Sofia Panina was born in 1871. She came from a very privileged background. Her maternal grandfather owned an industrial company employing over 100,000 workers, whereas her paternal grandfather, Count Viktor Nikitich Panina was a large landowner and was Minister of Justice for over twenty five years.
In 1882 her mother, Anastasiia Panina married Ivan Ilich Petrunkevitch. Her grandmother, Nalalia Panina took Sofia into her custody and enrolled her at the Catherine Institute, St Petersburg. She married Alexander Polovstov in 1890, however she subsequently divorced him and reverted to her maiden name.
Sofia Panina now concentrated on her charity work. Panina founded the Ligovsky Narodnyi Dom, a community centre catering for working-class residents in an impoverished district on southern outskirts of St Petersburg. The American journalist, Louise Bryant, later recalled: "It had a progressive mission for the development of popular education and cultural elevation and provided one of the few places socialists could legally meet. where good concerts were cheap enough for the masses to attend. She was never afraid to undertake new and hard tasks. It was she who introduced popular lectures and adult schools."
On 26th February Nicholas II ordered the Duma to close down. Members refused and they continued to meet and discuss what they should do. Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Tsar suggesting that he appoint a new government led by someone who had the confidence of the people. When the Tsar did not reply, the Duma nominated a Provisional Government headed by Prince George Lvov. Members of the Cabinet included Pavel Milyukov, Foreign Minister, Alexander Guchkov, Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky, Minister of Justice, Mikhail Tereshchenko, Finance Minister, Alexander Konovalov, Minister of Trade and Industry and Peter Struve, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Sofia Panina wrote in her memoirs: “I never belonged to any political party and my interests were concentrated on questions of education and general culture, which alone, I was deeply convinced, could provide a firm foundation for a free political order.” However, the arrival of the Provisional Government, encouraged her to join the Constitutional Democratic Party. In May she became a member of the Party Central Committee and in August she was elected to the Duma. Panina became the first woman in a Russian cabinet when she became assistant to the newly created Minster of Social Welfare. Then in July she was made assistant to Sergey Oldenburg, the Minister of Education.
Louise Bryant, the author of Six Months in Russia (1918) met her in 1917 and compared her to Jane Addams: "In appearance Panina reminds one of Jane Addams. She is middle-aged and wears severe English-looking clothes. But somehow her clothes are not at all consistent with her personality. She is gay and amusing and she loves to tell funny anecdotes about the revolution." Lenin described her as "one of the cleverest defenders of the capitalistic system."
On 25th October, 1917, the Duma sent her as one of three delegates to visit the Aurora in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to hold their fire. After the Russian Revolution her home was used for meetings of important anti-Bolshevik groups. She was arrested at her home on 28th November with Andrei Ivanovich Shingarev and Prince Pavel Dolgorukov.
Sofia Panina was put on trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Petrograd Soviet on 10th December 1917. She was accused of embezzling 93,000 rubles from the Ministry of Education. She admitted that she had the money but refused to turn it over to the new authorities because she refused to accept the authority of the Bolshevik government. During the trial witnesses gave evidence of her charitable work. One man, who attended her school, said: "She has given me the possibility to think. I could not read and she taught me to read. Then she was strong and we were weak. Now she is weak and we (the masses) are strong. We must give her her liberty. The world must not hear that we are ungrateful and that we imprison the weak."
Another witness, a young factory worker, commented on this evidence: "Let us not be sentimental. Panina is not a countess here, she is a plain citizen, and she has taken the people's money. We do not want to harm her - to do her any injustice. All we ask is that she return the money. The old man is grateful that she taught him to read. We live in a new age now. We do not depend on charity for light. We believe that every man has the right to an education. With money such as Panina is keeping from the people we shall found schools, where every one shall learn. As revolutionists we do not believe in charity, we are not grateful for chance crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich."
The Revolutionary Tribunal of the Petrograd Soviet came to the decision that "Countess Panina should remain in the Peter and Paul Fortress until she returns the people's money. At the moment she complies with this demand she will be given her full liberty and she shall be turned over to the contempt of the people." Sofia Panina now decided to hand over the money.
After leaving prison she gave an interview to Louise Bryant. She explained that she considered her main enemy was Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik Minister of Welfare. She complained about her reforms: "I, myself, am frantically democratic! But being democratic and being practical are two different things. All the reforms Madame Kollontay will make now will be at the expense of Russia's unfortunates. The people will pay for these experiments with their lives... "This absurd Madame Kollontay invites the servants to come and sit in armchairs at her meetings. Such things cannot be! What can they know of social reforms or of technical training? It is putting the feet up and the head down, quite mechanically."
After the Russian Revolution Panina supported the efforts of General Anton Denikin and the White Army. Following their defeat she emigrated to Switzerland. In 1925 she moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. On the outbreak of the Second World War she left Europe for the United States.
Sofia Panina died in New York City in 1956.
As a liberal she did much for struggling Russia in the time of the Tsar. Her Norodny Dom People's House - was the only Norodny Dom in Russia where good concerts were cheap enough for the masses to attend. She was never afraid to undertake new and hard tasks. It was she who introduced popular lectures and adult schools. If all the members of her party (Cadets) had been up to her standard, they would never have fallen into their present disrepute. Lenin in one of his pamphlets calls her "one of the cleverest defenders of the capitalistic system."
In appearance Panina reminds one of Jane Addams. She is middle-aged and wears severe English-looking clothes. But somehow her clothes are not at all consistent with her personality. She is gay and amusing and she loves to tell funny anecdotes about the revolution.
Countess Panina considers Alexandra Kollontay her bitterest political opponent. In July, Kollontay was in Peter and Paul Fortress, and Countess Panina was Minister of Welfare; by October things were reversed.
"I followed her course with great pleasure," said Panina, laughing.
I asked Panina if she believed in the self-governing of charitable institutions as introduced by Kollontay. Countess Panina flushed with anger and looked at me quizzically.
"Do you mean," she said, "the self-governing of children under six or people over one hundred?"
Then she began to rage against Kollontay.
"I, myself, am frantically democratic!" she exclaimed. "But being democratic and being practical are two different things. All the reforms Madame Kollontay will make now will be at the expense of Russia's unfortunates. The people will pay for these experiments with their lives."
I wanted to remind her that this was true also in her time and in any age, but she was unreasonable on every subject that had to do with Kollontay. Once she even said, "I blame her for the massacre of the officers, and not the poor sailors and soldiers," which was surely a ridiculously unjust statement, for Kollontay would be the last person to think of such a thing.
"This absurd Madame Kollontay," she said, "invites the servants to come and sit in armchairs at her meetings. Such things cannot be! What can they know of social reforms or of technical training? It is putting the feet up and the head down, quite mechanically."
"I cannot understand," I said to Countess Panina, "how you can love Russia so much and still take part in this terrible sabotaging. To me the sabotagers are equal to the invading Germans as enemies of the Russian people."
Panina evaded. "Anyway," she purred, "it has been far from successful. There was nothing very spontaneous about it. The very fact that we were ruining the country, and knew it, made us half-hearted. All of us had to halt somewhere, so there was no thoroughness about it. I, for instance, objected to sabotaging in the schools. As you know, the teachers' strike lasted only three days."
"Education has always been my work. To close the schools was punishing the people for wilfulness by administering darkness. I felt that they needed light more than anything else. I found myself going around arguing that the schools were not a point in question. So that when you come right down to it I am not very much of a sabotager."
"On what points do you disagree with the Bolsheviki?" I asked.
"I disagree with them on every point," she cried, "and I think that their leaders are disgusting."
"But you think that they are honest?"
"I know several that are honest," she admitted reluctantly.
"And they treated you well while you were in prison?"
"Yes, they treated me exceptionally well, but the decision of the Revolutionary Tribunal was not the decision of educated persons; it was absurd from a judicial point of view."
"What will your party do to overthrow the present regime?"
"What can we do?" said Countess Panina helplessly. "At present the Bolsheviki have the army and most of the workers and peasants. We must be silent and wait."
"I shouldn't think you would want to do anything if the Soviet Government is really then the expression of the majority of the Russian people."
We were sitting on a couch in Countess Panina's library. She reached over impulsively and took hold of my arm. "Listen," she said, "you are just naturally a Bolshevik. All Americans are I can never understand why."