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.
Kollontai took a keen interest in the trade union movement. Attempts by workers to form trade unions were resisted by the factory owners and in 1903 Father Georgi Gapon formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members. According to Cathy Porter: "Despite its opposition to equal pay for women, the Union attracted some three hundred women members, who had to fight a great deal of prejudice from the men to join." Vera Karelina was an early member and led its women's section: "I remember what I had to put up with when there was the question of women joining... There wasn't a single mention of the woman worker, as if she was non-existent, like some sort of appendage, despite the fact that the workers in several factories were exclusively women." Karelina was also a Bolshevik but complained "how little our party concerned itself with the fate of working women, and how inadequate was its interest in their liberation.''
1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike. Tsar Nicholas II became concerned about these events and wrote in his diary: "Since yesterday all the factories and workshops in St. Petersburg have been on strike. Troops have been brought in from the surroundings to strengthen the garrison. The workers have conducted themselves calmly hitherto. Their number is estimated at 120,000. At the head of the workers' union some priest - socialist Gapon. Mirsky came in the evening with a report of the measures taken."
In an attempt to settle the dispute, Father Georgi Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages and an improvement in working conditions. Gapon also called for the establishment of universal suffrage and an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Gapon wrote: "We workers, our children, our wives and our old, helpless parents have come, Lord, to seek truth and protection from you. We are impoverished and oppressed, unbearable work is imposed on us, we are despised and not recognized as human beings. We are treated as slaves, who must bear their fate and be silent. We have suffered terrible things, but we are pressed ever deeper into the abyss of poverty, ignorance and lack of rights."
Over 150,000 people signed the petition and on 22nd January, 1905, Gapon led a large procession of workers to the Winter Palace in order to present the petition. Alexandra Kollontai was on the march and her biographer, Cathy Porter, has described what took place: "She described the hot sun on the snow that Sunday morning, as she joined hundreds of thousands of workers, dressed in their Sunday best and accompanied by elderly relatives and children. They moved off in respectful silence towards the Winter Palace, and stood in the snow for two hours, holding their banners, icons and portraits of the Tsar, waiting for him to appear."
Gapon later described what happened in his book The Story of My Life (1905): "The procession moved in a compact mass. In front of me were my two bodyguards and a yellow fellow with dark eyes from whose face his hard labouring life had not wiped away the light of youthful gaiety. On the flanks of the crowd ran the children. Some of the women insisted on walking in the first rows, in order, as they said, to protect me with their bodies, and force had to be used to remove them. Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords. So, then, it was to be a massacre after all! There was no time for consideration, for making plans, or giving orders. A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us. Our front ranks broke before them, opening to right and left, and down the lane the soldiers drove their horses, striking on both sides. I saw the swords lifted and falling, the men, women and children dropping to the earth like logs of wood, while moans, curses and shouts filled the air."
In the attack by the Cossacks over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded. Alexandra Kollontai observed the "trusting expectant faces, the fateful signal of the troops stationed around the Palace, the pools of blood on the snow, the bellowing of the gendarmes, the dead, the wounded, the children shot." She added that what the Tsar did not realise was that "on that day he had killed something even greater, he had killed superstition, and the workers' faith that they could ever achieve justice from him. From then on everything was different and new." The incident became known as Bloody Sunday and it has been argued that this event signalled the start of the 1905 Revolution.
Kollontai became increasing concerned about the dictatorial attitudes of 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.