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Irreconcilable Differences: Divorces and Conceptions of Private Life in the Khrushchev Era

“Two basic assumptions about the nature of private life were embedded in texts on Communist morality and in didactic materials about family and domestic life. First, theorists and moralists assumed psychological simplicity and harmony, taking for granted that personal relationships were straightforward and that once people understood how to conduct their private lives correctly, they would be willing and able to do so. Reason and will, in this formulation, invariably governed emotion, thus eliminating the possibility of internal conflict and ambivalence. For example, a manual for propagandists on how to discuss love and marriage with young people included the following recommendation. The commonly asked question, “How [can I] harmonize impulses of the heart with the voice of reason and feeling of duty?” should be answered, “For the Soviet person, for whom consciousness and social purposefulness have penetrated all of life, there cannot be an irreconcilable conflict between feelings and reason: impulses of the heart must be controlled by the demands of sense and duty.”’17 The absence of self-interest was a second feature of Communist morality’s delineation of the private. Many theorists insisted that public and private interests were identical. While others admitted that contradictions could arise during the contemporary transition period from socialism to communism, they stressed that in such circumstances, personal needs should always be subordinated because “the interests of society are higher than the interests of the family, the interests of the family are higher than the interests of the individual.”1 Eventually, moralists explained, the repression of individual interests and desires would become second nature. “In Communist society, there will be such harmony of personal and social interests, such high consciousness, that when ‘conflicts’ arise be- tween the personal and the social, people, without special difficulty, by habit will subordinate their desires to social interests.”19 Only people who had mastered their feelings and desires could make the kind of sacrifices for the public good that Soviet moralists required. In an imagined world governed by Communist morality, individual interests were identical with or subordinate to public goals, and personal relations were uncomplicated. Citizens’ emotional harmony, and the resolution of all their personal conflicts, were the prerequisites for economic development, social order, and progress toward communism.”

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“Such reunions rarely occurred, however, in any stage of the divorce procedure. Although people’s court judges were supposed to reconcile couples during the first stage of divorce proceedings, they seldom succeeded. A Moscow people’s court judge told an American researcher in 1959 that “in my eight years as a judge, I have had only two cases of reconciliation. Of these, only one worked. The other couple came back again in four months.”32 Another American observer, describing the first divorce hearing, reported that “everyone regarded it as sheer formality.”

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