Who Was Alexandra Kollontai? (Part 1 of 2)

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Few in the US today have even heard of Kollontai, let alone know anything about what made her so important to the world history of socialism. Have you ever wondered why all the “schools” of political theory — the “isms” — are named after men? There is not one -ism that commemorates the wisdom, actions, or sacrifices of any of the many political women who have fought the class struggle throughout history. If there ever should be one, there should be a flavor of socialism called Kollontaiist. 

It’s true that Kollontai was not as gifted a writer or thinker as Rosa Luxembourg or Inessa Armand, nor as famous a speaker as Emma Goldman, Clara Zetkin, or even Annie Besant, to name a few of her contemporaries. She was an activist more concerned with praxis than theory, and what theory she had was grounded in visceral feeling and empathy for the plight of working class women, including under the communist government of which she was briefly a part. Her main gift was probably an ability to see and mediate with multiple sides of a question, and a stubborn insistence to speak truth to powerful and unsympathetic men. This was possibly also her weakness in the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it was a strength in her ultimate career as a brilliant diplomat.  

To start with, there are Kollontai’s achievements as “first woman” and her distinctions as “only member of Lenin’s inner circle.” She was the only woman on the 1917 Bolshevik Central Committee and the first woman in the new People’s Council of Commissars after they took power. She was the first woman in the world to be appointed an ambassador when, in 1926, she became the Soviet ambassador to Mexico. Her adult political life can be said to have started in 1898 when, at the age of 26, she left her husband and son to become a “mature student” and political activist. In later years, she was the only member of Lenin’s inner circle not to die in the Stalinist purges, apart from those “lucky” enough to die before them – the one person Stalin was afraid to or unable to imprison or kill. 

Born as Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich on 31 March, 1872 in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was the daughter of a distinguished but liberal Tsarist general descended from Ukrainian Cossacks, and a woman who was the daughter of a Finnish peasant who had made a huge fortune in the lumber business and his aristocratic Russian wife. Her mother had previously been in an arranged marriage, and divorced and remarried. Both of her parents were misfits in the Russian society of the day, and theirs was considered an outlandish and inappropriate marriage. Shura, as she was affectionately called, was closer to her father and was raised and tutored by an English nanny. She grew up with romantic notions, fluency in English, French, German, and Finnish as well as Russian, and a desire to go to university, which was unheard of for women and strongly opposed by her mother. 

Instead, Alexandra married her cousin Vladimir Kollontai in 1893, after a tour of Western Europe failed to cure her of a love her mother disapproved of. She became pregnant soon after and bore her only child, Mikhail. As a young bride and mother, Kollontai was restless, and read political literature, mostly Marx, and wrote short stories on romantic themes. She exercised her rising political consciousness at first in charity work with the poor of St. Petersburg. Although her marriage was happy on the whole, her husband did not share these interests, and finally in 1898 she rebelled. Leaving little Mikhail with her parents, she went to Zurich to study political theory for a year. Upon her return she separated from Vladimir and became a single parent and newly minted activist. She cemented her break with upper class Russian society by joining the illegal Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1899. 

In my view, the five stages of Kollontai’s adult life can be seen as her SDLP period, her Menshevik period, her Bolshevik period, her Workers’ Opposition period, and her post-Leninist period. For purposes of brevity, I will present a timeline of high points to indicate the course of her development as she lived through the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century and became a leading, if often rejected, public intellectual and socialist agitator. 

1898 — spends a year studying Marxism in Zurich, divorces Vladimir Kollontai 

1899 — joins the SDLP

1900-1903 — begins writing for international Marxist journals, publishing 10 articles 

1903 — publishes one major work of Marxist analysis – The Life of Finnish Workers

1900-1905 — begins public speaking, mostly to proletariat audiences, an activity that almost no other socialist women engaged in at the time 

1905 — is in the march on the Winter Palace (the first “Bloody Sunday”) which started the revolution of 1905

1905 — spends the rest of the Revolution coordinating with Finnish Social Democrats and raising money 

1905 — begins to perceive the fact that socialist parties’ ignoring women’s issues made the growing bourgeois feminist movement a threat to socialism and starts agitating the SDLP and developing a theory of socialist feminism 

1906 — leaves the SDLP and joins the Mensheviks

1906 — starts an affair with Petr Maslov, a Menshevik economist (who is also married) 

1907 — sets up the Mutual Aid Society for Working Women in St. Petersburg to further her organizing of women, lacking party support, but with her own homegrown support network

1908 — publishes “Social Bases of the Woman Question,” suggesting that transforming power dynamics of the family and ending male domination were as important as overthrowing capitalism to socialists, and that overthrowing capitalism was vital to feminism

1908 — organizes a delegation of 45 factory workers to the first Congress of Russian Women, a bourgeois feminists’ project 

1908 — the Tsarist police, at the behest of the Womens’ Congress organizers, attempt to arrest Kollontai for sedition, forcing her to flee the country for her first exile period

1910 — writes a major part of Menshevik document “Society and Maternity” which led ultimately to a comprehensive maternity benefit for all, including “unwed mothers,” something even the liberal European governments at the time did not contemplate

1911 — breaks off with Maslov to form a relationship with Alexander Shliapnikov, a fellow exile, an original 1903 Bolshevik, who would become the Commissioner of Labor in the 1917 government

1906-1914 — meets most leading leftists of the day during her travels, including the Webbs, Lenin and Krupskaya, Shaw, Kautsky, Luxembourg, Zetkin, Liebknicht, and others

1914 — outbreak of war causes Kollontai to call for “a war on war,” militant pacifism, or what Lenin calls “revolutionary defeatism”

1915 — breaks with the Mensheviks and joins the Bolsheviks

1914-1917 — serves as the Bolshevik presence in Scandinavia, settling in Norway after Sweden imprisoned her briefly, and maintaining Lenin’s secret communication link to Russia. Also travels to the US trying to find allies for the Bolshevik defeatist cause

1917 — travels to Russia after the Tsar’s abdication with several of Lenin’s communications hidden in her underwear. Immediately calls for the overthrow of the new Provisional Government being the only Bolshevik initially to defend Lenin’s April Theses

1917 — meets Lenin with a small delegation at Finland Station as he returns from exile to lead the Bolshevik government 

1917 — after the October Revolution, appointed to the Council of Commissars with the portfolio of Social Welfare

1917-1918 — against great opposition, manages to institute: full maternity pay and paid child care; full equality for women in work choice; laws against child labor; abolition of illegitimacy; establishment of state orphanages, taking children off the streets; and civil marriage and divorce for all citizens 

1918 — becomes one of the first to take advantage of civil marriage law. At the age of 45, she marries a 27-year old anarcho-socialist sailor named Pavel Dybenko, much to Lenin’s consternation, since Dybenko is considered a dangerous dissident 

. . . 

This is a good place to leave the story on a cliffhanger. Be sure and check back in a month to see how Kollontai’s story turns out. (I may forget about poor old Dybenko, so you can look up his story on Wikipedia.) Also, further reading and links to some of Kollontai’s works in translation will be provided.

–Deb R.