Long Teaching Module: Women and Stalinism, 1929-1939
The period of Joseph Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union was significant in 20th century world history because of the distinctive character of the government, the extension of communism into Eastern Europe, and the increasing importance of the Soviet Union as a world power during the Cold War. Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union began 1928, when, after a long struggle, he succeeded Vladimir Lenin, the unquestioned leader of the Bolshevik Party during the revolution, who suffered a stroke and then died in 1924. Stalin’s rule ended exactly 25 years later with his death in early 1953.
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, guidance on engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the eleven primary sources.
The Stalinist System
During this period, the following distinctive elements of the “Stalinist” system emerged:
- a one-party system in which the Communist Party controlled decisions having to do with political appointments, economic policy, cultural activities, and foreign relations;
- a personal dictatorship in which loyalty to a single leader, Stalin, had to be unquestioned and the image of the omnipotent leader filled public discourse;
- a pervasive system of police controls, forced labor, and violent repression that killed millions, imprisoned even more, and imposed restrictions on any kind of public speech, assembly, or organization;
- a system of forced modernization that transformed small-scale peasant agriculture into state-run collective farms and rapidly expanded industrial production by building factories, expanding mining, and developing transportation; and
- a foreign policy that sought to protect Soviet borders and Communist ideology through a combination of military power, as in the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during World War II, and expanding protective borders by establishing loyal regimes in occupied Eastern Europe.
During the decade from 1929 to 1939, the foundation was laid for a system that transformed the Soviet Union, became the basis for extending communist influence into neighboring regions, and exerted a powerful influence on shaping world history in the 20th century.
An important way to understand Stalinism, both in the context of Soviet history and more generally, in 20th-century world history, is to ask about the impact of these elements on the population. While most studies of Stalinism concentrate on the biography of the leader, the establishment of the political regime, and the enforcement of a rigid ideology, this approach provides only a partial and somewhat distorted evaluation of the lived experience of this era. It is important to understand the ideology of the Soviet government and its uses of repressive mechanisms, but it is also important to find sources that provide information and perspectives that illustrate how people coped with dictatorship. Such an approach to aspects of everyday life—such as work, family life, and educational attainment—provides a way to assess both the systemic influence of political controls and threats and the constructive elements that allowed the Soviet people to function even in a repressive system.
Examining the lives of Soviet women provides an excellent way to consider these aspects of Stalinism. Soviet ideology declared that the “emancipation” of women was possible only in a socialist system, in which women were no longer treated as a kind of domestic property, in which educational and employment opportunities were offered to men and women equally, and in which women’s political involvement was actively encouraged. In 1917, women’s protests in anticipation of the socialist-designated celebration of International Woman’s Day had been one of the sparks that set off the Russian revolution. Throughout Soviet history, March 8 was recognized by the regime and the people as “International Communist Woman’s Day,” with rallies and speeches by political leaders, articles in the newspaper commemorating the achievements of individuals and describing the advances brought to all women, and, on a daily level, meetings in factories, in offices, and in neighborhoods in which women were given gifts and recognized for their contribution to the nation, to society, and to their families.
Women in Stalinism
Yet these propaganda claims did not fully reflect the complex situation of Soviet women during the 1930s. Women experienced all the most destructive elements of Stalinism as well. During the famine that followed collectivization, women suffered from the shortages of food, which posed a direct threat to their traditional role as family providers. The hardships of rapid industrialization and urbanization, including shortages of housing, lack of services, and other difficulties, were borne disproportionately by women even as they also coped with increased demands and requirements in their employment. While more men than women were killed during the most violent phases of Stalinism, such as the repression that accompanied collectivization, or the hundreds of thousands of summary executions during the “Great Terror” which peaked in 1936-1938, women were victims as well, as thousands were killed or imprisoned, while others dealt with the great burdens of losing fathers, husbands, or sons. Stalinism was an extremely destructive period of Soviet history, the implications of which bore more directly on the population and which had broader implications for 20th-century world history.
For the Soviet population, however, the 1930s were also a period of transformations in work, family life, household activities, and political involvement that inevitably combined “positive” elements with the “negative” consequences described above. More women entered the labor force and educational institutions, yet even as their numbers increased throughout the economy, proportionally they remained concentrated in certain fields, such as medicine, education, and domestic services, which were lower paying, less prestigious, and certainly not as politically influential. As millions of people migrated from villages to the rapidly growing cities, women found new opportunities for work, study, and leisure, even as those left behind in the villages had to bear an increasing share of the labor burden with even fewer resources. Finally, the ideological commitment to women’s equality and emancipation was not shared by all men, and on a daily level, women continued to encounter harassment, prejudice, and exploitation. By exploring these “everyday” aspects of Stalinism, these materials provide insights into the ways that Soviet women in particular, but the population more generally, coped with the demands and dilemmas of dictatorship.
Articles and images published in Soviet newspapers on March 8, International Communist Woman’s Day, provide the most obvious examples of how women were used as symbols in a propaganda campaign. These texts and images were clearly intended to convey a certain message about the changing role of women in the Soviet system. In particular, March 8 publications celebrated the achievements of Soviet women in part by comparing their lives to the difficulties of Russian women “in the past,” prior to the revolution, and to contemporary women “outside the Soviet borders,” which included the capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States and the Asian and African colonial peoples ruled by European governments. This article suggests key themes that dominated Soviet discourse on women in the 1930s: the new roles for women in employment, government, and education, the ongoing effort to overcome the legacies of the past, the unity of women behind the Soviet government and Communist Party, and the assertions that Soviet women were the most equal and most emancipated women in the world.
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Using primary sources to study the issues and themes outlined in the introduction poses particular challenges for teachers and students. All of the sources included in this packet were produced by the Soviet regime through its publication of newspapers and release of statistics. The Soviet media of the 1930s was controlled by the Communist Party and its affiliate organizations, and served as a means to disseminate a particular set of messages. These articles should not be read as if they followed the ideal model of a free press, where newspapers provided space for opposing views, where distinctions were made between news articles and opinion pieces, and where journalists enjoyed some measure of autonomy from the government. A more productive approach is to read these sources as a kind of advertising for the Soviet regime and its ideological position.
Like advertisements, these sources deliberately combined positive and negative messages, selectively introduced examples that promoted certain objectives, and sought to convince the reader of a definite set of opinions. Soviet sources can also be read for both their intended and inadvertent content. Particularly in cases where the articles described some of the more difficult or destructive aspects of Stalinism, reading “against the grain” is a useful exercise in historical analysis. While all the articles contain some negative elements, these need to be seen as part of a propaganda campaign: by describing obstacles and problems, these articles sought to convince readers that while progress had been and was still being made, even greater efforts would be needed in the future.
- Which aspects of Soviet women’s experiences in the 1930s were most difficult, which were most constructive, and what does the range of issues and evaluations suggest about attitudes toward the Stalinist system?
- How did the Soviet government try to shape women’s lives and attitudes during the 1930s, and what obstacles stood in the way of these transformative objectives?
Soviet Women Under Stalin
Four 45-minute class periods and one additional day for writing the DBQ.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- describe examples of Soviet propaganda on women.
- form reasonable hypotheses about the reasons for that propaganda.
- identify primary areas of women’s employment in the Soviet Union, and the
particular successes of women in the world of work.
- evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of having large numbers of women
enter the workforce.
- Sufficient copies of the following sources (in this sequence):
- Source 1: Newspaper, Women’s Equality
- Source 4: Newspaper, Women’s Roles
- Source 2: Drawing, Old Way of Life
- Source 3: Cartoon, Woman with Lenin/Stalin Flag
- Source 5: Quantitative Evidence, Women’s Employment
- Source 8: Newspaper, Women Workers
- Source 9: Newspaper, Daily Life
- Source 10: Newspaper, Women’s Education
- Source 11: Newspaper, Women’s Activism
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
- Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Quantitative Evidence
- Highlighters—two colors for each student
- Plain, unlined paper for drawing
- Colored pencils or markers
- Blackboard and chalk, or white board and markers, or poster paper and markers
- Hook: Present the Chinese saying “Women hold up half the sky.” Ask students to think about what this statement means. What could a society achieve if large numbers of women began to work outside the home? What problems might the women or the society as a whole encounter?
Bias in the Press: Distribute copies of the article “On the Path to a Great Emancipation” Pravda March 8, 1944 (Source 1: Newspaper, Women’s Equality). Explain to the students that newspapers published in the USSR in this period did not report objective facts but rather served as a medium of government propaganda. Depending on your class, have students read the article quietly or read the article out loud together as a class. Instruct the students to pay attention to examples of strong adjectives or exaggerated language in the text. After reading the article, identify and discuss unfamiliar vocabulary words. Give each student a highlighter and instruct the students to mark adjectives, phrases, or sentences that describe the negative conditions women experienced prior to the communist revolution (e.g., the “barbaric, savage, and blood stained tsarist regime”). Discuss: According to the article, what was the tsarist regime like? Why would the communists portray the tsarist regime in this way?
Give students a second highlighter in a different color and instruct them to mark adjectives, phrases, or sentences that describe the positive conditions of women since the communist revolution (e.g., “She stands in the most advanced rankings of our working collective in the present-day glorious and productive period of socialist construction.”) Discuss: How does the article portray the experiences of women since the communist revolution? Why would it be to the advantage of the communists to publish ideas like this? Complete the worksheet Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts from Analyzing Sources. Discuss.
Achievements of Women: Divide students into pairs or small groups. Ensure that groupings are heterogeneous in that each pair or small group includes at least one student who likes to draw. Distribute copies of the article “International Communist Woman’s Day” Pravda March 9, 1939 (Source 4: Newspaper, Women’s Roles). Have students make note of the date. This article was published ten years after the article they studied previously in activity #2. Have students read the article either quietly or out loud as a class. Direct students’ attention to the paragraph that begins “Comrade Nikolaeva talked about the rise of Soviet women. . . .” Instruct students to list specific examples of women’s achievements as described by this passage. Distribute paper and markers or colored pencils. Have each pair or small group illustrate at least two achievements. Each drawing should have a title. Share and discuss students’ work: What achievements did they select? What images did they use to portray the achievements? How did they compose their drawings to convey a positive point of view on women’s achievements?
Soviet Women in Images: Students should remain in the same pairs or small groups established for activity #3. Distribute copies of the images “Old Way of Life” Izvestiia March 8, 1930 (Source 2: Drawing, Old Way of Life) and “Women with Lenin/Stalin Flag” Leningradskaia Pravda March 8, 1934 (Source 3: Cartoon, Woman with Lenin/Stalin Flag). Distribute copies of the worksheet Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images from Analyzing Sources. Model the process of image analysis for students by analyzing one of the images as a whole class. Have students analyze the second image in their pairs or small groups. Share and discuss the students’ analysis. Have each pair or group answer the following questions in writing (complete as homework if necessary): How do these images support the way women were portrayed in the newspaper articles studied in activities #2 and #3? How do these images compare with the drawings students made in activity #3?
Soviet Women in Numbers: Distribute copies of the chart “Women in the Soviet Labor Force: Total Number and Percent of Workforce.” Zhenshchina v SSSR (Moscow, 1936) (Source 5: Quantitative Evidence, Women’s Employment). Distribute copies of the worksheet Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Quantitative Evidence from Analyzing Sources. Assist the students in completing the worksheet. When the class reaches the question “What are the patterns in the data? What might account for these patterns?” have students do the following: Look at the 1929 column. What percent of the workforce was women? Rank the areas in which women were employed from greatest to least employment. Look at the 1935 column. What percent of the workforce was women? Rank the areas in which women were employed from greatest to least employment. Compare your results for 1929 and 1935. In what sector of the economy did women continue to be employed in the greatest numbers? What changes occurred in the sectors ranked second to fifth in employment of women? Students should now complete the remaining questions on the worksheet (complete as homework if necessary). Discuss.
Jigsaw: Divide students into pairs or small groups. Distribute a different primary source to each group. Select from among “The Bolshevik factory still does not have any women-master workers,” Rabochii July 7, 1931 (Source 8: Newspaper, Women Workers ); “Maria Semenovna Requires Assistance from the Party Collective,” Pravda Severa September 9, 1932 (Source 9: Newspaper, Daily Life); “School No. 130 Follows its own Law,” Za kommunisticheskoe prosveshchenie February 6, 1937 ( Source 10: Newspaper, Women’s Education); “Defending the Rights of a Soviet Woman,” Pravda Vostoka June 22, 1938 (Source 11: Newspaper, Women’s Activism). Assign each group to read their source and list problems stemming from women’s participation in the work force, or problems interfering with women’s ability to work. Students should be able to identify factors such the lack of female master workers, inadequate child care, continued “domestic slavery” of women in the home, and domestic violence. Use the blackboard, whiteboard, or poster paper and markers to make a web summarizing the work of all groups. Students should copy the web as it is generated through class discussion.
- Wrap Up: Have students return to the source “On the Path to a Great Emancipation” Pravda March 8, 1944 (Source 1: Newspaper, Women’s Equality). Discuss: To what extent do they agree with the claims made in this article? To what extent do they disagree?
Homework: Direct students to write a paragraph summarizing the content on the web. Students who have trouble starting their paragraphs may be encouraged to use the topic sentence, “Women workers in the Soviet Union encountered many problems.”
Advanced Students: Accelerate the lesson by assigning selected activities as homework. Have students research and collect comparative data on women’s participation in the workforce and problems attendant to women’s labor. Students may research a different country from the same period, or they may research Russia today. Have women continued to advance in the workforce or not? Have the problems attendant to women’s labor been mitigated or not? Have students hypothesize reasonable explanations for their conclusions.
Less Advanced Students: Complete Activities 1, 3, 4, 5 as directed. Complete worksheets and write paragraphs as a group (teacher writes on the overhead or blackboard, while students suggest sentences). For activity 6 select only one article to study as a class: “Maria Semenovna Requires Assistance from the Party Collective” (Source 9: Newspaper, Daily Life). Prior to having students write the DBQ essay, lead a whole class discussion in which you plan an outline for the essay. Consider allowing students to write their essays with the outline in front of them.
Document Based Question
Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)
Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:
- Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
- Uses all or all but one of the documents.
- Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
- Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.
You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.
Question: Using the documents and images from the Soviet Dictatorship module
- Describe the participation of women in the Soviet work force. In what areas did women make significant advances? In what areas did women fail to make advances? What problems did women encounter as their participation in the work force increased?
- Evaluate the advancement of women. Express a thoughtful opinion in which you weigh the relative advances achieved by women against the problems they encountered.
- Recommend strategies a government might employ to increase the participation of women in the work force beyond what the Soviets achieved.
Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents or images.
What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?
About the Author
Tom Ewing is Professor of History at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He has written several books, including Revolution and Pedagogy: Interdisciplinary and Transnational Perspectives on Educational Foundations (2005) and Teachers of Stalinism: Policy, Practice, and Power in Soviet Schools of the 1930s (2002). Other publications include “Restoring Teachers to their Rights: Soviet Education and the 1936 Denunciation of Pedology”; “Personal Acts with Public Meanings: Suicide by Soviet Women Teachers in the Stalin Era”, and “Gender Equity as a Revolutionary Strategy: Soviet Coeducation, 1917 to 1943.” He is also Project Director of the Digital History Reader, an educational website dedicated to the study of United States and European history.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Elizabeth Ten Dyke teaches 9th and 10th grade Global History and Geography at Kingston High School in Kingston, New York. In the past she has also taught secondary sociology, psychology, and AP Human Geography, as well as undergraduate and graduate courses in cultural anthropology. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Dr. Ten Dyke is the author of Dresden: Paradoxes of Memory in History, published with Routledge in 2001. This study explores tensions and contradictions in social memory and historical understanding in the former German Democratic Republic during
the post-socialist transition.