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Krupskaya: an apology

I’ve been criticized by my boyfriend for my unsisterly (although true — even he admits it) comment about Nadezhda Krupskaya in a recent post. So, I apologise, and instead will enumerate some of the many valid reasons there are to dislike the woman.

There is, of course, her dreadful hagiography, Reminiscences of Lenin. And the fact that she supported Stalin against the Left Opposition in the 1920s. I can’t even view her work in developing Soviet education and libraries in a good light, because it was so important in consolidating and expanding censorship — she even had a go at banning fairy tales, for God’s sake. But most of all it’s the fact that Krupskaya was the only female Bolshevik with any real power or influence, and she did nothing for women’s rights. Her Preface to Lenin’s The Emancipation of Women is fairly typical in that it manages to be both absurdly self-congratulatory and betray the fact that her interest was in advancing the Bolshevik cause, not in women’s emancipation. Her role in making International Women’s Day a major event in Russia says it all, really, as its main function seems to be to enable men to feel pleased with themselves for giving women a few flowers in return for a lifetime of domestic drudgery.

The other important woman in the Bolshevik party, Alexandra Kollontai, in contrast, spent much of her life fighting for and writing about women’s rights — I’m finding her increasingly interesting — but she was sidelined so quickly in the 1920s that she had no chance of achieving anything concrete. I’m still surprised at the extent to which she’s vilified in Russia even today, just because she dared to suggest that women could behave like men in sexual relationships. So Krupskaya, who never lifted a finger for women, gets a chocolate factory named in her honour, while Kollontai, who truly served the sisterhood, gets called a bitch and a whore. Something’s not quite right there, but it is telling.

The practically non-existent role of women in the Bolshevik party (Kollontai only joined after a great deal of soul-searching) should give pause for thought, particularly because women played a much more significant role in the earlier phase of the Russian revolutionary movement (see Cathy Porter’s Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (Virago, 1976) for an entertaining description of women’s revolutionary activities up to the collapse of The People’s Will following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881), and indeed seem to have been far more numerous among the Socialist Revolutionaries than in the Social Democrats (at least the Bolshevik side) prior to the revolution. So it wasn’t just ubiquitous Russian sexism, but something specific to the Bolsheviks. Strangely, they weren’t in fact the progressive party of all humanity, but a regressive, patriarchal and authoritarian bunch, and (in retrospect, admittedly) that now seems obvious way before the revolution.

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