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Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900â"1950
By Paul Ginsborg
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Paul Ginsborg
All rights reserved.
Revolutionising family life: Russia, 1917–1927
I. Before the revolution
1. A nonconformist
Aleksandra Kollontai was born in St Petersburg in March 1872. Her mother was a formidable woman from a rich merchant family whose second husband was an aristocratic army colonel, Mikhail Alekseyevich Domontovich. Aleksandra was his daughter and she was born even before her mother's divorce had been formalised. Both her parents were liberals. Her father, who came from an old Ukrainian landowning family, more than once incurred the Tsar's wrath for advocating constitutional ideas, but he was eventually promoted to general and taught in the capital's elite cavalry school. 'Shura', as Aleksandra was called at home, was brought up for most of her childhood in a handsome St Petersburg town house; summers were spent on her maternal grandparents' estate at Kuusa in Finland. Family life for her was comfortable and stimulating, though her mother was strict and domineering, in constant conflict with her daughter. An English nanny, Miss Hodgson, provided Shura with some of the emotional warmth that her mother was incapable of giving. Kollontai wrote in her autobiographical notes, 'There was order in everything: to tidy my toys up by 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.' It was from this unlikely background that there emerged the most famous female figure of the Russian revolution, the only woman commissar in Lenin's revolutionary government of 1917, the theorist of new and freer sexual relations, and the passionate advocate of the need to abolish the bourgeois family and replace it with a higher form of communal living.
What clues are there in her own family of origin and in the years of her childhood to suggest that she would become so notable a figure and hold such extraordinary views? Her relationship with her father provides one line of enquiry. He was the person she most adored in her large family, a handsome and scholarly figure, but she had great difficulty in getting him to pay her any attention. After all, she was only a little girl. Once, she recalled, she crept into his study and, standing on tiptoe, kissed him on the forehead; 'Father looked up surprised as if he had never seen me before. Then he smiled.' It could be suggested that Kollontai was 'standing on tiptoe' for much of the rest of her life, trying to show herself worthy of so formidable a male alter ego.
A second clue concerns the pre-eminent role in her life, even at this early stage, of figures who are not blood relations. One is Miss Hodgson, her nanny. Another, of even greater significance, is Zoya Shadurskaya, a childhood friend who was to remain by Kollontai's side throughout her life. In future years Kollontai's own 'family' was often to consist of just two other persons – Misha, her only child, and Zoya, her greatest female friend. The three of them lived together in 1901, after Aleksandra's father had died. They did so again, both when Kollontai was a commissar and during the terrible days of the Civil War.
A final clue lies in the dreaming and restlessness that marked her character from her early years. Towards the end of her life she wrote, 'This childlike ability to dream helped me all my life; I not only saw what was real but I could easily imagine how it would be if life were changed.' This constant imagining accompanied a strong desire for romantic self-realisation and public recognition.
In her youth Kollontai came to feel that the security of her family life impeded her own development. Her favourite novel of this period was Turgenev's wonderfully romantic On the Eve, first published in 1860. Yelena Nikolayevna, the heroine of the book, lives a tranquil existence with her parents in a dacha in the heart of the Russian countryside. She is courted, beautiful and intelligent but she is not at peace. As she confides to her diary, 'Oh if someone would say to me: "There, that's what you must do!" Being good – isn't much; doing good ... yes that's the great thing in life. But how is one to do good? Oh, if I could but learn to control myself!' Yelena falls passionately in love with a young and earnest Bulgarian nationalist who is visiting one of her friends but is anxious only to return to fight for his country's independence from the Ottomans. They flee together to Venice, he twenty-six years old and she just twenty. In the lagoon city he dies of consumption. In the last phrases of the book Turgenev leaves his readers in uncertainty regarding the fate of his heroine: some suggested that she had been seen in Herzegovina with the army that was then being formed; others had even described how she was dressed, in black from head to foot. In any case, Yelena's traces were lost forever, without hope of return.
Kollontai was as impatient with family life as was Turgenev's Yelena, but she had no intention of following her man to foreign shores, or of becoming a martyr to the cause, whatever that cause turned out to be. Her rebellion took time to come to the boil. In 1893, at the age of twenty-one, she married – against the wishes of her parents, especially of her mother – a cheerful and pragmatic young engineer called Vladimir Kollontai, a distant cousin. 'Two paupers' was how her mother scathingly described the couple, and she refused to put on a new dress for the wedding. A year after the marriage Shura gave birth to a son, Mikhail, always to be called 'Misha'. Although she often deserted him, Kollontai was devoted to him throughout her life – 'modest, wise, dear Misha', as she once called him. But even while she was breast-feeding she was impatient to return to her books, writings and political discussions. She felt the impelling need to assert her own autonomy, not just from her family of origin but also from the family that she had just created. This pulling of women in opposing directions simultaneously – outwards towards the public sphere and inwards towards domestic life – was a problem with which she grappled all her life. It was to remain an unresolved element of her family politics. She wrote in her autobiography, 'Although I personally raised my child with great care, motherhood was never the kernel of my existence. A child was not able to draw the bonds of my marriage tighter. I still loved my husband, but the contented life of a housewife and spouse became for me a "cage".'
In August 1898 came her first great flight. She left Russia for Switzerland, where she was to study at Zurich University under the supervision of a Marxist economist called Professor Herkner. This was unusual but not unheard of. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, well-to-do Russian women, denied access to universities at home, had begun in small numbers to educate themselves abroad. But for Kollontai the departure was a profound rift. She left the four-year-old Misha with his grandmother, in the mansion at Kuusa. And she left, definitively, her husband Vladimir Kollontai, to whom she wrote while journeying to Zurich. On the train she sobbed with grief and guilt – she missed 'Misha's soft little hands', she had behaved badly towards her husband, she wanted to go home. But she stayed in Zurich for over a year, and when she came back she had to try to rebuild the relationship with her son.
On the train from St Petersburg to Zurich she had also written another letter – to her dear friend Zoya. In it she explained that she intended to dedicate her life to the working class and to the rights of women.
How had she come to that choice of 'doing good', not just 'being good', to return to the distinction drawn by Yelena in On the Eve? With regard to the working class, Kollontai herself recounts an episode. It was one of those traumatic and iconic moments which many Bolsheviks used post hoc to explain their conversion to the cause. Yet it is of great significance in this context because of its emphasis on family life, or lack of it. In 1896 she had accompanied her husband Vladimir to Narva, where she visited the vast Kronholm textile works, which employed 12,000 men and women. Aleksandra asked to see the workers' housing. She found conditions to be appalling. 'Home life' was a row of cots in a large foul-smelling room. Married and unmarried workers were mixed promiscuously, without any privacy at all. Children milled around between the cots, some playing, some crying. Kollontai noticed a small boy, the age of her own son, who was lying very still. He was dead, but nobody had noticed or done anything about it.
From the turn of the century onwards, right up to the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1917, Kollontai was to dedicate herself to the workers' cause. These were the decades during which the march of European history and Marxism as a theory of history most closely coincided. The industrial proletariat was self-evidently the class of the future. Its terrible exploitation was all too evident but so too was its ability to organise itself in increasing numbers in trade unions and political parties. Marxism reflected this growing power, gave it a 'scientific' basis and granted it great historical dignity. Was not Communism, as the young Marx had written, the 'solution to the riddle of history' and the proletariat the universal class which with its own liberation would emancipate the whole of humanity? Kollontai imbibed these ideas, in Zurich and afterwards, and was never to waver from them for the rest of her long life.
She was also convinced, unlike her 'revisionist' professor in Zurich, of the necessity of revolution to bring the working class to power. Her baptism by fire came in 1905, with the first Russian revolution. She took part in the march to the Winter Palace on Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905), when hundreds of peaceful workers who wished to hand in a petition to the Tsar were shot down in cold blood. In the weeks that followed, Kollontai spoke often at illegal factory meetings in St Petersburg. According to the historian Richard Stites, witnesses recall the stunning effect she had, both in 1905 and 1917, 'her musical and impassioned voice and her immaculate grooming enhancing rather than weakening the impression she made'.
The revolution of 1905 failed. Three years later Kollontai was forced to leave Russia, once again leaving her son behind. Misha was dispatched to boarding school, sometimes visiting his mother during the vacations.
In Europe Kollontai became a well-known and respected member of the Russian Marxist left, closer to the Mensheviks than to Lenin's Bolsheviks. She also increasingly concentrated in her speeches and writings upon the question of women's rights – the second great theme of her political life, as she had announced in her letter to Zoya from the Zurich train. She travelled tirelessly throughout Germany and other European countries, speaking on women's emancipation and the situation in Russia. Her command of many languages made her an excellent ambassador. She also wrote a great deal, though she was never a theoretician and did not have the profundity of a figure such as Rosa Luxemburg.
In one respect, however, Aleksandra Kollontai was highly original. She alone, among all the leading European Marxists of that time, recognised sexuality as a crucial revolutionary theme. Following a long Russian radical tradition dating back at least to Herzen, she raised awkward but vital questions about sex and love, about how women and men could share a natural eroticism in the context of everyday life in a new society. In the face of widespread scorn within her movement, from both male and female comrades, she pursued these themes until it was no longer permitted to her to do so. And from her reflections on sexuality there also came an argument concerning the transformation of families and even their complete superseding.
The line of reasoning that she developed – though with a certain vagueness and never to any great depth – in various writings between 1908 and 1914 took as its starting point the oppression of women. In her article 'The new woman' (1913) she stressed that women needed to find autonomy and independence from men, and that work would be a crucial element in their liberation. But differently from many Marxist feminists of the time she insisted that part of this new autonomy would reside in the sphere of sex. In this context, Kollontai introduced an expression, 'the winged Eros', that was destined to become both internationally famous and widely misunderstood as an invitation to unbridled promiscuity. For her, free and joyous sexual relations – for this was the core of the 'winged Eros' for both women and men – could flourish only in certain social conditions, not in others.
Kollontai made a list of conditions inimical to her project. Bourgeois marriage was the first. Following both Marx and Engels, as well as August Bebel, Kollontai saw bourgeois marriage as the reducing of women to the property of men. Wives became 'mere shadows' of their husbands and were inevitably confined to the domestic sphere. To these well-known arguments Kollontai added others, connected to the 'egoism' of contemporary life. In modern, urban solitude women and men reached out to each other and clung together as a couple, but in the end women always paid for this bonding, since it stunted their individuality. Prostitution, the inevitable accompaniment to bourgeois marriage, offered only further oppression for women: 'it suffocates love in human hearts; from it Eros flies in fear of soiling its golden wings'.
Unusually and highly significantly, romantic love was also dismissed by Kollontai as a possible basis for fulfilment. Kollontai was certainly a romantic but of a rather peculiar sort, because for her the usual relationship between private and public which characterised Romanticism was reversed. She was a high romantic in the public sphere, believing as she did in the extraordinary transformative powers of socialist revolution. But in the private sphere she rejected romantic love as being a pernicious basis on which to build new, intimate relations. For her, romantic love was the height of possessiveness and from it there derived the need for lovers to devour each other:
Contemporary lovers with all their respect for freedom are not satisfied by the knowledge of the physical faithfulness alone of the person they love. To be rid of the eternally present threat of loneliness we 'launch an attack' on the emotions of the person we love with a cruelty and lack of delicacy that will not be understood by future generations. We demand to know every secret of this person's being.
Her preferred model for intimate relations in the new society was one in which men and women were equals, each defined as friend and comrade, neither possessive nor dominant, both able to show passion and consideration towards their partner. From these premises 'winged Eros' could take substance and form, could 'weave his delicate strands of every kind of emotion [...] emerge from the shadows and [...] demand his rightful place'.
These may well seem generic formulae. Yet Kollontai inserted them into a radically different and collectivist context. In her imagining of the future it is not the individual couple that is strong but the collective. Traditional roles are reversed. It is the collective that demands first loyalty and offers stability and identity to the individual; the intimate relationship between two adults takes second place. Men and women are carried forward by their collective endeavour, by being part of a shared project, by the rich network of social relations which the new collectivity creates, but they do not necessarily stay together for always. Women are free and independent, able to live their lives to the full:
But when the wave of passion sweeps over her, she does not renounce the brilliant smile of life, she does not hypocritically wrap herself up in a faded cloak of female virtue. No, she holds out her hand to her chosen one and goes away for several weeks to drink from the cup of love's joy, however deep it is, and to satisfy herself. When the cup is empty she throws it away without regret and bitterness. And again to work.
Excerpted from Family Politics by Paul Ginsborg. Copyright © 2014 Paul Ginsborg. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations vii
1 Revolutionising family life: Russia, 1917-1927 1
2 The nest and the nation: family politics in the transition from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic, 1908-1938 69
3 Fascism and the family 139
4 Family and family life in the Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1950 226
5 'The greater world and the smaller one': the politics of the family in Germany, 1918-1945 312
6 Stalinism and Soviet families, 1927-1945 397
Some final considerations 435