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Soviet Gender Equality and Women of the Gulag

Chelsea Follett

Many hoped the Bolshevik Revolution one hundred years ago would
usher in a new era of gender and class equality. Following the
revolution, Soviet Russia declared “International
Women’s Day” an official holiday, and “Marxist
feminists” romanticize communism to this day. Women of
the Gulag
, both a remarkable book and a documentary film,
highlights the disparity between the Soviet Union’s alleged
gender equality and the reality of life for women under
communism.

It is now popular to claim — in the New York Times no less — that
Soviet women “enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in
liberal democracies at the time,” so it is worth noting some
of the ways that communism tyrannized women in particular. Those
who claim the Soviet Union liberated women would do well to learn
the stories of the women of the Gulag.

The Gulag forced labor camp system, created under Lenin and
massively expanded under Stalin, was only one of many horrors in
the Soviet Union. At least five million prisoners toiled in the
camps at any given time during the system’s peak from 1936 to
1953, mining radioactive material, hauling logs barefoot in winter,
or performing other forms of slave labor. The camps were allegedly
for “class enemies” (anyone insufficiently poor) and
traitors.

“[S]ome 18 million people passed through this massive
system,” with millions more compelled to migrate to special
settlements with similar conditions, according to Pulitzer
Prize-winner Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History. It is estimated that harsh conditions and summary executions
killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner
population each year. Although only between 10 and 15
percent of Gulag inmates were women, their imprisonment had some
uniquely horrible features.

First, they were almost all arrested for the alleged crimes of
their husbands or fathers. Communist officials saw women as just
another means of punishing men, rather than as individuals with
distinct identities. One of the few ways for a woman to avoid
arrest alongside her husband was, perversely, to accuse him of
treason before anyone else did.

Signed by the head of the NKVD on August 14, 1937, Operational
Order of the Secret Police No. 00486, “About the Repression
of Wives of Traitors of the Motherland and the Placement of Their
Children,” stated:

That brings us to the second horror unique to women’s
persecution. Upon a mother’s arrest, the Soviet system
declared her children orphans and sent them as far away as
possible. After regaining freedom a woman would often never learn
of their fate. In the state-run orphanages, children of traitors
and class enemies faced social stigma. They were taught to feel
shame and loathing for their parents.

The book describes how the secret police kidnapped Maria
Ignatkina’s children and “before their horrified eyes…
beat her to the ground.” Her husband was tortured into giving
a false confession and killed. Maria spent eight years in a Gulag
for the crime of being married to him. She attempted suicide but
failed. Fortunately, her children were rescued from the orphanage
by an aunt. Maria was eventually able to reunite with them and meet
her grandchildren-a rare happy ending.

Finally, in addition to all the other horrors of the Gulag –
forced labor, hunger, beatings, harsh cold, and unsanitary
conditions — women prisoners were also subject to the
experience of institutionalized sexual violence. A woman named
Elena gave an unsettling account of how on a ship
transporting prisoners to the Gulag, women were raped by multiple
men, beaten and doused with cold water in an organized process
called a “Kolyma streetcar,” and the bodies of the
women who did not survive were thrown overboard. Other similar accounts corroborate her story.

Of course, the Gulag system was not the only way the Soviet
Union harmed women. Its disastrous economic policies led to far
deeper and more widespread poverty and scarcity than under
capitalism (which has helped bring global poverty to an all-time low), affecting women and other
vulnerable members of society the most. Still, the Gulag system
serves as a stark example of how, despite a proclaimed commitment
to gender equality, the Soviet Union accomplished the exact
opposite of “liberation” for women.

Chelsea
Follett
is managing editor of HumanProgress.org, a project of
the Cato Institute.