In contrast to virtually every other European country, the Soviet Union has been notable for its determination to give women a place in society equal to men’s. The extent of the commitment is evident in the details of ordinary Soviet life. It is taken for granted, for instance, that all women should be educated and that they should be encouraged to take up a profession – fifty-one and a half percent of the Soviet labour force is made up of women – and women, like all Soviet citizens, are guaranteed employment. Moreover, the familiar images of women as sex objects are rarely seen in film or pornography or advertising: female sexuality is free from so many of the exploitative commercial practices evident in the west.
But while it is true that women form a crucial part of the work force, it is difficult to see them as being independent and equal in other aspects of society. Lenin is reported to have replied to the request to write about sexual and family education by saying, ‘Further ahead – not yet! Now all my strength and time have to go into other issues. There are greater, more serious problems.’ And Marx and Engels have been understood as believing that true liberation of women would only be possible with the abolition of personal property, allowing women to ‘regain’ the equality they originally possessed. But now, with private property abolished, with some of the more urgent economic needs met, what kind of liberation has actually taken place? Why, after such inspired beginnings, has this liberation appeared to have slowed down? And just how compatible are feminism and socialism? These are among the questions that Carola Hansson and Karin Liden address. Both have done a great deal of research in Soviet life and Granta publishes here some of their work, consisting of four fairly developed interviews, a number of rather startling statistics, and a brief selection of the highlights of some of the other interviews. All the interviews were conducted in the women’s homes, in Russian, without an interpreter. There were no authorities involved and the women’s names are pseudonyms. The tapes were left in Moscow once the interviews were completed, and, through secret channels, were passed on to Stockholm, arriving six months later.