October 25 marks 100 years since the formal seizure of power by the Bolshevik-led soviets in Russia. The early years of the Revolution marked large social gains for women, including full formal equality, legalisation of abortion and attempts to liberate women from the constraints of the nuclear family.
Resistance Books has printed a new run of the 1999 pamphlet Comrades in Arms: Women in the Bolshevik Revolution by Kathy Fairfax. It includes short biographies of some key women in the revolution. Below is a short piece on Alexandra Kollantai drawn from the pamphlet. You can order the pamphlet here.
Born in 1872 to a wealthy land-owning family, Alexandra Kollontai was raised in both Russia and Finland, acquiring an early fluency in languages which served her well in her later revolutionary work. She began her political work in 1894, when she was a new mother, by teaching evening classes for workers in St Petersburg.
Through that activity she was drawn into public and clandestine work with the Political Red Cross, an organisation set up to help political prisoners. In 1895, she read August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, which had a major influence on her ideas about the emancipation of women.
But she dated her conversion to socialism to an 1896 visit to a large textile factory, where she saw the terrible conditions in which the working class lived and worked. After this visit she began to study Marxism and economics.
She sought out members of Vladimir Lenin’s Marxist Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. Later that year, her views further clarified when she became active in a mass textile strike, leafleting and raising money for the strikers.
By 1898, she was fully committed to Marxism. Leaving her husband and child behind, she went abroad to study. (She never returned to her husband.) In 1899 she returned to Russia and began her underground work for the social democrats.
In 1905, she began the campaign that most clearly established her place in history — organising women workers in Russia to fight for their own interests. Roused by the events of Bloody Sunday (when unarmed demonstrators asking for reforms were gunned down by Tsarist soldiers) and witnessing the ensuing wave of strikes throughout Russia, she became convinced that women workers must be recruited and mobilised for political action.
In 1907, to give women workers a forum to discuss their problems, Kollontai established the first women’s club, the St Petersburg Society for Mutual Aid to Women Workers.
In 1908 she was forced into exile, remaining outside Russia until 1917. She worked as an agitator for the German Social Democratic Party and travelled to England, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland in the years before World War I. During her years in exile she developed a deep and lasting distrust of the reformist policies of European social-democratic parties.
Kollontai had worked with Lenin’s Bolsheviks until 1906, then with the Menshevik faction. But the war and treachery of most social-democratic leaders led her in 1915 to join the Bolsheviks. She became a close supporter of Lenin. Her pamphlet Who Needs War?, directed at soldiers, was translated into several languages.
When the February Revolution broke out in 1917, which overthrow the Tsar, Kollontai was in Norway. She delayed her return only long enough to receive copies of Lenin’s “Letters From Afar”, which she carried back to Russia.
Arriving on March 19, she joined Alexander Shliapnikov (her then partner) in opposing conciliatory tactics toward the pro-capitalist Provisional Government set up after the February Revolution. She was elected a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which brought together elected delegates from councils of workers and soldiers.
From the moment of Lenin’s return in early April, Kollontai drew attention to herself as a fervent supporter of his call for “all power to the Soviets” — for a government directly based on these councils to replace the Provisional Government.
In 1917, she became one of the party’s most popular and accomplished mass orators, speaking to endless meetings of workers, soldiers and sailors. At the July party congress, she was elected a full member of the Central Committee (CC) and took part in the famous October 23 CC meeting that decided to launch the insurrection.
She was appointed Commissar of Social Welfare in the first Soviet government — the first woman cabinet minister in the world. She was active role in the early left opposition in the party, which campaigned against the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany.
In the aftermath of this struggle, she failed to win re-election to the CC; she also resigned from government. In November 1918, she helped organise the First All-Russia Congress of Working and Peasant Women.
Throughout 1919, although often ill with heart and kidney disease, Kollontai kept up a gruelling schedule. She worked as a party agitator in the Ukraine, a seething cauldron of revolution and counterrevolution.
In 1920, Kollontai became head of the Zhenotdel, the newly-formed women’s department of the party, which she had played an important role in establishing.
At the end of 1920, she joined the Workers’ Opposition, a tendency within the party alarmed by the growing bureaucratisation of the party and state.
In 1922, she was appointed to the Soviet legation in Norway and in 1924-25 was the Soviet ambassador there — the world’s first woman ambassador. She then held ambassadorial posts in Mexico, Norway again and finally in Sweden until her retirement in 1945.
Despite her early oppositional and anti-bureaucratic stance, Kollontai never associated with the Trotskyist Left Opposition. For all her undoubted distaste for what was happening in the USSR under Stalinism, she felt that opposition was hopeless. She effectively withdrew from political life, making the necessary homage to Joseph Stalin.
As she admitted to a friend: “I have put my principles in a corner of my conscience and I carry out as well as possible the policies dictated to me.”
As the Stalinist terror swirled around her, taking away most of her friends and comrades of the revolutionary years, she managed to survive. In 1938, apart from Stalin and those who died of natural causes, Kollontai was the only member of the October 1917 Central Committee not to have perished in the bloody purges.
For Stalin, she was a convenient token posing no threat. An Old Bolshevik and a well-known international figure, she could be displayed as a sign of Soviet progress in equality for women.
She died in 1952, forgotten, her ideas ignored, but still a supporter of the Soviet Union. She considered it futile to dwell on the deformities of the Stalin era when many core achievements of the revolution remained.
She consoled herself by thinking: “Everything is going to straighten out with time. And more humane ideas always win … Reactionary tendencies don’t last long, never. History shows this in all countries and among all people.”
The upsurge of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ’70s brought a renewed interest in the life and work of this remarkable woman who fought so passionately for socialism and the rights of women.