Under Stalin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks retreated from their earlier revolutionary policies towards the family. Instead of undermining it, as they had tried to do in the 1920s, they now tried to restore it. As Trotsky wrote, it was an admission by the Soviet regime that its attempt to ‘take the old family by storm’—to replace its ‘bourgeois’ customs with collective forms of living—had been impossibly utopian.
From the mid-1930s a series of decrees aimed to strengthen the Soviet family: the divorce laws were tightened; fees for divorce were raised substantially; child support was raised; homosexuality and abortion were outlawed. Marriage was made glamorous. Registration offices were smartened up. Marriage certificates were issued on high-quality paper instead of on the wrapping paper used before. Wedding rings, which had been banned as Christian relics in 1928, were sold again in Soviet shops from 1936. There was also a return to conventional and even prudish sexual attitudes among the political élites, who had been more experimental in their lifestyles in the early revolutionary years. The good Stalinist was supposed to be monogamous, devoted to his family, as Stalin was himself, according to his cult. Bolshevik wives, like Stalin’s, were expected to return to the traditional role of raising children at home.
This dramatic policy reversal was partly a reaction to the demographic and social disaster of 1928–32: millions had died in the famine; the birthrate had dropped, posing a threat to the country’s military strength; divorce had increased; and child abandonment had become a mass phenomenon, as families fragmented, leaving the authorities to cope with the consequences—homeless orphans, prostitution and teenage criminality. The Soviet regime needed stable families to sustain the rates of population growth its military needed to compete with the other totalitarian regimes, which heavily supported the patriarchal family in their ‘battles for births’. But the Soviet turnaround was also a response to the ‘bourgeois’ aspirations of Stalin’s new industrial and political élites, most of whom had risen only recently from the peasantry or the working class. They did not share the contempt for bourgeois values or the same commitment to women’s liberation which had been such a vital part of the Old Bolshevik intelligentsia world-view characteristic of the revolution’s earlier generational cycle. According to Trotsky, who wrote a great deal about the Soviet family, the Stalinist regime had betrayed the revolution’s commitment to sexual equality:
One of the very dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of the Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory ‘joys of motherhood,’ who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.
Trotsky’s assertion is supported by statistics, which reveal how household tasks were split within working-class families. In 1923–34, working women were spending three times longer than their men on household chores, but by 1936 they were spending five times longer. For women nothing changed—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children, on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional duties in the home (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the provision of running water, gas and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.
The restoration of the patriarchal family was closely tied to its promotion as the basic unit of the state. ‘The family is the primary cell of our society,’ wrote one educationalist in 1935, ‘and its duties in child-rearing derive from its obligations to cultivate good citizens.’ The role of the parent was supported as a figure of authority enforcing Soviet rule at home. ‘Young people should respect their elders, especially their parents,’ declared Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1935. ‘They must respect and love their parents, even if they are old-fashioned and don’t like the Komsomol.’
This represented a dramatic change from the moral lessons which had been drawn in the early 1930s from the cult of Pavlik Morozov—a fifteen-year-old boy from a Urals village who had denounced his father as a ‘kulak’ to the Soviet police. In the first stages of his propaganda cult, Pavlik was promoted as a model Pioneer because he had placed his loyalty to the revolution higher than his family. Soviet children were encouraged to denounce their elders, teachers, even parents, if they appeared anti-Soviet. But as the regime strengthened parent power, the cult was reinterpreted to place less emphasis on Pavlik’s denunciation of his father and more on his hard work and obedience at school.
From the middle of the 1930s the Stalinist regime portrayed itself through metaphors and symbols of the family—a value-system familiar to the population at a time when millions of people found themselves in a new and alien environment. There was nothing new in this association between state and family. The cult of Stalin presented him in paternal terms, as the ‘father of the people’, just as Nicholas II had been their ‘father-tsar’ before 1917. Stalin was depicted as the protector and ultimate authority in the household. In many homes his portrait hung in the ‘red corner’, a place of honour, or above the doorway, where the icon was traditionally displayed. He was often photographed among children, and posed as their ‘friend’. In one famous image he was seen embracing a young girl called Gelia Markizova, who had presented him with a bunch of flowers at a Kremlin reception in 1936. The girl’s father, the Commissar for Agriculture in Buryat-Mongolia, was later shot as a ‘Japanese spy’. Her mother was arrested and sent to Kazakhstan, where she committed suicide.