All the Single (Russian) Ladies

In 1943, World War II raged on. Already, it had wrecked the world. It appeared that no region was untouched, and Russia was no exception; in 1941, “1.5 million Soviet troops were dead while another 3 million were German POWs” (Freeze 376). Families drastically adapted to match the needs of war. The Soviets conscripted its young male population, and “Moscow called up almost all classes of reservists born after 1905” (Freeze 385). However, this magnitude of this war required support beyond the battlefield. Thus, the remaining sectors (such as women, children, and older populations) of the economy were enlisted in support of the country. In the name of patriotism, women contributed heavily to the war effort. However, while women were 70 percent of the rural labor force in 1943, production dropped to half its previous levels (Freeze 386). This had dire effects for the entire nation.

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A. O. Serov, “We’ll Take Your Place!” 1941, http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1943-2/love-and-romance-in-war/love-and-romance-in-war-images/#bwg111/671. A woman sits vigilant and defensive with men in uniform marching behind her.

Despite some negative consequences, women’s participation benefitted the nation greatly. The Russian army would not have been as successful if women did not rise to the occasion. Thus, to recognize the increasing burden that Russian women faced, the government adopted new measures to support them. One edict, “Aid for Mothers and Children,” advocated for state funding for large families, considering that households often functioned as single-parent homes. It promoted monthly stipends, longer maternity leave, and ceremonial titles (such as “Mother Heroine” for mothers “birthing and rearing” ten children living past one year of age). It also included rights for unwed mothers. Another law, “Benefits for Illegitimate Children,” outlines new policies for children of unwedded parents.

As one author writes, children born out of “wedlock” increased dramatically during the war. He explains that individuals grew more sentimental (viewing many encounters as their “last,” so to speak). While many might view this as uncharacteristically progressive for the time period, the writer concludes that the need to repopulate Russia trumped moral values. This is again evident in the previous law, which delivered numerous benefits to women with children. Thus, as “Aid for Mothers and Children” suggests, the government encouraged women to have numerous children. Additionally, it actively punished childless families with a supplementary tax.

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Isaak Rabichev, “We Shall Have Our Revenge!: Destroy the Fascist Cannibals!” 1941, http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1943-2/love-and-romance-in-war/love-and-romance-in-war-images/#bwg111/668. Take care to notice the use of burning fires in the background. The mother is protecting a limp child.

World War II is often associated with catastrophe, military might, and large-scale deaths. Images of battle scenes, thick with carnage, immediately come into focus. Stories, handed down from our grandparents and great-grandparents, remind us of bloody fields. When our history – our world’s past – trickles down like this, we forget much. Vanished from the collective memory are the experiences that contrast against the common shared story of pain, suffering, and anguish. We miss stories of love and passion. Thus, people should recognize that 1943, while nestled into a dark period in history, also represented times of opportunity and growth.

To end, check out this short video. In it, performer Klavdiia Shul’zhenko sings her song “Blue Scarf.” This song gained prominence as Shul’zhenko performed this number in blockaded cities (Stites 105). It embodies the spirit of the era.

 

Text references:

Freeze, Gregory, L. Russia, A History. Oxford University Press. Oxford, New York. 2009.

Stites, Richard. Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900. Cambridge University Press. 1992.

19 Comments Add yours

  1. ejrhodes5 says:

    Lily, this a great post on the role of gender and family in World War II! You have a writing style that’s really articulate and intriguing, and the pictures you’ve included supplement it really well! Great job!

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    1. lilyfair says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I had a lot of fun learning about this topic!

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  2. Love the title! You said in your article that the number of children born out of wedlock grew. Was that because prostitution during the war grew?

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    1. lilyfair says:

      From the research that I did, it was not immediately clear; the author stated that people were less inclined to follow social norms (i.e. some forwent courting and marrying). They did not specify prostitution as a cause, though that does not mean it did not occur. Further research (I looked into Stalin’s Outcasts by Golfo Alexopoulos, and I found pg. 62 very useful) also indicates that women in the 1920s and 1930s could lose rights if they did not adhere to the nation’s moral code. As a result, it doesn’t appear that prostitution was widely practiced (at least legally). Very interesting question though!

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      1. A. Nelson says:

        You consulted Stalin’s Outcasts and cited the page number!!!! This absolutely made my day!!!! I attribute out of wedlock births during the war to the general breakdown of and stresses on the social fabric rather than to any flouting of the regime’s conservatism. With so many people being drafted or displaced, there just wasn’t the time / space for courtship and ceremony. And I think you’re right that many people saw procreation as a kind of resistance to the threat of being wiped out by the Germans represented.

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        1. lilyfair says:

          Thank you much for sharing; your insight is always a welcome addition. My research indicated very similar findings. It is always so interesting to see how people respond in situations of crisis. War brought out passion from this particular group, it seems!

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  3. This was a great post with a topic I feel needs to be explored more. I would be curious in finding out what was the case of women and the family post World War Two. Did Russia experience a baby boomer type trend as well?

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    1. lilyfair says:

      To be honest, I am not entirely sure. It is a little challenging to find reliable sources. According to Wikipedia (trust as you will), Russia did not experience massive growth in its population. One author did write about the ‘Soviet Baby Boomers’ in “Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History,” but I do not know if this is more a reference to children of the Cold War-era or a rapid increase in the number of children. Based on the Wikipedia page, I’d say the former.

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  4. M.Wolter says:

    This is a really great post! I love your pictures too. To some extent, these pictures kind of remind me of the “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda posters that you would see here in the U.S. during the war. In the Soviet Union, women played an incredibly important role with regards to manufacturing, fighting in battles, as well as helping to rebuild the country after the war.

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    1. lilyfair says:

      Hello! Another student actually looked into this very poster (https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/dylanj8/2019/04/08/rosie-the-russian-riveter/). With the absence of men at home, propaganda was geared more towards women. From what I read, it was mainly because this audience was available to consume this propaganda. I think that is part of why American and Russian societies alike were so keen to share this material.

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  5. dylanj8 says:

    Great post and great title! I also looked at the role of women in World War II and I loved your take on the role that women had in the war. I liked how you acknowledged both how much women replaced men’s jobs in the workforce as well as the drop off in production. Most of these women were not trained for the jobs they had to perform while the men were at war and I think that that makes it all the more amazing that they stepped up and kept their country’s industry and production running. It is an often overlooked, but extremely important aspect of World War II.

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    1. lilyfair says:

      I read your post, and I loved it! I felt like ours complemented each other well. I agree with your point about how women’s replacement often is overlooked. I think it is hard to not focus on WWII’s most intense aspects, and applying an American perspective makes it harder. In history classes growing up, we often only talk about the war itself, so I think that explains why so many Americans focus on it. In addition, I believe that American experiences during the war are very different than those in Europe. While people were concerned about bombings, it was a different threat than London (for example).

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  6. samsmith96 says:

    I definitely clicked on yours first because of the title. I think it’s interesting how women were able to rise to the challenge in terms of manufacturing in Russia, as we are often told about American women doing the same thing in WWII and this role is not always discussed in relation to other contexts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      I’m glad you liked the title! I thought it was fun to use an empowering song title as a name for a story for Russian women. I totally am with you about women’s role in WWII. I assume part of why we are so familiar with women’s role in WWII in the US is partly due to our history courses. Many history classes share history from a very ‘Western’ point of view, so we hear less about countries such as Japan or Russia. I was pretty interested when I read that women were a large part of the Russian war effort at home, but I realized that it was quite similar to American women’s participation.

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  7. A. Nelson says:

    Meant to add a comment about the poster…I’m not sure the women is defending the child, I think the razed building in the background and the limp (lifeless) body in front of her highlight her determination to exact revenge (which is what the text says “Destroying the Fascist Cannibals..”) Does that sound right?

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    1. lilyfair says:

      I think I agree with your interpretation of this poster more than my initial observations. It fits better with the target audience (women), where it encourages women to join in the war effort at home. The only thing I was not sure about was whether the woman represented an average Russian woman or rather Russia as a whole.

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  8. tayholman9 says:

    I really enjoyed your post! I think it’s always fascinating to learn about how much women participation impact society, especially during times of war. I thought the poster you included was a very powerful image, with an even more powerful caption. Women played a monumental role in WW2 by taking more leadership responsibilities while also still caring for their families and households, so they had a lot to be angry about, which is what the poster captures in my opinion.

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    1. lilyfair says:

      I think women are such an interesting group to study. Some history courses only speak about women in the fringes despite their prominence in society. I think it speaks a good deal to how women were viewed prior to “contemporary” culture. In any event, I think that is part of why I am so enthralled by their participation. I’ve had a lot of talks about the economic challenges of women as many are expected to work beyond the home and care heavily for children. Doing both jobs is exhausting. I would tire of working very quickly!

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  9. Thanks for sharing the female role during WWII! It’s thought-provoking, and interesting. Men at the front weren’t the only ones suffering, I guess. Women at home suffered in different ways.

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