Alexandra Domontovich, the daughter of a General Mikhail Alekseevich Domontovich, was born in the Ukraine in 1872. The family moved to St. Petersburg but Alexandra was not allowed to go to school as her parents were worried that she would meet "undesirable elements."
She later recalled: "My mother and the English nanny who reared me were demanding. There was order in everything: to tidy up toys myself, to lay my underwear on a little chair at night, to wash neatly, to study my lessons on time, to treat the servants with respect." A family friend, Victor Ostrogorsky, the literary historian, gave her private lessons, and told her she had literary talent and suggested she became a writer.
In 1893 Alexandra married the engineer Vladimir Kollontai. In her autobiography Alexandra admitted that she "married early, partly as a protest against the will of my parents". Alexandra had a son but left her husband after three years of marriage. She later claimed that this was mainly motivated by her growing interest in politics: "We separated although we were in love because I felt trapped. I was detached, (from Vladimir), because of the revolutionary upsettings rooted in Russia".
Kollontai worked for a number of educational charities. This involved her visiting people living in extreme poverty. It was at that this time she began studying Marxism. This included reading radical journals such as Nachalo and Novoye Slovo . During the 1896 strike of textile-workers in St. Petersburg, Kollontai organized collections for the strikers. She also began writing articles for political journals about the plight of industrial workers in Russia.
In August, 1896, Kollontai left Russia and became a student of labour history at the University of Zurich. She read widely and was greatly impressed by the writings of George Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky. Kollontai also visited London where she met the labour historians, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb. "I had an introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb themselves, but after our first conversations I realized that we were not talking the same language, and I set out to see the labour movement for myself without their guidance. What I saw convinced me that they were wrong." She was now a committed Marxist and rejected their Fabian reformist views.
On her return to Russia she began to take a keen interest in the Finnish struggle for independence (Kollontai's mother was from Finland). She helped workers in Finland organize themselves into trade unions and wrote articles about the struggle between the Finnish people and the Russian autocracy. Her book, The State of the Working Class in Finland was published in 1903.
Kollontai was a member of the Social Democratic Labour Party. At its Second Congress in London in 1903, there was a dispute between two of its leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported Julius Martov.
Kollontai found it difficult to make up her mind which group she should join. As she recalled later: "I had friends in both camps, I was closer in spirit to Bolshevism, with its uncompromising belief in revolution, but the personal charm of Plekhanov restrained me from condemnation of Menshevism." Kollontai eventually decided not to join either group and offered her services to both factions.
After witnessing Bloody Sunday Kollontai began to concentrate her efforts in establishing a trade union movement in Russia. She was particularly active in helping to organize female workers and arranged special meetings and clubs for them.
Kollontai became increasing concerned about the dictatorial attitudes of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks and in 1906 she joined the Mensheviks. Two years later she was forced to flee Russia after a pamphlet Finland and Socialism was published. Her call for an armed insurrection upset the Russian authorities and to avoid arrest she went to live in Germany. Over the next few years she wrote a series of books including The Class Struggle, The Social Foundations of the Female Question, Society and Motherhood and The Working Class and the New Morality.
In the first few months of the First World War Kollontai was arrested in Germany and deported to Sweden. Her anti-war writings upset the Swedish government and she was forced to move to Norway. In 1915 she was invited by the American Socialist Party to give a lecture tour of the United States.
In 1915 Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks and returned to Russia to take part in plot to overthrow the Provisional Government. "All that the February revolution of 1917 achieved was the overthrow of tsarism and the introduction of those commonly accepted political rights and freedoms recognised by any liberal-bourgeois government (freedom of association and the press, the right to coalition and alliance). The old, bureaucratic, bourgeois spirit that reigned over life in Russia remained unchanged. The former officials remained in all the ministries, the former laws and regulations continued to operate throughout the land, and the only difference was that the former monarchists became the faithful servants first of Milyukov and Guchkov, and then of Kerensky and Tereshchenko."
Although she did not enjoy a good relationship with Lenin, he appointed her as Commissar for Social Welfare. Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Sophia Smidovich and Nadezhda Krupskaya were the only women to play a prominent role in the male-dominated Bolshevik administration. Kollontai remain a staunch feminist and with Armand and Smidovich helped form the Central Commission for Agitation and Propaganda Among Working Women (Zhenotdel).
The historian, Sally J. Taylor, has argued: "Kollontai had made her reputation as a strong defender of the rights of women. Her serious studies of the inhumane working conditions suffered by women and children in factories, along with her tracts attacking prostitution, greatly influenced the Communist Party's early attitudes, as reflected by the wide-ranging reforms regarding women which had been enacted into law.... Elements within the Party now blamed Kollontai personally for many of the excesses of the age. Her popularity and the popularity of her writings were thought responsible for the general marital instability, which had brought well over 100,000 divorces in 1922 alone."
Kollontai became friendly with Walter Duranty, a journalist working for the New York Times. According to the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990), Duranty "was fascinated by Kollontai's controversial attitudes toward the relations between the sexes". During this period Kollontai suggested that "erotic friendships" among Bolsheviks that could "function as part of communism by forging bonds of commradely solidarity". To some of her critics she was advocating promiscuity.
In government Kollantai became increasing critical of the Communist Party and joined with her friend, Alexander Shlyapnikov (Commissar for Labour) to form a faction that became known as the Workers' Opposition. In 1921 Kollantai published a pamphlet The Workers' Opposition, where she called for members of the party to be allowed to discuss policy issues and for more political freedom for trade unionists. She also advocated that before the government attempts to "rid Soviet institutions of the bureaucracy that lurks within them, the Party must first rid itself of its own bureaucracy."
This attack on the Bolsheviks meant the end of Kollantai's political career in Russia. At the Tenth Party Congress in 1922, Lenin proposed a resolution that would ban all factions within the party. He argued that factions within the party were "harmful" and encouraged rebellions such as the Kronstadt Rising. The Party Congress agreed with Lenin and the Workers' Opposition was dissolved.
When Joseph Stalin gained power he sent Kollantai abroad as a diplomat. This included periods in Norway (1923-25), Mexico (1925-27), Norway (1927-30) and Sweden (1930-45).
Kollantai retired in 1945 and lived in Moscow until her death on 9th March, 1952. She was the only major critic of the Soviet government that Joseph Stalin did not have executed.
On the advice of my professor and armed with introductions from him, I set off for England in 1899 to study the English labour movement, which was supposed to convince me of the truth was on the side of the opportunists, and not the "leftists". I had an introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb themselves, but after our first conversations I realized that we were not talking the same language, and I set out to see the labour movement for myself without their guidance. What I saw convinced me that they were wrong. I realized the acute social contradictions existing in England and the impotence of the reformists to cure them by trade union tactics or by the famous "settlements" such as Toynbee Hall, the co-operatives and clubs, etc.
On my return from abroad in 1903, I joined neither of the Party groupings, offering to be used as an agitator by both factions. Bloody Sunday, 1905, found me in the street. I was going with the demonstrators to the Winter Palace, and the picture of the massacre of unarmed, working folk is for ever imprinted on my memory. The unusual bright January sunshine, trusting, expectant faces, the fateful signal from the troops drawn up round the palace, pools of blood on the white snow, the whips, the whooping of the gendarmes, the dead, the injured, children shot.
A great and long-awaited event which we Marxists always believed to be inevitable, but which we nonetheless viewed rather as a dream or an ideal of the future rather than as an imminent reality, has at last occurred.
The Russian proletariat, supported by armed soldiers - and they too are the sons of proletarians or peasants - have seized state power. For the first time in the history of man a state is headed not by the representatives of capital, of the bourgeoisie, but by the vanguard of the fighting proletariat - the left wing of Russian Social-Democracy, the Bolsheviks.
As far back as the February revolution, in Russia, the Bolsheviks realised the inevitability of a clash between the working class, supported by an exhausted peasantry and soldiers wearied to death of war, and the Russian bourgeoisie.
All that the February revolution of 1917 achieved was the overthrow of tsarism and the introduction of those commonly accepted political rights and freedoms recognised by any liberal-bourgeois government (freedom of association and the press, the right to coalition and alliance). The old, bureaucratic, bourgeois spirit that reigned over life in Russia remained unchanged. The former officials remained in all the ministries, the former laws and regulations continued to operate throughout the land, and the only difference was that the former monarchists became the faithful servants first of Milyukov and Guchkov, and then of Kerensky and Tereshchenko.
The major capitalists and industrialists in Russia thought that after the February revolution the danger was past, and that after the overthrow of the tsarist regime, capitalists in Russia would have full freedom of action in order to create in Russia a purely capitalist republic similar to the one in Northern America, where all state power is firmly in the hands of capitalist magnates. Only this summer the Russian bourgeoisie celebrated its victory, and sought by every kind of political intrigue and deceit (and in particular by the formation of a coalition government) to strengthen its position and weaken that of the socialists. It sought to buy over wavering social-patriots such as Tsereteli, Chernov and Avksentyev by promising them a share in government.
At that time there existed in Russia only one party which, from the very beginning of the February revolution, adopted a negative attitude towards the bourgeois-imperialist policies of the Cadets and social-patriots – and that was the Bolshevik Party. As far back as April the Bolsheviks put forward the slogan: “All power to the Soviets!” and repeatedly emphasised that it was essential to end the war. However, the war could only be ended by revolution and the overthrow of the bourgeois-capitalist government. Therefore, anyone who wanted to fight for peace had, at the same time, to fight to seize power. The more resolutely the Bolsheviks supported these slogans, the more savagely they were attacked by their political opponents, by the Cadets and their lackeys from the socialist party – the social-patriots. But the Bolsheviks calmly continued their work, fulfilling their great historical mission.
The Bolsheviks not only found themselves in opposition, flaying the social-patriots and ceaselessly criticising and exposing the harmful essence of imperialism both within and without Russia, but they also sought energetically and persistently to create a basis for the development of a revolutionary workers' movement that would be supported by the popular masses and would not hesitate before open and armed insurrection.
In Petrograd, Moscow and throughout Russia large trade unions were formed with 100 to 200 thousand members (metal workers, textile workers, wood workers, etc.). Then under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, workers' and soldiers' clubs were set up with their own libraries, study courses, cheap canteens, etc. At the same time, the first steps were taken to organise a union of socialist youth, whose membership reached 50 thousand. The Bolsheviks also did a great deal of work among the soldiers at the front in order to strengthen the spirit of internationalism there also. Millions of copies of pamphlets and brochures were distributed which openly set out the problem of war as understood by socialist-internationalists. Bolshevik-led meetings, congresses and conferences were also called for the same purpose.
Two million babies, tiny lights just kindled on this earth, died in Russia every year because of the ignorance of the oppressed people, because of the bigotry and indifference of the class state. Two million mothers wet the Russian soil with their bitter tears each year as, with their calloused hands, they piled earth on the innocent victims of an ugly state system. Human thought has at last come out into the open vistas of the radiant epoch where the working class can build, with its own hands, forms of child care that will not deprive a child of its mother or a mother of her child.
Two million young lives were yearly dwindling in Russia because of the darkness of the oppressed people, because of apathy of the class state. Two million suffering mothers were saturating yearly the Russian earth with tears and were covering with their blistered hands the early graves of the innocent victims of the hideous social order. The human thought, which had for centuries seeked a path, has at last reached the bright epoch of workers' reforms, which will safeguard the mother for the child and the child for the mother. Bright samples capitalist moral – homes for orphans filled above their capacity, having a colossal mortality rate and a hideous form of nursing the infants, which form was an insult to the sacred feelings of a helpless laboring mother and which made the mother-citizen a dull nursing animal – all these horrors of a nightmare have fortunately, sunk in the dark mist of the past since the victory of the workers and the peasants. A morning, bright and pure or the children themselves has come.
You, working women, laboring mother-citizens, with your responsive hearts, – you brave builders of the new social life, – you ideal pedagogues, children's physicians and nurses, – all of you are called by the new Soviet Russia to contribute your minds and feelings to the building of the great structure of social welfare of the future generations. All the small and large institutions of the Commissariat of Social Welfare which serve the children, – all of them from the day of publication of this decree, mould into one state organization and are transformed to the supervision of the Department for safeguarded mothers and children, so as to create an inseparable chain together with the Institutions for the care of pregnant women, for the purpose of bringing up mentally and physically strong citizens. The Petrograd Home with all the auxillary branches, becomes part of the "Palace for Safeguarding Motherhood and Infancy", as one of its departments and is named "The Palace of Infancy". The Moscow Home becomes part of the Moscow Institute of Motherhood and is named "The Moscow Institute of Infancy".
For the purpose of precipitating the realization of the necessary reforms far the safeguarding childhood in Russia, at the Department for Safeguarding Motherhood and Infancy a Committee is being organized. It is to be composed of representatives of the Soviet of Workers' Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies, of Workers' organizations and of specialists, interested in the question of social welfare of the infants. The following principles are to be the Committee's guiding principles:
1. Safeguarding the mother for the child: the best drop of milk for the child – is the milk from its mother's breast.
2. Bring up the child in an atmosphere of a widely developed Socialist family.
3 To create for the child conditions, which would lay a foundation for the development of its physical and mental strength and for, bright understanding of life.
The workers ask - who are we? Are we really the prop of the class dictatorship, or are we just an obedient flock that serves as a support for those who, having severed all ties with the masses, carry out their own policy and build up industry without any regard to our opinions and creative abilities under the reliable cover of the party label.