Nick Evans: Kollontai and the Death of the Russian Aristocracy

Cathy Porter (2013), Alexandra Kollontai. A Biography, 2nd edition, Merlin Press, Pontypool. 511pp.

Douglas Smith (2012), Former People. The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy, Macmillan, London, 465 pp.

“It is understandable and it is forgivable that they hate us, for we in fact hate them, we hate them with the same unyielding malice and, what is more, we despise them.” Douglas Smith quotes Princess Catherine Sayn-Wittgenstein, approving her honesty about the class hatred revealed by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Smith’s book on the fate of Russian aristocrats during the revolution and the decades that followed it, and Cathy Porter’s revised biography of Alexandra Kollontai, are a testament to the continuing intensity of the debate over the legacy of that period.

It is no coincidence that these two very different books have appeared at the same time. Both draw on memoirs and other personal documents that were inaccessible until the beginning of perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system. Both make deliberate interventions in contemporary political debates. Cathy Porter is more explicit about this, describing her book as an effort to “rediscover” Kollontai and her vision of a more just social system, within the context of the current assault on the working class, particularly women. In fact, this is a second act of “rediscovery”: it is a revised version of a biography first written during the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Kollontai’s struggle for women’s rights and workers’ democracy, both with and against her Bolshevik comrades, and her intensely personal and political writings about sexuality, had obvious relevance for that movement. In this new version, Cathy Porter reveals the relevance Kollontai has for us thirty years on.

Douglas Smith, who has worked for the US State Department and Radio Free Europe, also sees his book as being about “reclaiming Russia’s lost history”. In his case, it is the history of Russia’s aristocracy during and after the years of the revolution. There is a genuine abundance of new material, both primary and secondary on which this book is based. The primary sources reveal the perceptions Russia’s pre-revolutionary elite had about themselves and the workers whose exploitation enabled their luxurious lifestyles. For example, the case of Princess Vera Urusov, whose favourite childhood game was to play an “aristocrat caught in the French Revolution trying to escape the fury of the mob”, reveals an awareness of the class antagonisms that pervaded society.

However, the extent to which Smith appears to share Urusov’s perceptions is remarkable. He uses the word “mob” throughout the book to describe ordinary people. He contrasts the “mob”, for whom “the will to destroy was greater than the will to create”, with the aristocracy. He argues that the aristocracy was never “a class of idle rich”, despite the fact it had relied upon serf labour until the 1860s and then spent the following half-century living on forced compensation from the emancipated serfs. He emphasises that the nobility “had supplied Russia’s political, military, cultural and artistic leaders”, while arguing that “workers and peasants, in whose name the Bolsheviks claimed to rule, were simply not qualified to run a vast state.” In other words, he quite explicitly restates the prejudice (against which Lenin famously argued on the eve of the October Revolution) that “only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration”.

It is perhaps to be expected that Douglas Smith’s uncritical adoption of the perspective of the aristocracy would make it difficult for him to provide any kind of sensible context for understanding the undoubted suffering of the individuals concerned. A particularly ugly example of his viewpoint is in the equivalence drawn between the treatment of aristocrats after the revolution and of Jews, murdered in pogroms incited by members of the Black Hundreds such as Tsar Nicholas II himself, before the revolution. Another is the heightened pathos in the account of the Red Guard charged with expropriating aristocrats who, faced with famine, hadalmost cut open a teddy bear stuffed with jewels. We might expect at least some curiosity about the reasons why certain former aristocrats survived unscathed through Stalin’s terror, when so many others did not. Smith may be right that this is simply a symptom of the randomness of the violence, but these may also tell an interesting story of the accommodations made between sections of the old ruling class and the new bureaucratic ruling class of the Stalinist state-capitalist regime. If so, this book does not tell that story.

One of the recurring tropes of Smith’s book is the “tragic irony” that many nobles had been revolutionaries themselves. Alexandra Kollontai was one example of a revolutionary who originally came from an aristocratic family. One of the many strengths of Porter’s biography is the sensitive way in which she handles Kollontai’s complicated relationship to her class. Kollontai’s rejection of her class origins is by no means portrayed as a tragedy, but nor does she treat lightly the painful personal decisions that Kollontai had to make regarding her relationship with her parents, her first husband and her beloved son Misha. Part of what is so inspiring about this book is the way in which it reveals how Kollontai wrestled with and reflected on her personal relationships, her sexuality and her political commitment. These were often lonely struggles, for reasons of Kollontai’s gender, her class and her political views, but through her writings, including her fiction, she sought to find ways to communicate these struggles to a wider audience, motivated with a sense, long before the slogan was first pronounced, that “the personal is political”.

Throughout, this book is animated by a sense of the dilemmas that Kollontai, her comrades, and millions of working class women and men confronted in the process of the Russian revolution and its ultimate crisis and betrayal. Porter does not shy away from revealing her political judgements about many of these dilemmas: it is clear, for example, that she sympathises with Alexandra Kollontai rather than Rosa Luxemburg over the need, at that time, for separate organisation for women, and again with Alexandra Kollontai rather than Lenin or Trotsky, over the criticisms made by the Workers’ Opposition of the Communist Party’s increasing stifling of workers’ initiative and democracy. She alludes to the alarming degeneration of the standards of debate during the controversy over the latter in 1921, including name-calling and personal attacks. However, she also provides a full sense of the contexts of these debates and the intensity of feeling that they provoked in the midst of a civil war that had led to economic and social devastation, while the revolutionary wave was faltering internationally.

The great value of this biography of Alexandra Kollontai is its honesty about the challenges she and her fellow revolutionaries faced. When Kollontai’s comrade, Inessa Armand, called for more communal nurseries at a congress of working class women, she was met with shouts of “We won’t give up our children!” This forced Kollontai to deal carefully with the conflicts mothers faced, who had to between raising their own children and participating fully in society outside the domestic sphere. Kollontai’s approach to sexuality is beautifully illustrated by the discussion of her short story ‘Three Generations’. A party worker of Kollontai’s own generation, who “has been living in a ‘free union’ with a much younger comrade, but resists any discussion of relationships that goes beyond the party’s programme for women”, is shocked to discover her daughter has been sleeping with her own partner, as well as several other men. Kollontai does not make normative claims about either woman’s attitudes to sexuality. Rather, she reflects on her own reaction to a new generation’s ideas about sexual liberation.

Porter’s book ends on a poignant note, describing Kollontai, the only oppositionist to survive Stalin’s terror, feeling a sense of bewilderment at Soviet society, which had turned out to be so different from the socialist society she and her fellow revolutionaries had originally envisaged, and yet still optimistic about the prospect of revolutionary change for the better. “The world never stagnates, it’s always stirring, new forms of life are always appearing”. William Morris famously wrote that “men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” This second rediscovery of Alexandra Kollontai calls on women, and men, to fight on in a similar spirit.

Nick Evans is an activist and DPhil student in History at Wadham College, Oxford.

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