Aleksandra Kollontaj (Alexandra Kollontai) was one of the major socialist feminist agitators of the early 1900s. Through her ideological and diplomatic efforts she contributed to both the rapid expansion of the workers’ movement and peace diplomacy of the first half of the 1900s.
Aleksandra Kollantaj had a privileged childhood in Saint Petersburg and environs. Her summers were spent in Karelia. She describes, in her diaries and memoires, how she was struck at a young age by the class differences between herself and the impoverished Finnish people in Karelia, just like those between her family and the working masses within the larger Russian towns. She joined the social democratic workers’ party of Russia in 1899.
Aleksandra Kollontaj became more radicalised during the 1905–1906 uprising, at which time increased rights and general suffrage were introduced in Finland. She was forced to leave Russia in 1908 partly due to having encouraged Finland to rebel against Russian authority. Thus began a ten-year period of exile during which she was based in Berlin and the North.
In addition to lengthy academic texts on the economy and politics, Aleksandra Kollontaj contributed to the extensive flourishing of political women’s journals being published in Europe during the early 1900s. The Swedish Social Democrat party women’s journal Morgonbris regularly included article both by and about Aleksandra Kollontaj as well as other recognised socialist women, such as the German socialists Clara Zetkin – publisher of the journal Die Gleichheit - and Rosa Luxemburg, who would later be executed in Berlin for her socialist activism.
As a result of her experiences within the workers’ movement combined with the economic studies she undertook with the economist Heinrich Herkner in Zürich, Switzerland, Aleksandra Kollontaj became somewhat of an expert on Finland’s economic and social situation.
The growing workers’ movement and the socialist women’s international activities took Aleksandra Kollontaj all over Europe. At the international women’s conference of 1907 Socialist women opted to end their collaboration with women of the bourgeoisie. They instead began to organise their own conferences which focused on the needs and demands of working women. At the same time the majority of women at the head of the Russian revolutions of February/March and October 1917 found themselves in various places in Europe. Aleksandra Kollontaj served as a focal link in the socialist network which transmitted information and ideology between leading figures in Europe and the growing revolutionary unrest in Russia.
Aleksandra Kollontaj’s expertise in social matters, particularly women’s issues and family issues, later contributed to her being selected as ‘folkkommissarie’ (people’s commissioner) within the first Bolshevik government in the autumn of 1917. Her role within the party leadership was, however, brief, as she was a proponent of a more radical position, both in regard to workers’ matters and family policies, than the party chair Vladimir Lenin.
Aleksandra Kollontaj’s writings champion sexual freedom and question the traditionally subordinate role of the woman within relationships. In the main it was women’s abilities – just like men – to differentiate between loving relationships and purely sexual relations which mattered to her. Similar issues crop up in many of her pamphlets, such as the 1918 Den nya kvinnan och den nya moralen. She expressed the theoretical differences between the love for one’s children and the love for one’s spouse and tried to dislodge the assumption that the only way for a woman to have children was as part of a nuclear family. Aleksandra Kollontaj believed that by reducing her obligations to her husband a woman freed up her time to engage in politics, art, or her own profession.
Aleksandra Kollontaj’s main sphere of activity – following the Soviet Union’s turbulent domestic political situation of the early 1920s – became the diplomatic world. She was several times appointed as diplomatic or consul to Norway (1922–1930), to Sweden (1930–1945), and even had a brief stint in Mexico. For the remainder of her life her socialist and women’s rights work had to take a back seat in favour of more pragmatic Soviet foreign policy. While she was posted to Stockholm she made major contributions as a peace negotiator between Finland and the Soviet Union during the Winter War (1933–1940). Neutral Sweden served as a diplomatic free city to many. It was there that Aleksandra Kollontaj received the Finnish playwright, author, and socialist Hella Wuolijoki who unofficially lead negotiations with Russian diplomats. Although Aleksandra Kollontaj was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1946 and 1947 she was never actually awarded the prestigious prize.
During her period as a diplomat in Sweden Aleksandra Kollontaj formed connections in the Swedish women’s movement. She was mainly drawn to the so-called Fogelstad group, with prominent members such as Kerstin Hesselgren, Elin Wägner, and Elisabeth Tamm. As Aleksandra Kollontaj’s health began to decline she increasingly became cared for by doctor Ada Nilsson. Their correspondence has survived.
Aleksandra Kollontaj wrote academic articles, novels, pamphlets, and innumerable texts which were read out and handed out in great numbers. It is mainly her socialist-feminist writings – up to 1922 – which have become part of modern feminist theory and research. Different parts of her output have engendered interest at different periods. The conflict between interpretations which occurred at the time when the workers’ movement and women’s movement went their separate ways is clearly reflected in how she was received by later audiences. This was the same dilemma which placed her in permanent conflict with the Soviet authorities. Her feminist agitating, namely the claim that women’s rights were at least as important as workers’ rights and that the struggles had to be run in parallel, was considered to be controversial during both Lenin’s and his successor Josef Stalin’s periods in charge. Most socialist theoreticians viewed women’s rights as a risky area as they had the potential of splitting the workers’ faction into two separate camps of male workers and female workers with divergent interests.
Aleksandra Kollontaj’s views on women and the family contain many innovative elements regarding views on family groups and sexuality, and these ideas are still worthy of reading and reflection.
Aleksandra Kollontaj died in Moscow in 1952.