Margaret Sanger, "Marriage and Divorce Laws in the Soviet Union," 1934.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Library of Congress Microfilm 20:0723."

No published version of this article has been found.


Much has been written and said about marriage and divorce laws in the Soviet Union, but probably few Americans have ever read the law from beginning to end. In the following paragraphs I propose to set forth the main points of the law as it appears in the legal code and supplement this data with my own observations, while visiting several courts of marriage and divorce in the Soviet Union. I shall also attempt to give the personal point of view on marriage and divorce held by typical Russians I have known.

Whether one approves or not of the present Soviet system of marriage and divorce, a visit to a Civil Registry Bureau is one of the most fascinating features of a trip to Russia today. The larger cities are divided into judicial districts for the purpose of dispensing quick justice. Moscow, for example, has six such judicial centers. Each center has a Bureau of Marriage and Divorce. Here births and deaths are also recorded. Russia may be suffering from the infantile paralysis of bureaucracy but her in the Registry Office there is none. I never saw such efficiency and lack of red tape. I have seen six or seven marriages registered within a half hour, and at the same time a smaller number of divorces dispensed. Groups of tourists mill around these Bureaus of Marriage and Divorce talking with the clerks and generally get in the way, yet the efficiency of the Bureau does not seem to be adversely affected. Applicants come to change their status. They are eager to accomplish their purpose and once that is done go on their way.

There are usually two rooms in such a Bureau, one for marriages and one for divorces. Since there are fewer divorces than marriages, the office for divorce, with less press of work, also registers births and deaths. Unlike most offices in Russia which are usually rather barren and plain, the marriage room is carefully decorated with flowers and plants. There is an attempt, albeit rather childish and primitive, to make the room look attractive. But the four walls of the room are plastered with much more spectacular material. Large colored illustrated posters graphically show every conceivable contraceptive device. Contraception is legal and is encouraged in Soviet Russia. Abortion is practiced officially on a larger scale, but each individual applicant is urged to avoid actual abortion as much as possible. In spit of this, the population of Russia is increasing faster than any country in the world. Since 1926 the population has increased 18.7 million people, an amount equal to the present total population of Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland.

Like most features of Soviet ideology, current legislation in Russia regarding the family, marriage, and divorce, emanates direct from Karl Marx. This veritable Moses of the Soviet Union is the official lawgiver in almost every phase of social as well as economic life in Russia today. Marx defined the family as the “original form of private property”. To him, “the family represents the first form of private ownership”, and as such becomes, of course, public enemy No. 1. Marx said that in the family the man exploits to his advantage the labors of others, namely that of his wife and children. Very likely if Marx were living today and familiar with the institution of the family as we know it in America, for example, he would prefer to modify, or at least qualify his definition, but no one can doubt that in pre-war Russia his major premise was essentially correct.

Connected with the whole theory of Marxian legislation in Russia is the liberation of the oppressed and subjugated woman. The Soviets are fond of pointing out that in bourgeois countries the wife must promise to "love, honor, and obey” her husband. Evidently they have not heard about the audacious independence of some American brides! Lenin committed himself on several occasions to the Soviet attitude towards women. In 1919 he referred to the debasing and brutal laws which emphasized the inequality of women in marriage rights and divorce “in all the capitalist countries of the world”. He further pointed out that in the new Russia– the republic of workers and peasants–-all these laws have been swept away, and the bourgeois falsehoods and hypocrisy have been smashed.

The first section of the law of marriage and divorce reads: “The registration of marriages is introduced in the interests of the state, and of society as well, for the purpose of facilitating the protection of the personal and property rights and the interests of husband and wife and of children. A marriage is contracted by registration at a Civil Registry Office in the manner prescribed by Part IV of the present code.” The fundamental purpose of the law is to establish the absolute equality of the man and woman, with special emphasis on safeguarding the interests of women and children. Terms such as “illegitimate children” and “out of wedlock” have been abolished. There is no such thing as an illegitimate child. The child’s parents are established by consanguinity. Every child, no matter what the conditions of his birth, enjoys the same rights and cars from the government. People who live together are considered married. Although they are encouraged to “register” their marriage, this is not obligatory. Probably not half of the marriages in the Union are registered. Religious marriages are seldom performed now, or, if they are, it is with little outward show. A member of the Communist Party or the Komsomls, youthful branch of the Party, would never think of being married with a religious ceremony. If he was, he would be “purged” from the Party.

The support of all children falls equally on both parents, whether born in registered or non-registered marriages, of from causal intercourse. In fact, all the laws pertaining to marriage are binding on both parties, no matter whether the union is registered or not. Both husband and wife share equally in property accumulated by their joint efforts. But property brought by one individual to the marriage union remains the sole property of the member who contributed it. The Bolsheviks decry the cost of divorce in capitalist bourgeois countries. They claim that these high costs, which usually involve change of residence, confine legal separation to the well-to-do. Either one of the parents may, according to Soviet Law, dissolve the Union but the state looks principally to the protection of the weaker side,–-the incapacitated, the unemployed, and the younger children.

Either the husband and wife, or both, may apply for a registered divorce, and if they are able to write they fill out a divorce blank. If they are not, the blank is filled out for them and they sign their “X” at the bottom. The two-ruble fee is paid and the divorce, being “registered” in the book, is a fait accompli. The process of marriage is equally simple. A blank is filled out, signed, the two-ruble fee paid, and the operation is finished. I noticed that the blank for registering marriages was on a course rough paper whereas the blank for recording divorces was on smooth paper. When I asked one of the clerks the significance of this, I was unable to get any satisfactory answer.

It is fascinating to watch the change in facial expression which takes place after the routine, especially the divorce, has been performed. I saw a handsome soldier reach lustily in his pocket for his two roubles (normally about a dollar, actually about ten cents), place them on the table, sign his slip, and once more he was a free man. His face indicated that he was not unhappy over his change in status.

Documents attempting the celebration of marriage by religious ceremony have no legal status unless dated prior to December 20, 1917. The participants of existing conjugal relations which have not been registered may “regularize their intention” by registration, but the period of actual cohabitation must be stated. Mutual consent is required in marriage, and both parties must be of marriageable age (18 years). They must produce documents attesting their identity and a statement denying the existence of any proscribed bar to the marriage. They must be mutually informed of each other’s state of health, especially with regard to venereal disease, mental disease, and tuberculosis. They must also state how many marriages, registered or non-registered, each of them has had, and the number of children by each marriage. A marriage is unlawful if one or both persons are already married, whether registered or not. Marriage is forbidden between the insane, between relatives in direct line of descent, and between full or half brothers and sisters.

After marriage the newlyweds have three options as to the name they will choose. They may retain their prenuptial surnames, or adopt as a family name either that of the husband or the wife. In the case of a Russian citizen, married to a foreigner, each party retains his original citizenship, but this can be changed easily by process by law. Both husband and wife may choose their trade or occupation, and if one changes his residence, it is not necessary for the other to follow. In unregistered marriages proof of cohabitation is sufficient evidence to establish marriage is court. In case either the husband or wife is incapacitated, unemployed, or otherwise in need, the other must pay for the support of the less fortunate partner. This “alimony” must be paid, even after the marriage is dissolved, until the situation necessitating alimony changes, but not for a period in excess of one year after divorce. The amount of alimony is fixed by the court. It makes no difference whether the marriage was registered or not.

Marriage is dissolved by the death or presumptive death of one party, established by a Notary or court. Marriage may be dissolved by mutual consent, or upon application of either one to the Civil Registry. A divorce may be registered whether the marriage was registered or not, but in the latter case such marriage must be established as a fact by the court. Unregistered divorce may also be established as a fact by a court. When registering a divorce, both husband and wife may reassume their own surname by mutual agreement. In absence of agreement, each assumes his prenuptial name. It is the duty of the Civil Registry Office, upon the dissolution of the marriage, to determine, first, the custody of the children, second, the division of the expense for the children’s maintenance and, third, the amount of alimony to be paid to the incapacitated wife or husband. Russia is probably the only country in the world in which the wife may be forced to pay alimony to the husband. The husband and wife may agree between themselves on these points in which case it is recorded in the book and a copy of such agreement given to each. This procedure does not prevent either party to the agreement from suing in court for a new settlement. If obligations as set forth in the agreement are not carried out, one may apply to a Notary Public for a writ of execution. In the absence of any final agreement the allowance paid to children is settled by an ordinary lawsuit.

The foregoing represents a brief resume of that part of the law which refers to marriage and divorce. Naturally it has been necessary to condense it considerably in this limited space but nearly all the facts are set forth. The remainder of the law takes up the family rights, duties of relatives, adoption, guardianship, and trusteeship, examination of weak-minded applications, the registration of documents relating to civil status, and the registry of births and deaths. There is not sufficient space here to describe them in full. Further, they would repay only the student in these matters.

In one particular the Soviets are quite strict. They seek to leave no doubt in the establishment of every child’s paternity. Thus a mother after the birth of her child, or even during pregnancy, can file a declaration of paternity indicating the father’s name and address. The Civil Registry Office informs the prospective father, who may or may not be pleasantly surprised with the notification. However, if he raises no objection within a month’s time, he is duly registered as the child’s father. But he still has a year to institute legal proceedings against the mother contesting her statement of paternity. Once the father’s identify is established, he must contribute to all expenses connected with pregnancy, lying-in, birth, and maintenance of the child and the expenses of the mother for six months after the child is born.

If the parents have taken a common name, this name is also given to the children. If the parents still use their prenuptial name, they agree between themselves as to the name given to the children. In the absence of agreement, the children’s surname is decided by the Office of Guardian. If the father is unknown, the child takes the name of the mother. Parents may not commit their children to any particular religion.

There is no limit to the number of times a man or a woman may be married, but excess in this connection is officially frowned upon. In the event of flagrant abuse of the privilege, the matter is investigated by an officer of the court and restrictions may be made to curtail such an offender in the future. Members of the Communist party, and their young party colleagues in the Komsomols are very careful not to go to excess in this connection for fear of being expelled from the Party. When the law first went into effect there was a certain amount of over-indulgence in the marriage privilege. Now, however, Soviet officials point with pride to their law which they claim has liberated women, given men a freedom they do not possess in capitalist countries, and which, above all, protects the children. They claim that the actual divorce rate is not much higher than in other countries. I do not believe that the present Soviet marriage law is generally abused any more than our laws are abused, which may or may not be any criterion.

I happen to know that one of the deterrents to divorce is the extreme scarcity of living quarters. Some couples remain together under one roof not for reasons of compatibility, but rather because it would be difficult to find further quarters for the divided family. The housing shortage in Moscow, for example, is appalling. It is so acute that it is sometimes actually impossible to find another room, much less an apartment. Foreigners living in Russia have great difficulty in finding housing facilities unless they live in a hotel which is relatively expensive.

Two years ago I took a long train journey with a young Russian who is a motion picture director. We had plenty of time for conversation on all subjects and eventually we found ourselves talking about marriage and divorce in Russia. This man, a keen intelligent young technician, was glad to talk on any subject, and to say the least he was an enthusiastic Communist. I tried to ask him questions so that his answers would express a typical Russian point of view. “Doesn’t the present law of marriage and divorce in Russia, which allows either party to end the marriage pact at will, result in a great many more divorces than would ordinarily be the case?” I asked. “On the contrary,” he replied. “Take my situation, for example. I love my wife and she loves me, but if we thought we were bound by legal and holy matrimony for the rest of our lives, we would at once feel tied down. Confine a man, by compulsion, to a given place, even though that is where he wishes to be, and he immediately seeks to escape. That is the way with indissoluable marriage. Besides I know my wife can leave me at any time, if I am not a good husband. That makes me more careful in my conduct and more careful considerate in my action. It is a fine system.” And he was a charming, engaging, educated young man.

Last year I came to know very well a splendid Russian who had lived for some time in the States. He had been married fourteen or fifteen years and had several attractive children. He and his wife were very fond of the children whom they treated with such loving affection as I believe only Russians can. Yet his marriage had never even been registered. “What is the use,” he said. “Registration of our marriage would not change a thing.” This statement rather characterizes the typical Russian point of view.

Of course, there are many in Russia who do not approve of the new system: the older generation which is still inclined to be religious, the clergy, and the disenfranchised classes,– all of them look with disfavor on the present freedom of marriage and divorce. And there are others who regret the lack of formal ceremony in the marriages of today. Back in the limitless Russian hinterland the marriageable daughters of the well-to-do peasants are passively, at least, unsympathetic with the present system. They have looked forward to the fun and gaiety of a wedding celebration. They may have horded a rich dower chest of blankets, clothing, and other symbols of a happy, wedded life. Perhaps there are still some fathers who have set aside a little dowry in order to get a good husband for their daughters. These girls look forward to the enchanting atmosphere of pomp and ceremony which only the Greek Orthodox Church can lend to such a function. They feel that they are being cheated out of perhaps the greatest occasion of their lives. But this will not be for long. Their generation is swift passing. The Revolution and what came with it is now over seventeen years old.


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