The revolutionary and fundamental nature – and the sheer immensity – of the reforms after October 1917 became evident not only in Russian politics and economy but in gender relations as well. The Soviet government articulated the ideological significance of women’s interests and resources in the building of socialism, highlighting the necessity of designated work among women. Women’s Departments (zhenotdels) in the Russian Communist Party (the Bolsheviks) can be seen as a part of this ideology and political agency. My article discusses the Bolshevik policies aimed at women in the early years of Soviet rule, and, in more detail, the Women’s Departments in the Tver area, drawing on local archival materials. The work of zhenotdels has been discussed through feminological and

apologetic approaches in Soviet social science to demonstrate the progressive solution of the ‘woman question’ in Soviet Russia and in the Soviet Union. Zhenotdel studies include works written in the Soviet period by Bilishai (1959), Emelianova (1971), Chirkov (1978) and others. These researchers have convincingly shown many gains made by the Bolshevist policy among women, such as protective maternity and infant legislation, women’s improved working conditions, the inclusion of women in the paid workforce, the introduction of prevention policies and the fight against prostitution. For ideological reasons, it was almost impossible to take a critical view of the methods of tackling the ‘woman question’ in the Soviet Union. As gender studies developed as an academic discipline, new problems and issues

were defined in the Soviet policies on the ‘woman question’ in general and in the work of zhenotdels in particular. One of the first studies based on feminist methodology published in Russia was the article by Olga Voronina on socialist women (1993: 205-26). A great many studies have since come from the Russian gender community that view the Soviet emancipation of women as an elaborate hoax. They also reveal new aspects of women’s discrimination (Zdravomyslova and Temkina 2007). In Western research, the women’s departments or zhenotdels generated interest as early as the 1970s, and many scholars have turned to this issue later as well (for example, Hayden 1976; Stites 1978: 329-45;

Clements 1992; Buckley 2001). The local aspects in the work of the zhenotdels nevertheless remain almost untouched, and this article broadens the picture by bringing materials from local history and local archives. As a locally anchored case study, it aims to bridge organizational history and grass-roots women’s agency in the period preceding state partycracy.