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:
Women married to husbands at the time of their arrest are to be arrested with the exception of … wives who provide information that leads to their husband’s arrest… The wives of traitors are to be imprisoned… no less than five to eight years. Children… are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.
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.