Marriage in Twentieth Century Russia: Traditional Precepts and Innovative Experiments

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Marriage in Twentieth Century Russia:

Traditional Precepts and Innovative Experiments

Natalia Pushkareva - Russian Academy of Sciences.

1. The Period of Experimentation and Defamilization: 1917-1926

The years 1917-1927 in Russia were the decade of Bolshevik experimentation in the sphere of sexuality and family relations. Bolshevik policies on marriage and family found ideological support in the tenets of classical Marxism that understood perfectly well, why marriage in the new society “should not” be considered a private matter, and presumed that the government can and should influence marital relations through its laws. People’s Commissar A.B. Lunacharsky, who was responsible for questions of culture in the Bolshevik government, held that such a “Soviet monogamy” would be a transitional form of marriage during the building of communist society.

The Law and Divorce Decrees 1918 and 1926 significantly simplified divorce proceedings: a marriage could now be dissolved in a local court of law. Divorce was made extremely simple under the conditions of these times. On the basis of a petition by one of the spouses, a judge (individually) dissolved the marriage. No evidence of marital disintegration was required; after all, the code did not mandate that a couple live together or monogamously. The question of alimony was now the purview of the Department of Social Welfare under the People’s Commissariat, which determined the degree of need and income-potential of the applicant (usually the wife). At the same time, the law rendered equal the status of legitimate and illegitimate children. Having separated church from state and deprived the church wedding of validity (as was legislated by the Soviet Republic), the new structures of power established their own control over martial status and began to dictate new regulations of private life. With each passing year the family sphere became more and more politicized and a “statist (or: etacratic) marital order” was becoming firmly established. The 1926 Code of Laws on Marriage, Family and Guardianship had to give legal meaning to marriages of fact. If a person, without dissolving an officially registered marriage, considered him- or herself free to enter into a new, this time unofficial marriage with a third party, then precedence was given to… the unofficial marriage (since, after all, registration was a mere formality!). In this legal environment, realization of the principle of monogamy became extremely difficult, even prompting talk of the possibility of parallel marriages. The right of an abandoned spouse to receive alimony was limited to one year, and for child support to each child’s 18th birthday. As might appear paradoxical under the circumstances, in spite of the reduction in government control over marriage and divorce after the introduction of the 1926 code, the number of divorces rose only slightly, as compared with the “years of the great experiment” (1918-1926).

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