The ghost of Walter Duranty still lives at The New York Times, and it has a perverse sense of timing. Last week, on the anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Times continued its bizarre nostalgia series about communist dictatorships with a piece titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” The author, Kristen Ghodsee, points to a single, post-reunification study to allege that women under the iron fist of East Germany had “twice as many orgasms” as women in capitalist West Germany.
Highlighting a single “bright spot” of communist life while mostly ignoring its many dangers, indignities, and rights violations would be bad enough. Ghodsee takes it a step further, however, by speculating that the totalitarianism she euphemistically refers to as a “top-down campaign” was actually the secret sauce in the communist’s successful female liberation.
Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change — which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things — needs an emancipation proclamation from above.
The leftist ideologue is forever being disappointed. Just as Vladimir Lenin was frustrated with the less-than-revolutionary Russian peasantry, the “oppressed” whom the modern left tries to liberate never seem to quite live up to expectations. Concerned with such frivolities as putting food on the table and spending time with their families, people always fall short of someone else’s vision of liberation.
Even today, women’s choices about work-life balance and the wage “gap” those choices create cause many furrowed feminist brows. Actual women—who in surveys still indicate that their ideal work-family balance is part-time work, despite all the social pressure nowadays against this view—simply aren’t as radical as they “ought” to be when left free to choose their own paths. Ghodsee’s solution, like the GDR’s, is simple: women must be forcibly “liberated” for their own good.
Life Under Communism Was No Love Fest
There is just enough truth in The New York Times article to bolster its radical message. Just as the Roaring Twenties in the United States swept in many changes in women’s social roles, so too the 1920s in the Soviet Union brought a period of genuine sexual libertinism and experimentation, encouraged by the vanguard of communist intellectuals that populated Russian cafes. In the early days after the Bolshevik Revolution, people—especially those far away from the bloody revolution itself—could be more easily forgiven for thinking that communism was going to lead to a happier, more prosperous future, given that most of the twentieth-century examples of its barbarism had yet to occur.
But the reality of life in the Warsaw Pact was decidedly different than the picture Ghodsee paints in her column. My father, who grew up in Communist Poland, describes the women he recalls, married in their 20s and 30s, as “exhausted,” spending most of their time outside of working hours standing in lines and feverishly combing contacts to scrape together the bare necessities for their households.
If American feminists think their “second shift”—working full-time and still remaining primarily responsible for domestic duties—is a burden, they should try to imagine the average woman’s life in communist paradise, where women went without capitalism’s time-saving household appliances and frequently confronted empty grocery shelves.
The laundry list of progressive policies listed in the article—government-paid maternity leave, mandated equality in work, daycare centers to remove parental responsibilities and rear the new generation of homo sovieticus—nowhere near made up for being turned away from the toilet paper line.
And as soon as female liberation came up against the needs of the communist state, those benefits were reversed, as happened in Ceausescu’s Romania. Romania was one of the most “sexually liberated” countries in the Warsaw Pact, but when its government leaders decided it needed more Romanians, contraception and abortion not only lost state support, but became punishable by law virtually overnight.
Yes, Ms. Ghodsee, in communist societies, men and women were equal: equally poor and afraid of their own government.
In a Life without Hope, Many Turn to the Personal
In the face of a disheartening future, with little hope of being financially successful, intellectually curious, or artistically exploratory outside of dogma-sanctioned boundaries, young people in communist societies leaned more strongly on their personal relationships for happiness. They found joy where they could, in the excitement of a new romance, or in the right bunch of flowers to bring a smile to a wife’s face and a little color to a gray home. It’s possible they also found it in more frequent sex, as Ghodsee’s article claims, although her single data point and two interviews are hardly convincing evidence.
But even these personal joys were infected by the Communist state, as movingly demonstrated in the plot of 2007’s Oscar-winning film, “The Lives of Others.” Trust was broken between husbands and wives, as the secret police found ways to play their fears against one another to control the population. In Ghodsee’s alleged sexual utopia, the GDR, it is estimated that almost one in six people was an informant for the Stasi. Many were coerced, bullied, and broken into betraying the lovers with whom they were having those all-important orgasms.
There is nothing romantic about life in such a system. It is incompatible with the basic dignity of the human being. Instead of tallying up orgasms, Ghodsee should instead listen to the words of one of Russia’s greatest female poets, Anna Akhmatova, who had a truer impression of life under communism.
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
That’s how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
On the eve of my remembrance day.
If someone someday in this country
Decides to raise a memorial to me,
I give my consent to this festivity
But only on this condition – do not build it
By the sea where I was born,
I have severed my last ties with the sea;
Nor in the Tsar’s Park by the hallowed stump
Where an inconsolable shadow looks for me;
Build it here where I stood for three hundred hours
And no-one slid open the bolt.
Listen, even in blissful death I fear
That I will forget the Black Marias*,
Forget how hatefully the door slammed and an old woman
Howled like a wounded beast.
* “Black Marias” is a reference to the vans used by the secret police, which made people “disappear,” whether to interrogation cells or to the gulags.