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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Remembering Alexandra Kollontai b. March 31, 1872

In honour of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Bolshevik revolutionary and leader we repost a Soviet account of her life from 1972.

Kollontai (on the left) in 1918 with some of the orphans under her care. An aristocrat by birth, at 26 she left the privileged environment in which her parents lived, joined the Russian Social Democrats and became a dedicated revolutionary.

The great Bolshevik revolutionary, leader, Marxist thinker, women's rights advocate and diplomat Alexandra Kollontai was born March 31, 1872.

She played an important role in the Bolshevik Revolution itself, was the People's Commissar of Social Welfare in the first Soviet government -- which made her the first woman in history to become a member of a government cabinet -- a position from which she resigned after only a few months to protest the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. She was made a part of the Soviet diplomatic mission to Norway in 1922. As she noted of this posting “Naturally this appointment created a great sensation since, after all, it was the first time in history that a woman was officially active as an ‘ambassador'."

In honour of the 150th anniversary of her birth we are reprinting a Soviet article from 1972 written by historian Georgi Petrov of the USSR's Central State Archives of the October Revolution on the occasion of the 100th anniversary. It is accompanied by numerous photos and some reminisces of hers.

"Put Kollontai in charge, she'll do it," Lenin would say, and Kollontai did it.

"Is it not far wiser and more humane to settle problems by agreement and negotiation, rather than plunge ahead with arms atilt? There may be another war, several wars -- but new methods are taking shape, new forms that will make it possible to settle problems between states. This makes me happy, especially the realization that the Soviet Union is trying to pave the way." -- Alexandra Kollontai, Saltsjobaden, Sweden , 1939


The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Alexandra Kollontai will be celebrated in 1972. Hers is a familiar name both in the USSR and internationally. Books have been written about her, a play on this remarkable woman has been in the Moscow Art Theater repertory for years, and two Soviet documentaries and a feature film have brought her to the screen.

Alexandra Kollontai led a most unusual life. She was a revolutionary, a close associate of Lenin, a fiery speaker for the revolution, the new Soviet government's first minister of social welfare, and a distinguished diplomat, ambassador to Norway, Mexico and Sweden.

"I like to look back on the road we've covered and then into the wonderful future when mankind, its freedom newly won, will proclaim happiness as its birthright," she wrote in her later years.

Alexandra Kollontai in 1888

To Kollontai the purpose of life was to fight for the working people. At the age of 26 this daughter of an aristocrat -- her father was a general in the czar's army -- abandoned her privileged environment, joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and became a dedicated revolutionary. From that time on, as Lenin put it, she gave the revolution "not just her free evenings but her whole life."

Alexandra Kollontai, like Nadezhda Krupskaya Lenin's wife and comrade, began her activity by leading workers' circles in Petersburg and speaking at underground gatherings. She studied conditions in Russia and the problems confronting the revolutionary movement, and wrote a number of articles on history, economics and social problems. As a speaker, Kollontai soon won a large following. She spent much of her time and energy bringing political enlightenment to the masses, and especially in drawing workingwomen into the revolutionary struggle.

In 1908, to escape the czars secret police, Kollontai had to leave Russia. She spent eight years abroad and helped to strengthen Russia's links with the revolutionary movement of the West. Her ability as a speaker and her knowledge of languages stood her in good stead. She spoke to worker audiences in Germany, Britain, Belgium. Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, and to international socialist congresses in Copenhagen and Basel.

Kollontai with her son

At the International Socialist Congress in 1910

During World War I, as a member of the Bolshevik party, Kollontai carried out Lenin's assignment to rally left socialist forces throughout the world. Lenin prized her gifts as a writer and speaker. In 1915, at the invitation of the American socialists, she visited the United States, where she spent five months touring the continent and appealing to workers to fight against the Imperialist war. She publicized the Bolshevik view of the war and Lenin's revolutionary ideas. The American working-class press of the time carried glowing accounts of Kollontai's moving speeches.

After the February 1917 Revolution, she went back home. She did educational work with the seamen of the Baltic and with the women of Petrograd. She also became a regular contributor to Pravda, was elected to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and to the Bolshevik party Central Committee at the sixth party congress, participated in the most decisive meetings of the Central Committee and supported Lenin's call for an armed uprising.

In October 1917. the socialist revolution was victorious. On Lenin's recommendation Kollontai became People's Commissar of Social Welfare in the first Soviet government.

Lenin had a high regard for Kollontai's organizing abilities. While he frankly and firmly criticized her for errors, he helped her correct them and find the right solution. His admiration for her never wavered.

For half a year Alexandra Kollontai held the office of people's commissar. In that brief period she laid the foundations for a new state system of social insurance with no contribution from the worker's pay envelope. She arranged for payment of the first grants and pensions, set up children's homes and opened a mother and child center, all completely unprecedented undertakings at the time.

Lenin chairing a meeting of the Council of People's Commissars in January 1918. Madame Kollontai is shown here seated next to Lenin, the eighth from left.

"Put Kollontai in charge, she'll do it," Lenin would say, and Kollontai did it. In 1919 she was sent to the Ukraine as People's Commissar of Propaganda and Agitation . As ever, she was occupied with the problem of drawing women into the construction of the socialist society. She did much writing on the subject, but her interest was far from theoretical - she was an indefatigable administrator and organizer.

In 1922 Alexandra Kollontai began her service as a diplomat, first representing the Soviet Union in Norway, then in Mexico and Sweden . She was the first [woman] to be named to such a post . Women had ruled kingdoms and empires before, but none had been the ambassador of a great power.

"A diplomat isn't worthy of the name if he hasn't made new friends for his country" Kollontai used to say. She scored a number of major diplomatic successes as her country's representative. Norway, for example, was one of the first to recognize Soviet Russia.

Kollontai chats with President Calles of Mexico in 1926 after presenting her credentials as Soviet envoy.

At the League of Nations in Geneva in 1926. Alexandra Kollontai and Boris Stein were the Soviet delegates.

Kollontai served as an untiring advocate for the Soviet Union's peace-seeking foreign policy. As a member of the Soviet delegation to the League of Nations, from 1934 till 1939, she time and again offered the Soviet Union's proposals for averting a world war.

For 23 years Kollontai represented her country abroad. In the spring of 1945, when she returned to live in Moscow, she was past 70 but continued as adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On her way to the royal palace in Stockholm in 1930

With H. V. Johnson, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, 1944

She held the highest Soviet decoration, the Order of Lenin, and two orders of the Red Banner of Labor; the Order of Saint Olav, the highest decoration of Norway, and the Mexican El Aguila Azteca order. By Swedish law women could not be awarded decorations or medals. But King Gustav V, in recognition of her diplomatic services, sent Madame Kollontai his photograph in a silver frame engraved with his coat of arms in gold.

Alexandra Kollontai died on March 9, 1952. She lived a long, productive life. To the end she walked abreast of her age and remained dedicated to the people.

Nikolai Shvernik, President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, presents her with the Order of the Red Banner .

"I married early, partly as an act of defiance against my parents. But three years later I separated from my husband, engineer V. Kollontai, assuming full responsibility for bringing up my son.... We separated not because we stopped loving one another but because I felt oppressed and fettered by an environment from which the marriage with Kollontai did not rescue me.... I did not leave Kollontai for another man, but was caught up by the wave of growing revolutionary turmoil and events in Russia . " -- From "Reminiscences" by Alexandra Kollontai

"The capacity for dreaming helped me throughout my life. I saw the world not only as it was, but the way it could be if it were changed. This capacity helped me see into the future when our Soviet state was only beginning to take shape. I can say of myself that I loved intensely...that I lived my life fully. I have been a part of many great events. The principal thing for which I fought, about which I dreamed and for the sake of which I worked all my life -- the socialist state -- has become a reality." -- Alexandra Kollontai


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