Alexandra Kollontai in 1914

Alexandra Domontovich, the daughter of a Russian general, 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."

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.

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. However, she was now a committed Marxist and she 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.

Kollantai 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." Kollantai eventually decided not to join either group and offered her services to both factions.

After witnessing Bloody Sunday Kollantai 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.

Kollantai 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.

Alexandra Kollontai

1. Was highly critical of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

2. Wanted Russia to have universal suffrage.

3. Wanted the Russian government to allow freedom of expression and an end to political censorship of newspapers and books.

4. Believed that democracy could only be achieved in Russia by the violent overthrow of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

5. Was strongly opposed to Russia going to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

6. Believed that if Russia did go to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries should try to persuade the Russian soldiers to use their weapons to overthrow Nicholas II.

Primary Sources

(1) The Granat Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution was published by the Soviet government in 1924. The encyclopaedia included a collection of autobiographies and biographies of over two hundred people involved in the Russian Revolution. Alexandra Kollontai was one of those invited to write her autobiography.

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.