Superwoman: Work, Build and Don't Whine

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This exhibition documents women in Russian art and society from the great advances of the 1917 revolutions through to Perestroika in the 1980s. It identifies the double burden of oppression which women experienced in Stalinist Russia: exploited in the workplace and bearing the brunt of household chores and child rearing, all under the banner of being “liberated women”.

However, the viewer gets a taste of the genuine liberation of working class and peasant women that came out of the 1917 revolutions, and the central involvement of women in the revolution. It documents the incredible victories won by women in one of the most backward countries in the world. After October 1917 women gained full equality with men in the workplace, divorce rights, abortion rights, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Dolya Gavanski, one of the exhibition’s curators, has made a film that shows the poverty and oppression which women experienced in Russia before the revolution and how anger at war and food shortages led them to fight back. It has incredible footage of the massive protests of peasant and working women in February 1917 that led to the toppling of the Tsar.

Leading Bolshevik women, Nadya Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, are identified as setting up collective education, laundries, nurseries, restaurants and homes, so that women could fully take part in building the new society. One exhibit is a huge poster advertising the Zhenodtel — the women’s branch of the party after 1917 — which was responsible for helping set up these communal kitchens and laundries.

The experimental expressionism that came out of the struggles of the early 20th century is also represented.

I Vaintrob’s painting “Dance” shows the sexual freedom of a working class club before the First World War. Mikhail Sokolov’s “Woman Wearing a Hat” rejects the Stalinist drive for realism, opting for melancholic romanticism, which ultimately landed him in a Stalinist forced labour camp. There is also footage of the Soviet modernist Blue Blouse radical theatre group, which rode the wave of revolution.

In stark contrast the perversion and retreat of the struggle for women’s rights is evident with the rise of Stalinism. We see the closing of the Zhenodtel in the 1930s, the conscript labour of women, the recriminlisation of homosexuality and abortion rights and the glorifying of the divine right of motherhood.

This is most vividly shown in Vera Mukhina’s sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” from 1937. A young soviet man and woman hold up the hammer and sickle in the air, gazing hopefully into the sky. The utopian realism of the sculpture, which was heralded by the government as a symbol of Soviet ideology, reinforcing the government’s drive for authority over labour, the family and the state. The backdrop to this was Moscow show trials and the pogroms which murdered half a million in the Great Terror from 1936-37.

This is a fascinating collection exposing the contradictions of life for women in Stalinist Russia. An “8 March Postcard” for International Women’s Day 1962 shows a man waiting at home for his wife with cake and champagne. This could easily be mistaken for a 21st century Hallmark Valentines card.

However, the documentation of women in struggle is nothing short of inspiring. Copies of the working women’s paper Rabotnitsa from the 1920s show how central the organisation of working women was for socialists.

This exhibition clearly documents the great advances brought by revolution, and the destruction of these gains through counter-revolution and the demands of Stalinist “socialism in one country”. These lessons from the past equip us for the fights we face today.