About Alexandra Kollontai

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Born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich was raised in relative luxury. Her father was a general in the Tsar’s army, and her mother, the daughter of a wealthy Finnish businessman, had fled an arranged marriage to be with Alexandra’s father, though she later promised Alexandra’s sister to a well-to-do man fifty years her senior. The young Alexandra abhorred the idea of being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Over her parents’ wishes, when she was 21 she married a poor cousin, Vladimir Kollontai, and bore him a son. But domestic life would never be enough for her.

A thoughtful Kollontai

A thoughtful Kollontai

The Emancipation Reform of 1861 had freed Russia’s serfs from their feudal masters and coincided with the rise of industrial capitalism, challenging the autocratic rule of Tsar Alexander II. Liberated peasants flocked to the urban areas, and cities like St. Petersburg teemed with former serfs with nothing but their labor to sell. The social upheavals of the late 19th century, and the growing influence of Marxism across Europe, inspired many opponents the Tsar, whose secret police dispatched countless would-be revolutionaries to the frozen lands of Siberia.

Kollontai seethed against the abhorrent conditions of the peasants, and began agitating with female textile workers in Saint Petersburg, distributing literature and raising money to support women-led strikes. She taught evening classes to workers and joined underground networks that aided political prisoners and socialists persecuted by the Tsarist regime. The historian Rochelle Ruthchild has written extensively about Tsarist Russia’s powerful feminist movement, but Alexandra Kollontai believed that these “bourgeois feminists” would not lift working-class women out of their misery. In her view, all poor people needed to work together to overthrow the Tsarist regime and take control of the means of production. Eventually, Kollontai left her husband and young son to pursue studies in economics at the University of Zurich.

Kollontai believed that women needed to participate in the labor force to become economically independent of men, but she also thought that women’s oppression had its roots in the family. In her 1909 pamphlet, “The Social Basis of the Woman Question,” Kollontai deconstructed these dynamics. “In the family of today, the structure of which is confirmed by custom and law, woman is oppressed not only as a person but as a wife and mother,” she observed, adding that in most countries, “the husband [has] not only the right to dispose of her property but also the right of moral and physical dominance over her.” With this in mind, she began to envision a new sexual morality that could liberate women from capitalism and patriarchy.

In Kollontai’s view, sexual relations between men and women were poisoned by the underlying economic considerations of both marriage and prostitution. With no means to support themselves, women had no choice but to sell themselves to men. In an ideal communist society, Kollontai argued, men and women would only engage in sexual relations out of true passion and mutual affection.

Kollontai as a young woman

Kollontai as a young woman

Upon returning to Russia, Kollontai began working with the Social Democratic Labor Party to organize female workers. While frustrated with the chauvinism she encountered among the socialist men in her milieu, Kollontai maintained that staying within the official party structure was the best way to “concentrate the attention of the party on the specific needs and requirements of women workers.” In this, she initially aligned herself with the more moderate Menshevik faction of the socialist movement, which advocated parliamentary reform over outright revolution. She also understood from experience that proletarian men didn’t really understand the place of “the woman question” within the larger socialist cause, and insisted that female socialists had a duty to educate them. Kollontai’s position was largely in line with that of other socialist women, such as Clara Zetkin in Germany, who insisted that women continue to work alongside men. The socialist women distrusted the separatism of the feminists because they feared that independent women’s movements would divide the working class and thus weaken its overall power. This insistence on working within the formal structures of power would eventually make Kollontai the most powerful woman in government.

Kollontai caught the attention of the Tsarist police for her political work, and in 1908 the prospect of a long prison sentence in Siberia forced her into exile. Until 1917, she toured Europe, where she wrote, agitated, lectured, and spent time in various prisons for her anti-war activism. In 1915, she spent five months delivering lectures on socialism, women’s rights, and pacifism in 4 different languages in 81 cities across the U.S. When World War I broke out, outraged by the hypocrisy of Europe’s newly hawkish Social Democrats, Kollontai threw in her lot with the Bolsheviks, who remained staunchly opposed to the “imperialist war.”

Kollontai returned to Russia in 1917 and gave her full support to the October Revolution, for which she was named Commissar of Social Welfare in mid-November. She held this ministerial position for five months, then resigned in protest against the appalling terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which brought an end to Russia’s involvement in World War I. During her brief tenure, however, Kollontai laid the groundwork for her signature accomplishment. With the help of a cadre of progressive Soviet jurists, she orchestrated the passage of two decrees: one replacing church marriage with civil marriage, and another liberalizing divorce. In October 1918, the highest legislative body of the Soviet Union incorporated these decrees into a new family law, which swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical authority over women’s lives. It eliminated church control over marriage and divorce, and overturned all legislation that rendered women the property and dependents of their fathers or husbands, making them the equal of men before the law. Married couples were no longer able to make claims on each other’s property, and married women retained complete control over their own wages. The new law also abolished the category of the “illegitimate” child, and included alimony provisions for those unable to work.

After the passage of this law, divorce rates skyrocketed as Russian women were finally free to leave abusive or unhappy relationships. Although Lenin cared little for Kollontai’s sexual politics, he agreed that women’s housework was unproductive for society at large, and understood that if the Revolution was to survive, women needed to formally be part of the labor force. This was simply a matter of maximizing economic output: under the existing system, if women were formally employed their wages were lower than men’s, and they were still responsible for unpaid housework. Russia had lost many men in World War I, and with civil war threatening to take many more, Bolshevik leaders needed to mobilize Russia’s women. According to Kollontai, the best way to do this was through the complete socialization of household labor.

Kollontai envisioned a vast network of communally run state laundries, cafeterias, clothes mending cooperatives, and children’s centers. Once freed from the duties of the home, women would be liberated to enter the public sphere on equal terms as men. At the time of the Russian Revolution, the vast majority of women were illiterate, steeped in centuries of ignorance. As women developed skills and talents, they would be able to earn their own incomes in professions now open to everyone. Financially independent women would be able to choose their romantic partners out of love and mutual affection rather than through the economic concerns that typified bourgeois marriages. From the party’s perspective, the promise to socialize housework would help win women’s support for the goals of the Revolution. “In most cases housework is the most unproductive, the most barbarous and the most arduous work a woman can do,” Lenin proclaimed in his September 23, 1919 speech to the Fourth Moscow City Conference of Non-Party Working Women. “It is exceptionally petty and does not include anything that would in any way promote the development of the woman.” The socialization of cooking, cleaning, and childrearing would also free up women’s labor so they could work beside men in building the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity.

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By 1919, the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party had committed to increasing the number of socialized laundries, cafeterias, and children’s homes, and Kollontai had helped found the Zhenotdel, a special women’s section within the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The following year, the Soviet Union became the first country in Europe to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In the early years of the Revolution, Alexandra Kollontai was a household name, subject to both glorious praise and intense ridicule. Her ideas and short stories about the new sexual morality were wildly insensitive to the traditional mores of the conservative Russian peasantry, who hated her and everything she stood for. But Kollontai’s vision was embraced by some Soviet youth in the 1920s. For instance, research conducted a survey of students at the Moscow Communist University in Sverdlov in 1922. Only five years after the decrees abolishing church marriage and liberalizing divorce, researchers discovered that only 21 percent of young men and 14 percent of young women believed that marriage was the best way to organize one’s sex life. Instead, half of the men and fully two-thirds of the women preferred a long-term relationship based on love and mutual affection.

The Soviet legislative changes were unprecedented not only in Russia, but also in Europe and North America. In the West, it would take more than six decades for women to achieve the same rights. Of course, Kollontai’s ideas were utopian, and as historians Elizabeth Wood and Wendy Goldman have documented, she never managed to completely overcome the obstacles to remaking Russian society. In the first place, Kollontai never had the full support of male comrades who worried that her insistence on women’s issues would fracture working class solidarity. Second, many Bolshevik leaders, especially Lenin, were prudish and conservative when it came to sexual matters, and disapproved of Kollontai’s more radical theories. Third, after years of war and the onset of a terrible famine, public laundries, canteens, and child care facilities proved too expensive for the crippled Soviet economy. Finally, and most significantly, the laws meant to liberate Russian women actually made their lives harder.

Women’s wages were not high enough to allow them to support their families without a husband. Liberalized divorce laws meant that men abandoned women at the first sign of a pregnancy, and alimony laws proved almost impossible to enforce. A liberalized sexual morality produced armies of unwanted children, which the state could not afford to support. Orphaned and abandoned children swarmed the streets of major cities. Legalized abortion allowed women to control their fertility, but precipitated a massive plunge in the birth rate. By 1926, many women, especially in rural areas, clamored for a return to old ways. The provisions of the 1918 family law were slowly reversed, and in 1936, Stalin did away with most of them altogether.

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After Kollontai joined the Worker’s Opposition and challenged the increasingly centralized bureaucracy of the Bolshevik state, she fell out of favor with Lenin. She was sent off into exile as the Soviet ambassador to Norway, but Kollontai never gave up her cause. In her 1926 memoir, Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, Kollontai assured readers, “No matter what further tasks I shall be carrying out, it is perfectly clear to me that the complete liberation of the working woman and the creation of the foundation of a new sexual morality will always remain the highest aim of my activity, and of my life.”

Stalin did maintain the legal equality of men and women, and the ideal of women’s emancipation never fully dissipated even though women continued to bear the immense burden of both formal employment and domestic work. Stalin needed women’s labor both inside and outside of the home to fulfill his five-year plans, but he also may have felt bound to uphold some of the foundational tenets of Marxism. Throughout the 1930s, Soviet women were slowly integrated into the armed forces, and they served in frontline combat roles throughout World War II, most famously in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. These “night witches” terrorized the Germans, flying over 30,000 stealth mode missions between 1941 and 1945. In West Europe, the Dutch allowed women to serve in combat roles in 1979, but the Germans did not allow this until 2001. American women did not earn the right to fight in combat positions until 2013. Between 1917 and the late 1960s, when American universities remained segregated by sex, the Soviet government encouraged girls to pursue higher degrees at co-educational institutions in all fields, including the normally male-dominated fields of science, technology, and math. For example, by 1970, women made up 43% of Romanians enrolled in engineering institutes, 39% of those in the USSR, and 27% of those in Bulgaria. By contrast, only 3.4% of US bachelor’s degrees in engineering were earned by women in 1976.

After World War II, state socialist nations in central and Eastern Europe followed the lead of the Soviet Union and implemented many new family laws inspired by the original 1918 Soviet Code. Because many leftist women fought alongside men as partisans during World War II, the new East European communist leaders were committed to the program for women’s emancipation. Facing severe labor shortages, they also required women’s labor outside the home. Women immediately gained legal equality with men, and socialist states poured resources into women’s education and professional development. For instance, in 1945, the vast majority of women in Albania could neither read nor write, but with a decade after the communists seized power, the whole population under the age of forty achieved full literacy. In the years before communism’s demise, a full half of all Albanian university students were women.  Thus, despite the authoritarian nature of the regimes, the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe had the highest female labor participation rates in the world, and women slowly worked their way into a wide variety of professions. In 2018, when the Financial Times published an article about the prevalence of Bulgarian women in technology, it openly credited this “Soviet legacy.”

Alexandra Kollontai spent much of her remaining life serving in ambassadorial posts in Norway, Mexico, and Sweden, before finally returning to the USSR after World War II. She enjoyed a long and celebrated diplomatic career and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in both 1946 and 1947. She died at the age of 79 in 1952, just a week before her 80th birthday and more than a decade before the explosion of women’s movements around the world.

Kollontai in Norway in the 1920s

Kollontai in Norway in the 1920s

In the sunset years of her life, Kollontai must have despaired for her failure to create the world she once envisioned. The Soviet Union was devastated after World War II, suffering more than 25 million casualties. Most of her Old Bolshevik colleagues and at least two of her lovers had been killed in Stalin’s purges. But after Stalin’s death, in Decree of 23 November 1955 the Soviet government repealed the general prohibition on the performance of abortions contained in the 1936 Decree. Two years later, the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite would set of a space race with the United States. Fearing that they were falling behind the Soviets, the Americans passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which explicitly encouraged the education of girls and women in math and science. In 1963 – the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and American women began to wake from their postwar suburban stupor, realizing how small and circumscribed their lives had become – the Soviet Union put the first woman in space. Valentina Tereshkova spent more time orbiting the planet than the cumulative time of all American astronauts. Despite the continuation of the double burden of formal employment and housework, and the persistence of Russian sexism, Soviet women continued to make inroads into every sphere of professional life, and, with the support of the state, earned their relative economic independence from men, at least when compared to their counterparts in the Western capitalist countries.

In the end, Kollontai’s schemes failed in the short term, but may have at least partially succeeded in the long run. While it is certainly impossible to wipe out centuries of sexism with a few administrative decrees, legal reforms are perhaps the best way to begin the process of reshaping intransigent beliefs and attitudes. For example, the 1918 liberalization of the divorce law certainly caused a lot of immediate upheaval, but the sheer number of Soviet women seeking to leave unhappy unions revealed the extent to which women were trapped by the institution of marriage. In a society where matrimony was an unbreakable, church-sanctioned religious contract, husbands had no incentive to improve their behavior toward their wives. But when the state not only allows for divorce, but also gives women the education and opportunities to pursue their own livelihoods and to control their fertility, men have much greater incentives to improve their behavior. And if they don’t, women suffer fewer social or economic consequences for leaving unsatisfactory relationships and striking out on their own.

Perhaps Kollontai’s mistake was miscalculating the backlash her Decrees would face not only from men, but also from women who feared the upheavals of radical social change. People cannot be emancipated unless they realize that they are enslaved, and too few women in Kollontai’s day shared her view that marriage was an outdated institution that reduced women to the status of commodities to be bought and sold. Kollontai, like many of her Bolshevik colleagues, failed to understand that lasting social progress requires equal parts bottom-up cultural change and top-down legal reform, with both playing off each other in an ongoing dialectic relationship. But perhaps what Kollontai got right is that certain societal transformations – such as the dismantling of entrenched sexism and the full emancipation of women – cannot be left to the efforts of the grassroots. They need to be jump started with a little bit of legal shock therapy from above.

Text by: Kristen R. Ghodsee

An abbreviated version of this essay was publish in the World Policy Journal on 2 June 2018