The question whether marriage as an institution should be abolished is now being debated all over Russia with a violence and depth of passion unknown since the turbulent early days of the Revolution. Last October a bill eliminating distinctions between registered and unregistered marriages and giving the unmarried consort the status and property rights of the legal wife was introduced in the Tzik, or Central Executive Committee. So much unforeseen opposition to the proposed law developed that the Tzik decided to postpone its final adoption until the next session, meanwhile initiating a broad popular discussion of the project.
Since that time factories, offices, clubs, and various Soviet organizations and institutions have passed resolutions for and against the bill, and the halls have not been able to hold the eager crowds that thronged to the meetings in city, town, and village. One must live in Russia to-day, amid the atmosphere of torment, disgust, and disillusionment that pervades sex relations, the chaos, uncertainty, and tragedy that hover over the Russian family, to understand the reasons for this heated discussion, for these passionate pros and cons.
When the Bolsheviki came into power in 1917 they regarded the family, like every other 'bourgeois' institution, with fierce hatred, and set out with a will to destroy it. 'To clear the family out of the accumulated dust of the ages we had to give it a good shakeup, and we did,' declared Madame Smidovich, a leading Communist and active participant in the recent discussion. So one of the first decrees of the Soviet Government abolished the term 'illegitimate children.' This was done simply by equalizing the legal status of all children, whether born in wedlock or out of it, and now the Soviet Government boasts that Russia is the only country where there are no illegitimate children. The father of a child is forced to contribute to its support, usually paying the mother a third of his salary in the event of a separation, provided she has no other means of livelihood.
At the same time a law was passed which made divorce a matter of a few minutes, to be obtained at the request of either partner in a marriage. Chaos was the result. Men took to changing wives with the same zest which they displayed in the consumption of the recently restored forty-per-cent vodka.
'Some men have twenty wives, living a week with one, a month with another,' asserted an indignant woman delegate during the sessions of the Tzik. 'They have children with all of them, and these children are thrown on the street for lack of support! (There are three hundred thousand bezprizorni or shelterless children in Russia to-day, who are literally turned out on the streets. They are one of the greatest social dangers of the present time, because they are developing into professional criminals. More than half of them are drug addicts and sex perverts. It is claimed by many Communists that the break-up of the family is responsible for a large percentage of these children.)
The peasant villages have perhaps suffered most from this revolution in sex relations. An epidemic of marriages and divorces broke out in the country districts. Peasants with a respectable married life of forty years and more behind them suddenly decided to leave their wives and remarry. Peasant boys looked upon marriage as an exciting game and changed wives with the change of seasons. It was not an unusual occurrence for a boy of twenty to have had three or four wives, or for a girl of the same age to have had three or four abortions. As the peasants of Borisovo-Pokrovskoie bitterly complained: 'Abortions cover our villages with shame. Formerly we did not even hear of them.' But the women, in self-defense, replied: 'It's easy for you to talk. But if you just tried to bear children yourselves you would sing a different song.'
I was once discussing the subject of frequent divorces with the president of a village soviet. 'What makes women get divorces?' I asked him. Just then a girl about eighteen years old entered the room. 'Here is our latest divorcee,' said the president laughingly. 'Ask her.' I turned around, but the girl was no longer there, and from the window I saw her running away as fast as she could. I ran after her and finally caught up with her in the fields outside the village. We sat down on a haystack and I asked the girl to talk to me frankly, as woman to woman.
Tears filled her eyes as she told me that she still loved her nineteen-year-old husband, but that he had forced her to ask for a divorce only two months after they had been married. He now thought he loved another girl in the village and threatened to kill his wife if she did not leave him voluntarily.
I recall another victim of the breakdown of family ties in the villages, a tall, pale, silent Cossack woman. She was divorced by her husband after their first child was born. He then married another woman, had a child by her, deserted both, and returned to his first wife, by whom he had a second child. The woman was deeply religious, and was tormented by the thought that her second child was illegitimate, although her priest assured her that this was not the case, because the Church did not recognize the divorce.
Several peculiar abuses sprang up in the country districts in connection with the shifting marriage regulations. Many women of light behavior found marriage and childbearing a profitable occupation. They formed connections with the sons of well-to-do peasants and then blackmailed the father for the support of the children. In some cases peasants have been obliged to sell their last cow or horse in order to settle such alimony claims. The law has created still more confusion because it is retrospective in its operation, so that women can claim support for children born many years ago.
Other peasants took advantage of the loose divorce regulations to acquire 'summer brides.' As the hiring of labor in Russia is hedged about with difficulties and restrictions for the private employer, the richer peasants in some districts took to the practice of marrying a strong girl for the harvest season and divorcing her as soon as the work in the fields was over.
The new sex relations have also raised certain problems in the cities. During the winter of 1924-1925 some of the older Communists accused the younger generation, especially the students, of indulging in too much dissipation, of squandering health and vitality in loose connections; they blame the girl students for practising frequent abortions. 'You must be either a student or a mother; under present-day conditions you can't be both,' declared one mentor to the modern Russian women students. The latter indignantly replied that love was almost the only cheap amusement left to them and demanded that they be given at least the same opportunity for free abortions that factory women enjoy. Moreover, they retorted that not all the older Communists could serve as a model of pure living.
Some members of the League of Communist Youth, an organization which now numbers between a million and a half and two million young men and women, regard the refusal to enter into temporary sex relations as mere bourgeois prejudice, the deadliest sin in the eyes of a Communist. Some of the provincial branches of the League went so far as to organize 'Down with Shame' and 'Down with Innocence' circles; but these were sharply condemned as rowdy aberrations in the official report on the activities of the League at the last Congress of the Communist Party.
Both in the villages and in the cities the problem of the unmarried mother has become very acute and provides a severe and annoying test of Communist theories. In the early stages of the Revolution the Communists held the theory that children should be reared and cared for by the State. But it soon became evident that the State, especially in war-torn and impoverished Russia, was financially quite incapable of assuming such a heavy burden of responsibility. The figure of ten thousand foundlings, reported for thirty-two provinces of the Soviet Union over a period of six months, illustrates the danger that the present large number of vagrant homeless children may be swelled because of the inability or unwillingness of parents to provide for the offspring of temporary connections.
The session of the Tzik which discussed the abolition of marriage as an institution last autumn took place in the famous throneroom of the Tsars in one of the Kremlin palaces. The gilded walls and ceilings are unchanged, but the throne has been replaced by a simple wooden structure serving as a platform. Here round-faced peasant women with red kerchiefs over their heads, workers in plain dark blouse without tie or collar, commissars in high boots, mingled democratically and argued with equal ardor.
The bill was introduced by the Commissar for Justice, Mr. Kursky, a large man with tremendous blonde moustaches. He pointed out that whereas, according to the old law, the wife had no rights in the case of an unregistered marriage, the proposed law would give her the rights of a legal wife in holding property and in other matters. Another new point was that wife and husband would have an equal right to claim support from the other, if unemployed or incapacitated for work. The woman would have the right to demand support for her child even if she lived with several men during the period of conception; but, in contrast to previous practice, she or the court would choose one man who would be held responsible for the support. Commissar Kursky seemed especially proud of this point because it differed so much from the 'burgeois customs' of Europe and America. In those countries, he said, the husband can bring a friend who declares that he also lived with the woman, and the latter is then left defenseless. In the villages, where some continue to live with their parents long after they are married, the whole family is held responsible if a woman claims alimony, according to the original draft of the proposed law.