After the passing of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union needed a new leader to fill his place. While there were several qualified candidates, one came out strongly among the rest. Nikita Khrushchev deftly won against the opposition as Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov fell away from leadership. With his new power, Khrushchev launched the Soviet Union into an era known as de-Stalinization.
De-Stalinization is noteworthy for several reasons. For starters, it dismantled the legacy of Stalin. In 1956, Khrushchev delivered a secret speech denouncing Stalin for the murder of Kirov, failing the Russian army in World War II, deporting countless people, and more (Freeze 416-417). By contrast, Khruschev focused on democratization and decentralization (Freeze 421). This primarily influenced the political structure of the Soviet Union. Also, he was a staunch supporter of the ‘Virgin Lands’ program, which repurposed Siberian and Kazakhstan land to produce agricultural goods (Freeze 411; 412). This challenged pre-existing economic plans as Stalin ignored agriculture altogether. Finally, he adopted new stances regarding social policies. One of these included permitting abortion.
Prior to 1955, the USSR criminalized and decriminalized abortion multiple times. Under Stalin, this procedure was outlawed yet again (Freeze 361). Freeze attributes Stalin’s radical social changes to his desperation to create this to create a “mass culture” (361). A “mass culture” is created when society conforms and accepts its laws beyond simple recognition. In conjunction with “political culture,” it ensured that Stalin’s control over the Russian population. For a leader, this is crucial.
However, his anti-abortion laws had devastating effects. It led to an increase in illegal abortions. These often had disastrous effects, including severe infection, maiming, or even death. For example, one doctor was punished to “three years’ imprisonment” in Belarus after an abortion gone wrong. His patient ultimately needed an emergency operation and became an “invalid” following an abortion. With no access to legal abortions, women had to accept them from illegitimate or dangerous sources.
This all changed when the USSR issued a decree titled “Repeal of the Ban on Abortions” on November 23, 1955. Within this law, government officials stated that women could receive abortions. This breakthrough law stated that its goal was still to “[encourage] motherhood and [protect] childhood,” but it gave women the flexibility to decide their families’ goals. It also recognized that the best way to keep abortion numbers low was through additional educational measures.
However, not all viewed access to abortion well. According to this source, “public health officials and activists as well as medical experts and personnel were largely responsible for the anti-abortion campaign that subsequently unfolded.” The author writes, “In 1956, for example, medical personnel coordinated over 20,000 anti-abortion lectures and talks throughout the city of Tashkent.” Thus, while women had de jure access to these abortions, it became clear that society was not ready to accept their presence. In one text, “For You, Comrade Men,” men are targetted for conversations regarding abortion. Released in 1962, the language is strong. It strongly implies that women’s value stems from motherhood. Abortion, thus, takes away this opportunity.
Regardless, access to abortion remains an issue even today in Russia. It is unlikely that this will be the last time this issue is discussed.
Freeze, Gregory, L. Russia, A History. Oxford University Press. Oxford, New York. 2009.