Alexandra Kollontai (Shura Domontovich) (1872-1952) was a Russian Communist revolutionary, first as a member of the Mensheviks, then from 1914 on as a Bolshevik. In 1919 she became the first female government minister in Europe. In 1923, she was appointed Soviet Ambassador to Norway, becoming the world’s first female ambassador in modern times.
Alexandra was close to her father (General Mikhail Domontovich served as a cavalry officer in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and as an advisor to the Russian administration in Bulgaria after the war until 1879), with whom she shared an analytical bent and an interest in history and politics.
Alexandra spoke French with her mother and sisters, English with her nanny, Finnish with the peasants at a family estate inherited from her mother’s father in Kuusa (in Muolaa, Grand Duchy of Finland), and was a student of German.
Aged around 19 Alexandra met her future husband Vladimir Kollontai, an engineering student of modest means enrolled at a military institute.
Her parents forbade the relationship and sent Alexandra on a tour of Western Europe in the hope that she would forget Vladimir, but the pair remained committed to one another despite it all and married in 1893. Alexandra became pregnant soon after her marriage and bore a son, Mikhail, in 1894. She filled her time reading radical populist and Marxist political literature and writing fiction.
Kollontai’s first activities were timid and modest, helping out a few hours a week with her sister Zhenia at a library that supported Sunday classes in basic literacy for urban workers, sneaking a few socialist ideas into the lesson sideways. Through this library Kollontai met Elena Stasova, an activist in the budding Marxist movement in St. Petersburg. Stasova began to use Kollontai as a courier, transporting parcels of illegal writings to unknown individuals, which were delivered upon the utterance of a password.
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”. In 1898 she left little Mikhail with her parents to study economics in Zurich, Switzerland, with Professor Heinrich Herkner. She then paid a visit to England, where she met members of the British Labor Party. She returned to Russia in 1899, at which time she met Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, a.k.a. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Alexandra Mikhailovna became interested by Marxist ideas while studying the history of working movements in Zurich, Switzerland under Herkner, later described by her as a Marxist Revisionist.
She became a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1899. She was a witness of the popular rising in 1905 known as Bloody Sunday, in Saint Petersburg in front of the Winter Palace.
She went into exile, to Germany, in 1908 after publishing “Finland and Socialism”, which called on the Finnish people to rise up against oppression within the Russian Empire. She visited England, France, and Germany, and became acquainted with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
With the onset of World War I Kollontai left Germany due to the German social democrats’ support of the war. The next place Kollontai tried to speak and write against the war was Sweden. In Sweden the government imprisoned her for her activities. After her release Kollontai traveled to Norway, where she at last found a socialist community that was receptive to her ideas. Kollontai stayed primarily in Norway until 1917, only traveling internationally to speak about war and politics. In 1917 Kollontai left Norway to return to Russia upon receiving news of the Tsar’s abdication and the onset of the Russian Revolution.
At the time of the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into the Mensheviks under Julius Martov and the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in 1903, Kollontai did not side with either faction. It wasn’t until 1915 that Kollontai officially joined the Bolshevik party.
After the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 Kollontai’s political career began. She became People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. She was the most prominent woman in the Soviet administration and was best known for founding the Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in 1919. This organization 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 put in place by the Revolution. As a foremost champion of women’s equality like the other Marxists of her time, she opposed the bourgeois ideology of liberal feminism; though later feminists have claimed her legacy. The Zhenotdel was eventually closed in 1930. Kollontai also married Pavel Dybenko in 1917.
Kollontai lacked political influence and was appointed by the Party to various diplomatic positions from the early 1920s, keeping her from playing a leading role in the politics of women’s policy in the USSR. In 1923, she was appointed Soviet Ambassador to Norway, becoming the world’s first female ambassador in modern times. She later served as Ambassador to Mexico (1926–27) and Sweden (1930–1945). When she was in Stockholm, the winter war between Russia and Finland broke out; it is largely due to her influence that Sweden remained neutral. After the war, she received Molotov’s praises. During World War II, there were some Nazi discussions that her embassy in Stockholm could have potentially been a channel for German-Soviet negotiations, although they never came to pass. She was also a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations.
Kollontai raised eyebrows with her unflinching advocacy of free love. However, this does not mean that she advocated casual sexual encounters; indeed, she believed that due to the inequality between men and women that persisted under socialism, such encounters would lead to women being exploited, and being left to raise children alone. Instead, 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. A common myth quotes her as saying that “… the satisfaction of one’s sexual desires should be as simple as getting a glass of water”; what she actually said, in number 18 of her Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations, was that “… sexuality is a human instinct as natural as hunger or thirst.”
Kollontai’s views on the role of marriage and the family under Communism were arguably more influential on today’s society than her advocacy of “free love.” 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. Under Communism, both men and women would work for, and be supported by, society, not their families. Similarly, their children would be wards of, and reared basically by society.
Kollontai was the subject of the 1994 TV film, A Wave of Passion: The Life of Alexandra Kollontai, with Glenda Jackson as the voice of Kollontai. A female Soviet diplomat in the 1930s with unconventional views on sexuality, probably inspired by Kollontai, was played by Greta Garbo in the movie Ninotchka (1939).
The resurgence of radicalism in the 1960s and the growth of the feminist movement in the 1970s spurred a new interest in the life and writings of Alexandra Kollontai in Britain and America. A spate of books and pamphlets were subsequently published by and about Kollontai, including full-length biographies by historians Cathy Porter and Barbara Evans Clements.