Who Was Alexandra Kollontai? (Part 2 of 2)

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Read part 1 of this political education “snippet” here.

We were going to resume this story in 1918, one year after Alexandra Kollontai married Pavel Dybenko in the heat of the early days of the new Bolshevik Revolutionary government in St. Petersburg. But instead, I first need to fill in a few details left out of the previous timeline. 

To reiterate (or perhaps clarify), Kollontai was arrested and later threatened with arrest several times between 1905 and 1908. In 1905, she participated in the petitioning of the Winter Palace, at which the peaceful demonstrators were attacked by mounted Cossacks, and hundreds of men, women and children were massacred. In 1908, she finally went into actual exile. 

This exile would last until 1917, at which time she travelled from Finland to St. Petersburg to meet the train carrying Lenin and a host of other Bolshevik exiles from Germany and Switzerland. The first six years of this time were prior to The Great War (WWI) and Kollontai’s fierce opposition to this war marked a major swing in her organizing efforts and probably laid a groundwork for her future career in diplomacy. Here are some more highlights of the years from 1908 to 1917:

  • 1911 – Taught at a socialist school organized by Maxim Gorky in Italy.*
  • 1914 – Began organizing in Germany to convince socialist workers not to cooperate with the war effort. Imprisoned and deported. 
  • 1914 – In Austria, much the same as Germany, imprisoned again. 
  • 1914-1917 – Began to be based in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, which seemed more inclined to consider neutrality. She was imprisoned again and deported from Sweden. Having family in Finland, she settled there somewhat.
  • 1915 – Was a primary organizer of the Zimmerwald Conference against the war.* Authored a pamphlet “Who Needs War?” which was translated into several languages and secretly distributed to troops in action on both sides.*
  • 1915 – Invited to the US, she spent a grueling but exciting 150 days there, during which she spoke at 123 meetings in four languages. Included a memorial rally for Joe Hill at which she shared a platform with Eugene Debs.* 
  • 1917 – In the opening days of the Bolshevik revolution, she joined Molotov and her former lover and best friend Shlyapnikov in opposing cooperation with the Provisional Government (on the opposite side were Kamenev and Stalin).*
  • 1917 – Elected to represent an army unit, she was then elected to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
  • 1917 – Helped found and was a major contributor to Rabotnitsa, the Bolshevik women’s newspaper.*

(* Source for these items is the “Introduction” by Tom Condit on the Alexandra Kollontai Internet Archive, part of the website marxism.org.)  

The last three items above were what Kollontai was doing just in the tumultuous period between February and October of 1917! One truly wonders how she found time to fall in love and start a scandalous liaison with the hapless revolutionary sailor Pavel Dybenko. Perhaps she finally, at the age of 45, learned the lesson in an oft-repeated quote of hers: “I’ve read enough novels to know just how much time and energy it takes to fall in love, and I just don’t have the time.” 

An excerpt from Tom Condit’s Introduction in the Alexandra Kollontai Internet Archive sums up her incredible activity from the October Revolution through 1920: 

In October 1917, Kollontai participated in the decision to launch an armed uprising against the government and in the revolt itself. At the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, she was elected Commissar of Social Welfare in the new Soviet government. In 1918, she led a delegation to Sweden, England and France to raise support for the new government. Upon her return, she argued against ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and resigned from the government, feeling that the unity of the Commissariat would be jeopardized by having a member in opposition on such a crucial question. For the rest of 1918, she was active as an agitator and organizer, and played a key role in organizing the First All-Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women (November 1918).

At Congress of Peoples of the East, Baku, 1920

Throughout 1919, although ill with heart and kidney disease and suffering from typhus, Kollontai kept a grueling schedule of meetings, speeches and writing. She served as a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, President of the Political Department of the Crimean Republic, Commissar of Propaganda and Agitation for the Ukraine, and an activist in the newly-formed Women’s Section of the Communist Party (the zhenskii otdel, or “Zhenotdel” for short), which she, Inessa Armand, and Nadezhda Krupskaya** had played major roles in founding.

(**Krupskaya was Lenin’s spouse. While in exile in Zurich, Lenin had an affair with Armand. Kollontai, who was an intimate friend of both women, and an oppositional but ultimately loyal political ally of Lenin, probably knew more about that affair than all three affected parties. When Kollontai’s involvement with Dybenko became known, other members of the Petrograd Soviet sought to have her expelled for “neglecting her duties” and “conspiring” with Dybenko, who was a young hothead with an uncanny knack of flailing and failing upward. Lenin was the judge of the case they brought, and he “sentenced” Kollontai to marry Dybenko, taunting her for her impassioned rhetoric on how marriage oppressed women.) 

More timeline:

  • 1920 – Became head of the Zhenotdel following the death of Inessa Armand. 
  • 1920 – At All-Russian Congress of Soviets, was elected a member of the Executive Committee. At that congress, she also joined the “Workers’ Opposition,” an opposition tendency in the Bolshevik Party opposed to the increasing bureaucratization of the Soviet state, opposed to the New Economic Policy (NEP)*** and calling for increased power for unions and workers’ soviets.  
  • 1921 – The Workers’ Opposition, which had majority support in the Metalworkers’ Union and the Ukrainian Communist Party, was banned along with all other factions at the 10th party congress.
  • 1922 – Was one of the signers of the “Letter of the 22” to the Communist International protesting the banning of factions in Russia.
  • 1922 -Divorced Dybenko. 
Street art by Zoya in St. Petersburg, Russia

(***From Russapedia/:

Lenin’s unorthodox New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s that permitted private activity in agriculture, trade, and light industry reversed many of Kollontai’s reforms. Women lost jobs and many crèches were closed down, driving women out of the workforce and back into the home. Kollontai became an internal critic of the Communist Party leadership.)

The last part of Kollontai’s life before retirement was engaged in international affairs. Sidelined from internal politics in the USSR, she kept an uneasy peace with Stalin, who subtly threatened her life and the lives of her son, nephew, and grandson to keep her in line. This was also the second period, after her youth, when she became a writer of fiction. A number of her fiction works from this time were later gathered into a book called Love of the Worker Bees. Some of her non-fiction writings of this period, due to which she is often portrayed as a loyal Stalinist, were probably written under duress from the party. One of the charming things about Kollontai was how she conducted her household in embassy surroundings, where she would keep a household of women companions and their children, and invite the embassy guards and her office staff and all the servants and their families to the dinner table, even if it was a formal state occasion. 

The last timeline:

  • 1922 – The beginning of the last phase of Kollontai’s life, she was appointed as advisor to the Soviet delegation in Norway.
  • 1923 – Became Ambassador to Norway, the second woman ambassador in the world. 
  • 1926-1927 – Trade delegate to Mexico.
  • 1926-1946 – Delegate to the League of Nations. 
  • 1927-1930 – Diplomatic envoy to Norway. 
  • 1930-1943 – Diplomatic envoy to Sweden,  negotiator of Finno-Soviet peace treaty of 1940.
  • 1943-1945 – Ambassador to Sweden, negotiator of Finno-Soviet armistice of 1944.
  • 1946 – By now unable to walk due to chronic health issues since childhood, Kollontai retired and returned to the Soviet Union.
  • 1952 – Kollontai died of natural causes in her home, less than a year before the death of Stalin. 
  • 1952-present – Kollontai was written out of both USSR and leftist world history for several decades, but there was a revival of interest in her in the 1970s in the USSR and then in the early 1980s in the US and Europe. She is now treated in Russia as a major and respected historical figure. 
"Kollantai at 65" ... more likely 78 or 79

Further reading about Alexandra Kollontai:

Books – 

Cathy Porter (translator), Love of Worker Bees. [new translation of Vasilisa Malygina plus two short stories] (Virago paperback, 1977)  

Alix Holt (editor), Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (Norton paperback, 1980)

Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai – A Biography (Haymarket paperback, 2014) 

Online articles – 

The Alexandra Kollontai article in Wikipedia is very thorough. 

Anne McShane for Jacobin, “Women at the Heart of the Revolution,” Aug, 2019. 

Simon Karlinsky for The New York Times,The Menshevik, Bolshevik, Stalinist Feminist,” Jan., 1981. 

A very interesting precis on Kollontai on the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library site – www.prlib.ru/en/history/619133

Kristen R. Ghodsee, professor, University of Pennsylvania for THINK, How the socialist behind paid child care and parental leave was erased from women’s history,” March, 2020. 

Alexandra Kollontai, various writings at Marxist Internet Archive, including an MP3 of her speaking. 

Podcast – 

Katy Derbyshire for The Dead Ladies’ Show, “Podcast #31-Alexandra Kollontai,” March, 2020. 

–Deb R.