Saturday, April 2, 2022

Review: Midwives of the Revolution by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar

I picked up Midwives of the Revolution thinking that a feminist avenue into learning more about the February Revolution and the October Revolution might be up my alley; I’ve read a lot about contemporary feminist movements, but felt like my Russian history was a little shaky. This book unfortunately serves the exact opposite goal: it could be a reasonable introduction into common goals and struggles for 19th/20th century feminist movements for someone very familiar with Russian history between 1860-1917. It spends pages and pages reiterating fairly common issues affecting women in most contemporary industrializing societies (e.g., wage discrimination, exclusion from educational institutions, difficulties combining motherhood and work, the rising importance of women workers as men were called to fight wars). In contrast, key historical developments, like the grain shortages in 1917 that played a massive role in inciting the February Revolution, are discussed assuming the reader already understands their impetus and general timelines.

I learned a lot while reading this book, but I can’t really credit the book itself. I regularly found myself seeking additional sources to fill in some of the blanks. Some of the more interesting parts of this work were the Who’s Who of female Bolsheviks and the unique factors impacting women workers and peasants in Russia in the early twentieth century. For a better and briefer discussion of both of these topics, I refer the reader to “Women Fighters in the Days of the Great October Revolution” and “The Woman Worker and Peasant in Soviet Russia”, both by Alexandra Kollontai. (I'd love to point the reader to works by her peers too, but their translations appear to be few and far between. MotR's bibliography is unfortunately not very helpful in this regard; many citations lead to works that are seemingly available only in Russian and, as far as I could tell, aren't available online.)

There were a few other good tidbits here and there. Chapter Three had some interesting discussion of how Western late-twentieth century examination of Russian history was clouded by sexism. I also was surprised to learn the February Revolution happened on International Women’s Day – somehow this never makes it into modern celebrations of the day! I also learned just how influential Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? was on revolutionaries across parties and genders. Lenin read the novel five times in a single summer and named his famous polemic after it, and it was read in political education reading groups for decades!

Puzzlingly, the book repeatedly describes the Bolsheviks as dismissive of the importance of women in the revolutionary movement, but support for this claim is largely limited to the memoirs of a handful of Bolshevik men (e.g., Shliapnikov, Kaiurov). Where the Bolsheviks did reach out to women workers to bring them into their movement, the authors minimize these actions (“To an extent, the Bolsheviks recognized that there was some potential for agitation and organization [among women workers].”), or portray them as individual actions of various Bolshevik women (Agadzhanova, Armand, Vydrina, etc). I would have liked to see support of this position sourced from party debates, or more extensively sourced from a wider array of party leaders (the few mentions of Lenin’s position on the role of women in the revolution describe him as very supportive of Kollontai’s advocacy for involving women). I wonder if this emphasis is a sign of the times. Perhaps with the dissolution of the USSR further in the rear-view mirror and with the rising interest in socialism, there’s room for a new book on the role of women in the 1917 revolutions.

In conclusion, you can probably skip this book, but read the two essays by Kollontai.

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