Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a significant figure in the Bolshevik party during the Russian Revolution. She became arguably the most influential female in the new Soviet society.
Born Alexandra Domontovich in 1872, her father was a former tsarist general, her mother the daughter of a minor nobleman. Both her parents were said to possess progressive political views.
Alexandra herself was precocious and rebellious from a young age, ideas inherited from her parents and one of her tutors, Maria Strakhova. At 18, Alexandra ran away from home to marry one of her distant cousins, a handsome but struggling engineer named Vladimir Kollontai. She had her first child, a son, the following year.
After touring a massive textiles factory in 1896, Kollontai decided to leave her husband and infant child and devote herself to Marxist politics. The barbaric living and labour conditions of the mostly female workers led her to write that “women, their fate, occupied me all my life; the lot of women pushed me to socialism.”
After studying abroad, Kollontai joined the Social Democrats in 1898. She sided with the Mensheviks after the party split in 1903. Despite this, she mixed regularly with Vladimir Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya and other Bolshevik figures. She also had a long affair with promising Bolshevik figure Alexander Shlyapnikov, who was 13 years her junior.
Kollontai’s writing and passionate lectures during this period often focused on the connection between socialist revolution and the emancipation of women. For women to participate equally in society, Kollontai argued, their second-class standing as workers had to be eliminated. Others had made similar connections, including her Marxist comrades Krupskaya and Inessa Armand.
In June 1915, Kollontai left the Mensheviks and sided with the Leninists. She returned to Petrograd after the February Revolution, sat on the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet and produced Bolshevik and feminist propaganda. She backed Lenin’s April 1917 call for a Soviet revolution and was arrested during the ‘July Days‘.
After the October Revolution, Lenin appointed Kollontai the Commissar of Social Welfare. In this role, she helped construct Soviet reforms that legalised abortion, divorce and birth control. 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.
In 1919, Kollontai and Inessa Armand formed Zhenotdel, a Soviet government department dedicated to the rights and needs of women. Kollontai took over the leadership of Zhenotdel after Armand’s death in 1920.
Kollontai was not only concerned with the rights of women. In government, she became increasingly critical of the Communist Party, its growing bureaucracy and its heavy-handed management of factories and workers. Along with her former lover Shlyapnikov, then Commissar for Labour, Kollontai appeared at the head of a faction that shared these criticisms.
Kollontai’s 1921 pamphlet “The Workers’ Opposition” called for party members and trade unions to have the freedom to discuss policy issues. 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 to ban factionalism within the party. He argued that factions were “harmful” and only encouraged rebellions such as the Kronstadt Rising. The Congress agreed with Lenin and the Workers’ Opposition was dissolved.
Soon after this, Kollontai was effectively sidelined by being given diplomatic posts abroad. She worked as a Soviet diplomat or ambassador in several countries, including Norway, Sweden and Mexico. After retirement, Kollontai retired to Moscow where she died in 1952.