Alexandra Kollontai was a major figure in the Russian socialist movement from the turn of the century through the revolution and civil war. During periods of exile she was also active as a speaker and writer in Germany, Belgium, France, Britain, Scandinavia and the United States. Born into a wealthy family of Ukrainian, Russian and Finnish background, Kollontai was raised in both Russia and Finland, and acquired an early fluency in languages which not only served the revolutionary movement well, but later led to a career in the Soviet diplomatic service. She played a major role in forcing the Russian socialist movement to organize special work among women and in organizing mass movements of working-class women and peasants, and was the author of much of the social legislation of the early Soviet republic.
Kollontai began political work in 1894, when she was a new mother, by teaching evening classes for workers in St. Petersburg. Through that activity she was drawn into both public and clandestine work with the Political Red Cross, an organization set up to help political prisoners. In 1895, she read August Bebel's Woman and Socialism, which had a major influence on her future ideas and activity.
In 1896, Kollontai saw the open face of capitalist industry for the first time when she visited a large textile factory where her engineer husband was installing a ventilation system. Later that year, she became active in leafletting and fundraising in support of the mass textile strike which rocked the Petersburg area. For the rest of her political career, Kollontai retained her connections with the women textile workers of St. Petersburg. The 1896 strikes established the primacy of working-class revolution in Kollontai's mind.
By 1898, Kollontai was fully committed to Marxism, and left her husband and child to study in Zurich under the Marxist economist Heinrich Herkner. By the time she arrived, Herkner had become a "revisionist" and Kollontai spent much of her time at the university contesting his views. Upon her return to Russia, she wrote a polemic against Edouard Bernstein which was suppressed by the censors. In 1899, she began her underground work for the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).
In 1900, Kollontai's first articles on Finland appeared. For the next 20 years, she was generally recognized as the RSDLP's foremost expert on the "Finnish question", writing two books and numerous articles, as well as serving as advisor to RSDLP members in the Tsarist Duma and liaison with Finnish revolutionaries. In 1908, she was forced into exile when a warrant for her arrest was issued for advocating the right of Finland to armed revolt against the Tsarist empire; in 1918, she resigned as Commissar of Social Welfare in the Soviet government as a result of her opposition to the delivery of Finland to the white terror under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Kollontai, like many Russian socialists, was neutral in the Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903. In 1904, she joined the Bolshevik faction and conducted classes on Marxism for it. In 1905, she joined with Leon Trotsky in pressing for a more positive attitude toward the newly-emerged Soviets and in pressing for unity of the party factions. She became treasurer of the St. Petersburg Social Democratic Committee. In 1906, she left the Bolsheviks over the question of boycotting elections to the Duma, an undemocratically-elected parliament of limited power in which she felt it was nevertheless possible for left deputies to raise demands and expose the government's machinations.
From 1905 through 1908, Kollontai led the campaign which has most clearly established her place in history – to organize the women workers of Russia to fight for their own interests, against employers, against bourgeois feminism, and where necessary (as it frequently was) against the conservatism and male chauvinism of the socialist organizations. Through interventions at meetings of the liberal Women's Union, strikes and protests, the foundations were laid for a mass movement.
At the end of 1908, after three months spent evading arrest, Kollontai was finally forced to flee into exile. From then until 1917, she remained outside Russia, although many of her works were published there. She worked as a fulltime agitator for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and travelled in England, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland in the period before World War I. In early 1911, she taught at a socialist school organized by Maxim Gorky in Italy.
In 1914 she organized in Germany and Austria against the coming war, and was arrested and imprisoned after it broke out. Released, she moved to Scandinavia and established contact with V. I. Lenin, then in exile in Switzerland. She was a primary organizer of the Zimmerwald Conference against the war in 1915, and her pamphlet "Who Needs War?," directed to front-line soldiers, was translated into several languages.
In 1915, she undertook a four and one-half month speaking tour of the United States to build support for the left-Zimmerwald position on the war (and to try to find a U.S. publisher for her English translation of Lenin's pamphlet "Socialism and War"). She attended a memorial rally for Joe Hill in Seattle and spoke from the same platform as Eugene Debs in Chicago. In all, she spoke at 123 meetings in four languages.
When the February revolution of 1917 broke out, Kollontai was in Norway. She delayed her return to Russia only long enough to receive Lenin's "Letters from Afar" so she could carry them to the Russian organization. From the moment of her arrival, she joined Alexander Shlyapnikov and V. M. Molotov in the fight for a clear policy of no support to the provisional government, against the opposition of Kamenev and Stalin. She was elected a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet (to which she had been elected as a delegate from an army unit). At a tumultuous meeting of social democrats on April 4, she was the only speaker other than Lenin to support the demand for "All Power to the Soviets."
For the rest of 1917, Kollontai was a constant agitator for revolution in Russia as a speaker, leaflet writer and worker on the Bolshevik women's paper Rabotnitsa. In June she was a Russian delegate to the 9th Congress of the Finnish Social Democratic Party and reported back to the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the national question and Finland. During this period she joined other women activists in pressing the Bolsheviks and the trade unions for more attention to organizing women workers, and helped lead a citywide laundry workers strike in Petrograd.
In October 1917, Kollontai participated in the decision to launch an armed uprising against the government and in the revolt itself. At the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, she was elected Commissar of Social Welfare in the new Soviet government. In 1918 she lead a delegation to Sweden, England and France to raise support for the new government. Upon her return, she argued against ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and resigned from the government, feeling that the unity of the Commissariat would be jeopardized by having a member in opposition on such a crucial question. For the rest of 1918, she was active as an agitator and organizer, and played a key role in organizing the First All-Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women (November 1918).
Throughout 1919, although ill with heart and kidney disease and suffering from typhus, Kollontai kept a grueling schedule of meetings, speeches and writing. She served as a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, President of the Political Department of the Crimean Republic, Commissar of Propaganda and Agitation for the Ukraine, and an activist in the newly-formed Women's Section of the Communist Party (the zhenskii otdel, or "Zhenotdel" for short), which she, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya had played major roles in founding.
Kollontai's illness continued through much of 1920, but by November she had become head of the Zhenotdel following the death of Inessa Armand, and at December 8th All-Russian Congress of Soviets she was elected a member of the Executive Committee. At that congress, she joined the "Workers' Opposition," an opposition tendency in the Bolshevik Party opposed to what they saw as the increasing bureaucratization of the Soviet state. The Workers' Opposition, which had majority support in the Metalworkers' Union and the Ukrainian Communist Party, was banned along with all other factions at the 10th party congress in March 1921, but its members continued to be active as leaders of both the Bolshevik Party and the Soviets. Kollontai was re-elected to the All-Russian executive committee of the Soviet in December. In 1922, she was one of the signers of the "Letter of the 22" to the Communist International protesting the banning of factions in Russia.
In 1922, Kollontai was appointed as advisor to the Soviet legation in Norway. From then until her retirement for health reasons in 1945, Kollontai was effectively in exile as a diplomat, and her views on the status of women were marginalized and trivialized in the USSR itself. As ambassador to Norway and Sweden, as a trade delegate to Mexico, as a delegate to the League of Nations, and as negotiator of the Finno-Soviet peace treaty of 1940, she served the USSR with what was generally regarded as great finesse. From 1946 until her death in 1952, she was an advisor to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.