Alexander Kollontai on her social reforms (1926)

Alexandra Kollontai wrote her autobiography in 1926, however because of Stalinist censorship it was not published until decades later. In this extract she summarises her work as a commissar [minister] in the Soviet government and the social reforms she helped to implement:

“The Soviet Government was formed. I was appointed People’s Commissar of Social Welfare. I was the only woman in the cabinet and the first woman in history who had ever been recognised as a member of a government.

When one recalls the first months of the Workers’ Government, months which were so rich in magnificent illusions, plans, ardent initiatives to improve life, to organise the world anew, months of the real romanticism of the Revolution, one would in fact like to write about all else rather than about one’s self.

I occupied the post of Minister of Social Welfare from October of 1917 to March of 1918… It was an extraordinarily complicated operation. It included the whole welfare program for the war-disabled, hence for hundreds of thousands of crippled soldiers and officers, the pension system in general, foundling homes, homes for the aged, orphanages, hospitals for the needy, the work-shops making artificial limbs, the administration of playing-card factories (the manufacture of playing cards was a State monopoly), the educational system, clinical hospitals for women. In addition, a whole series of educational institutes for young girls were also under the direction of this Ministry.

One can easily imagine the enormous demands these tasks made upon a small group of people who, at the same time, were novices in State administration. With a clear awareness of these difficulties, I immediately formed an auxiliary council, in which experts such as physicians, jurists, pedagogues were represented alongside the workers and the minor officials of the Ministry. The sacrifice, the energy with which the minor employees bore the burden of this difficult task was truly exemplary.

It was not only a matter of keeping the work of the Ministry going but also of initiating reforms and improvements. New, fresh forces replaced the sabotaging officers of the old regime. A new life stirred in the offices of the formerly highly conservative Ministry. Days of gruelling work! And at night the sessions of the councils of the People’s Commissar [Sovnarkom meetings] under Lenin’s chairmanship. A small, modest room and only one secretary who recorded the resolutions which changed Russia’s life to its most basic foundations.

My first act as a People’s Commissar was to compensate a small peasant for his requisitioned horse. By no stretch of the imagination was this one of the functions of my office. But the man was determined to receive compensation for his horse. He had travelled from his distant village to the capital and had knocked patiently on the doors of all the ministries – always with no results. Then the Bolshevik revolution broke out. The man had heard that the Bolsheviks were in favour of the workers and peasants. So he went to the Smolny Institute, to Lenin, who had to pay out the compensation. I do not know how the conversation between Lenin and the small peasant went. As a result of it, however, the man came to me with a small page torn from Lenin’s notebook on which I was requested to settle the matter somehow. The small peasant received his compensation.

My main work as People’s Commissar consisted in the following: by decree to improve the situation of the war-disabled; to abolish religious instruction in the schools for young girls which were under the Ministry (this was still before the general separation of Church and State); and to transfer priests to the civil service; to introduce the right of self-administration for pupils in the schools for girls; to reorganise the former orphanages into government Children’s Homes (no distinction was to be made between orphaned children and those who still had fathers and mothers); to set up the first hostels for the needy and street-urchins; to convene a committee, composed only of doctors, which was to be commissioned to elaborate the free public health system for the whole country.

In my opinion, the most important accomplishment of the People’s Commissariat, however, was the legal foundation of a Central Office for Maternity and Infant Welfare. The draft of the bill relating to this was signed by me in January of 1918. A second decree followed in which I changed all maternity hospitals into free Homes for Maternity and Infant Care, in order thereby to set the groundwork for a comprehensive government system of prenatal care. I was greatly assisted in coping with these tasks by Dr Korolef. We also planned a “Pre-Natal Care Palace,” a model home with an exhibition room in which courses for mothers would be held and, among many other things, model day nurseries were also to be established.

We were just about completing preparations for such a facility in the building of a girls’ boarding school at which formerly young girls of the nobility had been educated and which was still under the direction of a countess, when a fire destroyed our work, which had barely begun! Had the fire been set deliberately? I was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. I rushed to the scene of the fire; the beautiful exhibition room was totally ruined, as were all the other rooms. Only the huge name-plate “Pre-Natal Care Palace” still hung over the entrance door.

My efforts to nationalise maternity and infant care set off a new wave of insane attacks against me. All kinds of lies were related about the “nationalization of women,” about my legislative proposals which assertedly ordained that little girls of 12 were to become mothers. A special fury gripped the religious followers of the old regime when, on my own authority… I transformed the famous Alexander Nevsky monastery into a home for war invalids. The monks resisted and a shooting fray ensued. The press again raised a loud hue and cry against me. The Church organized street demonstrations against my action… I received countless threatening letters, but I never requested military protection. I always went out alone, unarmed and without any kind of a bodyguard. In fact, I never gave a thought to any kind of danger, being all too engrossed in matters of an utterly different character.”