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article imageRussia's brief sexual revolution after October 1917

By Victoria LOGUINOVA-YAKOVLEVA (AFP)     Oct 27, 2017 in World

October 1917 brought not only political but also sexual revolution to Russia, with the early Soviets promoting female emancipation and the end of the traditional family, before a swift return to the old moral order.

For a brief time groups encouraging free love flourished across the country, while nudists walked freely through the streets of Moscow.

Some regions even tried to pass declarations outlawing the "privatisation" of women by their husbands, rebranding them "property of the state" to which every proletarian should have access.

"Sexual revolutions often come together with great historical changes," Vladislav Aksyonov of the Institute of Russian History told AFP.

Russian women also began to fight for their political rights and the right to make their own sexual and reproductive choices.

The movement found a natural ally in the Bolsheviks, one of whose slogans was "down with decency!" and who claimed that "making love must be just as simple as drinking a glass of water".

- 'Ahead of Europe and the US' -

It wasn't just men fighting for a change in Russia in 1917
It wasn't just men fighting for a change in Russia in 1917
-, TASS/AFP/File

In a sign of the changing times, in December 1917 the Bolsheviks adopted a decree authorising civil marriage. A religious wedding was no longer necessary as the traditional family increasingly became seen as a thing of the past.

Housework and the raising of children too were considered obstacles to the construction of a glorious communist future. Workers' nurseries, canteens and laundries were opened across the country with a view to liberating women from domestic drudgery.

In 1917, Russia "was ahead of Europe and the United States in giving women the right to vote," said Aksyonov. British women would have to wait until the following year to win that right, while their American counterparts were not granted it until 1920.

If such rapid advances were possible, it was in part because of the role women played in the Russian revolution.

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin's wife, was among them, as was Alexandra Kollontai, the anti-marriage minister of social affairs in the first Bolshevik government. Kollontai would go on to become one of the first female ambassadors in the world.

- Excess, then prudishness -

Journalist Renee Armand (left) has written a book about her great aunt  Bolshevik feminist trailblai...
Journalist Renee Armand (left) has written a book about her great aunt, Bolshevik feminist trailblaizer Ines Armand

Ines Armand, a Frenchwoman who was sent to live with relatives in Russia at the age of six, also played a role.

At the turn of the century Armand left her husband, four children and bourgeois life in Pushkino, to the north of Moscow, to live with her brother-in-law and become involved with the Bolshevik cause.

When her new partner died in 1909, Armand got to know Lenin in Paris and quickly became his right-hand woman. The revolutionary in exile would often send the multilingual Armand to speak at international conferences.

Together they founded the newspaper "Rabotnitsa" ("Female Worker") in 1914, dedicated to the struggle for women's rights. Its central idea was that women are slaves, oppressed by work and domestic life, and that only through revolution can they achieve equality with men.

"There were rumours they were involved romantically," said journalist Renee Armand, the great niece of the Bolshevik, who has written a book about her aunt's life.

"A socialist politician wrote at the time that Lenin couldn't take his eyes off his little Frenchwoman. But his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya didn't think anything of it. She knew that Lenin only had one true love in his life: the revolution."

The conservative backlash arrived suddenly.

Under Stalin, women kept the majority of social gains they had acquired but the state wanted strict control over its citizens' private lives and the traditional family again took pride of place.

During a 1986 perestroika-era television programme which saw Soviet citizens engage in dialogue with their American counterparts, one Russian woman exclaimed, "There is no sex here, we are absolutely against it!"

Millions of Soviet viewers laughed at the phrase, but in its own way it illustrated the prudish attitudes -- so far from the excesses of the post-revolutionary period -- which lasted up until the fall of the Soviet Union.

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