Armand, Inessa (1874–1920)

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Armand, Inessa (1874–1920)

Russian revolutionary and feminist who was active as an underground propagandist, Bolshevik Party organizer, and champion of women's equality in the early Soviet state. Name variations: Comrade Inessa, Elena Blonina. Pronunciation: In-es-a Ar-mand. Born Elizabeth Stéphane on May 8, 1874, in Paris, France; died of cholera in Nal'chik, Russia, on September 24, 1920; daughter of Théodore Pécheux d'Herbenville (an opera singer who performed under the name Théodore Stéphane) and Nathalie Wild (part-time actress and voice teacher); tutoring at home led to teaching certificate, 1891; auditor, University of Moscow, 1906–1907; license, New University of Brussels, 1910; married Alexander Armand, on October 3, 1893; children: (with husband) Alexander, Fedor, Inna, and Varvara; (with brother-in-law, Vladimir Armand) Andre.

Following death of parents, raised in family of Evgenii Armand outside Moscow; taught in peasant school (1893–98); Russian vice-president, Women's International Progressive Union (1899); president, Moscow Society for Improving the Lot of Women (1900–1903); joined Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (1904); underground propagandist (1904–07); arrested four times and exiled to Mezen in northern Russia (1907–08); escaped, went abroad where she assisted V.I. Lenin in organizing Bolshevik Party (1910–17); lecturer, Longjumeau party school (1911); chair, Committee of Foreign Organizations (1911–12); co-editor, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker, 1914); Bolshevik spokeswoman at numerous international socialist conferences (1914–16); member, Left Communist opposition (1918); chair, Moscow Provincial Economic Council (1918–19); member, All-Russian Central Executive Committee (1918–19); first director, Women's Section (Zhenotdel) of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (1919–20); editor, Kommunistka (Female Communist,

1920); organizer and chair, First International Conference of Communist Women (1920).


forty journal articles and four popular brochures (all in Russian), most of which are reproduced in I.F. Armand, Stat'i, rechi, pis'ma (Articles, Speeches, Letters), Moscow, 1975.

Inessa Armand was buried in the "Red Graveyard" next to the walls of the Kremlin on October 12, 1920; she had died at the age of 46 of cholera contracted three weeks earlier on a vacation in the Caucasus. The weather on the day of her funeral was crisp and sunny but Moscow itself was bleak, still suffering from six years of civil war, revolution, and world war. The head of the Russian Communist Party and of the new Soviet state, Vladimir Il'ich Lenin, stood next to the freshly dug grave. "I never saw such torment," wrote a fellow Communist Angelica Balabanoff . "I never saw any human being so completely absorbed by sorrow…. Not only his face but his whole body expressed so much sorrow that I dared not greet him…. It was clear that he wanted to be alone with his grief. He seemed to have shrunk … his eyes seemed drowned in tears held back with effort."

Lenin listened as various party functionaries eulogized a close family friend. Armand was praised for joining the Bolshevik Party before the 1905 Revolution; for establishing and editing Rabotnitsa, the first Bolshevik paper for women workers; for her work in economic reconstruction as chair of the Moscow Provincial Economic Council; and for her efforts as the first director of the party's Women's Section (Zhenotdel) to attract women to party and state work. No one mentioned that as a young woman she was a Tolstoyan who devoted five years to teaching peasant children or that as a feminist she had sought to rehabilitate prostitutes in Moscow, that she had spent many years as an underground propagandist and had paid for her activity against the tsarist regime by being exiled to the far north, or that she had served as Lenin's assistant in the building of the Bolshevik Party only to quarrel with him as she sought to gain her intellectual and personal independence from his often domineering personality.

While one speaker noted that she had managed to overcome her "rich bourgeois background," no one adequately explained how a person born in Paris and raised in the family of a wealthy Russian textile manufacturer had risen to become one of the two most important women in the Russian Communist Party and the close friend of the leader of that party. It is a unique story but one that touches on many problems encountered by other women of her time: the lack of educational and vocational opportunities open to women; the personal sacrifices often demanded of women by a political career; the frustrations of rarely being taken seriously in a predominantly male environment; and the obsession of later historians with alleged romantic attachments at the expense of a woman's political achievements.

On a superficial level, Inessa Armand was unique in that she was the only Russian Communist of note to have been born in Paris and to have had non-Russian parents. Her father, Théodore Pécheux d'Herbenville, was an undistinguished opera singer who performed on occasion at the Opéra Comique under the name Théodore Stéphane. Inessa, or Elizabeth as she was christened after her birth on May 8, 1874, took her father's stage name of Stéphane. Her mother, Nathalie Wild , was half-English, half-French, and made a modest living as an actress and sometime vocal teacher. Before Elizabeth Stéphane was six years old, both of her parents passed away, leaving their three daughters in considerable financial distress. It was decided that Elizabeth, being the eldest, should leave Paris in the company of her English maternal grandmother and her mother's sister, who had secured a position outside Moscow as governess and piano teacher in the family of Evgenii Armand, a wealthy textile manufacturer of French descent.

Evgenii Evgen'evich Armand was the third generation of a family that had moved to Russia late in the 18th century. The firm of E. Armand & Sons owned wool weaving and dyeing factories and employed 1,200 workers in the town of Pushkino, 17 miles northeast of Moscow. He and his wife had a large family of six daughters and five sons. Like many of the Russian aristocracy, they were accustomed to hiring foreign governesses and tutors to educate their children at home. What set Evgenii Armand apart from many of his class was his decision to allow the orphaned niece of his new governess to be reared as part of his own family. As a result, Elizabeth Stéphane, or Inès as her new family called her, grew up "in the nest of gentlefolk," in a manor house looked after by 45 servants.

She, along with the Armand children, received an excellent home education. She learned French and English from her aunt and grandmother as well as German and Russian from other tutors. Her aunt also gave her six years of piano lessons. In later years, Lenin exploited her linguistic skills by having her translate many of his articles and letters and by asking her to serve as his multilingual spokeswoman at several European conferences. Armand got far greater pleasure in impressing her other non-musical revolutionary friends with her skills as a pianist on the rare occasions when time and circumstance gave her an opportunity to play. Her education was surprisingly liberal, given the reactionary climate of late 19th-century Russia. From tutors hired by Evgenii Armand, she and her adoptive siblings were exposed to the ideas of the French Enlightenment, German Romanticism, and the Russian intelligentsia—ideas that called into question their own class privileges, the backwardness of Russian society, and the anachronism of the tsarist autocracy. In part as a result of this education, many of the Armand children acquired a social consciousness, which led at least six of them, as well as three of their cousins and Inessa herself, to join revolutionary parties seeking the overthrow of the economic and political system that had given them their privileges.

One of the privileges she did not have was the right to acquire a higher education since with few exceptions Russian gymnasia and universities were open only to men. This meant that her career opportunities were also decidedly limited. She could become a tutor or home teacher by virtue of the certificate she received at age 17 after concluding her education on the Armand estate or she could marry. On October 3, 1893, she married Alexander Armand, the eldest of Evgenii's sons and five years her senior. As a wedding present from his parents, Alexander was given a small estate at Eldigino, six miles from Pushkino, where for the next several years Inessa spent much of her time having children. A son, Alexander, was born in 1894, followed in short order by Fedor (1896), Inna (1898) and Varvara (1901). Alexander and his wife also opened a school at Eldigino so that Inessa, an admirer of Leo Tolstoy's efforts to improve the conditions of the Russian peasantry, could use her training to teach peasant children. After five years of this activity, her idealism waned as dealing with the local authorities proved difficult and her sense of personal isolation increased.

The conflict between personal and family interests on the one hand, and societal interests on the other, is one of the most serious problems facing the intelligentsia today.

—Inessa Armand (1908)

She soon found a new outlet for her energies in Moscow. While still in Eldigino, she had entered into correspondence with Adrianne Veigelé , the secretary of the Women's International Progressive Union, who invited her to London and suggested that she establish a branch of the Union in Moscow. Although Armand did not go to England, the Progressive Union named her its Russian vice president in 1899 and in July of that year announced the formation of the Moscow Society for Improving the Lot of Women. After a short spell as chair of its Educational Commission, Armand was chosen in 1900 to be the president of the Moscow Society—a post she was to hold for more than three years. The Society had some 643 members—most of them women from privileged back-grounds—who were willing to give either time or money to help their more disadvantaged sisters. One of these endeavors was to set up a "Shelter for Downtrodden Women" where prostitutes and young women from the countryside were given accommodation, moralistic lectures, and limited vocational training in an often futile effort to keep them off the streets. Government authorities were frequently suspicious of these attempts by upper-class feminists to organize and instruct lower-class women. In 1900, they turned down Armand's request that her Society be allowed to open a "Sunday School" that would offer a basic education to often illiterate women workers in the evening or on weekends. In 1902, they denied her application to publish a newspaper that would discuss issues of interest to women. Her efforts to establish a lending library of women's books met a similar fate.

Governmental obstructionism and slow progress caused many Russian feminists to turn away from philanthropic work and to concentrate instead on seeking the right to vote. Inessa chose a different and more radical path. Like the Armand children, she had been exposed at Pushkino to embryonic socialist thought—ideas, which at the turn of the century would find organizational expression in the agrarian Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Marxian Social Democratic Party. Both groups were illegal in tsarist Russia since they sought not just the re-form of existing society but the overthrow of the state and the establishment of a new economic and political order. Through her brother-in-law, Vladimir Armand, she later came into contact with Marxist circles at the University of Moscow. Vladimir himself helped to broaden her political horizons. As a result of these influences, in the summer of 1903 she left her position as president of the Moscow Society and a year later started working as an underground propagandist for the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP).

The year 1903 was a pivotal period in her personal life as well. Over time, she had grown apart from her husband. Alexander was often in Eldigino running the estate; she was in Moscow looking after the Moscow Society. He was a liberal by political persuasion; she increasingly was searching for more radical solutions. While in Moscow, she spent considerable time with her brother-in-law Vladimir, who was instrumental in her gradual evolution from feminism to Marxism and who shared, to a greater extent than Alexander, her interests in poetry, the theater, and the arts. This intellectual and political affinity soon became an emotional and personal bond. In January 1903, while on a holiday with Vladimir in Italy, she became pregnant. The Armands' solution to this potentially disruptive family imbroglio was as unique as Inessa's origins. Alexander accepted that his wife was in love with his younger brother and that the two of them should henceforth live in free union without bothering about divorce and remarriage. He continued to support her and many of her new socialist causes with the profits of his textile mills until her revolution expropriated them. He also raised all five of her children but made sure they visited her abroad as often as possible. For the rest of her life, Inessa corresponded with her estranged husband and not without reason expressed wonder at his "devoted and selfless friendship…. What a good relationship we have established," she wrote in the summer of 1905. "What a good feeling our friendship has! Honor and glory to you." Alexander was indeed an "uncommon man" whose generosity and kindness made it easier for Inessa to be an "emancipated woman."

In May 1904, when Armand returned from Switzerland where she had gone to give birth to Vladimir's son Andre and to increase her own appreciation of Marxism, she brought with her a sufficient number of books and pamphlets that she and Vladimir were able to set up an illegal Social Democratic library. Literature from it was loaned to student propagandists who in turn used it to increase the political consciousness of a new generation of Moscow Social Democrats. On the night of February 6, 1905, however, the police burst into their apartment, frightened her children, and seized both illegal literature and a revolver. As a result, Inessa spent the next four months in prison and missed out on much of the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905. In the spring of 1906, she moved back to Pushkino where, with the help of at least six other Armands, she printed illegal leaflets, held agitational meetings with non-party workers, and conducted five propaganda circles for aspiring Social Democrats. In the fall, she tried to combine her duties as chief party propagandist in the Lefortovo District of Moscow with being a student in the Law Faculty of the University of Moscow, which had just opened its doors to women auditors. On three occasions in 1907, her work on behalf of the Social Democratic Party led to her arrest, and, after the third in July 1907, she was sentenced to two years administrative banishment in the north of Russia.

She left for Archangel by train in November accompanied by Vladimir who voluntarily joined her in exile. At Archangel, they switched to a horse-drawn sledge for the five-day journey to Mezen, a small town one degree south of the Arctic Circle. Life in Mezen was bleak: bitterly cold in the winter, swarming with mosquitoes in the summer, isolated from all the material and intellectual comforts of civilization. For a time, she sought to divert herself by organizing propaganda circles for fellow Social Democratic exiles and by giving French lessons. But, as she admitted to her husband at the very beginning of her exile, "I don't know how I shall survive two years without the children." After Vladimir's deteriorating health forced him to leave in September 1908, her loneliness became so acute that she fled Mezen in late October, long before her term was up, and returned illegally to Moscow.

After a brief reunion with her children, Inessa revisited her feminist past by surreptitiously attending the First All-Russian Women's Congress in St. Petersburg. She participated in the sessions on the economic situation of women, was intrigued by the debates over "free love," and for the first time became interested in the possibility of organizing the female proletariat who had been largely ignored by the Russian Marxists. Shortly after the Congress concluded, she received word that Vladimir was dying of tuberculosis at a sanatorium on the French Riviera. She crossed the Finnish frontier illegally and was at his bedside when he died in late January 1909. Inessa was left in a quandary. Her companion was dead; she was estranged from her husband and isolated from her children. She could not return to Russia for fear of immediate arrest for having fled Mezen; and she had no profession to pursue abroad. Her commitment to Social Democracy was still strong, but the party had no need for underground propagandists in Western Europe. After several months of indecision, she resolved to continue her education by enrolling in the New University of Brussels. She chose to study political economy, perhaps in an effort to improve her theoretical knowledge of Marxism. She was well aware that the RSDRP put great store in doctrinal writing and polemical disputation—skills that Russian women, lacking a higher education, rarely possessed; thus, they were never included in the leadership of the party. To be taken seriously by her male colleagues and to be given assignments other than just those of an organizational or secretarial nature, she needed to be able to write and to defend her positions. It was only after receiving her license degree from the New University in July 1910 that she returned to the city of her birth to join Lenin and the Bolshevik emigre colony.

Unfortunately, the chores that Lenin had in mind for her utilized mostly her linguistic and organizational talents. She became the Bolshevik representative to the French Socialist Party; she translated some of his speeches into French; she helped set up and finance (with her husband's money) a school at Longjumeau for under-ground party workers and was the only woman to lecture at that school; she served as chair of the Committee of Foreign Organizations, which tried to coordinate the activities of all Bolshevik groups in Western Europe; and, in the summer of 1912, she returned illegally to Russia in an attempt to bring the party newspaper Pravda (Truth) under Lenin's control and to promote the election of Bolshevik deputies to the Fourth Russian Duma or parliament. This exercise predictably led to her fifth arrest and to six months in solitary confinement until Alexander was allowed to post bail of 5,400 rubles. Then, after four months with her children and on the eve of her trial, she once again fled the country at considerable cost to her husband.

Armand's first stop was Austrian Galicia where Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya were now living. When not attending meetings of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Lenin dragged Armand off on mountain hikes in the High Tatras, and she in turn forced the Bolshevik leader and his wife to accompany her to concerts in Cracow. Armand and Krupskaya also discussed the feasibility of publishing a legal party newspaper in St. Petersburg aimed specifically at women workers. The male leadership of the party did not like the idea. They felt that the grievances of women were related to class, not gender, and that for women Social Democrats to address working women on concerns primarily of interest to women promoted separatism among the proletariat and the party. Moreover, there was a general feeling that women workers were politically backward. As a result, the members of the Central Committee would not finance, write for, or support a venture that they were sure would fail in less experienced female hands. Armand persevered. She raised the necessary money, some of it from the Armand family; she helped to put together an editorial board; and she contributed several articles to the seven issues of Rabotnitsa—the party's first attempt to address women workers—which appeared in the six months before the outbreak of the First World War.

Like Lenin, Armand spent most of the war in neutral Switzerland. On the eve of hostilities, he had insisted that she represent his party at the Brussels "Unity" Conference where she took much of the blame for his own schismatic practices. In 1915, he again utilized her linguistic skills and loyalty by instructing her to present the Bolshevik position before international conferences of socialist women and socialist youth (she was then 41) held in Switzerland. She also attended the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences of European socialist leaders opposed to the war where Lenin pushed the defeatist views of the socalled Zimmerwald Left. When not attending conferences, Inessa spent much of her time translating Lenin's articles and brochures into French or German. As their correspondence shows, she did not appreciate his hectoring attitude, his insistence on instantaneous service, and his patronizing responses to her suggestions for improvements or changes. Her irritation increased when he did not support her own efforts at writing articles or ridiculed her proposal to write a brochure on marriage and the family. He also altered her plan to resume her education at the University of Bern by sending her off to Paris in a dangerous attempt to find French support for the Zimmerwald Left. When her modest results were received with very faint praise, she chose not to return to Lenin's orbit in Zurich but to try to increase her intellectual and personal independence by studying theoretical questions and by occasionally criticizing the ideas of the great Vladimir Il'ich himself from elsewhere in Switzerland. She did, however, join him and 17 other Bolsheviks on the famous "sealed train" provided by the Germans to get them back to Russia after the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917.

Armand's role in the revolution was modest. She participated in the work of the party's Moscow Committee, and she helped edit another newspaper for working women. In August, however, she returned to Pushkino where she spent the next three months with her ailing son Andre. After the October Revolution had brought the Bolsheviks to power, she joined the Left Communists in an unsuccessful attempt to oppose Lenin's peace of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. This did not prevent her from serving as chair of the Moscow Provincial Economic Council, which sought to regulate and reconstruct the economic life of the province. She also was one of Moscow's representatives to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, she lectured at the new Sverdlov Communist University, and she served as a delegate on a Red Cross Mission to France, which sought to repatriate Russian prisoners-of-war and at the same time to stir up revolution in the country of her birth.

In August 1919, after her return from France, Armand was named the first director of the Women's Section (or Zhenotdel) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This was the high point of her career as a revolutionary and a feminist. For the last year of her life, she sought to increase female participation in the labor force by relieving many of the household burdens that normally fell to women, and she fought for female equality in the party and the workplace. Almost single-handedly, she edited Zhenotdel's theoretical journal Kommunistka (Female Communist), and she organized and chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women, which met in Moscow in the summer of 1920. These endeavors under-mined her health, and at Lenin's insistence she left on a vacation in the Caucasus with Andre in August. One month later, she came down with cholera in that war-torn region and died at the age of 46 on September 24, 1920.

After Armand's burial next to the Kremlin Wall, Krupskaya served as guardian for her younger children, while Lenin sought to promote the careers of her older sons. Krupskaya also edited a collection of reminiscences in honor of her close friend. Time, however, has not been kind either to Armand's works or to her reputation. Many of her pioneering efforts among female factory workers were undone and forgotten when the paternalistic leadership of the Communist Party abandoned in the late 1920s its earlier social experiments, and Zhenotdel itself was closed on the spurious excuse that its work was finished. Inessa's name went unmentioned in Soviet history books during Stalin's lifetime, and in the West she is remembered primarily for her unique relationship with Lenin. The fact that she lived in close proximity to him from 1910 to 1917 and received from him more than 135 letters, many of them written in the familiar tense and some left unpublished for unexplained reasons in Soviet archives, has led most recent biographers to conclude that she was Lenin's mistress.

As history proves, the desire to find human interest is frequently stronger than the evidence that supports it. It is more exciting to explain Lenin's distraught state at Armand's funeral in October 1920 by claiming that he was mourning the death of a long-time lover than it is by simply noting that she had been a close family friend for more than a decade and that he was largely responsible for her ill-fated holiday. This attitude may have led writers to ignore Armand's accomplishments as a feminist and a revolutionary before she ever met Lenin in 1909 and to attribute many of her subsequent achievements to others in the party. Little attention has been paid to her attempts to create a meaningful role for herself, to gain intellectual independence from Lenin, and to change the paternalistic attitudes of a male-dominated party. There is no doubt that she was a close personal friend of Lenin and it is difficult to prove that they did not have at some time a romantic attachment. There is, however, little firm evidence that they had a lengthy affair and much to indicate that she was one of the few members of his entourage who had the courage and the ability to oppose him on personal and political matters.


Armand, I.F. Stat'i, rechi, pis'ma (Articles, Speeches, Letters). Moscow, 1975.

Balabanoff, Angelica. Impressions of Lenin. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Elwood, R.C. Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Krupskaya, N.K., ed. Pamiati Inessy Armand (Memories of Inessa Armand). Moscow, 1926.

Lenin, V.I. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete Collected Works). Vols. 48 and 49. Moscow, 1964.

"Pis'ma Inessy Armand" (Letters of Inessa Armand), in Novyi mir. 1970, no. 6, pp. 196–218. Contains 28 letters written by Armand to friends and relatives, 1899–1909, from which all quotations (unless otherwise identified) have been taken.

suggested reading:

Bardawil, Georges. Inès Armand: Biographie. Paris: J.C. Lattes, 1993.

Podliashuk, P. Tovarishch Inessa: dokumental'naia povest' (Comrade Inessa: A Documentary Account), 4th ed. Moscow, 1984.

Stites, Richard. The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

R. C. Elwood , Professor and Chair of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and author of Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist (Cambridge University Press, 1993)