International Women's Day: Gender, Identity And Ideology In The Soviet Union

08/03/2017 12:24

Thinking about the legacy of the USSR, I never cease to be amazed at the professionalism with which Communist propaganda permeated every walk of life. Ideology worked on all levels, touching everything, manipulating people's deepest emotions, consciousness and sense of identity.

Even gender was manipulated to promote Communist ideology. So skilfully and professionally was this done, that most would not have suspected. On the contrary, the message put to society was that everything was being done transparently, that the USSR was just the same as anywhere in the world, and if anything, a lot better.

International Women's Day on 8 March is observed worldwide as a day promoting the struggle for women's rights. In the USSR, it was celebrated as 'women's day', without any particular fuss about its origins. If its history was mentioned, it was merely to prove that women's rights were alive and well in the USSR, that the sexes were equal, that women enjoyed equal opportunities and even certain privileges over men. This was to some extent true: women in the USSR indeed had many opportunities and rights. In the late Soviet period, for instance, women could go on maternity leave in their seventh month of pregnancy and spend three years at home with their babies. During half of this time, they would receive a salary, and their job would still be waiting for them, when they returned to work.

The manipulation lay elsewhere: it was in the approach, in the way this public holiday was presented, in being imbued a different status.

Human beings have a fundamental need to be recognised for who we perceive ourselves to be and for who we wish to appear. This is true in all senses, starting with the recognition of our gender identity, name and appearance, to our occupation, the significance of our work and its results. Based on this basic human need for recognition, the Communists developed a structure within which everyone was recognised. This structure was extremely effective in promoting individuals' positive sense of self-worth. However, in receiving such recognition, we feel more trusting and open to dialogue with those that have recognised us, and we are even prepared to accept their interventions that aim to control and change us. Labouring under the delusion that all this is being done in order further to encourage the qualities that have been recognised in us, we might well not notice the manipulation to which we are being subjected. Coming from an extremely authoritarian and powerful state, however, the recognition was highly valued and never questioned.

Women's Day became the day when the 'feminine' was honoured, when individuals were feted for belonging to a certain sex: women were celebrated and congratulated for their gender. In many post-Soviet countries, this is still the case today. This process can be seen as one of recognising identity through gender. What followed, however, was yet more sophisticated ideological manipulation. People of a certain gender category, it was maintained, were obliged to demonstrate certain qualities in order to be part of that particular Soviet community. These messages were skilfully mingled with an emotional field built up with the aid of statements about Soviet women's exceptional beauty, about how desirable they were, and what amazing mothers, sisters, girlfriends, daughters and wives.

All this helped create an effect of unity, cohesion and resemblance, hence, of manageability. This is perhaps why, even in the most well-intentioned social circles, there was simply no place for any discussion around non-traditional sexual orientation. It was seen as a disease, a deviance: people of non-traditional sexual orientation were punished and treated medically.

In the same way, 23 February, which was 'Soviet Army day' in the USSR, was turned into 'men's day'. This remains the case in present-day Russia, with men being celebrated independently of whether they served in the army (or not). The masculine is here recognised through a clear delineation between gender qualities and roles. The fundamental role ascribed to the male is that of patriot and defender of the Fatherland. The female is there to assist the man in this task. In this way, gender was virtually deemed a profession down to the fundamental assumption that in case of war, all men would be called up to serve in the army, and the young childless women would help them.

For example, whilst studying literature at university, I also was required to undertake an in-depth medical course. Working at a hospital in the evenings, I received a military nursing certificate. The state had my details, they knew what size uniform and boots I would require in case of war. I did not believe that war would actually break out, but I used that opportunity to gain useful skills, sometimes joking that I hoped I would be given boots a size larger than that registered in the system.

While gender could be said to have been approached as a profession, then professions themselves also played a part both in defining distinct communities and in ideologically bringing them together. From dentists to miners, every profession had its special day. The Communists created an illusion that everyone had their own, important place, albeit always within certain boundaries. When everyone is defined within certain parameters, it is much easier to promote an ideology, to manipulate society, public opinion and the opinion of various groups.

In many post-Soviet communities, these traditions and tendencies still function today as something of a legacy. Whether this is purely due to inertia, or to the same aims that the Communists pursued in maintaining the tightest possible control over the people and in promoting the authorities' ideology, it is hard to say.

Those who work on conflict transformation and peacebuilding in Central Asia, Ukraine and the Caucasus should however be mindful of the mechanism of creating and strengthening in people a profound sense of group belonging. Inherited from the Communists, it is still functioning today, just as it was in Soviet times. The only thing that changes is the ideology and the accompanying messages, depending on who is conferred recognition for what, and by whom.

Find out about International Alert's work on gender.