ALEKSANDRA KOLLONTAI was born on March 19, 1872, in St. A Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. It was a stormy night in a stormy decade. The city of Peter the Great lay frozen in the grip of the northern winter, its broad streets and pastel buildings blanketed with snow. In cold student apartments young revolutionaries gathered to plan ways for winning the peasants to socialism, while behind the gates of the Winter Palace, Emperor Aleksandr II sought to solve the pressing problems of his country without tearing apart her traditions.- Between the palace and the garrets of the revolutionaries stretched the storm-crossed streets of St. Petersburg, whose inhabitants would eventually choose between tsar and revolutionary.
The baby Aleksandra seemed destined to support the emperor, for she was born into the nobility, into rank and privilege and wealth. Her father, Mikhail Alekseevich Domontovich, came from a Ukrainian family which traced its ancestry to the thirteenth century. Born in 1830, Domontovich had been graduated from the Petro-Poltavskii Cadet Academy and had pursued a career in the cavalry. In school he read illegal socialist literature, as did many young men, but age mellowed him into a liberal with a strong commitment to English constitutionalism. He believed in monarchy, in the emperor, and in peaceful change. His wife, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Masalina, shared his liberalism. Thus few observers would have predicted that their baby would become one of the most radical opponents of the society that sustained her parents and offered her a gracious life.
An omen of Aleksandra’s revolutionary future may have been the fact that her parents had stirred up a storm of their own in order to be married. They met at the opera in St. Petersburg more than ten years before their child’s birth, but Aleksandr Masalin, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna’s father, had blocked their courtship. Because Domontovich was from a better family than Aleksandra, Masalin thought the young man did not intend to marry her. When Domontovich received a new assignment outside the capital, therefore, Masalin forced his daughter into marriage with an engineer named Mravinskii. That union lasted some ten years and produced three children, but when Domontovich returned to St. Petersburg in the late 1860s, his love affair with Aleksandra Aleksandrovna was rekindled. By now her father was dead. Refusing to bow once again to duty, she obtained a divorce, presumably on grounds of adultery. She bore the baby Aleksandra before the divorce was final.1
This defiance of convention marked the Domontoviches as unusual. For the same crime Tolstoi had the Russian nobility ostracize Anna Karenina and destroy Vronskii’s military career. Neither Mikhail Alekseevich nor Aleksandra Aleksandrovna suffered such dire consequences for their love. Domontovich continued to move forward in the cavalry, and St. Petersburg ladies did not snub Aleksandra Aleksandrovna. Their marriage accomplished, the Domontoviches settled down to provide a home for their new daughter, to protect her from the turmoil of the times and to assure that she would have a placid, secure future.
The baby, nicknamed Shura, was a fair-haired, blue-eyed, pretty child. She was bright, energetic, imaginative, stubborn, and not a little spoiled, for she was surrounded by a household of adults. Her immediate family included her parents, her half-sisters Adele and Evgeniia, and a number of maternal great aunts. Living with the family were two other women, Elizaveta Ivanovna, a former companion to Shura’s grandmother, and Miss Hodgson, Shura’s English nanny.2 From 1872 to 1877 the Domontoviches spent winters in St. Petersburg and summers at Aleksandra Aleksandrovna’s estate in Finland. In this comfortable world Shura grew.
The person she loved above all the others in her large family was her father. Tall, bearded, and handsome, Domontovich seemed godlike to his daughter, and this impression was strengthened by the fact that he paid little attention to her when she was young. Like most men of his class, Mikhail Alekseevich expected his wife to manage his household and rear his child. At home, he spent his time reading history or discussing politics with male friends in a room that was off limits to curious little girls. Sixty years later Kollontai wrote: “I remember how one time I sneaked on tiptoe into my father’s study. He did not notice me. I stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the forehead. Father looked up surprised, as if he had never seen me before. Then he smiled.”3
Domontovich was a scholarly man who dabbled in history. In the early 1880s he wrote a study of the Bulgarian war for independence, which was confiscated by tsarist censors, apparently because Domontovich did not sufficiently praise Russian policy in the Balkans. A liberal, Domontovich often discussed politics with brother officers, even though occasionally his opinions, like his book, provoked retaliation from his superiors. When not engaged in work, study, or conversation, he enjoyed long walks through the woods at Kuusa, his wife’s estate in Finland. All of these facets of her father’s life Shura adopted—his love of books, his liberalism, his appreciation of nature. “I cannot talk about my childhood without thinking about my father,” Kollontai wrote. “If ever a man had an influence on my mind and development, it was my father.”4 She adored him from a distance, and grew into a young woman who shared his intellectual bent and his concern for social issues.
Shura’s relationship with her mother was far more problematical, both because her mother was as dominant as her father was aloof and because mother and daughter had similar, fiery temperaments. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna had shown her strong will most dramatically in leaving her first husband and bearing a child out of wedlock, but even before that scandal she had defied convention sufficiently to raise eyebrows in St. Petersburg. She managed a dairy farm at Kuusa and sold the products in the capital, which was considered sinfully bourgeois behavior for the wife of a tsarist officer.5
No doubt gossips explained Aleksandra Aleksandrovna’s bad taste by pointing to her merchant parentage. Her mother came from the Russian nobility, but her father, Aleksandr Masalin, was a Finnish peasant who had made a fortune selling wood. When he died, his daughter inherited the estate in Finland, which he had bought as a symbol of his rise in society, but which he left encumbered with debts. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna could not bear to sell the land, so she paid her father’s bills with the proceeds from the dairy farm. She found the work so satisfying that she continued to manage the business long after Kuusa was hers free and clear.
Aleksandra Aleksandrovna had other interests. She worked in charity projects among military widows and orphans, organized a school for young ladies, and read widely about modern scientific advances, particularly in medicine. Louis Pasteur was one of her heroes. To her daughters from her first marriage, Adele and Evgeniia, and to Shura, she preached the virtues of education and self-reliance, although she also expected each girl to make a career of marriage. She was an intelligent woman, more independent than most women of her class, possessed of strong opinions and an equally strong will.
The relationship between Aleksandra Aleksandrovna and Shura was so filled with conflict that forty-five years after her mother’s death Kol- lontai still described her with resentment, softened only slightly by admiration. “My mother and the English nanny who reared me were demanding,” Kollontai wrote. “There was order in everything: to tidy up my toys myself, to lay my underwear on a little chair at night, to wash neatly, to study my lessons on time, to treat the servants with respect. Mama demanded this.”6 Her mother was always demanding, dragging Shura to orphanages to play with the children there, forcing her to take art lessons, hiding her books so she would not become a bookworm. She worried over her child’s shortcomings, complaining that Shura was nervous, that she could not sing, that she daydreamed too much, that she was too shy.
Aleksandra Aleksandrovna may have been so concerned about her daughter because Shura was her youngest, and because the two other babies of her marriage with Domontovich died in infancy. She fussed about Shura’s health, she said that the child’s faults were indications of frailty, she kept her at home for all of her education. Yet she tempered her protectiveness with tolerance, so much so that the daughter grew up just as strong-willed as, and considerably more independent than, her mother. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna taught Shura to value originality and orderliness, and she passed on enough of her own strength that the little girl developed a fierce need to break free.
Aleksandra Aleksandrovna also gave her daughter into the care of an English nanny, Miss Hodgson. Her presence eased the friction between Shura and her mother, and provided the child with the uncritical love her mother could not give. Shura trusted Miss Hodgson, for the nanny was discreet and comforting. Once, while in Bulgaria, after having seen a crowd of prisoners pass by on their way to execution, the little girl became convinced that she should have gotten her father to stop the firing squad. She could not confide her fears to her mother, but she could tell Miss Hodgson. “I confessed to her that I was guilty for the fact that the partisans and other prisoners had been shot, and all because I was a foolish person. Miss Hodgson, with her usual patience, asked about everything, she gave me some sugar water to drink, and I fell asleep holding her hand.”7
Miss Hodgson was a Victorian Englishwoman of definite opinions and definite prejudices. Kollontai knew very little about her background beyond the fact that her father had been a sea captain. A modest person, Miss Hodgson refused to bathe with the Domontovich women at a bathhouse because she believed that one should not undress in public. She was a capable woman and helped Aleksandra Aleksandrovna run the household. Kollontai remembered her as scornful of much of Russian life; she thought the Russians were uneducated, brutal, and distinctly inferior to the British. Shura thus learned from her nanny, as well as from her father, to admire England as the seat of a civilization superior in many ways to her own.
Under the watchful eye of her mother and the protection of Miss Hodgson Shura grew into a bright, active child. Until she was five she lived in St. Petersburg, where her father taught at the cavalry school. Then in 1877 Domontovich was transferred to combat duty in the Russo-Turkish War. For two years the Balkans had been racked by rebellions against Ottoman rule, and Russia supported the Slavic independence movement. When the Turks began to win, Russia intervened on the side of the Rumanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians, tipping the balance in their favor, but only after bloody battles. The Domontovich family anxiously awaited news from the front, and as each dispatch came, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna called them all together to hear it read aloud. After the Peace of San Stefano was signed in March 1878, Mikhail Alekseevich stayed on as a member of the Russian staff advising the constituent assembly that was to establish a government in newly independent Bulgaria. In 1878 the family joined him.
Describing this time in her life, Kollontai later wrote, “In Sofia I started to observe and think and my character began to take shape.”8 The six-year-old girl was bombarded by new impressions—the excitement of a long trip to a reunion with her father, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar country, the social upheaval of a city recovering from war. She began to listen now to the family’s political discussions, and she remembered for the rest of her life seeing the partisans who were about to be executed. More important than politics for a little girl, however, was finding a playmate among the children of the Russian colony in Sofia. Zoia Shadurskaia, the five-year-old daughter of a Russian diplomat, became Shura’s constant companion; they would remain close friends until Zoia’s death in 1941. Delighted by Zoia and by the adventure of life in a new place, Shura spent a happy year, until her father was ordered home in disgrace.
Domontovich had incurred the disfavor of the emperor by advocating a liberal constitution for Bulgaria. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1879 to await a new assignment, and the family settled into a large, dark house, sparsely decorated with gloomy Victorian furniture. Shura understood vaguely what had happened: she knew that her parents were irritable, that her half-sisters had gone to live with their father, and that no one was paying any attention to her. She told Miss Hodgson that the tsar who punished her father was a wicked man. Miss Hodgson replied that such talk could cause her father’s arrest, and the little girl promised that she would go to jail with him. “In order to make it easier for myself,” Kollontai wrote, “I called the tsar all the ugly names I could remember.”9
In a few months, Domontovich received a post in the capital, reportedly because he earned favor with Minister of War Dmitri Miliutin. The family moved to an apartment on one of the canals that cut through St. Petersburg, and Aleksandra Aleksandrovna cautioned everyone in the household to behave, for her husband’s position was still insecure. Less than two years later, Aleksandr II was assassinated.
Kollontai remembered vividly the hush that descended on the city as its inhabitants waited into the evening of March 1, 1881, to learn if the emperor had died. Candles were lit, and police clattered down the deserted streets. Everyone talked in hushed, frightened voices. Shura’s aunts cried for the fallen tsar, then pronounced that his death was God’s judgment for his marriage the summer before to his long-time mistress, Ekaterina Dolgorukaia. Petersburg society had never forgiven Aleksandr the indiscretion of marrying beneath him. Shura took in the sorrow in the faces around her, and in the days that followed she listened to her mother and sisters discuss the fate of Sofia Perovskaia, a well-born young woman who had participated in the murder. Then the little girl felt the crime touch her family directly. The police arrested her mother’s first husband, Mravinskii, for complicity in the assassination.
Mravinskii was an engineer, and he had been inspecting water pipes in the basements of St. Petersburg buildings, or at least that was the official purpose for his entering the homes and stores of the city. In fact, the men who assisted him were not sewer workers, but police searching for tunnels dug by the Narodnaia volia, the group which killed the tsar shortly thereafter. Aware of the terrorists’ plot to plant dynamite under the streets, the police hired Mravinskii and devised the phony plumbing inspection as a way to search secretly for explosives.10 Of course the ruse failed. Members of Narodnaia volia did dig a tunnel which went undetected, and they would have detonated it, had not the tsar changed his customary route home. Aleksandr did not go down the mined street, but the terrorists, anticipating that possibility, had stationed people throughout the city. One of these persons, Grinevitskii, killed Aleksandr and himself with a hand-thrown bomb. In the wave of arrests that followed, Mravinskii was charged with deliberately misleading the police.
Because of their connection with Mravinskii, and probably because of their liberalism, the Domontovich family found themselves again ostracized. Friends avoided them, the aunts moved out, Adele complained that no one would ever marry her. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna said Mravinskii would not have gotten into such trouble if she had stayed with him. She urged Domontovich to use his influence to help her former husband, but Mikhail Alekseevich hesitated, fearing he would jeopardize his own insecure position by supporting a man accused of treason. After some quarreling between the two, in which she accused him of jealousy, he yielded. Mravinskii was found guilty, probably because of the flood of emotion surrounding the assassination rather than because of any convincing evidence that he had protected terrorists from the police. Domontovich’s intervention saved Mravinskii from Siberia. Instead, he lost all the rights of his class and was sent to exile in European Russia.11
Shura, now nine years old, felt the tension between her parents, even though Miss Hodgson tried to divert her. Always an imaginative child, she fantasized a brilliant solution to the crisis: she would rush up to Aleksandr’s widow and beg for Mravinskii’s freedom. “Everyone would be glad and I would be a heroine.” When Zoia came to visit, she and Shura planned Mravinskii’s rescue together. “We sat on my bed in our white, very long nightshirts (of English style). We had no light in the room other than that fluttering low in the little red glass of oil that hung in front of an icon in the corner of the nursery.” Zoia had just read a book about the storming of the Bastille, so she suggested that they enlist the aid of revolutionaries to lead an assault on the prison where Mravin- skii was held. Although both girls thought that a fine idea, they found on reflection that they did not know any revolutionaries.12
After the sentencing, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna left St. Petersburg for Kuusa, her refuge from the hostile city. Shura went too, having now experienced a second family crisis brought on by her parents’ confrontation with the monarchy. Many aristocratic young Russians learned about English constitutionalism at home, but few knew the price of political opposition so personally. Shura did not simply hear criticism of the tsarist system, she saw her family life disrupted, her father and another man close to her mother directly threatened by the government. Such events strengthened the anti-tsarist attitudes she had already learned from her liberal parents, but equally important, they taught her to see opposition activity as heroic. Thus her childhood fantasies took on a political tone; she had once daydreamed about rescuing people from a shipwreck, now she would save a man by pleading with the tsar’s wife. Many of the experiences of her young life—her parents’ conversations, the partisans in Bulgaria, the assassination of the emperor, Mravinskii’s victimization— were teaching the growing child to see political action as highly esteemed and to perceive political injustice as personally threatening.
The two political crises may have been heightened in Shura’s consciousness by the fact that the family suffered social ostracism as well as government disfavor. Although not condemned as severely as Anna Karenina and Vronskii, the Domontoviches must have had a reputation for unconventional behavior. They were from different social strata. They had committed adultery openly. Domontovich held political opinions that annoyed the emperor, and now Aleksandra Aleksandrovna’s former husband was implicated in the assassination. In the aftermath of the murder, few members of the government and military circles within which the Domontoviches moved wanted to associate with people of such questionable reputation. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna withdrew from this atmosphere, taking her daughter with her, and Shura may have added to her antipathy toward the monarchy a feeling that she did not quite belong to the nobility. Perhaps her renunciation of her class in adulthood was made easier by this early exposure to its hostility.
These times of strain were important in Kollontai’s development, but they did not make her childhood an unusually difficult or stormy one. She passed the 1880s peacefully in St. Petersburg, growing into an attractive, intellectual adolescent. Shura was a good student, particularly interested in history, her father’s avocation, and in languages. She spoke French with her mother and sisters, English occasionally with her nanny, Finnish with the peasants at Kuusa, and she was studying German. She loved to read, so much so that her mother was afraid she would become too intellectual to appeal to young men. To round out her education, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna took Shura to dancing, music, and drawing lessons, none of which were successful. She was bored by art, she could not sing on key, and she disliked ballet. Her mother despaired of making a lady of her. “You’ll ruin your eyes from reading so much,” she told her. “Sit up, don’t slouch. You’ll become a hunchback.”13
In these years of late childhood and early adolescence, Shura became closer to her half-sister Evgeniia, or Zhenia, who was some six years older. Like Adele, Zhenia spent much of her life in social activities—balls, picnics, theater parties. Involved in this world and in formal education, neither girl had a great deal of time for Shura. Both felt their younger sister was spoiled and headstrong; they used to say that she always got her own way. Zhenia showed a greater interest in Shura than did Adele, and Shura learned to respect her sister’s independence. Although Aleksandra Aleksandrovna wanted Zhenia to become certified as a teacher and then to find a husband, Zhenia chose to study opera. Eventually she made a career for herself in St. Petersburg and abroad. While still a girl, she taught her little sister music and conspired with her in defiance of their mother.
Zhenia also introduced Shura to Maria Ivanovna Strakhova, a governess hired to prepare Zhenia for the examinations that would earn her a teaching certificate. Strakhova was the first person Shura knew who talked about a truly radical transformation of Russian society, including the full emancipation of women. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna was ambivalent, advocating both independence and dependence, but Strakhova was an open exponent of full female self-reliance. She rejected physical vanity, dressing in dark clothes and thick boots. She wore her hair simply. When she came to the house in 1880 or 1881, she seemed so different from the other women there that Shura was frightened of her. From the first, however, Strakhova showed concern for the child and that, combined with Zhenia’s approval of her new tutor, melted Shura’s reserve. Finally, when she saw that her father enjoyed discussing politics with Maria Ivanovna, Shura was completely won over. She did not understand the arguments, but she was impressed that her father treated Strakhova as an equal, and that Strakhova had the courage to argue with him.
As she grew into adolescence, Shura was the intelligent, well-educated child of a loving, if rather unconventional, family. Her childhood had been happy; as an adult Kollontai would complain only that she was lonelier than most children because she had no friends her own age except Zoia, who was rarely in St. Petersburg. She also resented her mother’s constant supervision, and later felt she had been sheltered and fussed over excessively. To escape from her parents, Shura daydreamed. “I preferred to ramble alone in Kuusa’s shady park and find big and exciting events in which I was the heroine,” Kollontai wrote.14 She could bow more easily to the demands of the adults if afterwards she could retreat into a place where she was in control. “I said that I was a rebel from my earliest childhood,” Kollontai wrote. “But outwardly and formally I was very obedient. I did not want to be scolded, for it would have hurt my pride in front of my older sisters and brother. I did what I was told like a nice, obedient little girl, but I revolted inwardly.”15
When Shura was about thirteen, the family moved back into the house where she had been born, Sredniaia podiacheskaia 5. It belonged to one of Mikhail Alekseevich’s cousins, “a very cultivated and refined gentleman.” Shura did not like her father’s cousin, but her sister Adele did, and when she reached twenty she married him, even though he was forty years older than she. Kollontai wrote that her mother was very pleased with the match.16
Aleksandra Aleksandrovna planned a similar future for Shura. The girl would take the examinations to certify her as a teacher when she was sixteen years old; the certification would guarantee that she could always support herself. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna knew her daughter wanted to take university courses, but she refused permission on the grounds that young people encountered too many radical ideas in higher education and that further formal schooling was unnecessary for a woman. Once she had passed her examinations, Shura should enter society to find a husband.
Shura did not reject her mother’s pushing her into a social life, but she had no intention of marrying a man of sixty. She intended to marry for love. When she was fifteen, she fell in love with Vania Dragomirov, the nineteen-year-old son of General Mikhail Dragomirov, who had fought with Domontovich in Bulgaria and was one of the most admired of Russian military strategists. Shura met Vania through his sister. She was drawn to him because he liked to talk about reforming Russian society and because he had the temerity to criticize his parents. Although they were not forbidden from seeing each other, Shura and Vania met secretly, while she was on afternoon walks with a female companion, and they communicated in invisible ink.
At first Shura must have felt she was living her daydreams, for she had found a boy with whom she could share her adolescent rebelliousness, and the two invested their relationship with all the trappings of illicit love to heighten its glamor. The romance faded, however, as Shura realized that Vania was disturbed by enormous guilt feelings. He told her that he was not worthy of her because he had stained his honor. Worried about his depression, Shura neglected her lessons to the point that Strakhova, now her governess, scolded her. She took her exams, but received lower scores than she had expected. Even in history, her best subject, Shura made only a four instead of the top mark of five.
Shortly afterward Vania shot himself to death. “When you get this letter,” he wrote to Shura, “I shall no longer be found alive. What happened today [he had kissed her] showed what a wretch I am, how little self-control I have. I cannot live without you, and I can never possess you. I sacrifice my life for you. Be happy, my angel, and never forget me. Farewell forever.”17
It seems unlikely that closely watched young people like Shura and Vania could have done anything sufficiently scandalous to warrant his consuming guilt. The boy had been seriously ill. The Domontoviches and General Dragomirov blamed themselves for not sensing his depression, and they did all they could to ease Shura’s grief. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna took her to Kuusa, Mikhail Alekseevich gave her a horse, and Zhenia sent her a riding habit. At the end of the summer of 1888 her mother arranged a trip to Stockholm. Such solicitude quickly revived the girl. “When the first shock and pain over Vania’s suicide passed,” she wrote, “and I found myself in Kuusa surrounded by the beauty of early spring, I felt strangely free and full of life. It was the first time that death’s shadow had passed so near me, but it only made me notice life’s beauty more strongly.”18 She was sixteen, she was alive, she was looking forward to growing up, and she was resilient. Perhaps she even enjoyed the attention that her role as a bereaved young lover had earned her within the family.
When the Domontoviches returned to St. Petersburg that fall, Sonia Dragomirova and Shura enrolled in the courses for young women that had been organized by the historian K. N. Bestuzhev-Riumin. They were the equivalent of a university curriculum, separate from the regular university because women were not allowed fully equal coeducation. Although disapproving, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna gave permission for Shura to attend and also for her to be tutored by Viktor Petrovich Ostro- gorskii, a professor of literature. At first Ostrogorskii doubted the seriousness of this stylish young lady, but as they worked together he realized that she was interested in her studies, and he stressed to Kollontai a reverence for the Russian language. The course and Ostrogorskii’s encouragement strengthened the decision she had made to become a writer.19 She did not intend to pursue that goal by herself, however, and in 1890 or 1891, after a few years of flirtations at St. Petersburg parties, she fell in love with Vladimir Ludvigovich Kollontai.
Kollontai was the only son of Praskovia Il’inichna, one of Mikhail Domontovich’s cousins. He came to St. Petersburg to study engineering at a military institute, and there he met Shura. To her, he was a romantic relative from a different world, since his Polish father had been exiled to Tiflis for participation in the Polish rebellion of 1864. Praskovia Il’inichna had supported her son by teaching, but they were poor, and now Vladimir was determined to complete his engineering degree and then repay his mother’s sacrifices.
Cheerful and handsome, Kollontai won Shura quickly. “My heart used to swell with indignation and warm sympathy when Kollontai talked about how badly he had lived during his childhood. What could I do so that my admirable cousin would forget all the suffering and all the injustices?”20 Unlike the other young men she knew, he had nobility of purpose, he needed her help, he could take her out of the familiar world where she felt confined.
Possibly this infatuation would have cooled, as had another since Vania’s death, but Shura’s parents refused to let her see Kollontai on the grounds that he was not a suitable prospect for marriage. Their denial heightened her resolve, as her love for Kollontai now merged with her need for independence. Years later she wrote that she had married him “as an act of protest against the will of my parents.”21 Determined, Shura launched a campaign to win their approval. Her father opposed the match because he felt Vladimir was not as intellectually inclined as she, and thus the two would have little in common. Shura replied that he could learn to read the books she enjoyed. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna objected because the young man was so poor, and her daughter retorted that she would work as a teacher to augment their income.
“You, work!” my mother sniffed. “You, who can’t even make up your own bed to look neat and tidy! You, who never picked up a needle! You, who go marching through the house like a princess and never help the servants with their work! You, who are just like your father, going around dreaming and leaving your books on every chair and table in the house!”22
“We had a long, hard battle, my mother and I,” Kollontai wrote, “a battle which lasted two years.” Her parents forbade her to see Kollontai and even sent her on a tour of Western Europe so she would forget him. Finally they accepted her decision, but Aleksandra Aleksandrovna did not capitulate gracefully. She was convinced that her pampered daughter was marrying because she wanted to assert her own will, not because she loved Kollontai, and that time would prove her right. Meanwhile, she continued to express her disapproval. She told Shura they would starve. She said she would not plan a big wedding, since such ostentation was an unseemly way to launch the marriage of paupers. She bought her child a trousseau of “practical outfits” because she said penniless young people had to wear the same clothes for years. She even refused to wear her best dress to the wedding. “This is not a big day,” Aleksandra Aleksandrovna declared. “This is only the stupidity and obstinacy of a stubborn girl. And if her father had been willing to prevent this stupidity, Shura would have been thankful one day.”23 Such carping only strengthened Shura’s resolve, and in 1893, at the age of twenty-two, she married Vladimir Kollontai.
After a honeymoon visit to his relatives, the couple moved into an apartment near the Domontovich house. Kollontai decorated it with her parents’ spare furniture. The couple had a servant named Annushka who had worked for Aleksandra Aleksandrovna, and Mikhail Alekseevich sent them money every month. Yet despite all these ties to her parents, Kollontai at first fancied herself free. She had achieved the prescribed goal of every young woman—marriage. She wrote in her memoirs:
I remember when I was a girl of thirteen or fourteen I used to think, I shall marry for love. I shall be very happy. I shall have two small girls. And afterwards? What shall I do later? I always had a dim awareness that after a time it would be very boring.24
That awareness remained dim at first. She became pregnant shortly after her marriage and bore a son, Mikhail, in 1894. Before the baby’s birth she had planned for Annushka to handle most of the time-consuming details of child care so that she could continue studying. She was reading populist and Marxist authors and she was writing fiction. Once Misha was born, however, she found herself increasingly involved in housewifely responsibilities. Not only did she have to spend far more time with the baby than she had expected, but Vladimir naturally wanted her to entertain their friends and to be with him in the evenings. “I worshipped my cheerful and handsome man, who was so happy at last to have me completely to himself,” she wrote. “But I was not as happy as he. I longed to be free. What did I properly mean, to be free?” Slowly Kol- lontai began to name the source of her discontent. “ ‘I hate marriage,’ I used to complain to Zoia. ‘It is an idiotic, meaningless life. I will become a writer.’ ”25 When Zoia told Vladimir that his wife had to have time to write, he replied that he wanted her to be happy, and he offered to hire more servants so she could pursue her studies.
Those studies bored him. Although he would listen patiently to her reading aloud about socialism, Vladimir never debated the issues so important to her. He was an engineer, and he looked with disdain on intellectuals who discussed political abstractions. Such people, he felt, rarely accomplished anything. Shura talked instead to Zoia or to a friend of her husband, a fellow engineer whom Zoia nicknamed “the Martian” because he was “short, pale, and ugly, but with an intelligent face.”26 It was the Martian who encouraged her to write her first short story.
She wrote it as a protest against “the double standard” of Victorian morality. In the story an older woman takes a trip to Western Europe with a younger male friend. En route she proposes that they have an affair for the duration of the journey, then resume their separate lives after returning home. Strakhova pronounced the story good, but too “daring.”27 After encouragement from other friends, Kollontai sent it to V. G. Korolenko, the respected populist writer who also edited the journal Russkoe bogatstvo. Korolenko rejected the story as being more a polemical pamphlet than a work of fiction. Her friends agreed and advised Kollontai to turn to other kinds of writing. Hurt by their criticism, she began working on an article about education.
Kollontai was becoming distant from her loving husband and the comfortable world of her parents. The first step had taken her out of her childhood home into marriage. With that choice she had rejected her mother’s control but not the traditional role of married woman. She had seen Vladimir as a liberator and the life of wife and mother as a free existence which would enable her to pursue her vaguely defined ambitions. She could write or study while giving her husband the love he deserved, much as her mother had engaged in her manifold activities within a happy marriage. Only after she had experienced domesticity did Kollontai realize that she could not find the fulfillment she needed as wife and mother.
At the same time she was moving away from her parents’ liberalism toward socialism. Kollontai later wrote that she found liberalism “too shallow, too passive, powerless in some way.”28 It did not answer the passionate demand of her youthful character for total, immediate solutions to Russia’s problems, and it belonged to her parents. Kollontai was examining all the values they had taught her—their political beliefs, the proper destiny of women—with the independent intelligence they had also nurtured in her, and in that examination of fundamental verities she was not alone. Many contemporaries were engaged in the same process.
Kollontai described herself as one of the Russian youth “who longed for a great mission in life. We reached out eagerly for a new belief.”29 Young intellectuals of the 1890s, like their predecessors in the 1860s and 1870s, were seeking an explanation for Russia’s injustices as part of their formation of adult consciousness. For some, the adoption of a revolutionary ideology, “a new belief,” made sense of their world and gave them a place in it. Among these youth, the ideology that had greatest popularity in the 1890s was Marxism, primarily because it addressed itself to the process of industrialization then underway in Russia. Marxism was also modern, it was European, it was systematic, it was sophisticated, and it was revolutionary. Thus it served the needs of the heirs to the revolutionary movement, members of the intelligentsia educated to seek Western European solutions to Russian problems.
Kollontai did not immediately choose Marxism over liberalism upon reading Marx, Engels, and Bebel, and the Russian Georgii Plekhanov. At first she flirted with the older and more Russian populism, but in the nineties, populism had few effective advocates. It was an agrarian socialist ideology built on the premise that society should be organized around the peasant commune. According to the populists, the peasants were the revolutionary class. Yet in the 1870s the peasants had not responded to populist propaganda efforts. Thus in the nineties, many young radicals turned away from populism, because it seemed out of step with the rhythms of industrialization and because it placed its revolutionary faith in a class that had not demonstrated sufficient militance. Marxism seemed more appropriate to the times, and gradually Kollontai too came to accept the Marxist analysis of society.
Some young intellectuals in Moscow or St. Petersburg were content to discuss Marxism in study circles, others made tentative efforts to propagandize among the poor or, by the middle years of the decade, to organize workers for strikes. The most activist radicals greeted the labor unrest that arose in 1896 with enthusiasm, and although many of them, including the young Lenin, were arrested, the first Marxist revolutionary party, the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor, had been founded. Kollontai was then at home, taking care of her baby, but as she became less satisfied with marriage, she became more interested in doing something to help the poor. She began by working with her sister Zhenia and her former governess Strakhova several hours a week at a library that supported the Sunday classes teaching workers basic literacy and a little socialism. The library loaned maps, globes, textbooks, and other materials to groups meeting in various parts of the city and sent out illegal populist and Marxist tracts under the cover of the legal activity. The organizers also smuggled communications to the political prisoners at the Schlusselburg Fortress. Kollontai took on the unglamorous jobs of pasting labels on exhibits of dead insects, cataloguing pictures for a magic lantern show, and delivering mineral collections to schools around the city.30
At the library she met Elena Stasova, also one of Strakhova’s students and later a prominent Bolshevik. Although Stasova and Kollontai worked together intermittently, they never became close friends. “Elena knew what she wanted from life,” Kollontai wrote. “She had found her way. I was still seeking mine.” Stasova was a stern, somewhat forbidding figure, who would later bear the nickname “Absolute.” She and the more mercurial, emotional Kollontai had very little in common save their upper- class origins. In the mid-nineties, Stasova was already involved in underground political activity through the library, but when Kollontai tried to gain access to that phase of the work, she found herself rebuffed. “Sometimes Elena used me as a messenger to take some package of illegal writings to an unknown person who gave the right answer to my password, took the package, and not once said goodby or shook hands. Was this revolutionary work?”31
Apparently Stasova and Strakhova realized that Kollontai was still a young lady playing at revolution. When she finally convinced them to allow her a greater role in their illegal activities, Stasova invited her to a secret meeting. The plotters gathered in Stasova’s mother’s “red plush salon” and “drank tea just like ordinary guests.” After the refreshments, Stasova asked Kollontai to dun her friends for money to print an illegal pamphlet. Kollontai left “both disappointed and indignant.”32
Her first exposure to the forbidden politics of her acquaintances was disillusioning. She experienced no sudden revelation that here lay the purpose she sought, and she later blamed her lack of enthusiasm on the failure of her friends to take her seriously. Yet Kollontai herself was not fully committed to the dangerous and often frustrating work of educating the poor. She still devoted most of her time to her home and studies, remaining within the unconventional but scarcely revolutionary pattern of her mother’s life. Unlike her mother, however, she had begun to chafe at the limitations of marriage. Because she was an intellectual and because she had learned to value social conscience, in short because she had become one of the intelligentsia, Kollontai turned to the typical activities of the intelligentsia—studying, writing, charity—but she shrank from a final break with hearth and home. Torn by feelings of discontent, she complicated her life still further by becoming involved in an affair with her husband’s friend, the man identified only as “the Martian.”
Kollontai asserted later that their relationship never went beyond his declarations of love, but she was always discreet when writing about her personal life. She did admit that in her youth she was often torn between two men. She could not break free of one before turning to another. “Did we really love both?” Kollontai wrote, referring to her entire generation. “Or was it the fear of losing a love which had changed to friendship and a suspicion that the new love would not be lasting?”33 The motive was probably deeper than either of the possibilities she considered; it was a need for intimacy that compelled Kollontai, and most women, to seek love relationships even though they felt confined by the traditional rules governing those relationships. The alternative was a life alone. Furthermore a young woman learned that establishing a marriage and a family were her most important goals, the indices of her worth as a woman. If Kollontai struck out on her own, she risked loneliness, and she also turned her back on her feminine destiny, as society had taught her to define that destiny. Thus she could not leave one man without going to another, because she feared isolation and because she had not yet shaken loose from the ties of tradition.
Perhaps a woman who had transcended her society’s standards could defy those standards without inner conflict. Such a person was the mythical “new woman” whom Kollontai would later praise, whose very selfdefinition proceeded from self-established criteria. Through a conquest of submissiveness, she could assert both her independence and her womanhood without feeling a need to sacrifice one to the other. Kollontai was never able to achieve that degree of autonomy, and she later admitted to being torn most of her life between “love [subordination] and work [independence].” She wrote:
It was vouchsafed to our generation to make a fetish of erotic love. Oh, how much energy and time we lost in all our love tragedies and love complications! But it was also we, the generation of the 1890s, who taught ourselves and those who were younger than we that love is not the most important thing in life for a woman. And that if she must choose between “love and work,” she should never hesitate: it is work, her own creative work, which gives her the real satisfaction and makes life worth living.34
The entanglement with her husband’s friend did not result then simply from incompatibility with Vladimir or from a search for physical pleasure. Kollontai wanted independence, but she feared its price, and over the years she devoted a major portion of her work to exploring the psyche of a woman so trapped. In the late 1890s she resolved her dilemma by deciding that she had to leave her husband and her lover in order to study. The affair was a stage through which she moved, from which she emerged. She had begun her search by marrying, then had gone on to read socialism, to write, and to seek out revolutionary politics. By the summer of 1897, when she traveled to the Urals with Strakhova, Kollontai had determined “to set myself free.” She had finished the article on education begun after the rejection of her short story, and the journal Obrazovanie accepted it for publication in three installments. That achievement may have given her the confidence she needed, and Zoia told her, “The first step is taken. Now you have only to follow your own way.”35
Entitled “The Basic Principles of Child Rearing in the Views of Dobroliubov,” the article proposed an environmentalist approach to child care drawn from the writings of Nikolai Dobroliubov, the social critic of the 1860s. Kollontai asserted that since the infant came into the world a tabula rasa, society had only to structure his or her environment properly in order to improve the life of the human race. Dobroliubov had correctly observed that human personality was totally “a product of society.” The tsarist regime distorted individual growth by encouraging dishonesty and practicing despotism, but tsarism was losing its hold on the mind of Russia. Now parents could give their children a humanistic education to foster the development of independence and a loving concern for human welfare. Such education would promote “the great and crucial cause— the moral and intellectual development of future generations.”36
Kollontai’s social conscience sounded very clearly throughout the article, as did a conventional nineteenth-century materialism which was not notably Marxist. Later she would scorn the fundamentally individualistic approach to social reform she had proposed in the article and the liberal thinkers from whom she had drawn inspiration, among them Herbert Spencer. Nor would she feel comfortable with sentences that bore witness to her aristocratic origins: “A child growing up in a family where humane, truly humane, relations extend not only to the people of his own circle but also to the servants will, of course, develop a correct understanding of man and of humane relations with people.”37
Throughout the article Kollontai stressed the need for parents to encourage independence in their children. A peasant child, she wrote, could develop more self-reliance than a gentry child, since “no one has time to meddle in his spiritual world.” She would have been more accurate had she said that his poverty denied a peasant child the luxury of a spiritual world; Kollontai really knew very little about the life of the poor. She was generalizing from her own, narrow experience. In the most revealing passage she made the connection between independence and dedication to social welfare. Drawing no distinction between girls and boys, she asserted that a dependent, weak-willed person could never succeed in life. “No, such a person will never take courage, will not have the desire to go against predominant beliefs; he will not begin to search for new ways, he will not begin to fight for new truths, and without such a fight there will be stagnation; humanity will never go forward and no perfection will be possible.”38
Here was Kollontai’s link between personal independence and reform. A child dominated by his parents could not develop autonomy, she wrote. With autonomy, however, he could dedicate himself to “new truths” and drive humanity forward. There was in Kollontai’s mind a connection between independence and commitment to social reform; one had to become free in order to work for the improvement of society. These thoughts reflected her own experience, wherein the establishment of an adult identity had involved first the rejection of parental control, then the adoption of a radically reformist ideology, and now full dedication to that ideology. The importance she attached to personal freedom would subsequently make her a Marxist with an abiding distrust of authority. She would become a Marxist for whom the establishment of communism, a time without rules and a place without limitations, would be a prime imperative.
Soon after the article was accepted, Kollontai resolved to leave Russia to go to Zurich, where she could study Marxism freely. She told her father that the trip meant a final break with her husband. Mikhail Alekseevich did not want her to go, but he promised to send her a little money every month, and he asked her to agree that she would reconsider ending her marriage. Together, they told Aleksandra Aleksandrovna that Shura was going abroad to a spa. After moving her son and his nurse Annushka into her parents’ house and saying goodby to her friends, Kollontai departed for Zurich in August 1898. On the train she wrote a letter to her husband, who was in the south on an assignment, informing him for the first time that she was leaving. She also wrote to Zoia that she did not intend to return to him. It was a cruel and somewhat cowardly way to begin her new life.
Nevertheless, the independence Kollontai’s parents had taught her had now enabled her to set out on her own. Her family’s willingness to defy convention, their protective but tolerant love, her own intelligence and ambition, had made of Kollontai a restive wife and mother. She looked at the ferment of her homeland and found purpose in the activities of the intelligentsia, in their Russian blend of scholarship and politics. Although not yet an active revolutionary, Kollontai had already made the choice between emperor and revolutionaries.