MOST PROGRESSIVES and radicals today have never heard of Alexandra Kollontai. She is one of many underappreciated female revolutionaries who contributed practically and theoretically to the early 20th century socialist and feminist movement whose life and writings deserve to be more widely read, discussed and debated.
Cathy Porter, in her biography Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography, recently republished by Haymarket Books, will hopefully make her life more widely known and appreciated. Porter’s biography is a product of tremendous archival research, only recently made available, that gives incredible detail to the life of Alexandra Kollontai, and the interaction between the early 20th century feminist and socialist movements.
For those who want to learn more about her life, this biography is must-read. But it’s also notable for providing a detailed, accessible and lively account of the Russian revolutionary movement, both its rise and fall, via the vantage point of one of its most prominent revolutionaries.
Alexandra Mikhailova Domontovich was born in 1872 to wealthy and conservative parents. Known as a shy but defiant child, she was impacted profoundly by the disparity between her upbringing and what she witnessed around her. At age 20, she snuck away from her family during a vacation in Berlin, and this is where she first discovered the Communist Manifesto. She developed an early thirst for reading and history and began devouring political literature wherever she could find it.
She married young, and against her parents’ wishes (where her name Kollontai was taken) to an engineer who worked on ventilation systems in factories. It was here that Kollontai witnessed first-hand the deplorable factory conditions that produced subsequent strike waves in the 1890s, including a strike in Petrograd of female textile workers that inspired her deeply.