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Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai (née Domontovich) 1872-1952


Russian revolutionary, the only woman member of Lenin's Central Committee, a career diplomat, who advocated in her writings the emancipation of women. As a number of other Russian revolutionaries, Alexandra Kollontai spent many years abroad, before returning to St. Petersburg following the February 1917 Revolution. Due to her "glass of water theory of sex" Kollontay has often been called – in some respect misleadingly – a propagator of "free love". In her famous collections of stories, Liubov' pchel trudovykh (1923, Love of Worker Bees) and Zhenshchina na perelome (1923, A Great Love), Kollontai dealt with women's sexuality, their self-consciousness, and political activism.

"The habitual morality of the present day man permits him to demand a young girl that she remain a virgin until legitimate marriage; but there were tribes among whom the woman, on the contrary, made it a matter of pride to have many lovers, decorating her arms and legs with rings to indicate their number." (from 'Communism and the Family,' 1920)

Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai was born into an aristocratic Russo-Finnish family on March 31 [March 19, old style], 1872, in St. Petersburg. Kollontai's father, Mikhail Domontovich, was a general in the Imperial Russian Army. Alexandra (Masalin-Mravinsky) Domontovich, her mother, was the daughter of a Finnish wood merchant and dairyman. From her previous marriage, she had three children.

Kollontai's family moved regularly between their family estate in Finland and their luxurious home in St. Petersburg. Kollontai was brought up largely by servants and tutored at home. Her parents were liberal but her first contact with radicalism came through her older half-sister's tutor, who was an advocate of women's liberation.

A highlight of Kollontai's childhood were the summers she spent in Kuusa, at the Isthmus of Karelia. Kollontai educated herself through reading. While in Finland, then part of Russia, Kollontai became acquainted with the life tenant farmers and farm laborers. Later as an agitator and political economist, she was considered the expert on the "Finnish question."

For a teaching certificate, Kollontai was tutored in literature by Viktor Ostrogorskii. In order to escape the confines of her family's expectations, she married in 1893 her cousin Vladimir Ludvigovich Kollontai, a factory inspector. The marriage was a disappointment, she felt trapped again and did not have enough time for her writing. For five years, until the age of twenty-six, she lived the life of a dutiful wife, bringing up their son. During an inspection of a large textile factory with her husband, Kollontai found a dead small boy in a crowded tenement house. The shock marked a turning point in her life and made her a revolutionary.

In 1898 Kollontai abandoned her conventional marriage. She put her son in the care of her parents and went to Switzerland to study political economy. Kollontai had already read Marx and Lenin, but in Zurich she familiarized herself with the views of Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Before returning to St. Petersburg in 1899, she met in London Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whose reformist thoughts she rejected. Kollontai's first article, dealing with the relationship between the development of children and their surroundings, was published in the Marxist journal Obrazovaniie in 1898. In her piece dealing with Finland, published in Novoye vremia, she used the pseyudonym Elin Molin. Kollontai contributed also to the German journal Sociale Praxis.

Kollontai's Zhizn' finliandskikh rabochikh, which took three years to write, was an investigation of the living and working conditions of the Finnish proletariat in relation to industry. The book appeared in 1903 in St. Petersburg. It attracted much attention among revolutionary circles and established her fame as a noteworthy Marxist political economist. On January 3, 1905, she joined the workers' procession to Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, which ended in Bloody Sunday massacre – Czar's imperial guards killed some130 demonstrators. In 1906 she published a collection of articles on Finland and Socialism.

Accused of calling for an armed revolt against the government, Kollontai was forced to flee to Germany to avoid arrest. From 1908, she lived in exile, touring Europe with Menshevik exiles and making speeches. Fluent in several languages, she became internationally known agitator of the German Social Democratic Party. In The Social Bases of the Woman Question (1909) she stressed the importance of working-class women's economic importance and their liberation from the bondage of marriage. The work has been characterized as an "antifemininist polemic" partly due to her attacks on "bourgeois feminists". (Feminist Writings from Ancient Times to the Modern World, edited by Tiffany K. Wayne, 2011, pp. 39-40) 

In 1914 Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks, the radical faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, which had been established by Lenin. Due to her revolutionary activities, she was briefly imprisoned in Germany and Sweden, from where she was expelled. From 1915 Kollontai started to assist Lenin, they had met first time in 1905. An ardent pacifist, she toured in the United States, making speeches against participation in World War I. "Charming russian socialist countess talked on Europe and effect of the world war," wrote the Erie Evening Herald. In Indiana Daily Times Kollontai was called an "Exiled Princess."

When the Germans arranged in 1917 Lenin's return to Russia, Kollontai served as an intermediary delivering German money to him. On the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kollontai was in Norway in her rented a villa in Holmenkollen. She returned to St. Petersburg in March. A few months later she was arrested along with Lev Trotsky and Lev Kamenev by the Kerenskii government. Kollontai was released on bail, paid by the writer Maxim Gorky, among others. In June she was a Russian delegate to the 9th Congress of the Finnish Social Democratic Party

Kollontai became the first woman elected to the Party Central Committee. After the October Revolution, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power, she was appointed People's Commissar for Public Welfare. In the Ministry she was welcomed with a strike, as the other Commissars. "Immediately the poor of the great cities, the inmates of institutions, were plunged in miserable want: delegations of starving cripples, of orphans with blue, pinched faces, besieged the building. With tears streaming down her face, Kollontai arrested the strikers until they should deliver the keys of the office and the safe; when she got the keys, however, it was discovered that the former Minister, Countess Panina, had gone off with all the funds, which she refused to surrender except on the order of the Constituent Assembly." (Ten Days that Shook the World: Illustrated 100th Anniversary Edition by John Reed, 2020, p. 207)

Despite being a controversial figure, Kollontai was very popular among the common people. In her high office she advocated the simplification of marriage and divorce procedures, improved the position of illegitimate children, advocated communal living, and campaigned for various reforms in domesctic life. With Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaia she was one of the founding members of Women's Section of the Communist Party (Zhenotdel). Kollontai's decision to turn the Alexander Nevsky Monastery into a sanctuary for war invalids sparked the fury of the religious followers of the old regime. As a result of the conflict, Lenin was forced to hasten the separation of church and state. The Central Committee decided to send her abroad – Kollontai had attended its sessions frequently but rarely had anything to say about issues beyond her own field.

In the early 1920s Kollontai served as vice-president of the International Women's Secretariat of the Communist International. Disillusioned with Lenin's unorthodox New Economic Policy (NEP), which permitted some private activity in agriculture, trade and light industry, and was rapidly  reintroducing  the old economic enslavement of women, Kollontai took a leading role with Alexander Shliapnikov in the libertarian Workers' Opposition. The group within the party demanded greater democracy and wanted to transfer more power to trade-union organizations, not to the State. After the group was banned in 1921, many adherents were arrested and later killed.

Women's sexual liberation, which was one of Kollontai's main programs, roused the disapproval of working-class women, who felt that they have already enough troubles without weakening family ties. Her theory of non-possessive love, formed in the essay 'Dorogu krylatomu Erosu' (Make way for the Winged Eros), was disapproved by Lenin. "The sexual act must be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of heathly organism, such as hunger and thirst, " Kollontai wrote in the political pamphlet 'Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations', published in 1921. Lenin noted to Clara Zetkin, the German Communist leader and feminist, that "This glass of water theory has made our young people mad, quite mad." (Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime by Richard Pipes, 2011, p. 333) Despite of their political differences, Lenin laughed to a remark by Julius Martov, once his "splendid comrade" that there were only two Communists in Soviet Russia, Lenin and Kollontai. Lenin's final clash with her began at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921.

By her political opponents Kollontai was unfairly accused of preaching sexual promiscuity and her writings were condemned as bourgeois Western feminism. She was also accused of neglecting her duties because of a love affair and threatened with expulsion from the party. A nonconformist, Kollontai herself had lived as she wrote: in 1918 she married Pavel Dybenko, the handsome leader of the Baltic Fleet sailors; they separated in 1922, but she also had a long love affair with Alexander Shliapnikov, a metal worker twelve years her junior, who was one of the leaders of the Workers' Opposition.

Kollontai combined Marxism with an ultra-Bolshevist sexual morality. She criticiced middle-class suffragettes and insisted that the achievement of socialism was a necessary condition of women's emancipation and true social equality between the sexes. The family appeared in this theory as remnant of capitalist society. "In place of the old relationship between men and women, a new one is developing," Kollontai wrote in 'Communism and the Family' (1920), "a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of communist society, both of them free, both of them independent and both of them workers. No more domestic bondage for women. No more inequality within the family."

At the end of the novella 'Red Love' (US title, 1927), the heroine leaves her lover, Vladimir, by whom she is pregnant. "I don't need a man," she says to his friend, and assures her that she will not have an abortion. "The organization will bring it up. We’ll fix up a nursery. And I’ll bring you over to work there. You like children, too. Then it’ll be our baby. We’ll have it in common." Kollontai's novella 'Bol'shaia liubov'' from A Great Love has been read as a roman à clef of the triangle drama of Lenin, his wife Nadezhda Krupskaia, and Inessa Armand in Paris. Their relationship was kept secret in the Soviet Union, but the book was reprinted in 1927. Also Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Lenin in Zurich (1975) was a novelisation of the same subject. Solzhenitsyn did not hesitate to use real names.

After a brief stint in 1922 in Ukraine as Commissar of Propaganda and Agitation, Kollontai continued as a diplomat. Lenin had cut all contacts to Kollontai. Her political career as a Commissar was over – she had resigned in 1918 on the ground of total disagreement with the current policy, the ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk included. Moreover, Stalin did not regard her as an useful ally in his maneuvers and Lenin himself was seriously ill in the spring of 1922. Although Lenin warned that Stalin, his close collaborator, should not be allowed to be appointed secretary-general of the Communist Party, he could not stop Stalin's rise to the top.

Kollontai was first assigned to the post of Minister to Norway (1923-26). After one year in Mexico, where the altitude of Mexico City irritated her chronic angina, she returned to Norway. During the stay, she organized exhibitions, made a number of friends within the Mexican intellectual and cultural community, and developed an appreciation for Mexico's traditional an modern art. Kollontai was especially fond of the works of Diego Rivera. Due to the hostility of the United States directed against both the Mexican government and her, Kollontai's position became increasingly difficult. Moreover, the embassy had been involved in an illegal strike. The New York Times wrote that the Central Labor Organization of the Federal District had requested that President Elías Calles pronounce Kollonti personan non grata and expel her from the country immediately.

From 1930 Kollontai was based in the Soviet embassy in Sweden, becoming eventually in 1943 the world's first woman ambassador. Elegant and refined, she enjoyed at diplomatic gatherings the reputation of being the best-dressed woman in the Soviet Union. In 1933 she received the Order of Lenin for organizational work with women.

During this period, Kollontai lived virtually in exile. Her Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, which appeared first in Germany in 1927, remained unpublished in Russia. Kollontai wrote in the full English edition that "My theses, my sexual and moral views, were bitterly fought by many Party comrades of both sexes: as were still other differences of opinion in the Party regarding political guiding principles." (ibid., translated by Salvator Attansio, Herder and Herder, 1971, p. 43) Pavel Dubenko and Alexander Shlyapnikov died in the purges of the 1930s. Stalin abolished the Zhenotdels and made it clear that the "woman problem" had been solved.

Between 1934 and 1939 Stalin liquidated 70 % of the members of the central committee. By the end of WW II, Kollontai was one of the few leaders of the first Bolshevik government, who did not perish in the mass purges. In her book of memoir, Jumala syöksee enkelinsä (1972), Aino Kuusinen tells that Stalin planned to call Kollontai, whom he considered a traitor, back to Russia during the purge of the thirties. Kuusinen herself would be appointed ambassador to Sweden and Norway. Insted Kuusinen herself was held in prison camps over fifteen years. Aino Kuusinen was married to Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen, a member of the Politburo.

In January 1940, during the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40 (the Winter War), the Finnish left-wing playwright Hella Wuolijoki contacted her old friend, Kollontai, asking her to act as an intermediary of peace between the countries. Kollontai sympathy for Finland was well-known – she had urged the Finns to seek independence in 1917. Moreover, Kollontai was aware that the Soviet invasion, which had started the war, was widely condemned in the West. Thus Kollontai, who was capable of to act on her own initiative, was not afraid to send an inquiry to her goverment. The hostilities ended in March in the Treaty of Moscow, but a year later the Finns attacked Russia. Kollontai's contacts were again needed. She had a prominent role in 1944 in the armistice negotiations that concluded the Continuation War.

Kollontai returned to the Soviet Union in 1945. For her diplomacy, she was nominated in 1946 for the Nobel Peace Prize. Behind the nomination were Finland's Prime Minister J.K. Paasikivi and other members of the government. The Kremlin was unhappy when the prize went to the American religious leader and J.R. Mott and Emily Greene Balch, an economist and social reformist. But an even greater disappointment was was felt by Stalin, who failed to in 1948. As a result, Stalin established the International Stalin Prize for Streghtening Peace Among Peoples.

Her last years Kollontai spent in Moscow, writing her memoirs, keeping a diary, and serving as an adviser to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Avoiding the terrible features of Stalin's era, most of Kollontai's writing focused on her life before the October Revolution. After the war her book of memoir, And Dreams Came True, was published in Finnish and Swedish. In the Soviet Union the work was reprinted several times. Aino Kuusinen met Kollontai again in 1947. At that time Kollontai had to use wheelchair. She looked depressed and worried over her ration card. However, to the very end, she remained faithful to Marxism-Leninism and loyal to Stalin. Kollontai died of cardiac infarct in Moscow on 9 March, 1952.

For further reading: Revolutionens ambassadör: Alexandra Kollontays liv och gärning (åren 1872-1917) by Gustav Johansson (1945); Alexandra Kollontay, Ambassadress from Russia by Isabel de Consult Palencia (1947); Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai by Barbara Evans Clements (1979); Aleksandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution by Beatrice Farnsworth (1980); Aleksandra Kollontai: The Lonely Struggle of the Woman who Defied Lenin by Cathy Porter (1980); Mexico Through Russian Eyes by William Richardson (1988); Aleksandra Kollontai by Arkadi Vaksberg (1996); 'Aleksandra Mikhailovna Kollontai' by Shoshana Milgram Knapp, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Kollontai, Alexandra,' in Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Volume 1 by Helen Rappaport (2001); Four Socialist Reformers of Socialism: Alexandra Kollontai, Andrei Platonov, Robert Havemann, and Stefan Heym by John Riser; with a preface by Stuart A. Lilie (2009); The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 by Mark D. Steinberg (2017)

Selected works:

  • Zhizn' finliandskikh rabochikh, 1903 (The life of Finnisg workers)
  • Finliandiia i sotsializm, 1906 (Finland and socialism)
  • Sotsial'nye osnovy zhenskogo voprosa, 1909 (The social bases of the woman question)
  • Zaoiski agitatora, 1911 (The notes of an agitator)
  • Po rabochei Evropie, 1912 (Around workers' Europe)
  • Rabonitsa-mat', 1914 (Working woman and mother)
  • Otryvki iz dnevnika, 1914 (Excerpt from a diary)
  • Zheny, rabochikh, ob'edinyaites'!, 1915 (Workers' wives, unite!)
  • Obshchestvo i materinstvo, 1916 (Society and maternity)
  • Rabotnitsy i uchreditel'noye sobraniye, 1917 (Working women and the Constituent Assembly)
  • Sem'ia i kommunisticheskoe godudarstvo, 1918
    - Communism and the Family (tr. 1971)
  • Kak boriutsia rabotnitsy za svoi prava, 1919
    - Women workers struggle for their rights (translated by Celia Britton, 1971)
  • Sem'ya i kommunisticheskoye gosudarstvo, 1919 (The family and the communist state)
    - Perhe ja kommunistinen valtio (suom. 1920)  
  • Novaia moral' i rabochii klass, 1919 (The new morality and the working class)
    - Uusi moraali (suom. Hannes Mäkinen, 1926)
  • Rabonitsa, krest'yanka i krasnyi front, 1919 (The working woman, the peasant woman and the red front)
  • Mezhdunarodnyi den' rabotnits, 1920
    - International Women's Day (translated by Alix Holt, 1972)
  • Rabotnitsa i krest'ianka v Sovetskoi? Rossii, 1920-24
  • Sem'ia i kommunisticheskoe gosudarstvo, 1920
  • Polozheniye zhenshchiny v svyazi s evolyutsiei khozyaistva, 1921 (The position of women in the evolution of the economy)
  • Iz moei zhiznii i raboty, 1921 (From my life and work)
  • Prostitutsiia i mery bor'by s nei, 1921 (Prostitution and ways of fighting it)
  • Po burzhuaznoi Evrope, 1921  
  • The Workers Opposition in Russia, 1921 (Rabochaya oppozitsiya)
    - Työväen oppositsioni Venäjän kommunistipuolueessa (s.a.)
  • Polozhenie zhenshchiny v evoliutsii khoziaistva, 1923
    - Naisen asema taloudellisessa yhteiskuntakehityksessä (suom. Ulla-Liisa Heino, 1973)
  • Liubov' pchel trudovykh, 1923 (three narratives: Liubov' trekh pokolenii, Sestry, Vasilisa Malygina)
    - Free Love (tr. 1932)  
    - Love of Worker Bees (afterword by Sheila Rowbotham, translated Cathy Porter, 1977)
  • Trud zhenshchiny v evoliutsii khoziaistva, 1923 (The Labour of Women in the Evolution of the Economy)
  • Zhenshchina na perelome, 1923 (three narratives: Tridtsat'-dve stranitsy, Podslushannyi razgovor, Bol'shaia liubov')
    - Red Love (tr. 1927)  
    - A Great Love (translated and introduction by Cathy Porter, 1981)
    - Suuri rakkaus (suom. Esa Adrian, 1982)
  • Otryvki iz dnevnika 1914 g, 1924
  • Madame Kollontayn muistelmat: hänen itsensä kertomana, 1946 (suom. E. Ertimo)
  • Vospominaniia ob Il'iche, 1959
  • The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, 1971 (foreword by Germaine Greer, edited with an afterword by Iring Fetscher, translated by Salvator Attanasio)
  • Izbrannye stat'i i rechi, 1972 (Selected articles and speeches)
  • Women Workers Struggle for their Rights, 1973 (3rd ed., translated from the Russian by Celia Britton, with an introd. and notes by Sheila Rowbotham and Suzie Fleming)
  • Iz moei zhizni i raboty: Vospominaniia i dnevniki, 1974
  • International Women's Day, 1975 (translated by Alix Holt)
  • Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, 1977 (translated by Alix Holt)
  • Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, 1984 (edited by Cynthia Carlile)
  • Diplomaticheskie dnevniki: 1922-1940, 2001 (2 vols.)
  • Marksistskii feminizm: kollektsiia tekstov, 2003 (edited by V.I. Uspenskaia)
  • Letopis' moei zhizni, 2004
    - Hetkiä elämästäni (suom. Olli Kuukasjärvi, 1990)
  • Bol'shaia liubov': povesti, rasskazy, 2008
  • The Workers Opposition in the Russian Communist Party: The Fight for Workers Democracy in the Soviet Union, 2009 

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