Women played a central role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was a women textile workers’ strike in February that sparked the revolution which toppled the Tsar. Yet most accounts of the period are written by men and the leading figures we recognise are mostly male.
This second edition of Cathy Porter’s biography of Alexandra Kollontai is an interesting and detailed account of some of the most exciting years in working class history, and also some of the most brutal.
Born to a wealthy family, Kollontai became a socialist when she saw at first hand the conditions in a textile mill in 1896. She didn’t, however, join the Bolsheviks until 1915 following her dismay at the concessions to nationalism made by other socialist parties at the outbreak of war.
Kollontai was particularly concerned with the desperate lives of working class women and spent time investigating their conditions and trying to understand their tremendous militancy and strength.
After the October 1917 Revolution Kollontai was briefly the Commissar of Social Welfare, and the only female member of the government. She later helped to establish the women’s department, the Zhenotdel, which was charged with involving women in the revolutionary process through political education.
The Soviet government introduced ground breaking legislation for women in terms of marriage laws, access to divorce and legalisation of abortion. But Kollontai was frustrated at the slow pace of change for women, and the suspicion with which some of her ideas were treated by men and women who, whipped up by the right, feared her communal nurseries and kitchens were attempts to take away their children and destroy their families.
Throughout her life she remained committed to the emancipation of women via the overthrow of capitalism and fiercely criticised the women’s movement that sought to unite women of all classes.
The main concern of feminists at this time was that of suffrage, despite this being likely to have little effect on the lives of working class women, and Kollontai attended their conferences in order to heckle – and inevitably get thrown out.
Kollontai is best known for her work on the women question and was one of the first Marxists to consider how personal relationships and the family might be different when a socialist world was realised.
In her own personal relationships she sought mutual respect and companionship and attempted to free herself from bourgeois convention. Divorced at 26 her longest relationship was with a man 17 years her junior but they were kept apart by their devotion to the revolution – he was a sailor who later became a prominent military figure in the Red Army – and she had to brush off gossip about her personal life.
However, Kollontai’s work on women and relationships was by no means the extent of her politics. After the outbreak of war she wrote a pamphlet “Who needs war?” for German and Russian workers and soldiers in the factories and at the front that urged them not to fight their fellow workers but to turn their guns on the real enemy, the capitalists at home.
She was a persuasive orator and overcame her audiences’ prejudices against her to become a popular speaker.
In 1920 Kollontai joined the Workers Opposition faction of the Bolshevik Party. The faction was frustrated at the slow pace of change for ordinary people after the revolution and argued the Soviet government was making too many concessions to capitalism. It claimed this was the cause of workers’ increasing alienation from the party and demanded workers’ control immediately.
However, in a country wrecked by war and economic chaos, where many of the most militant workers had been killed in the civil war, Lenin argued they must hold on until revolution abroad brought relief. The Workers Opposition was defeated at the party congress and its leading members were isolated.
Kollontai spent her final decades as a diplomat in Scandinavia. She survived through Stalin’s purges in part due to her excellence in this role, but also due to her fame and popularity abroad as such an unusual figure.
She died as the only surviving member of the 1917 central committee and the only surviving member of the opposition a year before Stalin’s death, having bitten her tongue about the degeneration of the Soviet state in order to stay alive, and because she believed the forces of reaction would eventually be beaten.
As well as giving a detailed account of her life, the biography explains how Kollontai became a Marxist and how she developed thereafter. Kollontai was independent minded and was not always correct in her standpoints against the party leadership, but remained committed to the ability of the working class to emancipate itself. The days of the revolution and the months after remained the happiest of her life.
Alexandra Kollontai is published by Merlin, £20.00
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