Much Ado About Abortions

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.

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K. Ivanov, “Stop!” 1968, Russian State Library, The text on the poster reads, “Stop! Now abortion seems necessary. But remember, it might forever deprive you of the happiness of motherhood!”

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.

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L. Aristov, “For You, Comrade Men” 1962, Russian State Library, The text to this can be found here.

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.


Text References:

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

10 Comments Add yours

  1. ejrhodes5 says:

    Lily, great analysis of the ban on abortion and its repeal! You used and analyzed so many great primary sources! You’re definitely onto something about a woman’s “worth” often being tied to motherhood, as is evidenced by that poster. And I’m glad that you showed how, despites its legality, there remained a strong stigma against the practice which affected access to it. Great job!


    1. lilyfair says:

      Thank you! I think primary sources are the most interesting, and they certainly show us the most about how people thought at the time.

      And yes, the stigma made the experience tougher than many realize. Access to abortions is one thing; accepting the practice is another.


  2. I liked your title a lot! And I think that when you mentioned a woman’s worth is tied to motherhood is a cross-cultural idea that persists even today in different cultures.


    1. lilyfair says:

      I’m glad that you liked the title!

      I absolutely think that Russia is not unique in this regard. Many cultures struggle with abortion rights. I think it is important, though, to look at the difference between legality and practicality. For new social changes, it is usually a good move to start changing laws first. However, it might take a very long time for people to adjust once it’s implemented. We can easily see this with the desegregation movement in the United States. Many people were angry when the US integrated. While most are accustomed to integration today, there are still many people that are prejudiced towards minority groups.


  3. mamengom332 says:

    This caption makes me so happy to see! I think you did a great job of providing a strong foundation on Khrushchev ideals and how this played a role into women in this time period. I recently did a blog post on abortions during Stalin’s era and this does a great job of explain the transition of Khrushchev’s policies and the impact on public health.


    1. lilyfair says:

      I always think it is so important to set the scene for why policies exist. I read your post, and I think ours complement each other’s well. The one challenge with these blog posts is to write both enough and not too much. I would have loved to investigate a little about this. However, it is not like abortion was the defining characteristic of de-Stalinization. Thus, I have to temper myself a little. (:


  4. Daniel Grigg says:

    I think it’s deeply interesting and troubling how much the time period defined a woman’s worth by her ability and willingness to be a mother. This is far from unique to the Soviets, since American cultural norms surrounding women in the 1950s and 60s were far from kind or equal, but you depict that dynamic very well. Abortion always being such a hot-button issue, I admire your willingness to write about it and your ability to do it in a way that’s clearly historical and has such ramifications for regular people. Well done!


    1. lilyfair says:

      While I’m not surprised that women were treated this way, it certainly warrants a discussion. One thing I think I left out in this post is what you describe — how it fits into the global trends of the era. Russia (from my understanding) was still doing quite well for the time, though not perfect. Another blog post ( wrote about some of the different ways in which women benefitted during the 1950s and 1960s.

      I think another issue to consider is how difficult it is to get society on the same page as the laws. It takes generations to make meaningful changes in a culture.


  5. M.Wolter says:

    Great post! You address a really important topic. I think it’s interesting how the USSR went back and forth between legalizing/criminalizing abortions in a relatively short period of time. That just goes to show how the times will dictate policy.


    1. lilyfair says:

      The USSR’s views towards the access of abortion make me pause. I think about American struggles with abortion access. While Roe v. Wade established American women’s right to abortion, but current bills (like Ohio’s) counter these. While I’m certainly not in a place to determine morality, it amazes me how we still have political discussions about abortion even today. The USSR was an early advocate for abortion access, but as stated in another comment above, it was not the same as supporting their choices.


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