The “Real” 1950s Soviet Woman

In the 1950s the ideal Soviet women would be a homemaker, feeding and taking care of her children, her home, and her husband in addition to looking good and having time for leisure activities like reading or going to the cinema. But this was not the reality of all Soviet women. Many had no time to bond with their children let alone read a newspaper. There was what was called “the double burden,” which was the workload women faced between work and home and it was appearing more and more in press in the 1950s (von Geldern).

The Machine-Turner Andreeva (1955)

In the source “It Is Her Right” from 1954, we see working women and their struggle with balancing work and home. One factory worker, Nataliia Mikhailovna, explained how she gets home late only to have to cook, wash, and sew for her two children. She worries she won’t find the time to go out with her daughter, “I know that it is my duty and, indeed, my right and joy to go out with her, but I simply can’t manage it.” Another factory worker, Maria Mikhailovna Danshina, was unable to find childcare for her young daughter so she was forced to live with constant worry leaving her in the care of her six-year-old brother while at work. Since she worked the late shifts, she would go to bed very late only to get up to list of things to do in the morning before work. In this society there was this assumption that women would just find the time to read or spend quality time with their children. “It Is Her Right” asks the question of what is this city doing to help women, noting that there was only one laundry and one dressmaker in the city. It also notes that mothers aren’t just meant to feed and wash their children’s clothes, but “a mother should take them out for walks, read to them, take them to the cinema, and, finally, simply talk with them and reply to all their childish ‘hows’ and ‘whys’.” Not just mothers, but women in general should also have the opportunity to experience the culture around them by having time to attend lectures, concerts, read, and continue their educations.

In The Toy Factory (1960)

There were also women who wished to have a more independent life, a life beyond their families. In Aleksandr Fadeev’s novel Fadeev On The Housewife, we see a woman, Tina, who was once independent and full of hope, but has since lost all that due to dropping everything for her family. I am not entirely sure if this is a true story or a character inspired by real women at the time. Nevertheless Tina asks her husband a question one morning implying she would like to go back to work. She sees his worry but he says he is concerned for her and doesn’t want her to end up like another man’s wife who is a secretary. The woman works then takes care of her baby, her mother-in-law, younger sister, and has significantly aged in two years. After he denying her request she feels defeated. Tina thinks about how she has the right to have a family and work, and feels unequal to the women working. She also thinks about the other men and women who work with her husband and how they are closer to him and he sees them more as equals. Even though she had the right to go to work, Tina was scared into thinking she would mess up her marriage if she went, which seemed to be a common tactic back then.

In 1955 when the ban on abortion was lifted women now had the right to control her reproduction, but the government was still going to try and prevent that. There was a huge antiabortion campaign, which covered various areas, with over 20,000 antiabortion lectures in one city alone. There were pamphlets saying “Don’t deprive yourself of motherhood,” and films like the 1956 film Why Did I Do That?, which talked about how abortion could ruin a woman’s chances of motherhood in the future. In 1962 the antiabortion campaign got to men through For You, Comrade Men. This was used as a manipulative tactic for men to use on the women in their lives. It talks about how great motherhood is and that it will unite your family and bring a positive effect on the mother. It also talks about the dangers of the abortion and how you don’t really know how skilled the doctor is. It also has an example conversation between a woman who had an abortion and one thinking about it. The first woman says there were complications and she probably won’t be able to have more children. The second woman says that her and her husband want to wait because they don’t have a good home, to which the first woman replies that it doesn’t matter because you’ll be depressed without the laughter of a child.

Abortion has Dangerous Consequences (1965) : Don’t condemn yourself to solitude!
Stop! (1968) : Stop! Now abortion seems necessary. But remember, it might forever deprive you of the happiness of motherhood!

Women may have had certain rights about working or their bodies, but with this ideal Soviet woman image of listening to their husbands and being good homemakers, they were constantly torn between what looked good and what was realistic to care for their families and themselves.


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Between Shades of Gray

Over spring break I read Between Shades of Gray (published March 2011), a young adult historical fiction novel by Ruta Sepetys. The story follows a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941 who is taken from her home with her mother and younger brother by the NKVD (Soviet secret police). They are put on a crowded, dirty train car for weeks only to end up in a work camp in the coldest part of Siberia.

I read on the back of the book that the author, Ruta Sepetys, did extensive research because this is based on her family’s own history of the deportation of minorities. After some googling I found the book’s website linked with an interview of her explaining the history and her research process for this novel.

When she was visiting her cousins in Lithuania she asked to see photos of her grandfather, but they informed her that they had to burn all of them because he was a high-ranking officer in the Lithuanian military and would have been executed by Stalin, so they couldn’t let anyone know they were related to him. After digging and learning more about her history she realized she needed to tell this story that so many people don’t know about.

I was not familiar with the deportation of minorities other than knowing about the Holocaust so I found all of this pretty surprising, but “ethnic cleansing” was actually not new during WW2. During WW1 the Ottoman Empire did a very similar thing with the Armenian population and engaged in genocidal massacres, and Russia removed Germans and Jews as well (von Geldern). “Within months of the Nazi invasion in 1941, at least 400,000 citizens of German descent living along the Volga were transported eastwards to Central Asia and Siberia” (von Geldern).

The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, & Estonia) are on the western side of Russia. In 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact leaving the Baltics to Stalin. In 1940 the Baltics were annexed into the Soviet Union and disappeared from maps. Stalin then started drafting lists of people thought to be anti-Soviet like: military, doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, librarians, priests, and even children. Though they committed no crimes they were arrested, separated by men & women and children. They were stuffed into cattle cars, men sent to prisons and women sent to Siberia.

NKVD Forced Labor Camp

In order to tell this story Ruta Sepetys visited Lithuania several times interviewing survivors, historians, family members, and members of parliament. She also spent time inside train cars and soviet prisons. She said she specifically chose to write about the people sent to the Artic because they had some of the worst living conditions.


Several situations from the novel were taken directly from survivors’ experiences. One survivor, Irena, spoke to Sepetys for hours. One situation used in the novel was when young Irena walked over to the train car holding her father and other men. Her father gave her his wedding ring and told her that her mother would need to sell it for food. Sepetys also mentions that in her interviews with survivors some say that NKVD had secretly helped them, which occurs in the novel as well.

Looking over a decree by Stalin about deported minorities I noticed things mentioned in the novel as well like “settlers will be allowed to take with them personal items, clothing, household objects, dishes and utensils, and up to 500 kilograms of food per family.” In the novel the main character, Lina, is able to pack a suitcase with clothing and some personal items even as the NKVD is yelling at them to leave. The decree also mentions that property and building will be taken over. Before they leave their home Lina’s mother starts breaking all her beautiful plates because she doesn’t want the NKVD to use it.

Sepetys says that her goal for writing the novel was that it will end up in schools and libraries and that this part of history, which many don’t know about, won’t be lost.



This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team!