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Women’s rights in imperial Russia. Outcasts of history

The thaw of the 1980s allowed Russian historians to become re-acquainted with the pre-revolutionary and non-Marxist methods of interpreting historical events. These approaches paved a new way for interpreting history, allowing a departure from merely descriptive methods. Since the 1990s a new understanding of women’s rights in pre-Bolshevik Russia began to emerge.

I grew up listening to Soviet propaganda, praising the regime for giving women so much: education, ability to have a career and money on par with men, benefits for mothers, divorce and so on. To a certain extent, reality was confirming the party message. Women worked as teachers, doctors, and engineers. Valentina Tereshkova even went to space. Would something like this be possible during the tsarist rule? No, of course not. That is why our history textbooks presented life in pre-revolutionary Russia as full of suffering and exploitation, accompanied by rebellions and wars. Then the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution came, which changed Russia and the world, or at least that is what we were taught.

January 2, 2019 - Irina Yukina - History and MemoryIssue 1 2019Magazine

Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg ca. 1900 Photo: (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Disregarded by Marxist historians

The above way of interpreting Russian history was fortified by Marxism, which was the dominating ideology of the Soviet Union. It was the only doctrine allowed to explain and interpret social and historical research. By concentrating on classes as primary actors, Soviet history studies completely disregarded the individualist perspective. The situation was even worse with regards to women. Even though women make up half of the population, their contribution to societal development was not given appropriate attention by Soviet historians. As if assuming that the proletariat consisted only of men, Marxism ignored women. Gender differences did not fit into its theoretical and methodological framework.

In addition, Soviet historians did not really know the non-Marxist approaches to history which was developing in the free world at the time. They did not have access to the writings of their foreign colleagues. Thus, it was only during perestroika in the 1980s and later after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s when we discovered different approaches to social sciences, as well as the visual and anthropological shift in history studies. It was the first time we heard about new disciplines in historiography – childhood history, women history, history of mental health, history of everyday life, etc.

Needless to say, perestroika allowed us to move outside the Marxist dogma. Before, only some women topics which the authorities considered non-provocative and harmless could be studied unhindered. However, they were methodologically weak and included serious mistakes, showing old-fashioned research skills of the scholars. Such were the first monographs about women in Russia published in the late 1970s. The perestroika of the 1980s allowed historians to become re-acquainted with the pre-revolutionary and non-Marxist interpretations of historical events. Individuals and individualism became, again, the core of scientific enquiry. And, moreover, gender approach to historical studies paved a new way of interpreting the past, allowing a departure from the merely descriptive methods. Since the 1990s a new field in Russian historiography started to developed. This field was women’s history.

As a result of these new approaches, it became evident that the Soviet state did not give women “everything”. This became clear first after researchers started to unveil that the Russian legal system was not as repressive towards women as it was once assumed. Thus, the Bolsheviks inherited quite a progressive legislative approach with regards to women, especially when compared to other countries at that time. Second, women in Russia were able to achieve quite a lot, mainly thanks to their own initiatives, hard work and solidarity. Third, Soviet authorities managed to sell the message that women’s work should be concentrated on social production and housework, all under semblance of emancipation.

Legal and factual inequality

Overall, the legal position of women in pre-revolutionary Russia was determined by many factors: class, nationality, religion, marital status, place of residence – to name the most important ones. Thus, it was not only laws, but also customs that had a considerable influence on women’s position in society. In this context it is important to note that the laws of the Russian empire did not equally apply to all parts of the country. Even further, in the western and north-western regions, the acts of other European countries were legally binding. They included the 1804 Napoleon Civil Code, the 1896 Civil Code of the German Empire, the 1811 Civil Code of Austrian Empire, the 1863 Saxon Civil Code and others. These laws regulated the lives of the inhabitants of the Polish Kingdom, Bessarabia, the Grand Duchy of Finland, Baltic governorates, Poltava and Chernihiv provinces.

Certainly class played a very important role in determining a woman’s position. Illustratively, noble women were granted property rights, which allowed them to freely dispose of their property – movable and immovable – and receive an education. They also had more rights while being locked up in prison. Another factor was religion, which also explains why the legal system differentiated between married and unmarried women. Indisputably there was a legal and factual inequality between men and women in tsarist Russia. The former could be, to a large extent, interpreted as a legacy of Roman law, which served as a foundation for many European legal systems. Russia was no exception here, but it did have its own characteristics, nonetheless.

Overall, the organisation of social life and the legal system assumed a division:  the public sphere belonged to men, and the private one belonged to women. As a result, women were supposed to be wives, mothers, or hostesses. Their role was to take care of children and households. This ideology was in line with the Christian creed, which proclaims that Eve was created after Adam. Popular, also, was the belief that women were the weaker sex, not only physically but also intellectually. Needless to say, such assumptions had its effect on restricting women’s rights and placed them in subordinate positions to men.

These ideas were commonplace in most public spheres throughout the Russian Empire, with a few exceptions in intellectual circles. Such a state of affairs seemed normal for many women until the modernisation of the 1860s started to overturn the old ways of thinking. As a result the realities of the new way of life clashed with the old ideas. These changes could not have possibly omitted women. Yet, the already existing limitations that Russian women had been experiencing did not allow for a smooth transition to a reformed society. Regardless, the existing laws became outdated and no longer fit the new reality. Changes in the legal system came slowly, especially for women. Moreover, any attempt women took to live their lives differently was considered immoral, suspicious or even criminal.


Despite the new circumstances, noble and middle-class women were in a position that – to put it mildly – was challenging. Many were torn not knowing if they should follow the old norms, which they feared could lead them to a loss of social status. At the same time, they did not have many opportunities of earning a living after serfdom was abolished and their estates were sold. They had to find a new place in a changing world. New opportunities and new possibilities seemed to be especially alluring for younger generations. What obstacles then stood in their way?

The only official way to get married in tsarist Russia was through a church ceremony. Many disagreed with this system and there was a growing demand for introducing civil marriage (which would be officially recognised by the state and would bear the responsibilities of the both sides). Yet a marriage unregistered in church meant problems with property and inheritance rights. Thus, many women who were not recognised as legal wives could not defend themselves in court, while their children were not recognised legally. The problem was further exacerbated as Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant priests refused to register these children (They were baptized as foundlings and orphans and they had no rights in general).

According to imperial Russian legislature, the husband was the head of the family. In this light, the provisions that stipulated spouses’ rights and obligations were written more as moral postulates than reflected legal language. Thus the law stated that a husband was supposed to “love his wife as she was his own flesh, live with her in agreement, respect her, protect her and forgive her shortcomings”. A wife, in turn, had to “obey her husband, as the head of the family, love and respect him, and remain obedient.”

Women who married men of higher social class automatically rose up in the social ladder. This was possible because, in accordance with law, women were awarded the rights and privileges of their husbands, as well as their estates, ranks and titles. They could preserve these privileges even after their husbands’ death or after divorce. As wives, women adopted the names and titles of their spouses and did not lose those titles, even in the case where their husband lost his estate.

Women had to change their surname after marriage, but they could also retain their maiden name. This became quite popular by the end of the 19th century. Doctors, teachers, nurses added their surname before marriage, so their patients and clients knew who they were dealing with. Women who chose more artistic professions kept their surnames and often adopted pseudonyms. Unlike in Western societies, Russia women were allowed to keep their husbands surnames after divorce, and regardless of the reason for the divorce.

Property rights

As heads of families, men were supposed to finically support their wife and children. If they failed, a wife could take matters to court. In turn, women were not required to finically support their husbands, unless they were not able to provide for the family. Such an arrangement was valid even when a wife no longer lived with her husband, and it was him who was blamed for this situation. If, however, a wife refused to live with her husband, who was willing to be with her, then he was no longer obliged to support his wife. In the latter case, if a wife wanted to be financially supported by her husband and still live separately, she had to prove that cohabitation was “impossible” or that her husband had evicted her from the house.

Overall, Russian civil law assumed that, with regards to property, spouses are independent parties. Exceptions to the rule were recorded in western parts of the country that were governed by the Napoleonic Code which significantly restricted women’s property rights in favour of their husbands. Also compared to other European legal systems, Russian law gave more property freedom to married women. Thus, in case of family conflicts, women who had some property could lead independent and financially stable lives, which undermined the stability of the traditional family. Since the 19th century women started to constitute a significant part of the Russian Empire’s workforce, which also meant that many had their own income. However women’s wages were significantly lower than what men earned for doing the same job. Yet the fact that women had the right to be financially supported by their husbands and could also earn an income from paid employment started to be perceived as discrimination against men. In the same way, men did not have the right to receive their spouses’ pension after their passing, while the wives of civilian and military officials enjoyed such a right. Consequently, the idea of equal rights for spouses was widely discussed in imperial Russia. However, it was not at this time when it was implemented.

It may seem that Russian women at that time were privileged with property rights, compared to women in other parts of the world. However in practice things were certainly not necessarily this way. Only educated and “ambitious” women could familiarise themselves with the law and defend their rights in court. The majority of women adhered to the traditional model of behaviour. Also, despite the language of the legal provisions, it was the husbands who, as heads of families, enjoyed real property rights. The Russian legal system encouraged and created the idea of men’s power as an institution and foundation of the family.

Another limitation faced by women in imperial Russia was related to the parent-children relationship. The law granted fathers an upper hand and more rights in determining ways of raising children and management of their property. In the relationship with their own parents, women were also at a disadvantage in terms of hereditary rights. After their parents’ passing, for instance, it was the sons who were the first in line for inheritance, while daughters were entitled to one-eighth of movable property and one-quarter of the real estate. If a family had no male children, sisters shared inheritance in equal parts.


The regulations on residence permits, introduced in 1894, required all Russian citizen of noble descent to acquire a passport as a personal ID. However, men could also carry other types of ID. Each of them could serve as personal identification, for example, a document from the workplace. In contrast, women not only did not have as many IDs, but their names were written in their husband’s passports, together with the children. Thus, one could say that a man’s passport was a family document because it had information about his wife and children. This also meant that freedom of movement was highly restricted for women in imperial times.

However, in Russia everyone knows that the stricter the rules, the looser their implementation. Back then women did not really need any ID if they lived in their hometown where everybody knew each other. Things were different in big cities where landlords were supposed to check their tenants’ ID and report to the police if somebody committed a transgression. The number of women who were in need of an additional residence proof constantly grew. Finding a loophole on the decree of identification documents was practically impossible. Officials’ wives received residence permit from their husband’s workplace, and the non-serving nobleman from police precinct. Such strict rules were difficult to uphold with the realities of everyday life in the 19th century.

The ability to get a passport largely depended on a woman’s social and financial status as well as their faith. In the beginning of the 20th century peasant women could boast the most freedom in this matter. They mostly lived in villages where the need for personal documentation was not so important. Yet, the process of modernisation prompted many women to move to bigger cities to become working women and passport limitations were significantly loosened for this category of women. Women living in cities also had it easier to obtain a passport.

Unmarried provincial women were going around the law and the “unreasonable despotism” of their families by entering into fake marriage starting around the mid-19th century. They would make an agreement with a sympathetic unmarried male friend, get the parents’ blessings and go through a marriage ceremony in order to move to the capital where the new husband would grant permission for a separate residence permit to his wife. Things would complicate years later when the fictitious spouses would decide to create their own families. Divorces were allowed, but bureaucratic procedures took a long time and were difficult to process. Nonetheless, there were a few historic examples of fictitious marriages with “happy endings”.


Unlike European civil codes Russian law did not mention anything about spouses living separately. Nonetheless, it was quite common for spouses to be officially married but not living together in 19th century Russia. Clearly, such practices were contrary to church’s teachings and laws. However, everything was much easier than getting a divorce. The divorce process largely depended on confessional affiliation in the Russian Empire. Russian civil law did contain divorce rules for Orthodox Christians or mixed-faith marriages where one of the spouses belonged to the Orthodox Church. Article 45 stipulated that divorce could be granted by the ecclesiastical court if one party requests it under the following circumstances: a) there is proof of one party involved in an extramarital affair; b) if one party fails to fulfil their marital duty of cohabitation; c) if one of the spouses is convicted and deprived of all of his/her property by a court ruling; d) or, in case one of the spouses has disappeared and his/her whereabouts are unknown.

After a petition was sent to the ecclesiastical court, the consistory begins the investigation process. The ecclesiastical court gathered evidence itself and, at the same time, tried to dissuade the spouses from divorce. This court process, in its nature, was like any other. Any decision ruled by the consistory could be overruled by higher Orthodox Church authorities. The process would be nonetheless long and difficult and in case of adultery, also humiliating. The number of divorces only grew by the end of the 19th century. Due to the difficulties of getting a divorce, many couples reached an agreement to simply live apart, while remaining officially married. According to official demographic statistics of St Petersburg, there were 0.16 per cent of divorced men and 0.26 per cent divorced women of different social backgrounds in 1910.

All in all, the above list of issues faced by women in the final years of the Russian empire shows that, despite some peculiarities, many of the rights were evolving in a similar fashion as in Western Europe. In the last years of the existence of the Russian empire, there was a big leap and a legal change thanks to the activities of the feminist movement, which were under the influence of the First World War and the 1917 February revolution. In 1906 women of the Great Princedom of Finland, first in Europe, got voting rights and could elect members to the parliament. In February 1914 there was a law which gave the women of the Russian empire the right to hold a passport, the divorce procedure got simplified, and the status of illegitimate children was abolished.  On April 15th women of the Russian Empire also got their voting rights to city dumas while on June 20th 1917 they got them to the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the Bolsheviks inherited very progressive legislation in regards to women rights.  

Translated by Viktoria Chaban

Irina Yukina is an associate professor of sociology at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. She specialises in women’s history, gender policy, sociology of social movement and history of Russian feminism.

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