Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was a significant figure in the Bolshevik party during the revolution and probably the most influential female in the new Soviet society. Born Alexandra¬†Domontovich in 1872, the young Kollontai belonged to a family of liberal aristocrats. Precocious and rebellious from an early age, she married young to a struggling engineer named Vladimir Kollontai. After touring a massive textiles factory in 1896, the young Mrs Kollontai made the decision to leave her husband and infant child and devote herself to Marxist politics. The barbaric living and labour conditions of the mostly female workers later led her to write that “women, their fate, occupied me all my life; the lot of women pushed me to socialism.”

From this point, Kollontai considered the processes of socialist revolution and women’s liberation to be inseparable. She recognised that for women to participate equally in society, their second-class standing as workers must be eliminated. Other leaders of the Russian Revolution had made similar connections, including Lenin, Trotsky, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya. The Bolshevik commitment to elevating the status of women was passed in large part to Kollontai, who helped write many of the Soviet laws legalising abortion, divorce, birth control, even homosexuality. Prostitution was also decriminalized, while the legal concept of illegitimacy was banished. The Soviet Union became one of the first countries to grant women voting rights.

Kollontai was not only concerned with the rights of women, however. In government, she became increasingly critical of the Communist Party, its heavy-handed management of factories and its treatment of workers. She joined with her friend, Alexander Shlyapnikov, then Commissar for Labour, to form a faction later known as the Workers’ Opposition. Her 1921 pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition called for members of the party to be allowed to freely discuss policy issues, while it demanded greater political freedom for trade unionists. She also advocated that before the government attempts to “rid Soviet institutions of the bureaucracy that lurks within them, the Party must first rid itself of its own bureaucracy.”

This attack on the Bolshevik hierarchy spelt the end of Kollantai’s political career. At the Tenth Party Congress in 1922, Vladimir Lenin proposed a resolution that would ban all factions within the party. He argued that factions within the party were “harmful” and encouraged rebellions such as the Kronstadt Rising. The Party Congress agreed with Lenin and the Workers’ Opposition was dissolved. Kollontai was later shipped off by Stalin to serve in a diplomatic post abroad. She survived Stalin’s purges and show trials, perhaps because of her gender, her great popularity and her prominence within the party. She retired to Moscow where she died in 1952.

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