Kollontai, Alexandra (1872–1952)

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Kollontai, Alexandra (1872–1952)

Russian revolutionary and feminist who was the first woman to be a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and the Council of People's Commissars as well as the world's first female ambassador. Name variations: Aleksandra Kollontay; (nickname) Shura. Pronunciation: KOLL-lon-TIE. Born Alexandra or Aleksandra Mikhailovna Domontovich in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 19, 1872; died in Moscow on March 9, 1952; daughter of Mikhail Domontovich (a cavalry officer) and Aleksandra Masalina (daughter of a Finnish lumber merchant, she became an entrepreneur selling dairy products); tutored at home, leading to certificate, 1888; auditor, University of Zurich, 1898–99; married Vladimir Kollontai, in 1893 (divorced); married Pavel Dybenko, in 1918; children: (first marriage) Mikhail.

Did charitable and educational work in St. Petersburg (1895–98); joined Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (1899), associated with the Bolshevik faction (after 1915); wrote and lectured on Marxism and social issues (1900–05); promoted Marxist organization of Russian factory women (1906–08); fled abroad (December 1908), where she served as Russian representative to the International Women's Secretariat (1910–15), lectured at the Bologna Party School (1910–11), and wrote extensively on issues relating to maternity, sexuality and pacifism; returned to Russia (March 1917), elected to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, and arrested (July 1917); served as commissar of Social Welfare (1917–18); was a member of Left Communist opposition (1918) and Workers' Opposition (1921–22); served as director, Women's Section (Zhenotdel) of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (1920–22); performed diplomatic work in Norway (1922–25, ambassador 1927–30), Mexico (ambassador 1926–27) and Sweden (ambassador 1930–45).


over 230 newspaper and journal articles many of which have been reproduced in A.M. Kollontai, Izbrannye stat'i i rechi (Collected Articles and Speeches, Moscow, 1972), or in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (edited by Alix Holt, Westport, 1977). Also wrote 30 pamphlets, novellas and books among the more important being: Zhizn' finliandskikh rabochikh (The Life of Finnish Workers, St. Petersburg, 1903); Sotsial'nye osnovy zhenskogo voprosa (The Social Bases of the Woman Question, St. Petersburg, 1909); Obshchestvo i materinstvo (Society and Maternity, Petrograd, 1916); Komu nuzhna voina?(Who Needs War?, Bern, 1916); Novaia moral' i rabochii klass (The New Morality and the Working Class, Moscow, 1918); Sem'ia i kommunisticheskoe gosudarstvo (The Family and the Communist State, Moscow, 1918); Rabochaia oppozitsiia (The Workers' Opposition, Moscow, 1921).

On November 16, 1918, Alexandra Kollontai stood at the podium gazing out over more than 1,000 delegates representing female factory workers, peasant women, and Communist Party activists who had come from across Soviet Russia to attend the Congress of Working Women. As co-organizer, she had expected a third of that number. Her large and colorful audience, many wearing red kerchiefs and some with children in tow, was in marked contrast to the dispirited delegation of 45 women workers she had led at the First Congress of Russian Women only ten years earlier. In 1908, the male leadership of the party had dragged its feet at even sending a workers' delegation; now V.I. Lenin himself spoke at the 1918 Congress. None of Kollontai's resolutions had come to a vote on the earlier occasion; now the economic and political interests of working women received overwhelming support. In 1907 and 1908, the party had turned down her demands that it set up a women's bureau to coordinate work among women; in 1919, in large measure as a result of the recent congress, Zhenotdel or the Women's Section of the Central Committee came into being, and a year later Kollontai became its second director. While she had earlier been the first woman named to the Bolshevik Central Committee and the first female member of the Council of People's Commissars, this new position probably pleased her the most, it best suited her talents, and it offered her the greatest opportunity to affect the lives of Soviet women.

We, the older generation, did not yet understand, as most men do and as young women are learning today, that work and the longing for love can be harmoniously combined so that work remains as the main goal of existence.

—Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai had been a rebel throughout her life. In the 1890s, she had rebelled against her family, her first husband, and her own aristocratic class. After the 1917 Revolution, she rebelled against Lenin over peace with Germany in 1918, and then against her party when she joined the Workers' Opposition in 1921. This action cost her her job as head of Zhenotdel and sent her into diplomatic exile. While she eventually became the world's first female ambassador, she continued to rebel against society's conventions. Following her death in 1952, it was finally recognized that Alexandra Kollontai, through her life and writings, had also been in the forefront of Europe's sexual revolution.

Kollontai, like many of the women who subsequently joined the Russian revolutionary movement, was raised in circumstances of wealth and privilege. "My childhood was a happy one," she later wrote in her Autobiography. "I was the youngest, the most spoiled, and the most coddled member of the family." Her father Mikhail Domontovich, who was to become a general in the Imperial Russian Army, was descended from an ancient, land-owning Ukrainian family. At the time of Kollontai's birth on March 19, 1872, he was an instructor at the cavalry school in St. Petersburg. His home, as befitted his position in society, was comfortable and well-staffed with servants. The upbringing of Shura, as Alexandra was known to her family, was largely left in the hands of an English nanny. Her mother Aleksandra Masalina was from a mixed marriage of a Finnish peasant turned timber merchant and a Russian noblewoman. Her family estate in Finland provided an idyllic place for Shura to spend many of her youthful summers.

Kollontai's parents were in many ways unconventional in their lives and their thinking, and this in turn helped shape the subsequent development of their daughter. Because of the objections of Masalina's father, their initial courtship was terminated, and she was forced to marry an engineer named Mravinskii. Ten years and three children later, and following the death of the elder Masalin, Domontovich reappeared on the scene and convinced her to seek a divorce. Legal arrangements such as this were difficult for women in 19th-century Russia. Before the divorce was official, Shura was born out of wedlock. Her parents defied the conventions of the aristocracy in other ways as well. Domontovich, who had been interested in radical causes in his youth, was a widely read individual and surprisingly liberal for an army general. He was a firm believer in a constitutional monarchy in a country where constitutions were considered by many of his class to be revolutionary. When he suggested that Bulgaria, where he was stationed in 1878, be given a liberal constitution, he was ordered home in disgrace. Kollontai revered her father and later acknowledged that "if ever a man had an influence on my mind and development, it was my father." Her strong-willed mother was equally influential, though not as appreciated by her sometimes rebellious daughter. Following the death of her father, Masalina had taken over his business interests in Finland and developed a flourishing enterprise selling dairy products in St. Petersburg. Such independence was unusual for upper-class Russian women of her time. Somewhat more conventional were her charitable activities among the less fortunate in Russia's capital.

Aleksandra Masalina stressed that her daughter should get a good education and be self-reliant. "I was never sent to school," Kollontai recalled, "because my parents lived in a constant state of anxiety over my health and they could not endure the thought that I, like all the other children, should spend two hours daily far from home. My mother probably also had a certain horror of the liberal influences with which I might come into contact." With the aid of home tutors, she read voraciously. She learned to speak French with her mother and two halfsisters, English with her nanny, Finnish with peasants on her mother's estate, and German with one of her instructors. Her mother was less successful in developing her talents in the areas of music, art, and dancing. Nevertheless, Kollontai passed her examinations in 1888 and at the age of 16 received a certificate which would have allowed her to earn a living as a teacher.

The next decade was one of revolt and attempts at personal liberation for Shura. The first crisis came with her determination to marry her cousin, Vladimir Kollontai. Her parents opposed the match, since Vladimir, an engineering student at St. Petersburg's military academy, did not share her intellectual interests and had few financial resources. Shura was forbidden to see him and sent on an extended tour of Western Europe. In what she later admitted was a battle of wills with her parents, she won out. A year after her marriage to Vladimir in 1893, a son, Mikhail or Misha, was born. While she had escaped the confines of the parental home and her mother's control, "the happy life of housewife and spouse" became a "cage" which limited her pursuit of new interests and of a more fulfilling career.

In part because of the role models of her parents and her own liberal education, Kollontai had by age 20 developed a social consciousness, an awareness of social and economic problems which the autocratic Russian state refused to address. This awakening was reinforced by her reading of populist and Marxist literature, which was in vogue among the young intelligentsia of the 1890s, and by her charitable and educational work among the poor of St. Petersburg. Vladimir, however, did not share these concerns; he had little interest in the conversations of her new radical friends, and he could not comprehend her desire for meaningful work outside of marriage and motherhood. Frustrated by these constraints, Kollontai rebelled once again—this time against her husband. In 1898, she took her four-year-old son to her parents, convinced her father to give her a modest

monthly allowance, and left for the University of Zurich where she systematically studied the classics of European Marxism. A year later, after returning to St. Petersburg, she made the break with her past complete. Retrieving Misha from his grandparents, she moved into a small apartment and, as a single parent, began a new career as a writer. Kollontai rebelled yet again in 1899 by joining the illegal and revolutionary Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). In doing so, she turned her back decisively on the traditional life of an upper-class Russian woman; she rejected the political predilections of her parents and denied the efficacy of her own earlier charitable activities.

It was not unusual for women of Kollontai's background to join the RSDLP. Others had been attracted by Marx's scientific and revolutionary solutions to society's problems and by the sense of commitment and sacrifice which belonging to an illegal party provided. Such women accordingly took over many of the secretarial and organizational positions in the underground. Kollontai wanted more than this. She had undertaken her studies in Zurich because she wanted to be taken seriously as a theorist by her male colleagues in the party and because she wanted to write from an informed Marxist perspective. This determination, shown early in her revolutionary career, set her apart from almost all of her female counterparts and helps to explain the unique and important role she was to play in the RSDLP.

Her first project after returning to St. Petersburg was to begin a detailed study of the Finnish economy. Between 1900 and 1903, she published ten articles in Marxist newspapers or journals on the subject as well as a major statistical study entitled The Life of Finnish Workers which, wrote Barbara Clements , "established her intellectual credentials within the Social Democratic movement." She also began to hone her skills as a public speaker and agitator, another area where few Russian women excelled, by addressing working-class audiences. On January 9, she witnessed the beginning of the 1905 Revolution when she participated in a march to the tsar's residence at the Winter Palace which ended violently with the troops opening fire on the marchers. Kollontai survived "Bloody Sunday" and spent the rest of the revolutionary year raising money for the party among her wealthy friends and coordinating activities with the Finnish Social Democrats.

Prior to this time, Russian Marxists had ignored the special concerns of Russian factory women who were seen simply as the most backward element of the proletariat, facing the same problems as male workers. As a result of this disinterest, the appeals of non-Marxist bourgeois feminists started to find a receptive audience among working women who made up almost a third of the labor force. Kollontai, who had not shown much interest in the "woman question" before 1905, recognized the feminist threat and started to speak out against alliances with bourgeois women to obtain such transitory gains as the right to vote. She also set up, in 1907, a Mutual Aid Society for Working Women in St. Petersburg, where women could read and hear lectures on subjects of interest to them, and organized a delegation of 45 women workers to attend the First Congress of Russian Women called by the bourgeois feminists in December 1908. To prepare the delegation and to undermine the arguments of the middle-class feminists, Kollontai wrote The Social Bases of the Woman Question—the first major study of women's issues by a Russian Marxist. In it, she suggested that not only should the capitalist system be overthrown but the family itself had to be restructured if women were to be truly free.

These activities aroused the ire both of the police, who forced Kollontai to flee the country during the course of the congress, and of her own party. Orthodox Marxists felt that trying to appeal specifically to women was simply another form of feminism and that setting up organizations for women was separatism which weakened the unity of the working class. The male hierarchy was particularly upset when Kollontai borrowed an idea from German Social Democratic women by suggesting that the RSDLP set up a Women's Bureau to coordinate party propaganda among women. As a result of these experiences in 1907 and 1908, "I realized for the first time how little our Party concerned itself with the fate of women of the working class," Kollontai wrote in her Autobiography, "and how meager was its interest in women's liberation." She was to spend the next 14 years seeking to correct this situation, and it is here that she made her greatest contribution to socialist feminism.

During the five and a half years before the outbreak of the First World War, Kollontai traveled extensively throughout Western Europe helping various Social Democratic parties. Her knowledge of five languages and her wide-ranging intellectual interests opened many doors for her. Now a handsome woman nearing 40, she eschewed the bohemian lifestyle of many emigre revolutionaries, preferring to dress stylishly and elegantly. She supported herself with a modest inheritance from her father, who had died in 1901, and with the fees she received from lecturing and the writing of her pen. Part of every summer was spent with her son Mikhail, who was a gymnasium student in Russia. But as she acknowledged, her existence, like that of many women who wanted to be independent, was a lonely one where work was the major ingredient in her happiness.

That work was now largely concerned with the "woman question." She lectured on the problem of prostitution and the organization of working women at the Bologna party school in 1910. She represented the St. Petersburg Textile Workers Union at the Second Conference of Socialist Women held in Copenhagen in 1910 and was elected to the International Women's Secretariat. At the request of the Menshevik faction in the Russian Duma (Parliament), she engaged in a lengthy study of maternity benefits offered to women in various European countries. Her proposals, which were ultimately incorporated into a 600-page report entitled Society and Maternity, advocated that maternity costs of all Russian women, including unwed mothers, be paid by the government rather than by employee contributions to group insurance funds. Kollontai's prewar writing also touched on the psychological side of female emancipation, on the double standard governing contemporary relationships, and on women's sexual needs. It was necessary, she argued, to break the constraints of bourgeois marriage and the bourgeois family wherein women were always economically and psychologically dependent on men. She talked about a "new morality" emerging in the proletariat after the revolution when women would be economically self-sufficient and, like men, free to have multiple sex partners.

While few of Kollontai's advanced views were shared by the male-dominated leadership of the RSDLP, she was quite clearly the most respected woman in the party and one whose opinions on political matters, at least, had to be taken seriously. As much as possible, she tried to avoid the factional squabbling which took up the energies of many Russian emigres. From 1906 to 1915, she was attracted to the Mensheviks in part because of her admiration of G.V. Plekhanov, the "father of Russian Marxism," and in part because she favored the mass movement they espoused over one led by professional revolutionaries as preached by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The outbreak of the First World War brought a temporary halt to Kollontai's pursuit of women's liberation and altered her political affiliation. "To me the war was an abomination, a madness, a crime," she wrote in 1926. Unlike many European socialists, she called for "a war on war" and advocated militant pacifism. As the conflict dragged into 1915, she became convinced that Lenin was right: only revolution could defeat war. In June 1915, she joined forces with him and for the next 20 months served as the Scandinavian link in Lenin's communications with Russia. She also made two trips to the United States in a vain attempt to find American allies for his defeatist policies.

Kollontai's commitment to Bolshevism became complete in 1917. In mid-March, two weeks after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna , Kollontai returned to Russia with several of Lenin's communications hidden in her underwear. She immediately called for the overthrow of the new Provisional Government and was the only Bolshevik initially to defend Lenin's April Theses. If she had a regret about his program, it was that the Bolshevik leader said nothing about appealing to working women who had been so instrumental in the spontaneous demonstrations against the tsar in February. She revived an idea which she had proposed ten years earlier that the party create a bureau to direct and coordinate Bolshevik work among women. Once again, the male leadership showed no interest in a scheme which they saw as politically divisive to proletarian unity and of little importance in time of revolution. Frustrated, Kollontai turned her energies to work in the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. Her oratorical skills, first demonstrated during the 1905 Revolution, were once again evident in the Soviet and at the various meetings she addressed in the capital. To the Western press, she was "the Valkyrie of the Revolution"; to the Provisional Government, she was "the mad Bolshevik" who they slapped into jail in July 1917 following a premature and unsuccessful Bolshevik uprising. Charged with being a German spy and spreading antiwar propaganda, she spent six weeks in prison and another three weeks under house arrest. In recognition of her abilities, however, the Sixth Party Congress elected her in absentia to the Bolshevik Central Committee in August 1917. She had the distinction not only of being the only woman so honored but also of receiving more votes than Joseph Stalin.

After the successful overthrow of the Provisional Government two months later, Kollontai's unique position in the party was recognized once again when she was the sole woman selected to sit on the new Council of People's Commissars and given the portfolio of social welfare. This suited her interests if not necessarily her talents. Given the chaos caused by the revolution—the hunger, the dislocation of families, the antagonism of many of the professional people she had to work with—this was a difficult assignment for a woman who had no administrative experience and very little organizational ability. As she later recalled, these early months of the new regime were "rich in magnificent illusions, plans, ardent initiatives to improve life, to organize the world anew, months of the real romanticism of the Revolution." As commissar of social welfare, she was instrumental in instituting full state funding for maternity leave and child care. Her commissariat set up state-run orphanages and abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. She backed efforts by the Council of People's Commissars to introduce legislation protecting female and child labor, to provide full political and legal equality for women, and to recognize civil marriage and divorce by mutual consent. Indeed, one of the first to take advantage of a civil ceremony was Kollontai herself when at the age of 45 she married Pavel Dybenko, a Bolshevik sailor of peasant origin who was now commissar of the navy and 17 years her junior.

Kollontai, who had rebelled against authority in her youth and was never subservient to party discipline, rebelled against Lenin in March 1918 when she joined the Left Communists in opposition to his proposed peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. It was "opportunism," she declared, to seek a "breathing spell" for Russia at the expense of world revolution. For her insubordination, Kollontai was removed from the Central Committee, and in despair she quit her post as commissar of social welfare.

In the fall of 1918, her attention turned once again to organizing Russian women. Together with Inessa Armand , a long-time Bolshevik and her sometime rival in the Russian women's movement, Kollontai organized the First All-Russian Congress of Working Women. The 1,147 delegates who showed up in Moscow in mid-November 1918 vastly exceeded expectations and restored her spirits. The resolutions passed reflected much of what Kollontai had been preaching since 1906, and the fact that even Lenin was in attendance seemed to indicate that for once the party leadership was listening to their voices. The congress reiterated her earlier calls that the party create a body to coordinate work among women. Less than a year later, Kollontai's long-sought women's bureau became a reality with the creation of Zhenotdel or the Women's Section of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party. The job of directing Zhenotdel, however, was initially given to the more restrained and reliable Armand. Upon Armand's death in the fall of 1920, Kollontai was named director. For the next year and a half, she fought bureaucratic obstructionism, traditional male hostility, and a lack of resources in her efforts to create child-care facilities, to rehabilitate prostitutes, and to draw Muslim women into everyday Soviet life. She also promoted what a later generation would call "affirmative action programs" to get women into leadership positions in trade unions, government departments, and the party itself. While her achievements fell short of her goals, the economic, political, and legal position of Soviet women changed dramatically as a result of her work, as well as that of Armand and a handful of other socialist feminists.

Kollontai's rebelliousness and her belief in a democratic form of socialism came to the fore again in 1921. Several months after taking over Zhenotdel, she joined the Workers' Opposition, a group of Left-wing Communists who served as "the conscience of the revolution" by criticizing the drift toward authoritarianism in the party and the lack of trade union democracy in the workplace. She used her writing talents to set down their complaints in a pamphlet entitled The Workers' Opposition. For this, she and her colleagues were sharply criticized by the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 and threatened with expulsion. When Kollontai continued to attack the party leadership, she was removed from her work in Zhenotdel in February 1922 and eight months later sent into political oblivion as a member of a Soviet trade delegation to Norway.

Kollontai remained abroad for most of the next 23 years, becoming the only important member of any opposition group to escape the purges. She spent 1923 writing semi-autobiographical novellas and articles dealing with erotic love and psychological problems associated with female liberation. Following renewed Soviet criticism of her views, she chose to concentrate on her diplomatic duties: first in Norway, then in Mexico, where she became the world's first female ambassador in 1926. She returned to Norway as ambassador in 1927, spending three years there, before being transferred to Sweden in 1930, where she represented Soviet interests for the next 15 years. Prompted by her own lifelong interest in Finland, she tried to seek diplomatic solutions to that country's conflicts with the Soviet Union in 1940 and again in 1944. After a distinguished career, Kollontai retired as dean of the diplomatic corps in 1945 to become a pensioner in Moscow. She died there, nearing the age of 80, on March 9, 1952.

Alexandra Kollontai did not receive the credit she deserved as a Marxist theorist, a socialist feminist, or as a Soviet diplomat during her lifetime. In her homeland, her Menshevik background and her opposition to Lenin were never forgiven until the Mikhail Gorbachev era. Her attempts to emancipate Soviet women were soon reversed by a Communist Party no longer interested even in paying lip service to women's liberation. Zhenotdel was closed by Stalin in 1930, and feminists such as Armand and Kollontai were quickly forgotten. In the West, popular attention was focused almost exclusively on Kollontai's colorful lifestyle. She wrote about free love and the sexual revolution and seemed to practice what she preached. She left her first husband after five years of marriage, had very public affairs with one married colleague and another 13 years her junior, and ended up marrying a 27-year old peasant-sailor when she was 45. Could such a woman—especially an attractive one of aristocratic birth who dressed flamboyantly and survived the purges in silence—be taken seriously? Titillation rather than scholarship was the norm when dealing with Kollontai until books by Barbara Clements, Beatrice Farnsworth , and Richard Stites appeared in the late 1970s. She is now recognized for what she was: a revolutionary sufficiently important to be a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee; the leading feminist in the early Soviet state; a surprisingly successful and durable diplomat; and a person whose writing on the psychological and sexual liberation of women is a significant contribution to the mainstream of 20th-century European feminism.


Clements, Barbara Evans. Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Farnsworth, Beatrice. Aleksandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism and the Bolshevik Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Kollontai, Alexandra. The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman. Edited by Irving Fetscher; translated from the German by Salvator Attanasio. NY: Schocken Books, 1971 (unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are taken from this source).

suggested reading:

Itkina, A.M. Revoliutsioner, Tribun, Diplomat: Stranitsy zhizni Aleksandry Mikhailovny Kollontai (Revolutionary, Tribune, Diplomat: Pages from the Life of Aleksandra Mikhailovna Kollontai). 2nd ed. Moscow, 1970.

Kollontai, A.M. Iz moei zhizni i raboty (From My Life and Work). Moscow, 1974.

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