The real Cosmarxpolitan: ideology and the new socialist woman in Communist women’s magazines

It isn’t every day you see a pin-up photo of the young Stalin in his swimming trunks. Nevertheless, that’s what the creator of the Cosmarxpolitan tumblr has mocked up in the centre of what’s become the most widely-shared image from the blog, with its strapline ‘Stalin strips down: we bet you’ve never seen him like THIS!’: a collection of fake magazine covers that imagine how a publication like Cosmopolitan might look if it talked about Marxist ideology with the same language it uses to talk about diets, fashion and sex.


Among the absurd (‘Your va-jay-jay called! It wants to talk about anarcho-syndicalism’) and the chilling (‘8 steps to make extra pounds (and enemies) disappear!’), there’s sometimes a grain of truth. The idea of using the format of a magazine directed at women to communicate Communist ideology amongst features on the lives that women led or might aspire to isn’t as far-fetched as a glance at contemporary women’s magazines might suggest; on the contrary, women’s magazines in state socialist societies including the USSR and Yugoslavia were an important medium for communicating ideologically-driven ideas of what the new socialist woman was supposed to be.

Even before the Russian Revolution, women workers had been one of the social groups on whom the Bolsheviks focused their attention. The growing number of female factory workers in Russia – 584,000 by 1907 – were a group the Bolsheviks strove to address from 1913-14 onwards, reversing their early disinterest in ‘the woman question’ within Marxism. Decisive in this strategic shift was the theoretical writing of Alexandra Kollontai, the most prominent female Bolshevik activist, whose 1909 pamphlet The Social Bases of the Woman Question helped to convince Lenin that organising among women workers should be a priority. In 1914, a group of Bolshevik women including Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya founded the magazine Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) to support their agitation; in 1917 it was placed under the control of the Zhenotdel, the Bolsheviks’ committee for women, with input from Kollontai, and would remain in print throughout and even after the lifetime of Soviet Communism.

Rabotnitsa and similar magazines, including the sister publication Krest’ianka (Peasant Woman) aimed at women in agriculture, have become important sources for historians interested in Communist policy towards women and in women’s experiences during the Revolution or under Soviet Communism. The women’s press urged Soviet women ‘to think of themselves, their work, and their family responsibilities in terms of the larger goal of building socialism’ (Bucher 2000: 137, £); it exposed, but did not overturn, the ‘double burden’ in which women were an integral part of the Soviet workforce yet had not been liberated from domestic care. The utopian post-revolutionary visions of the Zhenotdel in which childcare and cookery might be managed on an entirely communal basis never came about, and Kollontai herself became marginalised within the Party in 1923 for reasons that seem to have included her writings on women’s sexuality.

As the Party’s demands on the Soviet people changed, so did the content of its women’s magazines. Stalin’s preparations for total war required the mobilisation of ‘all elements of the population, even those not typically thought of by military planners, and that included Soviet women’ (Rowley 2008: 54, £); women’s magazines, alongside other media such as films and postcards, popularised the figure of the female aviator, and a new magazine Obshchestvennitsa (Socially-Active Woman), launched in 1936, frequently ran articles on women preparing for military defence. With the outbreak of war, many thousands of women were mobilised to fill these roles for real, including but not limited to the celebrated female fighter pilots of the USSR.

Women’s magazines under Khrushchev served a different but no less ideological purpose: to communicate promises of increased consumption and better living through technology, a sign that the mistakes of Stalinism were a thing of the past. A 1954 issue of Sovetskaia zhenshchina (Soviet Woman) informed its readers about the machines that would eventually free them from ‘women’s domestic labour’, a promise that Khrushchev himself would make in speeches later in the decade (Reid 2002, £). Simultaneously, the press urged women to put every effort into a feminine appearance, including the use of perfumes that were now supposed to be reliably available thanks to the Party’s development of the chemical industry under the Seven-Year Plan. The ‘double burden’ of this version of the new socialist woman was greater yet: as Susan Reid observes, ‘this was not instead of, but in addition to the requirement that women play an active role in production and public life’ (Reid 2002: 232).

Khrushchev’s promises towards women were not fulfilled. By the 1980s, the pages of Rabotnitsa – now with a print run of 24 million – and Krest’ianka were still filled with women’s difficulties at home and at work, such as this letter written to Rabotnitsa by one N. Sharkova in 1989:

I have five children to feed. We live in an apartment with a wood stove. Firewood is a problem. You can only buy it from speculators, who ask 70 to 100 rubles for a carload. I receive 60 rubles (12 rubles for each child) from the family assistance program and a 50 ruble allowance to care for my youngest. If I buy the fuel, how can I feed five mouths? Winter is coming – I will freeze together with my children. (Hyer 1989: 15)

After the collapse of the Communist Party, mass-circulation women’s magazines lost their ideological function. Though Rabotnitsa continued to be published, its circulation had dropped to 228,000 by 2001 and was sold on a subscription-only basis; the space it had once occupied had been filled by franchises of Western magazines such as Elle and Cosmopolitan itself, which arrived in Russia in 1994-96.

Post-socialist women’s magazines depicted women as hyper-commercialised consumers, romantic partners and businesswomen who at the same time exerted power in the market and devoted themselves to cultivating feminine beauty. The Communist magazines were quite literally of a different era, as suggested in this interview with a Russian Elle reader by the anthropologist Olga Kalacheva:

I regularly read ELLE. I believe that it is one of the quality magazines. I always buy it when I go shopping for new clothes or cosmetics. There is enough information there about commodities and shops where the cosmetics are sold. COSMOPOLITAN I read also. But not so often. I never buy it. I read it only if I can borrow it from a friend. I think I have grown out of COSMO.

Interviewer: What about Rabotnitsa?

(Laughing) It used to be my favorite magazine when I was a teenager. Yes, it really was. But I haven’t seen it for about ten years. I am not sure that it sells now. (Kalacheva 2002: 77)

Women’s activism in post-socialist countries cannot be understood without keeping in mind this public discrediting of the ‘socialist woman’ and the ideology behind it, as Agata Pyzik and Mariya Petkova have pointed out in their articles on the naked protests of Femen.

In socialist societies outside the Soviet bloc, meanwhile, magazines aimed at women and girls had also had an ideological part to play. The quickly-modernising Yugoslavia, which had been ejected from the Cominform in 1948 and subsequently elaborated an alternative Marxism-Leninism distinct from Stalinism and the Warsaw Pact, accommodated consumerism in a more sustained way than the post-Stalinist USSR and with more success in delivering consumer goods at least to the urban population. Women’s magazines such as Svijet (World) reported on the glamorous lives of Yugoslav and foreign celebrities, but also on the everyday realities of Yugoslav working women, and with a vision of celebrity where Marxist theorists might coexist with Elizabeth Taylor or John Wayne:

[An] interview with Marcuse – of whom Svijet reported that the young anarchists of the 1968 generation were proclaiming the slogan ‘Marx is our prophet, Marcuse is his interpreter, and Mao is his sword’ – ran as part of the magazine’s regular series titled ‘Conversations with the Stars’, although here at least both the journalist and Marcuse himself acknowledged that the notion that this particular political philosopher had now become a ‘star’ was more than a little discomfiting. (Patterson 2011: 176, £)

Determining how far the regime should acquiesce in market culture before it would lead to Yugoslav consumers detaching from participation in socialist society would be a constant difficulty for Yugoslav Communists, and the Yugoslav fashion and advertising industries existed in an uneasy balance between the two. The feminist Maca Jogan attacked advertising in a 1980s article for a Slovenian sociological journal:

In the advertising messages of consumerist capitalist society, there prevails a model of woman stripped of most human qualities, that is, a beautiful puppet, a being of sexual passions, something enchanting and something that can be dominated, and interesting to society as a stimulator of consumerism and as a direct participant in consumption […] It seems that this example, like others, is also progressive, and that our obligation is simply to model and adapt ourselves to the most developed countries and, at the same time, to dismiss everything that does not carry the label ‘made in the good Free World’. (Patterson 2011: 227-28)

Yet Patterson observes that this view coexisted with ‘interpretations that defended and even celebrated women’s activities in the marketplace’:

Amplifying an image that would be sustained in the country’s market culture and the popular media from the 1960s on, the cultural commentary of women’s magazines often proceeded in this register, offering up a vision of the modern Jugoslovenka [Yugoslav woman] as a talented shopper who recognized (and demanded) quality and, in the process, maximized value for herself and her family. Across the country, in widely circulated periodicals such as Svijet, Naša žena [Our Woman], and Jana, this sort of representation was standard fare. (Patterson 2011: 228)

Magazines for teenage girls, too, existed in this contradictory ideological space. The anthropologist Reana Senjković’s most recent book, Izgubljeno u prijenosu: pop iskustvo soc kulture (Lost in Translation: the Pop Experience of Soc Culture, 2008) is a study of the girls’ magazine Tina, which was published in Zagreb between 1971 and 1976. Senjković’s research provides the data for a broader theoretical project of assessing how far the conclusions of Angela McRobbie, who famously studied the British teen magazine Jackie, could be applied to socialist Yugoslavia. (The book itself is one of a frustratingly large number of cultural studies books from post-Yugoslav countries that haven’t been translated into English, restricting the audiences I can discuss them with, though an English summary recently appeared as an article (£) in International Journal of Cultural Studies.)

The Zagreb Tina had been franchised from a British magazine of the same name that was first published in 1967 and intended for foreign syndication, with comic strips, horoscopes and quizzes that could be translated into many languages. Significantly, however, Senjković finds that Tina ‘started to depart from its model’, and that its sales and popularity increased as it became more reflective of specifically Yugoslav situations. Tina, like McRobbie’s Jackie, gave fashion and beauty tips to its adolescent readers and counselled them on the personal problems readers submitted to its agony column. Both magazines advised their readers to be patient with their parents and boyfriends and do well in school. In Tina, however, ‘[t]he advice to have the necessary patience applied unless the girls were faced with a situation that would contradict the basic principle of survival of the Yugoslav socialist community’, such as when a girl had been forbidden to talk to a boy she liked in her apartment block because his ethnicity was Hungarian:

In a community like our Yugoslav community, where the principle of brotherhood and unity are the basic and most important social tenets, ethnic difference should certainly pose no obstacle to close and friendly relations between people. (Senjković 2011: 488)

Explicitly ideological material, such as reports from youth brigades’ work actions or interviews with female Partisans who had fought with Tito during the Second World War, was included in Tina but ‘relatively infrequently, typically only on special occasions’ (Senjković 2011: 489): most likely one or other of the Yugoslav commemorative days, when popular culture in general would be put to the end of praising Tito and celebrating Yugoslav ‘brotherhood and unity’.

The combination of women’s magazines and Marxism, then, isn’t as absurd as it might seem. There’s no way of knowing whether the anonymous author of Cosmarxpolitan knows about or might even have seen Rabotnitsa or its equivalents from other states, but behind its surrealism there’s a fascinating history of ideology, activism and consumption.

We bet you’ve never seen Marcuse like THIS…?