Subject essay: Deborah A. Field
The “Moral Code of the Builder of Communism,” its compilers asserted, was superior to all other ethical systems. Presented as part of the official program at the twenty-second Communist Party Congress in 1961, the code consisted of twelve tenets. First and foremost was “devotion to the Communist cause, love toward the Socialist Motherland and to Socialist countries.” The remaining eleven principles were meant to govern human relations on all levels, from international to interpersonal.
The code’s issuance represented the culmination of a process: over the course of the previous decade, Soviet party and government officials, scholars, and experts had developed, elaborated, and publicized the principles of Communist morality. Communist morality was supposed to replace coercion as a means of ensuring political and social stability and economic growth; it required political loyalty, hard work, and the proper conduct of private life. Under fully developed communism, public and private interests would be perfectly harmonized. But during the contemporary transitional period, in cases where conflicts arose, personal needs were to be subordinated to public priorities. Professionals and moralists in a variety of fields determined what attitudes and behaviors constituted a correct Communist private life, putting forth specific instructions about sex, love, marriage and child rearing. Trade union, party, Komsomol, and a host of new voluntary organizations were supposed to help enforce these standards. These groups included parent-school associations; apartment house committees; druzhiny, teams that patrolled the streets to arrest hooligans, drunks, and other disturbers of public order; and comrades’ courts, which were empowered to reprimand, fine, and shame people who neglected their children, disrespected their parents, damaged their apartments, or failed to get along with their neighbors.
Yet, at the same time, by 1961, Khrushchev’s reforms had increased individuals’ autonomy over their personal lives. The taming and restructuring of the secret police meant that, for the most part, state terror no longer disrupted family relations as it had under Stalin. Divorce became progressively easier to obtain, and the ban on abortion was lifted. The government launched an ambitious housing construction program with the goal of moving families out of communal apartments, barracks and dormitories and into their own individual apartments. The “Thaw” in literature and film meant that heroes were allowed to demonstrate their concern for intimate relations as well as production.
Thus the Khrushchev government provided new opportunities for professionals, officials, and volunteers to intervene in private life, but also new ways for people to evade, resist, and make use of that interference. Some ignored Communist morality or even made fun of it. For example, in 1961, the same year as the twenty-second party congress, a student at the Moscow Steel Institute wrote a comment in English on the blackboard that turned the Moral Code on its head: “Communism is women and wine.” Such rebelliousness was not the only reaction to Communist morality; other people selectively adopted aspects of it, and still others turned it inside out, using its language and supporting institutions to fulfill their individual aspirations. So for example, spouses sometimes accused one another of flouting Communist morality in order to reign in wayward spouses, subdue officious in-laws, or in divorce cases to support claims for custody of children or possessions. In other words, they used the language of Communist morality as a means of advancing the very individual interests that official moralists demanded they suppress. Evidence suggests that this was a strategy deployed more often by women than men. The fundamental gender inequality that persisted in Soviet society, despite claims to the contrary, made women more anxious to preserve marriages or claim possessions. Women received lower salaries than men and so were more often financially dependent on them. It was also more difficult for women to find new spouses; as a result of war casualties, women, especially those aged 35 and older, far outnumbered men. According to the recollections of one scholar, the complaining wife of the Khrushchev era was enough of a cliché to become the subject of a joke: How do women of various nationalities hang on to their husbands? The German by skilled housework, the Spaniard, by passion, the French by elegance, and the Russian by party committee.