THE COOK WHO WILL GOVERN THE STATE: Domestic Servants and the Revolution

Department of History
Alissa Klots; Rutgers University, USA

The image of the domestic servant has traditionally been a symbol of inequality and exploitation. How to explain the existence of domestic servants in the Soviet state, which made claims about the abolition of exploitation of man by man, and the liberation of women from kitchen slavery? Why paid domestic labor was neither condemned nor driven into the informal economy, but rather became an official part of the socialist economy? In her report the presenter examines the evolution of discussions about domestic workers in the first decades of Soviet power in order to uncover a number of paradoxes underlying the Bolshevik ideology.


On February 17th, Alissa Klots gave a presentation in the Gold Hall titled “The Cook Who Will Govern the State: Domestic Servants and the Revolution.” Alissa now works as a senior research fellow at The Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies. She graduated from Perm State University, and defended her candidate’s dissertation there in 2012. She has been a PhD student at Rutgers University since 2011. In introducing remarks about her professional interests, Samuel Hirst, the Acting Dean of the Department of History noted that this presentation is part of her future dissertation.

Klots began with a letter that brought her to her research topic. In the letter, a worker defines certain doubts—can a Communist have a domestic servant? It reveals several paradoxes: on the one hand, even an illiterate village girl has the right to obtain education for subsequent industrial work. On the other, the labor is more important, and therefore hiring a domestic worker is justified. If a cook wasn’t hired, then the wife would have to leave her work, and this would be a loss of working hands for the Soviet industry. At the same time, the author of the letter didn’t presuppose the possibility of a division of domestic labor between man and woman. The only question asked is whether a Communist can have a domestic servant.

It would seem that domestic service and other bourgeois means of “exploitation” should be condemned. But domestic service was fully legal, and there were numerous discussions conducted about it in Soviet journals. It is precisely this problem that lies in the focus of the research. There is a huge number of works about house servants in various countries aside from the USSR and Communist China, but most of them use the example of domestic service to explore inequality and capitalism. Thus Alissa pursues the goal of rupturing the association оf capitalism and paid domestic labor through the example of Soviet realities.

Among the sources used for solving this problem there were materials in which public discourse of the period was presented—magazine articles, autobiographies, and cultural models. A particularity of the Soviet sources turned out to be that the actors in public discourse were generally housekeepers themselves, or their trade unions. This differs from foreign discourses, where employers prevailed.

In the Soviet state the cook is presented in two primary images—the hero, and the exploited element. In the ideological discussion that unfolded in the pages of periodicals, a contradiction again emerged. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks believed in the right to self-realization and wanted to liberate women, they still continued to regard certain spheres of labor as exclusively female. A labor hierarchy was constructed in which paid domestic labor was clearly inferior to production labor.

This history of representations of housekeepers in the Soviet state is quite diverse, and originates with the year 1917. From the very beginning the attitude toward domestic paid labor was contradictory. On the one hand, before the revolution domestic servants were the most unprotected category of workers; on the other, however, domestic service was not productive labor. During the NEP period, the image of domestic workers again received the status of victim—primarily as being exploited by NEP-men. In this regard protection for the “victims of capitalist elements” was actualized, and the housekeeper became the symbol of that what the Soviet government could propose for the oppressed and exploited. Even Mayakovsky’s poems touched on the topic: “My i kukharku kazhduiu vyuchim upravlyat’ gosudarstvom! [We will learn every cook how to govern the state!].” A result of this was the development of union awareness, proletarian consciousness, and education among domestic workers —to the extent that in the end they had the right to change their jobs for something higher ranking.

It was discovered, however, that most employers weren’t NEP-men, but workers. A division mas made between those who hired housekeepers out of laziness—bourgeois elements of another kind—and those who hired them out of necessity. They were workers who, due to work in production, weren’t able to run a household themselves.

Changes in the Soviet state associated with the curtailing of NEP and the beginning of industrialization also affected housekeepers. The propaganda of industrial labor led to the discrimination of non-productive labor, which made the profession of housekeeper unpopular. This was expressed in the refusal of domestic workers to work according to their “profession,” since, first of all, they were engaged in unproductive labor (from the propaganda point of view), and second, they weren’t competing with anyone in the challenge to socialist emulation. And third, how could domestic workers help the Soviet state with their labor?

In relation to the mass exodus of domestic workers to production sphere, the question naturally arose about whether women previously working in production should return home because there was no one to work there, and whether there would be a decrease in production due to the reduction of qualified personnel. This became the precursor to the image of the housekeeper as the guarantor of rest for Soviet workers and the growth of Soviet production. The domestic worker began to support the mesh of Soviet society—the family. This was a solution of the state’s mission. Special competitions appeared among housekeepers, which developed their image as helpers of the Soviet system.

Nevertheless, in 1941 the debate about paid domestic labor disappeared, and after the war no one touched the topic. The debate resumed only under Khrushchev in the 1950s, though this was associated more with the scandal over demands to abolish the 1926 law that regulated the activity of domestic workers. Images of domestic workers in Soviet culture become increasingly diffuse, and during Brezhnev’s time the hiring of domestic workers became a phenomenon of the elite. 1988 marked the output of the last Soviet law regulating the activity of domestic workers.

Pavel Demchenko