Stasova, Elena (1873–1966)

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Stasova, Elena (1873–1966)

Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and Communist leader. Pronunciation: Stas-O-va. Born Elena Dmitrievna Stasova into an aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 15, 1873; died in Moscow on December 31, 1966; daughter of Dmitri Vasilievich Stasov (a lawyer) and Poliksena Stepanovna Stasova (a well-known feminist); niece of Nadezhda Stasova (1822–1895).

Taught among the poor and joined revolutionary movement (1890s); avoided capture by the police for five years; joined V.I. Lenin's group; exiled to Siberia (1913–16); did not participate in October revolution (1917); was elected secretary of Bolshevik Party Central Committee (1919); resigned post in protest (1920); worked in Germany for Comintern (1921–25); worked for MOPR (1927–37); served as editor of International Literature (1938–46); retired (1946) and was briefly imprisoned but continued to speak out on basic political issues; long honored as one of the last of the Old Bolsheviks.

Born into an aristocratic family of dissidents on October 15, 1873, Elena Dmitrievna Stasova grew up in a time of intense political, intellectual and artistic ferment. Her father Dmitri Vasilievich Stasov was a prominent lawyer who often defended revolutionaries in court, while her mother Poliksena Stepanovna Stasova was one of tsarist Russia's most outspoken feminists. Elena's aunt was Nadezhda Stasova , a pioneer feminist, and an uncle, Vladimir Stasov, was Russia's first professional art critic. Surrounded by brilliant women and men, Elena Stasova received an excellent education at home from tutors and later at an exclusive girls' gymnasium. Her career goal early in life was to become a physician.

The turbulent political scene quickly caught Stasova's attention after her graduation. She taught classes to poor workers and in this way came in contact with a growing revolutionary movement. Appalled by the living conditions of the urban working class and seeing no hope for reform from above, by 1898 Stasova had chosen to become a professional revolutionary. Quickly revealing a strong practical bent, she was a master of the nuts and bolts of building and maintaining a professional organization. Stasova's talents were crucial in fostering the survival and growth of the illegal Social Democratic revolutionary organization. A stern disciplinarian, she regarded mushy Romanticism as dangerous to the party and, because of her impatience with incompetence and sloth, earned the party name "Comrade Absolute" (Tovarishch Absoliut), an alias she would bear with pride. Stasova avoided capture for five years, a remarkable record in tsarist Russia. She possessed a rock-hard sense of political morality and well-honed technical skills in revolutionary work. When functioning for the party in Tiflis, she broke with the Caucasus branch because of its emphasis on terrorism.

Stasova temporarily quit revolutionary activity to work as an elementary schoolteacher. Within a short time, however, she returned to the revolutionary movement. Arrested, she was sentenced to exile in Siberia, living there from 1913 until 1916. On hand for the collapse of tsarism in early 1917, she quickly became a jack-of-all-trades for the revived Bolshevik Party, helping to bring a moribund organization back to life. On the eve of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, she found herself frozen out of the center of power by Yakov Sverdlov and others. Only in March 1919 did she return to power, when she was elected secretary of the Bolshevik Party's Central Committee. By March 1920, she had decided to resign in protest over intrigues she regarded as directed against her. Despite Stasova's superb credentials, she would never again hold a party post that wielded genuine authority. When she applied for a post in the important Orgburo, a unit in charge of personnel, she was turned down because she "lacked experience."

Stasova spent the years 1921–26 in Germany as a Comintern (Communist International) representative, attempting to create a unified revolutionary organization out of many hostile factions. Her conspiratorial experiences in Russia were useful in Germany, where because of her reputation for irreproachable honesty she was placed in charge of the party treasury. Her often abrasive personality sometimes brought on clashes with her German comrades, but all attested to her skills as a revolutionary organizer. In 1927, following her return to Moscow, she accepted a leadership post in the MOPR organization, which assisted imprisoned and exiled revolutionaries. Alert to the dangers of Fascism, in 1934 she was a founding member of the Women's Committee Against War and Fascism. After a decade of service with MOPR, in 1938 Stasova took on a new post, doing editorial work for International Literature—a journal in the forefront of anti-Fascist propaganda at that time—publishing the writings of, among others, Anna Seghers , Alex Wedding, and Bertolt Brecht.

Remarkably, Elena Stasova, a woman universally known (and feared by some) for her Bolshevik integrity, survived the bloody Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Having been effectively pushed out the center of power in the early years of the revolution, she was no longer regarded as a

threat. Her honesty and idealism remained intact as she grew older and observed the massive perversions of her youthful ideals by the party when it achieved unchallenged power. Her retirement in 1946, once attributed to her declining health, is now believed to have been forced by Joseph Stalin, who despite Stasova's age had her imprisoned for eight months as a serious warning. After Stalin's death in 1953, she enjoyed immense prestige among a dwindling band of Old Bolsheviks fortunate enough to have survived the purges. Having been horrified by the terror of the 1930s, she now devoted her energies to rehabilitating the reputations of those killed by Stalin. Stasova was also active after 1953 in rendering assistance to those individuals who had survived the gulag system, so that they might begin to restore their lives. In 1961, she daringly signed a petition to the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, asking it to rehabilitate the memory of Nikolai Bukharin, purged and murdered by Stalin in 1938. A Marxist idealist even in her last years, she feared that if young people were to learn the full extent of the crimes committed in the name of Communism, the next generation would lose faith in the system and its philosophical underpinnings. Refusing to consider that her belief may have been fatally flawed, she died in Moscow on December 31, 1966, still believing that the ideal of a Socialist society could one day be achieved.


Clements, Barbara Evans. "Stasova, Elena Dmitrievna (1873–1966)," in Joseph L. Wieczynski, ed., The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 37. Sea Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1984, pp. 98–101.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1971.

Hornstein, David P. Arthur Ewert: A Life for the Comintern. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993.

"Pioneers of the Revolution," in Culture and Life [Moscow]. No. 1, 1967, pp. 14–15.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Stasova, Elena (1873–1966)

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