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Prominent Russians: Aleksandra Kollontai

March 31, 1872 - March 9, 1952

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Aleksandra Mikhaylovna Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary, feminist and the first Soviet female diplomat.

Early years

Aleksandra Kollontai was born in St. Petersburg into the family of a Russian general and aristocrat, Mikhail Domontovich (a general in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the head of the chancellery of the Russian administration in Bulgaria from 1878-1879) and Aleksandra Masalina-Mravinskaya, the daughter of a wealthy Finnish timber merchant. Domontovich’s ideas were more liberal than those of most people of his standing, but as a government serviceman he had little possibility to develop them. Still the seed for Kollontai’s future ideas was planted by her parents. Kollontai later wrote in astonishment at the unconventionality of her parents’ marriage that presented an example of love that defied accepted norms; Kollontai’s mother had to be divorced from an arranged marriage in order to marry Mikhail. 

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Kollontai was largely brought up by servants and tutored at home. The girl spent a lot of time mastering German, English and French and reading books in her father’s library. In the summer, her family moved to her grandfather's estate in Kuusa, at the Isthmus of Karelia in Finland. Kollontai educated herself through reading. In Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, Kollontai became acquainted with the life of farmers and farm laborers. Her parents sought to arrange a marriage for her when she was 16, but young Aleksandra vehemently opposed the idea, using her mother’s failed arranged marriage as an argument. Her true desire lay in studying abroad but instead she stayed home and took up writing. However, she eventually fell in love with a young Captain of Engineers named Vladimir Kollontai. Her parents disapproved of the match at first but when Aleksandra threatened to leave home they acquiesced to her demands and the marriage took place in 1893. Young Aleksandra xandra thought she had escaped her mother’s fate by marrying for love, but this very marriage would stir within her an intellectual and philosophical fire. She bore a son in 1894 and at first she stayed home to care for her child. However, the domestic lifestyle proved too prison-like for Aleksandra’s capable and fertile mind. She began referring to Vladimir as her “tyrant,” and longing for “revolt against love’s tyranny.” Love at this time seemed like a cage.

While studying in St. Petersburg, she drifted from the populist leaning she had developed in her childhood towards the rising prominence of Marxism. Kollontai began working in politics in 1894, when she was a new mother, by teaching evening classes for workers in St. Petersburg. Through this activity she was drawn into both public and clandestine work with the Political Red Cross, an organization set up to help political prisoners. In 1895 she read August Bebel's “Woman and Socialism,” which had a major influence on her future ideas and activities.

Getting interested in politics

In 1896, Kollontai saw the open face of capitalist exploitation for the first time when she visited a large textile factory where her husband was installing a ventilation system. When Kollontai saw the horrid living and labor conditions of the mostly female textile workers she grew enraged. Later she said, ‘Women, their fate, occupied me all my life; women's lot pushed me to socialism.” Later that year she became active in leafleting and fundraising in support of the mass textile strike that rocked the St. Petersb  urg area. For the rest of her political career, Kollontai retained her connections with the women textile workers of St. Petersburg. The 1896 strikes established the primacy of working-class revolution in Kollontai's mind.

Meanwhile, as her marriage with Vladimir deteriorated, she looked to Marxism for guidance and support. The analogy between workers enslaved by capitalists and women being subjugated by
men seemed obvious to Kollontai. An argument with Vladimir and her political notions all fell into place. She saw now what her purpose was. Aleksandra Kollontai would help the workers and, more importantly, the women, to emancipate themselves from social chains. In 1898, she left Vladimir forever, to study in Zurich, under the Marxist economist Heinrich Herkner. However, being a natural-born polemicist Kollontai spent much of her time at the Zurich University contesting her teacher’s views. Her father secretly financed her Marxist studies and later helped her hide illegal revolutionary brochures from the police while her husband complacently agreed to terminate their brief marriage and to raise their son, Misha, when she decided to be a fulltime revolutionary and devote herself to destroying the privileges of the class into which she was born.

Dissident work for Social Democrats

She had already read Marx and Lenin, but in Zurich she familiarized herself with the views of Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Kollontai's first article, dealing with the relationship between the development of children and their surroundings, was published in the Marxist journal Obrazovanie (Education) in 1898. Upon her return to St. Petersburg in 1899, she began dissident work for the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).

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In 1900, Kollontai's first articles on Finland appeared. For the next 20 years, she was generally recognized as the RSDLP's foremost expert on the “Finnish question” serving as advisor to RSDLP members in the Tsarist Duma and liaison with Finnish revolutionaries. Kollontai's “Life of Finnish Laborers,” which took three years to write, was an investigation of the living and working conditions of the Finnish proletariat. The book appeared in 1903 in St. Petersburg and attracted much attention among revolutionary circles.

After the split of the RSDLP into the moderate Mensheviks under Julius Martov and the radical Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in 1903, Kollontai, along with many Russian socialists, did not side with either faction. In 1904, she joined the Bolsheviks. A year later she joined with Leon Trotsky in pressing for a more positive attitude toward the newly-emerged Soviets (councils of workers’ deputies) and unity of the party factions. In 1906, she left the Bolsheviks over the question of boycotting elections to the Duma, an undemocratically-elected parliament of limited power in which she felt it was nevertheless possible for leftist deputies to raise demands and expose the government's machinations, and joined the Mensheviks staying with the faction until 1915.

At the end of 1908, after three months spent evading arrest for advocating the right of Finland to armed revolt against the Russian Empire, Aleksandra Kollontai was forced to flee to Germany. Until 1917, she remained outside Russia, although many of her works were published there. A brilliant speaker fluent in several languages, she became an internationally known agitator for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), traveling to England, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland in the period before World War I.

Promoting women's movement

Meanwhile, Aleksandra started promoting the idea of a specific working women’s movement. Finally in 1913, when Bolshevik women activists Konkordia Samoilova, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya launched a newspaper aimed at working-class women called Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), they invited Kollontai to be a contributor. She responded enthusiastically and in 1915, Kollontai rejoined the Bolsheviks believing that Vladimir Lenin was the only Russian leader who was resolute in his opposition to World War I.

In 1914 she arranged a campaign in Germany and Austria against the coming war, resulting in her arrest and imprisonment after it broke out. Released, she moved to Scandinavia and established contact with V. I. Lenin, then in exile in Switzerland. She was a primary organizer of the Zimmerwald Conference of socialist parties against the war in 1915, and her pamphlet “Who Needs War?” directed to front-line soldiers, was translated into several languages, while the author was jailed for antiwar propaganda. Undeterred after her release, she crisscrossed Europe, Scandinavia, and the US, lecturing in four languages against the looming carnage of World War I and for support for the left.

In between revolutions

For the next few years, her life was a whirlwind of activity. As chronicled by her biographers it has the flickering intensity of a melodramatic silent film. By the time of the liberal-democratic revolution of February 1917, Kollontai was Lenin's devoted disciple. From the moment of her arrival, she joined the fight for a clear policy of no support to the Provisional Government, the short-lived administrative body that sought to govern Russia after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. At a tumultuous meeting of social democrats on 4 April she was the only speaker other than Lenin to support the demand for “All Power to the Soviets.” She was elected a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet (in 1914, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd because it was believed that St. Petersburg sounded "too German" in the time of war with Germany), to which she had been elected as a delegate from an army unit after gaining a reputation as an excellent orator.

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For the rest of 1917, Kollontai was a constant agitator for revolution as a speaker, leaflet writer and editor at Rabotnitsa. In June she was elected a Russian delegate to the 9th Congress of the Finnish Social Democratic Party and reported back to the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the national question and Finland. During this period she joined other women activists in pressing the Bolsheviks and the trade unions for more attention to female workers and helped organize a citywide laundry workers strike in Petrograd. She was briefly imprisoned by the Provisional Government and released on bail raised by a number of Russian intellectuals, including Maxim Gorky, the writer.

In October 1917, Kollontai actively supported the Bolshevik decision to launch an armed uprising against the government and participated in the revolt itself. At the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, she was elected People's Commissar (a cabinet-level post) of Social Welfare in the new Soviet government. In the Ministry for Social Welfare she was welcomed with a strike, along with the other Commissars. As John Reed in “10 Days that Shook the World” wrote, “With tears streaming down her face, Kollontai arrested the strikers and confiscated their keys to the office and the safe; when she got the keys, however, it was discovered that the former Minister of Provisional government, Countess Panina, had gone off with all the funds.”

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As Commissar, Kollontai was a primary organizer of childcare, job training, collective kitchens, free maternity and infant healthcare. She helped write many of the early Soviet laws legalizing abortion, divorce, birth control and homosexuality (unheard of in 1917). The concept of illegitimacy was banished. And Soviet Russia was among the first countries to grant women voting rights.

Post-revolutionary activity

In 1918 she led a delegation to Sweden, England and France to raise support for the new government. On the way to Sweden her vessel was shipwrecked and the delegation was hardly saved by landing on the Aland Islands that belonged to Finland, which was at the moment torn by the acute struggle between the Whites and the Reds. Upon her return, she argued against the ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and, in opposition to what she saw as the delivery of Finland to the white terror, she resigned from the government. For the rest of 1918, she was active as an agitator and coordinator and played a key role in organizing the First All-Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women (November 1918).

Throughout 1919, although suffering with heart and kidney disease along with 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 Central Committee Communist Party (Zhenotdel for short), in which she, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya played important roles. Zhenotdel worked to improve the conditions of womens’ lives, fighting illiteracy and educating women about the new marriage, education and working laws put in place by the Revolution. Her name is often connected with such widely acclaimed developments as the legalization of abortion, accessibility of divorce and maternity benefits. Zhenotdel was eventually closed by Stalin in 1930 on the excuse that its goal has been fully achieved.

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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 and in 1921, she joined with Alexander Shlyapnikov to form a left-wing party faction that became known as the Workers' Opposition. The group demanded that the economy be run directly by the workers rather than by the increasingly powerful bureaucracy, argued for greater democracy and wanted to transfer more power to trade-union organizations, not to the State. However, Lenin managed to dissolve the opposition, after which Kollontai was politically sidelined.

Pushed out of the male-dominated Soviet power elite that was increasingly uncomfortable with her insistent advocacy of feminist issues, she was sent in 1922 to Oslo as a member of a Soviet trade delegation. In 1923 she was appointed Soviet representative to Oslo, becoming the world's second female ambassador (after Rosika Schwimmer who was Hungary’s envoy to Switzerland in 1918 - 1919). After appointments to Norway and Mexico (as trade representative) she became an envoy to Sweden in 1930 and remained there until 1945. She also served as a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations. During her diplomatic career she continually scandalized high society not just through being an outspoken woman in such an important and high profile role, but also through her polyamorous lifestyle and a reputation for bluntness. In January 1940, during the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40 (the Winter War), the Finnish left-wing playwright Hella Wuolijoki asked her old friend, Kollontai, to act as an intermediary of peace between the two countries. Kollontai, who was capable of acting on her own initiative, was not afraid to send an inquiry to her government. The hostilities ended in March 1940 with the Treaty of Moscow. She was raised to the rank of ambassador in 1943 and was instrumental in conducting the Soviet-Finnish armistice negotiations of 1944. There were rumors that during World War II her embassy in Stockholm could have potentially been a channel for German-Soviet negotiations, although they never came to pass.

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Kollontai returned to the Soviet Union in 1945. The next year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Behind the nomination were Finland's Prime Minister J. K. Paasikivi and other members of the government. The prize, however, went to the American religious leader J.R. Mott and Emily Greene Balch, an economist and social reformist. Kollontai spent her last years in Moscow, writing memoirs, keeping a diary and serving as an adviser to the USSR Foreign Ministry. She was among the few “Old Bolsheviks” who were neither purged nor executed by the Stalinist regime. In her last days she had to use a wheelchair and, according to some witnesses, looked depressed and worried over her ration card. Most of Kollontai's writing of the time focused on her life before the October Revolution, avoiding topics of her opposition activities of the early 20s . To the very end, Kollontai remained faithful to Marxism-Leninism and loyal to Stalin. She died of cardiac arrest in Moscow on 9 March 1952.

Advocating sexual liberation

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Kollontai combined Marxism with an ultra-Bolshevist sexual morality. “The sexual act must be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of a healthy organism, such as hunger and thirst,” ‘Kollontai wrote in the political pamphlet “Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations” (1921). She rejected the “bourgeois” feminism of her day, insisting that socialism was a necessary condition for women’s emancipation and true social equality between the sexes. The family appeared in this theory as a remnant of capitalist society. “In place of the old relationship between men and women, a new one is developing,” Kollontai wrote in “Communism and the Family” (1920), “a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of communist society, both of them free, both of them independent and both of them workers. No more domestic bondage for women. No more inequality within the family.”

Women's sexual liberation as propagated by Kollontai roused the disapproval of most Russian working-class women, who felt that they already had enough troubles without weakening family ties. Her theory of non-possessive love, presented in the essay “Make Way for the Winged Eros” 1923), was disapproved of by Lenin.

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Kollontai began writing fiction in 1922 after she had been effectively excluded from active participation in the new Soviet government. Writing became a substitute for arguing ideology. Her writings of the early 1920s, reflecting her own unconventional sex life rather than the Soviet reality, were discredited in a press campaign allegedly orchestrated by Nadezhda Krupskaya (probably because of Kollontai's novella “A Great Love” which was read as a roman à clef of the triangle drama of Lenin, his wife and Inessa Armand in Paris - the relationship was kept secret in the Soviet Union). Ironically, at the very same time her ideas were eagerly seized upon by Western psychologists and sociologists as evidence of the unprecedented rights and sexual freedom enjoyed by women under the Soviet system.

Kollontai was extremely popular among men. Her most well-known love affair was probably with the leader of the Baltic Fleet, 28-year-old Pavel Dybenko, a handsome giant of Ukrainian peasant origin, 17 years her junior, who later became the Commissar for the Navy. She was blamed for neglecting her public duties because of the love affair and threatened with expulsion from the party. They finally separated in 1922.

Legacy

Almost forgotten soon after her death, Kollontai later became the object of a revival in the Soviet Union. However, her Soviet biographers and the editors of the censored reissues of her memoirs and books minimized her Menshevik past, her disagreements with Lenin and her interest in sexual liberation stressing instead her loyalty to the Bolshevik cause and her diplomatic career. Since the 1970s her theoretical writings have been brought out in new translations in Germany, the UK and the US.

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