Alexandra Kollontai, circa 1900.
Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich
31 March 1872
|Died||9 March 1952 (aged 79)|
|Occupation||professional revolutionary, writer, diplomat|
|Spouse(s)||Vladimir Ludvigovich Kollontai|
|Children||Mikhail Alekseevich Domontovich|
Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai (Russian: Алекса́ндра Миха́йловна Коллонта́й — née Domontovich, Домонто́вич; 31 March [O.S. 19 March] 1872 – 9 March 1952) was a Marxist revolutionary, first as a member of the Mensheviks, then from 1915 on as a Bolshevik (later Communist). In 1922, Kollontai was appointed a diplomatic counsellor to the Soviet legation in Norway, being soon promoted to head of the legation, one of the first women to hold such a post.
Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich was born on 31 March [O.S. 19 March] 1872 in St. Petersburg. Her father, General Mikhail Alekseevich Domontovich[a] (1830-1902), descended from a Ukrainian Cossack family that traced its ancestry back to 13th-century "dragon genealogy"[clarification needed]. He served as a cavalry officer in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 (sometimes referred to as the Bulgarian War of Independence). After his participation in the war, he was appointed Provisional Governor of the Bulgarian city of Tarnovo, and later Military Consul[definition needed] in Sofia. In May 1879 he was called back to St. Petersburg. He entertained liberal political views, favoring a constitutional monarchy like that of Great Britain. In the 1880s he wrote a study of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. This study was confiscated by the Tsarist censors, presumably for showing insufficient Russian nationalist zeal. Alexandra's mother, Alexandra Alexandrovna Masalina (Massalina)[b] (1848-1899), was the daughter of Alexander Feodorovich Masalin (Massalin) (1809-1859), a Finnish peasant who had made a fortune selling wood. Alexandra Alexandrovna Masalina became known as Alexandra Alexandrovna Masalina-Mravinskaya after her marriage to her first husband, Konstantin Iosipovich Mravinsky (originally spelled Mrovinsky) (1829-1921). Her marriage to Mravinsky was an arranged marriage which turned out to be unhappy, and eventually she divorced Mravinsky in order to marry Mikhail Domontovich, with whom she had fallen in love. Russian opera singer Yevgeniya Mravina (stage name) was Kollontai's half-sister via her mother. The celebrated Soviet-Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for fifty years (1938-1988), was the only son of Mravina's brother Alexander Kostantinovich and thus Kollontai's half nephew.
The saga of her parents' long and difficult struggle to be together in spite of the norms of society would color and inform Alexandra Kollontai's own views of relationships, sex, and marriage.
Alexandra Mikhailovna – or "Shura" as she was called growing up – was close to her father, with whom she shared an analytical bent and an interest in history and politics. Her relationship with her mother, for whom she was named, was more complex. She later recalled:
My mother and the English nanny who reared me were demanding. There was order in everything: to tidy up 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.
Alexandra was a good student growing up, sharing her father's interest in history, and mastering a range of languages. She spoke French with her mother and sisters, English with her nanny, Finnish with the peasants at a family estate inherited from her maternal grandfather in Kuusa (in Muolaa, Grand Duchy of Finland), and was a student of German. Alexandra sought to continue her schooling at a university, but her mother refused her permission, arguing that women had no real need for higher education, and that impressionable youngsters encountered too many dangerous radical ideas at universities. Instead, Alexandra was to be allowed to take an exam to gain certification as a school teacher before making her way into society to find a husband, as was the custom.
In 1890 or 1891, Alexandra, aged around 19, met her cousin and future husband, Vladimir Ludvigovich Kollontai (July 9, 1867 - July/August, 1917), an engineering student of modest means enrolled at a military institute. Alexandra's mother objected bitterly to the potential union since the young man was so poor, to which her daughter replied that she would work as a teacher to help make ends meet. Her mother bitterly scoffed at the notion:
You work! 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!
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Her parents forbade the relationship and sent Alexandra on a tour of Western Europe in the hope that she would forget Vladimir, but the pair remained committed to one another despite it all and married in 1893. Alexandra became pregnant soon after her marriage and bore a son, Mikhail, in 1894. She devoted her time to reading radical populist and Marxist political literature and writing fiction.
While Kollontai was initially drawn to the populist ideas of a restructuring of society based upon the Mir commune, she soon abandoned this for other revolutionary projects. Marxism, with its emphasis on the enlightenment of factory workers, the revolutionary seizure of power, and the construction of modern industrial society, held sway with Kollontai as with so many of her peers of Russia's radical intelligentsia. Kollontai's first activities were timid and modest, helping out a few hours a week with her sister Zhenia at a library that supported Sunday classes in basic literacy for urban workers, sneaking a few socialist ideas into the lessons.[c] Through this library Kollontai met Elena Stasova, an activist in the budding Marxist movement in St. Petersburg. Stasova began to use Kollontai as a courier, transporting parcels of illegal writings to unknown individuals, which were delivered upon utterance of a password.
Years later, she wrote about her marriage, "We separated although we were in love because I felt trapped. I was detached, [from Vladimir], because of the revolutionary upsettings rooted in Russia". In 1898 she left little Mikhail with her parents to study economics in Zürich, Switzerland, with Professor Heinrich Herkner. She then paid a visit to England, where she met members of the British socialist movement, including Sidney and Beatrice Webb. She returned to Russia in 1899, at which time she met Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, better known today as Vladimir Lenin.
Kollontai became interested in Marxist ideas while studying the history of working movements in Zürich, under Herkner, later described by her as a Marxist Revisionist.
She became a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1899 at the age of 27. In 1905, Kollontai was a witness to the popular uprising known as Bloody Sunday at Saint Petersburg in front of the Winter Palace. At the time of the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party between the Mensheviks under Julius Martov and the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in 1903, Kollontai did not side with either faction at first, and "offered her services to both factions". In 1906, however, disapproving of "the hostile position taken by the Bolsheviks towards the Duma" and despite her being generally a left-winger, she decided to join the Mensheviks.
She went into exile, to Germany, in 1908 after publishing "Finland and Socialism", which called on the Finnish people to rise up against oppression within the Russian Empire. She traveled across western Europe and became acquainted with Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht,[d] among others.
In 1911, while abruptly breaking off her long-term relationship with her faction comrade Petr Pavlovich MaslovAlexander Gavrilovich Shliapnikov. The couple appeared quite oddly assorted: she was a Menshevik intellectual, of noble origins, thirteen years older than him; he was a self-taught metalworker from provincial Russia and a Bolshevik leading exponent of some prominence. Their romantic relationship came to an end in July 1916, but evolved thereafter into a long-lasting friendship as they wound up sharing many of the same general political views. They were still in contact during early 1930's when Kollontai lived abroad in a sort of diplomatic exile, and Shliapnikov was going to be executed during the Soviet purges.(1867-1946), an agrarian scientist, she started a love affair with another fellow exile,
With the onset of World War I in 1914 Kollontai left Germany due to the German social democrats' support of the war. Kollontai was strongly opposed to the war and very outspoken against it, and in June 1915 she broke with the Mensheviks and officially joined the Bolsheviks, "those who most consistently fought social-patriotism". After leaving Germany Kollontai traveled to Denmark, only to discover that the Danish social democrats also supported the war. The next place where Kollontai tried to speak and write against the war was Sweden, but the Swedish government imprisoned her for her activities. After her release Kollontai traveled to Norway, where she at last found a socialist community that was receptive to her ideas. Kollontai stayed primarily in Norway until 1917, traveling twice to United States to speak about war and politics and to renew her relationship with her son Mikhail, for whom she had arranged in 1916 to avoid conscription by going to the United States to work on Russian orders from U.S. factories. In 1917 Kollontai left Norway to return to Russia upon receiving news of Tsar's abdication and the onset of the Russian Revolution.
When Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917, Kollontai was the only major leader of the Petrograd Bolsheviks who immediately voiced her full support for his radical and nonconformist new proposals (the so-called "April theses"). She was a member of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, and "for the rest of 1917, [she] was a constant agitator for revolution in Russia as a speaker, leaflet writer and worker on the Bolshevik women's paper Rabotnitsa". Following the July uprising against the Provisional Government, she was arrested along with many other Bolshevik leaders, but was given again her full freedom of movement in September: she was then a member of the party's Central Committee and as such she voted for the policy of armed uprising that led to the October Revolution. At the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 26 October, she was elected People's Commissar for Social Welfare in the first Soviet government, but she soon resigned in opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Peace. During the revolutionary period, at the age of 45, she married the 28–year–old revolutionary sailor Pavel Dybenko, while keeping her surname from her first marriage.[e]
She was the most prominent woman in the Soviet administration and was best known for founding the Zhenotdel or "Women's Department" in 1919 . This organization worked to improve the conditions of women's lives in the Soviet Union, fighting illiteracy and educating women about the new marriage, education, and work laws put in place by the Revolution. It was eventually closed in 1930.
In political life, Kollontai increasingly became an internal critic of the Communist Party and at the end of 1920 she sided with the Workers' Opposition, a left-wing faction of the party that had its roots in the trade union milieu and was led by Shlyapnikov and by Sergei Medvedev. On 25 January 1921 "Pravda" published a pamphlet by Kollontai, bearing the title The Workers' Opposition, which advocated unionized workers' control over economic activity management and blamed bourgeois and bureaucratic influences over Soviet institutions and the party itself. According to John Simkin on 27 February 1921 trade unionists supporting the Workers' Opposition published a proclamation calling for 'freedom of speech, press and assembly for all who labour', and for the 'liberation of all arrested Socialists and non-partisan workers.' However, at the Tenth Party Congress of 1921, internal factions were banned and the Workers's Opposition was dissolved with immediate effect, after which Kollontai was more or less politically sidelined. Nevertheless, despite subsequent misunderstandings with the former leaders of the Workers' Opposition and Kollontai's own resentment at their having renounced the pamphlet she had written to support the faction, on 5 July 1921 she tried again 'to help [them] by speaking on their behalf to the Third Congress of the Comintern'. In her speech, she bitterly attacked the New Economic Policy proposed by Lenin, warning that it 'threatened to disillusion workers, to strengthen the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie, and to facilitate the rebirth of capitalism'.
Kollontai's final political action as an oppositionist within the Communist Party was her co-signing of the so-called "letter of the 22", whereby several former members of the Workers' Opposition and other party members of working class origins appealed to the Communist International against the undemocratic internal practices in use within the Russian party. When 'Kollontai attempted to speak before the Comintern Executive on February 26, 1922 on behalf of the views expressed in the appeal,' Trotsky and Zinoviev had her name removed from the list of orators and insisted that she should not take the floor. When she 'proved recalcitrant, Trotsky forbade her to speak and issued a decree, in the name of the CC, ordering all members of the Russian delegation to "obey the directives of the party".' Predictably, the appeal of the 22 was unsuccessful. At the Eleventh Party Congress (March–April 1922) Kollontai, Shlyapnikov and Medvedev were charged with having insisted on factional work and their expulsion from the party was proposed. In her defensive speech before the Congress, Kollontai emphasized her loyalty to the party and her devotion to giving the leading role in the party and outside it to the working class, she proclaimed her full observance of the previous year's decree on party unity, and concluded: 'If there is no place for this in our party, then exclude me. But even outside the ranks of our party, I will live, work and fight for the Communist party.' Eventually, a resolution was passed allowing the three to remain in the party unless they committed further violations of its discipline.[f]
From late 1922, Kollontai was appointed to various diplomatic positions abroad and was thus prevented from playing any further leading role at home. Initially, she was sent as an attaché to the Soviet legation in Norway, becoming the world's third woman serving in diplomacy in modern times, after the First Republic of Armenia representative to Japan Diana Apcar and the First Hungarian Republic representative to Switzerland Rosika Schwimmer. In early 1924, Kollontai was first promoted to Chargé d'affaires and from August to Minister Plenipotentiary. As such, she later served in Mexico (1926–27), again in Norway (1927–30) and eventually in Sweden (1930–45), where she was finally promoted to Ambassador in 1943. When Kollontai was in Stockholm, the Winter War between Russia and Finland broke out; it has been said that it was largely due to her influence that Sweden remained neutral. After the war, she received Vyacheslav Molotov's praises. During late April 1943, Kollontai may have been involved in abortive peace negotiations with Hans Thomsen, her German counterpart in Stockholm. She was also a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations.[g] Kollontai retired in 1945.
Being sent abroad in a sort of de facto exile for over twenty years, Kollontai gave up "her fight for reform and for women, retreating into relative obscurity" and bowing to the new political climate. She discarded her feminist concerns and "offered no objection to the patriarchal legislation of 1926 and the constitution of 1936, which deprived Soviet women of many of the gains they had achieved after the February and October Revolutions". The following words she allegedly pronounced in a private conversation with her friend Marcel Body in 1929 give a suggestion of her attitude towards advancing Stalinism: "Everything's changed so much. What can I do about this? One cannot go against the 'apparatus'. For my part, I have put my principles aside in a corner of my conscience and I pursue as best I can the policies they dictate to me".[h]
Three years earlier, in 1926, when she was requested to write her own autobiography for a series on famous women by Munich publisher Helga Kern, she deemed it necessary to completely revise the first draft of her work she had handed over to the publisher, by deleting practically all references to 'dangerous' topics, as well as the parts mentioning or just hinting at her former critical positions and those having a personal nature that might be regarded as forms of self-celebration. On asking the publisher to make the changes requested, Kollontai apologized with obvious embarrassment, inviting repeatedly to debit her all expenses and writing twice that, under current circumstances, it was not absolutely possible "to do otherwise".[i]
The degree of her adherence to the prevailing ideas of the Stalinist regime, whether it was spontaneous or not, may be gauged from the opening of an article she wrote in 1946 for a Russian magazine. It bore the title The Soviet Woman — a Full and Equal Citizen of Her Country, and praised the Soviet Union's advances of women's rights, while simultaneously emphasizing a view of the role of women in society at odds with her previous writings on women's liberation.
It is a well-known fact that the Soviet Union has achieved exceptional successes in drawing women into the active construction of the state. This generally accepted truth is not disputed even by our enemies. The Soviet woman is a full and equal citizen of her country. In opening up to women access to every sphere of creative activity, our state has simultaneously ensured all the conditions necessary for her to fulfil her natural obligation – that of being a mother bringing up her children and mistress of her home.— Sovetskaya zhenshchina [Soviet Woman], 5, September–October 1946, pp. 3-4[j]
Alexandra Kollontai died in Moscow on 9 March 1952, less than a month away from her 80th birthday. She was the only member of the Bolsheviks' Central Committee that had led the October Revolution who managed to live into the 1950s, other than Stalin himself and his devoted supporter Matvei Muranov.[k] She has sometimes been criticized and even held up to contempt for not raising her voice during the Stalinist purges, when, amongst countless others, her former husband, her former lover and fighting comrade, and so many friends of hers were ignominiously put to death. And, it has been noted, at the time she "was safe in her sumptuous Stockholm residence". Notwithstanding, it should also be pointed out that, even so, Kollontai did not enjoy a full liberty of action and had to worry about the possible fates of her family. It might not have been pure chance if both her only son[l] and her musician half-nephew[m] (whom she had much supported at the beginning of his career) also came unscathed through the persecution of the Stalinist regime, to the establishment of which she had, however, significantly contributed.[n]
The resurgence of radicalism in the 1960s and the growth of the feminist movement in the 1970s spurred a new interest in the life and writings of Alexandra Kollontai all around the world. A spate of books and pamphlets by and about Kollontai were subsequently published, including full-length biographies by historians Cathy Porter, Beatrice Farnsworth, and Barbara Evans Clements. Kollontai was the subject of the 1994 TV film, A Wave of Passion: The Life of Alexandra Kollontai, with Glenda Jackson as the voice of Kollontai. A female Soviet diplomat in the 1930s with unconventional views on sexuality, probably inspired by Kollontai, had been played by Greta Garbo in the movie Ninotchka (1939).
As an unwavering Marxist, Kollontai opposed the ideology of liberal feminism, which she saw as bourgeois. She was a champion of women's liberation, but she firmly believed that it "could take place only as the result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system", and has thus been regarded as a key figure in Marxist feminism. She criticized bourgeois feminists for prioritizing political goals, such as women's suffrage, that would provide political equality for bourgeois women but would do little to address the immediate conditions of working class women, and was further distrustful that bourgeois champions of feminism would continue to support their working class counterparts after succeeding in their struggle for "general women's" rights, as exemplified by the following quote:
Class instinct – whatever the feminists say – always shows itself to be more powerful than the noble enthusiasms of “above-class” politics. So long as the bourgeois women and their [proletarian] “younger sisters” are equal in their inequality, the former can, with complete sincerity, make great efforts to defend the general interests of women. But once the barrier is down and the bourgeois women have received access to political activity, the recent defenders of the “rights of all women” become enthusiastic defenders of the privileges of their class, content to leave the younger sisters with no rights at all. Thus, when the feminists talk to working women about the need for a common struggle to realise some “general women’s” principle, women of the working class are naturally distrustful.— Alexandra Kollontai (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question, 
Kollontai is known for her advocacy of free love. However, this does not mean that she advocated casual sexual encounters; indeed, she believed that due to the inequality between men and women that persisted under socialism, such encounters would lead to women being exploited, and being left to raise children alone. Instead she believed that true socialism could not be achieved without a radical change in attitudes to sexuality, so that it might be freed from the oppressive norms that she saw as a continuation of bourgeois ideas about property. A common myth describes her as a proponent of the "glass of water" theory of sexuality. The quote "...the satisfaction of one's sexual desires should be as simple as getting a glass of water" is often mistakenly attributed to her. This is likely a distortion of the moment in her short story "Three Generations" when a young female Komsomol member argues that sex "is as meaningless as drinking a glass of vodka [or water, depending on the translation] to quench one's thirst." In number 18 of her Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations, Kollontai argued that "...sexuality is a human instinct as natural as hunger or thirst."
Kollontai's views on the role of marriage and the family under Communism were arguably more influential on today's society than her advocacy of "free love." Kollontai believed that, like the state, the family unit would wither away once the second stage of communism became a reality. She viewed marriage and traditional families as legacies of the oppressive, property-rights-based, egoist past. Under Communism, both men and women would work for, and be supported by, society, not their families. Similarly, their children would be wards of, and reared basically by society.
Kollontai admonished men and women to discard their nostalgia for traditional family life. "The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia's communist workers." However, she also praised maternal attachment: "Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the joys of parenthood will not be taken away from those who are capable of appreciating them."
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