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Alexandra Kollontai 1873-1952

Leonora Ritter
Charles Sturt University

Outcomes

Principal focus: through the study of Alexandra Kollontai to gain an understanding of her role in Russian history.

Contents

Introduction and background

Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai (also spelled Kollontay in some sources) was born in St Petersburg in March 1872. She was born into a liberal aristocratic family; her father, Mikhail Domontovich, was a general in the Imperial Russian Army. At the age of 20, she married Vladimir Mikhaylovich Kollontai, an army officer, by whom she had a son. In 1898 she rejected her privileged background, abandoned her husband and son and joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party to spread propaganda among women workers.

By 1908 Kollantai was wanted by the police so she fled to Germany. In 1909 she had a turbulent affair with a married Russian economist called Maslov. In 1910 she retreated to Paris for a while to recover and write. There in 1911 she first met Inessa Armand (the other leading female revolutionar) as well as Lenin. She joined the International Bureau of Women Socialists, and went on speaking tours of England, Belgium, France, Scandinavia and Switzerland. Initially Kollontai was a Menshevik, but she joined the Bolsheviks when they were the only significant socialist group to oppose the First World War. After 1915 she travelled to the USA to beg the Americans not to enter the war and to accept socialism.

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Initial social reforms of the Bolshevik government

In February 1917 Kollontai returned to Russia, where she joined the Bolshevik central committee and after the October Revolution became Commissar for Public Welfare, the only woman in the government.

As Commissar for Public Welfare, Kollontai had a major impact on remodelling the role of women after the revolution. She promoted domestic and social reforms. Married women gained more freedom and divorce was made easy. Children born to single women gained the same rights as children born in marriage. Abortion was legalised.

Differences with Lenin forced Kollontai out of government in 1918. During her exile Kollontai had read Havelock Ellis and the work of pioneering psychologists that had convinced her that sexual relations were a political issue. She believed that in a socialist society individuals should be free to have sexual relations with anyone they chose. This weakened the family. Lenin disapproved. Kollontai practised what she preached. Shortly after the revolution she married a young sailor of peasant origin, Pavel Dybenko. She interceded for him when he was thrown into jail for insubordination and was accused of neglecting her official duties because of a love affair, only escaping execution through Lenin's intervention.

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The aims, nature and impact of the New Economic Policy (NEP)

The NEP reversed many of Kolontai's reforms. Women lost jobs, and creches were closed down, driving women out of the workforce and back into the home. Kollontai used fiction to campaign against it in Love of Worker Bees and A Great Love, both written in Oslo in 1922.

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Power struggles

Kollontai became disastrously involved in a power struggle over the role of trade unions in a communist state. There were four different positions. The Lenin-Zinoviev faction held that the trade unions must serve as schools of communism. A group of old communists insisted that the trade unions must protect the workers. Trotsky's faction believed that the trade unions, which would eventually become the managers and controllers of the industries, must in the meanwhile serve the state and be subject to strict military discipline. The Workers' Opposition (Rabochaya Oppozitsiya), headed by Kollontai, A.G. Schliapnikov and S.P. Medvedev, argued that the October Revolution had been fought for worker control of the country; they demanded more involvement by the workers in party affairs and trade union control of the national economy and industrial enterprises.

The Workers' Opposition was popular among the rank and file, but not supported by the Party leadership. It was condemned at the 10th Party Congress in March 1921 but failed to disperse, so its leaders were censured at the 11th Party Congress in March–April 1922. (For a colourful description see Emma Goldman, My Further Disillusionment in Russia, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company (external website); 1924. Lenin denounced it and Kollontai was told to be silent or leave the Party. The Central Committee attempted unsuccessfully to expel her from the Party, and in 1922 Kollontai was assigned work outside Russia, by Stalin, as acting Party Secretary. Her pamphlet setting forth the views of the Opposition was suppressed.

The defeat of the Workers' Opposition established a precedent for suppressing dissent within the party, thus enabling Stalin eventually to establish his dictatorial control.

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Changing interpretations of the role of women

Communism favours the emancipation of women through their participation in the workforce. The Bolsheviks' early legislation established the principle of equal pay for equal work and they set out to liberate women from domestic work and from mothering. Lenin promoted child-care and public dining rooms to enable mothers to return to the workforce. Alexandra Kollontai developed and promoted these arguments. She campaigned in favour of divorce. To free women from housework, she wanted communal kitchens, canteens and laundries. House cleaning would become a collective responsibility shared by men and women. To free women from mothering, Kollontai dreamed of children growing up "in the kindergarten, the children's colony, the creche and the school under the care of experienced nurses", but with the mother being free to leave work to spend time with her children whenever she wants (Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai quoted in Mary Buckley, "Soviet Interpretations of the Woman Question" in Barbara Holland, ed., Soviet Sisterhood, Fourth Estate, London, 1985, p. 37).

Kollontai also wanted the Party to set up a special bureau run by women to deal with women's issues. The scheme was rejected by every other woman at the 1917 Party Conference, but in 1918 Kollontai and Inessa Armand helped to set up a women's congress in Moscow. Over 1000 women risked travel across war-torn Russia to attend. Kollontai gave a famous speech on communism and the family, in which she assured women that communist changes to their role would not separate them from their children. Further work for women was postponed, however, as Kollontai took to her bed in December 1918 with a heart condition, which lasted three months. She was then sent off on an exhausting six-month propaganda tour.

The Zhenotdel (Women's Department) was finally set up in September 1919, attached to the Party to promote communism among working women. It was intially directed by Armand. Kollontai was busy as an organiser in the countryside and became so exhausted that she was laid low by a bout of typhus in October. When Armand died of cholera in 1920, Kollontai took over the leadership of the Women's Department until 1921. It was not, however, taken seriously by many of the men in the Party.

In 1921–22 Kollontai was also secretary of the International Women's Secretariat of the Comintern.

After Armand's death Kollontai was the only woman prominent enough to develop a women's movement to press for policies that would improve the position of women. Her writings include The New Morality and the Working Class (1918), Love of Worker Bees, a collection of short stories (1923), A Great Love, a novel (1923), The Workers' Opposition in Russia (1923) and Free Love (1932). She was, however, effectively silenced after her political defeat. From 1923 her views on free love were denounced as bourgeois and decadent. Her autobiography, written in 1926, was not published in Russia, and in 1927 A Great Love was republished in order to discredit its author.

It is ironic that Kollontai was probably saved from a worse fate by the very male chauvinism she denounced. She was slandered in propaganda, but suffered no worse punishment than being shifted out to a diplomatic post in Scandinavia and ignored.

Although Kollontai was politically sidelined by being sent abroad, she did become the world's first accredited woman diplomat, as she joined the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in 1922. She served in Norway (1922–26 and 1927–30), Mexico (1926–27) and Sweden (1930–45). After 1943 she held the rank of Ambassador and conducted the armistice negotiations with Finland in 1944.

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Transformation of Soviet life and culture under Stalin

In 1930 the Zhenotdel (Women's Department) was shut down as Stalin's power increased. The excuse was that it had achieved its goal.

By 1933 all the leaders of the Workers' Opposition had been expelled from the Party and Kollontai was the only one who survived the purges of the 1930s.

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Further reading

Porter, C. Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography, Virago, 1980.

For more information on Alexandra Kollontai (external website)

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