A revolutionary feminist

The idea of being a revolutionary feminist isn’t exactly a ground-breaking one. However, in this context, it is, because the woman I’m referring to is Inessa Armand.

Never heard of her? What a surprise.

Have you heard the one about how V.I. Lenin, married but childless, had a lover who was kinda involved in the Bolshevik party?

That would be Inessa. Except that she almost certainly wasn’t his lover, but she was deeply, thoughtfully, and passionately committed to the Bolshevik party.

There are very few books, it seems, that look at the role of women in the Russian Revolution. There have been a few books written about Aleksandra Kollontai, which I’m keen to get my hands on – but for Westerners especially, she’s a ‘fun’ topic because she spouted all sorts of daring philosophies like ‘free love’ and that abortions ought to be legal. I also have a book on my pile to read that collates the reminiscences of women from the early Soviet era. But, really, compared to the number of books on Lenin and Stalin and Tolstoy, let alone the minutiae of aspects of the Revolution, women get short shrift.

R.C Elwood confronted this in 1996 when he wrote about Armand. He is very open about how he came to write the book, which I like: he’d been struck by some seeming inconsistencies around what little was written about her, he suggested one of his students write a thesis on her, and then… essentially his imagination was captured. One of the problems that he faced is that almost none of her writing has been published. While you can go read almost every little note or letter that Mighty Lenin ever committed to paper, not so for Armand. While it appears that she started several articles, most never got published – and the fault for that appears to lie with Lenin, who was dismissive of her work. And while she probably wrote many letters to Lenin, given the 130+ that he is known to have written to her, they have neither been collected nor published (or hadn’t to 1996; I haven’t seen any evidence of them, anyway).

Elwood’s is a well written, and well structured, biography. (It might seem obvious how to structure a biography, but within standard chronology I have read some truly confusing stuff.) He tells Armand’s story in a straightforward manner, and didn’t seem to me to be making too many leaps of intuition. He also incorporates a fair amount of history about the situation in pre-revolutionary Russia, and the immediate after-effects of the October Revolution; as with Lenin, Armand wasn’t actually in the country for the February one. Sadly, for Armand herself and in thinking about how she might have continued to influence affairs, she died in 1920 – while the Civil War was still going, before War Communism was repealed and the NEP introduced. Thinking about it though, this might almost have been a good thing, since she didn’t have to face Stalin’s rise to power.

My one quibble is Elwood’s use of the term ‘feminist’. He never theorises what he actually means by that, and whether he is using the term in a modern or a contemporary way. He doesn’t spend much time – and none early on – discussing what was obviously a problem for the Bolsheviks: that most women who identified as feminist at this time were doing so from a bourgeois perspective. Consequently, there were real problems for women who identified both as Marxist and feminist, since Marxists said women’s issues were a class problem, not a gender one. Anyway, this leads to some sections where it sounds like Armand evolved from feminism to Marxism, which I would take issue with and I’m not sure was Elwood’s intention.

There are lots of things to like about this book, but perhaps my favourite is the chapter focussing on the historiography of the notion that Armand was Lenin’s lover. Elwood details what he reconstruct of the earliest suggestions of such a relationship, then looks at the actual evidence, and points out all the flaws and inconsistencies. Of course, as he acknowledges, it is a possibility he was wrong; they (with Lenin’s wife Krupskaia) did spend a lot of time in the same places, and they did write to each other a lot. But the weight of the evidence at the moment says they were not involved like that. Apparently you actually could be female and have an impact on politics other than through your sex life. Who knew?

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