Alexandra Kollontai: Emancipation through the Russian Revolution

Alexandra Kollontai kept on fighting for women against overwhelming odds. Anne McShane completes her examination of the role of this inspirational Bolshevik leader

When in February 1917 the women of Petrograd took to the streets against the tsarist government, Alexandra Kollontai was in Norway. She had joined the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1915 and became an important figure in the revolutionary movement. Like other Bolsheviks, including Lenin, Nadia Krupskaya and Inessa Armand, she had been forced to live in exile. Now, along with these other political refugees, she made hurried arrangements to return.

February and summer

On arrival in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in March 1917, she found a very different mood in the city from the environment of repression and fear she had fled in 1908. Now there was a powerful feeling of change, with a myriad of strikes and demonstrations on a daily basis. She describes her happiness to be back, “standing on the soil of liberated Russia” after nine years in exile. But she was also aware that this “was only the beginning of even more momentous events and difficult social struggles”.1

The situation for women had changed dramatically. Years of war and mass conscription had led to their mass entry into the labour market and they now made up more than half of the workforce. As well as the textile and service industry, women now worked in metallurgy, mining and timber, and whole towns were populated almost exclusively by women. Conditions of work continued to be appalling, with long hours and no childcare or maternity rights.

A number of strikes had taken place in the lead-up to February 1917. Concessions had been won for maternity leave and the right to strike. But there was a growing awareness and sense of power among working women, who were not satisfied with minor reforms, especially in the face of the terrible impact of the war. There was enormous social tension, particularly in Petrograd, where an observant police officer remarked in December 1916 that the suffering women were “a store of combustible material” enough to generate an inferno.2

On International Women’s Day working class women streamed out of workplaces and homes, demanding food and an end to the war. They marched through the city calling on others to join them, dispatching delegations to factories demanding solidarity. There were dramatic scenes, as thousands slid down the river banks and walked across the frozen river to avoid the police, who had blocked the bridges to the city centre. The next day they were back again and the situation transformed quickly into a general strike, with mass desertions from the army and male workers joining the struggle, as the crowds marched on the duma (parliament). Under the pressure from below the tsarist regime finally collapsed in March, but the provisional government under the ‘socialist’, Alexander Kerensky, changed little for the better - the war continued and the food crisis worsened.

The strike movement reignited in summer, spreading to service industry employees. In May 40,000 laundresses went on strike over pay and working conditions, and with a demand for municipal laundries. Kollontai was active in setting up the union involved, and also became a spokesperson for the soldiers’ wives, who held demonstrations throughout this period in protest against the harsh conditions of the war and the lack of wages. She, along with other Bolshevik women - Konkordiia Samoilova, Klavdiia Nikolaeva, Nadia Krupskaya, Lyudmila Stal and Inessa Armand, to name but a few - campaigned in the proletarian quarters of Moscow and Petrograd. They became brilliant agitational speakers, addressing huge audiences of soldiers, sailors and factory workers, as well as specifically women workers.

The Bolsheviks relaunched the paper for working women, Rabotnitsa, in May 1917 - Lenin’s sister, Anna Ulianova, was also involved. The journal had a very systematic approach to distribution and recruitment, and sent its journalists out every day to speak to women directly about their views and experiences. It also set up a women’s school to train female political activists. The approach of writers is said to have been more ambitious and critical on the woman question, as the journal “accorded women’s emancipation an even higher priority within the revolutionary process” and “was more critical of the sexist behaviour of men”.3

As the summer wore on, the issue of women’s equality became more central to the demands of the various left parties. Kollontai was elected to the central committee of the Bolsheviks in August 1917 and in that position she voted to launch an uprising in October 1917. Mariia Ulianova (Lenin’s younger sister), Sofia Smidovich and Anna Artiukhina took part alongside her and countless other women in the discussion, planning and carrying out of the revolution. They “held important positions in the soviet, the party organisation, the military organisation centre” and the party combat centre.4

Although still very much a minority, they were certainly at the centre of the party. For Bolshevik women the revolution held the key to their own emancipation. And in the aftermath of the revolution legal equality was declared as the first step in the process. The real challenge was to make these legal rights a reality.

After October

The first congress of women workers was held on November 6 1917. It was attended by 500 delegates, representing 80,000 women from soviets, factories, trade unions and youth organisations. Kollontai says the event was organised on her initiative as a central committee member. She proposed a detailed plan to set up an official ‘department of mother and child’, which was discussed and agreed. These proposals were then adopted by the government. It “was precisely the aspirations expressed at the conference which served as the basis for Soviet legislation in this area”.5

The event also had a debate on setting up a separate organisation for work among women. A number of leading delegates, including Klavdiia Nikolaeva, argued that “we class-conscious women workers know that we have no special women’s interests and that there should be no separate women’s organisations”.6 Kollontai, who had advocated a separate organisation since 1905, disagreed and urged working class women to look out for their own interests, suggesting that they should have their own representatives in the constituent assembly.

It is interesting to note that Nikolaeva had been a supporter of Kollontai in 1905, but had subsequently shifted on this issue. It appears that the core group of women around Rabotnitsa wanted to continue to organise around the journal, but thought anything more would be separatism. Kollontai did not win her argument and the 12-day event concluded with a decision just to carry on with Rabotnitsa.7 The delegates also agreed to hold a further congress on International Women’s Day. However, the outbreak of civil war meant that Rabotnitsa stopped publication in January 1918 due to a shortage of newsprint, and the conference was cancelled because a special party congress was called in March to debate the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

Kollontai had been appointed commissar for welfare in November 1917 and became the first female member of government. However, being in charge of welfare was not a role she relished. She describes how it was very difficult dealing with the “exhausted, hungry and desperate - these poor victims were now bitterly cursing the Bolsheviks and their empty promises”.8 Kollontai introduced maternity provision, mother and baby homes, and welfare payments. She also worked with Yakov Sverdlov, the newly appointed head of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, in drafting the 1918 code on ‘Marriage, the family and guardianship’. This ended the religious sanction of marriage and allowed for civil registration and divorce on demand for either partner. It also declared that men and women were legally equal, guaranteed equal pay for equal work and legalised abortion. It equalised the status of children born within and outside of wedlock, set the minimum marriage age at 18 for males and 16 for females, and required the consent of both parties.

Kollontai resigned as commissar for social welfare in 1918 in protest at the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which concluded an unequal peace with Germany - the treaty was unpopular with a number of women activists. Kollontai and Inessa Armand joined the left communists led by Bukharin, which condemned the peace as opportunist surrender. They believed that the new state was becoming far too centralised and undemocratic. The civil war was painful and demoralising, and policies were being formulated that seemed to go against the principles of the revolution. The conditions of the civil war placed huge burdens on women, who assumed even more responsibility for running industry, as more men joined the Red Army. During this period Kollontai and others were dispatched to agitate for support for the revolutionary government. She was approached by women textile workers in Kineshma in the Volga region, who complained about the continuing difficulties they were experiencing and their disappointment in the Soviet government. She subsequently contacted Armand, Konkordiia Samoilova and Nikolaeva, and they agreed that action was urgently needed. Their discussions culminated in the holding of a further event in November 1918 - an all-Russian congress of women workers and peasants.

In 1918 the feminist organisations of 10 years before had all but disappeared. The movement was now facing the task of making progress within the new society. With the difficulties of the civil war and the harsh Russian winter, the organisers did not expect a big attendance and were shocked when over a thousand delegates appeared. They were a diverse group of women from right across Russia: “a motley array of red-kerchiefed - mostly workers - wearing sheepskins, colourful local costumes or army greatcoats”. Lenin attended the congress and “created a sensation”. His speech “was little more than a brief and general endorsement of emancipation and an appeal to women to support the regime”. However, it was a unique occasion, as “no other head of state had ever said anything like it in the history of the woman question”.9

The congress showed the determination of these women to set their agenda within the new society. It was agreed that the time had come to set up a separate organisation to fight for an agreed programme. The organisers wanted to make sure that the promises of real equality developed into something concrete. The party could not be entrusted to pursue the liberation of women, especially in the face of competing priorities. There was a debate on the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare provision. It was agreed to draft a strategy to extend these services, freeing women up for full participation in the new society.

A commission set up by the congress began to energetically work on producing a permanent structure. The first branch was formed in Petrograd and proposals were put to Sverdlov, who was also the party’s general secretary, to extend the organisation nationally. Although initially reluctant, he was persuaded to help and became a key figure in the setting up of the Zhenotdel (women’s department). In her memoirs Kollontai paid tribute to his support, as well as that of Lenin and Trotsky, in these early days. At a party congress in March 1919 she made the case for permanent structures. She argued that the party and state needed to “conduct a struggle with the conditions that are oppressing the woman, to emancipate her as a housewife, as a mother”. This meant “agitation not only by words, but by deeds”.10 It included drawing women into “socially useful projects, such as day nurseries, public dining rooms, and maternity homes, which would really serve to liberate women in their everyday lives”. The congress approved the proposals.


The Zhenotdel was put on a formal footing in September 1919 and Inessa Armand was appointed as its first head. This was surely a rebuff to Kollontai, who had been the most prominent writer on the woman question and the main driving force behind the setting up of the organisation. She also had experience gained through her work with Clara Zetkin in the Frauenbewegung in Germany in the pre-war years.

But it seems that Armand was perceived as a safer option - a far more careful and measured individual, with a tried and tested history of support for Lenin and the party leadership. Kollontai in contrast had been a Menshevik up to 1915 and was a highly controversial individual in both her political and private life. As Louise Bryant remarked, Kollontai was dramatic and “so easily carried away by her enthusiasm that she is unmindful of how easily wings are broken”. Her “political judgement, even from the standpoint of an orthodox communist, is often very bad”, although she had “unlimited courage” in opposing the party leadership, even Lenin.11

But Armand was not some unthinking sycophant. She held similar ideas to Kollontai, although she was not so outspoken. Her attempt to write a pamphlet on ‘free love’ in 1914 had come to nothing, partly because of discouragement from Lenin. He saw such ideas as bourgeois and believed ‘free love’ could be interpreted as an advocacy of promiscuity. Armand had intended it to be an examination of the possibility for new and independent relationships between the sexes.

Armand had also developed a concept of a delegate-based structure that would become the main organisational methods of the Zhenotdel for the period of its existence. Delegates were elected from branches for a period of initially three, four or six months and later for a year. They were sent to various unions and government bodies to be educated, particularly in administration. On their return they shared their knowledge and other delegates went forward in their place. The temporary, recallable nature of the delegate bodies was an important principle for Armand. She believed that it ensured the organisation did not become disconnected from the working class. It was most definitely a profoundly democratic and flexible method of organisation. As well as the educational structures, there were also regular delegate meetings where the aims and politics of the organisation would be discussed and agreed.

Initially the main tasks were assisting the civil war effort, and promoting labour conscription and education on a wide range of issues, including literacy, childcare, health and political training. The organisation also set up canteens, communal laundries and creches in order to make real the government commitment to socialisation of domestic labour. A number of academics, including Armand’s biographer, RC Elwood, believe that the organisation was simply a compliant part of the state apparatus. However, this is not borne out by the significant number of initiatives taken which challenged the authority of state enterprises and trade unions. One was an instruction from the Zhenotdel in 1919 “requiring that every enterprise have at least one woman delegate appointed to the factory inspectorate”.12 These inspectors would ensure that the state legislation on maternity, working hours, etc would be implemented. They were often unpopular with government departments, factory owners and unions, and seen as a nuisance. At the same time the organisation struggled to make ground.

The theoretical journal Kommunistka was launched in 1920, with Krupskaya as editor. It often carried intense and controversial debate on ideas for emancipation. And Zhenotdel sent out propaganda teams to mobilise women in support of the Red Army and the new regime. These teams “threaded their way on agitprop trains and boats through the red areas, stopping at remote villages to regale the population with poster art, song and dance groups, and speeches”. Samoilova, who was an extremely well-liked speaker, “sailed up and down the Volga with a plea for support and a promise of liberation, which she proclaimed from the decks of the ‘Red Star’”.13

The intensity of the work took its toll in terms of the health of key activists. Both Samoilova and Armand contracted cholera, while Kollontai had a heart attack in November 1919 and was unable to work for much of 1920. Armand and Samoilova died in 1920, both aged 46, ground down by their efforts to make the legal rights of women a reality. The Zhenotdel had lost two of its most important and popular leaders. The gap would be very hard to fill.

Meanwhile attitudes towards the organisation’s work did not improve. This was despite complaints to the central committee and the issuing of official decrees. Samoilova had argued that many male comrades saw the project as “beneath their dignity” and “exhibited a lot of prejudice towards the Zhenotdel”.14 Lenin confirmed this problem of prejudice in his interview with Clara Zetkin in 1920, comparing the attitude of many men in the party towards their wives with that of “slave-owners”.15

Kollontai had recovered her health by the time of Armand’s death and was appointed in her place. She immediately began to shift the organisation towards a more aggressive stand on women’s liberation. Adamant that “the primary function of the Zhenotdel was not to popularise the general line of the party among women, but to introduce into the building of the new state principles based on the interests of women”, she took on the party leadership. Kollontai’s goal was nothing less than the creation of “unprecedented changes in the nature of sexual relations” and “a revolution in the outlook, emotions and the inner world of working people”.16 She fought to extend these principles by pushing for the organisation to spread out to the far reaches of the former empire, including central Asia.

Kollontai had written on the question of the family, sexual relations and the creation of a ‘new woman’ in various pamphlets and articles since 1917. Her pre-revolutionary writings had also been reprinted. Her ideas therefore had wide currency among activists in the Zhenotdel and she was very influential. She also had a following among sections of the Komsomol (the party’s youth section), which was at the forefront of the debate on a new sexuality. Kollontai encouraged the ending of old family bonds and argued they had to make way for the development of independent and free relationships between man and women.

She celebrated the appearance of “a variety of personal relationships - indissoluble marriage with its ‘stable family’, ‘free unions’, ‘secret adultery’, a girl living quite openly with her lover in so-called ‘wild marriage’; pair marriage, marriage in threes and even the complicated marriage of four people - not to talk about the various forms of commercial prostitution”.17 She argued that in some circumstances it was better for women to live apart from their husband or partner and have their childcare and domestic needs looked after by the state. Only then could they begin to become truly free.

She proposed a radical programme of work to the Zhenotdel and to the 8th Congress of the Soviets in December 1920. This included measures for the promotion of women, the extension of childcare and state canteens, and the promotion of women in the workforce. She had also been campaigning to get prostitutes into employment in factories and state enterprises, and away from what she considered to be an immense social evil. She wanted real political and economic power for women. The programme was agreed, but implementation was never achieved, as both Kollontai and the Zhenotdel became increasingly marginalised in the coming years.

Opposition to the Zhenotdel from within the party continued to be a problem. Activists were often demoralised at the lack of support from local party committees. They also complained of a lack of clear direction from the Zhenotdel centre. But Kollontai was not able or willing to give detailed instructions and believed that the answer was for the party to give the woman question more political priority.


With the end of the civil war in 1921 the New Economic Policy was introduced, and tensions intensified. The Zhenotdel found itself in a power struggle with parts of the state. Its branches in unions and factories also faced problems, and Zhenotdel delegates often found themselves isolated or made to do menial tasks instead of being properly trained. The end of the civil war had brought very new and difficult challenges, as men returned from the war and the market was reintroduced under NEP. Male resentment grew against the Zhenotdel, which continued to fight for jobs and equality for women. Many men, including party members, did not want their wives involved in political activities. They wanted a traditional life, with women back in the home. The canteens, which had been so popular in the civil war period, were now closing down. Society was going backwards and with it there was a huge pressure for women to return to traditional roles.

Also the necessity for female labour during the civil war had strengthened women’s bargaining power and the ability of the Zhenotdel to make demands. Now the situation was dramatically reversed and women were being forced out of employment. Kollontai was completely opposed to the liquidation of the gains. But in the teeth of increased opposition within the party it was almost inevitable she would be defeated.

Her role within the Workers Opposition did not help to win her favour with the leadership. She joined the faction in January 1921 and became one of its main spokespersons. The Workers Opposition objected to the NEP and believed that control of production and industry should be handed over to the unions. She threw herself into a speaking tour and took part in a stormy debate in the party congress in 1921. Kollontai’s biographer, Barbara Clements, argues that she was treated in a sexist fashion throughout the debate, with Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin ranged against her. The faction lost the debate but carried on its struggle within the Third International, much to the anger of the top leadership. In particular she had flouted a ban on publication of the faction documents. These incidents were to lead to her removal from the leadership of the Zhenotdel.

In 1922 Kollontai was replaced by Sofia Smidovich as head of the organisation. Smidovich was a very different leader - far more conservative in her views on sexuality and more concerned with protecting women than advancing claims for their independence from marriage. Kollontai was sent to Norway as the Soviet diplomatic envoy. There in political exile, she continued her writing, including an article, ‘Make way for winged Eros’, which caused a tremendous stir. She said later that her “sexual and moral views were bitterly fought by many party comrades of both sexes” and a great deal of bile was directed toward her.19 She was depicted as a woman of loose morals, who would lead the youth of the Soviet Union towards all kinds of depravity. Smidovich was one of those who contributed to the heated debates on Kollontai’s legacy. The new conservative period was reflected in her personality.

Even Smidovich, however, found it very difficult to make progress. She complained bitterly in 1924 that the leadership should put the organisation out of its misery rather than issue fake decrees of support. With Lenin dead and Stalin cementing his control, the noose was tightening on the Zhenotdel. Nikolaeva succeeded Smidovich in 1924, but she too was removed in 1926, when she and other leaders, including Krupskaya, became involved in the Leningrad Opposition under Zinoviev. Her successor, Alexandra Artiukhina, was to become the last leader. The Zhenotdel was closed down by Stalin in 1930, on the basis that the woman question was ‘solved’ in the Soviet Union. With the partial exception of central Asia, women were no longer allowed to organise together.


It is extremely difficult to summarise the history of the Zhenotdel, or Kollontai’s contribution. It reveals, however, a number of important questions. Not least of these is the dynamic way in which women in the Russian Revolution took up the struggle for their own liberation. Rather than being backward and reticent, they were at the forefront of change. Even in 1930 women delegates loudly protested the closure of their organisation.

The women of the Russian Revolution believed that they could achieve their own emancipation though socialism. But they faced immense obstacles - not least the belligerence of male comrades, including some on the leadership. It also proved very difficult to break out of the constraints of the old society, especially when the revolution was on the retreat and in an environment of extreme poverty. The decision to create a separate organisation had dramatic consequences in terms of what was achieved in the first year. But the prejudice the women faced hardened and they became ghettoised. Kollontai was an imaginative and courageous leader. But she too became frustrated at the failure to make progress and became a permanent oppositionist.

This is our history - an account of women who fought for their emancipation as part and parcel of that of the working class. They have been forgotten, or remembered for the wrong reasons - as wives and lovers rather than important political leaders in their own right.

I hope this small contribution will help renew interest in those years and the inspirational struggles of Russian women.




1. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

2. B Evans Clements Bolshevik women Cambridge 1997, p120.

3. Ibid p132.

4. R Stites The women’s liberation movement in Russia p306.

5. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1918/steps-motherhood.htm.

6. C Porter Kollontai: a biography London 1980, p281.

7. C Eubanks Hayden, ‘The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party’ Russian History Vol 3, No2 (1976), p153.

8. C Porter Kollontai: a biography London 1980, p279.

9. R Stites The women’s liberation movement in Russia Princeton 1978, p330.

10. B Evans Clements Bolshevik women Cambridge 1997, p156.

11. www.marxists.org/archive/bryant/works/1923-mom/kollontai.htm.

12. C Eubanks Hayden, ‘The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party’ Russian History Vol 3, No2 (1976), p159.

13. R Stites The women’s liberation movement in Russia Princeton 1978, p332.

14. C Eubanks Hayden, ‘The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party’ Russian History Vol 3, No2 (1976), p161.

15. www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1925/lenin/zetkin2.htm.

16. C Eubanks Hayden, ‘The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party’ Russian History Vol 3, No2 (1976), p162.

17. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/sex-class-struggle.htm.

18. B Evans Clements, ‘Kollontai’s contribution to the Workers Opposition’ Russian History Vol 2, No2 (1975)

19. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.