Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East

From Women and Revolution issue No. 12, Summer 1976.

The triumph of the October Revolution in 1917, which dramatically, transformed the lives of Russian women, wrought even greater transformations in the lives of the women inhabiting the Central Asian regions which had been colonized by tsarist Russia. But in these feudal or pre-feudal generally Islamic cultures, where the lot of women was frequently inferior to that of the livestock, change came more slowly.

The status of women varied, of course, from culture to culture and within cultures, depending on social class and the nature of the, productive process. But from the mouth of the Volga through the Caucasus and Turkestan, from Iran and Afghanistan to Mongolia and northward to Siberia virtual enslavement was the rule, although restrictions were of necessity less strictly applied to women of the poorer classes—nomads and peasant women—whose labor was essential. A certain level of trade and industry and a settled way of life in the cities was a prerequisite for the luxury of strict enforcement of Islamic law.

It was not only the formal prescriptions of the Koran, but also local customs codified in the religious common law (the Shariat) and the civil law (the Adats), which determined the situation of Islamic women. The few partial reforms expressed in the Koran–the forbidding of female infanticide, the restriction of polygamy, the recognition of limited property and inheritance rights for women–were generally nullified by local Shariats and Adats.

The practically universal institution of kalym or bride price in itself illustrates the Muslim conception of marriage as a purely commercial contract having nothing to do with emotional bonds or personal commitments. In some areas the bride’s presence was not even required at the wedding. The purchase price of the female commodity had already been negotiated between the families of the bride and groom, and the wedding was merely a ceremony at which the transaction was notarized. The marriage contract was subject to dissolution by the husband at any time, and polygamy and child marriage were quite common. Children too physically immature for marital relations were subjected to the “horrible operation”—they were ripped open by a midwife to make consummation possible.

Kalym bound a woman, often from childhood, to the husband who satisfied her father’s price. If she ran away, she could be pursued as a criminal and punished by her husband or his clan. A runaway wife might be punished by having her legs broken or by other barbaric tortures. For a woman so much as suspected of infidelity, the appropriate punishment was branding on the genitals with a hot iron.

For the poor, marriage by capture often replaced payment of kalym. Once she was seized, carried off and raped, the woman had no choice but to remain with her abductor, since she had been disgraced and no other man would have her. Even widowhood brought no freedom, because a wife for whom kalym had been paid was the property of the husband’s family or clan and was bequeathed to his brother. Suicide by fire was the only alternative according to the laws of Islam. However, access to heaven was dependent on the will of the husband, and if cheated out of kalym by a wife’s suicide, he was unlikely to invite her to enter into paradise.

Rules demanding the veiling and seclusion of women had been introduced into Islamic law with the conversion of the Persian aristocracy in 641 A.D. In many parts of Central Asia the veil required was not simply the yashmuk, covering the mouth, but the paranja, which covers the whole face and body without openings for sight or breath. For centuries many women have lived thus shrouded and imprisoned in their ichkaris (segregated living quarters). A Yakutsk legend depicts a model daughter of Islam. Her living body is set before guests who proceed to cutoff pieces to eat. The girl not only bears this torment in silence but tries to smile pleasingly.

The triumph of Russian imperialism in the 1880’s brought few advances in social organization or technology in the Muslim East. The wretched Russian peasantry lived like royalty in comparison with the primitive peoples of this area.

The tsarist government forced the agricultural villages to switch at this time from food crops to cotton, and railroads were built to transport this product to Russian textile plants. Following the railroad workers were women who did not wear veils—Russian prostitutes. For a long time they were the only models available to the Muslim nomads and peasants of the “liberation” which Russian capitalism had bestowed upon women.

The October Revolution Transforms Central Asia

With the victory of the October Revolution the Bolsheviks turned toward Central Asia in the hope of developing its vast and desperately needed natural resources. The flow of these resources to the West was threatened, however, by the fact that Central Asia was from the beginning a haven for every sort of counterrevolutionary tendency and for the retreating White armies. Bourgeois consolidation anywhere in this area would have provided a base for the imperialist powers to launch an anti-Soviet attack.

The extension of the proletarian revolution to Central Asia, moreover, could become the example of socialist development in an economically backward area which would undermine the resistance of burgeoning nationalism in the East and inspire the toilers of other underdeveloped regions the world over.

But immense economic and cultural leaps were required to integrate Soviet Central Asia into a society revolutionized by the Bolsheviks in power. Trotsky called the area “the most backward of the backward,” still living a “prehistoric existence.” Indeed, the journey eastward from Moscow across Central Asia was a trip backward through the centuries of human development.

The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but an institution which was central to the organization of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of kalyin, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debts, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private army of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.

These kinship and tribal loyalties were obstacles to social progress because they obscured class relations and held back the expropriation and redistribution of land and other property. Poor peasants who stood to gain by the equalization of wealth, hid the property of their rich relatives threatened with expropriation. Blood vengeance enforced vows of silence, and Soviet authority was undermined by conspiracies that served only the old oppressors.

Civil War

The Bolsheviks hoped that women, having the most to gain, would be the link that broke the feudal chain, but this necessitated a great deal of preparation, for the Muslim institutions, oppressive as they were, served real social functions and could not be simply abolished. Like the bourgeois family, they had to be replaced.

Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principle and Soviet law. Instead, he proposed to use Soviet state power to carefully and systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions, a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Extending this practice to Central Asia, the Soviet government waged a campaign to build the authority, of the Soviet legal system and civil courts as an alternative to the traditional Muslim kadi courts and legal codes. Although the kadi courts were permitted to function, their powers were circumscribed in that they were forbidden to handle political cases or any cases in which both parties to the dispute had not agreed to use the kadi rather than the parallel Soviet court system. As the Soviet courts became more accepted, criminal cases were eliminated from the kadis’ sphere. Next, the government invited dissatisfied parties to appeal the kadis’ decisions to a Soviet court. In this manner the Soviets earned the reputation of being partisans of the oppressed, while the kadis were exposed as defenders of the status quo. Eventually the kadis were forbidden to enforce any Muslim law which contradicted Soviet law. Two Soviet representatives, including one member of Zhenotdel—the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women—were assigned to witness all kadi proceedings and to approve their decisions. Finally, when the wafks (endowment properties), which had supported the kadis, were expropriated and redistributed among the peasantry, the kadis disappeared completely.

This non-confrontationist policy in no way implied capitulation to backward, repressive institutions. It was made clear that there could be no reconciliation between communism and the Koran. Although “Red Mullahs,” attracted by the Bolshevik program of self-determination and land to the tiller, suggested to their followers that Islam was socialism and vice versa, the Bolsheviks insisted that Soviet and Muslim law could never be reconciled precisely on the grounds that the most basic rights of women would be sacrificed.

The bloody civil war that pitted the Bolshevik state against imperialist-supported counterrevolutionary forces devastated the young workers state and threatened its very survival. During this period, when the Bolsheviks’ capacity to intervene in Central Asia was crippled, the crude tactics employed by their ostensibly socialist opponents fueled anti-Soviet sentiment.

In Tashkent, the railroad center of Central Asia, the governing Soviet was made up of Russian emigrés, many of them railroad workers, led by Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. In an orgy of Russian chauvinism and self-indulgence foreshadowing the policies of Stalinism to come, they expropriated the holdings of the most respected Islamic institutions and stood the slogan “self-determination of the toiling masses” on its head to justify the exclusion from the soviet of native intellectuals and sympathetic mullahs, whom they labeled “non-proletarian elements.” At the same time, they collaborated with former White officers. When the Tashkent Soviet began arbitrarily requisitioning food from the peasants during the worst grain shortages of the civil war, Lenin intervened to stop this. But the seeds of anti-Soviet rebellion had been sown.

The Basmachis, tribal and traditionalist elements (mainly Uzbek and Tadzhik), who were avowed enemies of the Bolsheviks, served as a pole of attraction for the most sordid conglomeration of forces dedicated to the preservation of the status quo. When Enver Pasha of Turkey, who came to the region as an emissary from Moscow, deserted to the Basmachis, supplying the leadership and authority necessary to unify the warring beys into a viable army of fanatical Muslim terrorists, civil war in Central Asia began in earnest. Soon thousands of Muslims joined these forces in the hills.

Few Central Asian women took the side of the Bolsheviks during the civil war and few of these survived. The heroism of those few who dared defy family, law and the word of the prophet was unsurpassed. One such woman was Tsainet Khesmitova, who ran away from her aged husband while still a child and served as a spy for the Red Army. Her husband’s hired assassins eventually caught her, cut out her tongue and left her beaten body buried neck deep in the desert to die. She was rescued by a Red Army unit but was so mutilated that she was forced to live out her life in a Moscow institution for Bolsheviks incapable of work.

Another was Umu Kussum Amerkhanova, the first woman activist of Daghestan, who repeatedly escaped from the death sentences which the White Army and her own countrymen sought to impose on her. Wearing men’s clothes, she led Red troops at the Daghestan front until the end of the war and survived to continue the work of transforming the role of women in Central Asia.

Lifting the Veil of Oppression

Bolshevik ability to intervene effectively in Central Asia began with the end of the civil war and the transition from the emergency policies of war communism to the stabilization carried out with the institution of the NEP (New Economic Policy). The Turkestan Commission was set up under the leadership of M. Frunze, a talented military commander, and G. Safarov, a leading Bolshevik of Central Asian origins.

The detested emigrés were recalled to Russia, and the land they had confiscated was distributed to the Muslim toilers. With food requisitions replaced by the tax-in-kind, and government allocations of seed and food reserves, the Basmachi revolt came to an end. But the peasants’ experience with chauvinist Menshevik policies was not forgotten. Resistance would continue to flare up in the future when agricultural tensions were again exacerbated.

The end of the war signaled the initiation of systematic Bolshevik work among Muslim women. In the absence of native activists, it was the most dedicated and courageous members of Zhenotdel who donned the paranja in order to meet with Muslim women and explain the new Soviet laws and programs which were to change their lives. This was an extremely dangerous assignment, as any violation of a local taboo enraged husbands, fathers and brothers to murder. In fact, the discovery of numerous dismembered bodies of Zhenotdel organizers finally compelled the Soviet government to reinstate the death penalty for explicitly “anti-feminist” murder as a counterrevolutionary crime, although non-political murder (even murder committed in vengeance against wives) received a standard sentence of five to ten years’ imprisonment.

Zhenotdel activists organized “Red Yertas” (tents), “Red Boats” and “Red Corners,” depending on the terrain. They attracted local women by offering instruction in hygiene and crafts, by providing entertainment and a place to socialize and by distributing scarce consumer goods. Although the clubs were at first concerned primarily with publicizing and explaining the new laws, they later became centers for culture and education and waged a remarkably successful campaign to liquidate illiteracy.

At the 13th Party Congress in 1924 an offensive was launched in Central Asia which was designed to bring women into production and political life. Funds were allocated from central and local budgets for assemblies of women’s delegates and for associations to combat kalym and polygamy. Plans were also made to form producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives and to establish literary and hygiene circles and medical dispensaries.

The implementation of these measures continued to depend on the initiative of a handful of Zhenotdel activists, for so deeply ingrained were the old values that often even Central Asian Communists could not conceive of substantial changes in the status of women, and the women themselves often failed to report crimes against them to the courts. The response of local party branches to the new measures ranged from open hostility and sabotage to passive incomprehension.

The party locals in Daghestan, for instance, interpreted the law abolishing kalym as an instruction to lower bride prices. In some areas the party instituted fair price regulations: a young, pretty girl from a well-to-do family might cost 300 rubles while a pockmarked widow was to be priced the same as a hornless cow.

By 1924 Zhenotdel organizations had entrenched themselves in many areas, and because of their influence and the changes in material conditions, Central Asian women began for the first time to vote. This advance was facilitated by the fact that the official summons each of them received from the party to appear at the polls was regarded as a valid reason for them to go out in public, thereby saving their husbands from ridicule.

Once at meetings, women were persuaded to run for office on the party platform. At the same time, legal reforms and land redistribution gave them rights under the law, and through producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives they were able to acquire seed, tools and training, making it possible for them to support themselves. These alternatives to economic dependency in marriage in conjunction with the publicizing of divorce laws resulted in a marked increase in divorce, initiated especially by child brides and second and third wives.


Had a balanced approach of training and education complemented this liberalizing agitation, these new divorcees could well have become enthusiastic pioneers of agricultural collectives and proletarian reinforcements for industrialization. Their example would have been followed by married women as well, with the incentive of increased family income working to neutralize the hostility of their husbands. But at the January 1924 Party Conference, which preceded the 13th Party Congress, the leadership, program and methods of the party changed decisively.

The degeneration of the revolution after 1923 expressed through the theory of “socialism in one country” and implemented through the strangling of workers democracy in the Soviet Union, permeated and deformed all sectors of the government.

In an ominous prelude to the policies of the “third period,” such as the forced collectivization of agriculture, the legal offensive against traditional practices in Central Asia was stepped up until the divorce rate assumed epidemic proportions. Although local party branches protested the pace of the offensive and warned that it had become “demoralizing to all concerned and a threat to continued Soviet rule,” Zhenotdel continued its one-sided agitation for women to initiate divorce, until the Red Yertas, clubs and hospitals were filled with far more divorcees than they could possibly handle. Under the impact of masses of women whom they could not support, these organizations in desperation simply dissolved. In some cases, they were transformed into brothels.

In 1927 the offensive was narrowed still further to a single-issue campaign against seclusion and the veil known as Khudshum. First, party meetings were held at which husbands unveiled their wives. Then on 8 March 1927, in celebration of International Woman’s Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting “Down with the paranja!” tore off their veils, which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as “Away with the Veil,” and “Never Again Kalym” were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites. Protected by soldiers, bands of poor women roamed the streets, tearing veils off wealthier women, hunting for hidden food and pointing out those who still clung to traditional practices which had now been declared crimes (such as conspiring to arrange a marriage for exchange of kalym).

The Khudshum appeared to be a success on March 8, but on March 9 hundreds of unveiled women were massacred by their kinsmen, and this reaction, fanned by Muslim clergy, who interpreted recent earthquakes as Allah’s punishment for the unveilings, grew in strength. Remnants of the Basmachi rebels reorganized themselves into Tash Kuran (secret, counterrevolutionary organizations) which flourished as a result of their pledge to preserve Narkh (local customs and values).

Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadre annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The massive terror unleashed against the recently unveiled women—which ranged from spitting and laughing at them to gang rape and murder—forced most of them to take up the veil again soon after repudiating it.

The party was forced to mobilize the militia, then the Komsomols and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of international Woman’s Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre. Lacking Zhenotdel leadership those clubs which had survived the legal offensive now disappeared.

By 1929 Central Asia was caught up in the general resistance of peasant peoples throughout the Soviet Union to the forced collectivization of agriculture dictated by Moscow. Significant social advancement for most Muslim women in Central Asia was deferred. Not for another decade, when the productive capacity of the planned economy had developed sufficiently to provide jobs, education, medical care and social services on a scale wide enough to undercut primitive Islamic traditions, did they begin to make substantial gains.

The Russian Revolution created the objective preconditions for the liberation of women. But the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy was accompanied by a general reversal of significant gains for women throughout Soviet society. Thus the oppressive family structure which the Bolsheviks under Lenin had struggled to replace with the socialization of household labor was now renovated as an economic institution by the increasingly isolated regime which realized that the family provided services which the degenerated workers state could not. In defense of the family, abortions were illegalized, divorces were made much less accessible and women were encouraged through government subsidies and “Mother Heroine” medals to bear as many children as possible. In 1934, as if to sanction its physical liquidation in Central Asia at the hands of Tash Kuran terror, the Soviet government liquidated Zhenotdel organizationally as well.

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