Alexandra Kollontai was born in Saint Petersburg on March 19, 1872. She was the daughter of a landowning family. Against the will of her parents, but following her passions, she married the penniless engineer Vladimir Kollontai in 1893. The couple had one son together. Because she was not satisfied with her life as a mother and a wife, Kollontai left her husband and child in 1898. She soon turned to Marxism; the “social question” became her main concern. She studied national economics in Switzerland, became a member of the illegal Social Democratic Labour Party in Russia and devoted her life to the working class and the struggle for the emancipation of women. After her father died in 1901, she lived together with her son Misha and Soya, a close friend from her childhood days, until the failed revolution of 1905 forced her to leave the country.

Together with her fellow comrades, she founded the first women workers’ club in 1907. That same year, she traveled to Stuttgart to support Clara Zetkin in her effort to found the first Socialist Women’s International. In 1908, she organized the first All-Russian Women’s Congress. However, she never did get to present the lecture that she had prepared for the congress, having been forced to flee after threat of being detained by socialist police forces. After she left, she lived in various European countries and the United States, where she met leading figures of the international struggle of the working class. She returned to Russia after the February Revolution of 1917, became a member of the Bolshevik Party, later a delegate of Petrograd’s Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, and participated in the armed resistance that gathered in November 1917. Under Lenin’s revolutionary government, she became the first female minister in any parliament of the world. During the conflicts sparked by the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, she stood with those who were against Lenin. In March of 1918, she resigned her office in protest of the peace treaty. She was co-founder of the Workers’ Opposition, which fought to include workers in the processes of economic decision-making.

In 1922, Lenin encouraged a transfer and moved the former comrade to the Russian Embassy in Norway. She became the world’s first high-ranking female diplomat. Although she became more careful in the then-emerging era of Stalin, she was already branded as a communist revolutionary who had, in addition, spoken openly about free love practiced by emancipated women. She directed the Russian representations in Norway, Mexico and Sweden until 1940 with great tact. She also advocated an end of the 1939/40 Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. In 1945, her poor health forced her to return to Moscow. She was the sole original communist from the Workers’ Opposition who survived the purges. Up until her death in Moscow on March 9, 1952, she served as a consultant for the Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union.

Kollontai campaigned for free love, for the abolition of the bourgeois concept of marriage and family and for women’s equal rights. She was convinced that it was necessary for men and women to find new ways of living together equally because she believed that “the truly liberated woman has to be financially independent from men and must be relieved of the obligations associated with motherhood.” According to her utopian vision, the isolated nuclear family should be replaced by life in an organized commune where all members shared the workload and engage in the tasks of household chores and child rearing.

With regard to the question of a new sexual morality and a “new eroticism,” she belonged to the most radical wing of the party. Her views often earned her criticism and ridicule within her own party. People were, above all, shocked that she went so far as to practice the principles of the newly formulated sexual morality herself.

In her book The New Morality and the Working Class, she criticized the concept of romantic love as an expression of people’s possessive mentality. She called for a new morality, writing, “The new women do not want exclusive possession when they love. […] they demand respect for the freedom of their own feelings.” Convinced that a revolution was necessary in order for the working class to obtain power, Kollontai became an advocate of a women’s revolution, which, however, would only become possible as a “result of the victory of a new societal order.” A society based on competition would leave no room and no time for cultivating a sensitive and ambitious “Eros.” The time was right for these fundamental changes; but the people were obviously not.

Immediately after the October Revolution of 1917, Soviet politics moved into the direction of Kollontai’s utopian vision. The traditional marriage law was abolished and men and women became officially equal. The state’s power was reduced; it was now merely supposed to protect the interest of children. The church lost its influence altogether. Marriage and divorce became a formal transaction that merely had to be registered at the municipality. Legitimate and illegitimate children were considered equal, maternal leave was complemented by measures of financial and material support. In November 1920, Kollontai’s call for the legalization of abortion was finally heard. The development of new public housing, childcare projects, laundry shops and canteens were supported by decree.

These measures, of course, neither realized Kollontai’s utopian vision of fully eradicating the nuclear family structure nor led to the desired sexual liberation. The structures that made the nuclear family the smallest economic entity remained, even within the working class, more resistant to change than Kollontai had assumed. Despite the exhaustion and stress that rendered a normal family life almost impossible, most socialists held onto and wanted to maintain “the small and inherently intricate trinity – man, wife, and children” (Lily Braun). The “private” realm would remain private.

It was, therefore, easy for Stalin to retract many of these achievements and to propagate the concept of the patriarchic nuclear family. In 1936, it was made more difficult to file for divorce, and both abortion and homosexuality were once again made illegal.

Kollontai was far ahead of her time. Her dreams and political practices were rediscovered by more recent feminist movements that followed the 1968 revolts. They, too, criticized the structure of the nuclear family with its fixed gender roles, its claims of ownership and its repressive form of rearing children. They campaigned for the right to choose whether to have children or not, to make free choices in pregnancy, and fought against violence. They founded the Action Committee for the Emancipation of Women, established communal living and independent childcare projects, set up communes and women’s collective projects. The private, so they demanded, should also be political. Many could no longer imagine a form of practiced socialism that did not include a feminist agenda (and vice versa). Many incentives that grew out of these movements were included in established social structures, became integrated into mainstream society, and were thus gradually depoliticized. While small successes could thus be achieved here and there, the 1968 generation also never realized the utopian vision of a peaceful society of men and women, who recognize each other as equal partners. Familism and patriarchic dominance proved more resistant to change than most activists had assumed.

Despite the fact that we can today observe ways of life that are more diverse, we are also witnessing a retreat into the traditionally bourgeois, heterosexual nuclear family. Alternative ways of life and lived utopias are often stopped short by the desire to meet certain normative expectations. This may result from our precarious living conditions, and from our fear of getting lost in the maze of a society of multiple options. The fear of not belonging anywhere leads, apparently, to our desire for steady relationships, which is why young people long for romantic partnerships and bourgeois family structures that resonate with a strong sense of security. Conservative groups calling for more drastic abortion laws and warning against the supposedly imminent “foreign infiltration” of our nation state, gain force because they present supposedly easy solutions to complicated issues. We must not give up on the desire for future utopias, for a liberated society consisting of free people living together in communities without oppression and violence.