Women in 19th century Russia

Juliette Chevalier
11 min readFeb 22, 2018


The nineteenth century in Russia was one of extraordinary, revolutionary change. For a little over half the century, the labor system of serfdom ruled the Russian Empire, affecting society in ways that have consequences still to this day.

Serfdom, as understood by the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the state of being a member of a low social class of farm workers who cannot leave the land where they work and who are ruled by the owner of the land.”

In this regard, more than a third of the population was made up of serfs in nineteenth-century Russia, which in turn made up half of the peasantry. Peasants did not receive any type of formal education, were usually entirely illiterate, and were forever bound to the land that had been given to them.

Once serfdom was abolished, then, all these people inevitably flooded all the major cities looking for jobs, in hopes of integrating themselves into the market while seeking for a better education and lifestyle. Inevitably, some started noticing the extent of the repressive and discriminating measures in place against women and when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, the emancipation of women was one of their top priorities.

In many ways, thus, the situation of women in the nineteenth-century is one that fits certain patterns in Russian history until then: a population reluctant to leave centuries-old traditions behind (even when they might be to their individual benefit), the continuous inconsistency between what the government promises and what concretely gets done, and a blind devotion to the Church’s dogma, in spite of rationality arguing otherwise.

Although established officially in 1649, the labor system serfdom developed gradually over many centuries, to the extent that historians usually tend to trace the root of the serfdom mentality to the 11th century. However, it was not until the 1600’s, as the Russian Empire continued to expand, that there was a growing fear, particularly from the landowners, that the peasants would leave their land in the hope that they were able to find a land of their own in the newly-acquired lands.

This is mainly why, in 1649, Tsar Alexis I of Russia, son of the first Romanov monarch of Russia, passed a legal code introducing serfdom, as a way to gain the loyalty from the landowners to the state. Unlike slavery in the United States, the landowner in Muscovite Russia did not own the serf, but rather the serf was now bound to the land, making him thus, bound to the landowner. The legal code granted total authority to the landowner to control the life and work of the peasant serfs who lived on his land and because this included the power to deny the serf the right to move elsewhere, the difference between slavery in the United States and serfdom in Russia was almost indistinguishable. On top of that, slavery was also legal in Russia until 1723 when Peter the Great abolished it, although the reality is that most slaves simply became serfs at that point in time. This undoubtedly made the nobility dependent on, and hence loyal to the tsar, since they now had a vested interest in maintaining tsarist Russia.

The system of serfdom exacerbated to the extent that the realities of the serfs and peasants became intrinsically linked with Russian identity and costumes, something that was reflected in the population’s level of illiteracy and ignorance. Adding to the pressure, all other European countries had already abolished serfdom by this point. This is why, in 1803, Alexander I established procedures to begin a movement of voluntary emancipation, in which the nobles who wished to do so could free their serfs.

Unsurprisingly, this was an utter failure since there was no real incentive for the nobility to pursue this, and hence, few landowners in fact did. Alexander I eventually died without succeeding and his heir, Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855, decided to appoint a “high-level administrative committee” to study the status of the peasantry, yet this did not succeed either and had minimal to no impact on practicality. It will take, then, a complicated period of societal deliberation, student disturbances, and peasant unrest from the radical press for people to realize serfdom kept Russia economically and socially backward compared to the rest of their European counterparts, who had started to abolish the measure as early as 1100.

This was especially true in terms of women’s status, as they were, especially at the beginning of the century, considered to be mere caregivers and serve only a reproductive purpose. Russian society was extremely patriarchal, with its basis in the Orthodox Church inciting in families the belief that men dominate every basic aspect of life, including but not exclusively to the workplace, community life, politics, and of course, the household.

Bringing customary practices into law, then, the Russian law code passed in 1836 under Nicholas I established the legal control the husband had over the life of his wife. According to Richard Stites’ book, The Women’s Liberation Movement: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930,

“The wife was obliged to conform to her spouses’ wishes while under his roof, to cohabit with him, and also to accompany him wherever he happened to go or be sent”.

The only exception wasif he was sent on exile to Siberia branded as a criminal. Under this law, the husband was entitled to the children, even if they were a result of the women having an adulterous affair with someone else.

Women were also not allowed to initiate divorce proceedings and were requested to have their husband’s explicitly-expressed permission in order to leave the house or take a job. Women had almost no separate civil identity from that of their husband in that they needed their permission to work, study, trade, or travel, essentially prohibiting women from making any choice for herself.

However, no matter how constricting marriage sounds, not marrying was a significantly worse alternative if one was even allowed to chose. In nineteenth-century Russia, marriage for women was essentially seen as a career goal, their ‘ultimate purpose in life’. Among the nobility, these partnerships were often chosen by their parents, looking for husbands of the same or better classes, as a strategy to further add to the family’s social and financial status. However, in some cases, women were allowed to pick their husbands as long as they were chosen from upper-class suitable men.

Even more depressing than the institution of marriage itself was the morality behind woman’s necessarily impeccable sense of decency, particularly in the more rural areas. “Peasant morality in most of rural Russia strictly forbids sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and harshly punished the woman when sexual transgression occurred,” wrote Barbara Alpern Engel in her article entitled Peasant Morality and Pre-Marital Relations in Late 19th Century Russia. Peasant attitudes against non-marital sexual intercourse were rooted in the household structure which provided the bol’shak — the household’s head — with uttermost authority in a family, as this was considered to be the most significant aspect and condition of life for every peasant. “Women [were] seen as either chaste or impure, and impure women were worthless,” making a women’s virginity almost a requirement for marriage.

By the mid 1800s, nevertheless, many Russians from all classes inevitably and unsurprisingly started realizing that reform of some kind was unavoidable if their nation was to truly progress. As this line of thought spread, serfdom started serving as the only reasonable explanation for Russia’s problems and weaknesses, namely “military incompetence, food shortages, overpopulation, civil disorder, [and] industrial backwardness.” Still, it was in fact the Crimean War, which really forced the hand of Tsar Alexander II to abolish the repressive labor system entirely. When Russia lost the war to France, Britain, and Turkey in 1854, the pride of every Russian was hurting in humiliation, enough to justify a 180-degree change in Russian domestic politics. Alexander the II, fueled by this defeat, then, was convinced that “if his nation was to have stability and peace at home and be honored abroad, military and domestic reforms were vitally necessary [and] the first step on this path would be the removal of serfdom.”

Although the emancipation of serfdom marked a new beginning for the Russian Empire, it marked an even deeper shift in the lives of the women who, for the first time, were allowed to earn a wage for themselves. In spite of the fact that the market certainly provided a narrow list of opportunities, most of which were “poorly-paid and exploitative choices,” women would often work as factory workers, domestic servants, physicians, midwives, telegraph workers, and teachers. This allowed them, for the first time, to buy things for themselves for pleasure, like dresses and books, and, more importantly, allowed them to attend both secondary and higher education starting in 1850’s, 1870’s, respectively. Until then, the little education the high and middle-class women had was mainly vocational, based on skills in housekeeping and being a good mother and wife. Interestingly enough, by this time, women in Russia were in fact, in some ways, even better off than some women in Europe in that at least they were allowed to possess property and inherit “one seventh of his real and one fourth of his movable property” from her husband.

Towards the end of the century, then, the idea of the “women question” started to rise and become a common debate within society, bringing to the forefront the “subordinate position of women in the realms of work, education, and marriage in Russian society.” It thus became a popular topic in the literature of the time, inciting men to participate in the debate over the position of women in Russia. But literature alone was not enough to to give voice to all women, and rather they started, in a sense, “radicalizing” by starting to dress more masculine and joining men in the revolutionary cause, among many other strategies. This was the inherent aftermath of years of repression and was an undeniable indication of a societal transformation in which women, for the first time, joined together as a gender, rather than divided by social classes.

However, the literature was not enough and because this was a system that had been put in place for so long, many of the women were frightened by what would happen to the existing social dynamics, trying to remain loyal to the traditional Russian identity. Because the new change of structure was assimilated with “enormous deprivation and frightening social disintegration,” the chaos of the revolution scared women to the extent that only a small number of them courageously followed the Bolsheviks in their movement. They were afraid to be left vulnerable, without the protective shield of traditional defenses and never-ending food shortages, leaving them often illiterate and with children, unable to withstand such an enormous social change as additional baggage. Therefore, most of the women opted for hanging on to the traditional patriarchal forms of the family and village, silently choosing stability over progressive change, a pattern that will be reflected all throughout Russian history.

In order to cope with the extreme levels of poverty, peasants tended to organize themselves around collective values and all its inherent traditions, as a way to face the constant insecurity and hardship of the time. In addition to the existing communal traditions already in place, people tended to look for the Church for guidance, seeing as most Russians of the time were extremely devoted. Following the patriarchal doctrine, then, the Church openly differed with the ideas of the revolution and the emancipation of women, arguing it was a man’s job to be the head of the household, and other alternatives are consequently inferior. This inherently creates a society with traditions that intrinsically highlight the differences in hierarchy of power between the sexes. Barbara Evans Clements states in her article entitled Working Class and Peasant Women in the Russian Revolution; 1917–1923, “her endless labor, essential to family survival, was valued by the peasants, but the labor of men was valued more. A woman was taught from childhood to submit to the power of men, to accept their right to command obedience as heads of the family and leaders of the village commune.” This created a paradoxical situation in which the fight for women’s rights actually came from above, with the arrival of Bolsheviks to power, rather than within the population itself.

The Bolshevik revolution began in February of 1917 with demonstrations in St. Petersburg and finally triumphed in early November of that same year with the abdication of the last tsar from the Romanov dynasty, Nicholas II. From one moment to the next, women were granted full equality to men, providing women with the possibility of total emancipation. They were given “equal educational and job opportunities, as well as publicly funded maternity care and day care.” As was expected, peasant men saw this change in the position of women as threatening to their power and status, particularly aware of “the connection between woman’s place in the family, the structure of that family as an institution, and the economic organization of peasant society.” And although the Bolsheviks were, at least on paper, strictly committed to the ultimate destruction of the patriarchal structure in the peasant lifestyle, peasant women were mostly resistant due to the increasing hardships of their lives. “The women’s deep loyalty to familiar values, their struggle to survive, the Bolsheviks’ inability to woo them with beneficial programs, the fear of punishment from men — all combined to keep peasant women firmly bound to their often abusive but also protective world.”

The promise of the communist manifesto, that all persons were equal, failed to deliver in practicality because of the long-entrenched core Russian ideal that women were inferior beings, the Church’s blunt position against women working outside the house, and the government’s hypocrisy in their stance towards the emancipation of women. It is no surprise that women and men alike were unable to shake a centuries-old tradition of women voluntarily submitting to men, taught since early age to be “mere possessions, easily controlled and, if needed, easily replaced.” Same thing happened with the Church, seeing as an integral component to the understanding of Russian society, essentially refused to alter its long-standing patriarchal beliefs stating that men need be the head and decision maker of their families. Furthermore, the mere sole proponents of the change, the Bolshevik government, differed internally as to what the role of women should be in society. Lenin, the indisputable leader of the revolution, wholeheartedly supported the emancipation of women, but party officials of lower ranks consistently questioned whether this was such a great idea after all and to what extent. In conclusion, the situation of Russian women in the nineteenth century is marked by the Russians’ systematic persistence in maintaining their centuries-old patriarchal society, along with the government’s apparent lack of ability to follow up with their promises seen with beginning of abolishment of serfdom all the way until the Russian revolution, and the Russians’ dependency on the Orthodox Church as the basis of indisputable morality.

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Juliette Chevalier

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