Women fighters in the days of the great October Revolution - Alexandra Kollontai

Russian revolutionary women in 1905
Russian revolutionary women in 1905

In this article, written in 1927 (well after the Bolshevik consolidation of power), Alexandra Kollontai describes the leading role in which women played in Russian Revolution of 1917. Though heavily Bolshevik in focus, it describes well the activity of working class women in the revolution.

Submitted by Ed on September 4, 2007

The women who took part in the Great October Revolution – who were they? Isolated individuals? No, there were hosts of them; tens, hundreds of thousands of nameless heroines who, marching side by side with the workers and peasants behind the Red Flag and the slogan of the Soviets, passed over the ruins of tsarist theocracy into a new future...

If one looks back into the past, one can see them, these masses of nameless heroines whom October found living in starving cities, in impoverished villages plundered by war... A scarf on their head (very rarely, as yet, a red kerchief), a worn skirt, a patched winter jacket. Young and old, women workers and soldiers' wives peasant women and housewives from among the city poor. More rarely, much more rarely in those days, office workers and women in the professions, educated and cultured women. But there were also women from the intelligentsia among those who carried the Red Flag to the October victory – teachers, office employees, young students at high schools and universities, women doctors. They marched cheerfully, selflessly, purposefully. They went wherever they were sent. To the front? They put on a soldier's cap and became fighters in the Red Army. If they put on red arm-bands, then they were hurrying off to the first-aid stations to help the Red front against Kerensky at Gatchina. They worked in army communications. They worked cheerfully, filled with the belief that something momentous was happening, and that we are all small cogs in the one class of revolution.

In the villages, the peasant women (their husbands had been sent off to the front) took the land from the landowners and chased the aristocracy out of the nests they had roosted in for centuries.

When one recalls the events of October, one sees not individual faces but masses. Masses without number, like waves of humanity. But wherever one looks one sees men – at meetings, gatherings, demonstrations...

They are still not sure what exactly it is they want, what they are striving for, but they know one thing: they will put up with war no longer. Nor do they want the landowners and the wealthy... In the year of 1917, the great ocean of humanity heaves and sways, and a large part of that ocean is made up of women...

Some day the historian will write about the deeds of these nameless heroines of the revolution who died at the front, were shot by the Whites and bore the countless deprivations of the first years following the revolution, but who continued to bear aloft the Red Banner of Soviet power and communism.

It is to these nameless heroines, who died to win a new life for working people during the Great October Revolution, to whom the young republic now bows in recognition as its young people, cheerful and enthusiastic, set about building the basis of socialism.

However, out of this sea of women's heads in scarves and worn caps there inevitably emerge the figures of those to whom the historian will devote particular attention when, many years from now, he writes about the Great October Revolution and its leader, Lenin.

The first figure to emerge is that of Lenin's faithful companion, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, wearing her plain grey dress and always striving to remain in the background. She would slip unnoticed into a meeting and place herself behind a pillar, but she saw and heard everything, observing all that happened so that she could then give a full account to Vladimir Ilyich, add her own apt comments and light upon a sensible, suitable and useful idea.

In those days Nadezhda Konstantinovna did not speak at the numerous stormy meetings at which the people argued over the great question: would the Soviets win power or not? But she worked tirelessly as Vladimir Ilyich's right hand, occasionally making a brief but telling comment at party meetings. In moments of greatest difficulty and danger, when many stronger comrades lost heart and succumbed to doubt, Nadezhda Konstantinovna remained always the same, totally convinced of the rightness of the cause and of its certain victory. She radiated unshakable faith, and this staunchness of spirit, concealed behind a rare modesty, always had a cheering effect upon all who came into contact with the companion of the great leader of the October Revolution.

Another figure emerges – that of yet another faithful companion of Vladimir Ilyich, a comrade-in-arms during the difficult years of underground work, secretary of the Party Central Committee, Yelena Dmitriyevna Stassova. A clear, high brow, a rare precision in, and an exceptional capacity for work, a rare ability to 'spot' the right person for the job. Her tall, statuesque figure could be seen first at the Soviet at the Tavrichesky palace, then at the house of Kshesinskaya, and finally at Smolny. In her hands she holds a notebook, while around her press comrades from the front, workers, Red Guards, women workers, members of the party and of the Soviets, seeking a quick, clear answer or order.

Stassova carried responsibility for many important matters, but if a comrade faced need or distress in those stormy days, she would always respond, providing a brief, seemingly curt answer, and herself doing anything she could. She was overwhelmed with work, and always at her post. Always at her post, yet never pushing forward to the front row, to prominence. She did not like to be the centre of attention. Her concern was not for herself, but for the cause.

For the noble and cherished cause of communism, for which Yelena Stassova suffered exile and imprisonment in tsarist jails, leaving her with broken health... In the name of the cause she was like hint, as hard as steel. But to the sufferings of her comrades she displayed a sensitivity and responsiveness that are found only in a woman with a warm and noble heart.

Klavdia Nikolayeva was a working woman of very humble origins. She had joined the Bolsheviks as early as 1908, in the years of reaction, and had endured exile and imprisonment... In 1917 she returned to Leningrad and became the heart of the first magazine for working women, Kommunistka. She was still young, full of fire and impatience. But she held the banner firmly, and boldly declared that women workers, soldiers' wives and peasant women must be drawn into the party. To work, women! To the defence of the Soviets and communism !

She spoke at meetings, still nervous and unsure of herself, yet attracting others to follow. She was one of those who bore on her shoulders all the difficulties involved in preparing the way for the broad, mass involvement of women in the revolution, one of those who fought on two fronts – for the Soviets and communism, and at the same time for the emancipation of women. The names of Klavdia Nikolayeva and Konkordia Samoilova, who died at her revolutionary post in 1921 (from cholera), are indissolubly linked with the first and most difficult steps taken by the working women's movement, particularly in Leningrad. Konkordia Samoilova was a party worker of unparalleled selflessness, a fine, business-like speaker who knew how to win the hearts of working women. Those who worked alongside her will long remember Konkordia Samoilova. She was simple in manner, simple in dress, demanding in the execution of decisions, strict both with herself and others.

Particularly striking is the gentle and charming figure of Inessa Armand, who was charged with very important party work in preparation for the October Revolution, and who thereafter contributed many creative ideas to the work conducted among women. With all her femininity and gentleness of manner, Inessa Armand was unshakable in her convictions and able to defend what she believed to be right, even when faced with redoubtable opponents. After the revolution, Inessa Armand devoted herself to organising the broad movement of working women, and the delegate conference is her creation.

Enormous work was done by Varvara Nikolayevna Yakovleva during the difficult and decisive days of the October Revolution in Moscow. On the battleground of the barricades she showed a resolution worthy of a leader of party headquarters... Many comrades said then that her resolution and unshakable courage gave heart to the wavering and inspired those who had lost heart. 'Forward!' – to victory.

As one recalls the women who took part in the Great October Revolution, more and more names and faces rise up as if by magic from the memory. Could we fail to honour today the memory of Vera Slutskaya, who worked selflessly in preparation for the revolution and who was shot down by Cossaks on the first Red front near Petrograd?

Could we forget Yevgenia Bosh, with her fiery temperament, always eager for battle? She also died at her revolutionary post.

Could we omit to mention here two names closely connected with the life and activity of V.I. Lenin – his two sisters and comrades-in-arms, Anna Ilyinichna Yelizarova and Maria Ilyinichna Ulyanova?

And comrade Varya, from the railway workshops in Moscow, always lively, always in a hurry? And Fyodorova, the textile worker in Leningrad, with her pleasant, smiling face and her fearlessness when it came to fighting at the barricades?

It is impossible to list them all, and how many remain nameless? The heroines of the October Revolution were a whole army, and although their names may be forgotten, their selflessness lives on in the very victory of that revolution, in all the gains and achievements now enjoyed by working women in the Soviet Union.

It is a clear and indisputable fact that, without the participation of women, the October Revolution could not have brought the Red Flag to victory. Glory to the working women who marched under that Red Banner during the October Revolution. Glory to the October Revolution that liberated women!