Alexandra Kollontai

Soviet diplomat (1872-1952)

Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai (Russian: Алекса́ндра Миха́йловна Коллонта́й — née Domontovich, Домонто́вич; 31 March (O.S. 19 March) 1872 – 9 March 1952) was a Russian Communist revolutionary, first as a member of the Mensheviks, then from 1915 on as a Bolshevik. In 1922, Kollontai 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.

I always believed that the time inevitably must come when woman will be judged by the same moral standards applied to man. For it is not her specific feminine virtue that gives her a place of honor in human society, but the worth of the useful mission accomplished by her, the worth of her personality as human being, as citizen, as thinker, as fighter.

Quotes edit

  • 'Women's Day' is a link in the long, solid chain of the women's proletarian movement. The organised army of working women grows with every year. Twenty years ago the trade unions contained only small groups of working women scattered here and there among the ranks of the workers party... Now English trade unions have over 292 thousand women members; in Germany around 200 thousand are in the trade union movement and 150 thousand in the workers party, and in Austria there are 47 thousand in the trade unions and almost 20 thousand in the party. Everywhere – in Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland – the women of the working class are organising themselves. The women's socialist army has almost a million members. A powerful force! A force that the powers of this world must reckon with when it is a question of the cost of living, maternity insurance, child labour and legislation to protect female labour.
    There was a time when working men thought that they alone must bear on their shoulders the brunt of the struggle against capital, that they alone must deal with the 'old world' without the help of their womenfolk. However, as working-class women entered the ranks of those who sell their labour, forced onto the labour market by need, by the fact that husband or father is unemployed, working men became aware that to leave women behind in the ranks of the 'non-class-conscious' was to damage their cause and hold it back. The greater the number of conscious fighters, the greater the chances of success. What level of consciousness is possessed by a woman who sits by the stove, who has no rights in society, the state or the family? She has no 'ideas' of her own! Everything is done as ordered by the father or husband...
    • "Women's Day", (17 February, 1913)
  • There are individuals – a mere handful in the history of mankind – who, while themselves being the product of an imminent catastrophic change, leave their mark upon an entire epoch. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is one such giant mind, one such giant will...
    However mighty such giants of history may be, the universal-general principle that they symbolise and embody dissolves all the narrowly individual. The ordinary measuring rod of the qualities, failings and passions characteristic of the people of that age is not applicable to them. It is not a question of the personal characteristics of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but what he symbolises... He has gathered to himself like a magnet everything in the revolution that is expressive of will, power, ruthless destruction and constructive persistence. Everyone who values what the workers' revolution brings with it in its cleansing whirlwind cannot but value and cherish its symbol, its embodiment – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
    • "A Giant Mind, a Giant Will"
  • One must write not only for oneself. But for others. For those far-away, unknown women who will live then. Let them see that we were not heroines or heroes at all. But we believed passionately and ardently.
    • Quoted by Margaret S Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (1981)

The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman (1926) edit

The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman (1926), Translated by Salvator Attanasio, Herder and Herder, 1971.
  • Nothing is more difficult than writing an autobiography. What should be emphasized? Just what is of general interest? It is advisable, above all, to write honestly and dispense with any of the conventional introductory protestations of modesty. For if one is called upon to tell about one's life so as to make the events that made it what it became useful to the general public, it can mean only that one must have already wrought something positive in life, accomplished a task that people recognize. Accordingly it is a matter of forgetting that one is writing about oneself, of making an effort to abjure one's ego so as to give an account, as objectively as possible, of one's life in the making and of one's accomplishments.
  • By looking back while prying, simultaneously, into the future, I will also be presenting to myself the most crucial turning points of my being and accomplishments. In this way I may succeed in setting into bold relief that which concerns the women's liberation struggle and, further, the social significance which it has. That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model, that I would have to grow beyond myself in order to be able to discern my life's true line of vision was an awareness that was mine already in my youngest years. At the same time I was also aware that in this way I could help my sisters to shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice to the extent, of course, that social and economic circumstances permit. I always believed that the time inevitably must come when woman will be judged by the same moral standards applied to man. For it is not her specific feminine virtue that gives her a place of honor in human society, but the worth of the useful mission accomplished by her, the worth of her personality as human being, as citizen, as thinker, as fighter. Subconsciously this motive was the leading force of my whole life and activity. To go my way, to work, to struggle, to create side by side with men, and to strive for the attainment of a universal human goal (for nearly thirty years, indeed, I have belonged to the Communists) but, at the same time, to shape my personal, intimate life as a woman according to my own will and according to the given laws of my nature. It was this that conditioned my line of vision.
  • I have succeeded in structuring my intimate life according to my own standards and I make no secret of my love experiences anymore than does a man. Above all, however, I never let my feelings, the joy or pain of love take the first place in my life inasmuch as creativity, activity, struggle always occupied the foreground.
  • I managed to become a member of a government cabinet, of the first Bolshevik cabinet in the years 1917/18. I am also the first woman ever to have been appointed ambassadress, a post which I occupied for three years and from which I resigned of my own free will. This may serve to prove that woman certainly can stand above the conventional conditions of the age. The World War, the stormy, revolutionary spirit now prevalent in the world in all areas has greatly contributed to blunting the edge of the unhealthy, overheated double standard of morality. We are already accustomed not to make overly taxing demands, for example, on actresses and women belonging to the free professions in matters relating to their married life. Diplomacy, however, is a caste which more than any other maintains its old customs, usages, traditions, and, above all, its strict ceremonial. The fact that a woman, a "free," a single woman was recognized in this position without opposition shows that the time has come when all human beings will be equally appraised according to their activity and their general human dignity.
  • When I was appointed as Russian envoy to Oslo, I realized that I had thereby achieved a victory not only for myself, but for women in general and indeed, a victory over their worst enemy, that is to say, over conventional morality and conservative concepts of marriage. ... What is of a wholly special significance here is that a woman, like myself, who has settled scores with the double standard and who has never concealed it, was accepted into a caste which to this very day staunchly upholds tradition and pseudo-morality. Thus the example of my life can also serve to dispel the old goblin of the double standard also from the lives of other women. And this is a most crucial point of my own existence, which has a certain social-psychological worth and contributes to the liberation struggle of working women.
  • I am still far from being the type of the positively new women who take their experience as females with a relative lightness and, one could say, with an enviable superficiality, whose feelings and mental energies are directed upon all other things in life but sentimental love feelings. After all I still belong to the generation of women who grew up at a turning point in history. Love with its many disappointments, with its tragedies and eternal demands for perfect happiness still played a very great role in my life. An all-too-great role! It was an expenditure of precious time and energy, fruitless and, in the final analysis, utterly worthless. We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labor power which was dissipated in barren emotional experiences. It is certainly true that we, myself as well as many other activists, militants and working women contemporaries, were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center. Nevertheless we would have been able to create and achieve much more had our energies not been fragmentized in the eternal struggle with our egos and with our feelings for another. It was, in fact, an eternal defensive war against the intervention of the male into our ego, a struggle revolving around the problem-complex: work or marriage and love? We, the older generation, did not yet understand, as most men do and as young women are learning today, that work and the longing for love can be harmoniously combined so that work remains as the main goal of existence. Our mistake was that each time we succumbed to the belief that we had finally found the one and only in the man we loved, the person with whom we believed we could blend our soul, one who was ready fully to recognize us as a spiritual-physical force. But over and over again things turned out differently, since the man always tried to impose his ego upon us and adapt us fully to his purposes. Thus despite everything the inevitable inner rebellion ensued, over and over again since love became a fetter. We felt enslaved and tried to loosen the love-bond. And after the eternally recurring struggle with the beloved man, we finally tore ourselves away and rushed toward freedom. Thereupon we were again alone, unhappy, lonesome, but free–free to pursue our beloved, chosen ideal Fortunately young people, the present generation, no longer have to go through this kind of struggle which is absolutely unnecessary to human society. Their abilities, their work-energy will be reserved for their creative activity. Thus the existence of barriers will become a spur.
  • I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life.
  • Not a single one of the men who were close to me has ever had a direction-giving influence on my inclinations, strivings, or my world-view. On the contrary, most of the time I was the guiding spirit. I acquired my view of life, my political line from life itself, and in uninterrupted study from books.
  • The vehement struggle between the two factions of the Russian Workers Party broke out anew: the Bolsheviks on the one side, the Mensheviks on the other. In 1908 I belonged to the Menshevik faction, having been forced thereto by the hostile position taken by the Bolsheviks towards the Duma, a pseudo-Parliament called by the Czar in order to Pacify the rebellious spirits of the age. Although with the Mensheviks I espoused the point of view that even a pseudo-Parliament should be utilized as a tribute for our Party and that the elections for the Duma must be used as an assembling point for the working class. But I did not side with the Mensheviks on the question of coordinating the forces of the workers with the Liberals in order to accelerate the overthrow of absolutism. On this point I was, in fact, very left-radical and was even branded as a "syndicalist" by my Party comrades. Given my attitude towards the Duma it logically followed that I considered it useless to exploit the first bourgeois women's congress in the interest of our Party. Nevertheless I worked with might and main to assure that our women workers, who were to participate in the Congress, emerged as an independent and distinct group. I managed to carry out this plan but not without opposition. My Party comrades accused me and those women-comrades who shared my views of being "feminists" and of placing too much emphasis on matters of concern to women only. At the time there was still no comprehension at all of the extraordinarily important role in the struggle devolving upon self-employed professional women. Nevertheless our will prevailed.
  • It must be admitted that, although I possessed a certain degree of ambition, like every other active human being, I was never animated by the desire to obtain "a post." For me "what I am" was always of less importance than "what I can," that is to say, what I was in a position to accomplish. In this way I, too, had my ambition and it was especially noticeable there where I stood with my whole heart and soul in the struggle, where the issue was the abolition of the slavery of working women.
  • The question rises whether in the middle of all these manifold, exciting labors and Party-assignments I could still find rime for intimate experiences, for the pangs and joys of love. Unfortunately, yes! I say unfortunately because ordinarily these experiences entailed all too many cares, disappointments, and pain, and because all too many energies were pointlessly consumed through them. Yet the longing to be understood by a man down to the deepest, most secret recesses of one's soul, to be recognized by him as a striving human being, repeatedly decided matters. And repeatedly disappointment ensued all too swiftly, since the friend saw in me only the feminine element which he tried to mold into a willing sounding board to his own ego. So repeatedly the moment inevitably arrived in which I had to shake off the chains of community with an aching heart but with a sovereign, uninfluenced will. Then I was again alone. But the greater the demands life made upon me, the more the responsible work waiting to be tackled, the greater grew the longing to be enveloped by love, warmth, understanding. All the easier, consequently, began the old story of disappointment in love, the old story of Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
  • To me the war was an abomination, a madness, a crime, and from the first moment onwards–more out of impulse than reflection–I inwardly rejected it and could never reconcile myself with it up to this very moment.
  • Then came the great days of the October Revolution. Smolny became historic. The sleepless nights, the permanent sessions. And, finally, the stirring declarations. "The Soviets take power!" "The Soviets address an appeal to the peoples of the world to put an end to the war." "The land is socialized and belongs to the peasants!"
  • When one recalls the first months of the Workers' Government, months which were so rich in magnificent illusions, plans, ardent initiatives to improve life, to organize the world anew, months of the real romanticism of the Revolution, one would in fact like to write about all else save about one's self.
  • I never gave a thought to any kind of danger, being all too engrossed in matters of an utterly different character.
  • The Revolution was in full swing. The struggle was becoming increasingly irreconcilable and bloodier, much of what was happening did not fit in with my outlook. But after all there was still the unfinished task, women's liberation. Women, of course, had received all rights but in practice, of course, they still lived under the old yoke: without authority in family life, enslaved by a thousand menial household chores, bearing the whole burden of maternity, even the material cares, because many women now found life alone as a result of the war and other circumstances.
  • In the autumn of 1916 when I devoted all my energies to drawing up systematic guidelines for the liberation of working women in all areas, I found a valuable support in the first President of the Soviets, Sverdlov, now dead. Thus the first Congress of Women Workers and Women Peasants could be called as early as November of 1918; some 1147 delegates were present. Thus the foundation was laid for methodical work in the whole country for the liberation of the women of the working and the peasant classes. A flood of new work was waiting for me. The question now was one of drawing women into the people's kitchens and of educating them to devote their energies to children's homes and day-care centers, the school system, household reforms, and still many other pressing matters. The main thrust of all this activity was to implement, in fact, equal rights for women as a labor unit in the national economy and as a citizen in the political sphere and, of course, with the special proviso: maternity was to be appraised as a social function and therefore protected and provided for by the State.
  • The work began with great zeal and the most roseate hopes. A splendid summer and an eventful winter marked the year of 1923! The newly resumed trade relations were in full swing: Russian corn and Norwegian herring and fish, Russian wood products and Norwegian paper and cellulose.
  • My life was as crammed with strenuous work and highly interesting experiences alike.
  • If I have attained something in this world, it was not my personal qualities that originally brought this about. Rather my achievements are only a symbol of the fact that woman, after all, is already on the march to general recognition. It is the drawing of millions of women into productive work, which was swiftly effected especially during the war and which thrust into the realm of possibility the fact that a woman could be advanced to the highest political and diplomatic positions. Nevertheless it is obvious that only a country of the future, such as the Soviet Union, can dare to confront woman without any prejudice, to appraise her only from the standpoint of her skills and talents, and, accordingly, to entrust her with responsible tasks. Only the fresh revolutionary storms were strong enough to sweep away hoary prejudices against woman and only the productive-working people is able to effect the complete equalization and liberation of woman by building a new society.
  • I stand on the threshold of new missions and life is making new demands upon me. 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.

Quotes about Alexandra Kollontai edit

  • Within the Russian Party itself, the first organized opposition to the policies of both Lenin and Trotsky was led by a woman-Alexandra Kollontai. Alexandra was not an Old Bolshevik, but she had joined the Bolshevik Party even before Trotsky had done so and much earlier than I. During these first few years of the Revolution she was a frequent source of both personal and political annoyance to the Party leaders. On more than one occasion the Central Committee had wanted me to substitute for her in the leadership of the women's movement, thus facilitating the campaign against her and isolating her from the women of the masses. Fortunately, I understood this intrigue and refused these offers, emphasizing that no one could do this work so well as she, and trying to augment her prestige and create sympathy for her whenever possible. By the Ninth Congress of the Russian Party, the last vestiges of trade-union autonomy and workers' control in industry was swept away to be replaced by the control of the political had become the leader of the "Workers' Opposition," a protest missars over the trade unions and the workers' soviets. Kollantai movement against the bureaucratic suffocation of the labour unions and the democratic rights of the workers. As there was no possibility, even at that time, of publicly criticizing the Central Committee or of placing an unofficial opinion before the Party rank and file, she was courageous enough to have a pamphlet secretly printed for distribution to the delegates at the Party Convention. I have never seen Lenin so angry as when one of these pamphlets was handed to him at the Convention-in spite of the fact that "opposition" within the Party itself was still supposed to be legitimate. Taking the platform, he denounced Kollontai as the Party's worst enemy, a menace to its unity. He went so far in his attack as to make allusions to certain episodes in Kollontai's intimate life that had nothing whatever to do with the issue. It was the kind of polemic which did no credit to Lenin, and it was on this occasion that I realized the lengths to which Lenin would go in the pursuit of his strategic aims, his opposition to a party opponent. I admired Kollontai for the calm and self-control with which she answered Lenin's attack. Among the examples she quoted of the methods which were used by the Central Committee against Party "rebels" was the attempt of the "Central Committee to send Angelica Balabanoff to Turkestan to eat peaches." Like many other rebellious members of the Party, she was sent away soon after on a diplomatic mission. For old revolutionists like Kollontai it was a punishment to be separated from the field of revolutionary activity, but after years in Norway, Mexico, and Sweden as Soviet ambassador, she seemed to become reconciled to her position and to fall completely into line.
  • Kollontai was never a brilliant Marxist scholar or an innovative theoretician as was her friend Rosa Luxemburg, for example. She "discovered" Marx in a copy of Communist Manifesto which she picked up in a bookstore in Germany during the cooling off period forced on her by her parents. It quickly replaced her populism, which had been shallow and emotional, and seemed to pull her previous ideas together in an intellectually satisfying form-a common experience for many Marxist converts.
    • Shirley Fredricks in European Women on the Left edited by Jane Slaughter and Robert Korn (1981)
  • Alexandra Kollontay and Angelica Balabanoff were within easy reach, as they were living in the National. I sought out the former first. Mme Kollontay looked remarkably young and radiant, considering her fifty years and the severe operation she had recently undergone. A tall and stately woman, every inch the grande dame rather than the fiery revolutionist. Her attire and suite of two rooms bespoke good taste, the roses on her desk rather startling in the Russian greyness. They were the first I had seen since our deportation. [...] She leaned back in her arm-chair and I began speaking of the harrowing things that had come to my knowledge. She listened attentively without interrupting me, but there was not the slightest indication in her cold, handsome face of any perturbation on account of my recital. "We do have some dull grey spots in our vivid revolutionary picture," she said when I had concluded. "They are un-avoidable in a country so backward, with a people so dark and a social experiment of such magnitude, opposed by the entire world as it is. They will disappear when we have liquidated our military fronts and when we shall have raised the mental level of our masses." I could help in that, she continued. I could work among the women; they were ignorant of the simplest principles of life, physical and otherwise, ignorant of their own functions as mothers and citizens. I had done such fine work of that kind in America, and she could assure me of a much more fertile field in Russia. "Why not join me and stop your brooding over a few dull grey spots?" she said in conclusion; "they are nothing more, dear comrade, really nothing more." People raided, imprisoned, and shot for their ideas! The old and the young held as hostages, every protest gagged, iniquity and favouritism rampant, the best human values betrayed, the very spirit of revolution daily crucified-were all these nothing but "grey, dull spots," I wondered! I felt chilled to the marrow of my bones.
  • No American socialist-feminist successfully integrated the anarchist-feminist analysis of domestic oppression into a socialist framework...Nevertheless, a socialist framework existed, in the work of Aleksandra Kollontai. Kollontai, a Russian Marxist revolutionary who participated in the birth of the Bolshevik state, wrote her most extensive analysis of the Woman Question while in exile in Western Europe in the years immediately preceding World War I." Following Bebel and Engels, Kollontai argued that the first requisite for women's emancipation was productive work outside the confines of the domestic circle. However, participation in the work force would not free women unless there were also changes in the industrial system. Ultimately, of course, the workers must overthrow capitalism, Kollontai declared. But, more immediately, socialists should work for shorter hours, less dangerous working conditions, paid maternity leaves, nursery facilities in all factories, and scheduled breaks from work so that mothers could breast feed their babies. Not all socialists agreed with Kollontai on the above issues. Most men and some women refused to countenance the urging of special reforms for women because they believed it undermined the solidarity of the proletariat. But Kollontai further extended her analysis of female oppression to include an attack on the emotional dependence of women upon men.
    • Margaret S Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (1981)
  • Barbara Clements has shown that for Kollontai "woman's inferiority was imbedded in the pattern of erotic love, the most private of human relationships." Socialism for her, therefore, was more than the overthrow of capitalism as an economic system. It promised the creation of a new order in which men and women could live together and love in harmony and in community. Clements has demonstrated Kollontai's unique place within Marxism: "Other contemporaries, most eloquently Virginia Woolf but also feminists such as the Pankhursts, knew the price of female emancipation, but of the Marxists, only Kollontai gave it a place within the ideology. Into a socioeconomic theory that valued rationality as the road to social liberation, Kollontai introduced an emotional understanding of woman alone in an isolating world." Kollontai's emphasis on psychological and emotional liberation was remarkably similar to American anarchist-feminism, but she differed in her insistence on integrating these issues into an uncompromising materialist analysis. She believed that "solitude and women's struggle for independence [were] economically determined and therefore ... soluble. She remained resolutely an ideologue and an optimist."
    • Margaret S Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (1981)
  • Kollontai's analysis in the pre-World War years did not find its way into the work of American socialist-feminists, and it is not clear that they would have accepted her views had they been exposed to them. Nevertheless, her integration of the most important aspects of anarchist-feminism into socialist ideology offered a tantalizing possibility for the creation of a truly feminist radicalism. That the promise remains to be fulfilled does not detract from her accomplishment.
    • Margaret S Marsh, Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (1981)
  • Throughout the history of the socialist movement there has, therefore, been a strand of feminist critique from within. Many feminists shared in the vision of a just society, but criticised the ways in which communist parties sought to bring it about. Amongst the Bolsheviks, Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai were early critics of their party's policies and practice, and they, along with anarchist feminists such as Emma Goldman, laid some of the early groundwork in identifying socialism's failures.
    • Maxine Molyneux Women's Movements in International Perspective: Latin America and Beyond (2000)
  • It was a great privilege to work so closely with these wonderful women of our movement...I was very much impressed too with the brilliant and handsome Alexandra Kollontai, who had been active in the woman's movement even in pre-revolutionary days. She had been for a time People's Commissar of Social Welfare. When I first met her, she was one of the leaders of the Workers' Opposition, taking the line that the interests of the trade unions were opposed to those of the Soviet state and the Party. Lenin, to whom she was deeply devoted, convinced her of the fallacy of her position, and she abandoned her oppositionist stand, becoming a loyal supporter of the Party's position. She became Minister Plenipotentiary to Norway, the first woman ambassador in the world, was for a time ambassador to Mexico and is today Soviet Ambassador to Sweden.

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