When you think of the Russian Revolutions of 1917, you think of the overthrow of the monarchy and the clash of the Reds and the Whites. What doesn’t usually come to mind though, is that it was also a time of cultural and sexual revolution: rebels sought to liberate themselves from the social norms of a Russia perceived as ‘dark’, ‘backwards’, and even ‘evil’.
Putting aside the array of conspicuous male revolutionaries, one woman was instrumental in pushing forth this cultural revolution: Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai was a prominent Bolshevik, and founded the Party’s women’s department, the Zhenotdel, in 1919. Her writings and political activities encouraged women to break free from the archaic Tsarist patriarchy, and to take on their roles as equals in a new society instead.
With regards to eradicating traditional social structures, Kollontai and her associates wanted to bring about a total rejection of the conventional bourgeois family: they heavily advocated for the alteration of divorce and abortion laws, in order to release women from tyrannical husbands and antiquated family values.
On a more radical level, the ‘scandalous’ side of Kollontai’s social and political beliefs can be seen in her campaigning for the sexual emancipation of women. In her works, Kollontai wrote about women who explored their sexuality in a way that was typically only afforded to men. She propagated the idea of ‘free love’, and sought to normalise erotic friendships as a way for both men and women to fulfil their bodily needs without feeling shame for straying from the generally accepted norm of monogamy.
Above all, she called for a novel approach to sexuality that did not put women in a position of exploitation and weakness – but instead saw sex as a natural interaction between two equals that fulfilled a basic human need.
Kollontai’s 1921 piece, ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle’, is a prime template for this school of social thought. In the article, Kollontai sees interactions between the sexes as constituting a significant dilemma at the centre of the new society.
A dilemma of a magnitude previously unseen in this realm of social interaction. She describes the phenomenon of sexuality as a “vicious circle” that nobody can break out of, and argues that the only way to live with this inevitable conflict is to consolidate “more healthy and more joyful relationships between the sexes”.
Through her writing, Kollontai brings issues previously seen as matters of the private sphere into the public sphere. In doing so, she normalised the open discussion of typically taboo subjects. By being unashamed and unapologetic, Kollontai broke barriers and sowed the seeds of a revolution that would only truly bloom in the West in the late 1960s.
Yet Kollontai’s sole focus wasn’t sex. She also aimed to free women from emotional abuse, and propagated the importance of a woman’s self-worth. In her 1918 article, ‘New Woman’ (from her book The New Morality and the Working Class), Kollontai asserts that “dominance of feeling was the most typical trait peculiar to the woman of the past”. According to Kollontai, this dominance of feeling was a woman’s downfall: she alludes to the fictional womaniser Don Juan when stating that men often “not only… [took] a woman’s body, but they also ruled her soul”.
Kollontai laments how infidelity, alongside a lack of respect for women on the part of their husbands, was somewhat justified by material gifts – like flowers and jewellery. According to the revolutionary, centuries of this behaviour resulted in a woman “[orienting] her conception of happiness on the gratification of the external”. Though this should not be the case, she argues, as a woman’s ego should be just as respected as her husband’s. The idea of a woman not only “seeking” but demanding “esteem for her personality” presents a boldness previously unseen in the traditional obedient wife. As such, this marked a fervent push towards equality and respect for all – not just the working class man.
It is humorous to note that Kollontai’s vocal condemnation of the typical arsehole – and her consequent ‘call to arms’ for women to stand up for themselves – is not unlike the feminist, anti-fuckboy movement of today.
In her own way, Kollontai set the precedent for the modern-day independent woman. American novelist Alice Walker once said that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.
Just short of a century earlier, Kollontai’s lengthy texts promoted this same idea – an idea that has inspired generations of women to find their voice, claim their power, and fight for the respect that they deserve.
As is evident, Kollontai was ahead of her time. Her theories preceded the sexual revolution of the 1970s that normalised ‘free love’, and it is remarkable that so early in the 20th century, her eccentric and feminist ideas – which she very publicly voiced – were not condemned, but celebrated. She was not shamed for her outspokenness, openness about sexuality, and close friendships with men in her party.
On the contrary, her candour made her a Bolshevik icon, and she symbolically rose in political station to eventually be awarded the position of first female ambassador to Norway.
Despite her profound social and cultural impact, Kollontai was kept away from central party politics and instead given diplomatic roles, indicating that female emancipation was far from complete.
Yet even considering this moderate political success within the Party itself, there is something incredibly powerful about Kollontai’s shamelessness, her revolutionary zest, and her determination to see the start of a new social order that did not solely satisfy the ego of working class men.
Somehow, by using her sharp tongue and no bullshit attitude, she managed to navigate an early 20th century sociopolitical system that was entirely dominated by men.
She was a significant force in publicly demolishing centuriesold social and cultural boundaries, and she performed the literary equivalent of raising a skirt above her knees as a metaphorical fist to archaic attitudes.
Kollontai had no time for the glorification of the pining, obedient, and demure heroine that needed to be swept off her feet by a gallant man.
Rather, she believed women of the revolutionary era had a greater purpose than that: they were capable of so much more than what novels and the society of the past restricted them to.
This attitude is summarised in one of her most famous quotations: “I’ve read enough novels to know just how much time and energy it takes to fall in love and I just don’t have the time.”
In a few short words, Kollontai demonstrated her refusal to believe that a man’s love and his good opinion are needed to define a woman’s self worth.
Ironically, this message is still prevalent in the modern day, revealing how our world – and the struggle of the sexes – is not so different from that of Kollontai and the revolutionaries of 1917.