Out of the shadows: female Leninists and Russian socialism

Issue: 171

Judy Cox

In 1922, the great radical journalist Louise Bryant observed that Lenin drew great strength from the women close to him.1 Her observation contrasts sharply with the exploitative Lenin who has come to dominate historical studies and biographies. The women in Lenin’s circle are no longer sources of strength; they are diminished, subservient figures, existing in the shadows cast by Lenin. All aspects of their relationship with Lenin are magnified while their independent actions are shrunk into political insignificance. Women who spoke multiple languages, translated, published and distributed vitally important political literature, and organised conferences, mass strikes and insurgencies have been dismissed with sexist tropes. Thus, Lenin’s older sister, Anna Ulyanova, is a “hen-pecking wife”, and his younger sister, Maria, is a “crabby spinster”.2 Lenin’s wife, Nadia Krupskaya, is a woman whose life “had meaning only because she was linked to him”.3 Inessa Armand is merely “Lenin’s mistress”.

More insidious than this overt sexism is the consistent portrayal of Lenin as a manipulator of women—women dedicated not to the revolution but to Lenin the man. Historian Helen Rappaport expresses this view succinctly:

The women in Lenin’s life were ruthlessly exploited by him. His wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, known as Nadia, his mother Maria, mother-in-law Elizaveta, his sisters Anna and Maria Ulyanova, and his sometime lover Inessa Armand were all worn ragged in the interests of his own political ends.4

The “political ends” belong exclusively to Lenin. In a recent article, Jodi Dean describes Krupskaya’s Reminiscences of Lenin as an “odd duck” because, instead of romance and sex, Krupskaya writes about building socialist organisation. Men organise, women love.5

A serious and welcome body of studies have rescued Lenin from accusations of political elitism and reinstated his vision of revolutionary organisation linked organically to working-class self-activity.6 This article will begin the same process for the women who helped to formulate and implement Lenin’s political strategies. This article will not present a comprehensive account of Lenin’s views on female emancipation. Rather, it will explore how the self-activity of working women interacted with an influential network that existed at the heart of the Bolshevik Party. Thousands of female socialists constructed and sustained socialist organisation at great personal cost, and Lenin corresponded with many of them. These included leading Bolsheviks such as Elena Stasova, Rosalia Zemlyachka and Apollinariya Yakubova, who worked closely with Lenin and Krupskaya in St Petersburg and London. All these women should be written back into histories of Russian socialism. This article focuses on Anna and Maria Ulyanova, Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai, because at crucial moments they seized the initiative in order to propel the Bolshevik Party towards both women workers and socialist revolution. Lenin’s leadership was vital to the success of the October Revolution, but so was the creativity, courage and commitment of the women who most closely shared his political project.

Lenin’s sisters, Anna and Maria Ulyanova, were active in the Russian socialist movement from the 1880s to their deaths in the 1930s. At times they lived with their brother, at other times they lived hundreds of miles away. Krupskaya joined their circle when she met Lenin in St Petersburg’s radical scene of the 1890s. Inessa Armand joined the socialist movement in 1903 and was an experienced activist who had served two prison terms before she became close to Lenin and Krupskaya in exile in 1909.

Alexandra Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks when they formed as a distinct organisation in 1903, although she left them three years later over a disagreement about the Duma, the Tsarist parliament. She became a widely respected orator, writer and organiser before she rejoined the Bolsheviks in 1914 and was elected to the Central Committee in July 1917.

Kollontai’s political life and writings have been rescued in no small part due to the efforts of historian Cathy Porter. However, Anna and Maria Ulyanova have been written out of socialist history. Inessa Armand retains a place almost entirely defined by her relationship with Lenin. This marginalisation of socialist women is a significant distortion of historical reality. Women were central to Russian socialism from its birth in the 1860s during the reign of Tsar Alexander II to its death at the hands of Stalin in the late 1920s. During these 60 years, female Bolsheviks created a movement that has not since been surpassed in its ambitions for the total liberation of women.

One of the most influential texts for female activists, and on early Russian socialism as a whole, was an 1862 novel, What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It was written within the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, where Chernyshevsky served eight years penal servitude before being exiled to Siberia, where he died at the age of 61.7 Karl Marx corresponded with Chernyshevsky, and Friedrich Engels described his work as “greatly surpassing anything produced…in Germany and France by official historical science”.8 What is to be Done? exposed the burden imposed on women by patriarchal marriage and advocated egalitarian, communal ways of living. It became the foundational text of Russian socialism and radicalised many young Russians including Nadia Krupskaya, Anna and Maria Ulyanova, and their brother Vladimir Lenin.9 Lenin named his 1902 major work What is to be Done? after Chernyshevsky’s novel. Krupskaya recalled the impact of the novel on Inessa Armand: “Inessa was moved to socialism by the image of women’s rights and freedom in What is to be Done. Indeed, whole generations of Russian radicals were influenced by Chernyshevsky’s many-sided utopian novel and were moved to imitate its ‘uncommon men and women’”.10

Russian socialism had far more advanced ideas on the “woman question” than other European socialisms. Devastated by the defeats of the 1848 revolutions, women were just beginning to organise in tiny groups to revive their campaigns for liberation. In Britain in 1866, 1,500 signed a women’s suffrage petition. In France, a small group of women began to meet in the home of André Léo in order to discuss feminist ideas. In Russia, young women were enacting Chernyshevsky’s ideas in terrorist organisations that sought to topple Tsarism through a combination of political assassinations and peasant uprisings. Two women, Sophia Perovskaya and Vera Figner, took part in the assassination of Alexander II on 13 March 1881. Figner was imprisoned for 20 years, and 27 year old Perovskaya became the first Russian woman executed for terrorism. After the February Revolution of 1917, Figner was at the centre of the campaign for women’s suffrage and was acknowledged as a giant of the revolutionary tradition.11 If self-sacrifice and courage were enough, these women would have overthrown Tsarism long before 1917. They failed to do this, but they did succeed in inspiring a new generation, including a young Alexandra Kollontai, who later employed Figner in the Peoples’ Commissariat for Social Security.12

Socialism begins at home

Biographies of Lenin perpetuate the myth that “mothers” are motivated by purely personal concerns for their children and are incapable of political thought. After the death of her husband in 1886, Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, provided for her family and gave her daughters the same educational opportunities as their brothers. She defended her children from the police authorities, accompanied them into exile and supported their revolutionary activities. Lenin’s letters show that his mother not only supported him financially but also received his articles posted from abroad and passed them on to underground publishers. The greatest trial Maria endured was the execution of her eldest son, Alexander, on 8 May 1887. Alexander and Anna, the two eldest siblings, had become student revolutionaries in St Petersburg. They were both arrested for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, although Anna was not involved. She was sentenced to five years’ exile in Siberia, which she was allowed to serve at home. In Soviet historiography, the brothers, Alexander and Vladimir, shaped their sister’s political paths: “Alexander made Anna a revolutionary, Vladimir made her a Marxist”.13 Yet Anna was a revolutionary years before her younger brother.

Nadia Krupskaya’s mother, Elizaveta Krupskaya, is described as a conservative and a Christian, but like Maria, she encouraged her children to challenge Tsarist repression and supported them when they were arrested, jailed and exiled. Elizaveta went with her daughter into exile when she was sentenced in 1898. One historian suggests that Elizaveta only went to stop her daughter living in sin with Lenin.14 Another historian observes that in exile Lenin was “glad of the companionship of Nadia, and even of his mother-in-law [my emphasis].” The truth is that Elizaveta chose to leave her home and live with exiled revolutionaries in Geneva, Paris, Brussels, Galicia and London. She enjoyed the company of Marxists, she decoded Bolshevik Party correspondence and sewed clothes with special pockets for smuggling documents.15 When Elizaveta died, Krupskaya wrote, “She had been a close comrade, who had helped in all our work… The comrades loved her”.16 Yet to historians, she is an inconvenience, a nagging mother-in-law and never a woman in her own right.

Going underground

The revolutionary underground movement was fraught with hardship and danger, but it was also a place where women enjoyed at least formal equality with men.17 They were equally subject to the vicious repression dealt out by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. In 1900, Anna Ulyanova escaped arrest by fleeing to Switzerland.18 Maria Ulyanova was already a student revolutionary before she moved to Moscow in 1898. She joined the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) and within a year was a paid party worker.19 Maria was arrested in October 1899 and released, only to be arrested again in 1901 when she was exiled for three years.

Between 1901 and 1903, Bolshevik women played a vital role in establishing Iskra as the most successful Russian-language socialist paper for 50 years. Anna worked for the paper in both Paris and Berlin.20 Maria began working for Iskra in Moscow, receiving it hidden in the covers of books sent from abroad. Nadia Krupskaya worked on Iskra along with longstanding revolutionary Vera Zasulich in the newspaper’s offices at Clerkenwell Green, London. Zasulich had served a four-year prison sentence in 1869 and, on her release, attempted to assassinate the notorious Russian reactionary Colonel Fyodor Trepov, seriously wounding him. Zasulich’s acquittal by jury caused a sensation. In hiding in Switzerland, Zasulich became a founding member of the Emancipation of Labour Group, a forerunner of the RSDLP, and joined the Iskra editorial board.21

Krupskaya’s biographer, Robert McNeal, describes how, as secretary of the Iskra group, Krupskaya “obviously worked under Lenin’s direct supervision, and there is no point in trying to inflate her independent role”.22 Louise Bryant, a contemporary witness, had a more positive view of Krupskaya’s contribution, noting that she “not only had charge of publishing a newspaper but carried on vast party activities. At one time she was in communication with every revolutionist in Russia”.23 Bryant recognised Krupskaya’s authority and influence, but later historians assume she was incapable of independent thought and action.

Nadia Krupskaya could date her participation in Marxist discussion circles back to 1889. She later recalled words from Marx’s Capital that caused her heart to “beat so that it could be heard”: “The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are appropriated”.24 In 1890, Krupskaya reviewed Engels’s The Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State and the first volume of Marx’s Capital for her discussion group in St Petersburg.25 For five years she taught working-class men in evening and Sunday schools.26 When she first met Lenin in the autumn of 1894, she was his guide to working-class life in the city.

In 1896, an important textile strike broke out, led by female weavers.27 Krupskaya and Kollontai organised solidarity and socialist propaganda aimed at the strikers. Kollontai smuggled strike leaflets into the factories and was profoundly affected by the way the strike transformed the women themselves. The woman worker, she wrote, “oppressed, timid, without rights, straightens up to her full height and becomes equal as a fighter and comrade”.28 This transformation was not automatically embraced by male socialists. Krupskaya recalled that her activities were hindered by men who believed women were incapable of militancy.29 According to Krupskaya, Lenin supported her work among the women of St Petersburg, and it was Lenin who insisted that the draft of the party programme written in 1903 include the demand for “complete equality of rights for men and women”.30

In October 1896, Krupskaya was arrested and spent six months in prison before her mother’s vigorous lobbying secured her release. A year later, the Russian authorities granted Krupskaya permission to join Lenin, who had been exiled to Siberia, on condition that they marry. During this exile, Krupskaya wrote a pamphlet, The Woman Worker. Her biographer generously acknowledges that the pamphlet is worth “a moment’s attention” because it shows how Krupskaya adopted Marxism under “Lenin’s tutelage”.31 The Woman Worker has long been overlooked by historians, but it was not dismissed by those who Krupskaya sought to address. When the pamphlet was published by Iskra in 1901, it became the first Marxist account of women’s oppression written by a Russian and one of the first written by a woman in any language.32 It became the basis for working women’s discussions groups, including one organised by Kollontai in St Petersburg in 1906.33 In 1914, Kollontai organised an international women’s conference and wrote to Krupskaya to ask for copies of the The Woman Worker for the bookstall.34 Krupskaya’s pamphlet was a crucial political tool for Bolshevik women.35

The Woman Worker developed Marx’s analysis of women’s oppression by pointing out that when women earn their own wage, even in terrible conditions, they are in a better position to fight for their rights than if they remain isolated in the home.36 Thus, Krupskaya argued, only the struggle for socialism offered women a different future. In 1901, as the pamphlet was published, Krupskaya joined Lenin abroad and, with her mother Elizaveta, spent the next five years building that socialist organisation as best they could in Munich, Paris and London.

In 1903, the RSDLP split into two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Anna and Maria Ulyanova devoted their considerable energies to cementing Bolshevik organisation within Russia. Kollontai also joined the Bolsheviks. Kollontai was born in Paris in 1872 to a French mother and Russian father and raised in Russia. In 1893, she married her cousin, Vladimir Kollontai, and gave birth to a son. She left her husband after three years of marriage and began studying at the University of Zurich, where she joined the RSDLP in 1899. Among Kollontai’s many pioneering writings was a study of the Finnish struggle for national independence, published in a now overlooked 1903 book, Finland and Socialism, which drew on her experience in exile and advocated armed insurrection against the Russian Empire.

Another female recruit to the Bolsheviks was a socialist who was new to revolutionary organisation, Inessa Armand.37 Armand was born in Paris in 1874. At the age of 19, she had married a wealthy Russian, Alexander Armand, and they had four children. However, Armand left Alexander in 1902 and set up home with his younger brother, Vladimir, who was a revolutionary, and had another child with him. Armand continued to be close friends with Alexander. Inessa Armand’s audacity, incredible political commitment and piercing theoretical analysis meant that she became a leading figure in the international socialist movement.

1905: “Revolution as a Festival of the Oppressed”

On 22 January 1905, thousands of starving workers in St Petersburg set out to present a petition of 150,000 signatures to the Tsar, respectfully begging their “Little Father” for a shorter working day and higher wages. The demonstrators were shot down in cold blood. Fury at the massacre, known as Bloody Sunday, sparked an insurrectionary mass strike movement which spread rapidly across the Russian empire.

One witness to the massacre was Kollontai. During the 1905 Revolution, Kollontai participated in the St Petersburg Soviet (workers’ council). She began to argue that the Bolsheviks needed to make more effort to organise the growing number of militant women workers. Bolshevik leaflets demanding equal pay for women circulated widely.38

Anna Ulyanova witnessed the public fury that greeted Bloody Sunday, which prompted her to write to Lenin and Krupskaya that the long awaited revolution had begun.39 Maria Ulyanova arrived in St Petersburg in the summer of 1905 and joined Anna in the hectic work of the Bolsheviks, “running around like one possessed”.40

Krupskaya rushed back from exile to St Petersburg to join the revolution and became secretary of the Bolshevik Central Committee with control over the party’s finances.41 The Bolshevik Party grew several times over before the government arrested the leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet and crushed the insurrection in Moscow. Krupskaya obtained a fake passport and managed to stay in Russia until the summer of 1906, but she and Lenin were once again forced into exile by the end of 1907.

In 1905, Armand was living in Moscow where the strike movement brought the city to a standstill and developed into an insurrection. She wrote to Alexander Armand, “We’re having something like a revolution! There is an extraordinary animation. All of Petersburg is out on strike, and even Moscow is beginning to go out”.42 A police raid unearthed revolutionary literature and a revolver in Armand’s room. She was arrested but released and fled the country.43

Kollontai, the Ulyanov sisters and Armand all gained direct experience of the power of revolution to transform society. Kollontai dated the beginning of the women’s movement in Russia to the insurgencies of 1905, when women in the factories “came to life” and peasant women’s riots erupted across southern Russia.44 Lenin noted how the mass strike movement stirred demands for national liberation among Russia’s oppressed peoples, just as Kollontai had identified in her study of Finland. Lenin wrote that:

Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times, the people are capable of performing miracles.45

Lenin, Maria and Anna Ulyanova, Kollontai, Armand and Krupskaya, all articulated the sense of new possibilities generated as the marginalised and excluded attempted the radical transformation of society.

Women in exile

Repression followed the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. Revolutionaries had to return to exile and look to new campaigns and struggles. Kollontai recalled fighting on two fronts after 1905: challenging the middle-class women’s movement and challenging socialist men who were reluctant to address what they saw as “women’s issues”. Forced to leave Russia to escape arrest in 1908, she went to Germany and became active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), forging vital links with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.46 The publication of Kollontai’s The Social Basis of the Woman Question became the basis for a friendship with the great German socialist Clara Zetkin. In 1909, Kollontai joined Zetkin on a visit to suffrage campaigner and future Communist Party activist Dora Montefiore in London, where she joined a 50,000-strong May Day demonstration. Kollontai was back in London in the autumn of 1913, speaking at several rallies organised to protest the trial of a Russian Jew, Menahem Beilis, in Kiev. Beilis had been unjustly accused of ritual child murder and was the focus of a vicious, state-orchestrated campaign of antisemitism comparable to the Dreyfus Affair in France.47

In November 1908, Anna Ulyanova was in Moscow from where she wrote to Lenin outlining her response to his work, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Her letter included the suggestion: “It is necessary to omit or soften some of the abuse. Really and truly, Vladimir, you have too much of it”.48 Lenin acquiesced to some of Anna’s demands, and she took 50 copies of the book to friends in Moscow.49 Anna and Maria Ulyanova were forced into internal exile in Saratov, where they became central to building Bolshevik organisation until they were both arrested in a police raid on 7 May 1912. Anna was soon released but Maria was exiled to Vologda. There she organised strikes in protest at the Lena massacre, when 500 striking workers from Siberia’s goldfields were shot down by the Russian army, an event which became a cause célèbre in the Russian labour movement.

Armand was arrested three times in 1907 and finally sentenced to two years’ internal exile. In January 1909, she escaped to join her dangerously ill partner, Vladimir Armand, in France, but he died just two weeks after her arrival. Armand settled in Paris at a flat near Krupskaya and Lenin. Her grasp of political strategy and fluency in several languages meant that she was a natural choice as Bolshevik representative to the French Socialist Party.50 In 1911, she was elected to lead the Committee of Foreign Organisations, which coordinated the Bolsheviks’ émigré groups and revolutionary activities across Europe. In 1912, Armand went back to Russia to organise the Bolshevik campaign for elections to the Duma. While in St Petersburg, she developed her interest in women workers’ issues. Between 1901 and 1914, St Petersburg’s labour force grew by 37 percent, and 64 percent of the new workers were women. The Russian labour movement had dismissed these women as too difficult to organise. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of working women engaged with the Bolshevik paper, Pravda (“Truth”), prompting Armand, Krupskaya and another Bolshevik, Konkordiya Samoilova, to plan a new journal aimed at working-class women.51

Before plans could be finalised, Armand was arrested. She was released on bail after the intervention of her husband, Alexander, and returned to Lenin and Krupskaya. Historians have imposed their own prejudices about female sexuality onto these relationships. Helen Rappaport tells us, “Inessa was everything Krupskaya was not. She was beautiful, sophisticated, multilingual, as well as being elegant and feminine in an instinctively French way.” Krupskaya, aged 41, was “losing her looks”, while Armand, who was just four years younger, was “in her prime”.52 Only those involved know the real nature of their relationships, but we can be sure from their letters that Armand, Lenin and Krupskaya remained very close friends.53 As Louise Bryant observed, “Lenin adores his wife and speaks of her with enthusiasm”.54 Armand represented Lenin at the optimistically named Brussels “unity conference” of the RSDLP in 1914. The Bolsheviks had growing support in the trade unions and elections, but other socialist parties were manoeuvring to limit their authority. Historians have seized on Armand’s trip as evidence that Lenin manipulated her because he was “unwilling to expose himself to the assaults of his rivals”.55 Such accounts fail to even consider that Inessa was not doing Lenin a favour but was equally committed to establishing the Bolsheviks as the dominant force on the Russian left.

The growth of women’s suffrage movements in many European countries prompted debate among socialists. At the International Socialist Congress held in Stuttgart in 1907, the Austrian Social Democrats wanted to drop support for votes for women in order to make universal male suffrage easier to win. Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz from Germany comprehensively defeated this position and reaffirmed the socialists’ commitment to fighting for full universal suffrage. Lenin reported their victory enthusiastically, arguing that dropping the demand for female suffrage would have been a deviation from the principles of socialism.56

In 1913, the German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that the movement celebrate International Women’s Day, encouraged by women’s strikes and the suffrage campaign. She was supported by Kollontai, who observed approvingly that socialist parties were becoming more aware of the need to campaign for women’s rights. Lenin also contributed to this developing understanding of women’s oppression. He published articles highlighting the drudgery of domestic labour and defending the right to abortion and contraception as “elementary, democratic rights of citizens”.57 Eight years later, in 1921, Lenin returned to these themes in an article on International Women’s Day, arguing that women were oppressed as workers due to their lack of equal rights and as women because “household bondage” shaped their lives.58

A wave of working-class militancy in spring 1914 prompted Anna Ulyanova, Krupskaya, Armand, Kollontai and others to revive plans for a Bolshevik paper aimed at working-class women, Rabotnitsa (“The Working Woman”).59 Some comrades argued that precious funds should not be squandered on Rabotnitsa, which they saw as divisive. In contrast, Lenin asked Armand to set about preparing the publication “super-energetically”.60 The first edition was planned for International Women’s Day in March, but the police raided a meeting and arrested the entire editorial board. Anna escaped because she was late arriving.61 Most of the articles were already lodged with the printer, so Anna managed to get 12,000 copies of Rabotnitsa printed and distributed.62 She also successfully got seven further issues printed between February and June 1914.63 The secretary of the Rabotnitsa editorial team in St Petersburg was Nina Agadzhanova, who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1907 and suffered several periods in prison and exile. In 1917, following the October Revolution, Agadhanova undertook several military roles and later wrote the screenplay for Battleship Potemkin with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. It was in these pre-war years that the Bolshevik Party sank roots into the working class and acknowledged the urgent need to address women, not only as exploited workers but also as specifically oppressed due to their gender. This was a recognition driven principally by Armand, Kollontai, Lenin and their circle.

From world war to class war

August 1914 was a disaster for the international socialist movement. One by one, the socialist parties of the Second International abandoned their longstanding commitments to oppose war, caved into a wave of nationalism and collapsed into support for their own government’s war efforts. Kollontai left Germany in protest at the German Social Democrats’ capitulation. Lenin’s circle saw the Social Democrats’ submission to the war drive as evidence that the Bolshevik’s model of the revolutionary party was of universal relevance rather than just a response to the repressive conditions of Tsarist Russia. Lenin outlined the Bolshevik’s aim of turning the inter-imperialist war into a civil war against Tsarism in a series of documents published in September 1914. Kollontai read them and rejoined the Bolsheviks. She popularised the Bolshevik idea that the main enemy was at home in an enormously widely sold pamphlet, Who Needs War?, which was printed in the summer of 1916 and read by millions of both Russian and German soldiers.64 Just eight months into the war, in March 1915, Inessa Armand initiated an International Socialist Women’s Conference in Bern, Switzerland. Although the event attracted just 29 delegates, it was an important step in establishing a distinctly socialist opposition to the war. This position found an ever increasing audience as bitter hostility to mass murder in the trenches grew.

Despite the imperative of opposing the war, the revolutionaries continued to develop their theoretical understanding of women’s oppression. In 1915, Lenin and Armand had a row about a pamphlet she proposed to write about women. Lenin challenged her support for “free love”. Workers, Lenin argued, were interested in love free from financial and material worries. It was the bourgeoisie who were interested in love free from commitment, pregnancy and monogamy. Armand argued that casual sexual encounters could be more “poetic and clean” than the loveless kisses of a married couple. Lenin objected that fleeting kisses could be either dirty or clean and that Armand’s formulation reduced sexual relations to accidental encounters rather than situating them within class dynamics. These complex relationships, Lenin suggested, could be explored in a novel but not a popular pamphlet. Whether Armand was convinced or discouraged, she never published a pamphlet on women.

Another polemic developed when one socialist argued that there was no point defending women’s right to divorce because women were often too poor to exercise that right and leave their husbands. Lenin argued that “the absence of such freedom is an additional burden on the oppressed sex.” He acknowledged that women could not exercise their democratic rights because they were crushed economically and were “slaves of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen”.65 However, Lenin insisted that socialists must fight for democratic rights because, “The more complete the freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights but capitalism itself”.66 Amidst all the horror, repression and isolation imposed by the war, leading Bolsheviks clarified their approach to aspects of women’s oppression and continued demanding an expansion of the rights of women within the capitalist system.

From February to October

On 23 February 1917, working-class women in St Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, planned a march to celebrate International Women’s Day. Their procession sparked a mass strike movement in Petrograd and Moscow, which rapidly developed into a full-scale revolution. Within a week, the Tsar was forced to abdicate, bringing centuries of rule by the Romanov family to an abrupt end. Anna and Maria Ulyanova were in Russia. Anna was immediately arrested but when she began agitating amongst her fellow prisoners, she was quickly released—“freed by the people”, she declared.67 On 8 March, Anna and Maria were co-opted onto the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee. Their articles for Pravda kept exiled revolutionaries in touch with events. In one article they wrote: “How quickly everything has come to pass! Like a story, like a fantasy—beautiful and solemn. In one day, more has been lived through than at any other time would be experienced in a year, and in a few days the masses have ridded us of the past”.68 History was speeding up.

Lenin wrote a series of “Letters from Afar” in which he argued that socialists in Russia must continue to deepen the revolutionary process. In one letter, Lenin wrote:

If we do not draw women into public activity, into the militia, into political lifeif we do not tear women away from the deadening atmosphere of household and kitchenthen it is impossible to secure real freedom. It will be impossible even to build democracy, let alone socialism.69

Lenin now placed women at the centre of the revolutionary process. Alexandra Kollontai delivered the letters to Pravda on 2 April. She was also involved in building the influence of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks had very few delegates to the Petrograd Soviet so Kollontai sought a mandate from a woodworkers union, but they rejected her. She then approached a regiment of soldiers, who first rejected the idea of a woman representing them but then reconsidered. Kollontai became their representative on the Soviet, one of only eight women delegates, four of whom were Bolsheviks.70

Thousands of political exiles now rushed back to Russia. Lenin and Krupskaya arrived in Petrograd and attacked the Provisional Government that had been formed by the Mensheviks, liberals and the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries. Lenin’s stance caused outrage among socialists of all persuasions. In his first speech to the Petrograd Soviet, he outlined the need for further revolution in Russia and was heckled and shouted down. Alexandra Kollontai was the only Bolshevik at that meeting to publicly endorse Lenin’s April Theses, and Krupskaya and Armand, sitting in the front row, provided her only support.71 Lenin and Kollontai’s opponents argued that Russia was so backward that the revolution must establish the conditions for capitalism to develop before socialism could become a possibility. Lenin and Kollontai argued that the Russian Revolution could survive if it spread to industrial countries and provided the spark to ignite the world socialist revolution.

The Provisional Government refused to pull Russian troops out of the war. The Bolshevik Party responded to growing opposition to the war among working-class women by relaunching Rabotnitsa. Maria Ulyanova acquired a typewriter and she and Anna produced the paper. The first issue appeared on 10 May 1917 and immediately sold out of the 40,000 copies printed.72 Throughout May and June, Krupskaya addressed Rabotnitsa rallies in Vyborg, a large working-class district of Petrograd, while Kollontai spoke at rallies across Petrograd and Armand appeared before large audiences in Moscow.73 Rabotnitsa galvanised hostility to the war, generated support for the Bolsheviks among working-class women and gave working women a political platform.

Throughout the summer of 1917, workers’ and soldiers’ councils increasingly challenged the Provisional Government for legitimacy. Lenin was forced into hiding. He had been staying with Anna and Maria Ulyanova and Anna’s husband Mark, but it became too dangerous.74 Maria became Lenin’s representative at Pravda and was unanimously selected as the Petrograd Bolshevik Party candidate for the elections to the Constituent Assembly.75

Krupskaya became a member of the Bolshevik Committee in Vyborg, where she established a network of free local schools. She was committed to education, but she was also working to undermine the authority of the Provisional Government. As she explained, “There was what the ministry and the city Duma have not done, and here is what the public and the Bolsheviks have done”.76 Krupskaya also became chair of the Vyborg Committee for Relief of Soldiers’ Wives. This, her biographer wrote, “was essentially non-party, welfare activity” that was “certainly not very Leninist”.77 Indeed, the soldiers’ wives were almost universally dismissed as apolitical women seeking charity, but Krupskaya and Kollontai recognised these increasingly militant and organised women as comrades in the struggle for peace and bread.

Kollontai organised a demonstration of some 15,000 soldiers’ wives. They marched on the Petrograd Soviet demanding a raise in their allowances and an end to the war. The chair of the soviet, a Menshevik, came out to tell the women, “Seek not more money but an end to the war!” Kollontai heckled: “That’s rich, coming from a Menshevik!78 The Mensheviks had joined the Provisional Government, which not only refused to end the war but launched the disastrous “Kerensky offensive” of July 1917, bringing huge casualties. The women’s agitation among the soldiers’ wives paid off. Krupskaya remembered, “The first to carry on Bolshevik agitation among soldiers were the sellers of sunflower seeds and cider, and many were soldiers’ wives”.79

Millions of Russian men were conscripted to the front. The female Bolsheviks agitated among these men’s wives and among the women workers who replaced them in the huge factories of Petrograd and Moscow. Lenin acknowledged the importance of these activities when he revised the Bolshevik Party’s programme in June 1917. This committed the Bolshevik Party to fight for women’s political demands, the right to vote and free education for girls, and their economic demands such as workplace creches, time off for breast feeding and paid maternity leave.80 The Bolsheviks were becoming the political home of working women who increasingly understood that opposition to the war entailed opposition to capitalism itself.

Nevertheless, among Lenin’s circle there was a growing fear that the Bolshevik Party would let the revolutionary moment slip away. On 5 October, Krupskaya was one of seven Bolsheviks delegated from Vyborg to demand that the Bolshevik Central Committee organise an immediate seizure of power. By 24 October, Lenin had reached over the heads of the cautious Central Committee to the district committees with an appeal, which he entrusted to Krupskaya to disseminate to party members. Kollontai was at the all-night meeting which decided to launch the insurrection. Armand became secretary to the Moscow Soviet. All offered vital support to calls for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of all power to the Soviets.

A world reborn

The October Revolution put working-class people in power, and they began to create a workers’ state—albeit in a country ravaged by world war abroad and civil war at home. Women were an important part of this process. Anna Ulyanova helped to establish the Department for the Protection of Childhood and became head of it. Her remit was to improve the provision of homes for the thousands of children orphaned by the war.81 Anna had to write many appeals to “comrade communists” to “squeeze up in their offices” so that children could escape from their “damp cellars”.82 She campaigned for children’s homes to be built on the outskirts of cities, where children could play and learn in fresh air, “for the new society needs a new kind of people”.83

Maria Ulyanova became the leader of the worker-peasant correspondent movement (Rabselkor), which encouraged workers and peasants to write to Pravda. Between the February and October Revolutions, workers and soldiers regularly turned up at Maria’s office at Pravda headquarters to tell their stories.84 Maria explained that encouraging workers to write would fulfil “the crucial social role of bringing the party closer to the masses and vice versa”.85 Maria also criticised Rabselkor for not taking “sufficiently energetic measures” to encourage women to write to the newspaper.86

Krupskaya became deputy to Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of Narkompros, the commissariat in charge of education and the arts. Narkompros transformed the education system, establishing free and universal access to schooling for all children. The number of schools at least doubled within the first two years of the revolution. Mixed-gender education was immediately implemented as a means of combating sex discrimination, and schools were created for students with learning and other disabilities for the first time. Universities were opened to everyone regardless of qualifications. Krupskaya insisted that education reform was driven from below, arguing, “We were not afraid to organise a revolution. Let us not be afraid of the people… We want the people to direct the country and be their own masters”.87 These developments represented a huge achievement in the war-torn country plagued by huge levels of illiteracy.

Kollontai was appointed Commissar for Social Welfare, making her the first woman appointed to a cabinet position anywhere in the world. Even as the streets around Petrograd were being cleared of hostile troops, Kollontai and the women from Rabotnitsa, including Armand and Kruspkaya, convened a conference of working women. Kollontai recalled that some leading male Bolsheviks failed to grasp the importance of the conference, but Lenin supported the women and took an active interest in preparations for the gathering.88 She presented a report on maternity rights, and the discussions that took place formed the basis of Soviet policy.89 The Soviet government recognised that raising children was a collective responsibility. Within weeks of the October Revolution, medical services were made free to all women, doctors were given a state wage and all childcare institutions were brought under government control. The Bolshevik pledges of paid maternity leave and time off for breast feeding were implemented.90

Armand was appointed Director of the Central Commission for Agitation and Propaganda Among Working Women (Zhenotdel), and Kollontai was the leading figure on its committee. The Zhenotdel was an extraordinary undertaking, “one of the most ambitious attempts to emancipate women ever undertaken by a government”, challenging the legacy of women’s oppression in a country ravaged by war.91 As the White armies receded, the Zhenotdel’s female workers established branches across Russia. They encouraged women to fight for their legal rights and educated women about healthcare. Zhenotdel workers travelled to Central Asia, organising “red yurts” and “red boats” in order to reach out to Muslim women. In the autumn of 1918, over 1,000 women gathered for the first All-Russian Women’s Congress. Among the delegates were a significant number of Muslim women. Kollontai told Louise Bryant how female activists had engaged Muslim women more successfully than men ever could.92

Armand launched a theoretical journal aimed at women, Kommunista, in order to deepen women’s understanding of the roots of their oppression. The fifth edition of the journal carried her obituary. Exhausted by working 16 hour days, she went to recuperate at a sanatorium in the Caucasus mountains, but White armies attacked the area. Armand was evacuated but contracted cholera and died on 23 September 1920, aged 46. She was buried in Moscow’s Red Square accompanied by mass singing of the “Internationale”.

Lenin’s writings and speeches from these years demonstrate his deep commitment to the transformation of women’s lives, both in terms of formal equality and liberation from domestic drudgery. He repeatedly pointed out how the new soviet regime has far surpassed all the liberal democracies in abolishing all restrictions on women’s rights, but despite all these measures, women continued to be domestic slaves because, “petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wrecking and crushing drudgery”.93 The liberation of women from “household bondage”, Lenin argued, could only be achieved through the transformation of petty individual housekeeping into large-scale socialised domestic services, and that would require both political commitment and scarce material resources.94 The workers’ government made advances towards the collective care for children and the emancipation of women that have yet to be surpassed.

Women’s revolution betrayed

Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin consolidated his grip on power by ruthlessly purging the generation of “old Bolsheviks” who had built the party before the October Revolution. The women in this study were in some ways protected by their relationship with Lenin, and yet they all attempted to resist Stalin. Krupskaya was the first speaker for the United Opposition grouping at the party congress of 1925, but she was bullied and threatened into submission, with Stalin famously threatening to sack her and find another widow for Lenin. Kollontai, after supporting the opposition to Stalin, was sent as a diplomatic officer to Sweden and Mexico, finally becoming Soviet ambassador to Norway. Maria Ulyanova initially supported Stalin who had allied with her old friend Nikolai Bukharin, believing he represented the “lesser of two evils”.95 However, Stalin, having expelled Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev from the Politburo, then turned on Bukharin and launched an intense smear campaign against Maria. By 1929, she had been pushed out of her position at Pravda and Rabselkor. Stalin turned on Anna Ulyanova when she tried to publicise her discovery of her family’s Jewish ancestors to quell growing antisemitism.

The survival of Krupskaya, Anna and Maria Ulyanova, and Kollontai was exceptional. Old Bolsheviks of both genders were a threat to Stalin’s lie-machine and were murdered. Varvara Yakovleva, who joined the Bolsheviks as an 18 year old student in 1904, was elected to the Bolshevik Central Committee in August 1917 and supported Trostky’s opposition to Stalin before she was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1938; she was shot in 1941. Zlata Lilina, wife of Zinoviev, was shot in 1938; his ex-wife, Olga Ravich, died in a gulag. British Communist Rose Cohen, who married a Russian Bolshevik, was shot in 1938. Olga Kameneva, Trotsky’s sister and Lev Kamenev’s wife, was shot in 1941 alongside Maria Spiridonova, a well-known socialist leader who had played a prominent role in 1917. Behind these big names are hundreds of other female Bolsheviks—teachers, nurses, shop workers, factory workers—murdered by Stalin because they embodied the spirit of 1917.

The murderous brutality of Stalin’s counterrevolution must not be allowed to obliterate the liberatory tradition that the Bolsheviks represented. The Bolshevik Party was a living organism shaped by its members. Maria and Anna Ulyanova, Armand and Kollontai made a two-fold contribution to the party. Firstly, they recognised the centrality of women workers’ struggles and their demands for liberation to the socialist movement. Secondly, at decisive moments they acted to establish the Bolsheviks as a dominant political force, to build opposition to the First World War, to deepen the revolutionary movement in the summer of 1917 and to give the world a brief glimpse of how socialists could create a genuinely democratic and liberatory society.

Judy Cox is is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).


1 Bryant, 1923, pp5-6. Louise Bryant was a socialist journalist who travelled twice to Russia in order to report on the revolution and toured the United States arguing for solidarity with the revolutionaries.

2 Turton, 2004, pp22-23.

3 McDermid and Hillyar, 2006, p148.

4 Rappaport, 2017.

5 Dean, 2021.

6 Le Blanc, 2015; Lih, 2006.

7 Porter, 1976, p53.

8 Ross, 2015, p83; Engels, 1976.

9 McNeal, 1972, p19.

10 Wolfe, 1963.

11 Hartnett, 2014, pp205-236.

12 Porter, 1976, p283.

13 Turton, 2004, p34.

14 McNeal, 1972.

15 McNeal, 1972, p95.

16 Dean, 2021.

17 Clements, 1997, p12.

18 Turton, 2004, p47.

19 Turton, 2004, p53.

20 Turton, 2004, p69.

21 McNeal, 1972, p93.

22 McNeal, 1972, p101.

23 Bryant, 1923, p23.

24 McNeal, 1972, p29.

25 McNeal, 1972, p30.

26 McNeal, 1972, p31.

27 Porter, 1980, p52-53.

28 Kollontai, 1984.

29 Clements, 1997, p101.

30 Krupskaya, 1966.

31 McNeal, 1972, p78.

32 All previous major Marxist analyses of women’s oppression were written by men (Engels and August Bebel) or alongside a man (Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling). By 1905, Clara Zetkin had still only published a few short articles and speeches.

33 Porter, 1980, p121.

34 Porter, 1980, p193.

35 Kollontai published The Social Basis of the Woman’s Question in 1908. It was a fierce polemic against feminism, though, at 400 pages, it was not suitable for use as a popular pamphlet.

36 Krupskaya, 2018, p10.

37 Elwood, 1992, p38.

38 Porter, 1980, pp92-93.

39 Turton, 2004, p114.

40 Turton, 2004, p51.

41 McNeal, 1972, p123.

42 Elwood, 1992, p45.

43 Elwood, 1992, p48.

44 Porter, 2020, pp51-54.

45 Lenin, 1962.

46 Porter, 1980, p152.

47 Porter, 1980, pp191-192.

48 Turton, 2004, pp106-108.

49 Turton, 2004, p108.

50 Elwood, 1992, pp78-79.

51 Elwood, 1992, p105.

52 Rappaport, 2010, p194.

53 Elwood, 1992, pp141-143; McNeal, 1972, p156.

54 Bryant, 1923, p20.

55 Elwood, 1992, p135.

56 Lenin, 1972a.

57 Lenin, 1977.

58 Lenin, 1965.

59 These other women included Praskovya Kudelli, Konkordiya Samoilova, Lyudmila Menzhinskaya, Lilina Ziovieva and Lyudmila Stal.

60 Lenin, 1976.

61 Turton, 2004, p199.

62 Turton, 2004, p201.

63 Turton, 2004, p215.

64 Porter, 1980, p226.

65 Lenin, 1964a.

66 Lenin, 1964a.

67 Turton, 2004, p116.

68 Turton, 2004, p123.

69 Lenin, 1964b.

70 Porter, 2020, p190.

71 Porter, 1980, p248.

72 Porter, 1980, p255.

73 Porter, 1980, p249.

74 Turton, 2004, p140.

75 Turton, 2004, p145.

76 Porter, 1976, p177.

77 McNeal, 1972, p177.

78 Porter, 1980.

79 McDermid and Hillyar, 1994, p165.

80 Lenin, 1964c.

81 Turton, 2004, p150.

82 Turton, 2004, p173.

83 Turton, 2004, p174.

84 Turton, 2004, p140.

85 Turton, 2004, p52.

86 Turton, 2004, p191.

87 Fitzpatrick, 2002, p28.

88 Kollontai, 1984.

89 Porter, 1980,

90 Porter, 1980, p275.

91 Clements, 1997, p126.

92 Bryant, 1923, p121.

93 Lenin, 1972b.

94 Lenin, 1965.

95 Turton, 2004, p194.


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