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Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia.

Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia. By Gregory Carleton (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. 288 pp. $34.95).

This book provides a detailed reading of discussions of sexuality in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It begins with articles written by communist leaders such as Alexandra Kollontai, Nikolai Semashko (a physician who served as commissar of health), and Anatolii Lunacharskii (the commissar of "enlightenment"), then proceeds to belletristic works. The author, a literature scholar, has augmented his textual analysis with archival research. The result is a study not of sexual practices in the immediate post-revolutionary years, but of what writers and party officials said about those practices.

Carleton argues that the 1920s was a period of considerable argument over how sexuality should be dealt with literature. This argument in turn was part of the larger task of developing literary standards for the new Soviet society. Should literature talk about the problems of a disrupted, poverty-stricken reality or should it emphasize positive developments that pointed the way to socialism? This question was particularly likely to arise in criticism of sexually explicit works, of which these were many in the 1920s. Carleton points out that Soviet censors were far more permissive of sexual exploration in literature than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe at the time.

This argument is fleshed out with references to a host of novels and short stories that demonstrate the sense of limitless possibilities as well as the multitude of anxieties that the revolution had fostered. The layer in this story are many: the Bolshevik regime, seeking to assert itself as arbiter of all things cultural and political even as its members argued with one another over the party line; non-party professionals attempting to retain their pre-war standing as experts on sexuality; young people trying to figure out how to relate to one another in new ways. Carleton's analysis of the contribution of writers to this discussion is quite interesting. He does a good job of refuting scholars who discount the differences between the NEP decade and the Stalin period and of explicating the limits of Foucaultian analysis.

Carleton's analysis of the debates over sexuality should be better developed, however. Central to those debates were gender questions to which he gives very short shrift. These writers, party officials, and professionals were not just talking about sex; they were talking about gender, that is, about how women and men should relate to one another in a world where women were to be emancipated and all established institutions were to be made over. These were the most widely publicized and far-reaching discussions of reforming conjugal life that took place in Europe in the 1920s. And yet Carleton marginalizes them. He does not address gender directly until very late in the book and then only briefly, in a section titled "femininity."

Perhaps he would have been more attuned to the struggles over redefining heterosexual love, and the closely related questions regarding female emancipation, had he consulted the publications of the women's Department (Zhenotdel). But even in the magazines Carleton did use, which were published for mostly male audiences such as the Komsomol (the communist youth organization), gender matters figure prominently. What does it mean to be a good man, leaders such as Semashko were asking? What is courage, honor, respect toward women in the new world? How should the family be reformed; what are the responsibilities of husbands to wives? Why are women still so vulnerable to male exploitation? All of these questions are explicitly raised in the stories about promiscuity, rape, and sexual experimentation that Carleton studies, and yet he brushes past them.

Furthermore, the study's presentation of the opinions of non-literary people is chronologically and thematically disorganized. The views that prevailed among various groups--professionals such as physicians, social workers, and educators; members of communist youth organizations; party officials old and young--are not thoroughly considered. There is no coherent discussion of the development of ideas across the decade, except among the writers.

In short, this book is valuable for its analysis of the development of Soviet literature in the years 1926 to 1930. Those seeking to know more about the sexual debates and developments in family life during the NEP years should consult the work of Wendy Goldman, Anne Gorsuch, Dan Healey, Eric Naiman, and Elizabeth Wood, among others.

Barbara Evans Clements

Ellensburg, Washington
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:Clements, Barbara Evans
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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