In pre-revolutionary Russia, aristocratic women had little choice but to be expected to become faithful wives and devoted mothers, their lives revolving around domesticity and family duties. However, the Marxist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai showed that it was possible to follow a different path. At the age of 27, she joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Eventually, she became the most prominent woman in the Soviet administration following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, when she was appointed a diplomatic counsellor to the Soviet legation in Norway, being soon promoted to head of the legation – one of the first women to hold such a post.
Alexandra was born in 1872 in Saint Petersburg. Being a brilliant student while she grew up, Alexandra wanted to continue her education at a university, but her mother denied her request, arguing that women had no real need for higher education. Instead, Alexandra was allowed to take an exam to become a school teacher before making her way into society to find a husband, as was the custom at the time. She married her cousin Vladimir in 1893, and from this union a child was born. However, Alexandra soon felt constrained by married life and the couple separated. Years later, she wrote about her marriage, “We separated although we were in love because I felt trapped. I was detached [from Vladimir] because of the revolutionary upsettings rooted in Russia“.
Her political interests were triggered following a visit to a textile factory where she witnessed the appalling conditions endured by women workers. She became interested in Marxist ideas while studying the history of working movements and led a campaign to encourage women workers to fight for their own interests against their employers and against middle-class feminism. Being a committed Marxist, Kollontai opposed the ideology of liberal feminism, which she saw as bourgeois. She was a champion of women’s liberation, but she firmly believed that it “could take place only as the result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system“, and was wary that bourgeois feminists would continue to support their working class counterparts after succeeding in their struggle for “general women’s” rights, such as women’s suffrage.
As a Marxist feminist thinker, Kollontai is also known for her positions on love, sexuality and marriage. She believed that true socialism could not be achieved without a radical change in attitudes to sexuality, so that it might be freed from the oppressive norms that she saw as a continuation of bourgeois ideas about property. Kollontai believed that, like the state, the family unit would wither away once the second stage of communism became a reality. She viewed marriage and traditional families as legacies of the oppressive, property-rights-based, egoist past.
As a member of the revolutionary government, Kollontai played a major role in forcing the Russian socialist movement to organize special work among women and in organizing mass movements of working-class women and peasants, and was the author of much of the social legislation of the early Soviet republic. In the role of People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, she founded the Women’s Department, an organization that worked to improve the conditions of women’s lives in the Soviet Union, fighting illiteracy and educating women about the new marriage, education, and working laws brought about by the Revolution.
However, Kollontai became increasingly critical of the Communist Party and eventually lost political influence. She was appointed to various diplomatic positions from the 1920s, preventing her from playing any further role related to women policies at home, de facto being exiled as a diplomat while her views on the status of women were marginalized and trivialized in the USSR itself. In 1922, she was sent to Norway as the Soviet diplomatic envoy, becoming the world’s third woman serving in diplomacy in modern times. In early 1924 she was first promoted to Chargé d’affaires and from August to Minister Plenipotentiary. As such she later served in Mexico (1926–27), again in Norway (1927–30) and eventually in Sweden (1930–45), where she was finally promoted to Ambassador in 1943. Finally, she was also a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations. She retired in 1945, and from 1946 until her death in 1952, she was an advisor to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern