibility for all juvenile crime was shifted to the courts. Punishment replaced an earlier commitment to pedagogical correction. The 1936 laws also marked a turn in attitudes toward law and family. Jurists condemned as “legal nihilism” earlier notions that the law and the family would “wither away.” Many legal theorists of the 1920s, including Yevgeny Pashukanis and Nikolai Krylenko, were arrested and shot.


  • Goldman, Wendy. (1991). “Women, Abortion, and the State, 1917 – 1936.” In Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation, eds. Barbara Clements, Barbara Engel, Christine Worobec. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Goldman, Wendy. (1993). Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917 – 1936. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sharlet, Robert. (1984). “Pashukanis and the Withering-Away of Law in the USSR.” In Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928 – 31, ed. Sheila Fitzpatrick. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

4. Soviet Russian Family Edict of 1944—REBECCA BALMAS NEARY

This decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet claimed to “protect motherhood and childhood.” Amid deep concern for wartime manpower losses and social dislocation, the decree sought to increase natality and reinforce marriage.

The law’s best – known provisions rewarded prolific mothers and made divorce more difficult to obtain; its pro-natalism and support for marriage reinforced prewar trends apparent in the Family Laws of 1936. Pro-natalist measures included family allowances paid to mothers regardless of marital status, extended maternity leave, protective labor legislation for pregnant and nursing women, and an ambitious plan to expand the network of childcare services and consumer products for children. Bearers of ten or more living children were honored as “Mother – heroines.”

Other provisions tightened marital bonds by making divorce more onerous. Proceedings now took place in open court, with both parties present and the court obligated to attempt reconciliation. The intent to divorce was published in the newspaper, and fines increased substantially. Reversing the 1926 Family Code, only registered (not common – law) marriages were now officially recognized. The state also reestablished the notion of illegitimacy: only children of registered marriages could take their father’s name and receive paternal child support.

The legislation had no significant lasting effect on birth or divorce rates. Despite its ambitious goals, promises of augmented childcare services and consumer goods went unfulfilled, given postwar economic devastation and prioritization of defense and heavy industries. The law’s greatest significance was perhaps as a manifestation of the ongoing Soviet effort to imbue private life with public priorities.


  • Bucher, Greta. (2000). “Struggling to Survive: Soviet Women in the Postwar Years.” Journal of Women’s History 12(1):137 – 159.
  • Field, Deborah. (1998). “Irreconcilable Differences: Divorce and Conceptions of Private Life in the Khrushchev Era.” Russian Review 57(4):599 – 613.

5. Overview of Marriage and Family Life in Russia—WILLIAM G. WAGNER

As elsewhere in Europe, marriage and family life in Russia have varied across time and by social group, reflecting the complex interplay of competing ideals, changing patterns of social and economic organization, differing forms of political organization and levels of state intrusiveness, and the effects of cataclysmic events. If in the long run the outcome of this interplay of forces has been a family structure and dynamic that conform essentially with those found in modern European societies, the development of marriage and the family in Russia nevertheless has followed a distinctive path. This development can be divided into three broad periods: the centuries preceding the formation of the Russian Empire during the early eighteenth century, the imperial period (1698 – 1917), and the period following the Bolshevik Revolution and establishment of the Soviet state in October 1917. While the pace of development and change varied significantly between different social groups during each of these periods, each period nonetheless was characterized by a distinctive combination of forces that shaped marital and family life and family structures. In Russia’s successive empires, moreover, important differences also often existed between the many ethno-cultural and religious groups included in these empires. The discussion that follows therefore concerns principally the Slavic Christian population.

Pre-Imperial Russia

Although only limited sources are available for the reconstruction of marital and family life in medieval Russia, especially for non-elite social groups, there appears to have been broad continuity in the structure and functioning of the family throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Family structures and interpersonal relations within marriage and the family were strongly shaped by the forms of social organization and patterns of economic activity evolved to secure survival in a harsh natural as well as political environment. Hence, constituting the primary unit of production and reproduction, and providing the main source of welfare, personal status, and identity, families in most instances were multigenerational and structured hierarchically, with authority and economic and familial roles distributed within the family on the basis of gender and seniority. While scholars disagree over whether already by 1600 the nuclear family had begun to displace the multi-generational family among the urban population, this development did not affect the patriarchal character or the social and economic functions of either marriage or the family. Reflecting and reinforcing these structures and functions, the marriage of children was arranged by senior family members, with the economic, social, and political interests of the family taking precedence over individual preference. Land and other significant assets, too, generally were considered to belong to the family as a whole, with males enjoying preferential treatment in inheritance. Marriage appears to have been universal among all social groups, with children marrying at a young age, and for married women, childbirth was frequent.

After the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Christianity in 988, normative rules governing marriage and the family also were shaped and enforced by the Orthodox Church, although the effective influence of the Church spread slowly from urban to rural areas. Granted extensive jurisdiction over marital and family matters first by Kievan and then by Muscovite grand princes, the Church used its authority to establish marriage as a religious institution and to attempt to bring marital and family life into conformity with its doctrines and canons. For example, the Church sought – with varying degrees of success – to limit the formation of marriages through restrictions based on consanguinity and age, to restrict marital dissolution to the instances defined by canon law, to limit the possibility of remarriage, and to confine sexual activity to relations between spouses within marriage for the purpose of procreation. At the same time, through its teachings, canonical rules, and ecclesiastical activities, the Church reinforced the patriarchal order within marriage and the family, thereby providing a religious sanction for established social structures and practices. Hence the extent to which the Church transformed or merely reinforced existing ideals of and relationships within marriage and the family remains disputed.

Although patriarchal attitudes and structures and a gendered division of labor also prevailed within elite households, the role of family and lineage in determining relative status within and between elite groups, access to beneficial appointments and the material rewards that followed from them, and the prospects for forming advantageous marriage alliances between families imparted distinctive characteristics to elite family life, especially after the late fifteenth century. The practice among the Muscovite elite of secluding women in separate quarters (the terem), for example, which reached its greatest intensity during the seventeenth century, appears to have been due largely to the desire to protect family honor and ensure the marriage utility of daughters in a context in which the elite was growing in size and complexity. Seclusion itself, however, considerably increased the politically important role of married women in arranging and maintaining family alliances. Similarly, the development of a system of service tenements in land to support the expansion especially of military servitors after the late fifteenth century led initially to a deterioration in the property and inheritance rights of elite women. Yet such women also often had principal responsibility for managing the estates and other affairs of husbands who frequently were away on military campaigns or carrying out other service assignments. Hence within the Muscovite elite, and quite likely among other social groups in pre-Petrine Russia as well, the normative ideal and legal rules supporting the patriarchal family often concealed a more complex reality. This ideal nonetheless provided a powerful metaphor that helped to legitimize and integrate the familial, social, and political orders.

Imperial Russia

The history of marriage and the family during the imperial period was marked both by a complex pattern of continuity and change and by sharp diversity between social groups, as the exposure of different groups to the forces of change varied significantly. Nonetheless, by the early twentieth century the long-term trend across the social spectrum was toward smaller families, the displacement of the multi-generational family by the nuclear family, a higher age at the time of first marriage for both men and women, declining birth rates, an increased incidence of marital dissolution, and, in urban areas, a decline in the frequency of marriage. Within the family, the structure of patriarchal authority was eroding and the ideal itself was under attack.

The groups that were exposed earliest and most intensively to the combination of forces lying behind these trends were the nobility, state officialdom, the clergy, and a newly emergent intelligentsia and largely urban bourgeoisie. During the eighteenth century, for example, the nobility represented the main target and then chief ally of the state in its efforts to inculcate European cultural forms and modes of behavior and to promote formal education and literacy. Among the effects of such efforts was a new public role for women and the dissemination of ideals of marriage, family, and the self that eventually came to challenge the patriarchal ideal. By helping to produce by the first half of the nineteenth century a more professionalized, predominantly landless, and largely urban civil officialdom, as well as a chiefly urban cultural intelligentsia and professional bourgeoisie, changes in the terms of state service and the expansion of secondary and higher education both provided a receptive audience for new ideals of marriage and the family and eroded dependency on the extended family. By expanding the occupational opportunities not only for men but also for women outside the home, the development of trade, industry, publishing, and the professions had similar effects. Most of these new employment opportunities were concentrated in Russia’s rapidly growing cities, where material and physical as well as cultural conditions worked to alter the family’s role, structures, and demographic characteristics. For this reason, the marital and demographic behavior and family structures of urban workers also exhibited early change.

At least until after the late 1850s, by contrast, marriage and family life among the peasantry, poorer urban groups, and the merchantry displayed greater continuity with the past. This continuity resulted in large part from the strength of custom and the continued economic, social, and welfare roles of the multigenerational, patriarchal family among these social groups and, at least among the peasantry, from the operation of communal institutions and the coincident interests of family patriarchs (who dominated village assemblies), noble landowners, and the state in preserving existing family structures. Facilitated by the abolition of serfdom in 1861, however, family structures and demographic behavior even among the peasantry began slowly to change, especially outside of the more heavily agricultural central black earth region. In particular, the increased frequency of household division occurring after the emancipation contributed to a noticeable reduction in family size and a decline in the incidence of the multigenerational family by the last third of the century, although most families still passed through a cycle of growth and division that included a multigenerational stage. While marriage remained nearly universal, the age at first marriage also rose for both men and women, with the result that birth rates declined somewhat. The growth of income from local and regional wage labor, trade, and craft production and the rapid expansion of migratory labor contributed to all these trends, while also helping to weaken patriarchal structures of authority within the family, a process given further impetus by the exposure of peasants to urban culture through migratory labor, military service, and rising literacy. Although most peasant migrants to cities, especially males, retained ties with their native village and household, and consequently continued to be influenced by peasant culture, a significant number became permanent urban residents, adopting different family forms and cultural attitudes as a result. With the rapid growth of Russian cities and the transformation of the urban environment that took place after the late 1850s, family forms and demographic behavior among the poorer urban social groups and the merchantry also began to change in ways similar to other urban groups.

Normative ideals of marriage and the family likewise exhibited significant diversification and change during the imperial period, a process that accelerated after the late 1850s. If closer integration into European culture exposed Russians to a wider and shifting variety of ideals of marriage, the family, and sexual behavior, the development of a culture of literacy, journalism and a publishing industry, and an ethos of civic activism and professionalism based on faith in the rational use of specialized expertise broadened claims to the authority to define such ideals. These developments culminated in an intense public debate over reform of family law – and of the family and society through law – after the late 1850s. Very broadly, emphasizing a companionate ideal of marriage, the need to balance individual rights with collective responsibilities and limited authority within marriage and the family, and the necessity of adapting state law and religious doctrines to changing social and historical conditions, advocates of reform favored the facilitation of marital dissolution, equality between spouses in marriage, greater rights for children born out of wedlock, the recasting of inheritance rights based on sexual equality and the nuclear family, and the decriminalization of various sexual practices as well as of abortion. Many of these principles in fact were embodied in draft civil and criminal codes prepared by government reform commissions between 1883 and 1906, neither of which was adopted, and proposals to expand the grounds for divorce made by a series of committees formed within the Orthodox Church between 1906 and 1916 proved similarly unsuccessful. Socialist activists adopted an even more radical position on the reconstitution of marriage and the family, in some cases advocating the socialization of the latter. Opponents of reform, by contrast, stressed the social utility, naturalness, and divine basis of strong patriarchal authority within marriage and the family, the congruence of this family structure with Russian cultural traditions, and the role of the family in upholding the autocratic social and political orders. Although significant reforms affecting illegitimate children, inheritance rights, and marital separation were enacted in 1902, 1912, and 1914, respectively, deep divisions within and between the state, the Orthodox Church, and society ensured that reform of marriage and the family remained a contentious issue until the very end of the autocracy, and beyond.

Soviet Russia

With respect to marriage and the family, the long-term effect of the Soviet attempt to create a modern socialist society was to accelerate trends already present in the early twentieth century. Hence, by the end of the Soviet period, among all social groups family size had declined sharply and the nuclear family had become nearly universal, the birth rate had dropped significantly, marriage no longer was universal, and the incidence of marital dissolution had risen substantially. But if by the 1980s the structure and demographic characteristics of the Russian family had come essentially to resemble those found in contemporary European societies, the process of development was shaped by the distinctive political and economic structures and policies of Soviet-style socialism.

Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family were shaped initially by a combination of radical ideological beliefs and political considerations. Hence, in a series of decrees and other enactments promulgated between October 1917 and 1920, the new Soviet government introduced formal sexual equality in marriage, established divorce on demand, secularized marriage, drastically curtailed inheritance and recast inheritance rights on the basis of sexual equality and the nuclear family, and legalized abortion. The party-state leadership also proclaimed the long-term goal of the socialization of the family through the development of an extensive network of social services and communal dining. These measures in part reflected an ideological commitment to both the liberation of women and the creation of a socialist society. But they also were motivated by the political goals of attracting the support of women for the new regime and of undermining the sources of opposition to it believed to lie in patriarchal family structures and attitudes and in marriage as a religious institution. In practice, however, the policies added to the problems of family instability, homelessness, and child abandonment caused mainly by the harsh and disruptive effects of several years of war, revolution, civil war, and famine. For this reason, while welcomed by radical activists and some parts of the population, Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family also provoked considerable opposition, especially among women and the peasantry, who for overlapping but also somewhat different reasons saw in these policies a threat to their security and self-identity during a period of severe dislocation. In important respects, Soviet propaganda and policies in fact reinforced the self-image that partly underlay the opposition of women to its policies by stressing the ideal and duties of motherhood. Yet the direction of Soviet policies remained consistent through the 1920s, albeit not without controversy and dissent even within the party, with these policies being embodied in the family codes of 1922 and 1926.

The severe social disruptions, strain on resources, and deterioration of already limited social services caused by the collectivization of agriculture, the rapid development of industry, the abolition of private trade, and the reconstruction of the economy between the late 1920s and the outbreak of war in 1941, however, led to a fundamental shift in Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family. With its priorities now being economic growth and social stabilization, the Soviet state idealized the socialist family (which in essence closely resembled the family ideal of pre-revolutionary liberal and feminist reformers), which was proclaimed to be part of the essential foundation of a socialist society. A series of laws and new codes enacted between 1936 and 1944 therefore attempted both to strengthen marriage and the family and to encourage women to give birth more frequently: Divorce was severely restricted, children born out-of-wedlock were deprived of any rights with respect to their father, thus reestablishing illegitimacy of birth, abortion was outlawed, and a schedule of rewards for mothers who bore additional children was established. Although the goals of women’s liberation and sexual equality remained official policy, they were redefined to accommodate a married woman’s dual burden of employment outside the home and primary responsibility for domestic work. Economic necessity in fact compelled most women to enter the workforce, regardless of their marital status, with only the wives of the party-state elite being able to choose not to do so. Despite the changes in normative ideals and the law, however, the effects of Soviet social and economic policies in general and of the difficult material conditions resulting from them were a further reduction in average family size and decline in the birth rate and the disruption especially of peasant households, as family members were arrested, migrated to cities in massive numbers, or died as a result of persecution or famine. The huge losses sustained by the Soviet population during World War II gave further impetus to these trends and, by creating a significant imbalance between men and women in the marriage-age population, considerably reduced the rate of marriage and complicated the formation of families for several decades after the war.

The relaxation of political controls on the discussion of public policy by relevant specialists after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 contributed to another shift in Soviet policies toward marriage and the family during the mid-1960s. Divorce again became more accessible, fathers could be required to provide financial support for their children born out-of-wedlock, and abortion was re-legalized and, given the scarcity of reliable alternatives, quickly became the most common form of birth control practiced by Russian women. Partly as a result of these measures, the divorce rate within the Russian population rose steadily after the mid-1960s, with more than 40 percent of all marriages ending in divorce by the 1980s, and the birth rate continued to decline. But these trends also gained impetus from the growth of the percentage of the Russian population, women as well as men, receiving secondary and tertiary education, from the nearly universal participation of women in the workforce, from the continued shift of the population from the countryside to cities (the Russian population became predominantly urban only after the late 1950s), and from the limited availability of adequate housing and social services in a context in which women continued to bear the chief responsibilities for child-rearing and domestic work. These latter problems contributed to the reemergence in the urban population of a modified form of the multigenerational family, as the practices of a young couple living with the parents of one partner while waiting for their own apartment and of a single parent living especially with his or usually her mother appear to have increased. In the countryside, the improvement in the living conditions of the rural population following Stalin’s death, their inclusion in the social welfare system, yet the continued out-migration especially of young males seeking a better life in the city also led to a decline in family size, as well as to a disproportionately female and aging population, which affected both the structure of rural families and the rate of their formation. Nonetheless, the ideals of the nuclear family, marriage, and natural motherhood remained firmly in place, both in official policy and among the population.


  • Clements, Barbara Evans; Engel, Barbara Alpern; and Worobec, Christine D., eds. (1991). Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Engel, Barbara Alpern. (1994). Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861 – 1914. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freeze, ChaeRan Y. (2002). Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press.
  • Goldman, Wendy Z. (1993). Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917 – 1936. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Schlesinger, Rudolf, comp. (1949). Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family in the USSR. London: Routledge and Paul.
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6. Soviet Russian Abortion Policy—SHARON A. KOWALSKY

The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalize abortion, but its goal was to protect women’s health and promote motherhood, not to advance women’s rights.

Abortion was a criminal offense punishable by exile or long prison sentences before the Bolshevik Revolution. As part of its effort to reform Russian society, the Soviet government legalized abortion in a decree issued November 18, 1920. Supporters of the decree believed legal abortions were a necessary evil to prevent women from turning to dangerous and unsanitary back-alley abortions. Their goal was not to protect a woman’s individual reproductive rights, but to preserve the health of the mother for the common good. Furthermore, the legalization only applied to abortions performed by trained medical personnel, and in 1924 a system was established that prioritized access to legal abortions according to class position and social vulnerability (unemployed and unmarried working women topped the list).

In 1936, the state recriminalized abortion in an attempt to increase the birth rate and to emphasize the value of motherhood. Although the policy shift temporarily reduced the number of abortions, in the long-term repression failed to have the desired effect and abortion rates increased. Abortion was again legalized in 1955 on the premise that women had become sufficiently aware of the importance of their maternal roles. Despite the changes over time, Soviet abortion policy consistently focused on protecting women’s health and encouraging motherhood. A lack of alternative methods of contraception, however, ensured that Soviet women relied on abortion as their primary means to control reproduction throughout the Soviet period.


  • Buckley, Mary. (1989). Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Goldman, Wendy Z. (1993). Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917 – 1936. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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