Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Alexandra Kollontai

Episode Summary

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a Marxist revolutionary, a key figure in Marxist Feminism, and a major figure in Russian socialist politics from the turn of the 20th century through the start of the Soviet Union. After the revolution, she became the most prominent woman in the Soviet government where she continued her work on improving conditions for women.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by Fiverr. Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and show your support for Fiverr’s new store at FVRR.co/women, where they feature over 100 of the platform’s top female talent.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s feminist was a Marxist revolutionary, a key figure in Marxist Feminism, and a major figure in Russian socialist politics from the turn of the 20th century through the start of the Soviet Union. After the revolution, she became the most prominent woman in the Soviet government where she continued her work on improving conditions for women. Please welcome Alexandra Kollontai.

Alexandra was born on March 31, 1872 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father, a general in the Czar’s army, was from a wealthy and aristocratic family, and her mother was the daughter of a wealthy Finnish businessman. 

During her early years, Alexandra was very close with her father, with whom she shared similar intellectual interests. She had a particular love of history and learning foreign languages, including French, English, Finnish, and German. 

Alexandra hoped to continue her education at university, but her mother believed there was no value in a higher education for a woman of Alexandra’s standing. Alexandra’s mother was also concerned about the radical ideas that were prevalent at Russian universities at the time. Instead, Alexandra was allowed to get certified to become a teacher. 

When Alexandra was about 19, she met Vladimir Kollontai, an engineering student who also happened to be her cousin. The two quickly became quite smitten with each other, but Alexandra’s parents forbade the relationship because Vladimir was relatively poor. Instead, they sent Alexandra on a tour of Western Europe to try and distract her. That proved unsuccessful. When Alexandra returned, she married Vladimir in 1893. About a year later she gave birth to a son.

She also began volunteering with her sister at a library that offered literacy classes to factory workers. There she met Marxist activist Elena Stasova and was introduced to the movement. Elena started using Alexandra as a courier for transporting illegal radical political writings to various sympathizers. 

In 1896, Alexandra accompanied her husband Vladamir on a visit to a large textile factory where he  was the engineer in charge of installing a new ventilation system. Alexandra was horrified by the working conditions in the factory. Later that same year, the textile workers went on strike. Alexandra became active in handing out leaflets about workers’ rights and fundraising to support their cause.

By 1898, Alexandra considered herself a Marxist and sought ways to become involved in the revolutionary movement full time. That same year, Alexandra separated from her husband and left her son with her parents so that she could study economics and labor movements in Zurich under Marxist economist Heinrich Herkner. Though her father didn’t share her politics, he secretly financed Alexandra’s studies.

When Alexandra returned to Russia the following year, she joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. It was a revolutionary socialist party that was formed to bridge the gaps between a host of revolutionary political organizations that were popular at the time.

In 1908, Alexandra published “Finland and Socialism,” an article that advocated Finnish freedom from Russian tyranny. As a result of this article and her work organizing female workers protesting for better working conditions in Russia, Alexandra went into exile in Germany to avoid political repercussions. There she traveled  and became friends with many of the prominent Marxists and socialists of the day.

With the start of World War I in 1914, Alexandra left Germany. She first tried to settle in Denmark and then Sweden, where she was imprisoned for her political activities. She finally landed in Norway, where she lived until 1917.  She was outspoken about her strong opposition to the war.

When Alexandra received news in 1917 of the burgeoning Russian Revolution, she rushed home and immediately voiced her full support for Lenin. As a member of the executive community for the Petrograd Soviet, she worked constantly as a speaker and writer advocating for radical revolution, and eventually voting as a member of the Central Committee for the armed uprising that became the October Revolution. 

Alexandra became the most prominent female member in the new Soviet administration. She was elected Commissar of Social Welfare. 

Alexandra wanted to use her new position to improve conditions for women in the Soviet Union. In 1919, she formed the “Women’s Department.” She sought to increase literacy among women and their access to education. She also wanted to teach women about new, more egalitarian laws with regards to marriage, work and education under the new regime. 

It should be noted that unlike many, if not most, of the feminists we’re covering this month, Alexandra was opposed to the ideology of liberal feminism most popular and common in the West. She was a forceful advocate for women’s liberation, the rights of female workers, and women’s equality. But she didn’t believe that real change could occur under the current social and economic systems she saw outside of the Soviet Union. She criticized many feminists, particularly suffragists, for focusing on what saw as political priorities that would only help bourgeois women. Alexandra believed that this would lead to a continued disenfranchisement of working class women. She argued that addressing the conditions of the working class was a prerequisite for real, lasting change.  

Beginning in 1920, Alexandra became increasingly disillusioned with the economic policies of the Soviet Union. She particularly disagreed with the concentration of power and decision making at the top, rather than in the hands of labor unions. As a result of her forceful outspokenness on this and related issues, she was politically sidelined. Alexandra spent the next 20 years in various diplomatic postings around the world to prevent her from making political waves at home. 

Alexandra died in Moscow on March 9, 1952. 

All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more. 

For women the ability to work flexibly and on our own terms is highly valued. Fiverr is one of the rare platforms where globally, women are on average making 19% more than men. That’s something to celebrate this Women’s History Month as we call for more industry leaders to join with Fiverr and make strides in closing the gap, and supporting women in challenging current stereotypes and the status quo. 

Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and learn more about how Fiverr is celebrating International Women's Day by supporting the female talent on Fiverr’s platform at FVRR.co/women.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!