Balabanoff, Angelica (1878–1965)

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Balabanoff, Angelica (1878–1965)

One-time associate of Benito Mussolini and V.I. Lenin, first secretary of the Communist International, and prominent figure in the European socialist movement, 1902–1921. Name variations: (Russian) Angelika Balabanova. Pronunciation: Bal-a-BON-off. Born Anzhelika Balabanova in 1878 in Chernigov, Russia; died in Rome, Italy, on November 25, 1965; daughter of Isaak Balabanov (a wealthy merchant and landowner); tutored at home until age 11; attended Princess Obolenskaia Institute in Kharkov, 1889–95, and New University of Brussels, 1897–99 (claimed to have received doctorate); audited classes at universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Rome, 1899–1902; never married; no children.

Joined Italian Socialist Party (1902); served as propagandist among Italian women working in Switzerland (1903–07); served as member, Executive Committee of Italian Socialist Party in Switzerland (1904–07); was co-editor of Su, Compagne! (1904–06); served as member of Executive Committee of Italian Socialist Party (1912–17); was co-editor, Avanti! (1912–13, 1928); named Italian representative to International Socialist Bureau (c. 1912–14); cofounded the Zimmerwald Movement (1915–17); served as secretary of International Socialist Commission (1915–19); returned to Russia (June 1917), and shortly thereafter joined Bolshevik Party; was Bolshevik propagandist and agent in Sweden and Switzerland (July 1917-November 1918); served as secretary of Communist International (1919–20); served as commissar of foreign affairs for Ukraine (1919–20); left Russia (December 1921) and expelled from Russian Communist Party (1924); involved in various anti-communist and anti-fascist movements in Vienna (1922–26), Paris (1926–36), and New York (1936–46); returned to Italy (1946); participated in formation of the Italian Social Democratic Party (1947), and was a member of its Executive Committee.

Selected publications:

My Life as a Rebel (New York, 1938, different versions in German, 1927, and Italian, 1946); (translated by Isotta Cesari) Impressions of Lenin (Ann Arbor, 1964); Iz lichnykh vospominanii tsimmervaldtsa (From the Personal Memoirs of a Zimmerwaldist, Moscow, 1925); Il traditore: Benito Mussolini and his "Conquest" of Power (New York, 1942–43); Tears (poetry, New York, 1943); plus numerous articles and pamphlets. (Almost all of this work is autobiographical; it is also the major source of information about Balabanoff's life. It should be borne in mind that she was writing many years after theevents and often for very different audiences. As a result, her recollections are not always as consistent, candid, or complete as a biographer would desire.)

On the evening of March 6, 1919, Angelica Balabanoff attended the closing rally of the First Congress of the Communist International held in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. As she translated the "optimistic speeches" of the foreign delegates, saw the "overwhelming enthusiasm of the workers" in the audience, and listened to the "revolutionary songs of defiance and victory," it appeared that "the ties of international brotherhood had been renewed" after the long and calamitous First World War. As she later wrote in her autobiography, "It was one of the few moments in my life when it seemed that I had not lived in vain." Not only had a new organization, the Communist International or Comintern, been created to unite proletarian parties throughout the world, but Balabanoff, in recognition of her high standing in the European socialist movement, had been chosen to be the first secretary of its Executive Committee. For many years she had been a member of the Executive Committee of the Italian Socialist Party and co-editor of its newspaper Avanti! During the war, she had been cofounder of the Zimmerwald Movement, which united European socialists opposed to the war, and she was still the secretary of the International Socialist Commission.

Balabanoff's euphoria was tempered by a degree of skepticism, however. She was aware that only one of the 35 delegates who attended the congress had a legitimate mandate from his national organization, and that all of the others were prisoners of war or foreign residents of Moscow who had been induced to represent national organizations under false pretenses. It had been obvious at the congress that the Russian communists—G.E. Zinoviev and V.I. Lenin, in particular—were controlling the proceedings and acting primarily to further the interests of the new Soviet state. She also realized that her appointment as secretary "had a definite political significance" in that her reputation among socialists throughout Europe added legitimacy to the new body. Balabanoff had reason to be concerned. She soon found herself isolated from the real work of the Comintern, and her complaints about its dubious operations were ignored. By the time the Second Congress met in 1920, she had been removed from office. Disillusioned, she left Soviet Russia in December 1921, was expelled from the party in 1924, and spent the rest of her long life fighting for the cause of socialism against the threats of Italian fascism and Russian communism.

Angelica Balabanoff's origins were not those usually associated with a leading member of either the Italian Socialist Party or the Communist International. She was born to a life of privilege in Chernigov, a provincial town in the Ukrainian part of Imperial Russia, in 1878. Her father Isaak Balabanov was a wealthy Jewish merchant who could well afford to staff his 22-room house with a host of servants. Surrounded by a beautiful garden and orchards, her home had far more in common with Turgenev's "nest of gentlefolk" than with Marx's industrial slums. Angelica, the last of 16 children seven of whom died young, grew up speaking French and German with her siblings, parents, and governesses rather than either Russian or Ukrainian. Unlike many of her generation and class, she showed no early awareness of 19th-century Russian radicalism. Her apolitical parents sheltered their youngest daughter from potentially harmful outside influences, kept her from having childhood playmates, and hired carefully screened home tutors to impart the social graces of dancing, music, and embroidery rather than the "dangerous" liberal arts. When she was finally allowed to go to school at the age of 11, it was not to an academic gymnasium but to a fashionable girls' boarding school in Kharkov. In part because of this privileged and sheltered existence, Balabanoff experienced none of the anti-Semitism which caused other Russian Jews to seek revolutionary solutions for society's problems.

Angelica remembered very little of her father who died when she was ten. Her mother, "who ruled my life and who for me personified all despotism," was another matter. She was determined that her daughter would be the "crown of the family" and that her upbringing should prepare her solely for marriage to a wealthy man. Balabanoff later claimed that this created an "unbridgeable abyss" and was the source of her own revolutionary temperament. "Mother's treatment of the 'free' servants in our household always aroused my indignation," she wrote in her autobiography.

My first realization of inequity and injustice grew out of these experiences in my early childhood. I saw that there were those who commanded and those who obeyed, and probably because of my own rebellion against my mother … I instinctively sided with the latter. Why, I asked myself, should mother be able to rise when she pleased, while the servants had to rise at an early hour to carry out her orders? After she raged at them for some mistake, I would implore them not to endure such treatment. … I re ceived my first glimpse of actual poverty and misery when I became old enough to accompany mother on her visits to the poorhouse. … I was allowed to distribute the gifts we had brought—aprons, dresses, linen, etc.—in the manner of Lady Bountiful.

As a result of these experiences, Balabanoff developed, in the words of Marie Mullaney , "a tremendous burden of guilt over her privileged lifestyle and a gnawing sense of duty toward the unfortunate." She had no idea, however, how she could fulfil that duty. Her education at Princess Obolenskaia's Institute in Kharkov, which she finished in 1895 at age 17, had prepared her only for marriage and the life of a "fine lady." Russian universities were closed to her, as they were to most women in the 19th century and, thus, so were most professions. One alternative, which attracted numerous middleclass Russian women, was to enroll in European universities. Without her mother's knowledge, Balabanoff started to use her linguistic skills to tutor some of these women in German or French before they left Chernigov. In time, she saw study abroad as a way she too could escape her mother's "despotism." Her decision caused "storms and hysterics" in a family that believed "a university was no place for a girl, especially for a girl who did not have to make her living." Ultimately, she prevailed though only after renouncing her family inheritance and leaving with her mother's curse upon her. "But," as she later wrote, "I was happier than I had ever been in all my life."

Freedom is much more precious to women than it is to men because women go through such a tremendous struggle before they are free in their own minds.

—Angelica Balabanoff (1918)

Balabanoff chose to go to the New University of Brussels which she had first heard about from one of the students she had tutored. Its reputation as a bohemian and radical institution attracted many students from Eastern Europe interested in its innovative approaches to the social sciences. For two years, she lived alone in a poorly furnished one-room apartment. Much of what she heard in the classroom and in student discussions explained the injustices she had seen in Chernigov. As she later recalled, "I began to get my first insight into economic theory, the mechanics of capitalism, and the history and meaning of the revolutionary labour movement." She was particularly impressed with the writing of George Plekhanov, "the father of Russian Marxism," whom she met in Brussels. She found in him "a philosophy of method that gave continuity and logic to the processes of history and which endowed my own ethical aspirations, as well as the revolutionary movement itself, with the force and dignity of an historical imperative." While she did not join Plekhanov's Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP) at the time, as is often claimed, she nevertheless considered herself a Marxist. As a result of this education, Balabanoff also considered herself to be a Doctor of Philosophy—an honor not substantiated by the university's records.

In 1899, after two years in Brussels, Balabanoff decided to sample more traditional and conservative German education by attending lectures first at the University of Leipzig and then at the University of Berlin. More valuable than the courses, which she found tedious and authoritarian, was the opportunity to meet the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)—the largest and most respected socialist party in Europe. In 1901, she moved to Italy where she completed her education at the University of Rome. She was captivated by Antonio Labriola's emotional vision of socialism. As Mullaney has noted, he gave "intellectual justification for the moral fervor that had always been at the core of her radicalism." She also took to heart Labriola's dictum that a socialist intellectual should strive to be a teacher not a leader of the oppressed. Under his influence, she joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in 1902.

Balabanoff had heard from Labriola about the terrible plight of young Italian immigrant women employed in textile factories in Switzerland. Not only were they poorly paid and often unable to communicate in the German-speaking part of the country, but they also were exploited by the Catholic Church which ran the convent hostels where they were forced to live, and they were ignored by the male-dominated Swiss trade unions. She went to St. Gallen, the center of the textile industry in 1903, and offered to work without pay for the Italian Socialist Party in Switzerland (PSIS). Her own needs, then as always, were modest, and she managed to meet them by giving language lessons in her spare time and by using a meager allowance which she received from an older brother in Russia. With the help of the PSIS, she set up an office where she offered advice to the Italian workers and helped them stand up for their rights. Much to her surprise, she found that she had a talent for public speaking. She was fluent in Italian, German, and French, and she knew how to keep her message simple and to gauge the temper of her largely female audiences. The fact that she was an educated woman, but one who lived an unadorned worker's life and knew local problems from first-hand experience, added to her appeal.

In 1904, she was asked to join the Executive Committee of the PSIS, and at its suggestion moved to Lugano to edit a weekly newspaper, Su, Compagne!, aimed at female workers in both Switzerland and Italy. In it, she publicized instances of abuse, attacked the oppression of the church and employers, and sought to get women to discuss their own problems. Balabanoff stressed that she was not promoting feminism, that women workers shared many of the same problems as their male counterparts, and that salvation lay in a common fight for socialism. She sought to promote proletarian unity and class consciousness, not female issues and gender consciousness.

While in Switzerland, Balabanoff also came into frequent contact with Russian Social Democrats living in emigration. She met many of the leaders of the RSDRP—Lenin, Julius Martov, Leon Trotsky—and on occasion translated their Russian speeches into Italian, French, German, and even English. In 1907, she was delegated by a group of Russian university students studying abroad to represent them in a non-voting capacity at the Fifth Party Congress in London. Because of linguistic abilities and perceived impartiality, she was also asked to transmit funds from the German Social Democrats to the RSDRP and, when this proved insufficient to pay for the congress, to help convince a wealthy American soap manufacturer, Joseph Fels, to extend the party a loan.

Balabanoff never felt comfortable with the constant factional bickering that characterized Russian Social Democracy in emigration or with the theoretical disputes that absorbed the meetings of the RSDRP. It was therefore with some relief that she returned to Italy in 1908 where her adoptive party put less stress on theoretical matters and appreciated her talents as a propagandist and agitator. She spent the next few years wandering the Italian countryside trying to attract unorganized workers to join trade unions and the socialist party. Once again, her sincerity, her ethical fervor, and her emotional interpretation of socialism made her a highly successful propagandist. In 1912, she was elected to the Executive Committee of the Italian Socialist Party and asked to help edit Avanti!, one of the largest and most influential socialist papers in Europe. Her co-editor was Benito Mussolini who ten years later became the head of the Fascist government in Italy and was responsible for the suppression of the PSI.

Balabanoff first met Mussolini in 1904 when he attended one of her lectures in Lausanne. She was struck by his impoverished appearance and militant demeanor. After listening to his complaints, she undertook to give direction to his militancy by completing his political education. She lent him books, helped him earn some money by translating a German socialist tract into Italian, and gave him introductions to other Italian socialists. Always a forceful personality and a fiery orator, his rise in the party was even more rapid than hers. In 1912, he agreed to edit Avanti! only if his one-time mentor became his co-editor and assistant. For the next eight months, she carried out many of the disagreeable editorial chores which Mussolini preferred to avoid.

As the First World War approached, an increasing amount of Balabanoff's time was spent serving as the link between the PSI and the Second or Socialist International that united socialist parties throughout Europe. She attended three congresses of the International as well as several associated conferences of socialist women. She also served as her party's representative on the International Socialist Bureau where she came to know almost all of the leaders of European socialism. The most pressing problem facing the International was the war clouds hanging over Europe caused by the colonial and military rivalries of the great powers. The International repeatedly passed resolutions calling on socialist deputies to vote against war credits and for workers to use strikes to paralyze any moves toward war. Balabanoff was shocked, therefore, that when war broke out in August 1914 these pious resolutions were forgotten as socialist politicians and workers alike were swept up in the tide of nationalism which rolled over the belligerent countries of Europe. The Italian Socialist Party was one of the few to hold true to the principles of the International. Even among the Italian socialists, however, war had its supporters. One of them was Benito Mussolini, who up to 1914 had been a militant pacifist but reversed his position when French bribes made it worth his while to do so. Balabanoff denounced her former colleague and fled to neutral Switzerland where she became one of the leaders in the fight against the war.

During the course of the next two years, she played an instrumental role in the four conferences of antiwar socialists held in Switzerland: the International Conference of Socialist Women in March 1915, the International Conference of Socialist Youth in April 1915, the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915, and the Kiental Conference in April 1916. In each instance, she helped to organize the meetings and used her linguistic abilities to translate the ensuing debates. In recognition of her services, she was named the secretary of the International Socialist Commission created by the Zimmerwald Conference to take over the duties of the moribund International Socialist Bureau, and she edited its multilingual Bulletin. These pacifist efforts were, however, plagued by internal discord. Lenin and a few Bolshevik supporters sought more radical solutions than Balabanoff and the centrist majority were willing to accept. All agreed that the war was imperialist in nature, that it had to be opposed by all available means, and that a peace based on no annexations was essential. The Zimmerwald Left, headed by Lenin, wanted, in addition, the condemnation of the socialist leaders of the Second International who had proven impotent in the face of war, the creation of a new and revolutionary Third International, and implementation of steps to turn the world war into a world civil war. Balabanoff, who admired Lenin as a person, could not understand his intransigence and his obsession with splitting the socialist movement.

These differences were temporarily forgotten when revolution broke out in Russia and toppled the tsar in February 1917. Like Lenin, Balabanoff returned to her native land in a German railway car after an absence of 20 years. Since the continued success of the revolution offered the best opportunity to bring the protracted war to an end, she joined the Bolshevik Party in the summer of 1917. After only five weeks in Petrograd, she was sent to represent Bolshevik interests in Stockholm where she was to remain until October 1918. Lenin wanted to exploit her excellent contacts with European socialist leaders and her position as secretary of the International Socialist Commission to influence European opinion and to keep him informed about events beyond Russia's borders. After the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, Balabanoff was further charged with distributing money to radical groups in Europe and with purchasing much-needed supplies for the new regime. In October 1918, she switched her base of operations to Switzerland which Lenin felt was more strategically located for the spread of revolution. The Swiss, who feared precisely this, expelled her after less than a month in their country.

When she returned to Russia in December 1918, Balabanoff was given the unusual position of commissar for foreign affairs of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. Since Ukraine had no formal relations with other countries, she spent most of her time touring the war-torn countryside making propaganda speeches and learning something about her native land. Much to her surprise, she was summoned back to Moscow in early March 1919 to attend the First Congress of the Third or Communist International—a new body that was to replace the discredited Socialist International. Balabanoff viewed its creation with mixed emotions. She had given much of her life to the old International, she stubbornly refused to turn over the records of the Zimmerwald Movement, and in good conscience she could not represent the Italian Socialist Party as Lenin requested. It was soon evident that others had fewer scruples and that virtually none of the 35 delegates had close ties with the countries and parties they purported to represent. These were technicalities that meant little in this emotional setting. Even she was carried away when a long-delayed Austrian delegate rushed into the hall and announced that revolution was rapidly spreading in Central Europe. She also acquiesced to party discipline when Lenin insisted that she become the first secretary of the new Comintern.

Whether Balabanoff recognized it or not, she had been chosen as a front or a figurehead, as a person whose excellent reputation in the socialist world would add credence to the fraudulent creation in Moscow. She soon found that Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, was calling the shots from Petrograd while she was left with little to do in Moscow. She refused to accept the bourgeois perquisites and trappings of high office which seemed to satisfy many of her revolutionary colleagues. After awhile, she went back to Ukraine to resume her propaganda activities with the equally meaningless title of commissar for foreign affairs. In vain, she protested the growing use of Red terror against members of other revolutionary parties. Zinoviev, who she subsequently considered "the most despicable individual I have ever met" other than Mussolini, grew tired of her moral complaints about his organizational machinations. He sought to get her out of his curly hair by suggesting that she enter a sanatorium for a rest or lead a propaganda train to distant Turkestan. The final straw came when the Second Congress of the Comintern, called in the summer of 1920 virtually without her knowledge, adopted organizational rules that required the splitting of foreign socialist parties and ensured that the resulting communist splinters would remain firmly under the control of the Russian Communist Party.

Disillusioned, Balabanoff went to Lenin and suggested that since "Russia does not need people like me," she should be allowed to leave the country once again. He offered a variety of diplomatic posts, including ambassador to Italy, but only if she would assist in the splitting of the Italian Socialist Party. Various positions in women's organizations, such as secretary of the International Women's Secretariat, were dangled before her, but Balabanoff felt her talents and interests lay elsewhere. Other jobs, all of them more honorific than real, were also proposed and rejected.

In December 1921, she left Soviet Russia never to return. For the next four years, she lived in Vienna, once again giving language lessons and staying in small, poorly furnished apartments. When she expressed her disapproval of Soviet actions in 1924, she was stripped of her party membership. In 1926, Balabanoff moved to Paris where she participated in the activities of the Italian Socialist Party now in exile and for a while resumed her work as editor of Avanti! When not attacking her former protege, Benito Mussolini, for the actions of his Fascist government in Italy, she was busy writing poetry and working on her memoirs. In 1936, she left for the United States where for the next decade she worked with Italian-Americans and warned against the twin evils of fascism and communism. The end of the Second World War allowed her to return to Italy which she always considered to be her true homeland. She participated in the formation of the Italian Social Democratic Party and at age 70 resumed her activities as a wandering propagandist. She died in 1965, disillusioned with the materialism and lack of class consciousness of the Italian proletariat.

Balabanoff's values and skills were those of a 19th-century romantic idealist. She believed strongly in the innate goodness of the working classes and in her own duty to serve them in any way she could. Her sincerity, her commitment to ethical values, and her selflessness stand out in a 20th-century socialist movement often dominated by power-seeking cynics all too willing to partake in the material benefits of political office. In part because of her temperament and approach, Balabanoff's "life as a rebel" was also a life of disillusionment: disillusionment with the reaction of European socialist leaders to the outbreak of the First World War, with the actions of Russian communists in their exercise of revolutionary power, with workers everywhere when they at last had a chance to share in Europe's post-1945 prosperity. Her skills were those of a linguist, a propagandist, and a competent administrator. She was never a theoretician, she did not have the instincts of a politician, and she perhaps lacked the self-confidence needed to be a leader. Of slight build, she always remained a simple and unassuming person. Her extensive public life was also her private life. Balabanoff never married. Rumors of an early affair with Mussolini, and even that she had a child by him, are unsubstantiated by either factual evidence or common sense.


Balabanoff, Angelica. My Life as a Rebel. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1938 (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from this source).

——. Impressions of Lenin. Translated from the Italian by Isotta Cesari. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Mullaney, Marie Marmo. Revolutionary Women: Gender and the Socialist Revolutionary Role. NY: Praeger, 1983.

suggested reading:

Eshelman, Nancy G. "Forging a Socialist Women's Movement: Angelica Balabanoff in Switzerland," in The Italian Immigrant Woman in North America. Edited by Betty Boyd Caroli, R.F. Harney, and Lydio F. Tomasi. Toronto: Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario, 1978.

Florence, Ronald. Marx's Daughters: Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Angelica Balabanoff. NY: Dial Press, 1975.

Slaughter, Jane. "Humanism versus Feminism in the Socialist Movement: The Life of Angelica Balabanoff," in European Women on the Left. Edited by Jane Slaughter and Robert Kern. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and author of Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist