Kollontai, Alexandra Mikhailovna
KOLLONTAI, ALEXANDRA MIKHAILOVNA
(1872–1952), theoretician of Marxist feminism; founder of Soviet Communist Party's Women's Department.
Kollontai was born Alexandra Domontovich. Her father, Mikhail Domontovich, was a politically liberal general. Her mother, Alexandra, shared Domontovich's free-thinking attitudes and supported feminism as well. They provided their daughter a comfortable childhood and good education, including college-level work at the Bestuzhevsky Courses for Women. When Alexandra was twenty-two, she married Vladimir Kollontai. Within a year she had given birth to a son, Mikhail, but the matronly life soon bored her. She dabbled in volunteer work and then decided in 1898 to study Marxism so as to become a radical journalist and scholar.
Between 1900 and 1917 Kollontai participated in the revolutionary underground in Russia, but mostly she lived abroad, where she made her reputation as a theoretician of Marxist feminism. To Friedrich Engels' and Avgust Bebel's economic analysis of women's oppression Kollontai added a psychological dimension. She argued that women internalized society's values, learning to accept their subordination to men. There was hope, however, for the coming revolution would usher in a society in which women and men were equals and would therefore create the conditions for women to emancipate their psyches. In the meantime socialists should work hard to draw working-class women to their movement. Kollontai was a severe critic of feminism, which she considered a bourgeois movement, but she shared with the feminists a deep commitment to women's emancipation as a primary goal of social reform.
In the prerevolutionary period Kollontai also became known as a skilled journalist and orator. She was a Menshevik, but in 1913, when Bolsheviks Konkordia Samoilova, Inessa Armand, and Nadezhda Krupskaya launched a newspaper aimed at working-class women, they invited Kollontai to be a contributor. She responded enthusiastically. In 1915 she came over to their faction because she believed that Vladimir Lenin was the only Russian Social-Democratic leader who was resolute in his opposition to World War I.
Kollontai returned to Russia in the spring of 1917. She spent the revolutionary year working with other Bolshevik feminists on projects among working-class women. She also became one of the Bolsheviks' most effective speakers; her popularity earned her election to the Central Committee. After the party seized power in October, Kollontai became Commissar of Social Welfare, and in that capacity she laid the foundation for socialized obstetrical and newborn care. In early March 1918 she resigned her post to protest the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany, and for the next two years she divided her energies between agitation on the front, writing, and organizing activities with working-class women. In fall 1920 she was appointed head of the Zhenotdel, the Communist Party's Women's Department.
Kollontai had argued for a woman's department since before the revolution. When she became its head she worked diligently to build up the organization, which suffered from poor funding and lack of support. She managed to stave off efforts to abolish the Zhenotdel and also publicized widely the party's program for women's emancipation. Kollontai's tenure in this office was short, however, because in 1921 she joined the Workers Opposition, a group critical of Party authoritarianism. She was fired from the Zhenotdel the next year.
In the following two decades Kollontai became a distinguished Soviet diplomat. She served as Soviet ambassador to Sweden from 1930 to her retirement in 1945. Her most important contribution was as mediator in negotiations to end the Winter War between the USSR and Finland (1939–1940). In the 1920s she also published novels and essays that analyzed the gender and sexual liberation that would come with the construction of a communist society. These works drew strong criticism from more conservative communists, and Kollontai ceased to publish on her favorite subject after the Stalinist leadership consolidated power in the late 1920s. Thereafter she wrote multiple versions of her memoirs. She survived the party purges in the 1930s, probably because she was a respected diplomat who lived far away from party politics.
Kollontai died in Moscow on March 9, 1952. With the revival of feminism in the 1960s, her writings were rediscovered, and she came again to be seen an important Marxist feminist.
See also: armand, inessa; bolshevism; feminism; krupskaya, nadezhda; samoilova, konkordia; zhenotdel
Clements, Barbara Evans. (1979). Bolshevik Feminist: the Life of Aleksandra Kollontai. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Clements, Barbara Evans. (1997). Bolshevik Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Farnsworth, Beatrice. (1980). Alexandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Holt, Alix, ed. (1977). Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill.
Kollontai, Alexandra. (1978) The Love of Worker Bees, tr. Cathy Porter. Chicago: Academy Press Limited.
Barbara Evans Clements