The Russian February Revolution started on Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar, and ironically coincided with International Women’s Day. Russia Direct presents eight female revolutionaries who left their mark in history.
Pictured: Inessa Armand, a feminist and communist, a figure of the Revolution movement, Moscow, 1904. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The start of the Russian Revolution one hundred years ago coincided with International Women’s Day, March 8, according to New Style. Women played an important part in many revolutionary events. Here is a brief look at some of the most famous characters of the revolutionary period.
1. Nadezhda Krupskaya was a committed Marxist and politician, she is mostly known as revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s wife. She was born in a noble family of a military officer in St. Petersburg. During her studies in the Female Gymnasium she joined several discussion clubs, where she later met Lenin. Impressed by his ideas she decided to join him in his exile in Siberia in 1896.
Lenin and Krupskaya married shortly after their arrival to Siberia, remaining lifelong professional partners rather than a wife and a husband in its traditional understanding. After their release the couple moved to Geneva, where Krupskaya participated in the publication of a revolutionary newspaper Iskra, as an editor.
In April 1917, she and Lenin returned to Russia. After the Bolsheviks took control of the country, she was appointed to work under Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Education, who was responsible for the campaign against adult illiteracy. She served as the Soviet Union's Deputy Minister of Education for over ten years.
2. Inessa Armand was a feminist and communist, an important figure of the Revolution movement, and the love of Lenin’s life. Inessa Armand was born in an artistic family in Paris. She was brought up in Moscow by her aunt and grandmother. At the age of nineteen she got married to a son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Armand and her husband shared revolutionary ideas, and opened a school for peasant children in Moscow.
After being arrested for her political activity in 1907, she spent a year in exile in northern Russia. She managed to successfully escape from her exile in 1908 and flee to Paris, where she met with Lenin. Charming, musically gifted, fluent in many languages and truly passionate about Bolshevism, she quickly became his right hand.
It was Armand whom Lenin sent to organize the Bolsheviks campaign to get its supporters elected to the Duma. After the October Revolution Armand served as the director of Zhenotdel, an organization that fought for female equality in the Communist Party and the trade unions. She also chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women. In 1920, Armand died of cholera at the age of forty-six.
3. Natalia Sedova was a revolutionary, mostly known for being the second wife of Leon Trotsky, a Marxist revolutionary and a Soviet politician who conducted the transfer of all political power to the Soviets with the October Revolution of 1917, and the founding leader of the Red Army.
She came from a family of a wealthy merchant and was educated in Russia. She met Trotsky in her early twenties in Paris at an art exhibit. She was a supporter of Iskra newspaper and Trotsky was Iskra’s representative in London. Both took part in the Revolution of 1905.
During the World War I the Trotsky family have traveled around Europe from Vienna to Paris and Zurich. Sedova and Trotsky returned to Russia in May, 1917.
After the October Revolution, she received a position in the Commissariat of Education and was placed in charge of museums and ancient monuments. In 1929, Trotsky and his family were expelled from the Soviet Union and fled to Mexico City.
After her husband's death in 1940, Sedova moved to Paris and maintained contact with many exiled revolutionaries. Her best-known work in these last years was a biography of Trotsky.
4. Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary, statesman and diplomat, and the first woman to take the minister's position in the history of the country. Thanks to her political activity women in Russia acquired rights de jure.
She was born in Ukraine, but was brought up in St. Petersburg. After early marriage and a following separation with her husband she worked for a number of educational charities. She acquired historical education in Zurich and lived in Finland for several years. In 1915 Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks and returned to Russia, where she quickly got appointed as Commissar for Social Welfare.
She conducted important studies on the state of women's rights in Russia and initiated reforms promoting equality of men and women. During Stalin's times Kollantai was a Soviet diplomat in Norway, Mexico and Sweden.
5. Larisa Reisner was described by some contemporaries as the "Valkyrie of the Russian Revolution". She served the prototype of the typical image of female revolutionary in art.
Born in Poland, she descended from a family of a law professor. After acquiring higher education in St. Petersburg, Reisner started her literary career. She was published in an anti-war literary journal “Rudin”, and after the February Revolution, worked for Russian writer Maxim Gorky's paper Novaya Zhizn.
In 1917, during her work in Smolny Institute as Lunacharsky’s secretary she participated in the preservation of artistic monuments. After joining the Bolshevik party Reisner made a one-of-a-kind career for a woman – she became a military politician. In 1919 served as the Commissar at the Naval Staff Headquarters in Moscow.
In October 1923 she traveled to Germany to be a first-hand witness of the Revolution and write collections of articles, which were later got published under the names “Berlin, October 1923” and “Hamburg at the Barricades”. During her stay in Germany she had become international revolutionary Karl Radek's mistress. Three years later Reisner died in Moscow in 1926. She was only 30 years old.
6. Sofia Panina was the daughter of a rich industrialist and one of the first feminists in Russia. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet of Ministers when she became deputy minister of State Charity of the Provisional Government, then — the deputy minister of public education. She is famous for her participation in the liberal movement and for her charity initiatives.
Panina was born and educated in Moscow. In her early twenties she established a free canteen for poor schoolchildren in a working-class district of Saint Petersburg. Panina also established the Ligovsky People's House for working-class residents.
Only after the Revolution she started her political career in St. Peterburg’s Duma. She did not admire autocracy, and was even called the "Red Countess". As a member of the Provisional Government she refused to transmit the legacy of the Cultural Education Ministry to Bolsheviks.
Panina was put on trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Petrograd Soviet, but received a merciful punishment — just a public censure. In 1918 she joined General Anton Denikin in South Russia, but after several years had to flee to America, where she played a prominent role in organizing Russian classic writer Leo Tolstoy’s foundation.
7. Vera Zasulich was a Russian Menshevik writer and revolutionary. Zasulich was born near Smolensk in a family of an impoverished noble man. After finishing high school she moved to St. Petersburg, where she started literacy classes for factory workers.
In the 1870's she joined Bakunin and his anarchist movement. It was the time when Zasulich and a group of anarchists planned the assassination of Colonel Fyodor Trepov, the governor of St. Petersburg. Zasulich seriously wounded Trepov and managed to escape to Europe before she was arrested. She returned to Russia after the 1905 Revolution to join Russian revolutionary Georgy Plekhanov and his Yedinstvo movement.
Zasulich participated in the October Revolution of 1917, but supported the side opposing to Lenin, whom she knew from the times spent with Iskra newspaper. Zasulich died soon after the Revolution, in 1919.
8. Rosalia Zemlyachka was a Russian revolutionary of Jewish origin, a Soviet politician and stateswoman. Some called her the "Demon" and the “Fury of the Red Terror." She was also the first woman to have ever been awarded with the Order of the Red Banner.
Born in a family of a wealthy merchant she spent her early years in Kiev, where she acquired excellent medical education. During her studies she got involved in revolutionary activities.
She was also involved in the organization of the First Russian Revolution and the February Revolution. In 1917 Zemlyachka even commanded an armed demonstration of workers in Moscow.
After the Revolution she served as the secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee. Along with Bela Kun, Zemlyachka became famous as one of the organizers of the Red Terror in the Crimea against former soldiers of the White Army in 1920-1921. She died in 1947 and was buried in the Kremlin wall Necropolis on the Red Square.