Aleksandra Mihailovna Kollontai

The leading woman Communist during the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union, Aleksandra Kollontai was also the party's foremost theorist on matters affecting women, believing that the revolution would liberate women from the constraints of their traditional, domestic lives. As a leader of the Workers' Opposition, she attempted to resist the regime's centralisation during the civil war, but was moved sideways into the diplomatic service and became the first female ambassador.

An elegant woman from a minor aristocratic background, Kollontai never conformed to the plain styles of dress adopted by most female Bolsheviks, and even when addressing factory committees might not have seemed out of place in Doctor Zhivago instead.

She was born in 1872 in St. Petersburg; her mother had defied convention herself by moving in with an army colonel, Kollontai's father, before her divorce from her first husband was finalised. It was precisely the kind of behaviour of which Kollontai whole-heartedly approved. Like many of her contemporaries who joined revolutionary movements, Kollontai had her imagination fired by Sofia Perovskaya, the terrorist from the People's Will group who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

Aleksandra married her cousin, Vladimir Kollontai in 1890, and took his surname, unusual for a young socialist woman; throughout her life, she would be devoted to their son Misha. Her interest in the emancipation of women was long-standing, but she plumped for socialism over middle-class feminism after visiting the Kronholm textile works in Narva and being shocked by the workers' housing.

Congress Woman

Marx had dictated that working-class women owed their solidarity to the proletariat rather than other women, making feminism and socialism incompatible. Throughout her revolutionary career, Kollontai would be dogged by the suspicions of other Bolsheviks - women included - that her emphasis on agitation specifically targeted at women risked infecting them with feminism instead.

However, Kollontai's first work with women was an explicit answer to the new-found prominence of middle-class feminists after the partial liberalisation following the semi-revolution of 1905. Not particularly encouraged by the socialist leadership in Russia, she set up a Working Women's Club offering lectures and a library to vaguely politicised women workers, having realised that the best way to interest them in socialism was to explain how it would affect their everyday lives.

Never one to shy away from a fight, Kollontai took a socialist delegation to the feminists' congress in 1908, delivering in no uncertain terms her message that women could only be liberated by struggling against the capitalist system itself. She urged women not to identify themselves as wives, but through the role they would play as workers in contributing to the socialist society to be created; with extensive social security laid on by the state, their motherhood would no longer be a burden.

Her addresses at the congress brought the underground revolutionary to police attention, and she was forced to leave Russia until the fall of Tsarism in 1917. During World War I, she had joined Lenin's Bolsheviks, finding them the only socialist party as opposed to the war as was she.

Soldiers' Wives

Back in Russia, Kollontai fulfilled the promise of 1908 and became one of the Bolsheviks' most effective orators. As an associate of Lenin, she became the first woman on the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the organisation of workers and soldiers that held de facto dual authority with the official Provisional Government.

She was closely associated with the Bolshevik journal for women, Rabotnitsa, an aspect which their Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary rivals did not provide, and recognised the revolutionary potential of disaffected soldiers' wives, to whom she regularly preached.

Her anti-feminism and pacifism combined in her attacks on the women's battalions being raised in a fit of revolutionary zeal by premier Aleksandr Kerensky; according to Kollontai, half of them had joined up to escape a failed love affair, and the rest were there to fulfil a savage blood lust. (If any of them should know about the love affairs, it was Kollontai; she had walked out on Mr Kollontai after the marriage broke down, and was soon to take up with a gentle-giant sailor, Pavel Dybenko.) During the civil war, she would not be so outspoken against Red Army commissars like Rosalia Zemliachka, of whom the same and worse could have been said.

Returning from a conference in Stockholm that July, she was imprisoned for two months by the Government, having been abroad just as rumours were circulating that the Bolsheviks were in German pay. On her release at the end of August, she was almost immediately made a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee.

People's Commissar

After the October Revolution, Kollontai was made People's Commissar, or minister, for Social Welfare, the first woman to hold Cabinet rank. She was enabled, for the first time, to put into practice what in other circumstances might have been radical feminism by another name: communal kitchens, extensive state childcare and her pet social security projects would enable women to realise their independence through productive, paid employment.

She made little progress until the civil war, which began in the summer of 1918, threw the revolutionary state into emergency measures; her opponents spread rumours that her real natalist intentions were to force twelve-year-olds to become mothers, and persons unknown burned down the building she had intended as her flagship centre for antenatal care. Nonetheless, the Soviet Family Code of 1918 incorporated many of her policies on childcare and welfare insurance.

Full rein did not come Kollontai's way until the civil war broke out that summer; with one eye on the French precedent, she hoped that an extensive social revolution, women's independence included, could piggyback on the war effort. Similar reasoning had been employed with the feminists she attacked in 1917, although it would not have been a good idea to remind her.

Arguing that women should be carrying out their own liberation, but afraid that most women saw no connection between their lives and the state, Kollontai proposed an agitational bureau within the Communist party, reviving an idea she had first attempted in 1917.

The first step was the All-Russian Women's Congress of November 1918: she had expected 300 or 400 delegates, from factories, villages and the army alike. In the event, more than a thousand showed up, and Kollontai spent the first night hanging on the telephone trying to find them all something to eat. She outlined her practical programme at the Congress: a network of central kitchens, and children to be brought up in state nurseries, although returning home to their families at the end of the day. Similar principles would underlie the original kibbutz movement in Israel.

After a stint in the Ukraine, rallying the population against the counter-revolutionary army of General Denikin, Kollontai fully expected to be made the first director of the bureau for propaganda among women, Zhenotdel, when it was formed in 1919; not unreasonably, she considered she had been its inspiration. As it happened, she was passed over in favour of Lenin's erstwhile mistress Inessa Armand but took Zhenotdel over when Armand died in 1920.

The New Class

While director of Zhenotdel, Kollontai also fell in with the Workers' Opposition faction of the party, after she became upset at members' lack of freedom to criticise Communist policies. As one of the Opposition leaders, she developed the idea that Communist parties in power tend to become a separate bureaucratic class three decades before the Yugoslavian Communist-turned-dissident Milovan Djilas reached the same conclusion.

The controversy between Lenin and the Opposition came to a head in 1922, when Kollontai was removed from Zhenotdel and nearly expelled from the party. Instead - perhaps because it suited Moscow to have a token woman to point to - she was found a diplomatic post in Norway, and dedicated herself to her writing, a pleasure neglected during the revolutionary years. She would also serve at the legations in Mexico, where she did not take to the weather, and the more congenial Sweden.

Kollontai weathered the Stalinist purges of the mid-1930s, from which Soviet diplomats overseas were no more immune than anyone else, by maintaining a stubborn silence punctuated by the occasional recantation of her civil-war radicalism. Notwithstanding a stroke in 1942, after which she conducted diplomacy from her wheelchair, she died at the age of 80 in 1952, one of the few Old Bolsheviks to have survived the purge years.

Read more:

Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai
Beatrice Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai