ALEXANDRA KOLLONTAI: The Lonely Struggle of the Woman who Defied Lenin by Cathy Porter

ALEXANDRA KOLLONTAI: The Lonely Struggle of the Woman who Defied Lenin

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As the most important woman in the Bolshevik movement and a major figure on the Party's left, Kollontai deserves a good biography; but this one, though more balanced than Barbara Clements' Bolshevik Feminist (1978), is also lacking--concretely, in context. Dutifully following Kollontai from her faintly aristocratic origins through her marriage and into politics, Porter offers a familiar portrait of a Russian radical, fight down to the decision to study in Zurich. Giving up her husband, but trying to stay connected to her son, Kollontai wrote a lot about sexual freedom and politics without exercising much freedom herself, and when she did enter into relationships it was always with somber seriousness. Porter recapitulates Kollontai's writings with little critical attention; and it is here that her narrow purview first takes its toll. She quotes a passage from Marx's early ""humanist"" writings which she cites as an example of what Kollontai found most appealing in Marx, but the writings in question weren't discovered and published until 35 years later. In discussing Kollontai's reaction to Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Porter identifies it as an attack on some ideas of an ""obscure philosopher,"" Ernst Mach; only people whose philosophical knowledge begins and ends with Lenin's pretentious tome use that label for Mach, who was, on the contrary, an important Austrian philosopher of science. It's harder to err on the more narrowly political details, since Kollontai was smack in the middle of the most important developments in the early Soviet regime--including the ""Workers' Opposition"" group, which opposed the reintroduction of hierarchy in Soviet factories. Kollontai's work with women gets more space during this period; and the fears of Russian men over Kollontai's reforms--like the marriage laws--is particularly striking. Porter also fills in the one part of Kollontai's life which has not received much attention already--the years she spent as an ambassador, mostly in Scandinavia, following her political defeat first by Lenin and then decisively by Stalin. Adequately readable and decently informative, but no more--a broader intellect and approach are needed here.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Dial