FROM 1918 TO 1920 civil war raged through Russia, putting the Bolsheviks’ determination to hold power and their ability to govern to a savage test. Food became scarce, city dwellers scavenged for firewood by dismantling abandoned buildings at night, Whites and Reds slaughtered one another in vicious combat and visited atrocities on the civilian population. By virtue of their organization, unity, and will, the Bolsheviks won, but they themselves doubted at times that they would survive. In 1919 Elena Stasova, then a party secretary, was ordered to store up a horde of tsarist banknotes and passports so that the party leaders could flee abroad, if they were defeated.1
The civil war began in the spring of 1918, in reaction to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Those who had opposed the Bolsheviks before—tsarist military officers, liberal intellectuals, and moderate socialists—saw the treaty as the final betrayal in a series of Bolshevik crimes. In the spring of 1918, in the Ukraine and Siberia, members of these disaffected groups began to coalesce into an armed opposition. The developing civil war gained impetus from an unlikely source. Contingents of Czech troops, who had been fighting on the Eastern Front against Germany in hopes of aiding the Czech campaign for nationhood, were ordered to France, to help win the war. When one group of these soldiers became involved in a fight in a Urals railroad station and Trotsky responded by ordering them to give up their guns, the brigade rose up against the Communists all along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Bolsheviks’ inability to contain the rebellion was just the display of weakness needed to galvanize their enemies into war and the foreign powers into intervention. By midsummer, opposition governments had been organized in Samara and Omsk; the Germans occupying the Ukraine were aiding anti-Bolshevik groups there; and even Left Socialist Revolutionaries, erstwhile Bolshevik allies, had become so disenchanted that one of them seriously wounded Lenin in an assassination attempt. Russia’s bloody civil war had begun in earnest.
This challenge brought most of the Left Opposition, including Kol- lontai, back to the fold. Her comrades had responded to her retreat from politics in May by ignoring her. She had turned for comfort to a review of some of her early writings and made plans to reprint her three essays on the “new woman.”2 With the outbreak of the civil war, however, Kollontai dropped her silence to begin a speaking tour of factories in central Russia. When she told women workers there about the benefits brought by the Soviet government, she found them less enthusiastic than they had been earlier in the year and more inclined to complain that the Bolsheviks were doing little to help them. There were not enough party workers in the country, there were not enough facilities to help women, the men were going off to war again, and all the burdens would only grow heavier. One woman textile worker suggested that the party deal with these problems by holding a national conference of working women.
Kollontai agreed with that idea and with the general criticism she heard.3 The government had not followed up its declarations of principle by organizing day-care centers or maternity hospitals, not only because the government had no money, but also because, in Kollontai’s view, the leadership was giving a second place to such reforms. Revived by the speaking tour and convinced that work among women was lagging, Kollontai returned to Moscow to argue that the civil war was an opportunity, however desperate, to emancipate women by drawing them into building the Soviet system.
Women workers were not turning out en masse to support the Bolsheviks. Generally, they were more suspicious of the party than were their menfolk, and they often gave as their reason that they had heard the Bolsheviks were atheists who intended to take babies away from their mothers.4 Involved as always in the struggle of daily life, traditional in their values, women workers looked with distrust on a government that made sweeping promises but did not lower the price of bread. Within the female proletariat, however, there were younger, more literate, often single women who were responsive to Bolshevik organizers. The number of women in the labor force had grown steadily since 1905, particularly during the war years, and by 1917 fifty percent of the factory workers in the central industrial region around Moscow were women.5 Some of these new recruits were politically more aware than the prior generation. They had turned out for the Petrograd women’s conference in 1917, and a few were joining the party.6 Kollontai was convinced that if these receptive women were told about the virtues of the Soviet system they would spread that message to the women with whom they worked.
She had broader ambitions than simply to propagandize the female proletariat, however. Kollontai wanted to involve the more responsive women in the organization of day-care centers and public dining rooms. Women would be more easily attracted to projects which affected them directly, but that was not the only reason Kollontai proposed putting them to work establishing such facilities. By setting up the services they needed, women would lay the foundations for their own emancipation, raise their consciousness, and participate in building socialism. The point was not that women should do women’s work, but rather that women should set themselves free. Kollontai was stressing again, as she had during her days as commissar, the virtues of samodeiatel’nost’, of spontaneous mass action, as the most desirable means of social change. “We all wait for someone else to build everything,” she wrote in Pravda in October 1918, “we are used to living by decree from above, as we lived under the bourgeois order, and we forget that now there is a Soviet republic. And in the Soviet republic the great thing is that the field is wide open for samodeiatel’nost’, for the display of initiative.”7 Of course, Kollontai assumed that women would organize day-care centers “spontaneously,” once the government taught them the virtues of day-care centers. She always thought that women workers wanted to be liberated in precisely the way she defined liberation; that was a questionable assumption, but it was an assumption she and her comrades had always made about female emancipation and about the emancipation of the entire society through socialism.
Kollontai’s vision during the civil war period was that women should aid the defense by building the facilities that would set them free. The first step was to reach the female proletariat, and to do that Kollontai argued in the fall of 1918 for a national conference of working-class women. Inessa Armand, Konkordiia Samoilova, Liudmilla Stal’, and Klavdiia Nikolaeva, the Bolsheviks most interested in work among women, supported the conference idea. In fact, they had made plans for such a gathering in February 1918, but the war crisis had prevented them from holding it. Instead, Inessa had settled for several meetings among Moscow women in the spring.8
When Kollontai returned from her speaking tour, she talked over the conference proposal with Inessa and with Iakov Sverdlov, the party secretary who had given permission for the Petrograd conference of women workers the year before. Again he was receptive to the idea of organizing the female proletariat. Having secured Sverdlov’s approval, Kollontai and Inessa set up the Initiating Group, an organizing committee composed chiefly of representatives from Moscow and Petrograd and soon augmented by the former editors of Rabotnitsa—Samoilova, Nikolaeva, Stal’, and several others. Their job was to make arrangements for the conference in Moscow and to supervise the establishment of regional subcommittees which would recruit working-class women as delegates.
The difficulties the Initiating Group faced were manifold. They worked out of cramped quarters with a minimal budget and small staff. Local subcommittees suffered from the same shortages and had the additional problem of being less experienced and less sure of themselves than Kollontai, Samoilova, and Inessa. Kollontai drafted every woman she could find to help with the project, and when one such draftee complained that she was on leave from work at the front, Kollontai replied sternly: “The local comrades are occupied in Tsaritsyn’s defense, and the women need a lively speech to explain to them the tasks of the congress, tasks which are most general [i.e., relevant to all Communists], dear comrade. The Central Committee of the party entrusts you to deliver that speech in the name of the party.”9 Kollontai managed to send agitators throughout the Moscow region and even as far as Samara in the Urals. She spoke at meetings in the capital, published articles, and sent appeals to Petrograd when the organizational effort there faltered. Inessa had been working in Moscow for a year, and her contacts helped in rallying the Moscow women. In October, after the Initiating Group succeeded in holding elections in Moscow factories to choose delegates, the male leaders of the party began to offer some help.10
In addition to organizing elections at the center and supervising them elsewhere, the Initiating Group had to set an agenda for the conference. Inessa, Samoilova, and Stal’ agreed with Kollontai that their primary goal was to involve women in the government and the party. Thus the committee chose as a slogan for the conference the turgid but concise message: “Through practical participation in Soviet construction to communism.”11 The committee also drafted a series of speeches and resolutions calling for the usual reforms—maternity care and communal facilities such as dining rooms, laundries, and child-care centers. None of these goals was new, and Inessa and Kollontai knew that resolutions alone would not improve women’s lives. The crucial discussions in the Initiating Group centered therefore on putting the reforms into practice. Again Kollontai pushed for a woman’s bureau, which she envisioned as a semiautonomous party department centered in Moscow and administering regional sub-sections. Of course the conference could not create such an institution, but it could pressure the leadership by passing a resolution on the subject. Once again Kollontai was voted down. Inessa felt that the party would still consider a full-fledged bureau feministic and separatist. Samoilova, who now agreed on the need for some kind of organization beyond a newspaper, supported Inessa. They thought that there was more likelihood of getting the leadership to authorize the establishment of “commissions” for organizing women which would be attached, and therefore fully subordinate, to local party committees. To reach women in the provinces, Inessa also advocated a series of regional meetings of delegates elected from the factories. In this way the same kind of conference they were organizing at the national level would be held throughout the country, educating women workers, who would return home to propagandize their friends.12
In five weeks the Initiating Group held elections and drafted an agenda that called for the creation of the commissions within the party. They planned for the conference to begin on November 7, but because the All-Russian Congress of Soviets was scheduled to convene that day, and possibly also because of delays in holding elections in Petrograd, the organizers moved the opening session back to November 16. Unfortunately some of the delegates were en route when the postponement was made; on November 7 they began to arrive in Moscow. Kollontai huddled with Inessa, Samoilova, and Stal' to decide whether to go ahead or wait until the sixteenth. They chose to wait, but that meant finding shelter and food for the women who had already arrived.13
Moscow was then entering a nightmarish winter. The incessant warfare and the revolutionary upheaval had shattered the economy, and supplying the city population with food was becoming increasingly difficult. Nor was there enough firewood or coal or kerosene. When the delegates to the First All-Russian Congress of Working Women and Peasants convened on November 16, they did so bundled up against the cold of their meeting room. Because postal communication with the provinces was so poor, the Initiating Group expected only three hundred, instead of the eleven hundred who came. The hall that had been reserved was too small and the organizers did not have enough food or lodgings for the women.14
There was nothing at all to eat the first day. That night Barinova, an organizer trying to placate the angry delegates, called Kollontai. “If we don’t get some food by morning,” she said, “there’s going to be a revolt against us. They’re besieging us now, demanding bread. They’re hungry.” Kollontai got in touch with Sverdlov, who managed to find some tea, sugar, and bread, but it was not enough. At 2:00 a.m. Barinova called again to say that the women, still hungry, were refusing to go to sleep. Kollontai spent the rest of the night on the phone, trying to locate more food. Eventually she supplied the delegates with meals of soup, a spoonful of porridge, and a small piece of bread.15
The congress convened on November 16 with Sverdlov welcoming the women to Moscow. Kollontai sat on the podium with Inessa, Samoilova, and the other members of the Initiating Group. Feeling immense satisfaction and some euphoria, she looked out at the crowd of factory women, most of them dressed in kerchiefs and the shapeless, gray-brown clothing of winter, although here and there was a splash of color from a peasant costume. The women elected a presidium to lead the conference and then cheered Lenin and Bukharin, who came with greetings from the party leadership. The opening formalities completed, the delegates began to debate the first resolution put before them, “The Tasks of Women Workers in Soviet Russia.” After asserting that women had no special, separate goals, but only the general purpose of building communism, the resolution declared that it was the duty of women to participate in every facet of Soviet life, including “direct armed battle.” In so doing they would achieve their own liberation through building the new society, most particularly such components of it as communal housekeeping and educational facilities. “The conference considers,” the resolution concluded, “that the woman worker, taking a most active part in all aspects of the new construction, should pay special attention to the creation of new forms of feeding society, of spreading public education, through which she will destroy the old bondage of the family.”16 Women themselves had to abolish the institutions which held them in thrall.
Thus the resolution that addressed itself to the major topic of the conference, the involvement of women in Soviet life, asserted clearly that women were to work not simply to defend the government but to achieve their own liberation. The resolution assured the conference and the party that women had no intention of pursuing their special interests, that is, they were not advocating separatism or feminism. Rather women’s emancipation was an integral part of the war effort, as it was an integral part of the building of socialism. That position had been the essence of Kol- lontai’s socialist feminism for years, and now it was publicly embraced by a meeting of one thousand delegates from around the country. Inessa too was championing socialist feminism openly. Soon after the conference she wrote that women’s emancipation should concern all Bolsheviks:
As long as prostitution is not destroyed, as long as the old forms of the family, home life, childrearing are not abolished, it will be impossible to destroy exploitation and enslavement, it will be impossible to build socialism.
If the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.17
The remaining conference resolutions repeated these basic premises —that women’s liberation could be built through setting women themselves to work on it and that female emancipation was an integral part of the construction of communism. The resolution on the family, probably drafted by Kollontai, proclaimed that marriage would become a “free comradely union of two equal, self-supporting members of the great working family.” The “Resolution on the Report on Tasks of Social Welfare” called for full and equal female participation in all institutions, and public child care to make that possible. It also urged the replacement of petty-bourgeois persons in the government with genuine proletarians.18 The remaining resolutions proposed specific reforms in housing, education, and maternity care.
On the last day of the conference Inessa and Kollontai led workshops which discussed ways the delegates could carry out the proposals when they returned home.19 In the afternoon, Samoilova brought forward the resolution on establishing commissions for work among women. She used Zetkin’s and Kollontai’s old rationale for a woman’s bureau: women had lower political consciousness than men and could be reached only by specially trained agitators. The conference delegates therefore petitioned the Central Committee to establish commissions for agitation among women. They also asked for each party bureau or committee to create committees to involve women in socialist construction, particularly in areas such as child care which were of special concern to them. Samoilova urged the delegates to return home and pressure their local party officials to act on the resolution.20
Kollontai had had to compromise again on her concept of a strong woman’s bureau, but she must have expected that, since the proposal had been turned down so often before. This time she had gotten farther toward her goal than before, and in addition a large group of working and Communist women had endorsed every other facet of her program for female emancipation, including its immediate realization. She closed the meeting by declaring jubilantly, “Our conference should break up with the happy consciousness that this was a conference accomplishing business useful to everyone. The conclusion to the story is that women can do anything.”21
Kollontai had now emerged from her retreat after Brest-Litovsk and immersed herself again in the work she loved. Lenin had written to her before the women’s conference, on October 18, promising to restore Dybenko to full party membership. He did not address her with the warmth of the war years, but he did conclude with a gesture of reconciliation. “Thank you so much for your greetings, and I in turn welcome your return to more active party work.”22 Kollontai had put the disappointment of the spring behind her, and she threw herself into work with women, fortified by her success.
The Central Committee followed the conference with a decree in December 1918 authorizing the establishment of commissions for work among women in every party committee. Apparently the success of the meeting and the pressure of its organizers, with Sverdlov’s support, had convinced the party leadership that the commissions would be useful.23 The Central Committee instruction stressed that these new organizations should seek “to arouse the consciousness of the more backward female working masses and involve them in the political struggle for the full triumph of communism.” It did not mention involvement as a means to female emancipation, which was a cardinal theme of the conference resolutions,24 probably because mobilization of women to aid the war effort was a goal most Bolsheviks could accept, regardless of their attitudes toward feminist separatism. Their ideology had always said that women should become involved in the revolution. Disputes had arisen—and now were being cloaked in carefully worded declarations—over the extent to which women should postpone their emancipation in service to the revolution. The difference between Kollontai’s arguments of 1908 and the situation in 1918 was, of course, that the revolution had begun. Yet the issue of priorities remained. In a struggle for survival more deadly than any the Bolsheviks had confronted before, should women join the general effort or work to free themselves? Kollontai, Inessa, and Samoilova thought women could do both simultaneously. Other Bolsheviks continued to look on any projects designed particularly for women as divisive. Thus the resolution establishing the commissions and the earlier conference resolutions had to be loaded with disclaimers of separatist intent and weighted to stress the rationale of mobilizing backward women to aid the defense effort.
Despite its continued suspicion of feminism, the party leadership had authorized groups to specialize in organizing women. It ordered two to five party members to be assigned to such work in every province, district, and city party committee. Under the control of the local party officials, the commissions would conduct agitation, distribute literature, enroll women in courses, and draw them into unions, soviets, and factory committees. Reflecting the influence of Kollontai and Inessa, the order asserted that the commissions should make a special effort to involve women in projects dealing with child care and communal housekeeping.25
A Central Commission led by Inessa, Kollontai, and Samoilova went to work in Moscow in the winter of 1918-19. They placed columns about women’s activities in the newspapers,26 published pamphlets and collections of articles, and spoke at local meetings of women organizers.27 They also attempted to supervise the establishment of women’s commissions in the provinces. They then pressured the commissions to organize delegate conferences as the primary means of drawing women into Soviet activity.28
In the process Kollontai found that it was easier to get Central Committee authorization, however qualified, than it was to get cooperation from lower-echelon Communists who had not been reconciled to the notion of work among women by the stress on such activity as necessary for defense. Regional Communist Party officials had been ordered to help with the establishment of the commissions, but more often than not they simply ignored the female organizers. This meant that they gave them no financial aid and no staff support. A Moscow worker, A. Unskova, later wrote that her job early in 1919 was “difficult and thankless.” For the whole of Moscow the commission consisted of one secretary and two agitators. Because of “the stagnation and misunderstanding of the full importance of work among women,” these few organizers had to justify every step they proposed and frequently appealed to the Moscow Committee for pressure against local Communists. The hostility they encountered forced the women’s commissions to work in isolation from the party committees instead of closely with them, as the initial decrees had intended, and thereby laid them open anew to charges of separatism.29 Nor was it possible under such conditions for these inexperienced organizers to make any real progress in mobilizing women workers.
Kollontai was disappointed by the commissions’ lack of success. Persuading the party leadership had been difficult enough; now their victory was vitiated by the resistance of provincial Communists who were less educated and more conservative than the leaders. The obstacles to establishing work among women were also increased by the effect of the war on the party’s resources and the workers’ morale. Moscow was starving. In the streets crows devoured whatever carrion they could find, or fluttered in through broken windows to scrounge for scraps. Cart horses that dropped dead in harness were butchered where they fell. A glass of tea cost thirty kopeks, sugar was twelve rubles a pound, approximately equivalent to $12 in U.S. currency at that time. Money was becoming worthless and being replaced by barter. Large numbers of cold, undernourished city dwellers sickened, then died, often to be buried in straw mats because wood was more valuable as fuel to warm the living than as coffins for the dead.30
The desperate privations of 1919 stilled the revolutionary enthusiasm of those workers who had remained in the factories rather than leave for party or army jobs or flee to the countryside where food was still available. Kollontai found that workers were sometimes bitter about the revolution’s unfulfilled promises, but that more often they were lethargic, numbed by the atmosphere of malnutrition and death. In her diary in January 1919 she wrote, “It’s not so much the masses turning against us now as it is simply hungry passivity. But I love to overcome such attitudes, as at Tsindel [a Moscow printing plant]; to force women to understand finally that they can help themselves in our state, by raising the issue of nurseries, children’s homes, and such.” After this outburst of enthusiasm she confessed, “But such a daily struggle with the attitudes of thousands among the masses is tiring; you feel sometimes that there simply isn’t the strength to go out again to a meeting.”31
Life was a little easier for the government leaders. Kollontai spent a bizarre New Year’s eve at army headquarters, where former tsarist officers, now in the Red Army, gathered with their “ladies” in dresses bought abroad before the revolution. They feasted on soup and black bread with cheese and on tea with real sugar. The sugar delighted Kollontai, who had a sweet tooth. Afterwards there was a concert.32
Her son Misha had stayed in Petrograd to finish an engineering course there, but he visited his mother in January. Kollontai wrote in her diary, “He is living in a dormitory, apparently he’s hungry and cold, and I don’t have anything to send him; it’s agonizing. I want us to live in the same city, but he loves his institute.”33
The hunger, the cold, the misery of the people for whom they had made the revolution tormented Kollontai. Tsarist officers, somewhat tattered now, still danced at army headquarters, but the workers only looked on sullenly as she tried to exhort them to further sacrifices. What had the Bolsheviks accomplished in a year? That same January she wrote in her diary that she had just seen Louise Bryant. “She asked me to take her to a meeting, but I’m afraid of what the attitudes would be there. I reminded her of the American war for liberation at the end of the eighteenth century. They also had hunger and disruption of the economy and the entire world did not recognize a new, free America.”34
Kollontai clung to her faith that the building of socialism had begun and therefore that eventually life would improve. “I walk around Moscow and I think how it will be in the future, in two hundred to three hundred years. They won’t believe that real hunger ruled in Moscow.”35
She did find the strength to go to meetings; she responded to the hardships of the war by pressing constantly for the beleaguered people, and particularly women, to become more involved in organizing social services. In March Kollontai sponsored a resolution on female emancipation at the first session of the Communist International, the association of Communist parties founded as a successor to the Second International.36 At meetings of the committee drafting a new Bolshevik Party platform for passage by the Eighth Party Congress, she pushed for a statement of intention to abolish the bourgeois family and fight prostitution, in addition to a more general commitment to female equality, but the committee turned her down. Lenin argued that it was too soon to talk about changing the family structure; the family was necessary now for child rearing. Although Kollontai was asking only for a written commitment, Lenin must have believed even that would alienate party members and cause an unnecessary row.37
At the Eighth Party Congress, Bolshevik attitudes toward female emancipation—a mixture of agreement on the most general goals, hostility toward special efforts, and belief that the whole question was unimportant—became apparent again. On March 20 and 21 the congress delegates met to complete the editing of a Central Committee report on party and government reorganization. A lengthy debate ensued on two supremely important questions: whether the government was becoming too bureaucratic and how the party should control noncommunists who worked in the bureaucracy. After discussing those issues for hours, the exhausted delegates came to the last item on the agenda, work with women and young people. Someone suggested from the floor that since there was no particular disagreement over the proposals, a handwritten copy should be sent directly to the editing committee.
Kollontai objected immediately. She wanted the congress to discuss the programs for women because she wanted to convince the local party officials present to support them. “It would be a terribly unwise step if we did not tell the comrades who have come here from the provinces for the first time about the great work our party has done in this field,” Kollontai said. “It is necessary to give the comrades the plan for future work.” How could Communists perform the difficult tasks which the other congress resolutions set for them, if women were not involved? And she must have thought, although she did not ask, how would the Bolsheviks involve women if these regional officials continued to thwart the work of the women’s commissions? With a hint of criticism Kollontai concluded, “The party, which is responsible for the entire government, should consider step by step the improvements which we can make. We are not conceited people, we have not become hardened and numb, we are proposing a whole series of reforms—let the congress support them with their authority and it will be a real step forward.”38 After a few more minutes of debate M. A. Muranov, the presiding officer, ruled that the question would be scheduled for the next session. Kollontai finally managed to get time to present the report on organizing women in a debate on March 22.
Her audience was different now from the sympathetic delegates of November; Kollontai had to establish the legitimacy of work among women before a group of men who cared very little about the subject. She began with the argument they were most likely to accept. Kollontai said that women were backward, a “counterrevolutionary stronghold” that hindered the proletarian movement. To reach them, the Central Committee had authorized the creation of committees that would use normal agitational tools—meetings, courses, literature—with some adaptations for their audience. Then Kollontai moved on to more controversial and feministic declarations. Both men and women should participate in work among the female proletariat, she said, so that men and women could learn to work together and so that men could come to understand women’s burdens. The party should not simply talk about female participation in the general struggle; it should work to emancipate women. Particularly important was teaching new skills by enrolling women in government institutions as trainees. Such programs would allow women to free themselves. “We say to the women workers and peasants,” Kollontai declared, “ ‘Our life now is dark and difficult, we shall study how to help ourselves, how to deliver ourselves from the centuries-long servitude and bondage of women by the household and the family.’ ”39
Drawing women into all spheres of government work would not only liberate them, it would enable the government to expel “the petty-bourgeois elements,” the holdovers from tsarist days who threatened to pervert the Soviet system. Kollontai had objected to the employment of “bourgeois specialists” in the spring of 1918, during the Left Opposition debate; she continued to dislike the practice in 1919. “It often happens,” she said, “that we put a specialist at the head of an institution, for instance, the children’s colonies, or the nurseries. She knows her business, but her spirit is alien. She lacks healthy class instinct.” The woman worker, on the other hand, had the “healthy class instinct” that would enable her to experiment with new forms of social organization.40 For all these reasons, local party officials should help with work among women, Kollontai argued, and she ended her speech by reading a resolution instructing them to do so. The congress passed it.41 There was no debate on the issue because the party had greater problems to discuss. The delegates might not actively aid work among women, but they were now willing to pass a resolution submitted to them by the party leadership.
Shortly after the congress Kollontai had to leave the work of the Central Commission on Agitation Among Women to go south to the Ukraine. The party was in need of people to mobilize the population there against the Volunteer Army of General Anton Denikin, against Ukrainian nationalists, and against rampaging partisans. At stake ultimately was the survival of Communist rule in Moscow and its establishment in the rich farmlands of the south. To secure that, the Bolsheviks had to fight regular military battles while cultivating popular support and forming governing structures. It was to the latter tasks that Kollontai turned her efforts.
She went first to Kharkov, a city that had served intermittently as Communist headquarters in the Ukraine for the preceding year and a half. In April 1919 Bolshevik government had been reestablished in Kiev, but Kharkov continued to be an important center for Bolshevik activities on the left bank of the Dnieper. Kollontai met Samoilova, who had come south earlier, and the two began organizing work with women and supervising more general agitation.42
In May Kollontai set out on a tour of the Donbass, an important mining area through which Denikin’s army was driving. Periodically her train stopped at villages where Kollontai got out to speak, never certain that she would not be ambushed by detachments of the Whites or of the Greens, partisans of anarchist and nationalist persuasion. The car assigned to her group was attached to whatever train was going their way, and it was coupled and uncoupled constantly. Kollontai carried a large sheet of thick white paper embossed with an official seal that was supposed to awe local officials into cooperation, but it rarely did. Often her car sat on a siding while trains crept by, headed in the direction she wanted to go. Kollontai would argue for hours with the stationmaster, pursuing him up and down the dingy platform, ordering him to allow her party to get underway, while knowing full well that in this backwater he had absolute power. “The stationmaster stubbornly repeated: ‘The train is overloaded, I can’t couple you.’ We threatened to get in touch with Kharkov by phone; it didn’t work. The stationmaster knew very well that in those days it was difficult to get in touch with Kharkov by phone.”43
Somehow Kollontai’s little group completed its trip and returned in time to flee Kharkov ahead of Denikin’s Volunteer Army. She went on to the Crimea, where she worked among the troops and served on a shortlived local soviet. Typically optimistic about the danger they faced, Kollontai became impatient when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin’s brother Dmitri, spent all their time planning the evacuation of the peninsula. She wanted to do “practical work,” such as setting up sanitoria, so she toured the facilities already in use to see where improvements could be made.44 On June 24, 1919, Denikin’s forces took Simferopol in the center of the Crimea and Kollontai had to cancel her plans. She fled with Dmitri Ul’ianov to Bolshevik-controlled Kiev, where she became cheerful again. On July 7 she wrote in her diary, “How happy I am to be in Kiev, to be doing creative work, to see all around me the strengthening of Soviet power.” This time she added, “Of course, Kiev is threatened.”45 Two months later the city fell to the Whites, and Kollontai returned to Moscow, her tour of duty as a civil-war worker completed.
Kollontai moved into the Hotel National near Red Square, intending to occupy herself again with work among women.46 In her absence, the party leadership had authorized the conversion of the women’s commissions into a woman’s bureau, the Section for Work Among Women, or Zhenotdel. Inessa had been appointed its head. Kollontai must have expected a leading role in Zhenotdel, since she had pushed for such a department since 1906, but Inessa had been active in the work for years also, and she was particularly important in gathering a group of women in Moscow who lobbied for support from the male leadership. Furthermore she had impeccable Bolshevik credentials, unlike Kollontai. Nor did Inessa have Kollontai’s reputation for radicalism on the woman question. She had been astute enough to settle first for the commissions and allow the party leadership to become used to that idea. Then, when the commissions proved unable to mobilize large numbers of women, she could argue for a woman’s bureau on the German model, with headquarters in Moscow and a hierarchy of provincial and local departments which would be more directly under control of the central section than the commissions had been. Inessa had gotten the Zhenotdel established and she was well suited to the delicate task of building it.
What Kollontai probably did not understand was the insultingly minor job she was given when she reported back. She was made the Zhenotdel representative to the Department for Work in the Country, and since the woman’s bureau did not have any programs aimed at peasant women, that post could hardly be considered a major responsibility. Perhaps there were no other jobs available. Perhaps some shadow of the disgrace of the Left Opposition still lay across Kollontai. Perhaps Kollontai herself made a high-handed bid for consideration that annoyed Inessa. Although they agreed on the goals for work among women, Inessa and Kollontai were never friends. They had been rivals before the revolution and they were temperamentally different; Kollontai was expansive and emotional, Inessa aloof and a bit ascetic. From time to time the two quarreled.47 Whatever the reason, Kollontai did not move into leadership in the new woman’s bureau, but spent the fall of 1919 making speeches, encouraging workers in the provinces, and publishing pamphlets urging the population to support the war effort.48 In late November even this rather trivial activity ended when Kollontai suffered a serious heart attack. She did not return to work until the late spring of 1920.49
While Kollontai lay ill, Inessa worked strenuously to establish the pattern of projects that characterized the Zhenotdel—agitation, propaganda, conferences, enrollment of women as trainees in government departments, and involvement of them in party work. She attached particular importance to the conferences of women’s delegates (delegatki). The women elected to attend these meetings would receive crash courses in “political literacy,” then the most reliable and energetic among them would move to a soviet or other agency for training. Instructors from the Zhenotdel would supervise their work. After several months of experience the delegate would either go on to permanent employment in the government or return to her regular job, both as an example to her friends and as a reliable, committed supporter of the new society. The delegates’ participation would have the added benefit of enlisting hitherto uninvolved masses of women workers in soviet-sponsored projects.50
At the Eighth Party Conference in December 1919 Inessa chided Bukharin for not mentioning the Zhenotdel’s work in his speech on education.51 That kind of indifference annoyed her, and continued to plague her, so in December she obtained the support of party secretary N. N. Krestinskii for a series of decrees designed to legitimize the women’s sections on the local level. Krestinskii issued a “circular letter” commanding provincial party committees to improve their work among women. He stressed the importance of regular communication between the Central Section and the provinces and between the provinces and the districts. He ordered the local Zhenotdel sections to organize delegate conferences, publish literature, and keep careful financial records.52
Inessa followed up Krestinskii’s letter with a flood of her own instructions during the winter of 1919-20. She drew up detailed course outlines for training Zhenotdel workers at party schools, even specifying the number of hours to be spent on each topic. She issued instructions on drawing women into such fields as education, food supply, protection of female and child labor, maternity and child care, public health, and defense.53 Throughout, the decrees stressed that these programs would involve women in socially useful activity, but they also pointed out that through such work women would be emancipated from the burdens of family life. In emphasizing the liberating dimension of their activity, Inessa, Samoilova, and the other Zhenotdel workers returned to the theme of the November 1918 conference: that the party must organize women not just to augment its own forces but to achieve women’s emancipation.54 Furthermore the Zhenotdel operatives were instructed to consider the defense of female interests as an important part of their job. They were to lobby for measures helping women, report women’s complaints, and increase the number of women on decision-making bodies.55 Inessa was attempting to make the Zhenotdel more than a mobilizer of women: she wanted it to be an advocate for women within the party and the government.
The decrees of the winter of 1919-20 dealt in detail with organizing Zhenotdel sections in the provinces. The Central Section even told the district secretaries that they must be at the desk assigned to them at the party headquarters from 10:00 a.m. until closing time.56 It was an ambitious project for a party that lacked personnel and money and was fighting a civil war, but Inessa remained optimistic. At the second conference of provincial Zhenotdel organizers held in Moscow in late March 1920, she reported that the delegate conferences, “the great core of all our work,” were meeting regularly. Inessa did not admit what V. A. Moirova, another organizer, confessed later: that the Zhenotdel workers often could not hold elections of delegates because so few women were willing to participate. “We picked out these women in the places where they worked. . . ,” Moirova wrote, “chose them at conferences and meetings, watched their attitudes at these functions, and positively dragged them out of their seclusion into public activity.”57 An organizer in Tver confessed that to get women to come to the conference, “it was necessary to go through the workers’ barracks and almost have a separate conversation with every woman worker.”58
Inessa did assert in her March report that they had established Zhenotdel sections in many districts and virtually all the provinces under Bolshevik control. Now they must focus their attention on involving women in socialist construction, which meant convincing women to cooperate with the program of compulsory labor which the government had recently ordered. In outlining ways the Zhenotdel could bring women into the brigades of workers now being marshaled to aid the war effort, Inessa again stressed that Zhenotdel personnel should defend the interests of mobilized women. Zhenotdel should complain if women were forced to work under conditions dangerous to their health, encourage women to take vocational courses to upgrade their skills, and push to have women included in party, union, and factory committees and leading government departments, especially in the economic sector. To accomplish all these tasks while drawing the female proletariat into more active support of the Soviet system, Zhenotdel needed more personnel and better organization throughout the country. At this point, in March 1920, they lacked staff for every facet of their work, especially for the training programs.59
There was some cause for hope in the resolution passed by the Ninth Party Congress meeting that same month. Instead of the pallid statement Kollontai had pushed through the year before, Samoilova managed to persuade this congress to declare work among women “one of the urgent tasks of the moment and a necessary part of our general party work.”60 The resolution called on local party committees “to pay the most serious attention to and participate actively in work among women workers and peasants” by organizing women’s bureaus where they did not exist and strengthening them where they did. The women of the Central Section could take heart, for this endorsement represented the strongest statement of party support they had ever received.
Inessa and her colleagues in Moscow spent the summer reorganizing the center, expanding their provincial work, planning a journal, Kommu- nist\a, as a communications link, and increasing other publishing activity.61 Despite the brave talk, they were untrained, understaffed, and faced a significant degree of opposition from both the local party and government organizations.62 Many working women also remained suspicious and hostile. There were still rumors that Communists were godless people who wanted to take children away from their mothers and destroy the Church. Those women who felt no real dislike for the party were often exhausted after working all day and struggling to find food for their families. Thus many women avoided the Zhenotdel initiatives.63 A start had been made, the bureau had been founded, but its viability remained in doubt, and the trust of women workers was still to be won.
Meanwhile Kollontai recuperated from her heart attack. In March she felt well enough to do some writing.64 In May she took two trips, one to Petrograd to greet a British delegation, the other with Dybenko to his home village to spend two weeks with his parents.65 After that Kollontai went to Kiev and Dybenko to the Caucasian Front. There was strain between them, for he resented their constant separations. He had also become restive under her tutelage. They fought, and Kollontai was relieved when he went off on an assignment and left her alone with her reading. Gradually they began to move apart, although neither would make the final break until 1923. In letters to him Kollontai described the source of their estrangement and admitted to her ambivalent independence: “I see, I know that I cannot give you full happiness. On the one hand you and I are good, close, and on the other are awkward and sometimes miserable. I am not the wife you need. After all, I am more man than woman. Everybody says so.”66
She had begun to feel that the sailor should have a traditional woman, or so she told him when he demanded attention. Perhaps she was tiring of the maternal role she had fashioned for herself, and growing resentful of the demands of a man so many years her junior. For his part he was no longer the impressionable peasant of 1917; he had fought a war, was attending the military academy in Moscow, and was ceasing to need a wife who was also a guardian. Slowly the differences between them were separating them.67
Kollontai returned to Moscow in time to speak at the first International Conference of Communist Women, held in conjunction with the second congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in July 1920. According to Krupskaia the conference met “under extraordinarily difficult conditions,” because there had been no time to hold elections of delegates among the various national parties. The women who attended the brief meeting were simply those at the Comintern congress, many of whom had had no experience and little interest in work with women.68 They heard lectures on women in the revolutionary movement and passed a resolution that called on the Comintern to establish a secretariat for work among women. Clara Zetkin, now working in Russia, presented the resolutions of the conference to the full session of the Comintern, and under her leadership the secretariat and a resolution on work among women were approved without debate. Both were largely paper declarations lacking real meaning, although Zetkin did go on to set up the secretariat. The Comintern was from its inception bogged down in conflict over the extent to which foreign Communists must follow Russian leadership, and that struggle claimed so much attention that few members had either the time or the interest to devote to building an international woman’s movement. Thus this commitment to women became embalmed in rhetoric.69
Kollontai had now returned to active work in the Zhenotdel; she spoke as its representative at meetings and participated in the editorial board of the newly founded journal Kommunistka.70 As Kollontai grew stronger, Inessa became more tired, but she did not alter the hectic pace she had set herself until the late summer of 1920, when she went south to rest. Fleeing from enemy troops in the Caucasus, Inessa contracted cholera. By September she was dead.
The funeral was both sad and discomfiting. The inner circle of Bolsheviks believed that Lenin had loved Inessa, and they watched him during the ceremony to see if he would betray his feelings. Kollontai, wondering whether he would humiliate Krupskaia by collapsing on the walk to the grave site,71 spoke eloquently in tribute to Inessa, her rival and colleague. The woman’s cause had lost a powerful advocate, a highly partisan Bolshevik who had also become the most effective organizer of work among women in the party, but for Kollontai, the interregnum was over. With Inessa gone, the Central Committee chose her to head the Zhenotdel.
The prospects of strengthening the department seemed brighter in the fall of 1920 than ever before. During the summer Zhenotdel workers had made significant advances in publishing, establishing courses for organizers, setting up sections on the local level, and holding meetings to coordinate Zhenotdel programs with those of related government departments.72 The “Central Women,” as the leading Zhenotdel workers in Moscow were called, took particular pride in a decree on abortion that had been worked out in several meetings with representatives of the Commissariat of Health, its Maternity and Child Care Department, and the Commissariat of Justice.73
The carefully worded decree asserted that “the question of abortion should be decided not from the point of view of the rights of the individual, but from the point of view of the interests of the whole collective (society, race).” Abortion, if performed indiscriminately, might have undesirable effects for society and for the individual woman’s health. The decree declared:
Repressive measures against the performance of abortion worsen the situation. On the contrary, in order to bring abortion out of the underground, where it inflicts immeasurable harm on women and the race, abortion should be legalized and should be practiced freely in Soviet medical facilities, where the maximum safety of this operation would be guaranteed.74
To assure that abortion not become too common, the agencies involved should work to improve maternity care and prosecute anyone practicing abortion illegally.75 The new policy was not an endorsement of abortion as a means of birth control; it was carefully drafted to forestall the charge that the Bolsheviks favored the killing of unborn babies. But the Zhenot- del leaders felt that the procedure must be made safe in a period when so many were suffering already and when the number of illegal abortions was rising.76 Eventually abortion would become a common means of birth control in the Soviet Union, for women burdened with full-time employment, housework, and family responsibilities would refuse to have more than one or two children.
The growth in Zhenotdel activity and the success in arranging the abortion decree were optimistic signs for Kollontai in the fall of 1920. So too was an interview Lenin gave to Clara Zetkin in September, in which he firmly supported the Woman’s Bureau. “Unless millions of women are with us,” he said, “we cannot construct on Communist lines. We must find our way to them, we must study and try to find that way.” He attacked party members who let their wives become “worn out in petty, monotonous, household work.”77 He had nothing but scorn for husbands who did not help at home and for housework itself; in fact, he managed to see housework as a threat to the revolution.
The home life of the woman is a daily sacrifice to a thousand unimportant trivialities. The old master right of the man still lives in secret. His slave takes her revenge, also secretly. The backwardness of women, their lack of understanding for the revolutionary ideals of the man decrease his joy and determination in fighting. They are like little worms which, unseen, slowly but surely rot and corrode.78
In earlier speeches Lenin had also supported the Woman’s Bureau and the notion that women must be fully freed from domestic responsibilities. He saw husbands sharing household chores as an interim solution; the real resolution of the problem could come only with the establishment of communal facilities, as yet lacking because of the disruptions of war.79
To have Lenin’s support was a vital aid to the Zhenotdel. Although he had never helped them the way Sverdlov did, he was willing to speak to women’s groups and lend his enormous prestige to their efforts. In his attacks on the triple burdens of women—housework, child care, and factory labor—he set a progressive example for many Communists who were prepared only to mouth slogans about female emancipation while letting their wives wait on them. Lenin did not place any great emphasis on the Zhenotdel programs to upgrade women’s job skills, however, and there is no evidence that he favored a concerted effort to have women put into positions of authority. Probably he felt, as did most of his comrades, that if women were freed of their shackles, offered training, and encouraged, they would move into a condition of equality without any special push up the ladder.
Lenin’s attitudes toward the woman question reflected the thinking of the party leadership. On this issue he was a moderate among Bolsheviks, so his endorsement in 1920 registered a contemporary acceptance of the Zhenotdel by the top men in the party, the educated, intellectual elite. They were not going to exert any special effort to help the Woman’s Bureau, but they were willing to let it do its work with their blessing. Such acquiescence may smack of condescension, it may have been motivated as much by a desire to mobilize women as by a desire to liberate them, but it was a significant improvement over the hostility of earlier years.80
Of course, rank-and-file Communists did not necessarily share the attitudes of the leadership. Samoilova wrote in the fall of 1920 that many Bolsheviks referred to the Zhenotdel as the babotdel, from baba, a term commonly used to describe peasant women but carrying a note of derision that cannot be translated. This prejudice led to talk on the local level of abolishing the sections.81 Female party members who worked in other jobs often shared the negative attitudes of their male comrades; Samoilova wrote of such women, “They do not work with women because they consider this work beneath their dignity and declare that the organization of women workers is ‘feminism.’ They talk this way only because they are absolutely unacquainted with work among the female proletariat and do not understand its goals and meaning.”82 A similar attitude prevailed in the trade unions, which considered organizing among the female membership to be their province, and therefore refused to work on joint programs with the Zhenotdel.83
Compounding this problem of resistance was the continuing organizational weakness of the Zhenotdel itself. The department did not have enough local sections or enough staff where sections existed. Many party committees refused them support, and therefore the ties between the Zhenotdel and other departments were weak. The Zhenotdel workers in some areas were not even party members, so they could not have attended party meetings had they been welcome. Within the bureau, central, provincial, and local workers were out of touch with one another far too often. The Central Section did not know how many people were actually working on the local level, and it could not control their transfer to other jobs. That impotence was heightened by the fact that the Zhenotdel did not pay the salaries of their organizers. Those funds came from the party committees, which felt a right to assign people as they saw fit.84
The situation on the local level was also difficult because of confusion among the Zhenotdel workers themselves. Many of them were inexperienced young women who did not really understand the directives they received intermittently from Moscow.85 In Simbirsk, for example, the workers in the provincial section concentrated on nonparty women because they thought the party committee was responsible for Bolshevik women.86 To deal with these problems, Kollontai would have to improve the structure of the bureau itself, increase the number and training of its workers, and break down the hostility of other departments—all that in a period of continuing crisis in country and party as well.
Kollontai laid out her program in an article in Kommunistka, the Zhenotdel journal, in November 1920. The primary tasks facing the bureau were educating more personnel and “strengthening the communist consciousness” of those already involved in work among women. These people would then teach the female masses, drawing them into party membership and involving them in socialist construction. They would also pay particular attention to issues concerning women, for it was their responsibility to defend women’s interests. With a directness Inessa had avoided, Kollontai declared that the Zhenotdel should serve as an advocate for women with party and government.
In their work the sections should start from the premise that the organization and mobilization of female and male workers are one and indivisible. But the sections should keep their independence in bringing creative tasks to the party; they should set themselves the goal of genuine and full emancipation of women, while defending their interests as representatives of the sex that is largely responsible for the health and vitality of future generations.87
Many comrades, Kollontai wrote, thought of the Zhenotdel as a mere rallier of women to the cause, as a department that rewrote decrees in simple language for women. It was far more than that. True, it did call women to socialist construction, but it also should initiate programs on its own to increase production, such as helping women improve their job skills or organizing more communal facilities for them.88 She saw the Zhenotdel not as a woman’s auxiliary, but as a voice for women, an aid to their special needs, and a department generating new ideas. In so doing, she was operating from a conception of the party as pluralistic, composed of various interest groups vying for attention and free to speak their minds. Inessa had shared that vision, as did Samoilova to a lesser degree, but neither of them had ever proclaimed it quite as loudly as Kol- lontai. To implement her declaration of intent, she concentrated in the late fall on three projects—general improvement of the Zhenotdel’s operation, the fight against prostitution, and a resolution for the Eighth Soviet Congress.
Carrying out the first objective, Kollontai presided over conferences of local Zhenotdel workers where resolutions were passed in favor of better communications between Moscow and the provinces, improved training in the party schools, and more full-time workers.89 She supervised the daily operation of the Zhenotdel, spending time at the Orgburo to get approval for projects.90 When a particular breakthrough in organizing on the local level occurred, she or Samoilova or another of the Central Women would leave Moscow to lend personal support to a provincial section.
Thus Kollontai traveled to Tula in the late fall of 1920 for a conference of peasant women. The Zhenotdel had always committed itself to reaching the rural poor, but in the countryside the barriers of misunderstanding were even greater than among city women, so the organizers had concentrated on the cities. In Tula, lying about one hundred miles due south of Moscow, a Bolshevik named N. S. Kokoreva had tried in the summer of 1918 to persuade peasant women to accept the new idea of public nurseries. She had received the reply: “Soviet power is our power. The land has been given to the peasant, his greatest joy. A deep bow [of thanks]. Thanks for caring for us mothers and children. Equal rights for us are also fine. But we won’t give our child to a kindergarten or nursery.”91 Peasant women, if they did not perceive the Bolsheviks as a threat (which most clearly did), simply wanted to be left alone to get on with their lives. They had no time to go to meetings, nor did they see any particular reason to do so. They certainly had no intention of turning their children over to strangers. Of course, many factory women shared these same attitudes, due in no small measure to the fact that they were often only one generation away from the villages themselves, but city dwellers in general possessed higher levels of political awareness. The isolation of rural life and its community spirit sheltered the peasant, male and female alike, from the ideological ferment of the cities.
Therefore when Zhenotdel workers in Tula at last managed, with the help of a special organizer sent from Moscow, to set up a delegate conference of peasant women in 1920, Kollontai attended it as a gesture of congratulation and encouragement. She was elated to see the young women from the countryside gathered in the provincial capital, and she was pleased by the enthusiasm of the local Zhenotdel workers.92 At the opening session, the first order of business was the election of a “presidium,” or group of delegates to preside over the meeting. The Zhenotdel workers had drawn up a list of candidates which they presented to the conference. The nominees walked to the dais, and the audience began to grumble. Kollontai realized that they had made a crucial mistake in nominating one young women who, though she had grown up in the area, had also studied in Moscow, where she had adopted city ways. “She came to the platform with bobbed hair, in a short dress, with a cigarette in her lips. Not only did they turn her down for the presidium, but what was worse, they raised a din in the hall against all the rest of the list.”93
Kollontai conferred with the local Zhenotdel women and persuaded them to drop the offender from the nominees. She argued that the conference delegates would never accept someone whose appearance seemed bawdy to them. Kollontai’s young comrades finally agreed, but only under protest, for they resented having to bow to what they saw as the peasants’ obnoxious conservatism. The rest of the conference then proceeded smoothly, but after Kollontai returned to Moscow she called a special meeting between provincial leaders and the Central Women. There instructions were drawn up on organizing peasants which urged local sections to study local customs, so that they would not alienate the masses with personal behavior that defied tradition.94
In addition to overseeing local Zhenotdel leaders and expanding the projects already underway, Kollontai sought to attack the problem of prostitution. Since the late nineteenth century the practice had concerned socialists, who saw it as symptomatic of women’s degradation under capitalism. Kollontai had written a series of articles about it in 1910, when a conference on prostitution was held in Russia. Naturally she accepted the Social Democratic position that fundamental reform was impossible under capitalism, where low wages made the selling of one’s body a necessity. Now, with capitalism officially vanquished in Russia, she found prostitution had not disappeared. The Provisional Government had outlawed the legal prostitution of tsarist times, with its infamous “yellow tickets,” which women obtained upon registering with the local police. Most of the red light districts in major cities had disappeared and open soliciting was less apparent, but prostitution continued, often among women who had not practiced it before. Female employees of government or party departments slept with their bosses for favors, such as ration coupons and higher wages. Working women offered themselves to the managers of state stores in return for a little extra food for their children.95
All of this seriously alarmed Kollontai, who considered the selling of one’s body as the ultimate degradation. In 1919 she helped found a Commission to Fight Prostitution, under the Department for Social Welfare of the Commissariat of Labor.96 In November 1920 she presented a program of reforms to that commission. She wrote that prostitution was an evil not only because it spread venereal disease, but also because it reduced a woman to “a simple instrument of pleasure.” Prostitution continued to exist in this time of transition, marked by economic hardship, and so long as it was present, true equality of the sexes was impossible.
To remedy the situation, the Zhenotdel proposed a set of reforms to the commission. The commission itself already recognized the need for improved living conditions for women, better maternity care, and training facilities to upgrade their job skills. It was very important also to find work for all women, Kollontai wrote, for “as long as we have an unemployed female population, existing by means of a husband or father, the buying and selling of female affection will exist.”97 Engels and Bebel had made this point years before: bourgeois marriage and prostitution both sprang from the economic dependence of woman on man and were the two major expressions of that dependence. Kollontai was arguing that until all women worked outside the home, they would continue to sell themselves into marriage or prostitution.
The Zhenotdel therefore proposed to fight prostitution by accelerating the emancipation of women. Kollontai also wanted the young to be taught to abhor prostitution. She did not want legal penalties, nor did she favor the local raids on brothels which had been organized from time to time. Such attacks interfered with women’s privacy, she wrote, and made the women the scapegoats for society’s failure to provide them with alternative means of feeding themselves. Prostitutes should have the same options as anyone else not engaged in socially productive labor; they should be educated to a useful job and then given employment. Women too ill to work should be admitted to state nursing homes for treatment.98
It was a humane proposal, enlightened by the progressive Marxist attitude toward prostitution and by Kollontai’s faith in the liberating potential of work, but it yielded no immediate results. The commission drafted a resolution, then became embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute with another committee under the Commissariat of Health.99 Nor was prostitution a problem of high priority in a country emerging from civil war and on the verge of famine. It was an issue which Kollontai had thought the revolution would solve, and which she now found lingering on, sustained by Russia’s poverty and the chaos of the revolution itself. Prostitution continued to plague the Bolsheviks long after they could justly call it a product of capitalism, and Kollontai had struck at one of its essential causes—the material dependence of woman on man—which the revolution had not been able to alter fundamentally.
The third project consuming her attention in the fall of 1920 was a resolution “On Attracting Women to Economic Construction” for the Eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, scheduled for December. Superficially, the draft she prepared seemed no more controversial or important than the resolution on prostitution. It decreed that women must be enlisted in the reconstruction of the economy. To implement this objective, the congress was called upon to promote the involvement of women in all “economic institutions” and to aid them in organizing communal facilities that would free them for productive work.100
Kollontai presented the resolution to the meeting on December 28. She began with the mobilization argument: women could help rebuild the economy if services were organized to relieve them of the burdens of housekeeping and child care. Bluntly, Kollontai declared that not enough had been done. All the services for women had to be expanded, by encouraging women to become involved in such projects. “Great centralization is not needed now,” she said, returning to her argument that women should emancipate themselves, “but it is necessary that the soviets support the initiative of women workers and peasants.”101
Such facilities as nurseries and stolovye (public dining rooms) freed women for useful labor, but that labor itself had to interest them. Women would be fully committed to socialist construction only when they achieved full equality within it, so Kollontai proposed concerted efforts to include women on every decision-making body throughout the political and economic hierarchy.102 The intent of the resolution was to put a Soviet congress on record as favoring positive steps to advance women into positions of authority. Kollontai wanted more than the benign approval of Lenin now; she wanted more than day care centers; she wanted the government to grant women access to political and economic power. She pointed out in closing that of the two hundred delegates sitting before her, only twenty were women.
Remember, comrades, that without this [the involvement of women] we will not build our national economy. In spite of the fact that I see many skeptical faces, I must say flatly that the old petty-bourgeois attitudes are still strongly rooted in us; we brought our little resolution to the presidium only with difficulty. I strongly insist, therefore, that the whole conscious, revolutionary section of the congress, all conscious comrades, support our demands and translate them into reality.103
The crowd applauded and T. V. Sapronov, a prominent Bolshevik advocate of party democracy, recommended approving the resolution. Then one of the delegates called out from the floor: “I’m not at all against the involvement of women in labor for building the state, but not all of them.” The congress delegates began to laugh. “There are some conditions that, if for example, they take my wife away from me . . . !” Other members of the audience yelled for recognition from the chair. They were gaveled into silence, and the man resumed: “I am saying that if, for example, they take my wife away from me, then I won’t work myself.”104
Kollontai rose to respond. No one was going to take his wife away from him, she said; women were already working outside the home. Now they had three jobs—wife, mother, and factory hand—and they needed facilities to relieve their burdens, so they could contribute more to society. “Only with the help of women will we really bring about the beginning of communist society,” she declared, again to the sound of applause. The congress voted approval of the resolution. It was a paper victory in which Kollontai took great pride.105
By late December she had also begun work on a conference of women from the Muslim minorities, called the “Eastern women,” although in fact many Muslims lived in the Ukraine and other areas that were not really eastern. Their enslavement, legitimized by the Koran, was even more brutal than that suffered by Russians. Polygamy, the veil, forced marriages, total exclusion from public life, made them slaves to men.106 The Central Section had managed to attract a few of these women to the December provincial workers’ conference, and that conference voted to organize a meeting especially for them in February.107 Kollontai was also working in the Woman’s Secretariat of the Comintern with Clara Zetkin, giving talks to other departments, writing articles, and lobbying constantly. “Sometimes I was so tired,” she wrote later of this period, “that I would come home, sit down on the sofa, and fall asleep right there for ten or fifteen minutes, and then back to work.”108
The endless activity had yielded results. Kollontai could look back over the last two years and take pride in the fact that the woman’s bureau she had sought for so long had been established. It was weak still, but it was growing. She could now stand up at a Soviet congress and demand special treatment for women, demand that they be promoted into positions of authority, without being shouted down as a feminist. In large part because of the compelling needs of the civil war, the party leadership had softened its opposition to organizing women. The sophisticated variant of Marxism which the leaders professed had always advocated true emancipation for women. The question among Bolsheviks had been one of priorities: when and how women would break free of hearth and home. Now crisis stilled the fears of separatism and roused the emancipating vision. Women should be freed so that they could join in the defense effort. Women were still pawns, their emancipation a means to a greater end, but the lessening of party resistance because of the war emergency offered Kollontai, and Inessa before her, an opportunity which they exploited skillfully. The Zhenotdel was established, and its leaders made socialist-feminist declarations that would have been unthinkable in 1917. When Kollontai temporarily suspended her work at the Zhenotdel in January 1921 to become involved in the Workers’ Opposition, she could look with satisfaction on the advances the Central Women had made.