When I say “free love” and “sexual liberation” the image that comes to your mind might be one of nude, long-haired beauties with peace signs and flowers painted on their cheeks, rockin out to the tunes of Joan Baez and the Who, while smoking joints, wrestling and engaging in sex acts in the mud. The idea of a utopia where sex was a free act, a symbol of togetherness, where the stigma and oppression surrounding coital obligations were obliterated, was not the love-child of liberal American youth in the 1960’s. Had the ‘free love’ movement in NEP-era USSR been only a 3-day concert it might have painted a prettier picture in history’s mind. But the real image of the early soviet ‘Free Love’ movement is one of a confused social experiment gone wrong.
This is the first of series of posts on the “Social Experiments of the NEP-era”. I will talk about the effect that the liberal new laws and theories had on Soviet society. My first topic is on the taboo subject of sex in the first years of communism (taboo because Russians don’t like to acknowledge that they have sex) including Lenin’s view on sex and the social reprecussions of the obsession with the sex riddle.
After the Communist revolution in 1917 in Russia, Soviet “flower children” lived in a perpetual theoretical Woodstock. As a result of the Bolshevik revolution, all property was ‘communalized’, women were given equal rights, as well as easy and free access to divorce and abortions. The concept of ‘privacy’ in all spheres; of land, relationships, body and self was anihiliated, and replaced with The Communal.
This movement of the 1920’s, commonly referred to as NEP(New Economic Policy) era was a time of social extremes and experimentation. After the civil war purged the USSR of enemies of the Revolution, the big task of the Bolsheviks was to create ‘real life’ communism, and to shape the every day behaviors of its citizens. Some Soviet theorists were dreaming up ‘Woodstock’-like communities, wherein women were free to work and copulate without the chains of wifehood and motherhood. A revolutionary nirvana where the citizens’ sole concern would be ‘the whole’ and building communism, where jealousy, greed and selfishness would cease to exist. But as was the case with much of the utopian dreams of communism, the gap between theory and reality was far too wide and the Utopia quickly turned to Dystopia.
Половой Вопрос, the “Sex Question” and who put the silly idea in their heads:
The ‘sex question’ that later torment the Bolshevik theorists first appeared in the works of Marx and Engles. The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, expresses disgust for the privy and religiously prudish attitudes of the bourgeois(the middle class/upper class) toward sex. He points out sexual licentiousness and perversions, adultery and selfish pursuit of pleasure:
“Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of the proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.”
Marx was especially critical of the institution of marriage and the exploitation of the wife by the husband. He talks about ‘private prostitution’ which he claims is essentially what’s happening in a bourgeois marriage. The bourgeois man views his wife like he views the proletariats, as a ‘mere instrument of production’. The woman is uneducated and completely economically dependent on the man, who is paying her for her ‘services’. If she doesn’t put out, in one way or another, if not in all ways, she is put out on the street.
Engels proposed a plan to eliminate the exploitation that was going on within a bourgeois marriage. First and foremost a woman has to be freed from the yoke of womanhood and this can be done when “private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children become a public matter. Society takes care of all children equally, irrespective of whether they are born in wedlock or not.” *
This idea is exactly copied almost word for word in the Family Codes of 1918 and 1926 was repeatedly echoed in Lenin’s own teachings. Engels explains that the ‘free love’ movement will be a pleasant consequence of the ‘free women’ movement:
“Thus, the anxiety about the ‘consequences’, which is today the most important social factor – both moral and economic – that hinders a girl from giving herself freely to the man she loves disappears. Will this not be cause enough for a gradual rise of more unrestrained sexual intercourse, and along with it, a more lenient public opinion regarding virginal honour and feminine shame?”
With women freed from the chains of marriage and ‘virginal honour’, Engels notes that in the storm of revolution “the problem of ‘free love’ always comes to the fore”. He had noted this pattern among several European revolutions and calls it “a matter of revolutionary progress, liberation from old bonds of tradition; for others, an eagerly accepted teaching, conveniently covering every sort of free and easy relation between man and woman.” It is easy to see why Engels’ theories (and the moral ambiguity therein) were interpreted by some as an invitation to a big communal orgy.
Whether as a result of the revolution, or because someone took Engels’ words as justification to be impudent and sex-crazed, the idea of ‘free love’ became an epidemic which plagued and obsessed Soviet citizens. ‘Free love’ in combination with the reckless social experimentation and instability of the 1920’s made for a wild Soviet Woodstock community full of hungry pigs wrestling in the mud.
More of my blogs on Communism: