Aleksandra Kollontai belonged to the generation of European feminists who won major advances in suffrage and social welfare programs for women. She participated in the campaigns for female emancipation and she made a contribution to the literature on the woman question by exploring the relationship between sexuality and liberation. Yet Kollontai vehemently denied that she was a feminist; rather, she saw herself as a Marxist revolutionary who sought freedom for women as part of the freeing of all humankind from the control of capitalism. Thus she set herself apart from those other members of her generation who pursued reforms for women, becoming instead a socialist, in truth a socialist feminist.
The distance that Kollontai put between herself and the feminists accounts in part for her being relatively unknown among Western European and American students of the woman’s movement. Furthermore, her most original writing gained prominence in Europe only in the twenties, at the very time that it went out of favor in her own country. In 1923 criticism of her theories on female personality began to appear in the Soviet press, because Communist Party leaders were trying to destroy her political influence and also because they were reacting against the sexual exploration of the revolutionary years. They gave Kollontai a choice—to stop propagating her ideas or to leave the party—and she chose to submit. Thereafter her feminist socialism, always divorced from feminism by Kollontai herself, was relegated to obscurity within Soviet communism. Only in the late sixties did Western feminists begin to rediscover her ideas and the woman herself.
Western feminists in search of Kollontai found very little to guide them—two sympathetic but reticent biographies by friends, some unrevealing Soviet studies, and memoirs written under the constraints of politics and fading memory.1 Yet the story of her life was there, behind the official pictures, in Kollontai’s prolific writings and in the documents of Soviet history. The search for her led through these remnants to an extraordinary woman whose life deserved retelling. She was an original feminist, despite her disavowals; she espoused a utopian Marxism which came into conflict with the imperatives of industrialization; and she lived a life that resembled melodrama more than reality. Awakened to an interest in her by the revival of feminism, then tantalized by her romantic obscurity, students of the woman’s movement began to ask, “Who was Kollontai? What did she leave us?”
Kollontai was born in 1872, into an aristocratic Russian family. Her mother, Aleksandra Masalina, was the daughter of a Finnish merchant and a Russian noblewoman. Her father, Mikhail Domontovich, had Ukrainian ancestry. An army officer, he eventually attained the rank of general. His wife owned an estate in Finland, and the family lived well, surrounded by servants and partaking of the amenities of upper-class life amidst the poverty of Russia. It seems an unlikely milieu to nurture a revolutionary, but Russia was spawning revolutionaries by the thousands in just such aristocratic homes in the 1870s. That the privileged young could turn against the status quo was indicative of the society’s grave problems.
The vast majority of Russia’s people, the peasants, lived in constant debt with small prospects for improvement. Aleksandr II ended serfdom in 1861, but in so doing he saddled the peasants with redemption dues, forty-nine yearly payments for the land they had received from the nobility. This financial burden, combined with inefficient farming methods, a growing rural population, and a lack of effective governmental support, kept the people of the countryside in economic bondage. Although Aleksandr II understood that the emancipation had not created a class of truly free farmers, he could not attempt more major land reform without alienating the nobles, who gave the monarchy its most consistent support. Like his forefathers, he hoped to import from Western Europe technology and ideas that would enable the Russian government to become more efficient, the elite better educated, and the masses more productive, but he also wanted to preserve autocracy.
In one of these tasks, Aleksandr II and his father Nikolai I succeeded admirably. They did generate an educated elite, for the Russian upper classes studied European ideas more zealously than the emperors had ever intended. Some of the children of the 1830s became Hegelians or utopian socialists; their children of the 1860s were the feminists, liberals, and nihilists who became populists, or even terrorists, in the 1870s. An important segment of the Russians privileged by birth or talent turned their education toward a critique of their society, and the Russian intelligentsia was born, that bright, visionary, sometimes lunatic group from which came great artists and great revolutionaries. Their defining characteristic was alienation. Kollontai wrote, “Just because there was a kind of abyss between foreign countries . . . and everything that we, the Russian youth, saw all around us, we learned never to accept any statement blindly, never to believe only what some authority preached.”2 In opening Russia to the West, therefore, the autocracy created the educated nobility it wanted, but that nobility in turn generated a gadfly group of intellectuals who pushed for more reform than the monarchy would grant.
Kollontai grew up in a family of the liberal intelligentsia. She came of age in the 1890s, when Marxism was attracting large numbers of young people, and she became a Marxist because the ideology offered a more systematic explanation of Russia’s ills and a more certain hope of rectification than did her parents’ liberalism. As she dabbled in quasi-legal educational projects among the workers of St. Petersburg, Kollontai gradually realized that her vocation lay in revolutionary politics. In 1898 she left her husband and son to go to Zurich, in order to study Marxism. Returning to Russia one year later, Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and spent the first decade of the twentieth century engaged in Marxist analyses of the Finnish economy and in illegal political organizing. She fled Russia to avoid arrest in 1908 and spent the years 1909 to 1917 in Western Europe. There she wrote her most important articles on the relationship between female sexuality and female subjugation.
Marxism already possessed a rich analysis of the oppression of women in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism. Kollontai added a sensitive portrait of the psyche of woman. She understood the pull of her traditional upbringing, and she saw that the human need for intimacy often led to female subordination, because women and men could not treat one another as equals. Kollontai knew how difficult it was to be a “new woman,” who could be independent without being stifled by doubt or loneliness. She wrote about women’s emancipation in a way the male theorists did not, because she felt its personal cost and rewards, as they did not. This insight enabled Kollontai in the years before World War I to add to the economic analyses of Engels and Bebel an exploration of the psychological dimensions of woman’s condition and her emancipation, which was a contribution to feminism as well as to socialism. Unfortunately few feminists read her work. Kollontai addressed it to the Russian socialist movement, within which psychology remained distinctly subordinate to sociology.
Kollontai’s prewar writing did not deal exclusively with female personality. She also made a reputation as an expert on reform in maternity care and as an advocate of organizations for women within socialist parties. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, Lenin chose her to head the Commissariat for Social Welfare. In that position she authored decrees that committed the Soviet state to full funding of maternity care from conception through the first year of life. Kollontai also advised other commissariats on laws establishing the legal and political equality of women and reforming the marriage code. The foundations for female emancipation laid in those first days of the Bolshevik Revolution were substantial, but Kollontai was not satisfied. She and Inessa Ar- mand led the campaign for a woman’s bureau within the Communist Party, and in 1920, after Inessa’s death, Kollontai became its head. She used this position to apprise women of their new rights, to draw them out of the home into political activity, and to push for the promotion of women into positions of leadership in the government and the party. From the beginning of the Russian Revolution until her departure from the country in 1922, Kollontai was a leader in the great Soviet experiment in female emancipation, and that experiment, in turn, was one of the most far-reaching efforts to free women ever undertaken.
Kollontai left her post at the Zhenotdel (the Woman’s Bureau) because she had become a central figure in a debate on party democratization and industrialization. Communists disagreed on the means for modernizing Russia and on the degree of dissent tolerable within their own ranks. Kollontai advocated worker-run factories and full freedom of opinion so vocally that the party leadership appointed her to a diplomatic post that was essentially an exile. She wrote a number of articles and short stories in 1923, but soon these too fell under attack, and for the rest of her life Kollontai confined her career to diplomacy.
These are the contours of the shadowy figure sought out by students of the woman’s movement. Aleksandra Kollontai was a daughter of the aristocracy who chose to become a revolutionary, and went on to make an important contribution to feminist literature and female emancipation. She was an anarchistic Marxist who raised fundamental questions about the infant Soviet state, a revolutionary who saw her revolution come, then become something less than she had dreamed. Her life was a drama, acted, perhaps, with the women of the future in mind, in the hope that they would seek to understand the struggle of their grandmothers’ generation.
Until February 1918 Russia used the Julian calendar, which in the nineteenth century was twelve days and in the twentieth century thirteen days behind the Western European (Gregorian) calendar. Dates will be given in the Old Style, i.e., according to the Julian calendar, until the narrative reaches 1918, when the Soviet government shifted to the Gregorian. In transliterating, the Library of Congress system will be adhered to, with some simplifications, except in the case of well known proper names (e.g., Trotsky, not Trotskii).
I should like to acknowledge the support of the University of Akron Faculty Research Fellowships and the American Council of Learned Societies-Social Science Research Council Soviet Studies Grants. I should also like to thank those friends who gave me their comments on the manuscript at various stages—Barbara Alpern Engel, Peter Kenez, Sheldon Liss, Philip Pomper, and Richard Stites. Their help was generously offered and gratefully received. Sam Clements has lived with Kollontai for ten years, helped with translations, searched through libraries, typed and proofread, all with good grace and unfailing patience. And finally, thanks go to Garnette Dorsey, who typed all the drafts of this book without complaint, even though she does not really approve of Kollontai.