In Sunday’s New York Times, Kristen Ghodsee paints a glowing picture of women’s lives in the former Soviet Union. From full voting rights in 1917, liberalized divorce laws, high labor force participation – and yes, reportedly better sex – life was supposedly much better for women. Ghodsee writes, “Although the Communists never fully reformed domestic patriarchy, Communist women enjoyed a degree of self-sufficiency that few Western women could have imagined.”
Of course, full voting rights don’t count for very much when there is always only one candidate allowed on the ballot.
But there is a more fundamental problem with Ghodsee’s argument. Totalitarian governments have gone to great lengths to indoctrinate children, and the biggest obstacles to that goal were parents. The way to overcome this “problem” was to take women away from their children by encouraging or forcing them into the work force. Making divorce easy also weakened the institution of the family.
Soviet women were more indoctrinated than they were empowered.
As former Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Time David Shipler discovered, during the 1920s and 1950s, the Soviet Union even experimented with raising children in ‘‘communal children’s houses, dining halls, and other institutions that would decrease the importance of the individual household.’’ During the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Soviet government forcibly took tens of thousands of three- and four-year-old Afghanis to the USSR so that they would be raised away from their families. The hope was to later return them to Afghanistan, where they might form the core of a loyal government administration.
The former Soviet Union viewed children as “the property of the state” and they were actively encouraged “to criticize, expose, and reform parents possessing insufficient revolutionary ideals.”
But there are more subtle ways of achieving this without forcibly removing children from their homes. An article of mine in the Journal of Political Economy found that more totalitarian countries, such as the Soviet Union, had higher rates of divorce, female labor force participation, and out-of-wedlock births. They also tend to have children start school at an earlier age. If the government took care of the children most of the day from a very young age, a single parent would not have much opportunity to affect what the child would learn.
A totalitarian government is also likely to control the media and own the country’s television and radio stations. Soviet women were more indoctrinated than they were empowered.
Policies that weaken the family are not just limited to totalitarian governments. Governments with very large wealth transfer programs have also followed somewhat similar paths. A good example is Sweden, which aggressively instituted a very costly system of nursery school care. Education minister Ingvar Carlsson (a future prime minister) declared that “school is the spearhead of Socialism” and “pre-school training is essential to eliminate the social heritage’” of undesirable parental views.
Minutes from Swedish cabinet meetings reveal that the government adopted tax and employment policies in the 1960s “to get both parents out of the home, so that children are forced out as well.” One method was to separately tax each adult's income rather than family income as a whole. Because of Sweden's highly progressive tax structure, a family of two adults working for $40,000 each would actually have a much higher after-tax income than a family with only one person making $100,000. The scheme was intentionally set up to force women out of the home and into the labor force.
Many women in the former Soviet Union might have enjoyed being away from home, but the frequent use of government force demonstrates that not all women felt liberated by this. Ultimately this “liberation” came at the cost of children being indoctrinated with values not resembling those of their parents.
While Ghodsee may see all this as “necessary social change,” there is a reason that few men or women were trying to break into the old Soviet Union, and people weren’t staying away just because of the poverty.