THE EVENTS OF 1917 bore out Kollontai’s bright expectations for Russia and for her own career. The year saw her rise to the top echelons of the Bolshevik Party, which she had recently joined, achieve national prominence as an orator, and begin work to emancipate women. Kollontai reveled in the chaos of the revolution, joining gleefully in demonstrations and shouting her calls for an end to the war to soldiers, sailors, and workers. She felt herself in harmony with the people whose cause she championed. Now all her predictions of a great, spontaneous, democratic upheaval seemed to be coming true, and Kollontai embraced “the new Russia” joyfully.
Her first response to the news of the fall of the Romanovs was to plan her return home. In Christiania she conferred daily with Evgeniia Bosh, Grigorii Piatakov (Bosh’s husband), and Liudmilla Stal’ on how to travel back to Russia and on whether the tsarist warrants for their arrest were still in force.1 On March 6, A. P. Hanson, the secretary of the Norwegian youth organization, went to Finland to find out if the émigrés could return without risking imprisonment. Meanwhile Kollontai wrote to Lenin for instructions on the Bolshevik position on the war in this new situation and received the answer, “Of course we remain against the defense of the fatherland. . . . All our slogans are the same.”2
The next day Lenin wrote again to suggest that Kollontai delay her departure until she received “a set of theses,” the first two of the famous “Letters from Afar.” These were his directives to the Petrograd Bolsheviks to oppose any continuation of Russia’s involvement in the war and to begin agitation against the newly established, moderate Provisional Government. Lenin also wanted Kollontai to organize communications between Switzerland and Russia before she left, for he feared he might not be able to go home himself.3
At about the same time Kollontai received the news she had hoped for: a telegram from Petrograd informing her that all political émigrés had been amnestied. Although the Russian consul in Christiania told her and her friends that they would be arrested at the border, Piatakov and Bosh set off for Russia. Kollontai had to wait another week for Lenin’s theses to arrive, and she also had to obtain the permission of the Swedish government to cross its borders. She appealed to Hjalmar Branting, who managed to secure a visa. Her old friend Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik had already asked Kollontai to stay in her Petrograd apartment when she returned, so her arrangements were complete. The Norwegians saw her off with a rousing rally, at which Kollontai enthusiastically hailed the Russian revolution as the beginning of a transfer of power to the soviets, “the organ of the new power of the workers.”4
She crossed Sweden by train. At the Finnish border she hid the “Letters from Afar” in her underclothing, then passed through Swedish customs toward the Russian station at Torneo. Home after eight years in exile, she felt her spirits rise.
Then, March 1917, was a harsh winter. A white, snowy shroud brightened the gloom of the poplar swamp. But it was gay in the belled sleighs, as we crossed the frontier river at Torneo. Ahead, the new Russia. It still was not ours, it was still only bourgeois, but had not the workers’ and peasants’ will for peace and a basic cleansing of old Russia been displayed in the creation of their soviets? Ahead, struggle and work. Work and struggle. Then, in March, my soul was as bracingly bright and fresh as the snowy, frosty air.5
The border guard found Kollontai’s name on a list of amnestied émigrés and welcomed her back. As she left the station, the lieutenant of the garrison even kissed her hand. Exhilarated, Kollontai rushed on to catch a train for Petrograd. She arrived in the capital on March 18.6
Immediately she took Lenin’s theses to the Petrograd Committee, where Shliapnikov gave her a report on party attitudes that verified the absent leader’s worst fears. The senior Bolsheviks in the city, Stalin and Kamenev, were favoring accommodation with the bourgeois Provisional Government and the temporary continuation of the war. These men, newly returned from Siberian exile, more moderate than Shliapnikov, hesitated to adopt an inflammatory position until the revolution had stabilized.7
Their hesitation was natural under the circumstances, for they confronted a confused scene which they were still trying to understand. Nikolai was gone, that much was certain. Of all the tsars since Peter the Great, he had seemed most paralyzed by the dilemma of modernization, the balancing between change and control. He had taken the throne unprepared to rule, he was neither a good politician nor a particularly intelligent man, and his reign saw the fruition of all the inadequate policies of his forefathers. He had wanted to be an absolute monarch, an Orthodox emperor ruling a technologically modern society of medieval classes; thus he had encouraged Sergei Witte, minister of finance in the 1890s, to industrialize the country, but had forbidden him from making major land reforms. At the same time he had pursued the imperialist incursions into Manchuria which led to the Russo-Japanese War. After that defeat provoked rebellions, Nikolai had granted a legislative assembly, the Duma; civil liberties; and, later, the land reform proposed by the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Petr Stolypin. The Duma and the new freedoms did not fulfill the promises of 1905, for the government rewrote the electoral law to favor the upper classes and interpreted free speech as freedom to say the politically acceptable; but for the conservative emperor these were substantial concessions.
Unprepared to fight a modern war, unable even in peacetime to satisfy the needs of its people, Nikolai’s government entered World War I. At first, an outburst of patriotism unified the nation behind the crown. Then, as the carnage continued through 1915 into 1916, the government became increasingly helpless. Only privately organized committees supplying medical care, food, and even munitions were able to improve conditions at the front, and Nikolai treated all such groups with distrust. By 1916 inflation began to affect the urban population. The war was being lost at a dreadful cost in human lives. Rumors circulated that Nikolai’s German-born wife Aleksandra was a spy, so hostile had grown the public feeling against her influence over her husband. Gossips also hinted at an illicit relationship between the empress and Rasputin, the Siberian peasant and religious mystic who treated her hemophiliac son and increasingly meddled in politics. In 1916 Nikolai switched his officials from office to office, trying without success to improve the functioning of his administration in a display of impotence derisively labeled “ministerial leapfrog.”
By February 1917, when food riots broke out in Petrograd, some of the tsar’s own relatives were plotting to overthrow him. The demonstrations seemed at first like many the authorities had put down before— angry women demanding food for their children, socialist agitators and trade unionists leading the crowds—but this time when the Petrograd garrison was ordered to disperse the protesters with force, the unseasoned recruits refused. After bloody skirmishes on February 26, the soldiers of the Pavlovskii, Preobrazhenskii, and Volynskii regiments returned, shaken, to their barracks. They talked through the night about how they were firing on their own people, and the next day they refused their officers’ orders. Instead they joined the demonstrations, setting off the defection of virtually all the troops in the city.
Nikolai’s government had long since sacrificed its authority because of its repression and incompetence. In February 1917 the emperor had to rely on force to keep his capital quiet. Thus once he lost the troops of Petrograd, he had to act quickly to transfer more reliable men to the city, or the demonstrations would grow. Nikolai did order some units back from the front, but they too melted away in mutiny, and the emperor, hundreds of miles from Petrograd at the headquarters of the General Staff, was unaware of how completely his government had lost control in the capital. On February 28, rather than return to the city to attempt to oversee the restoration of order, he set out for the royal palace at Tsarskoe Selo to meet Aleksandra and their children. The train was diverted to Pskov because revolutionaries held the tracks around Petrograd, but still Nikolai persisted in believing that these demonstrations were no more serious than those he had weathered before. Then, on March 2, his own generals came to him to urge him to abdicate; they now knew that he must give up the throne before order could be restored. Quietly, without argument, finally realizing the calamity he faced, Nikolai agreed. He offered the crown to his brother Mikhail, who wisely refused that dubious honor. The Romanov dynasty had come to an end.
Even before the abdication, a new government had begun forming, as liberal Duma deputies established a Temporary Committee—soon to become the Provisional Government. Simultaneously, workers, soldiers, and revolutionary intellectuals created the Soviet (or Council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, an assembly composed of elected representatives of unions, factories, and military units. There was a widespread feeling throughout urban Russia in March that the nation should become a republic, with civil liberties, better working conditions, and more food for the cities.8 A true and complete reform of the nation’s ills finally seemed possible, but the euphoria that pervaded Petrograd obscured the fact that the Old Regime had collapsed under remarkably little pressure. The political parties at the center, primarily Octobrists and Kadets, had attacked the throne verbally but had not acted decisively to topple it. The left—Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs, Social Democrats of all sorts, and various smaller socialist groups—had led the demonstrations and helped form the Soviet, but they were not important in fomenting the troop mutinies which destroyed the power of the autocracy in the capital. Leadership had played a less important role in the demise of the Romanovs than had simple mass anger and Nikolai’s paralyzed refusal to fight his own destruction.
Leadership was vital, however, for remaking Russia, and the very spontaneity of the first days of the February Revolution meant that no recognized authority had yet emerged. This was the basic fact underlying Kollontai’s and Shliapnikov’s argument with Stalin and Kamenev. The Soviet was composed of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, although on the very day of its founding, socialists of the intelligentsia, primarily Mensheviks, began to move into leadership of its Executive Committee. They saw the Soviet as an organization for the expression of workers’ interests rather than as a governing body, for they felt that the Provisional Government represented the bourgeoisie, which had now come to power after the overthrow of the feudal monarchy. Russia was behind Western Europe in economic development, and until capitalism had been built, the bourgeoisie must rule, according to orthodox Marxism. Stalin and Kamenev agreed with the Mensheviks.
Kollontai and Shliapnikov felt little of Stalin’s hesitation. They followed Lenin in calling for the soviets to take power from the Provisional Government because they saw this as the quickest route to international revolution. Socialists must seize the moment, not collaborate with the bourgeoisie. By creating a proletarian regime in Russia, they could end the war and set an example that would fire revolution all over Europe. If they hesitated, the beginnings in Russia might be stamped out by regrouped capitalists. Thus their nation’s backwardness and the confusion of the moment, which caused Stalin and Kamenev to be cautious, impelled Kollontai and Shliapnikov to advocate immediate revolutionary action. Internationalists, they thought of pan-European revolution as the solution for both Russia’s lagging development and Europe’s war.9
Without Lenin’s presence the impatient Bolshevik minority could not persuade Stalin’s majority. Kollontai was hardly ostracized, however. She plunged enthusiastically into writing for Pravda, and a few days after her arrival, V. V. Schmidt, secretary of the Petersburg Committee, suggested that she become a delegate to the Soviet. He scanned a list of unions to see which ones had no representative as yet, and his eyes stopped on a woodworkers’ group. Giving her the street address, Schmidt directed Kollontai to go to union headquarters and convince the men to elect her their delegate to the Soviet.
“I went,” she later wrote. “The office was like any other in those days: two long, unpainted tables, some benches, located in a basement. It smelled damp; the light struggled weakly through a narrow cellar window.”10 From a woman sitting in the dismal place, Kollontai learned that the union leader, Timofei Ivanovich, was out but was expected back soon, so she waited. The two women struck up a conversation that turned to the war and inflation.
Of course, I tried to propagandize the watchman’s wife. Who had started the war? Why? And so on. She didn’t argue, but she didn’t show any interest. On her face was written: deliver me from idle chatter.11
After several hours Timofei Ivanovich returned. Kollontai made her proposal, and he talked it over privately with other union members. Some of the men were suspicious of Bolsheviks, thinking them all to be German spies because they opposed the war. Then a man strolled in who was plainly not a worker. In a voice that implied he exercised some authority there, he asked the woodworkers if they were going to join the Bolsheviks. Kollontai realized she had stumbled into a union where the Mensheviks already had an organizer. After the newcomer spoke quietly to Timofei Ivanovich, the union leader turned back to her. “Tell your Bolshevik committee not to send us deputies to the Soviet from off the streets anymore,” he said. “Whether or not we go to the Soviet is our business, the union’s. We are nonparty.” The other men agreed, and the Menshevik watched Kollontai leave defeated.12
Shortly thereafter Nikolai Podvoiskii, head of the Central Committee’s Military Organization which managed agitation among the troops, took Kollontai to speak to a group of soldiers. The success of her appearance prompted him to suggest that she become a soldiers’ delegate to the Soviet. Kollontai was skeptical about the men’s willingness to have a woman representative, but she underestimated her own powers, for on March 27 a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks elected her.13 Soon after, she was elected in turn to the Soviet Executive Committee.
In early April, Lenin returned to Petrograd. On April 4, at a general meeting of Social Democrats at the Tavrida Palace, he called on the Bolsheviks to demand the transfer of power to the soviets, nationalization of land, abolition of the army and police, and an end to Russian participation in the war. So totally did he reject the notion of cooperation with other political parties that he proposed renaming the Bolsheviks “Communists” to set them apart. Henceforth they must demand “Peace, Bread, and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets.” This uncompromising declaration stunned Lenin’s own followers. Only Kollontai rose to defend him:
I was so indignant that I wasn’t even nervous, as I usually was during speeches, although I saw the malicious looks, heard the deprecatory shouts at my address.
In the first row sat Nadezhda Konstantinovna [Krupskaia] and next to her Inessa Armand. They both were smiling at me, as if encouraging my speech. Vladimir Il’ich was sitting on the podium, and when I finished my speech, I sat down close to him.14
Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik-Internationalist, saw Kollontai’s appearance as something less than a complete success. It provoked “mockery, laughter, and hubbub.” “The meeting dispersed,” he wrote. “Any chance of serious debate had been destroyed.” Soon a popular rhyme was circulating: “Whatever Lenin jabbers, only Kollontai agrees with him.” Audiences shouted at her, “Leninist, we know everything you’re going to say. Down, down!” Foreign correspondents dubbed her the “Valkyrie of the Revolution,” while moderate Russian newspapers called her “a mad Bolshevik.”15
In fact, Kollontai was embarking on the greatest adventure of her life. Within a few weeks Lenin had won most of the party over to his position, and now Kollontai found her desires for an end to the war and the beginning of revolutionary, soviet government shared by a majority of her colleagues. In speech after speech to the sailors at Helsingfors, to soldiers and workers in the capital, she issued calls for action. To an audience of women workers she declared:
The war is still not over and there are so many armless, legless, blind, maimed in the world, so many widows, orphans! So many cities and villages destroyed! They lie, those who talk about the defense of the fatherland. The war is led by the capitalists for the division of the spoils.
Where is the people’s money going? To the schools, the hospitals, to housing, to the protection of maternity and childhood? Nothing of the sort is happening. The people’s money is going to finance bloody skirmishes. Those guilty of the war are the bankers, the factory owners, the landlord-moneybags. They all belong to a single gang of thieves. And the people die!
Stand under the red banner of the Bolshevik Party! Swell the ranks of the Bolsheviks, fearless fighters for Soviet power, for the workers’ and peasants’ power, for peace, for freedom, for land!16
Not all her audiences responded enthusiastically; there were hisses and shouts and once even shots fired into the air.17 Nonetheless Kollontai was happy. If old friends now ignored her, there were new friends, and riding the revolutionary wave left one little time to regret the costs of partisanship. The Bolsheviks would win; she knew they were right; anyone who disagreed was wrong. At the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets in June, Plekhanov, who had supported the war effort, looked at her sadly, then walked by without speaking. She wrote later of the man she had once venerated as the leader of Russian Marxism:
Political enemies, yes. But isn’t there value in the past? For him I am an enemy, a defeatist. He is not the Plekhanov who wrote Monism and whom I knew in my student years in Switzerland; he’s dead for the revolution. What could I say to him?18
Her commitment to the Bolshevism of “The April Theses” was unwavering. Only one field of activity was being neglected—work among women. In March the Petersburg Committee had established a group within the city organization to lead agitation aimed at the female proletariat, but in order to receive approval, Vera Slutskaia, the Bolshevik who proposed the committee, had to promise that this was not a separate woman’s organization. Despite the concession, the Petrograd party conference in April refused to discuss the woman question because women did not as yet have the vote. Many neighborhood-level party people distrusted Slutskaia’s pledge of solidarity, and their resistance to what they saw as feminist separatism prevented the committee from doing any work in the city.19
Kollontai realized that Slutskaia’s impotent group was not enough. She believed that the Mensheviks, SRs, and feminists would seek support among women, and to counter their efforts the Bolsheviks would need more than a single, weak committee. Kollontai had reason for concern; the feminists were indeed organizing to press for the vote. On March 19 a demonstration sponsored by the League for Women’s Equality marched to the Tavrida Palace to ask the Provisional Government leaders if they supported full civil rights for women. When Kollontai spoke to the rally, the crowd hooted down her criticism of feminism.20
In addition to rallying working women to their cause, the feminists also had found receptive listeners among the soldiers’ wives of Petrograd, the soldatki. These women were struggling to feed their children on military allotments that did not keep pace with inflation. To help them, upper-class women had organized “Associations of Soldiers’ Wives,” which offered advice on setting up food cooperatives and pressuring the government for more money. Kollontai naturally saw the soldatki as potential converts to Bolshevism, and she was alarmed by the support they gave to her feminist rivals.21 Thus she was present when a group of soldatki marched on the Soviet. She decried the evils of the war and inflation and urged the women to support the Bolsheviks, but they listened with scant interest, because her appeal did not seem to address itself to their immediate needs.22 Speeches by one person could not discredit the practical work of the feminists. Shortly after Lenin and Krupskaia returned to Russia, therefore, Kollontai pressed them to set up a group at the highest party level to specialize in organizing women.
Krupskaia disagreed. The party would not accept a separate organization for women, she said. Heatedly, Kollontai emphasized that she had not asked for a separate bureau, just an organization within the overall hierarchy. Lenin intervened, telling her to continue to work with the soldatki and to draw up a concrete plan for a woman’s group which they could then discuss.
With Klavdiia Nikolaeva and another worker, Fedorova, Kollontai drafted a proposal modeled on Zetkin’s defunct German section. It called for the establishment of a committee within every major party organization to coordinate organizing among women. Kollontai then met with Inessa, Krupskaia, Samoilova, Liudmilla Stal’, and Zinaida Lilina (Zinoviev’s wife) to discuss the matter. The others voted the proposal down and promised to present an alternative the next day. Kollontai later wrote with some lingering resentment, “Nikolaeva and Fedorova, yes, of course. Inessa wasn’t against, but she wasn’t for our project. It was all the same to me; let them put together a new one; the important thing was not the wording, but the essence.”23
At the next meeting she found that the essence had been changed, too, and that the other women wanted to avoid any proposal that could be stigmatized as separatist. They had decided to scrap Kollontai’s plan and concentrate on reviving Rabotnitsa as a center for work among women, since the party’s blessing had already been given to the newspaper in 1913. Kollontai again argued for the committees at a party conference the end of April, but again she was rebuffed.24
Disappointed, she continued to work in the Soviet, but her main activity was speaking at meetings throughout Petrograd and from time to time in Helsingfors. This was the year of the agitator, as Russia’s people, so long denied the right to meet freely, indulged in an orgy of lectures, demonstrations, and debates. Kollontai rushed from gathering to gathering to urge support for the Bolsheviks. She spoke to the troops, the soldakti, and crowds of the Petrograd poor. She attacked the Provisional Government’s determination to remain in the war, joining enthusiastically in the demonstrations that caused the fall of the first coalition in early May.25 She called for measures to end inflation, and spoke before the Executive Committee of the Soviet to ask support for laundresses who were striking for higher wages and better working conditions.26 She traveled to Helsingfors to agitate among the troops, and to strengthen ties with Finnish Social Democrats.
In June Kollontai emerged as a Bolshevik spokeswoman on the issue of national autonomy, particularly for Finland. She spoke at the congress of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, announcing her conversion to Lenin’s theory of national self-determination. She vowed that the way to Finnish independence lay through the defeat of capitalism, an end to the war, and the construction of a new International.27 Several days later she repeated the same theme at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The Bolsheviks, she explained, supported national self-determination because that would swell the ranks of those willing to fight imperialism, and ultimately the destruction of imperialism would unify, not divide, the international proletariat. She introduced two resolutions on the subject, both of which were defeated, for the delegates to the Soviet Congress had not yet accepted the notion of allowing sections of the Russian Empire to slip away.28
In addition to her trips to Finland and her appearances at the Soviet congress, Kollontai stood for election to the Petrograd Duma in June, worked to get out the women’s vote, and helped organize an antiwar demonstration with the other editors of Rabotnitsa. At the end of the month she spoke to a national conference of union representatives with a call for the delegates to support full equality for working women. She also proposed that the unions form departments within their hierarchies that would bring women into the organizations and promote them to the highest decision-making levels. The conference listened politely, then approved Kollontai’s resolution.29
The revolution seemed to be accelerating. Throughout the spring the men of the Provisional Government had fumbled for solutions to the chaos around them, but their moderate temperaments and political inexperience made them shrink from the strong action necessary to restore stability. They saw themselves as caretakers until a constituent assembly was elected to form a new government, so they were unwilling to act on fundamental issues such as land reform. Then, as public demands for change grew louder, the leaders of the Provisional Government became increasingly hesitant to call the very constituent assembly on which they staked the country’s future. The government delayed, the economy faltered, the military disintegrated, and the Bolsheviks grew from a small party in March to a potent opposition force by late June.
In the midst of this turmoil Kollontai left Russia for Stockholm. The International Socialist Committee (ISC), the titular executive of the Zimmerwald movement, was meeting there in preparation for a socialist unity conference scheduled for Stockholm later that summer. Kollontai, on Lenin’s order, went to join Karl Radek and V. V. Vorovskii, then working in Sweden as liaison with the Zimmerwald left. The three planned to propose an ISC boycott of the coming meeting. Instead the Bolsheviks favored a conference exclusively composed of the Zimmerwald leftists who agreed with Lenin. The ISC meeting became a shambles, because many delegates failed to arrive and the rump session that did meet refused to act on the Bolshevik motion. Aside from the pleasure of reunions with old friends Zeth Höglund and Fredrik Strom, Kollontai had little to show for her trip.30
On July 5, Radek called her hotel to tell her that violent demonstrations had broken out in Petrograd. These were the July Days, a brief but militant attempt by radical soldiers and workers to oust the Provisional Government. Most of the Bolshevik leadership judged such a rising premature, but when it began, they attempted to exercise leadership, with disastrous results. The majority of the military and police forces remained loyal to the Provisional Government; the crowds were soon dispersed and the leaders arrested. In the political reorganization that followed, Aleksandr Kerensky, a moderate socialist, became prime minister. He set out quickly to complete the rout of the Bolsheviks.
Hours after Radek’s call, Kollontai met him and Vorovskii in a Stockholm café. At that distance from Petrograd, they knew very little beyond that the party had suffered a defeat, and they talked worriedly about their future. Ia. S. Ganetski, a Polish Social Democrat, joined them with rumors that Kamenev had been arrested and that Lenin had escaped. He thought they should all stay in Stockholm and try to reestablish a foreign party headquarters, much as the émigrés had done before the revolution.31
For Kollontai, however, staying in Sweden was not an option. Because Sweden had declared her persona non grata in 1914, she had had to obtain special permission to enter the country, and her visa stipulated that she was there only to attend the ISC meeting. That very evening a Swedish newspaper criticized the government’s decision to admit her at all, so she knew she would not be allowed to stay. The next day, July 6, she told Radek and Vorovskii that she was going home. They were sure she would be arrested. Kollontai admitted that it was possible, but she wanted to be in Russia, where, as she wrote to an old Zimmerwald colleague, Heleen Ankersmit, “great events are before us.”32
Zoia Shadurskaia, Kollontai’s childhood friend, had just arrived in Stockholm from Paris: together, she and Kollontai boarded the train for Finland. The same border guards who had welcomed Kollontai back in March met them at the frontier, but this time they searched the train and asked Kollontai and Zoia to stay behind after it left, whereupon the commander of the garrison arrested them on the charge that they were spies for Germany.
Kollontai and Zoia traveled across Finland under guard, and as the word spread that the prisoners were German agents, bystanders at the stations through which they passed shouted insults. One waiter refused to feed them because, he said, spies should be kept on a diet of bread and water. He would not even let them drink his water. Kollontai kept expecting some word that the Soviet had intervened to free them, but it never came. On arrival in Petrograd they were taken to interrogation. “Have you brought in any spies, Bolshevik?” asked a young officer. “Have you taken German money to betray Russia? You won’t succeed! We won’t allow it! We won’t let you!”33
A colonel then took over, demanding that Kollontai tell him everything she knew about A. Ia. Semashko, who had worked with her in agitation among the fleet and who had played a role in the July Days as leader of the rebellious First Machine Gun Regiment. Kollontai replied, untruthfully, that she had met him at a few meetings, that was all. The two officers repeated the same line of questioning with Zoia, who knew nothing. Finally they asked the women if they knew where Lenin was hiding, to which Kollontai and Zoia answered truthfully that they did not. That ended the first interrogation. They were taken next to the office of the city prosecutor, where they were separated and made to wait while bureaucrats filled out arrest forms. Two guards then took Kollontai alone by car to the Woman’s Section of the Kresti Prison, in the Viborg section of Petrograd. Zoia, who was clearly innocent, was released.34
The government charged that Lenin, Zinoviev, Kollontai, Semashko, and other Bolsheviks had taken money from Germany to finance the antigovernment and antiwar propaganda that had climaxed in the armed uprising of the July Days. To support these accusations, the prosecutor published an order from German authorities opening a bank account for the Russians in Stockholm. Furthermore, the government said it had intercepted damning telegrams between the accused. “Although this correspondence has instructions on commercial transactions, the sending of various goods, and monetary operations,” the Ministry of Justice asserted, “nevertheless it offers a sufficient basis to conclude that this correspondence covers up dealings of an espionage nature.”35 Kollontai was also specifically charged with engaging in antiwar propaganda with Semashko among the troops in April, May, and June.
The carefully worded accusation avoided further specifics, promising to reveal them in full at the proper time. What information the prosecutor did volunteer was true; the Bolsheviks had taken money from the German government. The Bolsheviks opposed the war and the Provisional Government. If successful, their agitation would weaken Russia’s fighting capacity, thus aiding Germany. What was not true was the charge that the Bolsheviks were acting “with the goal of favoring the enemy”—in other words, that they were spies serving the Germans.36 They did not report Russian secrets to Germany or seek a German victory in the war. Lenin, Zinoviev, Kollontai, and the others took German money to finance a campaign to accelerate the revolution, and while they were less than honest in admitting the source of some of their funding, they were in no way guilty of ordinary espionage.37
Kerensky’s ploy worked for the moment, however. Although he probably knew that the Bolsheviks were not enemy agents, he was determined to check their growing strength by all the means at his disposal. Thus he added to the charge that they were guilty of riotous behavior during the July Days the accusation that they were collaborating with the enemy and seeking Russia’s defeat. That was a potent combination, and the evidence—the well-known Bolshevik opposition to the war, their role in the uprising, and now documents proving German payoffs—was strong enough to make the party’s popularity plummet. Held virtually incommunicado, Kollontai did not know that the Soviet, dominated by moderate socialists, had not intervened to have her freed from jail because it feared incurring public wrath by defending a spy.
The fear, inactivity, and physical privation of prison life wore her down. At night all hope of release gave way to a sense of “deathly quiet, broken by the ringing, distant sounds of the prison void.”38 The authorities denied her newspapers, books, magazines, writing paper, and contact with other prisoners. Nor could she send messages out or leave her cell for exercise. Several times the prosecutor interrogated her, trying to force an admission that she had written antiwar articles to help Germany. He cited as particularly damaging a piece in Pravda in which Kollontai had called for humane treatment of German prisoners of war.39
She did not know then that various people, among them Gorky and Mikhail Bukhovskii, an officer who had been her childhood friend, were pressuring the authorities to ameliorate her treatment. She suffered from a mild case of angina which could flare up again. Their requests brought Kollontai a visit from a prison inspector named Insaev, a left Kadet she had known years before. He told her that the minister of justice, A. S. Zarudnyi, another of her acquaintances, wanted to release her but could not because Kerensky feared she would go back to stirring up the troops.
Conditions improved shortly after Insaev’s visit. Kollontai received food packages and digitalis, though written communication with the outside world continued to be cut off occasionally. Now she could leave her cell for exercise in the prison yard, and at times she could even summon back her customary good spirits.
Night. Day. Night again.
I wake up with uncontrollable cheerfulness. Almost “the joy of life.” Probably because it is a bright, bright sunny day. I tidy up the cell. I wait for my walk. And on the walk we make bold with the matron, with the one who has the cat-o-nine tails. The little courtyard now has been turned completely into a storehouse for firewood. But the smell from the freshly piled logs is resinous and refreshing, and if you close your eyes you can imagine yourself in a forest.
I return to the cell. But still there is not the depression of previous days. I have gathered myself together, internally. Three years, so, three years. Five years, so, five years. But it won’t be that. Will the Provisional Government really cope with all its tasks? Will it really be able to respond to the demands of the people: down with the war, land to the peasants, regulation of industry, power to the toilers? No, it will mark time, it does not understand that history demands, and demands powerfully, a step forward to a new, socialist future.40
Not history’s demands but the appeals of her friends got Kollontai released from jail on August 21; Gorky had posted bail of 5,000 rubles. Kollontai later wrote that Kerensky, in Moscow, did not hear of her freedom until it was an accomplished fact. In anger he ordered her to be put under house arrest, with two armed guards posted at the door of the apartment she was sharing with Zoia Shadurskaia and Misha. After several weeks of protest from the Soviet, including an article and a speech by Trotsky, the government lifted that final indignity.41
By September 9 Kollontai was free. She found Petrograd rife with rumors of counterrevolution and of Bolshevik successes. An abortive attempt at a rightist coup by General Lavr Kornilov in late August had forced Kerensky to ease his campaign against the Bolsheviks. Instead of prosecuting the left, he needed their help. The Kornilov episode fanned fears of counterrevolution, and in this changed climate Bolshevik popularity among the working classes reached a new high. For the first time, in mid-September, they became the largest party in the Petrograd Soviet.
Kollontai’s political fortunes rose with those of the Bolsheviks. At the Sixth Party Congress in late July, while she sat in jail, she became the first woman elected to the Central Committee, polling the sixth highest vote. In nominating her a Bolshevik candidate to the Constituent Assembly, Stalin placed her fifth on the list, after Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Lunacharskii.42 When she was released from prison, Proletarii, the party newspaper, welcomed her back by declaring: “Greetings to the fighter, returned to our ranks.”43 Requests came in to the Petrograd offices for her pamphlets, and colleagues acknowledged her as one of their best orators.44 Pitirim Sorokin, a Socialist Revolutionary who was later to become an eminent sociologist, wrote after losing a debate with her:
As for this woman, it is plain that her revolutionary enthusiasm is nothing but a gratification of her sexual satyriasis [sic]. In spite of her numerous “husbands,” Kollontai, first the wife of a general, later the mistress of a dozen men, is not yet satiated. She seeks new forms of sexual sadism. I wish she might come under the observation of Freud and other psychiatrists. She would indeed be a rare subject for them.45
Sorokin’s anger at Kollontai and the Bolsheviks’ admiration for her sprang from the same source—Kollontai’s talent as a speaker. She had never been more effective in presenting Bolshevik demands for “peace, bread, and land” and “all power to the soviets.” Bolshevik popularity was greater than ever before, and Kollontai, buoyed by sympathetic audiences and by her party’s success, rushed happily from meeting to meeting. Her speeches, she felt, “expressed the general striving, the united mass will,”46 of the crowds who shared her radicalism. The final push by the people toward freedom and community had begun. Both then and later, Kollontai hailed the spontaneity of the revolution. She attributed the party’s success to the fact that it simultaneously expressed the will of the people and led their historically determined march.
Few non-Bolsheviks shared her reverent assessment. To most Petro- grad residents, it had become clear by the fall of 1917 that the Provisional Government had failed to deal effectively with the rising unrest of all sectors of the population. Soldiers were deserting the army, workers had begun to seize control of the factories, peasants were taking the lands of the gentry, and intellectuals, who had the potential to provide leadership, argued among themselves. Kerensky tried in August and September to rally the moderates into unified support of his government, but he failed. As Bolshevik popularity grew with the radicalization of society, rumors multiplied that the party was planning a coup against the Provisional Government in the name of the Soviet. Despite this challenge, other parties remained disorganized, and the most active elements of the city population fell in behind the Soviet, now led by the Bolsheviks. What Kollontai saw as an inevitable, spontaneous mass movement was actually the leap to power of a party able to obtain support by appealing to the people’s desperate needs, and willing to act while others hesitated.
Was she deceiving herself by looking at events through the warm glow of her ideology ? Perhaps. There were no preordained happy endings ahead for her country. There was no magic future, no blissful peace of socialism. Yet it was no delusion to think that Russia could be made better, and it was only naive optimism to believe that improvement must inevitably come. Kollontai’s ideology was a plausible, intellectually respectable way of bringing order to chaotic reality. Above all, in the midst of the revolution, it clarified the alignment of groups in a way that made action possible. If the ideology was a system of oversimplifications, it was also a powerful force, showing the Bolsheviks the way to change their world.
Armed with her faith, Kollontai spent September and October in hectic activity. She attended the conferences Kerensky organized in September, worked in the Soviet, spoke to unions, military units, and general rallies, wrote articles, and even continued to keep in touch with the Zim- merwald Left abroad.47 At the same time, she worked with the other editors of Rabotnitsa to encourage factory women to vote for Bolshevik candidates to the forthcoming constituent assembly. Kollontai, Samoilova, Stal’, and Nikolaeva had decided to call a conference of Petrograd factory women, and they managed to obtain the approval of Iakov Sverdlov, the party secretary, even though other Bolsheviks criticized the project as separatist.48
At about 10:00 p.m. on October 10, Kollontai went to a Central Committee meeting at the apartment of the left Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov. His wife, a Bolshevik, had offered the place to the committee in secrecy, in part because Lenin would be there. Since the order for his arrest had not been rescinded, Lenin was in hiding in a residential section of Petrograd. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, Kollontai had trouble finding the apartment, and she came in after the meeting had begun. She noticed that the atmosphere was “awfully strained.”49
The discussion went on into the night. Twelve members of the Central Committee had gathered at Lenin’s insistence to decide whether to vote their commitment to a transfer of power to the Soviet in the immediate future, in other words, to vote for a coup against Kerensky’s government soon. Lenin felt the time was right. The sailor from Helsingfors, Pavel Dybenko, said that the fleet was ready. Trotsky and two delegates from Moscow agreed. Only Zinoviev and Kamenev counseled caution, fearing another catastrophe like the July Days. When the vote was finally taken, it fell ten to two in favor of Lenin’s position. “The tension broke immediately,” Kollontai wrote. “We felt hungry. A hot samovar was brought out, we fell upon cheese and sausage.” At dawn she went home through the streets of Petrograd in a mood she later described as “solemnly serious. Almost reverent. As if you feel a spiritual foreknowledge that you stand on the threshold of a great hour. It will strike, the end of the old world. Solemn, serious, reverent, and a little nervous.”50
There was ample reason to feel nervous; most of the Bolsheviks feared that Lenin was pushing them too far, too fast. They had resolved to establish a soviet government, but they were not sure exactly when. If they misjudged the hour and moved too soon, they could send their whole party down to a defeat from which it might not recover. Even after the vote on October 10, therefore, the Bolsheviks continued to consolidate control over the military units around Petrograd, agitate against the Provisional Government, and consider the precise timetable for the uprising, while Lenin fumed at their indecision.51
That they would ultimately move against Kerensky no one doubted. Kollontai hurried “along endlessly long avenues, swampy with autumn,” to meeting after meeting where she proclaimed the imminent death of the Provisional Government. “I believe the victory will be in our hands,” she declared in the Soviet, even before the October 10 Central Committee meeting, “and we shall create a socialist republic.” On October 22, a Sunday, she told factory rallies that they would soon seize power.52 Just two days later the time came. On October 24, after a clumsy attempt by Kerensky to close down the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii put’, the Bolsheviks occupied Petrograd’s communication and transportation centers. In twenty-four hours the capital of Russia was theirs.
After arresting the ministers of the Provisional Government who had remained in the city and subduing the few troops that defended them, the Bolsheviks went to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to declare a new government. There Kollontai, weary after two days of frantic activity at Soviet headquarters, listened to her party pronounce that power had been transferred to the soviets, that an equitable peace was to be made, and that all land was to be nationalized. The vote approving the peace resolution especially touched her. John Reed, an American socialist who was at the meeting, wrote:
Suddenly, by common impulse, we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth, lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors, and seared into the quiet sky. “The war is ended! The war is ended!” said a young workman near me, his face shining.53
Kollontai described the meeting as “the greatest, most memorable hour of my life.”54 The revolution she had greeted with such enthusiasm eight months earlier now seemed to be promising Russia liberty and peace.