[Note: This is the third article in an occasional series on the marriage revolution (you can find part one here and part two here). Because facts and evidence are essential for making gospel-centered arguments, this series examines various aspects and topics related to marriage. In this and the next few articles we will examine the history of one of the most important causes of the marriage revolution: no-fault divorce.]
Before the marriage revolution came to America, it came to Russia. And it came as a result of another revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution.
In the last few months of 1917, leftist revolutionaries led by Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin launched a coup d’état against the provisional government. As History.com notes, Lenin became the dictator of first Marxist state in the world and “set in motion political and social changes that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union.” One of the most profound changes was an attempt to abolish marriage using divorce as the hammer and sickle that would destroy and sweep away the institution.
No-fault divorce is the term for the dissolution of a marriage on a finding that the relationship is no longer viable, without any need to show “fault” or marital misconduct. Because no-fault divorce was birthed in the USSR, it is worth examining how and why it was instituted in that country and comparing how it mirrors the outcomes in the U.S.
Not an Origins Fallacy
But before we look at that history, let’s address a primary objection to this approach. Pointing to the origins of no-fault divorce in the Soviet Union could be construed as a form of genetic fallacy or fallacy of origins. A genetic factors allacy is an informal logical fallacy of irrelevance that transfers either positive or negative connotations to a source without examining its current context.
The purpose of this article is not to offer a simplistic formulation such as “The USSR was evil and since no-fault divorce started there, it must be evil too.” No-fault divorce did lead to grave evils in Soviet countries but that is not why we are looking at its history. We are merely looking at marriage and divorce in Soviet Russia to uncover potential resemblances to our era. Our own time and context certainly differ, but looking at the past can illuminate the present and show us what we can expect. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
How the Russians Tried to Abolish Marriage
A primary goal of the Bolsheviks was, as Elizabeth Brainerd explains, to “break down the traditional ‘bourgeois’ structure of the family in order to equalize the status of men and women.” They did this by implementing a number of changes to the Family Code: allowing civil marriages (whereas before only religious marriage was allowed), granting equal rights to illegitimate and legitimate children, making abortion legal (and free if done in a hospital), and instituting no-fault divorce.
By 1926, to get a divorce a spouse needed only to register with the local bureau of statistics and the other spouse would be notified three days later. The results were what we would expect: “Divorce became much more common,” says Brainerd, “and for men, re-marriage emerged as a new and widespread marital institution in the wake of divorce. Women were much more likely to remain divorced.”
In July of 1926, The Atlantic Monthly published an illuminating from this period of “postcard divorce.” In “The Russian Effort to Abolish Marriage” a “woman resident in Russia” provides a fascinating glimpse into what happens when thousands of years of marriage is replaced almost overnight with a looser moral standard.
Two Important Differences
There are two key differences between the experience in Russia in the 1920s and America in 2015 that are worth noting in order to understand the context of The Atlantic Monthly article. First, sexual relations outside of marriage were still mostly frowned upon in the era of Lenin. As the author points out, “there is an unmistakable reaction, both among the Communists and among the general public, against excessive loose living.” She adds,
There is a tendency among Communist writers now to decry excessive preoccupation with sex as a symptom of bourgeois decadence. Among the general population and especially among the peasants there is a keen realization of the difficulties, material and otherwise, which have come up as a result of a too literal adoption of the 'free love' slogan, and there is a desire for more stable domestic relations.
Second, aside from free abortions, the Russians lacked access to contraceptives. Since sex can lead to children, this provided a problem both for individuals and the Soviet government. Who should responsible for such children—both legitimate and illegitimate—and how should their care be funded? While that remains a question we still face in America today, the access to cheap and effective contraception makes it less of a problem than it was for the Russians.
Getting the State Out of the Marriage Business
We often hear, even among defenders of traditional marriage, that the state should “get out of the marriage business.” This is exactly what Russia attempted to do:
The question whether marriage as an institution should be abolished is now being debated all over Russia with a violence and depth of passion unknown since the turbulent early days of the Revolution. Last October a bill eliminating distinctions between registered and unregistered marriages and giving the unmarried consort the status and property rights of the legal wife was introduced in the Tzik, or Central Executive Committee. So much unforeseen opposition to the proposed law developed that the Tzik decided to postpone its final adoption until the next session, meanwhile initiating a broad popular discussion of the project.
One must live in Russia to-day, amid the atmosphere of torment, disgust, and disillusionment that pervades sex relations, the chaos, uncertainty, and tragedy that hover over the Russian family, to understand the reasons for this heated discussion, for these passionate pros and cons.
The Goal: The Destruction of Marriage
In a future article in this series we’ll document how LGBT activists initially introduced same-sex marriage to achieve their goal of undermining and eventually eliminating the institution of marriage. In this they shared the same objective as the Bolsheviks:
When the Bolsheviki came into power in 1917 they regarded the family, like every other 'bourgeois' institution, with fierce hatred, and set out with a will to destroy it. 'To clear the family out of the accumulated dust of the ages we had to give it a good shakeup, and we did,' declared Madame Smidovich, a leading Communist and active participant in the recent discussion. So one of the first decrees of the Soviet Government abolished the term 'illegitimate children.' This was done simply by equalizing the legal status of all children, whether born in wedlock or out of it, and now the Soviet Government boasts that Russia is the only country where there are no illegitimate children. The father of a child is forced to contribute to its support, usually paying the mother a third of his salary in the event of a separation, provided she has no other means of livelihood.
Notice that a mandate that seems sensible and humane—the requirement to take care of illegitimate children—was implemented as a way to destroy the family. The reason it was believed beneficial for this task was because it separated marriage from the responsibilities of childbearing.
This was step #1. Step #2 was the implementation of no-fault divorce:
At the same time a law was passed which made divorce a matter of a few minutes, to be obtained at the request of either partner in a marriage. Chaos was the result. Men took to changing wives with the same zest which they displayed in the consumption of the recently restored forty-per-cent vodka.
Hookup Culture, Soviet-Style
Keep in mind, as we noted, that sex was still connected—at least loosely—with marriage. That prevented the sort of “hookup culture” we have in America in 2015. If a man wanted to sleep with many women, he had to marry (and sometimes divorce) them first. So that’s what they did:
'Some men have twenty wives, living a week with one, a month with another,' asserted an indignant woman delegate during the sessions of the Tzik. 'They have children with all of them, and these children are thrown on the street for lack of support! (There are three hundred thousand bezprizorni or shelterless children in Russia to-day, who are literally turned out on the streets. They are one of the greatest social dangers of the present time, because they are developing into professional criminals. More than half of them are drug addicts and sex perverts. It is claimed by many Communists that the break-up of the family is responsible for a large percentage of these children.)
Remove the polygamy aspect and it sounds eerily familiar to the relationships in the American underclass. As happens in every society, those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are the ones to be most affected by the breakdown of the family:
The peasant villages have perhaps suffered most from this revolution in sex relations. An epidemic of marriages and divorces broke out in the country districts. Peasants with a respectable married life of forty years and more behind them suddenly decided to leave their wives and remarry. Peasant boys looked upon marriage as an exciting game and changed wives with the change of seasons. It was not an unusual occurrence for a boy of twenty to have had three or four wives, or for a girl of the same age to have had three or four abortions. As the peasants of Borisovo-Pokrovskoie bitterly complained: 'Abortions cover our villages with shame. Formerly we did not even hear of them.' But the women, in self-defense, replied: 'It's easy for you to talk. But if you just tried to bear children yourselves you would sing a different song.'
Rather than continuing to provide excerpts, I recommend reading the entire article. It’s one of the most eye-opening historical documents you’ll ever read on the effects of marriage and divorce.
Stalin Saves the Family
So what happened next? Ironically, one of history’s greatest monsters—Joseph Stalin—came to power and within ten years reversed many of the destructive family policies. As Wikipedia notes,
In 1936 the government began to award payments to women with large families, banned abortions, and made divorces more difficult to obtain. In 1942 it subjected single persons and childless married persons to additional taxes. In 1944 only registered marriages were recognized to be legal, and divorce became subject to the court's discretion. In the same year, the government began to award medals to women who gave birth to five or more children and took upon itself the support of illegitimate children.
No-fault divorce and related policies nearly destroyed the Russian family. Will it do the same to the American family?
In the next articles in this series we’ll look at a brief history of no-fault divorce in America and consider the role it has played in the marriage revolution.