Meeting Alexandra Kollontai

— Abra Quinn

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Wikipedia was several years ago when I was looking up some female Bolsheviks — there was very little about them by way of normal Googling, and I had never tried this collective online encyclopedia before.

I got quite a surprise, when reading the page on Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, to see that apparently, in Switzerland, she had many affairs with other revolutionaries and liked to take it up the ass. At that point, I did not know that people tussled for amusement over what is written in Wikipedia, and sometimes fought back and forth over articles, maliciously defacing them.

The thing is, apart from the language, which I just thought was funny, a part of me really wanted that raunchy fact to be TRUE. It seemed the most hilarious instance of revolutionary “personal-is-political” that I’d encountered, and the Bolsheviks aren’t known for their racy sex lives, sadly. I liked imagining a circle of nonmonogamous revolutionaries, all sleeping together in Berne, or wherever, in the 1900s.

Of course it wasn’t true, and as soon as I had sent the link to friends, the vulgar sentences disappeared. But I went ahead and read more about women revolutionaries in Wikipedia, and in fact, despite occasional skirmishes over things like Krupskaya’s alleged taste for anal sex, I am a very strong defender of the online encyclopedia.

I’m a teacher, and I am fine with my middle-school students using it as one source among several others, the majority of the rest of which need to be written and published. More often than not, Wikipedia articles are well-researched and provide a good background on almost any subject.

One thing, however, stayed with me after that search — Russian women revolutionaries are poorly served by Wikipedia. We badly need more leftist armchair scholars to prepare Wikipedia articles. The article on Krupskaya is quite good now — very different from the one I looked at years ago — with intriguing facts I did not know, such as her support for a national public library system after the revolution, and her interest in Tolstoy’s educational theories (which sound excellent compared to No Child Left Behind’s current obsession with strait-jacketing test scores and boxed curricula).

But the article on Alexandra Kollontai? Oh, disaster. It was only a stub the first time I looked at it, and I thought that someone, maybe even I, should write a better one. Today, it is a bit longer and has more personal and political detail about the Russian revolutionary who comes closest to socialist feminism. But it does not even mention her biggest claim to fame, which is the novel she wrote in the 1920s as a deliberate piece of agitprop aimed at women workers, Love of Worker Bees.

As the daughter of revolutionary marxists, and an aspiring revolutionary myself, I was given that exact novel at least three times by different comrades and friends of my parents. I’m glad to own multiple copies, all inscribed with political hopes for me. And I am glad to share the novel now, with a new generation of revolutionaries and feminists who may not have encountered it before. Kollontai’s work is still relevant, and still one of the best demonstrations of how the personal is political.

Kollontai’s Life and Message

Alexandra Kollontai was born in 1872, the daughter of Russian nobles, her father a general and her mother a wealthy timber heiress, though Alexandra was later prone to describing her mother as of a much lower social class than her father — and thus, a spur to her own developing politics. She studied languages at the secondary level, the gymnasium, and married a young Tsarist captain, Vladimir Kollontai.

Her satisfaction at having made a love match rather than an arranged marriage soured as she discovered that — in terms very similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilman — she felt stifled by marriage and motherhood, and longed to write, to be active in the political ferment growing in Russia. In her mid-20s, she abandoned her husband and son and worked with the Russian Social Democrats. Finally, though with some criticisms, by 1914 she had joined the Bolsheviks.

She was an early supporter of the revolution, one of the few — along with Leon Trotsky — who called for a revolutionary uprising against Kerensky’s government. But she always remained singular, with individual opinions that clashed with the majority. She opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, because she believed it abandoned Finland to the counterrevolutionary White Russians. And from the beginning, from her earliest political activity, she saw revolutionary politics as feminist politics, and women’s questions as revolutionary questions.

After the Revolution, Kollontai was active in the national women’s commission — it had one of the few actually euphonious SovWord names, the Zhenotdel — but her engagement with women workers who were often outside the Bolshevik party structure and her continued interest in supporting alternatives to democratic centralism brought her into leadership of the Workers’ Opposition. She strongly opposed the New Economic Policy, believing that it led inevitably to the corruption of a post-capitalist economy and state.

She is singular in that despite her oppositional stance, she was not purged and executed by Stalin after he came to power. Instead, she became the ambassador to Finland, and held various diplomatic posts outside the Soviet Union until her death in 1952. As Kollontai was known to have sympathized with the anti-Stalinist opposition led by Trotsky, this softened form of political exclusion by means of an honorable exile stands alone.

Kollontai was one of the very, very few to interrogate the relations between the sexes, and questions of gender and sexual equality or inequality. Again, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was active and writing during the same period in the United States, she explored the connections between economic questions and social relations between men and women, the development and meaning of the family in society, and the fulfillment of women.

Gilman wrote about her own thoughts in the novel Herland, which imagined a gynotopia of parthenogenically reproducing women, and in a sort of laywoman’s political treatise called Women and Economics.

Kollontai gave endless speeches — 123 alone during one 1915 tour of the United States — wrote articles for periodicals, many of which can be read on the Marxist Archives website (http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollontai), and wrote a triptych of fictional pieces in 1927 that together were called Love of Worker Bees.

She deliberately wrote the novel in very simplified Russian, wanting it to be accessible to the working women she depicted in the novel. It is not a literary masterpiece, but it takes up questions which were rarely discussed: how does a woman revolutionary reconcile her personal life and her political life? What are the most important revolutionary changes to be made to make society work better on the scale of human daily lives? How far can the individual succeed in making such changes?

What forms of emotional and sexual relationships between individuals are, or at least can be, liberatory, and what seem sacred and almost “natural,” but very often become entangling traps?

The three stories in Love of Worker Bees are not easy to read; the tone is bleak. Along with exploring gender in the emerging post-revolutionary society, Kollontai also drew a scathing and frustrated picture of Lenin’s attempt to prevent total economic collapse, the 1921 New Economic Policy, which reintroduced some elements of the market in order to boost production.

The main protagonist, Vassilisa’s lover Volodya, was an anarchist with experience in the American IWW, and has become a NEPman, corrupted by access to scarce commodities. Vasya is horrified by this, but deeply in love with him, and the conflict is central to Kollontai’s notion that the basis for a woman’s happiness cannot be dependent upon a love relationship. Kollontai sketches her ideas out in one of the two shorter stores, “Three Lives” which looks at how three generations of women deal with the question of relationships, before, during and after the revolution.

I won’t summarize the whole novel —I hope people who have not read it yet will choose to do so.

Kollontai wrote one other novel, which is also somewhat depressing in its depiction of a woman living for a male revolutionary.  This roman à clef, ironically titled A Great Love, was controversial because many people knew that it was Kollontai’s perspective on Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin’s) long affair with Inessa Armand. The overwrought romanticism of the Armand character’s emotional dependence on the ascetic and of course endlessly busy revolutionary is hard to read.

Apparently the affair was countenanced by Nadezhda Krupskaya, even if she didn’t take up her own lovers in Switzerland.

SOURCES THAT SHOULD BE CONSULTED for background and context and enjoyment:

“Reds,” the 1981 film by Warren Beatty, which shows a woman with much the same set of concerns, Louise Bryant. On the Wikipedia page for Alexandra Kollontai, one of the few photos is a signed carte de visite — a personal photo of Kollontai — inscribed to Louise Bryant as a dear comrade.

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, originally a serial story in Forerunner magazine between 1909 and 1915.

Love of Worker Bees (1927) and A Great Love (1929) by Alexandra Kollontai.

Comrade and Lover, Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters to Leo Jogiches, translated and edited by Elzbieta Ettinger (1979). This collection of personal and political letters is the single work which made me as much a feminist as a marxist in my early 20s, completing the job begun by Alexandra Kollontai. The letters accomplished this largely by revealing the difficult emotional life of a revolutionary icon who consciously refused to work on “women’s questions.” I highly recommend it.

ATC 139, March-April 2009

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