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The Twenties are still Roaring

From international relations to art and culture, the 1920s made the world of today

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January 8, 2020

Back in the 90s, as a young consumer of media, I would occasionally be encouraged to contemplate Rupert Bear’s erection, usually at the behest of the BBC or some broadsheet or other, as the baby boomers in charge recalled the sexual revolution of their youth.

Felix Dennis was also always involved; the late publisher of Maxim and Bizarre never tired of talking to journalists about the Oz obscenity trial, you see, and how he and his chums had changed Britain forever by depicting the nation’s second favourite bear in a state of tumescence.

The establishment was outraged! There was a trial! That guy who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey got involved! He defended the right of Dennis and co. to publish images of children’s characters with great big boners: you can’t stop progress, after all.

So it was that in those halcyon days of Blair’s Britain it seemed that the social, sexual and cultural revolution which had begun in the 1960s was complete, with only a few loose ends remaining to be tied up. The defeated establishment now existed only in grainy, black and white footage in which everyone, even children, dressed like your grandparents. Mary Whitehouse, the last survivor of this epoch, still turned up on TV; young presenters would bait her like a bear, and one that was soon to be extinct at that.

Yet if she had just hung on, say, until she was around 110 years old, Mrs Whitehouse would have lived to see a sea change in attitudes. At today’s universities, the left-liberals that once mocked her have established fornication codes requiring young people to seek permission for each stage of the sexual act. It’s not quite waiting until marriage, but it certainly makes getting it on much more complicated, while getting it wrong can result in public shaming or permanent career destruction.

And though all the porn and hook-up apps would have met with her disapproval, Mrs Whitehouse could at least have taken solace in the fact that young people just aren’t doing it all that much anyway. I suspect that she would also have enjoyed the downfall of all those Hollywood types who did so much to lower standards.

The world is always changing, of course, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this sexual counter-revolution; yet most of us, I think, were caught napping.

However, decades of narcissistic Boomer propaganda celebrating cultural milestones such as Rupert Bear’s boner have obscured the fact that our sexual revolution was not the first, nor even the first to be challenged. In fact, the USSR beat us to the punch on both points by half a century.

Suggested Reading
Russia's brief encounter with the sexual revolution

By James Barr

The Bolsheviks, like many radicals before and since, regarded the family and the institutions that supported it as hideously oppressive obstacles to the arrival of a new and more perfect world. Determined to do away with the old, they began their social revolution almost immediately after the October Revolution.

Before 1917 was out, the regime had replaced church marriage with the civil variety, and also established a no-fault divorce law that required only a brief court hearing if both parties agreed to end the union. Divorces could still go ahead even if only one person wanted it; it just took a little more paperwork. The other party would receive a postcard letting them know. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1917, and the concept of illegitimacy was abolished; all children were legitimate.

Zhenotdel, the Women’s Department of the Central Committee, was established in 1919, its mission to “refashion women”. Headed by Lenin’s alleged lover Inessa Armand, and then the prominent female Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, the Zhenotdel lobbied for the legalisation of abortion, which duly followed in 1920.

Kollontai wanted to liberate women from the “servitude of marriage” entirely: experiments in communal living were run, and attempts were made to encourage/enforce new models of the family via the reimagining of what “home” should be. One famous example is “Narkomfin“, a six-story communal apartment building in Moscow where the flats had no kitchens, as everyone was supposed to eat together in shared dining areas. Communal creches, gyms and laundry rooms were also part of the grand design. Women would be liberated to work and would build the socialist future alongside men.

Thus it was that by the 1920s, laws and ideas that would take a further half-century to emerge in the West became lived reality in the USSR. Still, there was much further to go, and some members of the communist elite expounded ideas that would not have sounded out of place on a hippy commune in 1960s San Francisco. Kollontai, famous for her relationships with much younger comrades, was a believer in free love who advocated “erotic friendships” between men and women.

Lenin disapproved, but she was not alone in her views. Nikolai Krylenko, the Soviet public prosecutor and an important Soviet legal thinker who would ultimately rise to the position of People’s Commissar for Justice, stated that free love was the “ultimate aim” of a socialist state and was indifferent as to whether this might lead to instances of polygamy or polyandry.

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Russia's brief encounter with the sexual revolution

By Daniel Kalder

Yet once these revolutionary ideas were put into practice, things got messy very quickly. The communists thought that their reforms would eliminate prostitution, but in the town of Saratov women were instead “nationalised” and men were allowed to satisfy their animal urges in legal brothels. In the ancient city of Vladimir, a “Bureau of Free Love” was established among the cupolas of the churches; women between the ages of 18 and 50 were told to register so that a sexual partner could be assigned to them — whether they liked it or not.

Divorce on demand also came with drawbacks. The divorce rate skyrocketed and was 26 times higher than in Europe; by the mid-1920s, meanwhile, half of all registered marriages in Moscow ended in divorce. Men were considerably more likely to initiate divorces than women and use it as a ploy to escape their responsibilities.  There were reports of serial marriage, and “summer brides” swiftly abandoned, and women left alone to support their children, and all of this happened as huge numbers of children were made homeless as a result of the Civil War.

New ways of living that seemed so attractive on the page — and radical writers such as Alexander Bogdanov and Nikolai Chernyshevsky had explored many of these ideas in fiction before the Bolsheviks put them into practice — had unintended consequences once applied to the real world.

One completely unexpected consequence was strong opposition to the new laws, and this came from both above and below. The turning point came in 1926 when a bill was introduced that proposed to remove the distinction between registered and unregistered marriages, so giving everyone the same legal rights and which would have effectively abolished the institution entirely.

Several senior communists disapproved of the idea and opposed it openly; more striking, however, is the vehement and very public opposition of many working class people and peasants who attended meetings across the country to express their dismay at the chaos that the new rules had brought to their communities, resulting in dystopian social scenarios of the sort Theodore Dalrymple used to describe in his columns, only magnified.

One fascinating eyewitness account from the period contains tales of teenage divorcees, abandoned peasant women, boys “changing wives with the change of seasons” and much more. One phrase in particular, strikingly appropriate to our own time, stands out as the author describes an “atmosphere of torment, disgust, and disillusionment that pervades sex relations”.

Suggested Reading
Russia's brief encounter with the sexual revolution

By Roger Moorhouse

This popular backlash was a harbinger of a major shift in attitudes that lay just around the corner, and which would be imposed from above by the Stalinist regime. So it was that in 1934 homosexuality was re-criminalised, while abortion was outlawed in 1936. Divorce remained legal but the law was revised to combat “frivolous attitudes to the family and to family responsibilities”.

The Young Communist League, whose members had been in the vanguard of the sexual revolution, switched to policing morality, and shaming those who indulged in sex before marriage or who otherwise violated the new conservative norms. The Narkomfin building was not completed as planned; its inhabitants added private kitchens to their apartments. As for the advocates of free love, Nikolai Krylenko was purged in 1938 and executed under the legal system he had helped create, while Kollontai lived out her years as a diplomat in various Scandinavian countries, completely silent as Stalin revoked the laws she had fought for and murdered her ex-lovers. The sexual revolution was over.

But revolutions leave their mark, even when they are confronted with counter-revolutions; ideas once thought cannot be unthought. Abortion was re-legalised in 1955, and although divorce rates retreated from the astronomical levels of the 1920s, they remained high into the late Soviet period. Homosexuality was legalised after the USSR collapsed, in 1993.

As for today’s Russia, it is led by a self-proclaimed defender of traditional values who wears large crosses and was recently re-baptised in an ice hole, but that did not stop him from getting divorced while in office. Abortion is also legal, as is homosexuality, although the notorious 2013 law proscribing the “promotion” of homosexuality among people under 18 remains in place.

The USSR’s experience tells us that wherever our ongoing counter revolution takes us, the final destination is unlikely to be what anyone expects, nor all that final, as the messy reality of living will always undermine the ideals of every true believer. Mary Whitehouse 2.0: This Time She’s Woke will not, in the long run, have it all her own way. I do, however. suspect that the days of celebrating Rupert Bear’s phallus are pretty much over.

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