Tuesday, March 3, 2015

One Woman and Two Men in a Cramped Apartment: Sex and Marriage in 1920s Moscow

Lyudmila Semyonova as Liuda in "Bed and Sofa" (1927)
Creative Commons photo
"Marriage was oppressive to women first because, in the household just as in the workplace, women were viewed as inferior, subject to the rule of their husbands. In addition, monogamous marriage led spouses to feel ownership of one another, encouraging the belief that each had rights over the other."
From Caitlin Vest, "Alexandra Kollontai and the 'Woman Question': Women and Social Revolution, 1905-1917" https://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/citations/2011/11_Vest_History.pdf

Alexandra Kollantai's socialist feminism rang loudly within the ideological ferment of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In many ways, she influenced early Soviet attempts to improve the lot of women in the new society created out of the debris of the tsarist state. Russian women before the Revolution did not enjoy legal rights--their legal status was defined by their fathers, brothers and other male "guardians" if unmarried, and by their husbands after marriage. The idea that traditional, "bourgeois" marriage was now outdated and should be transformed was not only an idea held by Kollantai. Vladimir Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had tried to further Kollantai's vision of a new Soviet woman by supporting the creation of daycare centers to allow women to work and by supporting laws that would compel men to support pregnant wives and girlfriends through a type of child-support program. Women were also given the right to divorce. The tumultuous period following the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922 put the issue of women's rights on the social and cultural radar screen, with mixed success.

Looking back on the 1920s through the lens of the visual arts provides a fascinating look into the "new" society created by the Soviets. Recently I watched "Bed and Sofa," a classic silent film from 1927 that was directed by Abram Room. The symbolism of the film is rich, most of which cannot be dissected in a blog post. However, the overarching theme is how an ordinary woman fared during a time of change that promised so much to so many.

The plot of the film was considered scandalous by many at the time of its release:

"Russian writer/director Abram Room never again made anything as good--or as highly individual--as his 1927 silent film "Bed and Sofa." In this one-of-a-kind satire of the Moscow housing shortage, a married construction worker invites an old pal to stay with him. The friend not only accepts the worker's hospitality, but the favors of his wife as well. Impregnated, the wife tires of being a pawn for two rampaging male libidos and leaves both men, seeking a new life of her own." Hal Erickson, http://www.fandango.com/bedandsofa_52622/plotsummary

Kolya and Liuda are a young married couple living in a one-room apartment in Moscow. He has a career as a builder and works supervising the remodeling of the Bolshoi Ballet theater. His behavior is childish at times; he pulls pranks on Liuda and treats her more like a servant than a wife. Kolya's job allows him to venture out of the apartment to enjoy the bustling metropolis outside their cramped apartment. Abram Room's scenes of Moscow in summer are a delight. The viewer immediately senses the city becoming a modern metropolis (you see scaffolding on buildings and workers scurrying everywhere). Room clearly wants it known that Kolya and the men he works with are masters not only of their homes, but also of the public square. Unbeknownst to Kolya, the control over his life and his wife will be upended in the course of events.

Kolya's wife, Liuda, is overshadowed by him early in the film. Her confinement to the one-room apartment is mental, not physical. Kolya does not use physical coercion to get her to embrace subservience. Her world is defined by the walls of the apartment, symbolically decorated by the pictures that hang upon it. The magazines she reads give her a narrow perception of the world outside. She spends a lot of time gazing out of the window, imagining the world outside that Kolya takes for granted on a daily basis. What makes the film fascinating to watch is her eventual awakening as a woman who can exist outside the confines of her apartment. However, for most of the film, she spends her waking hours cooking, cleaning and doing other mundane chores.

Things rapidly change for the couple upon the arrival of Kolya's army buddy, Volodya, who arrives in Moscow after a train ride that represents a classic view of a country bumpkin looking to the city not only for a job but for the dynamism it provides. He lands a job and searches for lodging (the film makes a subtle critique of the severe housing shortage in Moscow a full decade after the Revolution). He bumps into Kolya on the street, who enthusiastically offers the apartment's sofa to his friend. Kolya's generosity is on full display here. The sofa is to be Volodya's "kingdom." Much to Liuda's annoyance, she is now responsible for cooking and cleaning for two men, and her loneliness deepens.

The love triangle is set into motion when Kolya is sent away on business. Volodya takes it upon himself to entertain the lonely Liuda by taking her on a day trip that includes a flight on a plane and a visit to the movies. This is one of two times in the film that Liuda is seen in public--it is also the happiest we see her in the film, as she finds herself outside of her self-imposed mental and physical prison. In the plane, she can see Moscow, but it cannot experience it close up like her husband and Volodya can. She does not realize this, because the excitement of the experience overwhelms her. That evening, Volodya seduces her and when Kolya returns from is trip, he bluntly tells the befuddled husband what transpired between him and Liuda.

The fascinating twist in this story has to do with the new domestic arrangement that the three set up in the apartment. Kolya is hurt, but because of the housing crunch has nowhere to go; Liuda offers him the sofa while Volodya moves to the bed. Over time, the strains in the friendship between the two men soften somewhat, as they spend evening after evening playing checkers while ignoring Liuda, who must endure her new "husband"--Volodya--who proves to be more demanding and dismissive of her than Kolya had been. Liuda's routine does not change.  Effectively shut out of this fraternity, she gazes out of the window at a world that seems to be forever out of her reach.

The director, Room, is satirizing the new shifts in the law that occurred in the 1920s as the Communist Party and Soviet state attempted to engineer changes in the structure of the family. Ideologically, there were moves to encourage more Soviet women to enter the workplace and to remake the "bourgeois" institution of marriage that had, in the eyes of Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin, Krupskaya and Kollantai, enslaved women and reinforced male patriarchy. Old attitudes die hard, and in Room's view, at least in this film, male domination of the home was ripe for satire.

Once the two men realize Liuda is pregnant, they decide that she is to have an abortion. She is left out of this conversation. Under Soviet law at the time, the mother could name the father, who could then be held responsible for the child support. Both men want nothing to do with the pregnancy. Liuda agrees to the abortion, but with misgivings. The abortion clinic scene, while not especially disturbing, does subtly highlight the plight of women who took this route, but the viewer can see Liuda's anxiety mounting. While waiting her turn in the clinic, she opens a window and sees a boy playing with a doll and two babies lying quietly in their bassinet. She leaves the clinic right before Kolya and Volodya arrive there to see her. The nurse asks who they are and they both respond at the same time, "husband."

Liuda arrives back at the apartment, packs her things, leaves a short note and quickly departs for the train station. The train ride out of Moscow is in direct contrast to the train ride Volodya took into Moscow at the start of the film. The difference here is that Volodya had a plan--to find a job and live in the city. The ending of the film appears to be a triumph for Liuda, who smiles as the train rushes forward toward an unknown destination. Is she finally free to shape her own destiny? Critics of the film stated upon its release that the ending was a condemnation of the new Soviet order: opportunities to participate in the life of the Communist Party, to make a difference in the workplace, and to find a sense of solace in the home still eluded most women.

How did the other sides of this love triangle cope with Liuda's absence? Kolya and Volodya decided to turn the apartment into their own bachelor pad. In this hilarious, absurd ending, fraternity trumps marriage and any relationship the men had with Liuda, monogamous or otherwise.

This film, reflective of the massive social and cultural changes that shook Moscow in the 1920s, provides an absorbing story of gender roles and politics in a time and place much unlike our own.

Find the English version of "Bed and Sofa" at Nexflix.com.