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Zhenotdel: Women’s Clubs, Cooperatives, and the ‘Hujum’

September 29, 2020

Part 2 of a two-part series. For Part 1, see “Soviet Russia, Zhenotdel, and Women’s Emancipation, 1919-1930.” Reposted with permission from Weekly Worker.

By Anne McShane: Women’s clubs in central Asia could not by their very nature have the same direct relationship with Soviet organs as delegate meetings. There could not be internship schemes, at least initially, because of seclusion and the cultural barriers that prevented men and women working together. Instead women would become involved in economic activity, education and cultural activities through the club.

The April 1921 conference stated that the bureau itself would provide the link to the soviets. It pledged to lead a campaign within the party “to strengthen the struggle against prejudice toward women, which has deep roots among men in the population”. The Zhenotdel committed itself to “assist the party to educate the male proletariat and peasantry in the spirit of communism and an acknowledgement of the shared interests of men and women”.

With the crisis in the bureau following Kollontai’s removal and the slashing of funds to it resulting from the NEP, work in central Asia virtually collapsed. Then in 1923 Serafima Liubimova, a supporter of Kollontai, was appointed regional secretary and relaunched the organisation at a conference in March of that year. Delegates agreed to “organise women’s clubs within which there will be artels, trade schools, elementary schools, libraries, crèches and other facilities to support women”.

The model put forward was the Ali Bairamova club in Baku. According to a report from June 1922, this establishment provided a wide range of facilities for indigenous women, including medical consultations with a female doctor, a canteen, a crèche and kindergarten. Women were employed as trainees in book binding, weaving, sewing, shoe making and wool spinning artels on site. A school within the club offered classes in literacy and elementary education, as well as political propaganda. Finally there were social activities, including a drama group, a choir and dance classes.

Opening session of a women’s cadre school in Chuvashia Republic, 700 km east of Moscow, 1925.

Progress in central Asia began to be made in 1924 with the opening of a club in Tashkent by Nadia Krupskaya. The club, named after her, had an initial membership of 500 and was claimed to be popular with indigenous women – “every day hundreds of Muslim women stream into the club, to attend the medical consultations, the schools, the reading library and the children’s nursery”. Similar clubs were opened in Samarkand and Bukhara in August of that year. Writers in Kommunistka argued that “the creation of Muslim women’s clubs needs to be a core aspect of work to liberate the women of the east”.

By April 1925 the reported number of clubs in central Asia had increased to 13 and by September to 15, with the vast majority in the settled region of Uzbekistan. They were supplemented by women-only ‘red corners’ and ‘Lenin corners’, where there were insufficient resources to set up a special club.

By 1926 it was reported that the number of clubs in central Asia had risen to 34 and the number of red corners in Uzbekistan to 90 – there were far fewer in the nomadic region of Turkmenistan. Club work also brought about major improvements in the health of women and children – a report noted that 71,000 women had attended medical consultations with a female doctor in Uzbekistan over a six-month period in 1925.

The centrality of clubs for secluded women was stressed very often in articles up to 1927. They “allowed women to move from an enclosed way of life into social and economic life within the club and then through links between the club and cooperatives, trade unions and soviets” into a role within society.

Clubs “responded to the aspiration of the eastern woman awakening to revolution by allowing her to be involved in education, economic work and social activities while at the same time not putting her on a collision course with the local customs and way of life”. In November 1926 Liubimova was adamant that “it is beyond question that women’s clubs are an essential and unique form of party work among women”, being

distinct above all in that they organise eastern women through providing practical assistance to them and by closing entry to men. Therefore they provide the possibility for secluded women to go freely to the club, to uncover her face and to feel as comfortable as she would in the women’s quarter.

It was essential for indigenous women to be in a safe environment. Unfortunately there was little real support from the central committee and “the majority of clubs huddle in old buildings needing repairs, with others only half built”. For Liubimova it was very clear that “the only reason the clubs are not better is lack of finance”.


Economic independence was agreed to be a central issue. In a resolution to the women’s secretariat of Comintern in 1921 on work among eastern women it was asserted that a woman must “be convinced through her own experience that the household economy and the old form of the family enslaved her, whereas work in the social sphere liberates her”.

The April 1921 Eastern Conference adopted a strategy of setting up artels among women who had previously been producing handicrafts within the home. These artels would be based in clubs or be closely connected to them. Other women would be drawn into the clubs and given the possibility of becoming economically independent of their families.

Liubimova wrote in 1923 that initial efforts to set up artels had met with success, with a reported 4,000 handicraft women organised in Tashkent in 1921. However, the introduction of the NEP had resulted in “a loss of working capital and raw materials, which led to the frequent collapse of existing artels”. She claimed that, “while there has been a reduction in the number of women involved in production in Russia, in countries of the Soviet east the thin layer of proletarian women which had been present is now virtually non-existent”. She argued that from “the government’s point of view women’s artels do not justify themselves, as they need financing”. However, this narrow and short-termist view did not recognise the long-term benefits of involving women in the economy.

Despite problems of funding and opposition from local party members, the Zhenotdel fought to push forward and at a conference in 1924 delegates pledged “to set up an artel in every uyzed (district) over the summer period”. Plans were made to focus on carpet-making in Turkmenistan, cattle-herding in Kazakhstan, silk production and market gardening in Uzbekistan. There were also efforts to set up farming cooperatives in 1925. One fundamental, continuing problem was isolation, and the bureau tried to set up links with the General Cooperative Bank, the department of trade and trade unions.

In an article for Women’s Day 1927, Liubimova demanded that “questions of ‘results and tasks’ of work among women be placed before all party cells and meetings, the Komsomol, trade unions and peasant meetings”. This would facilitate the “cooperation of women in silk-weaving, dairy farming and market gardening, with which women are already familiar”. However, by May of that year a comrade Bolshakov complained that “there has been no real attempt by the general cooperatives to do work with women. The situation is very bad despite there being a clear foundation on which to develop this work”.

All responsibility for work was left to the Zhenotdel, which was handicapped by underfunding, disorganisation and a lack of skilled workers. The inability of the artels to become financially viable meant that women were less likely to become involved. The perception of handicraft work as an inferior form of production also plagued artels.

There was “a view that this is not equal to men’s work, as it is considered to be women’s work in the home. And women then do not have the ability to go to the market and sell their goods”. This last issue was, of course, a key obstacle to the project. Without an income from sales, both the women themselves and the artels remained penniless.

In the context of this extraordinarily difficult battle to make progress, the launch in late 1925 of the first women-only shop in Uzbekistan was an important breakthrough. Opened in Tashkent, it reportedly drew in 400 Uzbek women in its first weeks of operation, with a further eight shops being opened in the Tashkent district in the following weeks. Liubimova contended that the crucial reason behind the success of the initiative lay in the exclusion of men from the shops – “The absence of men means that a woman can remove her veil and talk with the staff, while at the same time selecting the goods she needs.”

Formally part of the general consumer cooperative, the Zhenotdel was able to announce that there were 1,500 Uzbek women organised in cooperatives as of June 1926. By May 1927 there were 27 shops in Uzbekistan. The shops provided credit facilities to peasant women on favourable terms, with long-term instalment repayment schemes.

A conference of women’s shop managers was held and there were regular meetings in the shops to develop the cooperatives around them, together with ‘mother and baby corners’. The shops were successful in a way that clubs and artels had not been, because a real connection had been established with indigenous women. Women could now shop, sell their own goods and socialise in a comfortable and safe environment.

A comrade Butusova described in September 1927 how

Uzbek men look on the women’s shops with approval. They can freely allow their wives to go there, as it does not disrupt their traditional ways and they are not afraid that their wives will meet men. A woman can buy the goods she wants by viewing them unhindered by the veil. Thus women’s shops are the only public place where Uzbek men can freely allow their wives to visit.

In July 1926 Liubimova described a visit to a Tashkent shop where “women freely removed their veils, sold their own produce and selected the good they wanted to buy”. Also “there are readings and discussions of the journal Yangi Yol” – the Turkic-language journal of the Zhenotdel. She argued that the project should be extended to Turkmenistan: “women-only markets could be held, where women can bring their produce to sell and buy the goods they want for themselves”. Staff were either indigenous women or Russians who spoke the native languages.

The Hujum

In late 1926 the Central Asian Bureau of the Communist Party made a decision to launch a mass unveiling campaign, beginning on March 8 the following year. There are various analyses of the reasoning behind this campaign, known as the Hujum, meaning ‘Attack’. There is no doubt that it was in many ways a precursor to the five-year plan launched by Stalin. It aimed to eliminate the cultural norms of traditional peasant society, including religion and the seclusion of women … at a stroke.

Meetings of central Asian party members were held from December 1926 to unveil their wives. On March 8 1927 thousands of women took part in mass unveilings and demonstrations in cities and towns all over Uzbekistan. But despite promises of a new revolution led by women, it soon became clear that a deep wave of reaction had been provoked. The male indigenous population, led by the Muslim clergy, attacked, raped and killed thousands of unveiled women in the following weeks – and then again after a second campaign to coincide with May 1.

It is noteworthy that the first mention of the Hujum in Kommunistka was an article in August, which took the bureau to task for failing to respond adequately. Klavdiia Nikolaeva, an erstwhile supporter of Kollontai and by then a member of the Central Asian Bureau, argued that the Zhenotdel had “failed to act immediately to consolidate work with unveiled women and to draw them into its orbit”.

Of course, the Zhenotdel’s strategy up to 1927 had not been focused on unveiling women. It also seems, based on Nikolaeva’s criticism and the lack of coverage of the Hujum in Kommunistka, that members had done little more than take part in the demonstrations on March 8 and May 1. And even these were not reported in the journal.

In January 1928, Anna Artiukhina, national secretary of the Zhenotdel, admitted that the Hujum had not succeeded – “although more than 90,000 women removed their veils from March to May 1927, now between 80% and 90% of those women have reveiled”. She criticised not the Zhenotdel, but the Central Asian Bureau, for “treating the fight with the vestiges of patriarchy as a short-term project, within which it was only necessary to direct the energies of the party to March 8 and May 1”. Its effect had been to destroy the existing work of the Zhenotdel. Now “every club is empty and neglected, with no attendance at meetings”.

The most serious harm had been inflicted by the closure of the women’s shops. Artiukhina reported that “without the knowledge of the Zhenotdel leadership they were changed into general shops, allowing the involvement and entry of men on the orders of the cooperative organs”. They had given these orders using the excuse that there was no longer any need for separate shops, as women no longer wore a veil. In reality “the liquidation of women-only shops took place during the period of reveiling after May 1927”.

The collapse of the clubs and the closure of the shops were major losses for the bureau and for the indigenous women who had gone to them. Artiukhina pointed out that many women were no longer able to go out for fear of attack and many previous supporters now harboured a deep distrust of the Soviet authorities.

A debate was launched by Krupskaya in the pages of Kommunistka in the run-up to the December 1928 all-union Conference of Workers among Women of the East. This was an unprecedented move, with meetings and conferences organised across Turkestan. There were plenty of criticisms of the way in which the campaign had been run. Liubimova was one of the leading voices pressing the Soviet government to pass a decree banning the veil. She believed that a decree would give women the confidence of knowing that the Soviet government defended them. It was

an urgent necessity, so that the eastern woman knows that she is not alone in the struggle against the vestiges of past slavery. It would provide her with all the support and benefits which came with Soviet power.

Conversely if no there was no legal ban, Islamic law would be used to direct women to veil and to direct that their husbands take action to force them to do so. While this view can be criticised, it must be understood as emanating from a perspective that saw the safety of indigenous women as the key priority.

The most significant contribution to the debate was a speech given by Nadia Krupskaya at the December conference. She criticised the ghettoisation of the woman question and the fact that it had become seen as the responsibility of the Zhenotdel alone. Male education was essential, so that there would be a united, “fully conscious struggle, aimed at the tasks on the way to full liberation”. She made clear that she was completely opposed to the Hujum – “I, of course, want the veil to go to hell like everybody else. But we don’t always get what we decree”.

There must be no extreme actions like “imposing bans on christenings or religious weddings”. She argued that confronting religion in this way “would not produce anything good” and would only result in a backlash. We cannot “simply be anti-religious”. We need to see that “the church is very influential”. Direct “confrontation with it will produce no positive results”. If we see this struggle as a war then we should conduct a “step-by-step battle, rather than an all-out fight with the forces of reaction”.

Thus Krupskaya set out her opposition to change forced from above. In careful yet clear terms she argued against all simplistic notions. She made clear that there could not be a dead level applied to the peoples of the east. Conditions varied and so should tactics. Fundamentally tactics should be applied on the basis of winning over the population rather than alienating it or forcing it into submission. This, as she argued, could only produce negative results.

A new pressure on the Zhenotdel from 1928 was the first five-year plan, announced by Stalin at the 15th Party Congress in December 1927. Anna Nukrat, who had taken over the leadership of the Central Asian Bureau from 1926, was a Stalin loyalist. She demanded that all conservative attitudes had to be overcome forthwith. For Nukrat the failure of the Hujum could all be put down to the “enemies of the revolution” and a lazy response from the Zhenotdel. Now, however, there would be no more slackness. Nukrat argued that the seclusion of women was “the main obstacle to women applying to the labour exchange to look for work. It means that they are unable to work in the factories or workshops, be part of collectives or undertake technical courses”.

Women had to unveil and become part of the general workforce, rather than have special artels and shops created for them: “Komsomol members, party members, workers, pioneers and soviet members “all need to be drawn into the task of defending ‘courageous’ unveiled women”. To assist with the safe transition of unveiled women to their workplaces, “special groups of men should be selected from the youth”, who could supervise districts, factories and other establishments to prevent any attacks on these women. Indigenous women had to fit into this new society and no concessions would be made.


In this article I have attempted to provide a glimpse of the efforts made to take the emancipation of women forward in the Soviet republic. I believe that many of the issues involved in this struggle are extremely important for us today. The attitude to unveiling, the question of women-only organisation and the attitude of men to women’s questions remain highly relevant in 2017.

Discussion of the experience of the revolution has to go beyond analysis of debates between Lenin, Trotsky and other male members of the central committee. Examining the efforts to make progress on the woman question and other cultural and social questions will provide valuable new insights into the nature of the Soviet state.

For those of us who see this revolution as the highpoint of human struggle this approach is essential.

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