Marriage in Twentieth Century Russia: Traditional Precepts and Innovative Experiments

The Birth and Victory of the Statist Marital Order: 1927-1968

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2. The Birth and Victory of the Statist Marital Order: 1927-1968

The 1926 code came into effect on January 1, 1927, representing the beginning of a period of stability in Soviet marital law. With several additions and revisions (some of which, admittedly, were quite significant), the code was in force in the USSR until 1968. Furthermore, as soon as it was passed, the code began to be viewed as obligatory and coercive in nature. The efforts by the Soviet authorities to erase all forms of social differentiation naturally led to a cultivation of genderlessness, which found expression in the cliché of the “Soviet Man”—a symbol of totalitarian androgyny. Rather quickly—literally over the course of a few years—norms of sexual and marital behavior favorable to Soviet ideology came to be viewed as “indisputable”: the real Soviet Man should practice monogamy (preferably with only one marriage in a lifetime; now divorce became a blemish on an employment history and could hinder a career), a premarital sex life and cohabitation began to be viewed as amoral, deviating from the norms of sexual and marital behavior, harshly condemned and punished, in as much as sexual laxity was treated as “counterrevolutionary” behavior. Discussions of marriage from ten years before were now presented in the youth press of the 1930s as “bourgeois machinations.” A return to the patriarchal norms of Orthodox morality was evident, creating a sort of doublethink and double standard in behavior.

In particular, the totalitarian authorities found it easy to arm themselves with the asceticism envisioned in Orthodox doctrine, which they began to put to skillful use. In Stalin’s Russia, the right to marry gradually evolved into a societal obligation, placed by the state upon the individual. In this context, a number of rather disheartening decrees of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars (the government of the USSR)—issued in the 1930s and 1940s —can only be viewed as a result of the desire to “ensure that all obligations toward the collective are fulfilled.” The most well-known of them was the decree of July 27, 1936, On the Prohibition of Abortion… and Several Changes to the Laws on Divorce, heralding not only the defeat of women and their reproductive rights, but the beginning of a new period of difficulty in obtaining divorces. After the decree of 1936, divorce ceased to be viewed as a personal matter, and discussions of the question of whether or not to preserve a marriage began to be heard with increasing frequency in open forums such as professional collectives and party and Komsomol cells.

Propaganda promoting large families and the struggle for “Soviet monogamy” was driven by the enormous demographic losses caused by repression, collectivization and “building the foundations of socialism.” The next blow to the size of the population of the USSR was the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. In order to mitigate its consequences, the Soviet government undertook a series of actions designed to artificially strengthen the bonds of marriage (for example: July 8, 1944). Spouses in unofficial marriages from the period 1926-1944 were required to immediately register their familial status at ZAGS. The law demanded that the facts of a divorce be published in a local newspaper. One or both of the divorcers (depending on whether only one or both parties agreed to dissolve the marriage) were fined anywhere from 500 to 2000 rubles (which was a significant sum at a time when the monthly salary of a junior scientific researcher, for instance, was 150 rubles).

Of course, under Stalin open debate, no less criticism of marital law, was inconceivable. Only in 1965 were the cumbersome, two-stage divorce proceeding and the open interference in the private lives of citizens through the announcement of divorce in the press proclaimed things of the past. The state was forced to acknowledge that repressive measures would not succeed in promoting a sense of responsibility in those undertaking marriage, and through it, the establishment of a family. The first signs of erosion in the statist marital order were becoming apparent.

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