KEYWORDS: STEM fields, USSR, 20th. Century, women, representation, education, ideology, Marxism


Comrades in Science: Women in STEM fields in the Soviet Union

A hundred years ago, in 1917, the Bolsheviks decided it was time to boost the engine of progress in history. Even though their success is disputable and the concept of progress even more so, here we attempt to approach their performance in the representation of women in STEM fields. As Marxists, they professed an almost mystical faith in science and technology, which were the ultimate signs of a general euphoria and optimism for the future. Soviet power promised equal rights for all its citizens and, ideally, women would be able to study and perform even in traditionally male-dominated occupations, empowered by an increasing awareness of their strengths and abilities. Women had to be freed from domestic servitude and drawn into social production in order to enjoy ‘the exact same position as men’, according to Lenin1 (pp. 1-2). In 1936, the Soviet Constitution proudly proclaimed: “In the USSR a problem of enormous magnitude has been resolved: for the first time in history, authentic equality for women is assured”2 (p. 628). The Soviet position was that men and women were completely equal, that they were human beings above all else, and that they should relate to each other primarily as comrades, whether they were co-workers or husband and wife1 (p. 52).

Women’s education was used as indicative of the success of socialism, which provided a general and mandatory secondary education. In the 1960s, 59% of the specialists who had secondary or higher level training were women. In 1981, 52% of the students in higher learning and 56% of the pupils in specialized secondary schools were young women2 (pp. 634-35). At the doctoral level, while only one in twelve physics and math degrees went to women, female chemists constituted 40% of recipients in that field3. However, women took longer to complete the candidate’s degree. Also, many of them failed to submit their doctoral theses and therefore the promotion of women to heads of laboratories in science academies ranged between 20 and 30 percent4 (pp. 28-30). In spite of this, female researchers among science personnel in the USSR had increased dramatically in the post-war period, from 59,000 in 1950 to 129,000 in 1960 and to nearly 465,000 in 19743.

“I will be a chemist” (propaganda poster from 1964)

Women’s strategies to increase their visibility

Aspiring women scientists marrying a professor or a fellow student with a promising career was a way to advance, but this did not mean that they owed everything to their husbands. Many of them performed flawlessly in all aspects of social life and reflected what the new Soviet woman could achieve5 (p. 201). For example, Kochina Pelageia Iakovlevna (1899-1999), herself a mathematician, married the mathematician Nikolai Kochin. In 1935, Nikolai Kochin was appointed head of the division of mathematics at the Steklov Mathematics Institute in Moscow, where Kochina also found a job as a senior research associate. In 1939, the institute became part of the newly established Institute of Mechanics of the Academy of Sciences and Kochin was named an academician of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

After Kochin’s death in 1944, Kochina continued his course of lectures and also taught first at the Hydrometeorological and Aircraft Building Institute and later at the Aviation Industry Academy of the University of Moscow. In 1959, at the age of sixty, Kochina volunteered to go to Siberia to help with the establishment of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences at Novosibirsk. She was a member of its praesidium and also director of the department of applied hydrodynamics at the Hydrodynamics Institute and head of the department of theoretical mechanics at the University of Novosibirsk. In 1970, Kochina returned to Moscow, where she became director of the section for mathematical methods of mechanics at the Institute for Problems in Mechanics. Kochina was awarded the State Prize in 1946, four Orders of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour and, in 1969, she was named a Hero of Socialist Labour6.

Moreover, in order to increase their chances in the academia, some women joined the Communist Party and others chose branches of science that were crucial to the new regime5 (p. 199). By 1947, 37% of scientific workers were party members, rising to 40% in 1950 and 43% in 1955. By the mid 1950s, 33% of the full members and 39% per cent of the corresponding members of the USSR Academy of Sciences were party members, while in its praesidium the party ‘saturation’ was 67% chemists, 52% among biologists and 46% among physicists and mathematicians, percentages which were much lower than in the social sciences4 (p. 73,80).

An example of the possibilities offered by socialism and political engagement to poor proletarian girls and, at the same time, indicative of the dangerous implications of ideology for scientific research, is Anna Markovna Bykhovskaia (1901-after 1937). All scientific domains were, from the natural sciences to philosophy were totally subordinate to the party leadership. Despite the “antibourgeois specialist campaign” 7 and the vydvyzhenie movement in the late 1920s, which aimed at moving proletarians into scientific fields in order to replace scientists from privileged background, ‘bourgeois’ specialists were still in command of Soviet science7 (p. 17).

Bykhovskaia was self-supporting from the age of fifteen by first giving private lessons and later by working as a primary school teacher. In 1920, she joined the Communist Party, which probably played a role in her being admitted to Moscow University, where she graduated from the physical-mathematical department in 1927. In 1930, Bykhovskaia was appointed dean of the biology department of Moscow State University and also director of the Zoological Research Institute, which at that time was working intensively on problems of agricultural pests, particularly those affecting grain. In the 1930s, scientists using traditional methods, such as breeding, selection and hybridization in agriculture, were depicted as sabotaging the country’s efforts and branded as “enemies” and “wreckers.” In an article published on 17 June 1937 in Za proletarskie kadry, Bykhovskaia was criticized for being soft on enemies and in a further article of 17 October 1937, she was accused of being an enemy herself. She was subsequently arrested and disappeared into the Gulag6.

Ideological motors and obstacles for the advancement of science

As regards the place of science in society and its connection to ideology, Marx seemed to assign science to the base rather than the superstructure, while Engels allocated it to the superstructure. The Bolsheviks tended to see science in superstructural terms and could be manipulated by the ruling. Stalin, in his famous 1951 work on linguistics, Marxism and Linguistics, renegotiated the status of science and the 1961 Party Programme stated that, “The Party will do everything to enhance the role of science in building communist society. It will encourage research and discover new possibilities for the development of the productive forces, and the rapid and extensive application of the latest scientific and technical achievements […] Science will itself in full measure become a direct productive force”7 (p. 18-19).

Many scientists that used to be attacked in the past for their alleged bourgeois affiliations were now relieved from the fear of stigmatization. Such an example was Sofia Aleksandrovna Ianovskaia (1896-1966), a mathematician. The revolution of 1917 interrupted her studies and she became active in the Bolshevik wing of the Communist Party. In 1924, Ianovskaia entered the Institute of Red Professors in Moscow and by 1931 she was a professor at Moscow State University. Although she used mathematical logic as a weapon against bourgeois idealist philosophy, she refused to compromise with the dialecticians’ sclerosis and was therefore faced with political reprisal till the 1950s.6

After 1945, Soviet scientists overcame significant obstacles to help rebuild a war-ravaged economy and re-establish normal progress in scientific research and development8 (p. 191). The USSR was well interconnected and networked through the headquarters of research based in Moscow, the all-Union meetings for the exchange of the newly acquired knowledge in several fields and with the numerous research stations and expeditions organized in the Caucasus and in Siberia. Furthermore, the regime’s interest in a healthy population and, consequently, a robust workforce, encouraged research targeting diseases and using new methods of treatment. For example, Olga Korshunova (1909-?) was a Russian microbiologist who researched rickettsial diseases by studying tick- and flea-borne pathogens isolated from patients’ blood. She worked first at the Metchnikov Institute in Moscow and then at the All-Union Institute for Experimental Medicine. Elena Mikhailovna Golinevich (1901-?) also researched rickets and the rickettsial diseases and she received the Lenin Prize for her definitive work on this subject. Jermolieva Zinaida Vissarionovna (1898-1974) was a microbiologist and bacteriologist working on cholera, penicillin, and streptomycin6.

Nevertheless, the Cold War hindered the spread of breakthrough research between the two sides of the Iron Curtain and what follows is an example that illustrates how isolation condemned some inventions to obscurity and oblivion. In the 1950s, the group of V. G. Tronev had an ambitious research project producing new rhenium compounds and investigating their properties at the Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry and the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Rhenium had been discovered by Ida and Walter Noddack in Germany, but Ada Kotelnikova discovered a direct rhenium-rhenium contact which could create strong linkages. Kotelnikova published her findings in a paper jointly with Tronev and then she moved on to other areas of inorganic chemistry. However, somewhat later, the American F. Albert Cotton discovered that the rhenium-rhenium interaction was four times stronger than the usual single bond and named it quadruple bond. Cotton was credited with this discovery without any mention to the previous work by Kotelnikova5 (p. 201).

Despite the isolation in the political field, scientists could always find a way to build bridges with the international scientific community through correspondence and translations. Elena Alekseevna Ivanova (1901-2005), a geologist stratigrapher and paleontologist, had very broad international connections and she exchanged publications and corresponded with ninety paleontologists from eighteen different countries6. Moreover, both the Second World War and the Cold War competition gave a boost to the development of applied sciences and scientists and party officials proved to be faithful to the cult of science8 (p. 172).

In the field of astronomy, which provided the theoretical background for the space run and the exploration of the universe, women scientists contributed with the discovery of minor planets, comets and asteroids. Vera Fedorovna Gaze (1899-1954) was a Russian astronomer who studied emission nebula and minor planets. Tamara Mikhaylovna Smirnova (1935-2001) was an astronomer and a discoverer of minor planets and comets. From 1966 to 1988 she was a staff member of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Leningrad. Lyudmila Ivanovna Chernykh (born in 1935) is astronomer, wife and colleague of Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh, and a prolific discoverer of minor planets. Bella Alekseïevna Bournacheva (born in 1944) is an astronomer credited with the discovery of several asteroids6.

The Soviets were very skilful at honouring their heroes and Lidija Liepiņa (1891-1985) is a good example of this. She was a Latvian chemist who was awarded the Medal For Valiant Labour in the Great Patriotic War, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, Hero of Socialist Labour, the Order of Lenin and the “Hammer and Sickle” gold medal, for her contribution to the creation of the first Russian gas mask. Furthermore, emphasis was given to cartography in order to control the vast Soviet territory more efficiently. Nadezhda Alekseyevna Agaltsova (born in 1938), for example, was awarded the Lenin Prize for her contribution to the development of wide-angle aerial survey lenses of the third, fourth and fifth generations for cartographic purposes and the same honour was awarded in 1966 to Antonina Fedorovna Prikhot’ko (1906-1995) for her fundamental contributions to condensed matter spectroscopy6.

In conclusion, the Soviet experiment showed that ideology and political will can create the circumstances of a reconstruction of the established roles and relationships between genders in society, but also that theory always lies far from practice. For Soviet women, science became more accessible thanks to the spread of educational opportunities to the non-privileged strata of society and to the giant effort to bring the USSR to the frontline of technological and scientific progress. At the same time, preconceived ideas related to gender and class structure were not easy to shake and the ideological implication of mixing politics and science victimised otherwise gifted scientists and censored the scientific debate. Over all, women still needed to develop their own strategies in order to climb up the ladder of academic recognition and resist the pressures for conformity and submission.



  1. Attwood, Lynne (1999), Creating the New Soviet Woman: Women’s Magazines as Engineers of Female Identity, 1922–53, London, Macmillan Press.
  2. Aivazova,Svetlana (2003), “Liberty and Equality for Women in the Socialist Countries of Eastern Europe, 1960–1980” in Political and historical encyclopedia of women, Christine Fauré(ed.), New York/ London, Routledge, 624-648.
  3. Roshana, Sylvester (12 dec.2013), “Russian space history: soviet women in stem fields”, Russian History Blog,<> (last accessed 15 may 2017).
  4. Kneen, Peter (1984), Soviet Scientists and the State: An Examination of the Social and Political Aspects of Science in the USSR, London, Macmillan Press.
  5. Hargittai, Magdolna (2015), Women Scientists. Reflections, Challenges and Breaking Boundaries, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  6. Harvey, Joy/Marilyn Ogilvie (eds.) (2000), The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, New York/London, Routledge.
  7. Fortescue, Stephen (1986), The Communist Party and Soviet Science, London, Macmillan Press.
  8. Josephson, Paul R. (1990) “Rockets, Reactors, and Soviet Culture” in Science and the Soviet Social Order, Graham, Loren R.(ed.), Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, England, Harvard University Press, 168-194.



Aivazova,Svetlana (2003), “Liberty and Equality for Women in the Socialist Countries of Eastern Europe, 1960–1980” in Political and historical encyclopedia of women, Christine Fauré (ed.), New York/ London, Routledge, 624-648.

Hargittai, Magdolna (2015), Women Scientists. Reflections, Challenges and Breaking Boundaries, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Harvey, Joy/Marilyn Ogilvie (eds.) (2000), The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, New York/London, Routledge.

Kneen, Peter (1984), Soviet Scientists and the State: An Examination of the Social and Political Aspects of Science in the USSR, London, Macmillan Press.


Author: Maria Adamopoulou
Date: 18 May 2017