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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Lovett on Nakachi, ’Replacing the Dead: The Politics of Reproduction in the Postwar Soviet Union’

Friday 20 August 2021


Reviewed by Jessica Lovett (University of Nottingham)


The Politics of Reproduction in the Postwar Soviet Union.

by Mie Nakachi

New York: Oxford University Press

2021, 348 pp.

Print ISBN-13: 9780190635138

Motherhood, pronatalism, and the role of women have long been popular research topics for Soviet historians. This exciting new book answers an important, specific question in this field: why did a regime, which was fixated on raising the birth rate to replace the twenty-seven million war dead, legalize abortion at a time when abortion was illegal in almost all developed countries? This apparent paradox is at the heart of Mie Nakachi’s ­­­­­­Replacing the Dead: The Politics of Reproduction in the Postwar Soviet Union. The book charts the political wrangling of the medical establishment, ministers, agencies, and leaders to explain how abortion became legal in the Soviet Union twenty years before most Western European countries followed suit. However, the book is not just about abortion; rather, Nakachi places abortion in the wider context of gender relations and reproductive practices in the postwar Soviet Union. Basing the book on archival research supplemented with interviews, she argues that doctors and health ministers persuaded Soviet leaders to legalize abortion in order to reduce maternal suffering and the deaths that occurred when dangerous illegal abortion was the only way to prevent childbirth. She shows how advocates for change used the pronatalist rhetoric of the party to argue that the ban on abortion was failing to prevent illegal abortions while also making women infertile. Advocates successfully argued that the policy was reducing the birth rate by reducing the number of women who could be mothers in the future.

The book is composed of six main chapters. The first discusses the 1944 Soviet family law, which was developed by Nikita Khrushchev to boost population growth. The intense losses of the Second World War had led to a highly unbalanced sex ratio; Nakachi cites figures showing that among those of reproductive age, there were twenty-eight men for every one hundred women (p. 2). Concerned this would leave an entire generation of women without husbands, the law aimed to encourage sex outside of marriage for the purpose of procreation. The law ended common-law marriages, dividing all families into either single-mother or two-parent families. Fathers now only had to provide support for children in registered marriages, absolving them of any responsibility for pregnancy or childbearing outside of this framework.

The second chapter examines abortion surveillance in the period between 1936 and 1955. It shows how enforcement was not particularly strong because doctors passively resisted cooperating with the state. The picture presented is a particularly bleak one, of widespread maternal death, injury, and illness. Alongside dangerous abortions, the war, devastation, and the famine of 1947 left women in poor health, leading to many additional miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths.

The third chapter explores the dynamics of postwar marriage and divorce, describing how the new law affected intimate relationships. The displacement of war meant the creation of many de facto second families as spouses were separated and began new relationships. Women generally regarded these relationships as common-law marriages, but men claimed they were temporary. After the war, men took advantage of their new legal status to choose their preferred “wife.” Either they left their old families or they abandoned their new wartime ones, with no responsibilities as long as the marriages were not registered.

In general, men benefited from the new status quo at the expense of women. Nakachi shows that women at the front tended to be regarded as sexually promiscuous and stigmatized, while double standards were applied regarding infidelity and divorce. Taking advantage of the unbalanced sex ratio, men commonly moved from woman to woman, refusing to marry anyone and abandoning each as she became pregnant. The result was millions of single mothers with little support. Maternity benefits that did exist were administered by the militia, and many women were unwilling to claim them because of the surveillance this brought to their lives. Nakachi claims this policy ultimately reduced the birth rate because women limited births to cope with worsening gender relations.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the events leading up to the legalization of abortion. The Central Statistical Office put together a carefully cherry-picked report implying the family law had been a great success. This made it too difficult to overturn it during Khrushchev’s premiership, but the abortion ban had been an earlier law enacted by Joseph Stalin. In the Thaw atmosphere after 1953, the medical establishment saw a new opportunity to improve the lives of women. Secret statistics showed millions were willing to risk crippling, infertility, prosecution, and even death rather than be abandoned and bring up a child alone. It was easy to demonstrate the ban’s ineffectiveness, and in any case, women cited relationship issues as the main cause of abortion, a problem the state could not resolve. Momentum gathered within the Ministry of Health, and doctors argued that women had a right to choose when to become a mother, and therefore, a right to abortion. When Maria Kovrigina, minister of health, finally proposed legalization to the politburo, she did so using the language of the regime, arguing that socialism and a raised cultural level had made a ban on abortion unnecessary, and that as a pronatalist measure, legal abortion would save the lives of mothers and their fertility for future births. Abortion was legalized in 1955.

Chapter 6 and the short epilogue that follows discuss the development of reproductive politics since 1955. Nakachi focuses on the 1968 family law, which ended the issue of illegitimate children by allowing a man’s name to be placed on the birth certificate. Little changed, however. Contraception was not properly developed until after the collapse of the USSR. Pronatalism was ultimately a failure.

Running throughout the book is the theme that society never accepted unwed mothers, though they became common. After the 1944 law, mothers outside of registered marriages could no longer use the father’s name on the birth certificate or access child support payments from him. Instead, the state was meant to provide financial help. Crucially, the promised state support never arrived, leaving mothers struggling. Despite these material difficulties, Nakachi shows, the lack of a father’s name on the birth certificate was of greater concern to women than almost any of the other reproductive issues because of the immense social stigma it brought. The cultural need for fathers could not be remade so easily by the state.

Occasionally Nakachi leaves the reader wanting more. When reporting the 1947 purge of the Moscow Institute for Gynaecology and Obstetrics, she describes widespread corruption and nepotism at the clinic prior to the purge. Allegedly only acquaintances of the directors were seen in exchange for huge cash sums, leaving ordinary women unable to access treatment. In an era when purges usually had ideological origins, this focus on corruption is interesting, and it would be fascinating to know more about the interplay of forces leading to this particular purge. Nakachi implies that the purge damaged the workings of the institute and ultimately made it harder for women to access abortion on demand. The reader is left wondering whether the attempts to tackle corruption paid any dividends. Nakachi also states that the research is based on fifteen interviews with women in addition to extensive archival research, but these interviews do not make much of an appearance in the book. It would have been nice to hear more about the interviewees’ experiences to add color to the story. These are rather minor criticisms, however, and the quality of the scholarship is high.

This book builds on Nakachi’s previous work on the 1944 family law and makes an important contribution to our understanding of gender relations and reproduction in the postwar Soviet Union. Her work also speaks to attempts to understand the way power and influence worked in the one-party state, and she shows that medical professionals could and did influence the government despite repression against them. The book will be of value to those interested in Soviet statecraft, policymaking, and the intelligentsia, as well as the more obvious fields of gender politics and the history of medicine.

[The above review from H-Net Reviews July 2021 is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license]

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