Inessa Armand:

June 12, 2002

Inessa, Lenin's Mistress
By Michael Pearson
Duckworth, 2001
257 pages, $65.95 (hb)


When Inessa Armand met Vladimir Lenin in a Paris caf‚ in 1909, so began one of the most speculated about love affairs on the revolutionary left. It has been Inessa Armand's ill-fate, however, to be historically remembered as “Lenin's mistress”, rather than the leading Marxist feminist she was.

Michael Pearson's biography begins with a woman who was an unlikely candidate for the role of Bolshevik revolutionary. Born Inessa Stephane in Paris in 1874, Inessa (she preferred to be known by her first name) was raised by her aunt in Russia following the early death of her opera-singer father. Comfortably well-off, politically indifferent and religiously devout, the 18-year-old Inessa married Alexander Armand, a wealthy but maverick industrialist through whom she discovered Russia's liberal and feminist intelligentsia.

The “woman question” occupied Inessa Armand's mind, and she set up philanthropic organisations such as the Moscow Society for Improving the Lot of Women and carried out welfare work among Moscow's prostitutes. The arrival of Marxist tutors in her household pushed her towards socialism as the solution to poverty and women's oppression.

Inessa Armand's personal life moved in tandem with her political evolution. Leaving her husband because he was not a revolutionary, she lived with her husband's brother, Vladimir, who was. In a dry run for her later affair with another Vladimir, it was a freely tolerated and open relationship despite the presence of a marriage (Inessa's husband continued to financially and personally support her and their children).

Returning to Russia from a holiday in Geneva, with the false bottom of her five children's suitcases concealing revolutionary literature, she joined the Bolsheviks in the revolutionary year of 1905. Active in the revolutionary underground in charge of propaganda in Moscow, the male workers in her education circles, often reluctant to accept a woman as a political mentor, were won over by her ability as a communicator. They had their distrust, and sexism, conquered by her direct approach which transmitted, with infectious optimism and enthusiasm, simple Marxist basics while avoiding condescension.

As was the lot of revolutionaries under Tsarism, it was soon Inessa's turn for arrest, imprisonment (where she contracted tuberculosis) and exile to Russia's remote and frigid north. Only two weeks later in Paris, having escaped from internal exile buried under a pile of furs on a sledge, her lover, Vladimir Armand, died from septicaemia. “Melancholy, pale and drawn”, with her lover and guide in revolutionary politics dead, cut off from her home and children, it was easy to fall in love with the leader of the cause that had brought her into exile, especially as Vladimir Lenin, who was far from alone in being smitten by her charm, elegance and vitality, returned the affection.

Inessa Armand carried out translations for Lenin, organised and taught political economy at a Bolshevik training school south of Paris, filled in as speaker when Lenin was unavailable, raised funds for the party, and carried out (risky) missions in Russia to stiffen Bolshevik resolve in Lenin's uncompromising struggle against liberals (bourgeois and “socialist”).

Armand, a talented pianist, played Beethoven and Chopin to Lenin, bringing the so-called hard revolutionary to tears. In exile, their homes were always close by and Armand would accompany Lenin and his wife and comrade, Nadezdha Krupskaya, on their holidays. The childless Lenin and Krupskaya accepted Armand's children as their own.

Although there was genuine affection all round, the romantic affair, once it turned physical (“I kiss you affectionately” signed off Armand in one of her letters to Lenin), complicated Lenin's marriage and a crisis had to be weathered. In December 1913, Lenin broke off the relationship with Armand, though they were to remain warm friends for the few years that remained of their lives.

The first sour political notes of discord between Lenin and Armand, now reluctant to simply work as his assistant, occurred after their separation. Angry exchanges over the tactical wisdom of Armand's proposal for “free love” as a political demand, and over pacifism versus support for wars of national independence, were just part of the robust working out of ideas in an environment sometimes pathologically heated by the frustrations of exile politics (Armand refusing at one stage to translate those bits of Lenin's articles she disagreed with).

Their shared commitment to revolution, however, stood the test and when the tsar was deposed by the February Revolution of 1917, Armand was one of the 30 Bolshevik exiles to join Lenin in the sealed train to Russia through Germany (taking advantage of the German government's desire to remove Russia from the war by returning the anti-war Bolsheviks).

In Moscow, Armand was prominent in working for the October Revolution. She was elected as a Bolshevik to the Moscow Duma (the local parliament) and the executive committee of the Moscow soviet (council) of workers' and soldiers' delegates. Armand, strongly backed by Lenin, was one of the main leaders of the successful effort to convince the Bolshevik party to intensify its efforts to organise women workers (who had been vital to the February Revolution).

After the October Revolution, she headed the Moscow soviet's economic council, which oversaw the economic management of the region, proving herself an effective administrator, and she continued to work on women's liberation. Armand edited the Bolsheviks' influential and lively tabloid magazine for women — Rabotsnitsa (The Woman Worker). She headed the Zhenotdel (the Bolsheviks' Department for Work Among Women) which had Central Committee authority to commit scarce resources to addressing the oppression of women and winning their support for the Bolshevik party, beleaguered by counter-revolutionary civil war, imperialist war and blockade, a moribund economy and famine.

Armand's work was instrumental in the Bolsheviks' feminist achievements — reforms on marriage, divorce, education, employment and abortion which were far in advance of any capitalist country at that time. She dedicated herself to Bolshevik attempts to socialise housework and child-raising by organising communal dining, laundry and child care to ease women's double burden of paid and domestic labour.

The effects of Armand's 16-hour working day and tuberculosis had exhausted her, however. A solicitous Lenin, shrugging off her support for the “left-wing” Communists who opposed his practical survival measures for the revolution, persuaded Armand to holiday at a spa town in the Caucasus in the south of Russia where she died in 1920, a victim of cholera.

At her funeral, Lenin was emotionally distraught, “unrecognisable, plunged in despair”. His immense grief was evidence, to all those Bolsheviks who had gossiped about Lenin and Armand, that they had indeed been lovers. Perhaps Lenin blamed himself for the decision to send her south, and, as it turned out, put her in harm's way. Perhaps Lenin blamed himself for breaking off their relationship seven years earlier. He certainly felt an overwhelming personal loss, as the demands of revolution, and Lenin's marriage, had conspired to deny them a happiness they could not physically share.

Krupskaya, too, was upset at losing a close friend. She kept alive Armand's memory in articles and essays. It was only with the counter-revolutionary ascension of the Stalin bureaucracy from the mid-1920s that Armand, together with the feminist achievements of the Bolsheviks, faded from public life and socialist history, aided by Stalin's “family values” which could not admit to Lenin having an extra-marital liaison.

Pearson's book brings Inessa Armand back from the shadows of Stalinist censorship. It exhibits her, however, through a patronising prism as “Lenin's mistress”. Armand's important socialist and feminist contributions to the Russian Revolution are either glossed over or not touched on at all. The Lenin-Armand-Krupskaya juicy love triangle is all. Revolution and Marxist-feminism are but exotic backdrop (and this painted in the trite anti-socialist colours of the “false god” of revolutionary socialism and Leninism).

The intersection of love and politics is an intriguing political and theoretical issue and how it was handled by real Marxists-feminists of socialist history is of fascinating human interest as well. Inessa Armand, Lenin and Krupskaya have, however, been poorly served by Pearson's book. You may as well watch the daytime soaps.

From Green Left Weekly, June 5, 2002.
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